It is day two of my NFL review and today I focus on the division which features two of my home state teams. The AFC North is one of the best division’s in football and last year boasted four of the league’s top defenses. Here is how I think the division will shape up this year.
4th- Cleveland Browns
While the Browns will struggle to win a decent amount of games this year they should be exciting to watch with a slew of young talent. The Browns drafted Alabama RB, Trent Richardson third overall and Oklahoma State QB Brandon Weeden at twenty-two. They also used next year’s second round pick on former Baylor WR Josh Gordon in this summer’s supplemental draft. Gordon is a big target and will form a nice duo with second year man Greg Little. Little will need to progress this year and have less drops to help out Weeden translate his game to the NFL. While I am curious to see how this young offense does, it is just that, a young offense which will be prone to making bone-headed mistakes but should give Browns fans something to cheer about.
While the Browns had a good overall defense last year (second against the pass), they were awful against the run, ranking 30th in the league. With injuries to Phil Taylor and Chris Gocong, the front seven will need a few players to step up and replace these guys. The secondary is led by third year corner Joe Haden and hard hitting safety, T.J. Ward. Add veteran Sheldon Brown to the mix and the Browns have a tough secondary but with few studs in the front seven the defense will struggle against the run this season.
Win meter- 4-6. Too inexperienced on offense to pose a legit threat to win the division.
Biggest question- Can the young offense produce enough to show a legit future?
3rd- Cincinnati Bengals
While the Bengals offense wasn’t ranked particularly high in either passing or rushing they still have one of the most exciting receivers in the league in AJ Green and a young, intelligent quarterback in Andy Dalton. The team also brought in Ben Jarvis Green-Ellis (the law firm) to take over for the recently departed Cedric Benson. The law firm was part of the running back by committee approach in New England, but now will be relied on to carry a much heavier workload. The team also lost Jerome Simpson and his ability to flip over anyone in the NFL, and released former third round pick Jordan Shipley last week. My biggest question on this offense is, who will be the number 2 guy? Brandon Tate? Third round choice Mohamed Sanu? This will be a huge problem for the growth of Dalton-Green if no one steps up and takes that role. I like tight end Jermaine Gresham to take some pressure off but in today’s NFL you need three legit weapons.
I love what this team did on the defensive side of the ball in the draft. Drafting Dre Kirkpatrick who is returning slow from a knee injury was great value for them and at 6’2 has great size for a corner. Also getting Devon Still from Penn State in the second round is another great pick up for this team. The Bengals have a strong defensive line, good linebackers and tough corners so look for this defense to pick up where they left off last season. I also like the chance they took on former Arizona State linebacker, Vontaze Burfict who before the combine and his pro day was considered a potential first round pick. However after he reported out of shape and showed a bad attitude he fell out of the draft. If he plays well and sticks the Bengals got themselves some great value.
Win meter- 7-10- Can somebody else step up on offense?
2nd- Pittsburgh Steelers
I was torn between who I was going to put at second place in this division. I was really leaning towards the Bengals, but I think the Steelers have too many veterans to slip to third place. Also with the return of Mike Wallace this week, the offense should be in sync by a few games into the season. I love the emergence of Antonio Brown who recently got himself a nice contract extension. The running back situation is going to be an interesting story-line. I have read Rashard Mendenhall being out anywhere from a few weeks of the season to the whole month of September so I am curious to see when he gets back. I am also going to keep my eye on tight end, Heath Miller. Miller has had himself a very nice career and I look for new offensive coordinator, Todd Haley to make use of one of the better tight ends he has had the chance to work with. The loss of first round guard David Decastro will sting the offensive line. Also second round tackle, Mike Adams out of Ohio State needs to improve quickly or Ben Roethlisberger will running for his life.
The Steelers have drafted some young defensive linemen in the first round the last few years (Cameron Hayward, Ziggy Hood) to infuse into a defense that has plenty of veteran experience. The line-backing core is once again one of the tops in the league, with Lawrence Timmons, Lamar Woodley. and James Harrison laying some serious wood on opposing offenses. However the secondary concerns me. Whenever you have Troy Polamalu at safety it makes everyone better but he must stay healthy like he did last year. However the corner position is where someone needs to step up. Ike Taylor is not known for his ball hawking skills and the rest of the corners have about as much combined years in the league as Taylor does alone.
Win meter- 9-11. Roethlisberger needs to stay off the ground.
Biggest question- Can the young talent provide enough of a boost to help carry the vets?
I look for Joe Flacco to finally put together a season where he shows he can be considered a top ten quarterback. He has two legitimate receivers in veteran, Anquan Boldin and the second year speedster Torrey Smith. Even though it’s not Gronk and Hernandez, Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson give the Ravens a very respectable tight end combo. Plus anytime you have Ray Rice who is a duel threat out of the backfield you have the ability to put up big numbers. Plus Rice is a gentleman and holds an umbrella for the woman who interviewed him from FOX when it was raining. I really look for this offense to take off this year. I am also looking who will take the number three wide receiver job.
Even without T-Sizzle (Terrell Suggs for you who don’t know) I think this will still be one of the top defenses in the league. And for the first time since the days of Samari Rolle and Chris McAlister the Ravens have a legit duo of corners. Lardarius Webb and Jimmy Smith give the Ravens secondary something it has been missing for a good five years. I look for these guys along with Ed Reed to help make up for the loss of Suggs. The battle for Suggs spot is intriguing. Will former second round pick Sergio Kindle get on the field and prove why the Ravens drafted him? Or will the latest second round pick, Courtney Upshaw take that spot? Or someone else? Whoever does has some big shoes and fourteen sacks to fill. Veterans Haloti Ngata and Ray Lewis will help teach these young guys what to do on the field and will be great leaders to follow. Plus they better do well since they are on one of my fantasy football teams.
Win meter- 10-12. The offense needs to take off.
Biggest question- Will Joe Flacco finally show why he is worth the big bucks?