- Michael Smith, NFL Senior Writer
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You have the AFC South, with its quartet of high-quality, fairly well-established quarterbacks. And at the other end of the spectrum and the compass, coincidentally you have the AFC North, the, shall we say, junior division.
Excluding 33-year-old Trent Dilfer, the Cleveland Browns' serviceable stopgap under center, the AFC North teams each has a quarterback who has started less than two seasons' worth of games. A QB who, if his team is to go further than it did a season ago, must take that all-important next step forward.
At 23, Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger, 2004's record-breaking offensive rookie of the year, looks to build upon his stellar first season. The Steelers still have the foundation of a Super Bowl team after they were stopped a step short of Jacksonville by New England, in part because of Roethlisberger's inexperience.
Cincinnati's Carson Palmer, 25, the top selection of the 2003 draft, proved coach Marvin Lewis wise for handing him the reigns last spring with a strong second half in '04. Like Big Ben, Palmer is cool and calm, and he appears poised to join the ranks of the NFL's elite quarterbacks. But first thing's first: the playoffs.
And last and, for now, least is Baltimore's much-maligned Kyle Boller, 24, who, despite starting as a rookie in 2003, has just 25 regular-season starts to his credit. Unfortunately for him, he does not have the luxury of another season of growing pains. The Ravens, like the Steelers, have surrounded their signal caller with a Super Bowl supporting cast.
Boller, Palmer, and Roethlisberger all have been put in positions to succeed: The Ravens brought in new receivers, the Bengals kept their explosive offense intact and the Steelers decided to let wideout Plaxico Burress walk to protect Roethlisberger from what they feared would be further corruption.
As always, it's all about the quarterbacks. How these young guns perform will determine how the AFC North shakes down. By December, there very well could be three playoff contenders in this division.
Here's where the four teams stand this offseason:
• Pittsburgh Steelers
Best move: It's a case of addition by subtraction. Pittsburgh's best move of the offseason was allowing Burress to depart. The Steelers made no effort to re-sign their first-round pick in 2000, a decision that had everything to do with their first-round pick last year, Roethlisberger, and what they feel is best for his development. Roethlisberger and Burress enjoyed a close relationship too close if you ask the Steelers. They viewed Burress as a negative influence. There was a reason why Burress saw his production increase when Roethlisberger stepped in for Tommy Maddox in Game 2, only the team didn't catch on until late in the year: Roethlisberger and Burress had devised plays for the QB's favorite receiver, though he almost never was the primary one, and would adjust his routes as they saw fit and not according to the playbook. While their little scheme wasn't exactly broken (they made the AFC Championship Game in spite of the unauthorized ad-libbing) the Steelers, however, were intent on fixing the situation after the season. It didn't help that Burress dropped a lot of balls. Exit Burress, enter Cedrick Wilson, signed as a free agent. The former 49er, expected to start opposite Hines Ward, gives Pittsburgh's offense the downfield speed it lacked. Pittsburgh's next move: extending Ward, who is entering the last year of his contract. He's approaching 30, so the Steelers are mindful of overpaying him.
Biggest question mark: The offensive line. Right tackle Oliver Ross departed for Arizona via free agency and right guard Keydrick Vincent signed with Baltimore. Former starter Kendall Simmons is coming off a knee injury (torn right anterior cruciate ligament) that cost him all of '04. He's back at right guard. Unproven Max Starks, who played in 10 games as a rookie last year but was on the field for just 7 percent of the offensive snaps, will replace Ross. The O-line, and by extension Pittsburgh's running game, was the strength of the team last year. The unit lacks experienced depth, as it did two years ago, when the Steelers stumbled to 6-10.
Bottom line: The AFC runners-up, and the only team in conference history to go 15-1, return 19 of 22 starters. Jerome Bettis is back for another year, and in first-round pick Heath Miller the Steelers have their first pass-catching tight end since, what, Eric Green? Roethlisberger is showing a better understanding of the offense, after the Patriots exploited his inexperience in reading defenses in the title game. Big Ben made a lot of plays last year just on athletic ability. With a season under his belt, he has a better idea of what he's doing. The thought of how good he could be in Year 2 should frighten the rest of the league. But for the Steelers, it's really all about one team New England and winning one more game.
• Baltimore Ravens
Best move: Getting Boller some real receivers. The Ravens signed Derrick Mason, the former Titan whom the Patriots pursued, and drafted Oklahoma's Mark Clayton with the 22nd overall pick. Mason averaged more than 80 catches and 1,100 yards his last four years in Tennessee, while Clayton is rather polished for a rookie. Baltimore finished last in the league in passing yards per game (just under 160) and had just 28 completions of 20-plus yards, more than only San Francisco and Washington. Say what you want about the kid, but it wasn't all Boller. The Ravens' receivers had the fewest yards after the catch with 1,061. That figures to improve, as does Boller now that Jim Fassel is the team's full-time offensive coordinator.
