NFL Previews and Predictions: AFC North

We are less than a month away from regular season football! With the season upon us, it’s time to get serious, and start closely examing every team’s outlook for the upcoming season. We’ll be going division by division, predicting standings while deep-diving into each team’s roster. The AFC North is a very complex division, as it’s unclear what each team will be this season. Can the Steelers overcome their losses? Can the Browns live up to the hype? Can Lamar Jackson lead the Ravens to the playoffs? What will new head coach Zac Taylor bring to the Bengals? Let’s discuss.

First Place: Pittsburgh Steelers

steelers
Photo Cred: 247 Sports

Record Prediction: 12-4 

Best Case: 14-2

Worst Case: 9-7

Power Ranking: 9th

Offense Ranking: 7th

Defense Ranking: 22nd

Initial Thoughts: Despite the losses of Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell, the Steelers still remain the class of the AFC North, especially after a very strong draft.

Offense: For the Steelers, it all starts with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Though he doesn’t have the week-to-week consistency, he’s been a top-ten quarterback for more than a decade. Turnovers will always be an issue for him, but what he brings to the vertical passing game will always give this offense a high upside. Losing Brown is definitely going to hurt in that regard, especially since receiver Juju Smith Schuster no longer will have the luxury of avoiding attention from the defense. Therefore, it’ll be up to James Washington, Donte Moncrief, and third-round pick Dionte Johnson to emerge as a playmaker in this offense, while tight end Vance McDonald is always a threat thanks to his elite run after catch ability. Then, there’s the offensive line, which remains elite, and in my opinion, the best in all of football. They’ll protect Roethlisberger tremendously, and will also continue to open up running lanes for James Conner, meaning this should be a  balanced and well-executed offense in theory. They’re a fringe top-ten offense at the moment, but if someone steps up opposite of Smith-Schuster, this certainly will be a top-five offense.

Defense: Though their ranking as a bottom-ten defense wouldn’t support this statement, but there is some reason to be encouraged by this defense. The team still has an elite defensive line, as Cameron Heyward and Stephon are more than just typical run defenders; they’re also decent pass rushers. Meanwhile, TJ Watt has emerged as a productive edge rusher, while Bud Dupree is fine, although neither are as terrific as their numbers would suggest. The big reason for optimism is with the addition of linebacker Devin Bush gives them much-needed athleticism, as well as sideline to sideline tackling and coverage ability. However, the secondary still leaves much to be desired. The addition of cornerback Steven Nelson will help, but at 30-years-old, Joe Haden can no longer be counted on to cover #1 wide receivers, and after Nelson and Haden, there isn’t a lot of cornerback depth. Furthermore, Sean Davis and Terrell Edmunds aren’t exactly the most inspiring safety duo. This should be a very solid front seven, but there are certainly are major concerns with the back-end of the defense.

Final Thoughts: Playing into the Steelers’ high predicted win total is their rather easy schedule. They face most of their difficult opponents, such as the Rams and Colts, at home, should beat up on Baltimore and Cincinnati, and also should theoretically get three extra wins against the three non-Patriots in the AFC East. The defense is improved from last year, though not ideal, but with an experienced top-ten quarterback in Roethlisberger, and plenty of talent on both sides of the ball, they remain the top team in the AFC North.

Second Place: Cleveland Browns

browns
Photo Cred: Washington Post

Record Prediction: 11-5

Best Case: 14-2

Worst Case: 6-10

Power Ranking: 13th

Offense Ranking: 13th

Defense Ranking: 12th

Initial Thoughts: No team has been more hyped up this offseason than the Cleveland Browns. While they may not be the blue-chip Super Bowl contender many are expecting them to be, they are a legitimate playoff contender and a threat to take over this division.

Offense: In the second half of the season, the Browns were a completely different offense. Though quarterback Baker Mayfield’s progression was part of the reason, the switch to Freddie Kitchens as the play-caller clearly gave the offense a new life. Now, Kitchens is the head coach, which should certainly help Mayfield’s development. It’s not as though the 2018 first overall pick has a shortage of weapons around him. The addition of star receiver Odell Beckham Jr. gives Mayfield an elite downfield weapon that he didn’t have last year, which gives this offense a ceiling that is through the roof. Jarvis Landry may be overpaid, but he’s still a nice slot receiver, and tight end David Njoku is an athletic freak at tight end. The running back duo of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt will also be elite once Hunt returns from his eight-game suspension, and Chubb is more than capable of being the workhorse for this team until the two can form a formidable duo. The offensive line is a major question mark, as the team traded guard Kevin Zeitler, dealt with zero injuries last year, and has a rather weak tackle duo of Greg Robinson and Chris Hubbard. That could hamper the unit’s overall production this season, though the overall talent will be able to overcome those issues, and if the offensive line performs well again, this offense will be borderline unstoppable.’

Defense: The offense wasn’t the only unit of this team that general manager John Dorsey tried to upgrade significantly this offseason; he acquired edge rusher Oliver Vernon to help the pass rush,  signed defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson to boost the defensive line, and drafted cornerback Greedy Williams to add to the secondary. There’s no doubt that Vernon is a quality #2 pass rusher, and he could thrive playing alongside a dynamic superstar pass rusher in Myles Garrett, who is a darkhorse pick to win defensive player of the year this season. Meanwhile, Richardson, along with Larry Ogunjobi, should boost the team’s run defense, for whatever that’s worth. Then comes Williams, who is the X-Factor of this entire defense; Denzel Ward was a star cornerback as a rookie, and should get even better this season, but the team could use another top-notch cornerback, and that’s what Williams has the potential to become right away. The linebackers are a concern, as Christian Kirksey is mediocre and Joe Schobert can sometimes struggle in coverage, while strong safety opposite of Damarious Randall since Morgan Burnett was awful for the Steelers last season. Still, this has the potential to be a terrific pass rush with two tremendous, athletic cornerbacks, and that’s something few teams can say.

