Image licensed from USA Today Sports
Did the Cleveland Browns make enough moves in the offseason to make them resemble an actual NFL team? What holes must the Bengals fill to be a contender in the North? Did the Ravens do enough to upgrade a weak passing game? Have the Steelers done enough to knock off the mighty Patriots? These questions and more will be answered as we take a look at how the AFC North stacks up heading into training camp.
Are Upgrades At Receiver Enough to Jumpstart A Poor Passing Game?
Last season was a frustrating one for the Baltimore Ravens. Yes, they were 9-7, but they also blew a late lead to the Bengals in the final game of the year and that cost them a playoff spot. The most significant area of concern heading into the postseason was upgrading a passing attack that ranked 29th on the year at 189.4 ypg. Joe Flacco is a solid QB, but the receiving corp was one of the worst in the league, so the Ravens really needed to upgrade that position on the team.
They're hoping they did just that by bringing in Michael Crabtree (58 receptions, 618 yards last year), John Brown and Willie Snead. The latter two weren’t used as much for their respective teams last year as Crabtree was, but both are substantial talents and far better than the group they had last year. Not only did they bring in the three above, but they also took tight end Hayden Hurst (South Carolina) with the 25th overall pick in the draft. He should help their ”two tight end” packages while creating more flexibility for their first- and second-down passing game.
They also drafted wide receivers Jaleel Scott (New Mexico State) and Jordan Lasley, while also taking signal caller Lamar Jackson in the first round. Many feel that he could be their quarterback of the future. They also picked up tight end Mark Andrews (Oklahoma). The Ravens really went after pieces to help jumpstart their passing game. All of that may not be enough to make their aerial attack elite, especially if all the new faces take some time to gel, but it is a massive step in the right direction.
The Ravens also looked to add some depth to a decent offensive line with the drafting of offensive tackle Orlando Brown from Oklahoma along with center Bradley Bozeman from Alabama. The defense was excellent last year, but one has to wonder if it will change under new coordinator Don Martindale. He has been with the club since 2012, and he should not make many drastic changes, especially after the Ravens led the league in INTs (22) and takeaways overall (34). He has a couple of new toys to play with, including defensive back Anthony Averett (4th round, Alabama), linebacker Kenny Young (4th, UCLA) and safety DeShon Elliott (6th, Texas).
A couple of battles to watch in the preseason is Lamar Jackson vs. Joe Flacco. Could Jackson push Flacco, or could he eventually be moved to wide receiver? Running back Alex Collins vs. Javorius Allen vs. Kenneth Dixon. Collins was the guy last year, but Allen and Dixon are both reliable and looking for comeback seasons. Will Marlon Humphrey unseat Brandon Carr for a starting cornerback spot? He totaled four INTs last year but still was inconsistent at times. Overall, the Ravens had an active offseason, but now all their moves must pay off on the field, especially the passing game.
The Bengals Need To Improve Their Running Game
From 2011 to 2015, the Cincinnati Bengals participated in the postseason, but they have been trending in the opposite direction ever since. The Bengals have gone just 6-9-1 and 7-9 the last two years, and they have had a relatively quiet offseason this year. That very well could mean another January of watching the postseason and eating Skyline Chili from the comfort of their couches. Their central area of concern this year is fixing a running game that ranked 31st in the league, putting up just 85.4 ypg.
The Bengals have a mediocre signal caller in Andy Dalton, which is a shame as they have some good receivers. Still, one way to help out an average quarterback is to have a good running game. Joe Mixon and Gio Bernard are substantial talents, but they were playing behind a weak offensive line. The Bengals hope they have solved that problem with the trade for offensive tackle Cody Allen of the Bills and the drafting of center Billy Price (Ohio State) with the 21st pick overall. He will help in the ground game and has the tools to help against some of the best inside pass rushers in the league.
Joe Mixon is the big question. He rushed for 626 yards, but really seemed to wear down at the end of the year, and one has to wonder if he is the workhorse back that they are expecting him to be. Gio Bernard has shown flashes of brilliance in the past, but he has also been inconsistent as well. The Bengals drafted running back Mark Walton from Miami in the 4th round, and he could very well work his way into the starting lineup at some point. He is explosive and a home run threat every time he touches the ball. Walton and an improved offensive line are exactly what the Bengals needed to upgrade their running game.
The defense was average last year, but they used five of their first seven picks in the draft on that side of the ball and should be much better. The pass defense ranked 8th in the league last year, but they used their 2nd pick to draft safety Jessie Bates III from Wake Forest. Lewis doesn’t usually play rookie defensive backs, so he could sit for much of this year and be groomed for the future. Defensive end Sam Hubbard (3rd round, Ohio State) is a strong pass rusher and will help the Bengals get more pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Linebacker Malik Jefferson (Texas), cornerback Devontae Harris (Northern Illinois) and defensive end Andrew Brown (Virginia) will add some solid depth. New defensive coordinator Teryl Austin has some solid pieces in place and should have this unit playing well, especially over the 2nd half of the season.
The Bengals do have a couple of question marks up front on defense, and they will be without linebacker Vontaze Burfict for the first four games (PED suspension), so finding his replacement is key in the preseason. Cincy also will look for Tyler Eifert to build on a solid 2017 and will look to sort out their running game. Can Walton, Dixon, and Bernard form a three-headed monster behind an improved offensive line? Will an improved running game help Andy Dalton be a much better field general? The Bengals have addressed some of their bigger needs, and now we have to see how it plays out on the field. If they struggle, then this most likely will be Marvin Lewis’ last year at the helm.
