AFC North Season Preview

AFC North Season Preview
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You made it!


You survived the offseason.  You kicked, screamed and tried desperate measures such as the World Cup and the NBA to fill the existential void in your life.  Some of you even delved into hockey just for the sheer violence.  Or you resorted to heavy drinking, binge eating or television, because that’s most certainly out of the norm for you…isn’t it?


But it’s not football.  Nope.


The AFC North begins its 2018 season this Sunday with no shortage of typical, and in some cases league-induced drama.  While the NFL seems determined to continually shoot itself in the foot regarding a new “anthem” policy, fans are becoming indifferent/inured to the issue, and recent polls show they would encouragingly rather focus on the on-field product.  The concussion concerns that have plagued the league for the better part of a decade had faded slightly into the background, but the NFL’s dogged pursuit of a legislative, referee-driven tackling solution has served to revive it, much to the consternation of fans and players, who simply want to see consistency.  Domestic abuse cases have placed the NFL under intense scrutiny, also because of a lack of consistency in their punitive rulings.


But really, why should this offseason be any different?


Overall, the AFC North enjoyed a relatively quiet offseason, with the Cleveland Browns garnering the majority of the headlines; first with their initial time-will-tell selection of Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield, then with their appearance on HBO’s “Hard Knocks”.  The rest of the division appeared to welcome a relief from the spotlight; aside from a few injuries (fortunately not to many starting players), each team is positioned well to be competitive…with perspective, of course.


That said, football’s almost back!  Enjoy our AFC North preview.


Cleveland Browns

As mentioned above, the Browns had by most measures a busy offseason; this time driven by recently-acquired general manager John Dorsey, whose old school, “gut-driven” approach seemed to be a direct contradiction to the statistically-based decisions made by predecessor Sashi Brown.  The majority of the Browns’ draft picks made sense and filled obvious needs (with the possible exception of CB Denzel Ward at #4 overall; secondary depth didn’t appear to be an issue).


Offensively, the Browns have clearly improved.  Their free agent pickups, highlighted by wideout Jarvis Landry and quarterback Tyrod Taylor, again addressed needs, and Taylor provides them with a degree of consistency at quarterback not seen in Cleveland since the last days of Vinny Testeverde, while laying the groundwork for the eventual succession of Mayfield to the starting role.  Running backs Duke Johnson and Nick Chubb supply good depth and versatility, while Landry, oft-troubled wideout Josh Gordon and tight end David Njoku represent an upgraded receiving corps for Taylor.


The Browns’ defense is their strongest collective attribute, beginning with defensive end Myles Garrett, who with improved health should be the best pass rusher the Browns have fielded in years.  The aforementioned Ward will see a chance to start immediately alongside second-year safety Jabrill Peppers, who gets an opportunity to prove his immense physical talent can be used more effectively.


My guess:  5-6 wins.  The Browns have improved, yes, but this is still not a complete roster, and there’s simply too much uncertainty in several places, particularly on offense.


Cincinnati Bengals

The Bengals enjoyed a quiet offseason, making many “under the radar” moves that bolstered the roster and added adequate depth, especially to the offensive line, arguably the team’s biggest weakness in 2017.


Ohio State center Billy Price, the Bengals’ first draft selection, will start immediately while free agent tackle Cordy Glenn assumes duties on the left side, as the prevailing feeling is that quarterback Andy Dalton’s struggles in 2017 were due in no small part to a lack of adequate protection.  Improved line play is also expected to free up second-year running back Joe Mixon to showcase his excellent speed.  Starting wideouts A.J. Green and Tyler Boyd appear primed for big years, while slot wideout John Ross is looking to establish himself after a disappointing rookie campaign.  Tight end Tyler Eifert enters the season with the same nagging question:  Can he stay healthy?


