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AFC North rookie grades: Steelers' young defense improving

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The 2016 NFL season just ended -- but the 2017 NFL season is coming. As the NFL Scouting Combine nears, NFL.com looks forward by looking backward, grading the 2016 rookie class for each team and identifying what the front office should focus on this offseason. Click below to scroll through each divisional rundown.

Baltimore Ravens

» Round 1: (No. 6 overall) Ronnie Stanley, OT, 12 games/12 starts.
» Round 2: (42) Kamalei Correa, LB, 9 games/1 start.
» Round 3: (70) Bronson Kaufusi, DE, 0 games.
» Round 4: (104) Tavon Young, CB, 16 games/11 starts; (107) Chris Moore, WR, 15 games/0 starts; (130) Alex Lewis, OG, 10 games/8 starts; (132) Willie Henry, DT, 0 games; (134) Kenneth Dixon, RB, 12 games/0 starts.
» Round 5: (146) Matt Judon, LB, 14 games/0 starts.
» Round 6: (182) Keenan Reynolds, WR, 0 games; (209) Maurice Canady, CB, 4 games/0 starts.
» Notable undrafted FAs: Patrick Onwuasor, LB, 11 games/1 start; Michael Pierce, DT, 16 games/1 start.

A mix of good and bad, this Ravens draft class was about reenergizing their proud defense, and on some levels, they managed to succeed. I was particularly high on Tavon Young and Kamalei Correa coming out, which motivated me to write this story, but only Young really grabbed the bull by the horns. The fourth-round pick out of Temple started 11 games and appeared in all 16. He knocked down eight balls and picked off two. For a team desperate to find cornerback help, this pick was a godsend. First-rounder Ronnie Stanley was good, and a no-complaints tackle on Day 1 was exactly what Baltimore was hoping for. Fourth-round pick Kenneth Dixon also stood out and should be a good-to-very-good third-down back again this year, as he was down the stretch in Baltimore. While this draft may have failed to produce a game-changing weapon for QB Joe Flacco, it had a foundational feel, assuming Correa can come out of his shell and win an inside linebacker spot this summer. GRADE: B-

Combine/free agency focus: Teams win in the AFC North by getting after the quarterback. This draft, according to people much smarter than I, is full of good pass rushers. But Baltimore also has some other fish to fry this winter and spring. The retirement of Steve Smith leaves a glaring hole at the wide receiver position, and their offensive line is still one guard away from being complete. The Ravens found themselves entirely too reliant on the arm of Flacco and need to find greater balance on offense, something that might happen with a smart addition or two in free agency.

Cincinnati Bengals

» Round 1: (No. 24 overall) William Jackson III, CB, 0 games.
» Round 2: (55) Tyler Boyd, WR, 16 games/2 starts.
» Round 3: (87) Nick Vigil, LB, 16 games/0 starts.
» Round 4: (122) Andrew Billings, NT, 0 games.
» Round 5: (161) Christian Westerman, OG, 0 games.
» Round 6: (199) Cody Core, WR, 8 games/4 starts.
» Round 7: (245) Clayton Fejedelem, S, 16 games/0 starts.
» Notable undrafted FAs: Alex Erickson, WR, 16 games/0 starts.

First-round pick William Jackson had to go under the knife during training camp and, because of a long line of injured players, did not get selected to return off injured reserve. That, I feel, leaves this draft grade as incomplete. The team could very well lose Dre Kirkpatrick this offseason, giving Jackson a chance to show off his skills. Tyler Boyd had a good rookie season with 54 catches for 603 yards and a touchdown, but the rest of the class fell largely silent. This was a veteran-laden Bengals team that was stocked with good players from previous Marvin Lewis drafts, so it's hard to knock him too much when we won't know the full extent of their talent for years to come. GRADE: C-

Combine/free agency focus: This section feels odd, because the Bengals aren't a big free agent team. There are some solid veteran pickups they could make, but would they? Perhaps being picked apart again in free agency could motivate a coaching staff under fire, but this is a team that operates on a budget and sticks to its philosophy. Are the Bengals good enough to make the playoffs as currently constructed? Possibly. Could they use another cornerback, defensive tackle and a pair of offensive linemen? Absolutely. Can they get that all in this year's draft? No.

Cleveland Browns

» Round 1: (No. 15 overall) Corey Coleman, WR, 10 games/10 starts.
» Round 2: (32) Emmanuel Ogbah, DE, 16 games/16 starts.
» Round 3: (65) Carl Nassib, DE, 14 games/3 starts; (76) Shon Coleman, OT, 7 games/0 starts; (93) Cody Kessler, QB, 9 games/8 starts.
» Round 4: (99) Joe Schobert, OLB, 16 games/4 starts; (114) Ricardo Louis, WR, 16 games/3 starts; (129) Derrick Kindred, S, 12 games/5 starts; (138) Seth DeValve, TE, 12 games/2 starts.
» Round 5: (154) Jordan Payton, WR, 4 games/0 starts; (168) Spencer Drango, OG, 16 games/9 starts; (172) Rashard Higgins, WR, 16 games/0 starts; (173) Trey Caldwell, DB, 1 game/0 starts.
» Round 7: (250) Scooby Wright III, LB, 0 games.
» Notable undrafted FAs: Dominique Alexander, LB, 14 games/0 starts; Briean Boddy-Calhoun, CB, 14 games/6 starts; Tyrone Holmes, DE, 11 games/0 starts; Tracy Howard, S, 15 games/3 starts; Danny Vitale, FB, 9 games/3 starts.

