Saturday, July 14, 2012

NFL Off-Season Preview: AFC North Edition

We are less than two months away from the start of the NFL season. Less than a month away from the start of training camp. The NFL season is slowly creeping up on us. Its my favorite sport, and now that I no longer have any type of schooling to go to, its my favorite time of year as well. Summer is fun, but fall means football, and you can't top that.

Much like I did with my off-season previews, I will break down each of my Season Previews into eight parts, looking at each division individually. I'm going to try and churn one of these out every week leading up to the start of the season. There shouldn't be any major roster moves between now and the start of the season. There will be the typical injury or two during the pre-season, but everything is set enough now that I feel confident starting these previews.

The first division I will look at will be the AFC North, a division that produced 3 Playoff teams last year. The Ravens and Steelers have been the class of the division the last couple years, and their rivalry is one of the most heated in not only the NFL, but all of sports. Both teams, however, are aging and may be facing a bit of a decline in the coming years. The Bengals surprised everyone last year by going 10-6 and making the Playoffs. And then there is the Browns, a team that is rebuilding and are facing another year in the basement cellar.

So, with that quick preview out of the way, lets get in depth with each team.

1. Baltimore Ravens
The Ravens were one play away from going to the Super Bowl last year. They went into Foxboro and hung with the Patriots every step of the way. But Lee Evans couldn't hang on to the football in the end zone, and Billy Cundiff missed a chip shot field goal, and the Ravens were once again left on the outside looking in. Now the Ravens face a very real possibility of not making the Super Bowl again with this core group in tact. Ed Reed and Ray Lewis are both in their upper 30s. And not only is the defense getting old, but it is also facing injuries and the season hasn't started yet. Terrell Suggs tore his Achilles in the off-season and he may not play at all in the 2012 season. On offense, the Ravens are waiting for Joe Flacco to take that next step and get the team into the Super Bowl. The Ravens may be aging, but I still think they are the team to beat in the AFC North.

Key Arrivals: G Bobbie Williams, OLB Courtney Upshaw
Key Losses: NT Cory Redding, OLB Jarret Johnson, CB Chris Carr, G Ben Grubbs

With Suggs out for most the year, the team will rely heavily on Rookie Courtney Upshaw to produce. Williams will be a good replacement for Grubbs, but it is still a step down.

Burning Question: How Would A Ray Rice Holdout Effect The Ravens?
Ray Rice wants a long term deal, somewhere in the money range that Adrian Peterson got. That's 7 years, $96 million. The Ravens aren't willing to give Rice that kind of money yet. So if Rice holds out, he could be looking at a slow time to get up to pace. Chris Johnson was the same way last year. The Ravens can't afford that. Rice IS the Ravens offense. He's their workhorse back. Joe Flacco looks to him a lot when he has no other options downfield. Rice is explosive out of the backfield. Without Rice, the Ravens offense would sputter. Anquan Boldin is declining in skill, and Torrey Smith can't run streak routes all game. Any type of long term Ray Rice holdout will be a big problem for the Ravens offense.

Not only are the Ravens an aging team facing a holdout with their best player, they also have a ridiculously tough schedule this year. But the Ravens are a veteran team and know how to face tough challenges. While some people think they may be facing a decline, I think they have enough left in the tank to make another run at the division. I don't think Ray Rice will holdout for long. Eventually, the Ravens front office will realize how much Rice is worth and give him the deal he deserves. As long as the defense can hold it together, the Ravens will be a Playoff team. Ray Lewis is one of the best motivators in the game, and I expect him to be on his defense every play of the year. I'm picking the Ravens to win the division.

Final Record: 10-6

2. Pittsburgh Steelers
I guarantee most previews you read will either have the first two places in this division just like this, or flip flopped. I really don't think there is much of a difference between these two teams. I think the Ravens are a little better on offense thanks to Ray Rice, while the Steelers are a little better on defense. Another reason I picked the Ravens over the Steelers because at some point, Ben Roethlisberger will get hurt. It is one of the unwritten rules of the NFL season. Despite the improvements the Steelers made on the offensive line this past season, it will still happen. They will also be without Rashard Mendenhall this season after he suffered a torn ACL in Week 17 last year. The defense, despite being #1 against the pass last year, was torched by Tim Tebow in the playoffs. Including an 80 yard touchdown pass on the first play of overtime. Its something to think about going into the season. Was it a fluke or a sign of things to come?

Key Additions: G David DeCastro, T Mike Adams
Key Losses: T Max Starks, G Chris Kemoeatu, LB James Farrior, DE Aaron Smith

The Steelers didn't add much in free agency. They will rely on their two rookie first round picks to fill in immediately on the offensive line. The Steelers have depth on defense so the loss of Farrior and Smith won't hurt too much.

Burning Question: Was the Playoffs A Fluke Or A Sign Of Things To Come?
Tim Tebow is not a passing wizard, so him throwing for 316 yards against the then #1 pass defense in the league could be a cause for concern heading into the season. Now of course, the Steelers were missing Ryan Clark for that game because of a rare disorder he has that would have threatened his life if he played in the high altitude of Denver. But still, the Steelers were torched pretty easily on some big plays. Ike Taylor was burned badly on the last pass from scrimmage. Troy Polamalu is still one of the best safeties in the league, but he hasn't been able to stay healthy the last couple years. The Steelers defense is also getting very old. Projected starters Larry Foote, Ike Taylor and James Harrison are all in their 30s. There is young depth on the team, but they don't have much starting experience. Just like the Ravens, the Steelers have to be worried about the age of their starters and if they can stay healthy the whole season.

