In the National Football League, the first goal at the beginning of every league year is to win your division, and the first order of business is to make sure you have the resources to win your division. The Pittsburgh Steelers are in the AFC North, a division in which three teams made it to the postseason in 2014 and all four teams won at least seven games.
But division rivals don’t just compete with one another with helmets one. It’s a year-long process, during which every step of the way, from free agency to the draft, teams measure themselves up against the teams they know they’ll play at least twice that season.
At times, it can be an arms race. Last year, both the Cleveland Browns and the Cincinnati Bengals drafted cornerbacks in the first round, while the Steelers and Baltimore Ravens went with inside linebackers. This year, it could be the Steelers and Ravens playing catch up in the secondary.
With the first round of the draft set to commence tonight, it’s set the table for the AFC North on this day.
Selection(s): 12th, 19th
Likely Targets: WR, DL, OT, QB
Strategy: The outside strategy here would be if the Browns would be able to muster up the firepower to move up to the second overall pick and draft quarterback Marcus Mariota. Owning two first-round picks gives them a head-start to that end, but ultimately I don’t see this happening.
The Browns run defense was a disappointment last season, and there are some key defensive line prospects that should be available at 12, if not 19, who could potentially be day-one starters. And whoever they have at quarterback will need more firepower at wide receiver. And even though they have a solid starter at right tackle, they have shown an interest in upgrading there.
Likely Targets: DL, WR, OT
Strategy: The defensive line has been the chief focus for the Bengals in the offseason, but that doesn’t mean they’re done. The line was disappointing both from a pressure standpoint and against the run. Their improvements were mostly against the run, so they still need to add pieces that can get after the quarterback.
They also need a true complementary piece to A.J. Green, especially without a top flight quarterback, so wide receiver needs to be here. And Andrew Whitworth is nearing the end of the line, so a succession plan is in order.
Likely Targets: CB, OLB
Strategy: At this point, it seems unlikely that the Steelers go for anything but a corner or an edge rusher, as it meshes well with the quality, the position in the draft, and their presumed interest. At least one of the top 3-4 cornerbacks and one of the top 5 outside linebackers should still be on the board, and that may be good enough to make them their selection. While they have offensive needs, they either haven’t shown the interest or it doesn’t match the value. And I don’t see them going safety at the top of the draft.
Likely Targets: WR, CB, RB
Strategy: The Ravens lost a lot of components during free agency, but the piece they may be most likely to replace in the first round is wide receiver. There are a few possibilities late in the round who can fill the void left by Torrey Smith. Where they select also might be an opportune spot to grab one of the top two running backs in the draft to give them a long-term future at the position. And while they have a couple of good cornerbacks, they have had trouble staying healthy.