The AFC North has provided the scene for some of the most memorable dogfights in recent history. This division has provided the most teams with double digits wins in the league (17 instances vs. the NFC North with 15) and looks to be a two-way battle between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Cincinnati Bengals, with the Baltimore Ravens also looking to shake things up and the Cleveland Browns in rebuild mode as they start the Hue Jackson era.
Here’s how we see things shaping up in the division, in ascending order:
4. Cleveland Browns
Key personnel losses – Alex Mack(C), Mitch Schwartz (OL), Travis Benjamin (WR), Donte Whitner (S) , Karlos Dansby (LB), Johnny Football? (that’s a joke, definitely not a key loss)
Key personnel additions – Robert Griffin (QB), Josh Gordon (WR)
2016 could prove to be a crucial year in the resurgence of the Browns. Or it
could just be another start to a rebuild that does not amount to much. The Browns had a really strong draft by all accounts, and went through an entire offseason without being the butt of all jokes.
It all started at the top, as Paul DePodesta of Moneyball and Red Sox fame joined this lowly franchise to become chief strategist. Given his successful track record, we have reason to believe that the Browns are on the right track.
This Browns roster is chockfull of young talent, but they are still ways a way from a winning record.
With the addition of Robert Griffin III (RG3), I would argue that the Browns have improved across all skill positions versus last season. The receiving core will benefit tremendously from the return of Josh Gordon and the addition of first round pick Corey Coleman. The running back features two of the most dynamic and promising young backs in the game. Duke Johnson is coming off an outstanding rookie season where he ranked top five in receiving grades and missed or eluded tackles. Isaiah Crowell could prove to be the power back in Hue Jackson’s offense.
However, the O-line is probably worse off, as replacing the younger Schwartz brother and Alex Mack at center is a tall order. This may be problematic in a rebuild year with a new QB that needs all the protection he can get.
A ton of talent was added on the defensive side through the draft with additions of Emmanuel Ogbah, Carl Nassib and Scooby Wright. All are highly touted college players who will need time to really make an impact to that defensive front seven.
Forecast: Essentially there is a lot of rebuilding underway in Cleveland, and although they may (finally) be on the right path, I don’t see the Browns going better than 5-11 and finishing last in the AFC North. Change doesn’t come overnight.
3. Baltimore Ravens
Key Losses: Keleche Osemele (OL), Eugene Monroe (LT), C. Upshaw (LB), Will Hill (S)
Key Additions: Eric Weddle (S) Mike Wallace (WR)
It is tempting to judge the 2016 Baltimore Ravens on the merits of the team that won the Super Bowl three years ago and has had a dominating defense for the past decade. However, Ed Reed and Ray Lewis aren’t walking through that tunnel anymore and we don’t know when Terrell Suggs (T Sizzle!) will put the pads on.
The Ravens also lost one of the best left tackles in the league and have addressed that loss through the draft, hoping to plug in Ronnie Staley at LT without any significant regressions. Whether elite or not, having Joe Flacco at QB gives Baltimore a measure of stability, and combined with the return of ol’ man Steve Smith, second year receiver Brashad Perriman, and the addition of Mike Wallace, it should provide for a significant improvement in the passing game over 2015.
On the defensive side, the Ravens are asking corner Ladarius Webb to move to safety, have added Eric Weddle into the mix and are hoping Jimmy Smith stays healthy. A key factor will be the development of third year players Timmy Jernigan and CJ Moseley, as the front seven-ranked 19th in the league, a far cry from the Super Bowl winning defense.
Forecast: If the pieces fall in place and the Ravens don’t go through the same high level of season ending injuries as last year, I can see this team winning seven, maybe 8 games. As it stands, there are too many concerns over a roster that seems to be lacking playmakers on both sides of the ball to project them better than 7-9 and 3rd in the AFC North.
2. Pittsburgh Steelers
Key personnel losses: Heath Miller (TE), K. Beachum (OL), Will Allen (S)
Key additions: Ladarius Green (TE), Ryan Harris (OL)
Stability and minor roster tweaking is the modus operandum in Steel City. When you boast the league’s top running game, the top wide receiver in the league and 3rd rated QB, this is probably the right approach. Questions remain about Pittsburgh’s defense, where the secondary ranked 21st in the league and the front seven 25th. The defense clearly needs to be addressed if the Steelers are to challenge for the AFC title. As it stands, they have looked to address the areas of needs through the draft, picking Artie Burns at corner and are hoping that young players such as Bud Dupree and Jarvis Jones make a jump in their second year. The linebacker core has missed tackles at an alarming rate, causing that unit to rank 25th last year, according to Pro Football Focus.
Then there is the suspension to LeVeon Bell. Although reduced to “only” three games, questions remain about a running back that has cost himself millions of dollars by repeatedly prioritizing the wrong kind of green. The 2015 Steelers were able to put together a remarkable season despite injuries to Big Ben and Leveon Bell. With a healthy returning core and another year of the defensive unit working together with second year defensive coordinator Kevin Butler, there is reason to be optimistic. Will they have enough to win the division? If they stay healthy and the defense improves, they should. However, those are two big “ifs”. As it stands, I like the Steelers as a Wild Card at 11-5.
Which brings us to the…
1. Cincinnati Bengals
Key personnel losses: Marvin Jones (WR), Mohammed Sanu (WR), Reggie Nelson (S), Andre Smith (RT)
Key additions: Brandon Lafell (WR), Tyler Boyd (WR)
On paper it looks like the Bengals offseason resulted in zero value added at key positions. However, the 2015 Andre Smith is not the 2012 Andre Smith and Reggie Nelson’s departure could be supplanted by a healthy Darqueze Dennard (2014 first round pick) along with George Iloka. The secondary ranked 11th last year and it should be in fine shape going into 2016. The Bengals boasted the league’s 4th ranked offensive line in terms of efficiency. With a solid young running back duo, and a still-young Andy Dalton coming off his best career year ever, the only questions are around the receiving core depth, with a steep drop-off in quality after Pro Bowler AJ Green.
Forecast: However, it will be the defensive unit that will ultimately provide the Bengals with the edge in this division. If they can get through the first three games relatively unscathed (Jets, Broncos, Steelers), they will be getting back linebacker Vontaze Burfict and be poised for another double digit win season. Admittedly picking the Bengals in the AFC North requires a leap of faith, but when all is said and done I believe they will be atop the division come January.
What do you think? Who do you feel will win the AFC North?