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AFC North Preview

 

The AFC North is one of two divisions that has multiple teams with new coaching staffs. Cleveland and Cincinnati each hired new coaches while the Steelers and Baltimore’s Superbowl winning regimes will get at least one more shot. The North feels like it’s going to be competitive this season. While the Bengals might not be a very good team, the Steelers, Ravens and Browns all look capable of being in contention for the playoffs at the end of the year.

 

Baltimore Ravens

 

New Faces: Rb Mark Ingram, WR’s Willie Snead, Seth Roberts, Myles Boykin, Marquise Brown, FS Earl Thomas, OLB Pernell McPhee; Baltimore has a brand new receiving corps and finally invested in a premium running back in the free agency market after years of trying to develop late round draft choices. Earl Thomas will be an immediate leader for a defense that has lost all of their veteran leaders from just a few seasons ago, as will Pernell McPhee.

 

Offensive Outlook: Clearly the Ravens realized that transitioning to Lamar Jackson required an upgrade in the skill position players around him. Marquise Brown is an explosive player that should be fun to watch operate from the slot. Boykin and Roberts are larger possession type receivers who should work well with the tight end tandem of Hearst and Andrew to give Jackson some options. Mark Ingram is the first NFL caliber back the Ravens have had since Ray Rice was forced to retire. Jackson and Ingram should combine to give the Ravens an effective rushing attack.

 

Defensive Outlook: Exit Terrell Suggs, CJ Mosely, and Eric Waddel, the last remnants of a once great defense. In are Earl Thomas and Pernell McPhee. Thomas stabilizes the middle of a solid secondary while McPhee adds some experience to a young front seven. Expect some growing pains as a defense that will be counting on young, blue collar players is asked to keep pace with the deeper offensive teams in the division.

 

Overall Prediction: The Ravens will play a ball control offense that prioritizes field position and possession. Jackson will make enough big plays to keep teams honest but there isn’t really any star power on this team outside of maybe Thomas. They’ll be a tough opponent but ultimately win between 7-9 games.

 

Cincinnati Bengals

 

New Faces: OG John Miller, OL Jonah Miller; Miller was selected to play left tackle, though his best long term position is most likely guard. Unfortunately he’ll miss the season with an offseason injury. Miller was signed and immediately penciled in as a starter.

 

Offensive Outlook: One would expect Zac Taylor to be able to use the array of offensive weapons at his disposal.This could ifnally be Joe Mixon’s break out season and AJ Green Ty Boyd and John Ross could be a very difficult trio for opposing teams, assuming they can keep Dalton upright.

 

Defensive Outlook: The Bengals have spent a lot of draft capital improving the edge of their defense in recent years and they have the depth at corner back and end to show for it. Unfortunately the middle of their defense is average at best. Without Marvin Lewis overseeing the operation I wonder how effective they will be.

 

Overall Prediction: This has been a short write up because there isn’t much to write about. The only major addition is out for the year and the Bengals weren’t good to begin with. They should be in a good spot to draft a top quarterback next year though. I expect them to finish under four wins.

 

 

Cleveland Browns

 

New Faces: WR Odell Beckham, DT Sheldon Richardson, CB Greedy Williams, LB Mack Wilson; I’m listing Wilson here because I expect him to push for a starting position this season. He was a very good player on an Alabama team that underwhelmed in his workouts. Sheldon Richardson is one of the more underrated defensive tackles in the league. He can still dominate and was a huge score for Ken Dorsey. Beckham is the big get, obviously.

 

Offensive Outlook: Baker Mayfield has two very good running backs, perhaps the best receiver in football, another top thirty receiver and a young up and comer a tight end. What he doesn’t have is a great offensive line but the Browns are counting on the fat that Mayfield’s relationship with Freddie Kitchens will lift the team to new heights. I’m not buying it, but I think this offense will be very good.

 

Defensive Outlook: There’s plenty of talent here. Williams will start by season’s end opposite Ward. Losing Peppers shouldn’t hurt the defense much. Sheldon Richardson is the guy that could make or break the Browns season. If he can reach the peak of his game, when he can be dominating, then the Browns will have a difficult front seven to contend with. Their secondary is talented, if not deep, and having Richardson get penetration on the inside while Garrett sweeps around the end will make this defense much better.

 

Overall Prediction: I’m more bearish on Cleveland than everyone else, though that’s mostly because I question the coaching. I expect them to win around ten games and compete for the divisional title with the Steelers.

 

 

Pittsburgh Steelers

 

New Faces: LB Devin Bush, LB Mark Barron, WR Donte Moncrief, WR Ryan Switzer; Moncrief and Switzer will serve as competition for James Washington who needs to emerge into Smith-Schusters role from last season. Bush and Barron are both undersized inside linebackers that play with speed, something the Steelers sorely needed.

 

Offensive Outlook: The Steeler lost Antonio Brown and LeVeon Bell, two of the best skill players in football, but it might be addition by subtraction in both cases. James Conner was more than adequate as a replacement for Bell last season and Brown simply wore out his welcome when he quit on the team in week seventeen last year. Giving Rothlisberger a platoon to replace Bell is probably the best plan since Smith-Schuster is ready to be a number one receiver.

 

Defensive Outlook: The Steelers defense is always solid only now they hope it has the linebacking corps that it runs off of. The secondary is still a huge question mark but Devin Bush brings an explosiveness that the Steelers desperately need. The line is 7 deep with blue collar lunch pail guys that will free up TJ Watt and Bud Dupree to get after quarterback. I expect the Steelers defense to rebound this year.

 

Overall Prediction: Cleveland is the sexy pick this year but a renewed and refreshed Ben Rothlisberger, along with the defensive improvements and James Conner make the Steelers a formidable and experienced force in the division. Ultimately I think their experience will help them edge out the division title from Cleveland with the same wins.

 

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