These are coming at a quicker pace with Free Agency coming soon. Today we look at the AFC North, which might have been the best division in all of football last year. They put three teams in the Playoffs last year. The Ravens and Steelers have been a model of consistency in recent years. They also have the best rivalry in all of football. Every time these two teams get together, you can expect a hard-hitting, smash mouth game of football. Both teams are getting up there in age, however, and may be on a slight decline. I still think both are Playoff teams, but they may not be as infallible as they once worth. The Bengals shocked everyone last year by finishing 10-6 and securing a Wild Card berth. They will only get better. And then there is the Cleveland Browns. Unless they trade up for Robert Griffin, they will be basement dwellers without a doubt. Hell, they probably will still be basement dwellers even with Griffin.
2011 Record: 12-4
The Ravens were a Lee Evans touchdown catch in the end zone away from going to the Super Bowl. Then, they were a Billy Cundiff chip shot away from tying the Patriots and going to overtime. Neither of those two things happened, however, and the Ravens failed to get to the Super Bowl again. This Ravens team has had their chances to get to the Super Bowl, but you have to wonder if their time has come and gone. I said all year that this Ravens team was full of veterans that knew this could be their last chance to get to the Super Bowl again, especially on defense. They are getting older on that side of the ball. On offense, the Ravens still have everything go through Ray Rice. He is the workhorse of that team. Joe Flacco has still yet to get the Ravens to the promised land. Flacco is entering a contract year and will want a raise, but if he can't get the Ravens to the Super Bowl again, will they want to pay him that kind of money? This is still a Playoff team, but you have to wonder if the Ravens are the threat they once were.
Biggest Question: Is This The Last Chance for Joe Flacco?
Joe Flacco will be a free agent at the end of the 2012 season. He already has the support of Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti. But if Flacco commands top dollar from the Ravens, will they really be willing to anti up the money for him? Flacco has gotten to the post-season every year as a starter, but he has yet to get the Ravens to the Super Bowl during his tenure as starter. Flacco's stats don't jump out to you as a QB who should earn top dollar. His highest TD total in one year was 25. He can't seem to get over the AFC Championship hump. Do the Ravens think Flacco is really worth $15 million per year? He doesn't seem to get along with offensive coordinator Cam Cameron if you believe reports we heard during the year. Flacco might have one last chance to win over the Ravens, or they might think about adding another young QB in the Draft. They should definitely add a better veteran back up for Flacco this off-season.
Top 3 Free Agents
1. Ray Rice: Running Back
Rice was just franchised by the Ravens so he isn't going anywhere, but you would think Rice would like to work out a long term deal before the season starts. Rice is a phenomenal back who has break away speed and is very tough to tackle. Rice might be the #1 running back in the league as he is just as much a threat catching the ball out of the backfield as he is running it.
2. Lardarius Webb: Cornerback
Webb might be the best cover corner in the league. Teams completed only 54% of the passes thrown his way. Not only that, but Webb had 7 interceptions on the year, and only 2 TDs thrown against him. On a defense that is up there in age, retaining ite 25 year old Webb is essential.
3. Ben Grubbs: Guard
Despite dealing with a turf toe injury during the 2011 season, Grubbs is a very talented guard who is capable of opening up running lanes for Ray Rice. He's a solid piece on the offensive line.
Top 3 Needs
1. Offensive Line
The Ravens may have multiple holes to fill on their offensive line. Grubbs is a free agent. Center Matt Birk is contemplating retirement, and Bryant McKinnie, while filling in well at LT, is not the long term solution at that spot. The Ravens should get younger and better here.
2. Outside Linebacker
Jarrett Johnson plays opposite Terrell Suggs in the Ravens 3-4 look, but he doesn't get to the QB as well as Suggs does. Johnson is good at every other aspect of the game expect pass rushing. But he is also a free agent. The Ravens may look to add a better pass rusher opposite Suggs.
3. Wide Receiver
Baltimore already cut ties with Lee Evans and Anquan Boldin doesn't seem to have the same burst of speed that he once had. The Ravens might need a better WR to play opposite Torrey Smith.
Last year I said that 2011 might be the Ravens last chance at winning the Super Bowl with the current roster that they have. I'm going to say the same thing again this year. Ed Reed and Ray Lewis probably know this again. But the season will once again rest on the arm of Joe Flacco. Flacco is a serviceable NFL QB, but he needs to step up his game this year if he wants to lead the Ravens to the Super Bowl. The Ravens are still a Playoff team but this may be their last shot to get to the Super Bowl with their current roster.
