The AFC North's tradition of playing hard-nosed, physical football has led to multiple Super Bowl championships in the past decade and being one of the more competitive divisions in the NFL. As the 2013 NFL draft reached its conclusion, it became evident that every team significantly improved in one way or another.
As a result, the division is shaping out to be totally unpredictable. The Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers added a wealth of youth to the roster. Meanwhile, the Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns continue to make their rise, with the young talent showing the potential to emerge next year.
The defending Super Bowl champion Ravens, an organization that finally earned its second championship after a full decade, proved why they have been consistently a successful franchise over the past five years.
General manager Ozzie Newsome did not hesitate to part ways with veterans Anquan Boldin, Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard. He did not cave into the contract demands of line backers Dannell Ellerbe and Paul Kruger, and instead used the available cap space in an interesting way.
The Ravens faced the challenge of not only addressing both the inside linebacker and safety positions in the draft, but also selecting these players to fill the shoes of two future Hall of Famers who were the faces of the organization for the past decade.
Despite the challenges, however, the Ravens quickly used the surplus of their draft picks to find safety Matt Elam and line backer Arthur Brown—two players who have been knocked for their size, but display the physical traits and the hearts of champions.
The challenge moving forward for the Ravens primarily focuses on allowing all of these new additions to gel as a unit, with the training camp and the preseason becoming extremely valuable for this veteran roster. Baltimore begins the 2013 campaign with a road trip to Denver to start the season, but the abundance of talent assembled by the front office makes the team a viable threat in the conference.
Unfortunately for the Ravens, they will find themselves in a battle for the division crown in 2013. They will have to fend off the Bengals, a team who had the draft that contains the most immediate impact players. The additions of Tyler Eifert and Giovani Bernard to the young offense has to make quarterback Andy Dalton confident as he enters a pivotal year in his career.
The emerging talent on offense, combined with the physical defense that is led by Geno Atkins, gives them the look of a team who is likely to find success once they get to the postseason.
Though, the two playoff representatives from the AFC North last season must prepare for the Pittsburgh Steelers to rebound after an extremely disappointing end to the regular season. They recognized the need to get younger across the defense, and parting ways with James Harrison and Casey Hampton was a step in that direction.
With the demand for youth on defense, and some skill players on offense, general manager Kevin Colbert utilized the draft to his advantage. Jarvis Jones has shown his ability to be a dominant pass-rusher against the top level of competition in college and will add depth to a strong crop of linebackers. Safety Shamarko Thomas, the anchor of the Syracuse Orange defense last season, brings the athleticism and physicality that will help him find a way to get on the field sooner rather than later.
As draft pundits analyze the Steelers draft class, it's wide receiver Markus Wheaton that stands out the most. While he doesn't have the electrifying speed of Mike Wallace, he is overall a better route-runner who possesses very good hands for a young receiver. The Steelers offense had its struggles last year, but Ben Roethlisberger and offensive coordinator Todd Haley now have a variety of talent at their disposal.
Finally, the bottom dweller of this division—the Cleveland Browns—will significantly improve within the division due to the massive upgrades on the defense. The addition of Barkevious Mingo only adds to the plethora of young talent that defensive coordinator Ray Horton can use to his advantage.
While there wasn't much focus put toward the offense, the development of Josh Gordon could lead to positive results as his speed makes him a capable threat as a No. 1 receiver.
Ultimately, the 2013 draft brings plenty of new and emerging talent to a division that has typically stood out around the rest of the league.
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