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AFC North rookie grades: Newbies struggled to impact division

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The 2015 NFL season is in the books -- and now it's time to turn toward the 2016 NFL Draft. Before the NFL Scouting Combine shines the spotlight on the next crop of incoming talent, Bucky Brooks is taking a division-by-division look back at each NFL team's 2015 rookie class, providing grades and highlighting what teams should be focusing on when they head to Indianapolis.

The Ravens were ravaged by injuries on both sides of the ball, but the losses of several key veterans gave their young guys plenty of opportunities to play as rookies. Although Breshad Perriman was part of that poor bill of health -- the rookie didn't play a single snap due to knee issues -- the Ravens' offense looks brighter going forward with Javorius Allen and Maxx Williams in place as core youngsters. Allen racked up 867 total yards from scrimmage and scored three touchdowns as a versatile RB1. He is a nice complement to Justin Forsett. Williams is a productive pass catcher between the hashes. He still needs to master the nuances of route running, but has the tools to grow into a Pro Bowl-caliber playmaker. On defense, Carl Davis and Za'Darius Smith flashed potential as energetic defenders with non-stop motors. Smith, in particular, showed exceptional promise in registering 5 1/2 sacks as a situational rusher. If he can continue to add moves to his repertoire, Smith could fill a void as a disruptive playmaker off the edges. Grade: B

Combine focus: After watching the revolving door at cornerback, the Ravens should spend most of their combine evaluating the ballhawks on the perimeter. Florida State's Jalen Ramsey, Florida's Vernon Hargreaves, Ohio State's Eli Apple and Virginia Tech' Kendall Fuller will get extended looks as potential CB1s. The Ravens, who possess the No. 6 pick in Round 1, could also look at the pass-rusher market to see if there is an energetic edge defender with a knack for getting to the quarterback. Eastern Kentucky's Noah Spence, Oklahoma State's Emmanuel Ogbah and Boise State's Kamalei Correa merit attention as potential successors to Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil.

The Bengals' roster is so loaded that Marvin Lewis has the luxury of bringing along his rookies slowly. Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher essentially redshirted in 2015, with each player seeing limited action outside of special teams and jumbo formations. Learning on the sidelines should help them succeed when they are given the opportunity to crack the lineup. P.J. Dawson and Josh Shaw played sparingly as backups but anchored the Bengals' special teams as valuable contributors. If they continue to grow this offseason, both players should occupy bigger roles on defense next season. Mario Alford barely saw any action as a wide receiver, but his explosive speed could make him a valuable WR4 down the road. Grade: C

Combine focus: The Bengals could face a mass exodus at wide receiver, with Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu due to hit free agency. Thus, the team -- which picks 24th in Round 1 -- will spend plenty of time in Indianapolis studying the likes of Baylor's Corey Coleman, TCU's Josh Doctson, Rutgers' Leonte Carroo and Ohio State's Braxton Miller, to see if each could fill a WR2 role. On defense, the Bengals likely will take a look at UCLA's Myles Jack, Notre Dame's Jaylon Smith and Ohio State's Darron Lee as second-level playmakers with the potential to enhance a disruptive linebacker corps.

Constant turnover at the top of the Browns' organizational flow chart has prevented the team from having the stability and continuity needed to build a championship squad. However, the franchise has assembled some talented players in recent years. Danny Shelton enjoyed a solid rookie campaign as a run stopper. He finished the season with 36 total tackles and flashed impressive athleticism as an active nose tackle, but he needs to make his mark as a pass rusher to be a three-down player in today's NFL. Nate Orchard quickly earned his way onto the field as an energetic pass rusher off the edge. Despite limited opportunities to rush the passer in favorable situations, Orchard tallied three sacks, a pick and a forced fumble in his rookie campaign. Xavier Cooper worked his way into the rotation as an interior disruptor (19 tackles and 1.5 sacks). And Charles Gaines carved out a role as a sub-defender. Offensively, Duke Johnson eclipsed 900 scrimmage yards (379 rushing, 534 receiving) as a versatile playmaker out of the backfield. He could see his numbers surge in 2016, as Hue Jackson revamps the offense to put the Browns' top weapons in the best positions to succeed. Cameron Erving was a bit of a disappointment as a part-time starter. The rookie lacked the strength to handle power players at the point of attack and his inconsistent footwork allowed opponents to run past him like a turnstile at the line of scrimmage. Grade: C+

Combine focus: With the failure of the Johnny Manziel experiment, the Browns will head to Indy to find a new franchise quarterback, especially with Cleveland holding the No. 2 overall pick. Cal's Jared Goff, North Dakota State's Carson Wentz and Memphis' Paxton Lynch will garner significant interest as talented young passers with tremendous potential. The Browns also will focus extensively on TCU's Josh Doctson, Mississippi's Laquon Treadwell and Ohio State's Michael Thomas to see if they are capable of handling WR1 duties on the perimeter. On defense, the Browns will spend most of their time researching the defensive front, trying to identify difference makers at multiple positions. Ohio State's Joey Bosa definitely will receive attention, based on his spectacular game, but the team could also look at Oregon's DeForest Buckner and Mississippi's Robert Nkemdiche as versatile defenders with blue-chip potential.

The Steelers are well-positioned to continually make runs at the AFC title for years to come behind an electric offense that features a young nucleus on the perimeter. However, the defense needs to make steady improvement for Pittsburgh to eventually hoist the Lombardi Trophy. Mike Tomlin attempted to upgrade the unit by going heavy on defenders in the 2015 draft. Bud Dupree looks like a keeper as a designated rusher off the edge. Dupree not only exhibits explosive first-step quickness, but he has a non-stop motor that allows him to register sacks on extra effort. With Dupree also displaying enough athleticism and versatility to set the edge as a run defender or drop into the flat in coverage, the Steelers have a hybrid defender with the tools the wreak havoc. Senquez Golson and Doran Grant were expected to bolster the secondary with their energetic games, but the young cornerback tandem failed to contribute in Year 1. Golson spent the entire season on the sideline nursing a shoulder injury, while Grant honed his skills on the practice squad before earning a late-season promotion to the 53-man roster. Anthony Chickillo participated in seven games, but he failed to really make his mark as a rotational player. Offensively, the Steelers added Sammie Coates and Jesse James to a loaded lineup, which is why neither player made much of a contribution as a rookie. Although both players flashed potential in limited action, the Steelers hope to get more from the young pass catchers down the road. Grade: C-

Combine focus: Despite taking a couple of cover corners in the 2015 draft, the Steelers, who hold the 25th overall pick, should seriously consider snatching up a ballhawk in the early rounds to replenish their secondary. Ohio State's Eli Apple, Virginia Tech's Kendall Fuller and Houston's William Jackson III could be great fits based on their length, ball skills and athleticism. The Steelers also will take a peek at the safety position to see if they can identify a traffic cop to man the middle of the field. Boise State's Darian Thompson, Ohio State's Vonn Bell and Southern Utah's Miles Killebrew could be considered if they test well in Indianapolis.

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.

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