Baltimore Ravens (11-5)
Key Additions: C Matt Birk, OT Michael Oher, TE L.J. Smith, CB Domonique Foxworth
Key Subtractions: CB Chris McAlister, LB Bart Scott, S Jim Leonhard, CB Corey Ivy
Oher, acquired in the draft, plugs in immediately as the starter at right tackle, and Birk is a Pro Bowl center who'll start immediately. Those additions help solidify a line that allowed Joe Flacco to be sacked 33 times last season. Not that 33 is a terrible number, but it's not a great number either, especially when you note that they attempted the third fewest passes per game. On most teams, L.J. Smith isn't a key addition, but I imagine you'll see he and Todd Heap lined up together more than a few times to help with pass protection, run blocking, and the short passing game.
The Ravens saw a mass exodus of talent from their defense this season, losing four of last year's starters. Foxworth is a decent addition, but the rest of the holes are being addressed in-house. I understand that Ray Lewis has been the face of the franchise, and for one year, Lewis is the guy I'd rather have. But the Ravens have always been pretty good at looking forward, so the decision to put money into Lewis instead of Scott was surprising. I don't see the defense being as good as they were last year, and I don't expect Flacco to be able to take a mediocre receiving corps and make them good.
Projected 2009 record: 8-8
Cincinnati Bengals (4-11-1)
Key Additions: WR Laveranues Coles, DT Tank Johnson, OL Andre Smith, LB Rey Maualuga, S Roy Williams
Key Subtractions: WR T.J. Houshmandzadeh
Carson Palmer's injury last year was pretty much the entire reason that Cincinnati's season was in the toilet. They had the worst offense in football, both in points and yardage. That's how they went from a .500 team to among the league's worst in just a few seconds. The loss of Houshmandzadeh to the Seahawks doesn't help, but Coles is a fairly logical replacement. Cedric Benson is one of the least appealing options you could have at running back, but unfortunately for them, the Bengals' other options are among those few less appealing ones. This will once again be a pass-first offense.
The Bengals weakness has always been their defense, and they took several steps to attempt to correct that this offseason. They made one big acquisition at each level of the defense, and the hope is that the influx of talent will yield results somewhere. Roy Williams has to prove that his reputation for making big mistakes in Dallas was just a result of over-anxious fans, and not a legitimate concern. And Tank Johnson has to prove that he can go to a team with a reputation like Cincinnati and not get arrested.
Projected 2009 record: 7-9
Cleveland Browns (4-12)
Key Additions: C Alex Mack, WR Brian Robiskie, WR Mohamed Massaquoi, WR Mike Furrey, DE Kenyon Coleman, LB David Bowens, LB Eric Barton, S Abram Elam
Key Subtractions: TE Kellen Winslow Jr., LB Willie McGinest, LB Andra Davis, S Sean Jones
Eric Mangini came in and made wholesale changes almost immediately, bringing in four new defensive starters from his old team, the Jets. He inherited an awful rush defense, so the replacement of most of the linebacking corps is not unreasonable. Sean Jones was a pretty productive safety, so replacing him with a guy who's been on three teams in four years in Elam is a little suspect to me.
Mangini also inherited a quarterback controversy, and he's done nothing to dissipate it. Brady Quinn and Derek Anderson are both vying for the starting spot, though it's difficult to know exactly why. Braylon Edwards drops more balls than puberty, Winslow is a thousand miles away, and the rest of the Browns' receivers are either unproven or overproven. Between all of them someone should pan out, but it may take a while. Still, a young and talented offensive line got even better, now that they're entering the Secret World of Alex Mack (look it up).
Projected 2009 record: 6-10
Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4)
Key Additions: DE Evander "Ziggy" Hood, WR Shaun McDonald, CB Keiwan Ratliff
Key Subtractions: CB Bryant McFadden, WR Nate Washington
As always, the Steelers continue to build from within. Each of their projected defensive starters was on the team last year, which should mean trouble once again for opposing offenses. It'll also spell disaster for those of us who wish for the Steelers' demise every year. I think that, if the Steelers hadn't won their two recent Super Bowls, I'd probably be fine with them, and even tolerant of their fans. It's much easier to appreciate a team that has a great development plan and fields very good teams when they don't win it all. I'm like the opposite of a bandwagon fan.
Back to the team, pretty much the entire offense returns as well. Rashard Mendenhall should be recovered from his mid-season injury against the Ravens, and they replaced Nate Washington with Shaun McDonald, two players with similar capabilities. Washington is a larger target, but between McDonald and second-year player Limas Sweed, Washington's production should be more than recovered. It's worth mentioning that they went 12-4 and won the Super Bowl even though Ben Roethlisberger had a bad season (don't argue, 17 TDs and 15 INTs, 46 sacks and 14 fumbles is bad). If Roethlisberger can bounce back, take care of the ball a little better, and find the end zone a little more frequently, another trip to the Super Bowl is definitely within their reach.
It's interesting to see two very different but successful teams like the Patriots and Steelers build their teams in very different ways. The Steelers draft players who fit their mold, and take the time to develop them behind veterans. They hardly ever pay top dollar, and continue to replace veterans with young players in-house. The Patriots find under-valued players around the league like Wes Welker and Fred Taylor, and plug them into a potent offensive machine.
Projected 2009 record: 13-3
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