2011 Record: 12-4
The Steelers were typical Steelers last year. A tough, gritty football team built on their defense. Ben Roethlisberger did nothing fancy but is a great game manager and won't do anything to cost you a football game. They were upset by the Denver Broncos in the Wild Card round of the Playoffs last year, and now all of the sudden there are a lot of questions surrounding this football team. The Steelers are way over the projected salary cap so they have had to cut ties with a lot of veteran players, including Hines Ward and Aaron Smith. Ben Roethlisberger restructured his contract for the second time in two years. And then there are questions surrounding Mike Wallace, who was only tendered and not franchised by the Steelers. In my opinion, there are too many questions surrounding this team for my liking. Could this be a team on the decline?
Biggest Question: Is This A Team On The Decline?
What a perfect lead in by myself into this portion of the Steelers right up. As I sad, the Steelers are at least $20 million over the projected salary cap and will have to let go of some veteran players. They already dumped Hines Ward and Aaron Smith. They also let go one of their top tacklers in linebacker James Farrior and starting guard Chris Kemoeatu. And all of their salary cap problems may cause them to lose their best player on offense in WR Mike Wallace. Wallace is a big play threat and deep down field speed. The Steelers only placed a first round tender on him. You don't think a team like San Francisco or the Ravens, a team with a late first round pick, would be willing to sacrifice it for a game changer like Wallace. Pittsburgh has always been a model of consistency in the NFL, but you have to wonder if their salary cap issues will cause their on field production to slide this year.
Top 3 Free Agents
1. Mike Wallace: Wide Receiver
Can the Steelers really let Mike Wallace go? Wallace is such a game changer at WR that you think they would have to find a way to sign him. Wallace is too good to let go, and the Steelers offense becomes much less imposing without him on the field.
2. Ramon Foster: Guard
Foster is only a restricted free agent but also one of the team's better pass blockers. With the way the Steelers offensive line is, losing one of your better pieces would not be a good thing.
3. William Gay: Cornerback
Gay played rather well when he was put into the starting line-up last year. He is a free agent and some team might over pay him, and the Steelers might be forced to let him walk because of it.
Top 3 Needs
1. Left Tackle
Starting LT Max Starks tore his ACL in the Playoff game against Denver and will probably not be ready for the start of the season. The Steelers need someone to protect Big Ben, otherwise he will inevitably be injured again at some point this year.
2. Nose Tackle
Casey Hampton is 35 years old, recovering from a torn ACL and probably a cap casualty at over $8 million dollars. Back-up Chis Hoke retired. The Steelers need to find someone to plug the middle up for them this year.
Bryant McFadden was cut, William Gay is a free agent, and Ike Taylor was embarrassed on the OT Touchdown catch against the Broncos. The Steelers might be looking for a starter or two.
The Steelers are looking at some major changes this off-season. A lot of the aging players on defense will be gone as they attempt to re-sign younger players like Mike Wallace. I don't think the Steelers will improve at all this year, and I think they may actually miss the Playoffs this year. Could they miss the Playoffs? It's possible. A lot depends on how other teams in the AFC improve. The Steelers are definitely a team in flux and changes may cause the on field product to struggle early on.
2011 Record: 9-7
The Bengals surprised a lot of people last year. With a rookie QB under center from Week 1 and their best offensive weapon a rookie WR, most people expected a poor year from the Bengals. But to everyone's surprise the Bengals played well, against the bad teams. They went 9-0 against teams that didn't make the Playoffs. They lost all seven regular season games against Playoff teams: the Ravens and Steelers twice each, the 49ers, the Broncos and Texans. But the Bengals still made tremendous strides last year with Andy Dalton and A.J. Green and found their way into the Playoffs as a 6 seed. Cincinnati is so young that they will only get better. A.J. Green looked like a future stud at WR, and Dalton, while not being flashy, showed he can be a good game manager and not cost you any games. The defense was very good under Marvin Lewis. They finished the year ranked 7th in total defense. The Bengals should continue to improve this year, but they will also have to deal with a tougher schedule and higher expectations.
Biggest Question: Can the Bengals Avoid A Sophomore Slump?
The Bengals are a young team and had two rookies that had solid years this past year: Andy Dalton and A.J. Green. The problem is, rookies can have a tendency to have some sophomore slumps after they have a good rookie year. There's a track record of all of this happening. It happened to Matt Ryan. It happened to Sam Bradford this past year. You can almost expect a slight dip in stats this year. The Bengals will have a tougher schedule. Instead of facing the NFC West and the AFC South, the Bengals will have to deal with the NFC East and AFC West. Those two divisions are tougher than their NFC counterparts. Plus the secret is now out on the Bengals. They won't sneak up on anybody this year like they did last year. The one thing the Bengals will need to do is improve their running game so it can take pressure off of Dalton. Despite the youth, I still think the Bengals might finish better than the Steelers this year.
