AFC North Preview

Jake DeWitt

Pittsburgh Steelers (Projected Record: 13-3)
Key Additions: Artie Burns (1st-Round Pick, 25th Overall), Ladarius Green (Chargers), Ryan Harris (Broncos), Justin Gilbert (Trade with Browns)
Key Losses: Heath Miller (Retirement), Kelvin Beachum (Jaguars), Martavis Bryant (Suspension)

Fans in the Steel City should have a lot to look forward to this season. Despite the loss of Le’Veon Bell for the first four games of 2016 due to another suspension, rest assured that DeAngelo Williams can handle the load for a few games. Markus Wheaton is also capable of stepping up in a big way in 2016 to replace Martavis Bryant. I see the Steelers starting the season no less than 2-2, which is saying a lot when the best running back in the league is not on the field. Fan favorite and run-blocker-extraordinaire Heath Miller retired, but the Steelers upgraded the tight end position by picking up former San Diego Charger Ladarius Green.

Pittsburgh addressed their defensive needs through the draft by selecting five defensive players, including Artie Burns with the 25th overall pick. While the secondary isn’t the best in the league, the key to success in 2016 should be keeping their offensive studs healthy. In the 2015 regular season, Big Ben missed five starts, Bell missed 10 games, and All-Pro center Maurkice Pouncey missed the entire season all due to injury. If the best players can stay on the field, watch out in the AFC.

Cincinnati Bengals (Projected Record: 13-3)
Key Additions: William Jackson III (1st-Round Pick, 24th Overall), Tyler Boyd (2nd-Round Pick, 55th Overall), Brandon Lafell (Patriots), Karlos Dansby (Browns)
Key Losses: Marvin Jones (Lions), Mohamed Sanu (Falcons), Reggie Nelson (Raiders)

The 2015 season effectively ended for the Bengals in Week 14 when the team lost Andy Dalton to a broken thumb injury he sustained trying to make a tackle after throwing an interception. The Bengals still made the playoffs, but lost an intensely physical Wild Card round game to the Pittsburgh Steelers by a score of 18-16. Backup A.J. McCarron played well down the stretch, but Cincinnati was not the same without starter Andy Dalton.

Much like every team in the NFL, Cincinnati’s success will rest primarily on the health of their quarterback – Andy Dalton. I expect the Bengals to win a ton of games, splitting with the Steelers, and sweeping the Ravens and Browns. I see them defeating the Steelers in Week 2 when Pittsburgh will be without star running back Le’Veon Bell. Beyond that, I foresee the Bengals losing in Week 6 to the Patriots, slipping up against the Giants in Week 10, and taking their loss to the Steelers in Week 15.

The loss of safety Reggie Nelson, who signed with the Raiders, will hurt more than people think. Another challenge for the defense will be to keep their players calm, and avoid suspensions for fighting on the field. Vontaze Burfict and Pacman Jones should be leaders – not instigators – at this point in their respective careers.

I like the selection of Tyler Boyd in the draft, and the signing of Brandon Lafell. But I’m not sure that a rookie wideout and picking up a player with a history of dropped passes will  be enough to replace Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu. Still, a relatively easy schedule should propel the Bengals into the playoffs. I see Cincinnati taking the division, as they will have a better conference record. For Andy Dalton’s sake, maybe they can get over the hump and beyond the first round?!

Baltimore Ravens (Projected Record: 3-13)
Key Additions: Ronnie Stanley (1st-Round Pick, 6th Overall), Kamalei Correa (2nd-Round Pick, 42rd Overall), Ben Watson (Saints), Eric Weddle (Chargers), Mike Wallace (Vikings), Devin Hester (Free Agent)
Key Losses: Kelechi Osemele (Raiders), Will Hill (Free Agent/Suspension), Daryl Smith (Buccaneers), Ben Watson (Torn Achilles), Arthur Brown (Jaguars)

Ronnie Stanley was arguably the best prospect on the offensive line in the 2016 NFL Draft. The Ravens desperately needed line help after versatile Kelechi Osmele signed a massive free-agent deal with the Raiders. The addition of Eric Weddle will certainly improve a secondary that was not very good in 2015. However, the Ravens failed to make a significant improvement at the cornerback position. Jimmy Smith, Kyle Arrington, and Shareece Wright are not elite. In a division that houses A.J. Green and Antonio Brown, that’s not a good formula for success. The linebacking group will be improved as Terrell Suggs returns from an Achilles tear, and by the selection of Kamalei Correa from Boise State. C.J. Mosley is one of the best middle linebackers in the game, and the Ravens should continue to build around his presence.

