Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
I'm going to let the AFC North community in on a little secret: The NFL writers at ESPN.com turned in our first power rankings for the 2009 season.
Sure, it's May, and a lot can change between now and training camp. But with 90 percent of the rosters pretty much finalized, ESPN.com thought it would be great to give football fans an idea of where your teams stand heading into the summer.
The full results are still being tabulated in Bristol, Conn. and won't be finalized until early next week. But here is how I ranked the four AFC North teams:
My ranking: No. 1
Why: I'm not the type of voter who always believes the defending Super Bowl champion automatically deserves the top spot the following season. But in my mind, the Steelers earned this No. 1 vote. They kept last season's title team together and return 20-of-22 starters. Players who were banged up last season are once again healthy, and the team will have a much easier strength of schedule this year (from No. 1 to No. 29). I think the Steelers are in a great position to defend their title, much better than they were in 2006.
My ranking: No. 7
Why: The Ravens were a hard team to gauge in these power rankings. They lost a lot of talent this offseason (Bart Scott, Jason Brown, Chris McAlister, Jim Leonhard, Willie Anderson), but also gained a lot of talent in return (Domonique Foxworth, Matt Birk, Michael Oher, Chris Carr, L.J. Smith). Trying to gauge how well all these new pieces fit before playing their first game in Baltimore is a difficult task. But from what I saw from second-year quarterback Joe Flacco this offseason and assuming the defense remains elite, the Ravens are once again looking good and worthy of a No. 7 ranking. I won't get into the six teams I ranked ahead of Baltimore and why. I will leave some suspense for next week.
My ranking: No. 19
Why: There is no secret that I like the Bengals as a potential NFL sleeper, which is why I'm guessing that I have Cincinnati ranked higher than most on our panel. Of the few power rankings I've seen, the Bengals were somewhere in the mid-to-high 20s, which is about where they finished in our rankings last season. It is well-documented that Cincinnati added a lot of talented players via the draft and free agency. But I still question if this team is good enough and tough enough to beat Pittsburgh and Baltimore four times a year, which ultimately will determine how far the 2009 Bengals go. Right now, my ranking at No. 19 is good enough to where it recognizes the Bengals' improvements but doesn't go overboard without them first earning respect on the football field.
My ranking: No. 29
Why: The Browns have too many lingering questions for my liking, which is why I ranked them fourth from the bottom in the NFL. Who's the quarterback? Who's the No. 2 receiver? Will Braylon Edwards bounce back? What's the deal with Joshua Cribbs? Can coach Eric Mangini build a solid defense? Can the Browns beat Pittsburgh and Baltimore? I do think the Browns have a chance to be in a lot of close games, especially if they play smart and mistake free like Mangini wants. I'm just not sure they can win a majority of them. Talent counts for a lot in the NFL, and when I compare Cleveland's roster next to other teams, the Browns are going to be outmanned more often than not.
Do you agree or disagree with the early rankings? Sound off in the comment section or in the AFC North inbox.