The Bengals’ defensive roster underwent little change in the offseason, although the team jettisoned veteran players in the mode of cornerback Adam Jones and safety George Iloka.  The Bengals field an excellent pass rushing front four; expect an even distribution of sacks and tackles among holdover ends Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap, and most feel tackle Geno Atkins will quietly amass another Pro Bowl season.  A possible breakout candidate is cornerback William Jackson III, whose flashes of ability may come together this year to produce a memorable season.


My guess:  7-9 wins.  This is an unpredictable bunch, with enough talent to compete, but also with a maddening tendency to do the worst thing at the worst time.  If head coach Marvin Lewis produces another “clunker”, will we have seen the last of him in Cincinnati?


Baltimore Ravens

General manager Ozzie Newsome has proclaimed this to be his last season in his current role, and he’s shown no fear of making controversial player selections in the hopes of establishing a talent base to serve the team for several years.  As a result, the Ravens will depend on several new and youthful options in 2018, especially on offense.


Exciting, talented, erratic, and undisciplined are all adjectives that appropriately describe rookie first-round quarterback Lamar Jackson (Louisville), whose up-and-down preseason indicated that he’s simply not ready to start at the NFL level.  The Ravens will try to coax a last productive year out of incumbent quarterback Joe Flacco before his salary enables them to drop him cleanly, allowing Jackson to learn by watching – a rare occasion in today’s NFL.  Flacco’s revamped receiving corps includes free agent pickups Michael Crabtree, John Brown, Willie Snead and rookie tight end Hayden Hurst, who, although sidelined by injury for the first three or four weeks, is expected to have a positive impact as soon as he reaches the field.


The Ravens don’t look overwhelmingly different on defense, as they’ll field roughly the same line and secondary as 2017, and most of the same linebackers.  Expect second year cornerback Marlon Humphery to take a more active role as the team weathers a four-game suspension for troubled corner Jimmy Smith, who may well have sealed his offseason fate with his latest transgression.  Third-year linebacker and special teams standout Patrick Onwuasor will finally get a chance to play alongside Pro Bowler C.J. Mosley, although most likely in a platoon situation with rookie Kenny Young.


My guess: 7-9 wins.  Another year of Flacco means another year of offensive uncertainty in Baltimore.  While the defense should carry the team for the most part, any postseason hopes lie solely with the aging and inconsistent quarterback, who gets one last chance to prove he’s “elite”.


Pittsburgh Steelers

We last saw the Steelers in 2017 being victimized by poor officiating, but also by their own play selection gaffes, resulting in the (mutual?) departure of offensive coordinator Todd Haley.  While the offense isn’t expected to change scheme much, the defense remains a work in progress.  The Steelers made defensive upgrades such as their draft position and salary cap constraints would allow.


On offense, the Steelers managed to outfox the Raiders into trading a third round pick for problem wideout Martavis Bryant, who was subsequently cut due to poor performance (or an unrevealed “strike three” drug policy infraction, which has yet to be denied publicly).  With second-year wideout JuJu Smith-Schuster and rookie James Washington, the Steelers should see little dropoff in production, if any.  As of this writing, running back Le’Veon Bell had failed to report to the team, so it’s possible the team will be forced to go with second-year back James Connor, at least initially.  Tight end remains problematic, especially with a recent injury to presumed starter Vance McDonald.


The defense, while possessing some star power, is still in need of an adequate replacement for departed linebacker Ryan Shazier, whose absence caused substantial problems in the playoffs in 2017.  Holdover Vince Williams provides solid tackling and awareness, but the gaping hole next him, expected to be filled by committee and aggressive safety play, remains formidable.  Outside linebacker T.J. Watt is primed for an excellent year, providing he receives sufficient blocking support from the defensive line.  The secondary and linebacking corps may or may not have improved with the addition of Virginia Tech rookie safety Terrell Edmunds, whose role has yet to be fully defined.


My guess: 9-11 wins.  Even without Bell, there’s enough offensive firepower to secure a playoff berth, but how far the team progresses once they get there is up to the defense, which has to define some level of consistency if a championship is even to be considered.


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