The AFC North was once again one of the most competitive divisions in the NFL during the 2021 season. It is shaping up to be more of the same during the 2022 campaign, as well.
The Cincinnati Bengals were able to come away as the victors last season, winning the division crown for the first time since 2015 and the 10th time overall. They rode that momentum all the way into the Super Bowl, where they were defeated by the Los Angeles Rams.
If they want to repeat as divisional champs, they will have to put some work in this offseason. They will now be the team with the target on their backs instead of being the ones chasing those targeted teams. It isn’t an easy role to excel in, especially with heightened expectations, but the Bengals are built to be a sustainable winner.
The other teams in the division will certainly not make it easy for them. With a few tweaks, they can all stake a claim to being worthy of being the favorites. To achieve that, here is a trade target each team should monitor.
Baltimore Ravens: EDGE Za’Darius Smith
For years the Ravens have been known for their defensive prowess, specifically when it came to rushing the passer. They always had at least one, if not multiple, vaunted pass rushers that made life miserable for opposing quarterbacks.
In 2021, however, they were not as imposing as in years past. They finished 24th in the NFL with only 34 sacks. The loss of Matt Judon in free agency proved to be costly, as Tyus Bowser and Odafe Oweh led the team with seven and five sacks respectively.
Adding a seasoned veteran to that mix would go a long way and one player they should target is Za’Darius Smith of the Green Bay Packers. Green Bay is looking to slash some salary this offseason and Smith is on the trading block.
He spent the first for seasons of his career in Baltimore and a reunion would make sense for both parties. Smith could help the Ravens get back to the top of the AFC North.
Cincinnati Bengals: OT Andre Dillard
Anyone that watched the Bengals since Joe Burrow was selected No. 1 overall in the 2020 NFL Draft knows they need some help on the offensive line. Burrow has been hit as much as any quarterback since he entered the league.
Burrow has been sacked 83 times through 26 regular-season games. He took a beating in the postseason, absorbing 19 sacks and countless more hits in four games. If the Bengals want their success to continue, they need to make some changes on the offensive line.
One player that could be of interest to them is Andre Dillard of the Philadelphia Eagles. Dillard was removed from the lineup on offense the second half of the season and could be had in a trade.
He would be a low-risk, high-reward move for a Bengals team desperate for help upfront. There is untapped potential there, from which Cincinnati could benefit.
Cleveland Browns: WR Brandin Cooks
The Browns began reshaping their wide receiver depth chart when they acquired Amari Cooper from the Dallas Cowboys over the weekend. He will fill the void as a go-to No. 1 receiver in the offense, but they shouldn’t stop there.
This is a unit that needs a complete overhaul after the Odell Beckham Jr. trade did not work out as well as they had hoped. With Jarvis Landry potentially being on the move this offseason, as well, Cleveland could use more than just Cooper.
So, they will acquire a second veteran to provide Baker Mayfield, or whoever is under center, another weapon in the passing game. This time it will be from a rebuilding team in Houston Texans wideout, Brandin Cooks. His addition could help the Browns compete for the AFC North division title.
Cooks has been consistent throughout his career, surpassing the 1,000-yard plateau six times in his eight seasons in the NFL. He is more than just the deep threat as some have pegged him to be. As the No. 2 behind Cooper, he should find plenty of matchups to take advantage of and produce at a high clip once again.
Pittsburgh Steelers: QB Jimmy Garoppolo
2022 signaled the end of an era for the Steelers as future Hall of Fame quarterback Ben Roethlisberger announced his retirement. Those are some big shoes to fill in the Steel City, but someone has to do it.
Given the current construction of the roster, going after a veteran would make a lot of sense. The Steelers have a defense and weapons offensively ready to contend right now. While not the most exciting option, adding Jimmy Garoppolo could present a good opportunity.
Garoppolo has made two NFC Championship Games in his career, winning once. With the pieces the Steelers have to put around him, he will be in a position to succeed much as he was with the San Francisco 49ers.
On an expiring deal, the Steelers could move on next offseason as will without penalty should things not work out.