Top 3 Free Agents
1. Manny Lawson: Linebacker
Lawson played very well in the Bengals 4-3 scheme this year. He's a solid run stuffer. He's also a veteran leader, so re-signing him should be a priority.
2. Jonathan Fanene: Defensive Tackle
Fanene is a good run stuffing DT at 290 pounds, but he is also good at getting to the QB. Fanene had 6.5 sacks last year. Fanene is a force in the middle of the Bengals 4-3 scheme.
3. Bobbie Williams: Guard
Williams is 35 years old, but the Bengals offensive line missed him last year when he went on IR in December with a broken ankle. A one year deal might be appropriate.
Top 3 Needs
1. Running Back
Cedric Benson is a free agent but is highly unlikely to be re-signed. The Bengals need a running back that can take the pressure off of Dalton. Michael Bush perhaps?
Leon Hall was playing very well until he tore his Achilles last year. Those type of injuries have long recovery times. He may not play at all in 2012. The Bengals need to find a replacement for him.
3. Wide Receiver
Teams know A.J. Green is the Bengals guy, so the Bengals need to find a receiver to play opposite Green to take the pressure off of him.
The Bengals are a young team that will be out to prove that last year was no fluke. They don't do anything flashy, but they get the job done. I expect the defense to remain a strong unit as long as they can retain some key free agents. If the Bengals can get an extra weapon or two on offense then they may be able to leap frog the Steelers this year in the AFC North. While the Steelers are aging and on the decline, the Bengals are young and improving. While they may experience a set back or two, their youth will still only help them get better. Are the Bengals a Playoff team this year? Maybe. But they need to get over the hump and show they can hang with the big boys of the NFL.
2011 Record: 4-12
The Browns are like the red-headed step child of this division. Nobody takes them seriously, and no one thinks they have a chance to do anything. The Browns thought they had finally found their franchise quarterback when Colt McCoy played well in 2010. Well, McCoy took a huge step backwards under new coach Pat Shurmur this past season. McCoy looks to be a serviceable backup at best. Then the Browns had to deal with the controversy surrounding Peyton Hillis, who sat out games due to strep throat when he might have actually been able to play. All of that added up to the Browns only scoring 20 plus points TWICE last year. Those must have been tough games for the Dog Pound to watch. The defense played good, but they can't score points on a regular basis. Pat Shurmur was brought in because he was suppose to fix the Browns offense, but he may have actually hurt it more than helped. It seems like they are back at phase one.
Biggest Question: What Will the Browns Do With the #4 Pick?
The Browns have been one of the rumored teams interested in trading up to the #2 spot for Robert Griffin. Most people think the Browns have the most ammunition. They have two first round picks in this year's Draft. You would think that would interest the Rams most. But with a team that has as many needs as the Browns, do they want to surrender two first round picks for one QB? If they stayed at #4, they could grab either Justin Blackmon or Trent Richardson to help Colt McCoy. Or they could grab Richardson at #4, a receiver with their #22 pick and sign Matt Flynn in the off-season. The Browns aren't going to get Peyton Manning, so it looks like it is either Flynn, Griffin, or another year of Colt McCoy. I don't think the Browns will want to go through another season of Colt. If they think Griffin is a franchise changing QB, then I would trade both 1st rounders for him. If not, I would keep the pick and try to sign Matt Flynn.
Top 3 Free Agents
1. Mike Adams: Safety
Adams had a good year last year. He lead the team with 3 interceptions and was good in run support.
2. Peyton Hillis: Running Back
When healthy and mentally in check, Hillis is one of the toughest runners in the NFL. He can take down would be tacklers with ease. But with all the questions surrounding him, it is highly unlikely Hillis is brought back.
3. Phil Dawson: Kicker
Dawson has been reliable for the Browns as a kicker. He went 24 for 29 on field goals this year, including 7 of 8 from deep. He received the franchise tag from the Browns, so he will probably be back.
Top 3 Needs
Colt McCoy is a serviceable back up, but it doesn't look like he is the long term answer for the Browns. They need new blood in their at QB.
2. Wide Receiver
Part of the problem is that the Browns don't have any weapons on offense. At all. They don't have a #1 WR on their roster, which is why Justin Blackmon is a possibility at #4.
3. Right Tackle
Tony Pashos surrendered seven sacks last year while starting at right tackle. If the Browns get a new QB, they will need to get him better protection.
The Browns still have a long way to go before they are competing for a Playoff spot. They don't have any bright spots on their offense to speak of right now. When your team needs a QB, RB and WR that is not a good sign. The Browns might struggle to score points again this year, which means it will be on their defense to keep them in the game. Defenses can only last so long. Eventually the offense has to score points. Even with an upgrade at every position, expect the Browns to be no more than a 6 win team this year.
Five down, six to go. NFC North Preview tomorrow.
Until Next Time,
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