The Baltimore Ravens’ signing of Jeremy Maclin adds yet another layer to the already loaded division in the AFC North. The Steelers have one of the top offenses in the league. The Ravens shored up a huge need with the re-signing of defensive lineman Brandon Williams and safety Tony Jefferson. The Bengals drafted a promising second receiver in John Ross and will have a healthy defense again. And the Browns have three promising first round picks to build around. So let’s take a look at how the AFC North could pan out this upcoming season.
Pittsburgh Steelers: 1st place
Best positions: Quarterback and Running Back
The Steelers will always be the favorite to win the division as long as Ben Roethlisberger is under center. Pittsburgh has made the playoffs nine years out of his twelve-year career and this is arguably the best offense he has ever had around him. Antonio Brown is one of the best receivers in the league, Martavis Bryant will return from his year-long suspension and second round pick JuJu Smith-Schuster adds more speed to a corps already boasting it with Darrius Heyward-Bey. Pittsburgh also found depth behind elite running back LeVeon Bell with third-round pick James Conner. The depth and talent on offense that the Steelers enjoy are easily the best in the division and arguably the entire league.
Weaknesses: Cornerback and outside linebacker
The secondary is without a doubt the Steelers biggest question mark heading into the 2017 season. They retained starters Artie Burns and Ross Cockrell at cornerback but they’re the same starters who led Pittsburg to rank 16th in the league last year in pass yards allowed per game and allowed Tom Brady to pass for just under 400 yards in the AFC Championship game. Depth is also a concern as William Gay, Coty Sensabaugh and rookie Cameron Sutton do not count as reliable backups.
Outside linebacker is a weakness that the Steelers did a lot to address during the offseason thus far. Bud Dupree showed promise after coming off the injured reserve in week 11 last year, and first-round pick T.J. Watt will be groomed to replace the 39-year-old James Harrison, should he ever decide to finally retire. So while it does look like Pittsburgh has done enough to plug this hole, it is still a fairly large question mark.
Cincinnati Bengals: 2nd place
Best positions in the division: Defensive line, tight end, and wide receiver
To be honest, it’s a tossup between the Ravens and Bengals for second place in the division as both have glaring weaknesses but also huge advantages in certain areas. One of those areas for Cincinnati is defensive line. As I wrote in a piece on how the Jets should rebuild, one of the biggest priorities for NFL teams is defending against the pass and that depends hugely on the pass rush. The Bengals boast a great defensive line with Pro Bowlers Geno Atkins at defensive tackle and Carlos Dunlap at defensive end. While Michael Johnson and Pat Sims aren’t phenomenal players, they are solid starters who do their jobs, just nothing more.
The fact that the Bengals rank so high at receiver a year after losing their number two and number three receiver in free agency is nothing short of amazing. A.J. Green has been an elite receiver since the day he stepped foot in the NFL and Brandon LaFell had his second-best year as a pro in his first year as a Bengal posting just under 1,000 yards and six touchdowns. Rookie John Ross was a valuable pickup at the ninth spot in the first round to complete a successful rebuilding of the wide receiver corps. Former first round pick Tyler Boyd had a solid first year in the pros and will look to continue that to add some depth as well.
Weaknesses: Outside linebacker and offensive line
While the Bengals boast one of the best outside linebackers in today’s league in Vontaze Burfict, they don’t really have much else opposite of him. Barring any last-minute signing or trade, Cincinnati will either start former sixth-round pick Marquis Flowers who only has 15 tackles in three years of play or second-year man Nick Vigil who is equally unproven. So while their defense is all-around proven, that one position is a huge hole without any immediate solution.
Much like how they lost two good starters at receiver last offseason, the Bengals offensive line saw two Pro Bowlers leave via free agency this offseason in Andrew Whitworth who left for Los Angeles and Kevin Zeitler for Cleveland. While they still have guard Clint Boling, the Bengals will be starting three questionable-at-best players at both tackle positions, center, and right guard. Protecting Andy Dalton will be a huge concern for the Bengals this season.