Final Thoughts: The Browns are not a team without flaws, specifically at linebacker and offensive line. Still, the back-end of their schedule is very favorable, they have plenty of stars on both sides of the football, and a quarterback in Mayfield who could be seen as a top ten, or even top-five quarterback by the end of the year. Needless to say, these aren’t your old Browns.

Third Place: Cincinnati Bengals

mixon
Photo Cred: Cincy Jungle

Record Prediction: 5-11

Best Case: 8-8

Worst Case: 1-15

Power Ranking: 29th

Offense Ranking: 27th

Defense Ranking: 28th

Initial Thoughts: At one point, the Bengals looked like a darkhorse playoff contender, especially with the hiring of head coach Zac Taylor. However, recent injuries have crippled the team, and this now looks to be a lost season for the team.

Offense: The hiring of Taylor should at least makes this offense more exciting, with his Rams’-style offensive scheme that he’ll likely bring in after being the QB coach there under Sean McVay. In terms of skill position player talent, there actually are some pieces for him to work with. Tyler Boyd took a huge step forward last season and is now a high-end #2 receiver, while AJ Green remains a consistent force for them as well. However, Green will miss the beginning of the season with an ankle injury, so unless former first-round pick Joh Ross or slot receiver Alex Erickson steps up, there won’t be a lot for quarterback Andy Dalton to work with. Plus, while Joe Mixon is emerging as one of the better young running backs in football, it’s going to be hard to establish any sort of running game behind one of the league’s worst offensive lines. Then, there’s Dalton himself, who’s an average at best quarterback. He’s clearly a placeholder until the team can find an adequate replacement through the draft, and with little time to throw this season and Green already hurt, expect him to have a down year this season and put them in the running for the likes of Tua Tagovailoa, Justin Herbert, and Jake Fromm.

Defense: Like the offense, the defense has some solid players to build around. Cornerback William Jackson continues to grow, safety Jessie Bates has already become an above-average free safety, and the pass rush is solid with the likes of Carlos Dunlap and Carl Lawson on the edge to go along with Geno Atkins on the interior. However, those five have little talent around him. There are some run-stuffing players on the interior, but the linebackers are an absolute liability, especially in coverage. Plus, outside of Jackson and Bates, only slot corner Darqueze Dennard garners a lot of optimism in the secondary. This is simply an unathletic defense that lacks much talent; it’s without a doubt a bottom-five defense.

Final Thoughts: A new coaching staff automatically makes this team more exciting than year’s past. However, with Green and first-round pick Jonah Williams (offensive tackle) hurt, this new staff will have their work cut out for them if they want to be competitive this season.

Fourth Place: Baltimore Ravens

ravens
Photo Cred: Pennlive.com

Record Prediction: 4-12

Best Case: 7-9

Worst Case: 0-16

Power Ranking: 28th

Offense Ranking: 29th

Defense Ranking: 23rd

Initial Thoughts: After switching to quarterback Lamar Jackson in Week 11 last year, the Ravens made a late surge to make the playoffs. However, the gimmicky style offense that worked with Jackson last season won’t likely work again, and with several losses on the defense, this team is more likely to compete for #1 overall pick than a playoff spot.

Offense: How the Ravens fare on offense this season will all come down to Jackson. The 2018 first-round pick had serious problems with accuracy last season; he was a liability as a passer. There’s a chance he can improve this season, but his issues are so severe, that it’s unclear if he’ll ever be accurate enough to lead a winning NFL team. It’s not as though he has a world-class receiving core; first-round pick Marquise Brown could be an elite deep-ball threat, but Jackson isn’t the ideal quarterback to maximize on that, and Seth Roberts and Willie Snead aren’t exactly great complementary options. Mark Andrews is a solid tight end that formed a great connection with Jackson last year, but he’s not enough to help elevate this passing offense. The running game should be strong, as Mark Ingram, Justice Hill, Kenneth Dixon, and Gus Edwards are a great committee, while the offensive line is great in terms of power run-blocking. Still, we live in an era dominated by passing offenses, and since Baltimore should easily rank as the worst passing offense this season, this unit probably shouldn’t be taken seriously as any sort of threat this season.

Defense: Last season, the Ravens had arguably the best defense in football, which is why they ended up making the playoffs. However, they lost edge rushers Za’Darius Smith and Terrell Suggs, free safety Eric Weddle, and linebacker CJ Moseley in just ONE offseason. Now, this is a defense without a true identity, and the unit should take a major step back in 2019. Yes, the secondary is extremely strong; free-agent acquisition Earl Thomas is an upgrade over Weddle, Tony Jefferson is a nice strong safety, and the cornerback depth, including a true #1 corner in Marlon Humphrey, is a strength. However, that’s about all Baltimore has going for them. After losing Smith and Suggs, it’ll be up to Matthew Judon, Pernell McPhee, and third-round pick Jaylon Ferguson to provide the pass rush, which isn’t ideal. In addition, the linebacking core of Kenny Young, Patrick Onwuasor, and Chris board is certainly not a strength, and could turn out to be a liability. This is a team that has pumped tremendous defenses year after year, but this looks to be the year where that trend comes to an end.

Final Thoughts: There’s almost no hope for the Ravens offense, who should have close to zero passing game, and a running game that isn’t good enough to carry the load. Plus, without a top defense to rely on, it’s unclear how they’ll win games in 2019. This has the makings of a rough season for a usually successful franchise.

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