Biggest question mark: Boller is under heavy pressure and the games haven't even started yet. This is a big offseason for the third-year pro. The Ravens have spent two years defending him, but Boller is pretty much out of excuses. He must display marked improvement if the Ravens are to challenge Pittsburgh for the division, and beyond that, realize their annual Super Bowl expectations. Boller's completion percentage (51.8 to 55.6 percent) and passer rating (62.4 to 70.9) increased from his rookie season to last season, so there's a good sign.
Bottom line: Because of various injuries and suspensions, Jamal Lewis, Todd Heap, Jonathan Ogden, Chris McAlister and Deion Sanders played one game together last season: a Week 2 win over Pittsburgh. Heap is coming back from foot surgery, Lewis from an ankle injury and suspension (linked to his subsequent four-month incarceration). The defense, led by new coordinator Rex Ryan, should be even tighter, having scored another major free agent coup with the signing of ex-Titans corner Samari Rolle to replace Gary Baxter (Cleveland) opposite McAlister. Sanders is expected to re-join the team next month. If the Ravens can stay healthy and Boller can at least be solid, this team could be special.
• Cincinnati Bengals
Best move: Spending the dough necessary to keep their young, explosive offense together. Cincinnati re-signed Rudi Johnson for five years and No. 2 wideout T.J. Houshmandzadeh for four, ensuring that Palmer, the Johnsons (Rudi and Chad), and Houshmandzadeh would be Bengals through at least '08. Rudi Johnson, 25, is one of the best young backs in the league and is coming off a season in which he established club records for carries (361) and yards (1,454). If you don't know what it means to have these guys around Palmer, ask the Browns, Ravens and Patriots, against whom Palmer completed 75 percent, earned a rating of no less than 101.0 in his last three games, and threw nine of his 18 touchdowns for the season. The Bengals should finish better than 18th in total offense, as they did in 2004.
Biggest question mark: Cincinnati finished 19th in total defense, 26th against the run, and gave up 26 or more points in half its games, including that wacky 58-48 win over the Browns. So Lewis fired defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier after the season and promoted Chuck Bresnahan to the position. Bresnahan's style is a more aggressive one. Cincinnati made personnel changes, as well, selecting Georgia defenders David Pollack and Odell Thurman, signing free agent Bryan Robinson to play right defensive tackle, moving John Thornton to left tackle, and flip-flopping ends Justin Smith and Robert Geathers. The Bengals tried to sign Lewis' former pupil in Baltimore, linebacker Jamie Sharper, but he chose Seattle over Cincinnati. We'll see if Lewis' decisions work out.
Bottom line: The Bengals haven't been to the playoffs or had a winning season since 1990. With the talent they have on offense and enough improvement on defense, both those streaks could end this year, with Cincinnati's making a push for a wild card spot. They're excited again in the Queen City about their team. A third straight break-even finish would be a disappointment for a team seen as up-and-coming.
• Cleveland Browns
Best move: Easy. Hiring former Ravens personnel boss Phil Savage to be their general manager and being the first team smart enough to give Patriots defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel a head coaching job. The two of them bring a combined six Super Bowl rings to a franchise still trying to get off the ground since returning to the league in 1999. Savage, who worked under Ozzie Newsome in Baltimore, comes from perhaps the best personnel department in the league. Crennel was part of what was maybe the best coaching staff. Not a bad combo to have leading your team. Finally, Cleveland has some semblance of competency in the front office. Savage and Crennel will build this team into a contender. Soon.
Biggest question mark: They're everywhere. Pick one. Dilfer won a Super Bowl with the Ravens in 2000 but has started 12 games and played in 22 in the four seasons since. Maurice Carthon will try to prove his mettle as an offensive coordinator. Cleveland had the worst rushing defense in the league in 2004, giving up an average of 144.6 yards per game, so Crennel and Savage got rid of their overpriced, underachieving defensive linemen, dumping them all on Denver, it seems. Besides getting the right personnel in place, it's going to take time for the players to grasp Crennel's scheme, the base of which is the 3-4. And then, of course, there is the very uncertain future of tight end Kellen Winslow.
Bottom line: This much is certain: The Browns will be competitive. They'll be more disciplined. And they'll be tougher. Crennel said the other day he likes that his team has improved its overall strength. Crennel wants a more physical team than the one Butch Davis had built for speed. Whether the work with the weights translates, well, we'll have to wait and see.
Michael Smith is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
With the exception of Cleveland, AFC North teams are counting on young QBs to lead the way.