AFC North Divisional Preview
NFL Football is coming back. With the NFL preseason kicking off tonight, it is time to start looking at some divisional previews.
With the help of my colleague, Josh Markowitz, we will be doing two divisional previews a week (each of us doing one). So stay tuned for previews from every NFL division!
Without further ado, the AFC North is first up. The decision to start with the AFC North was based on whatever division had the previous champion.
And with the Baltimore Ravens being the 2012 Super Bowl Champions, the preview of the 2013 NFL season will begin with the likes of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens.
Team Previews (in order of how I believe they will finish)
1. Cincinnati Bengals
Things are looking up for the hit show “Hard Knocks” featured team.
The Bengals, after starting 3-5 at the beginning of last season, finished the 2012 campaign with a 7 out of 8 win stretch. If Cincinnati can continue to replicate their late-season form, they could be a huge challenger in the AFC North division — especially with the likes of young talent featuring defensive tackle Geno Atkins and wide receiver A.J. Green.
Starting quarterback, Andy Dalton, is entering his third season in the NFL and questions are arising if he is capable enough to hold the team together — due to his poor performances in recent playoff appearances.
However, it is the belief that the best is yet to come from Dalton — possibly even leading to his breakout season to be in 2013.
The Bengals even brought in some offensive weapons to take the pressure off of Dalton in this upcoming season. Rookies Tyler Eifert and Giovani Bernard were brought in through the draft — hoping to be the missing pieces for the organization.
Multi-threat tight end Eifert brings in another reliable option for Dalton to use in their offensive scheme, that revolves solely around A.J. Green. While North Carolina running back Bernard will hopefully bring versatile play in the pass and run game, that current starting running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis has failed to do.
Veteran outside linebacker James Harrison and 3rd round draft pick safety Shawn Williams were also brought in to not only fill the holes of some of the losses the Bengals had, but to bring in a dynamic that the team has lacked on defense in the past two seasons.
If the Bengals can continue to prove that they have a great supporting cast around Green, Atkins and Dalton, Cincinnati has a pretty good chance at winning the division and maybe even the Super Bowl.
2. Baltimore Ravens
If you look at the list of the losses that the Ravens have had this offseason, you’d think the Super Bowl champions would struggle to compete at the same level as 2012-13.
But it isn’t all that bad for Baltimore.
One of the weaker spots for the Ravens last season was on the defensive line. Veteran defensive end Chris Canty and former Cowboys defensive tackle Marcus Spears were brought in to bolster their defensive unit.
Former Broncos outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil was swept up by Baltimore to pair up with a healthy Terrell Suggs. And while the Ravens did lose Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard at the safety position, free safety Michael Huff and strong safety Matt Elam bring a more versatile and youthful game to those safety positions.
The two reasons why I believe the Ravens will falter out of first place in the AFC North is because of their losses at receiver and linebacker.
Anquan Boldin will have to be replaced by Tandon Doss, Jacoby Jones, David Reed and an assortment of rookie wide recievers. And Pitta will be replaced by a less talented Ed Dickson and recently acquired Visanthe Shiancoe (who was a free agent during last season).
And at linebacker, Dannell Ellerbe left town to play for the Miami Dolphins and captain Ray Lewis retired after a fantastic career. Constantly injured Jameel McClain and Kansas State rookie Arthur Brown will definitely have big shoes to fill going into next season.
The Ravens are still going to be fantastic and will make the playoffs — however, I don’t believe they have the fire power to win the division.
3. Pittsburgh Steelers
It seems like the Pittsburgh Steelers are finally moving on from some of their veteran players who were a part of their 2005 and 2008 Super Bowl wins.
And they are probably the hardest team to peg in this division. Last season they fell apart so rapidly for the Steelers, who were 6-3, then lost five of their next six games. Still, had they knocked off Cincinnati in Week 16, they might have been a playoff team, even in an off-year.
