Street Talk Has the rest of the AFC north passed the Ravens?

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While every Ravens fan either jumps off the nearest cliff, or uses the phrase “In Ozzie We Trust” after the free agent exodus in Baltimore, it’s important to take stock of what the team’s fellow AFC North rivals have been up to in the offseason. Have they made significant enough gains to pose a threat to the Ravens winning the AFC North for the third straight season? Or have they lost players that are going to hurt them in 2013 and beyond?

Ravens fans, it’s time to get to know your (some new) enemies.

Cincinnati Bengals

The Bengals have made retaining players on their defensive line a priority this offseason. Slapping the franchise tag on defensive end Michael Johnson makes sense, although it may have been done without a true view to a long term deal. While he was our 13th ranked 4-3 defensive end over at ProFootballFocus, he was also fairly inconsistent with a fantastic game against the Washington Redskins in Week Three massively skewing his overall grade for the year. Good enough to keep around if you have the cap room, but not enough to splash a long term deal on – especially with Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap likely to see big deals on that defensive line in the coming years.

Elsewhere along the defensive line they brought back role players Wallace Gilberry and Robert Geathers. While Gilberry was a solid re-signing, Geathers is someone who we’ve never been particularly high on. Grading out as one of our worst players at his position for most of our five years of complete grading, he’s not someone that troubles opposing offences.

Losing linebacker Manny Lawson isn’t likely to hurt much, with him playing a pretty small role a year ago and not playing particularly well when he did, but the resigning of Rey Maualuga is a bit of a head scratcher. Marvin Lewis recently ranted about how a silly stats site didn’t rate him highly and, when you consider how bad he was in coverage, it’s easy to see why. Allowing a total of 713 yards on passes thrown into his coverage through the regular season and in the Wild Card playoff loss in Houston, Maualuga was our worst-rated inside or middle linebacker in coverage, and he wasn’t very good against the run either.

In the secondary the re-signing of Adam Jones is one which is likely to fly under the radar throughout the league. Quietly however, Jones had a pretty impressive season a year ago, both as a cornerback and on special teams. Terence Newman was equally impressive and he, along with right tackle Andre Smith, remains the best players from the 2012 Bengals roster currently available.

Cleveland Browns

I feel like the words I’m about to type are something I’ve never typed before, but here goes: I like what the Browns are building over in Cleveland. Sure, I’m not a fan of Brandon Weeden and, with it being such a poor year to be needing a quarterback I see that position probably resigning them to last place in the division again, but they have made a lot of nice moves this offseason, and not just the moves at the top of the coaching staff.

We all know about Paul Kruger and while I’ll be the first to point out that Kruger’s play in 2012 was up and down, and that he didn’t really dominate against a top level tackle, he’s still an upgrade over what they had as a pass rusher and was an essential signing as they transition into a 3-4. Quentin Groves isn’t someone I’d count on to be an every down player, with him being anonymous as a pass rusher too often for my liking, but he flashed enough that he could provide the Browns with a solid role player.

Elsewhere on defense Desmond Bryant is expected to play defensive end in the team’s new 3-4 front after spending last season at defensive tackle for the Oakland Raiders. Solid against the run, Bryant exploded as an interior pass rusher after he became a starter in Week 10, averaging more than three pressures per game in the Raiders’ final eight games.

Their other signings have been mainly for depth and, while I like the signings of Gary Barnidge and Chris Owens, I’m not a huge fan of Kellen Davis, who dropped eight of the 44 passes thrown his way in 2012. Still, the one area of his game where Davis was solid was as a run blocker, with only the games against the Packers and Lions in Weeks Two and Seven showing him having an major struggles in that regard.

Pittsburgh Steelers

With heavy cap restraints in place the Steelers have been pretty quiet in free agency. Re-signing Plaxico Burress means he is likely to see more than the 34 snaps he saw in 2012, especially with Mike Wallace now gone. Still, he’s not close to being a top receiver anymore and won’t be counted on for more than a bit part, more than likely in the red zone, role going forward.

Bringing back Larry Foote is a bit of a surprise, with the inside linebacker struggling for most of last season with the exception of a couple of games. Though if the move means they plan to use Lawrence Timmons at outside linebacker as they did to cover injuries in 2011, it’s an even bigger mistake. One of the better inside linebackers in the game, Timmons has never played well on the outside and such a move would hurt both positions.

The one signing they have made is bringing tight end Matt Spaeth back from Chicago. Not the kind of tight end that’s going to do much to excite you in the passing game, Spaeth, though, is one of the best in-line blocking tight ends in the game. If you want further proof, take a look back at the Bears game against the Minnesota Vikings in Week 12. He was utterly dominant in that game, knocking Vikings defensive linemen to the ground on more than one occasion.

There’s no getting away from the fact that the Ravens have lost a lot of players this season but, what their divisional rivals have done hasn’t exactly made me think that any of them are likely to run away with the division. The Steelers have struggled against the cap, the Bengals have mainly re-signed players and, as much as I love what the Browns have done, they’re still marshaled by Brandon Weeden.

So, if you haven’t leapt from that ledge yet, bring yourself back a bit – the Ravens are still the best team in this division.

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Gordon McGuinness

About Gordon McGuinness

Gordon was born and raised in Scotland and only happened upon football by chance when channel surfing one night. Like all good love stories, it was love at first sight. Living so far away, he only manages to make one game a season, catching the rest on television or online. Happy to admit that his love of football is an obsession, it lead him to Pro Football Focus where he contributes as an analyst and the writer of the Secret Superstar weekly feature. You can find him on twitter @PFF_Gordon

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