Offensively, Joe Flacco still has yet to earn the lucrative contract he signed after taking winning the Super Bowl years back. They’ll need more consistent play out of the University of Delaware product to aid a quality core of running backs led by Justin Forsett, Buck Allen, Lorenzo Taliaferro, and Terrance West. The Ravens will get Steve Smith back after he suffered a season-ending Achilles injury. Smith is in sight of 1,000 career receptions and we’re hoping he achieves that feat. The addition of Ben Watson is somewhat puzzling, as the Ravens already boast young, developing tight ends in Crockett Gilmore and Maxx Williams, as well as veteran Dennis Pitta. Some players to watch out for as receivers who could play an increased role this year are Kamar Aiken and Breshad Perriman.

This man deserves his own paragraph – at least. In the 6th Round of the 2016 NFL Draft, the Ravens selected Navy standout Keenan Reynolds. Reynolds finished fifth in the 2015 Heisman Trophy voting. The Navy quarterback finished his football career at Navy with 88 career rushing touchdowns, the most in NCAA Division-I history. He also holds the Navy record for most career touchdown passes and career wins. This young man is a winner and natural leader. He enters camp trying to make the squad as a wide receiver, but make no mistake about his athleticism. Reynolds will likely see snaps as a versatile swing back or slot receiver, and perhaps in some trick plays as a passer.

At a 3-13 projection, I obviously don’t believe in the Ravens at all. This is mostly due to my lack of confidence in Flacco, and in part due to the lack of depth in the secondary. I don’t see them taking any games from the Steelers or Bengals. Even if I’m off by a few wins, the Ravens won’t make the playoffs this year.

Cleveland Browns (Projected Record: 2-14)
Key Additions: Corey Coleman (1st-Round Pick, 15th Overall), Emmanuel Ogbah (2nd-Round Pick, 32nd Overall), Josh Gordon (Suspension), Robert Griffin III (Redskins), Rahim Moore (Texans), Demario Davis (Jets), Alvin Bailey (Seahawks)
Key Losses: Travis Benjamin (Chargers), Alex Mack (Falcons), Mitchell Schwartz (Chiefs), Karlos Dansby (Bengals), Tashaun Gipson (Jaguars), Donte Whitner (Free Agent), Paul Kruger (Free Agent), Barkevious Mingo (Trade with Patriots), Justin Gilbert (Trade with Steelers), Andy Lee (Trade with Panthers)

Anyone who was decent in 2015 for the Browns left in free agency. The key losses shown above were not replaced with equitable players, as the Browns are truly in rebuilding mode. I do like the selection of Corey Coleman to pair with Josh Gordon (once he returns from suspension). Despite the loss of Travis Benjamin to the Chargers, the Browns should have a decent receiving core lead by 2015 surprise Gary Barnidge. The problem with the Browns – as always – is who is going to throw the ball to these receivers? Josh McCown is a serviceable backup, but I can’t see him leading the Browns past a couple wins. Who knows what Cleveland will get out of Robert Griffin III should he be named the starter?

The Browns’ 2014 and 2015 draft picks have not produced as well as they should have. Selected as the 8th Overall pick in the 2014 Draft, cornerback Justin Gilbert has been a huge bust so far. We all know the story surrounding 1st-round pick Johnny Manziel, so let’s just let that ship continue to sail. Coming off disappointing rookie campaigns, defensive tackle Danny Shelton and offensive lineman Cameron Irving must play better – plain and simple. The lone bright spot over the last two drafts is Joel Bitonio. Since his selection in 2014, Bitonio has cemented himself as a mainstay on an offensive line looking to improve.

After the Cavaliers won the NBA title, and the Indians appear poised to make a postseason run… who knows, maybe Believeland is back?

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Author: Thrive Nation

Amateur sports journalism blog, primarily posting about the latest happenings in EPL, MLB, NFL, and Boxing.

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