On paper, the Ravens have picked up significant ground on the rest of the AFC North. They retained most of their key players in free agency and upgraded in other areas.

But because they've added so many new faces, it could be a month into the regular season before the improvement is evident on the field.

Last season, the Ravens finished third in the division, even though they had the same record (8-8) as the Pittsburgh Steelers. While the Ravens didn't make any big free-agent splashes, neither did any of the other AFC North teams except the Cleveland Browns.

But the Browns are the Browns, and they are so far down that it will take at least another season for them to catch up with the rest of the division.

The Ravens lost one of their top free agents, defensive end Arthur Jones, to the Indianapolis Colts, but few tears are being shed over departed players such as right tackle Michael Oher, weak-side linebacker Jameel McClain or wide receiver Tandon Doss.

Meanwhile, they re-signed key players such as tight end Dennis Pitta, left tackle Eugene Monroe, middle linebacker Daryl Smith and wide receiver Jacoby Jones while adding free agents such as receiver Steve Smith, tight end Owen Daniels and center Jeremy Zuttah.

Steve Smith and Daniels are more temporary fixes than they are players who will have long-term impacts, but they should contribute more than the players added to other teams in the division.


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As usual, the Cincinnati Bengals, the defending AFC North champs, maintained the status quo in free agency. The Bengals lost two quality players in defensive end Michael Johnson and left tackle Anthony Collins to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Johnson led the team with 11.5 sacks last season. Collins didn't give up a sack, although he played only six games. The Bengals have good, young talent. Without Johnson, they still have seven of the eight members who rotated regularly on their defensive line. The Bengals also can move Andrew Whitworth back to tackle to replace Collins, and there won't be major ramifications.

But here's the problem: Except for adding former Houston Texans safety Danieal Manning, they didn't get better. And that doesn't often work in the NFL.

Pittsburgh has gotten better, but not to the point where anyone is ready to make them favorites in the AFC North. The Steelers had some noticeable losses, such such as receiver Emmanuel Sanders, but the departures of defensive linemen Ziggy Hood and Al Woods and safety Ryan Clark won't hurt much.

Pittsburgh's defense will get a big boost on the back end with the addition of safety Mike Mitchell from the Carolina Panthers, and the Steelers also re-signed transition player and linebacker Jason Worilds. LeGarrette Blount will give the Steelers needed depth at running back. The biggest addition could be receiver Lance Moore, from the New Orleans Saints. He is talented and could help them in the slot, but that's not a game-changer.

And then there is Cleveland.

The Browns lost two quality players in linebacker D'Qwell Jackson (Maryland) to Indianapolis and safety T.J. Ward to the Denver Broncos. But the Browns made some really good moves, replacing Ward with San Francisco's Donte Whitner and Jackson with Arizona's Karlos Dansby. And they managed to keep center Alex Mack.

They signed some good offensive talent in running back Ben Tate out of Houston and Cincinnati receiver Andrew Hawkins, who has a knack for finding creases in a defense after catches. They also signed veteran receiver Nate Burleson from Detroit, who will provide leadership in the locker room.

But it's hard to get excited about the Browns. They fire a coach after one year. They trade top picks in the second season. They couldn't win a division title if they were the only team in it.

So, overall, it appears the Ravens have made up some ground. They still have two major holes — right tackle and free safety — but might be able to fill those in the draft.

The other concern is team chemistry. The Ravens have a new offensive coordinator in Gary Kubiak, who is trying to put a long-ball thrower, Joe Flacco, in the West Coast offense, which is predicated on short passes.

Steve Smith will bring the nasty demeanor to the offense, but how does he jell with Jones, Torrey Smith and Daniels? After perhaps the worst season in his NFL career, can running back Ray Rice return to top form, and will backup Bernard Pierce's shoulder hold up?

Pierce is not the only Raven who remains suspect because of injury. Left guard Kelechi Osemele is returning after back surgery, and right guard Marshal Yanda played poorly a year ago with a damaged shoulder.

There is also the Juan Castillo factor. A year ago, he upset team chemistry by changing the blocking scheme. Will the Ravens stay with those concepts, or has Kubiak changed them? There are just so many factors to clearly say the Ravens have become favorites to win the AFC North again.

But so far, it appears they have closed the gap.