AFC North Preview
In recent years the AFC North has been the most competitive division in the NFL, a trend that is likely to continue in 2016. Cincinnati and Pittsburgh are favorites again but the Baltimore Ravens should also field a competitive team and the Cleveland Browns, while not very good, could surprise some people in Hue Jackson’s first season at the helm. A division known for tough football and fierce rivalries the AFC North is always fun to watch and this year should be no different.
The Bengals have been the best team during the regular season in recent years but have fallen apart in the playoffs. This year’s Bengals team appears poised to make a strong push for a playoff spot again in hopes of closing out a playoff victory, finally. Andy Dalton is a steady presence at quarterback who does a nice job of distributing the ball throughout the offense - which is full of talented players. AJ Green is their most dangerous weapon and one of the best receivers in the game. Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard give the team a nice one two punch in the running game and Tyler Eifert - who is slated to miss the first few games of the season is, like Green, among the best at his position in the NFL. How quickly Eifert gets back and returns to form will be telling for the Bengals. Without Eifert, Cincinnati’s attack can be contained. Defensively the Bengals have a very deep and talented defensive line led by Geno Atkins, one of the best defensive tackles in the game. Karlos Dansby is an excellent veteran acquisition that should help solidify the team against the run. The Bengals are without first round cornerback William Jackson but they have enough depth to cover that loss if they can stay healthy. I expect this team to be 11-5.
The story of the Steelers as of now is the suspensions of their offensive stars Le'Veon Bell and Martavis Bryant. Bell will return after 3 weeks while Bryant will miss the entire season. In both cases the team has adequate backups to cover for the loss. Antonio Brown and Ben Roethlisberger are an exciting tandem and, perhaps, the best tandem in football. With those two on the field the Steelers will be among the most difficult teams to stop. DeAngelo WIlliams played well last season as Bell’s replacement and probably earned some more playing time even with Bell back in the fold. Defensively the placing of Bud Dupree on IR means that the team will have to start 1 linebacker that wasn’t a first round selection in the draft. Linebacker remains a strength in Pittsburgh though which is good because the defensive secondary remains in a period of transition. Artie Burns is an imposing physical specimen but he doesn’t naturally fit the Steelers scheme. It will take him some time to adjust. The steelers are solid at safety but are missing the playmaking spark that they enjoyed from that position for so long. The toughest hurdle for the Steelers this year appears to be their own suspensions, which will hurt them, and likely keep them from winning the division. I expect them to go 10-6.
Baltimore seems primed for a resurgence this year but finding the talent on their roster to make that happen isn’t easy. The Ravens have a lot of veteran players at receiver but no single playmaker is obvious. The running back by committee approach yields the same result upon inspection. Joe Flacco was made the highest paid quarterback in the league for a reason and he’ll need to do a lot with a little this year, although the addition of Ronnie Stanley should stabilize the Ravens offensive line and give him a chance to do just that. The biggest addition to the Ravens defense was safety Eric Weddle, who should help the secondary immensely, as well as impact the running game from his strong safety spot. Pass rushers Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs are a fearsome combination that should produce if they both stay on the field. CJ Mosley is an intelligent player that is always in position and helps ground the defense. The Ravens don’t look great on paper, but they never do. They should be an improved team this year but they still lack the skill position players to make a major leap. I predict they’ll be 7-9, though better than their record indicates.
Another year another regime change in Cleveland. Hopefully this one will stick as Hue Jackson is by far the most experienced and respected hire the team has made at head coach in the last decade. The team invested heavily in its offense in the draft and free agency. Robert Griffin, III is now the Browns quarterback and looks to be closer to his early career form than what he has been in the last few years. He’ll need some help from running backs Duke Johnson and Isaiah Crowell and a rebuilt offensive line that lost the best center in the NFL. Corey Coleman is an explosive playmaker at receiver who will need to get up to speed quickly. Interestingly 4 of the Browns 6 receivers are rookies this year signalling a commitment to both youth and the front office’s commitment to improving through volume. Defensively the Browns lost two of their best players in Tashaun Gibson and Karlos Dansby. Joe Haden returns and the team added some nice talent in the draft but this is a defense without a lot of experience and will likely struggle because of that. I expect Cleveland to surprise someone, maybe the Steelers or Bengals, but ultimately finish no better than 3-13.