How the draft failed to change the power dynamic in the AFC North

Steelers, NFL Draft
Steelers, NFL Draft / Gregory Shamus/GettyImages

There tends to be a ton of talk about teams and their potential following a draft, and this year’s installment has failed to break from that tradition.

Since the final pick was announced, NFL media outlets have been giving an abundance of in-depth coverage on particular draft hauls and what they will do for their teams’ competitiveness going forward. Every team in every division receives this kind of treatment, including those in the AFC North.

Multiple selections from around the division turned heads, resulting in all four members—Bengals, Ravens, Steelers, and Browns—to receive a fair amount of praise for their classes.

A source that best shows this comes from The Sporting News’ Vinnie Iyer, who placed all of them within the top half of his league-wide draft rankings. While the Browns barely squeaked in at 16th, the other three squads were sitting pretty in the top 10, with the Steelers making an impression so strong that Iyer named their class the best of them all.

Getting that much love leaves only one conclusion for some NFL fans to draw: The AFC North is going to be hectic this season. However, I am not so convinced. In fact, I don’t feel that this draft has changed a single thing about the division’s hierarchy.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that the North won’t be tough, because it certainly will be. The only problem is that we already knew that.

For context, last season saw the AFC North as one of only two divisions to finish with three winning teams. It also had a representative in the AFC title game, as Cincinnati fell just short of making back-to-back Super Bowl appearances. None of that paints out a particularly weak bunch.

Speaking of Cincinnati, the Bengals have sat at the top of the North’s aforementioned hierarchy for a couple of years now. Especially when remembering that its own 2023 class was a decent one, how could we confidently assume that Cincy’s superiority has been thrown into obscurity all because their rivals had a good draft?

With that said, if anyone needs to question a draft’s impact, it's Baltimore. This is because the Ravens have developed quite an unflattering reputation for their consistent underperforming.

I’m aware that it’s not very “scientific” to write off all of Baltimore’s newfound potential simply due to previous failures, but one must admit that it is getting harder and harder to blindly excuse them.

Many seem to forget that the Ravens have it all: a Super Bowl-winning head coach in John Harbaugh, an MVP-winning quarterback in Lamar Jackson, and talent both young and old on both offense and defense (it’s also worth noting that they had all of this before the top-dog Bengals came along).

In short, I will not take them at face value until they stop laying eggs, and considering how they are still committed to heading down the path they’re on, that likely means I’ll be disregarding them for a while.

Why haven’t our views of the Steelers and Browns changed?

Regardless of how many scowls it may result in, I must remain truthful: Not even the Steelers draft haul did enough to cause a shift on the totem pole. But, before everyone tunes out, I will cut right to the chase as to why.

Think about how we were looking at the Steelers leading up to the draft; we didn’t see some sorry team, but we didn’t see a guaranteed contender, either. Instead, we saw underdogs headlined by young stars, looking to rise not just in the division, but in the American Football Conference as a whole.

However, even the most delusional of fans have to possess the common sense to know that such a climb is going to take some serious time, and a strong class won’t do much to shorten it (at least not right away).

The most I’d be willing to imagine is some rookies showing out, and that being enough to get the Steelers back into the postseason. But even then, is a playoff berth not something most of us had already been anticipating after how close we came to experiencing one last season?

That just leaves Cleveland, whose place in the AFC North is quite possibly the easiest for folks to agree on.

Simply put, the Browns were the division’s only losing team and, despite putting up a better record against their rivals than some might think, they still entered the draft being seen as what were clearly the runts of the litter.

When it comes to them, there’s no need for some expert-level analysis or verbose justification—if everyone and their mother can see how they’re the undisputed worst in the North, how can we expect one whopping offseason to change such an image overnight?

Next. 10 all-time greatest Pittsburgh Steelers second-round picks in the NFL Draft. dark

Again, the AFC North is a very tough division that did very well in the draft. Yet through it all, my expectations for each piece of it remain unscathed. Until further notice: The division is still Cincy’s to lose, Baltimore still has a standard that it is inexcusably incapable of meeting, Pittsburgh is still on its comeback tour, and Cleveland is still the bottom-dweller. I will only believe otherwise when I see it on the field, not the draft board.