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Roster Reset: AFC North

The AFC East remains Patriots country. The Broncos are pulling even further away from the pack in the AFC West. The Colts have no legitimate threat to their standing atop the AFC South.

One month into the new league year, the AFC North is the sole division in the conference with no clear-cut favorite.

After winning the division by three games last season, the Bengals have lost both coordinators and one of their top young defensive stars without importing any big-name players.

They should get a serious challenge from the Ravens, now sporting a reloaded offense.

The Steelers aren't a dramatically different team than the one that won six of its final eight games last season. If they hit on a physical wide receiver and an impact defender early in the 2014 NFL Draft, the division could be theirs for the taking.

The Browns' roster is deeper now than it has been in a decade. Until they add an above-average quarterback and a winning culture, though, they will continue to bring up the rear in the AFC North.

In our Roster Reset series, Around the League will rank teams in each division based on how much they improved this offseason. The AFC North is up next.

1. Baltimore Ravens


Why they will bounce back:

General manager Ozzie Newsome entered the offseason dead-set on improving a derelict offensive unit that ranked fourth-worst in the NFL last season. A passing game that was overly reliant on Dallas Clark, Brandon Stokley and Ed Dickson now has possession receiver Steve Smith and second tight end Owen Daniels joining a healthy Dennis Pitta.

In addition to re-signing Eugene Monroe as a bulwark at left tackle, the Ravens traded for veteran center Jeremy Zuttah, welcomed left guard Kelechi Osemele back from injury and discarded an increasing liability in right tackle Michael Oher.

The Ravens are serious about overhauling a historically ineffective rushing attack.

Along with the Redskins, this should be one of the most improved offenses in the NFL.


What's next:


» Ray Rice's standing: Indicted for aggravated assault, Rice is facing the possibility of jail time and/or an NFL suspension. Members of the coaching staff and front office have been unwavering in their support of Rice, who seems to be in no danger of losing his roster spot.

» Solidify right tackle and free safety: The Ravens plan to have Rick Wagner and Jah Reid compete at right tackle, with the former as the favorite. Newsome has until the October trade deadline to obtain veteran insurance if he opts to let the youngsters sink or swim. Darian Stewart, an off-and-on starter with the Rams, is penciled in at free safety opposite Matt Elam.

» Revisit Rolando McClain: The former Raiders first-rounder is excited to play football again, and he's already met with Newsome about the possibility of returning to Baltimore. If McClain has his priorities straight, he has the talent to start over Josh Bynes and Arthur Brown.

2. Cleveland Browns


What's Changed:

The front office and coaching staffs were gutted while the organization's name was dragged through the mud in January and early February. Former Bills defensive coordinator Mike Pettine -- Rex Ryan's first lieutenant for nearly a decade -- is now running the show, with long-time Chiefs director of pro personnel Ray Farmer as general manager.

Pettine immediately replaced linebacker D'Qwell Jackson and hard-hitting safety T.J. Ward with hand-picked free agents Karlos Dansby and Donte Whitner. We grade those moves as a net push.

On the other side of the ball, new coordinator Kyle Shanahan traded in a broken-down Willis McGahee for Arian Foster's old sidekick, Ben Tate, at running back. The Browns also signed slot receiver Andrew Hawkins away from the Bengals while shoving Davone Bess out the door. An aging Nate Burleson was added for depth.

The team recently made news by matching the Jaguars' offer sheet for transition player Alex Mack, maintaining stability on the offensive line.


What's next:


» Find a franchise QB: Gone are Brandon Weeden and Jason Campbell, responsible for 13 starts last season. The Browns have professed faith in Brian Hoyer, but better quarterbacks have struggled mightily upon returning from ACL surgery. This franchise won't be taken seriously as a playoff contender until they find a long-term answer at quarterback. The No. 4 overall pick in the draft is key.

» Upgrade on Greg Little: Little has been a drop-prone liability, and veteran Nate Burleson won't be guaranteed a roster spot. With Josh Gordon on one side and Hawkins in the slot, a viable No. 2 could make this the division's strongest wide receiver corps.

» Lock up Joe Haden: Haden has told the "Around The League Podcast" that he's tired of the Browns' portrayal as a laughingstock and wants to be part of the turnaround. The sides have been talking contract since the end of the season.

3. Pittsburgh Steelers


What's changed:

Faced with salary-cap woes once again, the Steelers lost veteran pass rusher LaMarr Woodley, safety Ryan Clark and wide receivers Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery.

On the bright side, they instigated a long-awaited youth movement. Transition player Jason Worilds and 2013 first-round draft pick Jarvis Jones will replace Woodley's production. Second-year wide receiver Markus Wheaton is expected to move into the starting lineup opposite Antonio Brown.

Signed away from the Patriots, bruising tailback LeGarrette Blount will play a backup role -- allowing Le'Veon Bell to become a three-down centerpiece on offense.

Mike Mitchell adds range and physicality as an upgrade on the declining Clark.


What's next:


» Continue youth movement on defense: Cornerback Ike Taylor was toasted repeatedly down the stretch last season, and safety Troy Polamalu's new three-year contract is essentially a one-year deal. The 2014 NFL Draft should bring young legs in the secondary, at inside linebacker and on the defensive line.

» Big wide receiver: Beat writers have maintained that Ben Roethlisberger's long-standing request for a big, physical red-zone threat will likely be filled in the early rounds of this year's draft. Texas A&M's Mike Evans, Florida State's Kelvin Benjamin and Penn State's Allen Robinson have all been connected to the Steel City.

» New contracts for Roethlisberger, Worilds: The Steelers will acquire much-needed cap space once the savings from Woodley's release are applied after June 1. General manager Kevin Colbert has said it's unanimous within the organization that Roethlisberger's next contract will allow him to retire in Pittsburgh.

4. Cincinnati Bengals


Why they have regressed

The franchise's unprecedented streak of three consecutive playoff appearances has led to a brain drain, with offensive coordinator Jay Gruden and defensive boss Mike Zimmer each landing head-coaching gigs of their own. Hue Jackson and Paul Guenther, respectively, are taking the reins.

While the Bengals have failed to add a big-name starter in free agency, they have lost a defensive star in pass rusher Michael Johnson -- the team's franchise player in 2013.

Cincinnati is counting on defensive tackle Geno Atkins, cornerback Leon Hall and linebacker Emmanuel Lamur to return from injury and maintain stability on the division's best defense.


What's next:


» Contracts for Dalton, Burfict: The Bengals have jump-started talks with Dalton's camp, but they remain conflicted about waiting until after the season to address his future. The NFL's leader in tackles last year, Burfict is eligible for a contract extension this offseason.

» Pick up A.J. Green's 2015 option: If Roethlisberger isn't the best player in the division, then Green is. His fifth-year option is worth $10.176 million. Green will deservedly become one of the highest-paid wide receivers in the league next season.

» Find a center: The Bengals cut Kyle Cook, who has started all 16 games in four of the past five seasons. They have yet to replace him, which means a successor should be coming within the first four rounds of the draft.

In the latest edition of the "Around The League Podcast," the guys discuss "Draft Day," then break down who got better (and who got worse) in the AFC East.

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