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AFC North Preview

BALTIMORE RAVENS: Perhaps no team was hit harder by cap casualties as a result of the uncapped year last season than the Ravens. Wide receiver Derrick Mason, RB Willis McGahee and TE Todd Heap were all released, while CB Josh Wilson, SS Dawan Landry and OT Jared Gaither were unable to be retained.

Despite the additions of backup RB Ricky Williams and FB Vonta Leach through free agency, and trading for Buffalo Bills WR Lee Evans, it’s clear that the 2011 Ravens are looking to rebuild on-the-fly. And much like the Browns, the organization believes the greatest improvements will come from the development of core players.

The defense should remain among the NFL’s elite, as long as it stays healthy. Tailback Ray Rice is in the final season of his rookie contract and should be poised to have his biggest season yet. But if this team wants to take the next step, it will fall on QB Joe Flacco.

The former University of Delaware product has guided the Ravens to the playoffs in all three of his professional seasons, including a 12-4 record last year. However, two postseason losses to the rival Pittsburgh Steelers stand in his way of being thought of as an elite quarterback. If Flacco can erase the memory of some painful playoff losses, this could be the year the Ravens get back to the Super Bowl.

PREDICTION: 11-5 2nd place AFC North

CLEVELAND BROWNS
Year one under team president Mike Holmgren resulted in moderate improvement. But with rookie head coach Pat Shurmur at the helm and installing the west-coast offense, the Browns could make a huge leap in year two.  

Second-year QB Colt McCoy worked out with Brett Favre during the lockout to grasp the intricacies of the new offense, and the early results look stunning. Through two preseason games, McCoy completed 19 of 28 passes for 231 yards and four touchdowns.  

And while the Browns only finished last season at 5-11, the organization believed the best way to build the team was through the growth of its own players and the draft, as it didn’t add major pieces through free agency. However, Cleveland added key players at several positions by stockpiling draft picks through a blockbuster trade with the Atlanta Falcons.

The Browns solidified the defensive line by using its first two picks on DT Phil Taylor of Baylor and pass-rushing specialist Jabaal Sheard of Pitt. Their next selection was WR Greg Little of North Carolina, who should provide the downfield threat for McCoy.

With the upgrades added through the draft—and development of several core players—it’s easy to see why many believe the Browns could be a sleeper team in 2011.

PREDICTION: 8-8 3rd place AFC North

CINCINNATI BENGALS
The Bengals hoped to build momentum off of 2009’s AFC North Division crown with a strong follow-up season. Unfortunately, the team went from first to worst in 2010, finishing 4-12. And the offseason certainly didn’t give fans a reason to believe this year would be any better.

Franchise QB Carson Palmer has retired due to owner Mike Brown’s unwillingness to trade him. The team’s strongest defensive player, CB Johnathan Joseph, signed a five-year $48.75 million contract with the Houston Texans early in free agency. And WR Chad Ochocinco was traded to New England for a fifth-round draft choice, when just two seasons ago the Washington Redskins offered two first-round picks for the troubled receiver, only to have Brown say no.

The Palmer-to-Ochocinco connection will most likely be replaced by the rookie duo of QB Andy Dalton and WR A.J. Green. Dalton, a second-round pick and four-year starter at TCU, has struggled with turnovers and accuracy this preseason, while the No. 4 overall pick Green has yet to make an impact. The Bengals still have Pro Bowl RB Cedric Benson, but expect defenses to load the box and make Dalton beat them.

PREDICTION: 2-14 4th place AFC North

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