Have The Browns Upgraded Enough To Look Like An NFL Team
The Cleveland Browns went 0-16 last year, and at times it really looked like they would have a tough time beating the Alabama Crimson Tide. They are now just 1-31 under head coach Hue Jackson, and most coaches have been fired for much less than that, but the Browns feel he is the right guy and the hope is that a very solid offseason for them will get the team pointed in the right direction.
The Browns have had terrible luck with draft picks the last few years, but many feel that taking quarterback Baker Mayfield (Oklahoma) is one draft pick that will pan out for them. He is big and strong, has a good arm and a high football IQ, plus doesn’t bring any excess baggage with him as Johnny Manziel did. Mayfield is the kind of signal caller that the Browns have lacked over the years. Mayfield will have Josh Gordon to throw to, and he will also have Jarvis Landry, who is the best slot receiver in the league. He comes over from the Dolphins and led the NFL in receptions with 112 last year, plus he had 110 in 2015. The Browns didn’t stop there as the added 4th round pick, wide receiver Antonio Callaway from Florida.
The passing game should finally have the feel of one that could scare opposing defenses. The running game was already solid with the addition of Carlos Hyde (San Francisco) and the presence of Duke Johnson, but now this unit is stellar with the addition of Nick Chubb (Georgia), who they took with their 3rd overall pick. A solid offensive line, an upgrade at quarterback and wide receiver, plus a strong running game mean the Browns could very well top 20 ppg this year after putting up a league-worst 14.6 ppg a year ago.
The defense was also an issue for the Browns a year ago, but they have upgraded there as well with the drafting of cornerback Denzel Ward (Ohio State), defensive end Chad Thomas (Miami) and linebacker Genard Avery (Memphis). They have also added defensive back E.J. Gaines (Buffalo) and defensive end Chris Smith (Cincinnati) through free agency. Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams has plenty of new pieces to work with and will most assuredly have the defense playing far better than the group that allowed 25.6 ppg a year ago.
The Browns have great upgraded their talent on the roster and now is the time for Hue Jackson to reward the front office, who showed great confidence in retaining him, by putting some wins up on the board. During training camp, we will see if Baker Mayfield is ready to take the field right away or if it will be later on in the year. The Browns did bring in Tyrod Taylor to battle Mayfield in training camp, and that will be a crucial clash for them.
Also look to see if Denzel Ward is the answer at cornerback. The Browns did open some eyes when he was drafted, so he needs to pan out for them. Defensive end Myles Garrett is a beast, but the Browns will need to find another edge rusher, and that battle will be between end Emmanuel Ogbah and end Chad Thomas. One last battle to look for will be at offensive tackle, where Austin Corbett and Shon Coleman will be vying to replace the retired Joe Thomas, who protected the blind side of Cleveland quarterbacks for the last 11 years. This will be a fun training camp to watch.
Steelers are Looking To Tighten Up Their Run Defense
The Pittsburgh Steelers were 13-3 last year but did not have the number-one seed in the AFC as that distinction went the Patriots, who held the tiebreaker over the boys from the Steel City. The problem for the Steelers last year was not their offense as it ranked 3rd in total offense, 3rd in passing and 8th in scoring. No, their issue was on the defensive side of the ball and more specifically, their run defense. The Steelers ranked 5th in total defense and 5th against the pass, but they were 10th against the run, and it was that run defense that really cost them in their playoff loss to the Jags as they allowed 164 yards on the ground in that game.
Their big loss was losing Ryan Shazier for the season. Before his injury, the Steelers had allowed less than 100 yards rushing in six straight games, but with him gone, they allowed 100+ yards in five of their last six, including that playoff loss to the Jaguars. That has to change this year, and oddly enough they didn’t do anything in the draft to address the situation. They did take defensive lineman Joshua Frazier (Alabama) with a 7th round pick, but the rest of their draft was used on two safeties and four offensive players.
Filling the shoes of Shazier will be tough, but the Steelers feel that they took a step in the right direction by grabbing Jon Bostic from the Indianapolis Colts. He has struggled in pass defense but is a good run defender. They also brought in Morgan Burnett from the Green Bay Packers to help out at a linebacker spot. Shoring up their run defense is imperative so the linebacker battle will be a key one for the Steelers in training camp.
The pass defense was a strength for much of 2017, but it struggled down the stretch. The Steelers are hoping that the additions of safeties Terrell Edmunds (1st round, Virginia Tech) and Marcus Allen (5th, Penn State) will help shore up their last line of defense. Edmunds, Sean Davis and free agent pickup Burnett will all be vying to be the main cog in a pass defense that was very leaky over the latter part of the season last year.
The offense doesn’t have nearly as many issues, but will this offense be the same now that offensive coordinator Todd Haley is no longer there? Big Ben hit on 65.2 percent of his passes, and he threw more than twice as many TD passes (164) than interceptions (74) in six seasons under Haley. New offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner was promoted from quarterbacks coach, so there probably won’t be a lot of tweaking of the offense under him.
This is a strong offense, that got even stronger with the drafting of wide receiver James Washington from Oklahoma State, plus they added Ben’s eventual replacement in quarterback Mason Rudolph, who is also from Oklahoma State. Washington has a chance to be a huge threat in the league, especially with the strong-armed Roethlisberger getting him the ball. He was drafted to replace Martavis Bryant, who left in the offseason and Washington will team with Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster to form one of the deadliest receiving corps in the league.
The Steelers do have a potential problem with Le’Veon Bell, who is in a contract dispute and may not be signed by the time the season starts. The Steelers will have to develop another running back in the preseason just to be safe. James Connor, Stevan Ridley and 5th round draft pick Jaylen Samuels (North Carolina) will get plenty of work in the preseason. The running back, linebacker and safety positions will be their primary focus during August.