Baltimore Ravens: 3rd place
Best positions in the division: Linebacker and safety
The Ravens lost a lot in the offseason including star cornerback Lardarius Webb, defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan, and center Jeremy Zuttah, but they retained one of the more talented linebacker corps in the league. C.J. Mosley has proven himself to be one of the best inside linebackers in the game after being drafted in the second round a few years ago while Terrell Suggs remains ageless as he finished last year with eight sacks. The loss of Elvis Dumervil would’ve hurt this ranking but GM Ozzie Newsome did a fantastic job of filling that hole with promising rookies Tim Williams and Tyus Bowser. Two promising early-round picks to fill a roster hole is an impressive accomplishment for any team.
Matt Elam was another huge loss for the Ravens in free agency but they accomplished another rare feat in finding an upgrade at safety in free agent Tony Jefferson. He was one of the rare bright points in an Arizona secondary that struggled in 2016 and so Baltimore landing him creates one of the better, if not best, safety tandems in the league with him and Eric Weddle. Despite his age, Weddle is still one of the best ball hawk safeties in the league, notching his second best career year in interceptions last year.
Weaknesses: Offensive line and defensive line
Not being able to rush the passer is bad enough but not being able to protect him as well is as close to disaster scenario as a team can get. It’s exactly the reason I have the Bengals finishing above the Ravens in the division. If Joe Flacco spends the entire season on his back and the opposing quarterback spends the season enjoying his time in the pocket, the Ravens will find winning games surprisingly difficult.
In terms of offensive line, the Ravens were forced to trade away center Jeremy Zuttah to save cap space and lost tackle Ricky Wagner in free agency to the Lions. Replacements James Hurst and John Urschel are largely unproven and therefore the offensive line is a huge concern for them. On the defensive side, the re-signing of Brandon Williams is one that garnered universal praise and rightfully so but unfortunately, both the end positions are extremely questionable. Both positions are in open competition with rookie Chris Wormley and last year’s third-round pick Bronson Kaufusi who was placed on the IR during the preseason last year. Willie Henry and Brent Urban are also in the running but with three career sacks between the two of them, it’s doubtful either one will win the job. Inexperience at both defensive end positions is always a huge concern for a team.
Cleveland Browns: 4th place
Best positions in the division: Offensive Line
As brutal as it sounds, the Browns only have one position group that clearly outweigh the competition in the AFC North. Their offensive line is their best asset with longtime tackle Joe Thomas continuing to be a team leader and new acquisition Kevin Zeitler completing what is one of the better guard duos in the league with Joel Bitonio. Meanwhile, center J.C. Tretter and right tackle Cameron Erving are solid players.
The receiving core is the definition of solid and nothing more. Receiver Corey Coleman showed promise in his rookie season despite missing six games due to injury and Kenny Britt has made a good career of being a number two receiver. The Browns will without a doubt miss Terrelle Pryor.
The Defensive line is another strong point for the Browns, especially with defensive tackle Danny Shelton but with Myles Garrett still unproven, it’s hard to rank it above any other ones in the division.
Weaknesses: Quarterback and safety
As is the now-normal situation in Cleveland, quarterback is the biggest question mark headed into the season. After a controversial trade for Brock Osweiler, the Browns drafted Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer. This leaves those two competing with second-year players Kevin Hogan and Cody Kessler for the starting job at the beginning of the season. Chances are, however, whoever ends up starting the season probably won’t be the one finishing it. It may be another year before Cleveland finds a long-term solution at quarterback.
In terms of safety, Cleveland is rolling the dice big time. Trading with the Jets for Calvin Pryor was a risky move as he has largely been a bust in New York but there have been plenty of cases of players witnessing a career revitalization in a different system. Nonetheless, banking on a player who was so ineffective with one team, seeing a career revival is one of the riskier moves you can do as a GM. Meanwhile, likely starter Jabrill Peppers was seen as one of the more boom-or-bust prospects in this year’s draft and given his highly questionable failed drug test at the NFL combine this year, his selection in the first round will be seen as an unnecessary risk or a brave reach years from now. Either way, the Browns are going into this season with an extremely questionable pair of safeties.
Final Division Predictions:
Pittsburgh Steelers: 12-4
Cincinnati Bengals: 9-7
Baltimore Ravens: 8-8
Cleveland Browns: 3-13