The Ravens' first move this season was very costly, but very necessary as they re-signed their franchise quarterback, Joe Flacco.
With a loaded supporting cast, Flacco led the Ravens to their 2nd Super Bowl win.
As a result of re-signing him, the Ravens were forced to let go of some key players like Paul Kruger (Browns), Dannell Ellerbe (Dolphins), Anquan Boldin (49ers), Ed Reed (rumored to the Texans), and Cary Williams (Eagles).
These losses won't be easy to overcome next season, in a normally close division in most seasons.
The Ravens do have Webb at cornerback, but Williams' replacement has yet to be found and the expected loss of Reed will hamper the Ravens' coverage against opposing pass games.
The loss of Kruger will be another loss that's hard to overcome. He played a large pert in the Ravens march to their Super Bowl win. Ellerbe is another linebacker loss, but his role wasn't nearly the size of Kruger's. Flacco's re-signing has basically strapped the Ravens' ability to add more players to answer those they lost.
The Ravens will not be as strong as they were last season, but they should still have enough weapons to contend for the AFC North Championship. but the likely hood of returning to the Super Bowl took a big hit in order to keep Flacco.
The Bengals also have lingering concerns within their defensive unit. Defensive end Michael Johnson was slapped with the team's franchise tag, so they have him for the upcoming season, but will likely lose Maualuga as a result. The Bengals don't have much room to maneuver to sign a big-name free agent this offseason.
The Bengals have a strong team despite losing Maualuga to free agency. The have a solid quarterback in Andy Dalton and the offense is the strongest weapon on the team. However, the re-signing of tackle Andre Smith was a key move to keep the ground game producing good numbers.
The defense, aside from Johnson, is a huge concern heading into draft day 2013. The Bengals lack a quality corner, while they also need to find a solid linebacker to fill the void of from losing Maualuga, and they don't have the cap room to go after any big names, so they must do it on draft day.
The Bengals' offense is very capable of keeping the team close in games next season, but the one knock on Dalton is his risk of throwing a pick, he needs to tighten up this part of his game this offseason. Overall the Bengals are good enough to challenge for the AFC North title.Cleveland Browns
The Browns are the wild card of the AFC North. They bet the farm on Weeden and lost last season.
This is not to suggest he won't see better numbers under Norv Turner's offense, which is closer to what he played in college than the West Coast offense.
Jimmy Haslam has made it known the Browns will have an open quarterback competition leading up to Week 1 of the regular season.
To complicate matters, the Browns may draft another QB to add to the competition.
Trent Richardson looked good at times and reminded me of Kevin Mack, his game against the Eagles was the best example of his power, but his numbers didn't reflect his speed even with an improved offensive line. He needs to do a better job of reading the gaps and hitting the ones leading to daylight.
The Browns' receiving game remains horrible despite finding a true No. 1 receiver in Josh "Flash" Gordon.Their receivers continue to drop a large amount of passes, which makes it harder to contend in this tough division.
The Browns' defense played good last season, keeping them in most games and allowing the offense and special teams a chance to score. This season they move back to the 3-4 set, and they lack LB depth and a No. 2 corner opposite of Joe Haden.
Sheldon Brown is gone, and Buster Skrine, while a very good special teams player, will continue to be picked on by opposing pass games, making him a valuable 3rd or nickel and dime cornerback. Thus the Browns must find a No. 2 cornerback either via free agency or an early draft pick.
Despite the troubles the team faces in a weakened AFC North, they could make some noise, but they don't have enough to win the AFC North, but are likely just one more offseason away from contending.
The Steelers are normally a team to circle to in any discussion of who wins the AFC North. However, problems exist including the cap, which may hamper their chances to win the division. Their ground game is suspect heading into the Draft, Mendenhall has departed and they simply lack a running game, as Dwyer failed to impress last season.
The offense basically comes down to the sometimes erratic play of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. But, without a good running game, he will be pressured up front much like last season. He can't be expected to win every game, and the Steelers must find a running back and should be in position to draft one anywhere in the first three rounds.
Another problem within the offense, is first the team lost Ward to retirement, and now they lost a speed receiver with good hands, Mike Wallace to the Miami Dolphins. This will be the toughest hole to fill within the passing game. Wallace may have had an off year, but he remains a dangerous threat on any passing down.
The defense remains the main driving force for the Steelers year in and year out. This season is different as they lose key linebackers James Harrision and Larry Foote to free agency. That's two big holes to fill with not enough cap space to fill them before draft day.
The Steelers will have to fill these holes and get them game-ready by Week 1 to stand an outside chance of winning the AFC North. It's not impossible since the division will be weaker than normal next season, but the right pieces have to be set in place first.
The AFC north division could be a three-way battle between Baltimore, Cincinnati, and Cleveland. However, the likely battle throughout the 2013 season will come down to who wants it more, the Ravens or the Bengals.
The Bengals are hungry and the Ravens took some key hits in free agency. This is a first for me, but I'm calling for the Bengals to win the division during the final weeks of the season.