"If we can win this division, we can win it all." Joe Burrow made the proclamation following the Bengals' 41-17 rout of the Ravens in Week 7 of the 2021 season. Cincinnati's young quarterback was right, as the Bengals claimed the AFC North division with a 10-7 record. The Bengals finished just ahead of the 9-7-1 Steelers, who clinched the AFC's final wild card berth. The Browns, who were a field goal away from being the division's top team in Week 15, finished with an 8-9 record. The Ravens stumbled to an 8-9 finish after an 8-3 start and finished in last.
Pittsburgh was quickly ousted by the Chiefs in the wild card round. The Bengals, meanwhile, defeated Las Vegas, Tennessee and Kansas City to reach Super Bowl LVI. Against the Rams, Cincinnati held a 20-16 lead in the final minutes, before falling victim to the Matthew Stafford-Cooper Kupp connection and the Rams' relentless pass rush.
The Bengals are the proverbial king of the jungle, but they'll have to make some upgrades this offseason in order to stay there. The division's other three teams will also look to upgrade their rosters in order to keep pace with the defending AFC champions. Here's a look at each AFC North's biggest team needs with free agency kicking off next month.
Team needs: OT, LB, EDGE, DT
Baltimore's inability to protect their quarterback and apply pressure on others were two of their biggest issues in 2021. The Ravens' O-line, which played all but one game without Ronnie Stanley, finished 21st in Pro Football Focus' end-of-season ranking. Former Pro Bowler Alejandro Villanueva struggled in his first and likely only season in Baltimore. Patrick Mekari was solid at right tackle, but the Ravens will surely add to this position during free agency and during the draft.
The Ravens may be preparing for an overhaul on their defensive line, as Brandon Williams and Calais Campbell are entering free agency. Baltimore will surely be in the market for a pass-rush specialist when free agency begins. Several options in free agency may include Von Miller, Chandler Jones, Dante Fowler Jr., Jerry Hughes, Mario Addison, Jadeveon Clowney, and Emmanuel Ogbah, among others.
Team needs: CB, C, OG, OT, LB
Anyone who watched the Super Bowl saw the Bengals' two biggest weaknesses. Expect the Bengals to address their offensive line in both free agency as well as during the NFL Draft. Speaking of the draft, our four CBS Sports NFL Draft experts have Cincinnati selecting either a lineman or a cornerback with the 31st overall pick. Upcoming free agents on the offensive line include Brandon Scherff, Nate Solder, Cam Robinson and Andrew Norwell, among others. Cornerbacks expecting to reach free agency include Stephon Gilmore, Joe Haden, Kyle Fuller, Chris Harris, Jimmy Smith, Charvarius Ward and J.C. Jackson.
Defensive line is another area Bengals fans should be keeping an eye on. Larry Ogunjobi, who sustained a season-ending injury against Las Vegas in the wild card round, is entering free agency. So is BJ Hill, who played exceptionally well in place of Ogunjobi. In a perfect world, the Bengals would ink both players to new deals, and while that could certainly happen, the Bengals should try to at least sign one of their free agents on a D-line that finished second in the NFL against the run last season.
Team needs: WR, DT, LB, C, EDGE
With Jarvis Landry's future uncertain, the Browns need to be proactive as it relates to adding to their receiving corps. Receivers who are slated to hit the market include Allen Robinson, Chris Godwin, Will Fuller, Jamison Crowder, T.Y. Hilton, JuJu Smith-Schuster, DJ Chark, Michael Gallup, Demarcus Robinson, and Richie James. Don't be surprised if the Browns spent the 13th overall pick on a receiver, as all four of our draft experts currently have Cleveland selecting Arkansas wideout Treylon Burks with the pick.
Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah was a stud in his rookie season, but the Browns need to supply him with a formidable ally at linebacker. Anthony Hitchens, Dont'a Hightower, Jarrad Davis, Jayon Brown, A.J. Johnson and Christian Kirksey are several free agent options at inside linebacker.
Team needs: QB, OT, OG, CB, DT
We recently wrote a deep dive on the Steelers' current game plan as it relates to their quarterback situation. Regardless of who the Steelers' quarterback is, they need to apply him with a strong offensive line and a formidable receiving corps. DJ Chark would be a nice complement to Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool. Pittsburgh will likely draft a receiver as well as multiple offensive linemen. The Steelers will likely also use free agency to add to their offensive line.
Larry Ogunjobi is one of several free agents the Steelers may pursue to help bolster a defensive line that finished last in the NFL against the run in 2021. Pittsburgh will also be in the market for a cornerback and a strong safety if Joe Haden and Terrell Edmunds sign with new teams in free agency. J.C. Jackson would be a solid addition in the event that Haden signs elsewhere. If Edmunds is not retained, Quandre Diggs and Kareem Jackson are the top strong safeties expected to hit free agency.