The next five years for this franchise will be determined by its ability (or inability) to secure a foundation in 2016 and 2017. After one year of one draft class, the results were largely mixed. The Browns focused on intelligence and production in the draft this past year, securing hungry players who could come in with a chip on their shoulder and contribute right away. Some, like first-round pick Corey Coleman, second-round pick Emmanuel Ogbah, third-round pick Carl Nassib and fourth-round pick Derrick Kindred, simply had to, given the lack of talent on the roster when new head coach Hue Jackson arrived. How did they fare? Coleman missed six games but finished with 33 catches for 413 yards and three touchdowns, which projects to 53 catches for 660 yards and seven touchdowns over 16 games. This is not bad for a team that started a clearly still-declining Robert Griffin and a rookie in Cody Kessler this season. Ogbah led the team in sacks (5.5), Nassib finished tied for third in sacks (2.5) and Kindred, who may have shown up more pro ready than any of his rookie counterparts, added 32 solo tackles and five passes defensed. While this is all OK to not bad news for rookies operating on a threadbare team that provided no help, the Browns did select three other receivers and a wideout/tight end hybrid other than Coleman. And only one, Ricardo Lewis, saw significant snaps. GRADE: C

Combine/free agency focus: While I understand the Browns' plan to spend responsibly and build carefully, this offseason presents a unique opportunity if certain players hit the open market. Jason Pierre-Paul is a game-changing run defender and only 28 years old. A.J. Bouye is 25 and may be the best cornerback on the market. Stephon Gilmore is 26 and so is Dontari Poe, who the Chiefs will almost certainly not be able to afford but who could pair beautifully with emerging defensive tackle Danny Shelton. The Browns are deep-pocketed this offseason with no players other than Terrelle Pryor to re-sign. Some of this money will have to go in free agency, and there is a smart way to do it without falling back into Cleveland's vicious cycle of overpaying aging, unmotivated players in decline. As for the draft, the plan seems fairly obvious: Should the Browns hold on to the No. 1 overall pick, take the best player available in Myles Garrett and ignite the defense. Use the second first-round pick in a trade for Jimmy Garoppolo or to select the best remaining quarterback on the board.

Pittsburgh Steelers

» Round 1: (No. 25 overall) Artie Burns, CB, 19 games/12 starts.
» Round 2: (58) Sean Davis, S, 19 games/12 starts.
» Round 3: (89) Javon Hargrave, NT, 18 games/16 starts.
» Round 4: (123) Jerald Hawkins, OG, 0 games.
» Round 6: (220) Travis Feeney, OLB, 0 games.
» Round 7: (229) DeMarcus Ayers, WR, 2 games/1 start; (246) Tyler Matakevich, LB, 19 games/0 starts.

Each of Pittsburgh's first three picks played moderate to significant snaps in 2016 and performed at a level above rookie expectations. Cornerback Artie Burns was tied for the team lead in picks (three), was second in passes defensed (13) and was fifth in tackles. Sean Davis played more than any other safety, save for Mike Mitchell, was fourth on the team in tackles and added 1.5 sacks, five broken up passes and an interception. As for third-rounder Javon Hargrave, he started 13 games, logged a pair of sacks and recovered a fumble in the end zone. There are teams that go an entire draft and don't get this level of production out of one player, so it was encouraging to see Pittsburgh bolster its recovering defense so quickly. GRADE: B

Combine/free agency focus: If Ben Roethlisberger's unhappiness is due to a perceived lack of maturity on the roster, then it might be time to pull a Carolina Panthers circa 2015 and surround him with stoic veterans who can lead by example. The addition of players like Jerricho Cotchery and Roman Harper helped Cam Newton immeasurably back in 2015, and similar moves could do the same for Big Ben going forward. His window is rapidly closing, and while the temptation to rebuild around him is there, perhaps it is time to scour the boom-or-bust realm of available aging players. Currently on the market: sure-handed, workmanlike wide receivers like Pierre Garcon and Anquan Boldin, game-changing defensive ends like Calais Campbell and Charles Johnson and age-defying cornerbacks like Terence Newman. If the window truly is closing and Big Ben is already thinking about retirement, spend whatever money is left over from franchising Le'Veon Bell and signing Antonio Brown now. As for the draft, look for them to load up on physical, nasty pass rushers like always.

Follow Conor Orr on Twitter @ConorOrr.

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