Another offseason of cutting has left Pittsburgh with several new faces in the lineup again, as no fewer than six starters off the 2012 team were sent packing. However, the defense still has ample playmakers and Roethlisberger’s offense should be better.
Baltimore and Cincinnati have knocked the Steelers down a peg or two in the AFC North. Just don’t be surprised if Pittsburgh gets up off the mat and returns to the postseason.
Pittsburgh finally have some capable backup quarterbacks after the consistent years of Roethlisberger going down with no replacement. Gradkowski and rookie Landry Jones should be able to take the load if the occurrence happens again.
The offensive line will be a weak point for the Steelers in 2013. With tackle Max Starks and guard Willie Colon moving on from the team, offensive lineman Marcus Gilbert, Mike Adams and David DeCastro must step up.
Michigan State rookie Le’Veon Bell and former Cardinals La’Rod Stephens-Howling were brought in to make the already confusing battle between running backs, more confusing. However, both additions should improve the versatility of their backs.
A lot rides on if the offensive can stay healthy and continue to play consistent down the stretch — and if they can do that, the Steelers can give Pittsburgh fans something to cheer about again.
4. Cleveland Browns
Key Additions: Signed QB Jason Campbell, QB Brian Hoyer, DT Desmond Bryant, OLB Paul Kruger, OLB Quentin Groves; traded for RB Dion Lewis, WR Davone Bess; drafted OLB Barkevious Mingo, CB Leon McFadden
After five seasons with an average of 4.6 wins, the Cleveland Browns will finally improve.
The roster is more talented than it usually is and the new coaching staff will certainly have the Browns keeping games close.
Cleveland will improve on the defensive side of the ball in 2013 — especially at outside linebacker. The Browns are switching to a 3-4 defense under new defensive coordinator Ray Horton, putting a premium on finding pass-rushers this offseason.
And that is just what the Browns did. They ripped Paul Kruger from their division rival Ravens, signed veteran Quentin Groves and drafted a great young talent in Barkevious Mingo. Returning Brown OLB Jabaal Sheard and these new pass-rushers should really help the team.
While outside linebacker is an improving position for Cleveland, the safety positions will continue to struggle. The Browns released starting free safety Usama Young and didn’t really do anything to replace him. The team is still looking for who will start beside SS T.J. Ward.
The offense will rely mostly on the success of Trent Richardson and Brandon Weeden. Trent Richardson, who was fantastic in his rookie season, will have to stay healthy (which he struggled with) and continue to improve his running prowess.
Weeden, the sophomore quarterback who is already 29 years old, is hoping to have a breakout season with Jason Campbell being brought in to maybe replace him.
And while all signs are pointing in the right direction for the Browns, I am expecting the team to finish with an improved, yet poor 6-10 season.
Impact Offensive Player – Antonio Brown, WR for the Steelers:
Brown put up 69 catches for 1,100 yards in 2011 and 66 catches for 787 yards last season — proving to the team and management that he had the talent to be the go-to guy.
And with star wide receiver Mike Wallace being acquired by the Miami Dolphins this offseason, Antonio Brown will be that go-to guy that he has worked for.
While Brown may not be as good as Wallace due to his size, he can certainly put up big numbers — especially with 2-time Super Bowl winning quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger.
#84 will certainly improve his season totals in 2013-14 and will be a huge factor in the Steelers run to make the playoffs — plus, he will be a fantasy stud this year (pick him up).
Impact Defensive Player – Vontaze Burfict, LB for the Bengals:
In Burfict’s rookie season, he finished with 73 total tackles and one sack. He even had two fumble recoveries in his 2012-13 campaign as well.
Burfict lead the Bengals in total tackles last season and was one of the bright spots on the defensive side of the ball for Cincinnati.
Look for the young linebacker to continue to be such a huge contributor for the Bengals next season and to have a gigantic impact on if the Bengals can be successful in the playoffs (after two first round exits in a row).