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AFC North Roster Reset: Cleveland Browns flipping the script?

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  • By Tom Blair NFL.com
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Our Roster Reset series takes a division-by-division look at where things stand across the league heading into the 2018 NFL Draft. Tom Blair examines the current makeup of the AFC North below.

In 2017, the Steelers, Ravens and Bengals all won games. The Browns, as you've probably heard by now, did not.

So how did a team that lost as much as humanly possible become one of the buzziest in the NFL, let alone the AFC North, this spring? Well, Cleveland overhauled a huge chunk of the roster, including the quarterback position, with a head-spinning flurry of trades and signings. The Browns hold five picks in the first two rounds of the 2018 NFL Draft, including two of the first four selections on opening night. And they're trying to reverse a run of bad luck and failure of mythic proportions. The other three teams in the division, meanwhile, have been comparatively quiet as they try to keep their varied windows of contention open.

By the final stretch of the 2018 NFL season, Cleveland will likely recede to the background as more talented and experienced teams battle each other with actual stakes on the line. But for now, with real football still months away, we can allow ourselves to be tantalized by the shiny possibility that the Browns will finish at least a game or two -- maybe more! -- with a higher point total than their opponents.

Let's catch up on a division where change could be on the horizon.

FREE AGENCY NOTABLES

BIGGEST ADDITION: Tyrod Taylor, quarterback.
Old team: Buffalo Bills. New team: Cleveland Browns.

While Taylor arrived via trade and not technically in free agency, it's hard to overstate the importance of potentially stabilizing this position. Turn your nose up at Taylor's 2017 numbers if you'd like, but the last Cleveland quarterback to start 14-plus games in a season while posting a passer rating better than Taylor's 89.2 was Brian Sipe in 1980. Forget about Taylor's perceived lack of pizzazz; the mere absence of chaos under center can be transformative. If the Browns draft a QB who ends up able to start in 2018, so much the better, but if the rookie needs time to develop, Taylor's steadying presence should provide a legitimate opportunity for that to happen. Plus, as suggested above, Cleveland could even add some Ws to the franchise ledger with Taylor facilitating things -- or, at least, not ruining things -- for Jarvis Landry, Josh Gordon, Carlos Hyde and Co.

BIGGEST LOSS: Todd Haley, offensive coordinator.
Old team: Pittsburgh Steelers. New team: Cleveland Browns.

Haley's exit from Pittsburgh ends a partnership with Ben Roethlisberger that was as productive as it was tense. In Haley's six years running the offense (2012-17), Roethlisberger averaged 4,081 passing yards and 27 touchdowns a year, up significantly from his pre-Haley career numbers (3,322 yards and 21 TDs per year). He also was among the NFL's most productive quarterbacks in that six-year span, putting up more passing yards per game (284.7) than anyone but Drew Brees, Peyton Manning and Matt Ryan. New offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner has been in Pittsburgh since head coach Mike Tomlin's first year (2007), and the expectation is that he'll keep things running smoothly -- in Roethlisberger's words, "I don't think much will change." But switching the play-caller can impact even the best quarterbacks. Just ask the Falcons.

SLEEPER ADDITION: John Brown, wide receiver.
Old team: Arizona Cardinals. New team: Baltimore Ravens.

Joe Flacco is 33 and just put up one of the worst seasons of his career, averaging a putrid 5.7 yards per attempt. While fellow Ravens signee Michael Crabtree has a more established track record than Brown (and will earn a bigger paycheck, per Over the Cap), Brown has the potential to really reinvigorate this passing attack. In 2015, Brown put up 1,003 yards on 65 catches. Last month, Matt Harmon pointed to Next Gen Stats that show Brown has demonstrated the ability to separate from defenders on all routes, indicating that he can be more than just a vertical weapon. Of course, that's provided he stays healthy, which has been a major issue for him since that 2015 season.

WHAT'S NEXT?

Baltimore Ravens: In addition to Crabtree and Brown, the return of guard Marshal Yanda -- who missed most of 2017 with an ankle injury -- and the continued emergence of running back Alex Collins should help Flacco and the offense get back on track. This team would not seem to be in especially dire straits, having just barely missed the playoffs behind a defense that ranked sixth in points allowed and 12th overall -- even the offense managed to rank ninth in points scored. Still, in his last draft as general manager, Hall of Famer Ozzie Newsome will have one more chance to hand Flacco and coach John Harbaugh some pieces to push Baltimore back to the postseason. Charley Casserly has the Ravens taking Notre Dame tackle Mike McGlinchey at No. 16 in his latest mock draft, while Charles Davis has them drafting Alabama receiver Calvin Ridley.

Cincinnati Bengals: Marvin Lewis is still standing after missing the playoffs for a second consecutive season. Trading for left tackle Cordy Glenn should help steady the offensive line after Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher failed to establish themselves as replacements for 2017 departures Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler, though the trade also dropped their first pick to 21st overall. Don't overlook the re-signing of oft-injured tight end Tyler Eifert, who reached the Pro Bowl in 2015, the last season in which he appeared in more than eight games. Free-agent signees Chris Baker (defensive tackle) and Preston Brown (linebacker) were added to a defense that is currently set to be without Vontaze Burfict for the first four games of the season, as he's been suspended for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing substances. There should be at least one more run left in the Lewis-Andy Dalton era, though the clock's ticking.

Cleveland Browns: As busy as the Browns have been already, a plethora of franchise-defining decisions await, starting with the No. 1 pick in the draft. Although at this point, trying to divine GM John Dorsey's true intentions -- USC QB Sam Darnold? Wyoming QB Josh Allen? -- is a fruitless exercise. Perhaps as crucial as selecting the right quarterback is capitalizing on the chance to add a true stud at No. 4. Either Penn State running back Saquon Barkley or N.C. State defensive end Bradley Chubb would make for an appealing choice. Whatever they do, the Browns will have a prime opportunity to add impact talent at several spots on the roster, with three more picks (Nos. 33, 35 and 64) in Round 2.

Pittsburgh Steelers: What's next for the Steelers? Probably winning the division, as they've done in three of the past four seasons. With Ben Roethlisberger, Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh is as reliable a contender as you'll see -- for now. Big Ben is 36 and floated retirement talk a year ago -- though his comments have recently trended in the other direction -- while Bell is locked into another rocky contract spat with the team. How much longer will the band stay together? Signing Morgan Burnett and Jon Bostic helps fortify the defense. The Steelers don't pick until No. 28, but a linebacker to help make up for the loss of Ryan Shazier could be had there, with Casserly suggesting Alabama's Rashaan Evans and Bucky Brooks handing them Boise State's Leighton Vander Esch.

Follow Tom Blair on Twitter @TomBlair426.

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