As I said, I think the Steelers and Ravens could be interchangeable, and I could see why some people would have the Steelers ahead of the Ravens. But the Steelers seem to always have problems staying healthy. They usually lose about 2 offensive linemen every year, and that puts the health of Ben Roethlisberger in jeopardy. The Steelers also have a holdout of their own to worry about. WR Mike Wallace wants a big money, long term deal and just like the Ravens with Ray Rice, the Steelers aren't budging. I may be in the minority, but I see the Steelers taking a slight decline this year. They always seem to find a way to win despite injuries and sluggish offensive play, but I don't know if that happens this year. Lots of teams made improvements in the AFC this year, and the Steelers didn't do much.

Final Record: 9-7

3. Cincinnati Bengals
Remember the beginning of last season? I think I said the Bengals were going to be the worst team in the league. They had a rookie QB, a rookie WR, and a young defense. There was no way that team was winning more than four games. Well, they proved every NFL analyst there is wrong. Andy Dalton played much better than a rookie, A.J. Green was a surprise, and the defense came together as a unit and was one of the better defenses in the league. The Bengals won ten games and found their way into the last Wild Card spot in the AFC. But don't let the 10-6 record completely fool you. While the Bengals did play well, they also didn't beat a single Playoff team last year. They were 0-6 against them. The Bengals have a tougher schedule this year. They play the AFC West and NFC East. Both divisions are full of good teams. This year will be the real test for the Bengals.

Key Additions: RB Ben Jarvis Green Ellis, CB Terence Newman, G Travelle Whorton, CB Dre Kirkpatrick, G Kevin Zeitler
Key Departures: RB Cedric Benson, WR Jerome Simpson, G Nate Livings, DE Jonathan Fanene, LB Keith Rivers

The Bengals could have used an upgrade on offense to help Andy Dalton. Instead, they replaced Cedric Benson with Ben Jarvis Green Ellis, which I think is actually a down grade. Green-Ellis isn't an every down back. They replaced Simpson and Andre Caldwell with two rookies. Looks like they are trying to catch lightning in a bottle like they did with A.J. Green. The Bengals have enough depth on defense that the losses of Fanene and Rivers won't hurt.

Burning Question: Can the Bengals Avoid A Sophomore Slump?
Cincinnati took a surprising leap forward last season. But was it too quick too soon? After making the Playoffs last year, fans will be expecting big things from them this season, even with a tougher schedule. But do the Bengals have the offensive fire power to keep up with better teams? They ranked in the bottom half of the league in touchdowns and didn't do much to improve the offense. The Bengals can't feed off bad teams again to inflate their record. Hell, even the Browns have a decent defense that will be tough to put points up against. When rookies play well, they normally tend to regress a bit during their second season. Opposing teams will no longer be surprised by Dalton and Green any more. They will know what to expect when they play the Bengals this year.

The Bengals have some promising young talent on their team and their future looks bright. The problem, however, is that they have a tough schedule this year and they play in the very tough AFC North. If Dalton and Green can improve on their rookie campaign then the Bengals may have a shot at winning the AFC North. The Bengals defense will miss CB Leon Hall this season, who will likely miss at least half of it this year while recovering from a torn Achilles. The talent is there, but I still think the Bengals are one year away from taking over the reigns in the AFC North. I expect them to take a step back this year and experience a slight sophomore slump.

Final Record: 8-8

4. Cleveland Browns
And then we have the Cleveland Browns, a team that is in complete rebuild mode under coach Pat Shurmur and GM Mike Holmgren. They are starting to put their stamp on this team, and that was evident by this year's Draft. The team drafted their QB of the future (Brandon Weeden) and RB of the future (Trent Richardson) with their first two picks. Weeden is a bit of a different prospect. He will be 29 years old in October, not the typical age of your average rookie QB. Being older will help, but it also gives him less time to adjust his game to the NFL. Most Browns fans know they have a long season ahead of them. Maybe they hope they catch lightning in a bottle like the Bengals did last year. But with the schedule that the Browns are facing, that task seems very difficult.

Key Additions: DE Frostee Rucker, QB Brandon Weeden, RB Trent Richardson
Key Departures: RB Peyton Hillis, G Eric Steinbach

The Browns weren't big players in free agency. They made their major moves during the Draft.

Burning Question: How Can The Browns Avoid A Disappointing Season?
There's no way around it. The Browns may end up being the worst team in the NFL this year. They have a rookie QB, rookie WR, and no stand out weapons on offense. Their defense is okay, but that won't help the team score any points this season. I think all Cleveland fans can really ask for is that the team shows signs of improvement towards the end of the year. They will struggle early, but the rookies need to show that they can be the future of the team by the end of the year. Brandon Weeden needs to show he wasn't a reach at the end of the first round. Trent Richardson needs to show he can be an every down back in the NFL. If the Browns are still getting blown out at the end of the season, then they may still be facing some long years ahead. And they may be looking at drafting Matt Barkley #1 overall in the 2013 Draft.

If the Browns finish somewhere other than last place in the AFC North, then something happened. Either they made a trade to acquire Tom Brady, the entire AFC North got hurt, or they sold their souls to the devil. I'm trying not to be mean, but I just can't see the Browns winning more than 4 games this year. The talent just isn't there, and the division is too strong for them to make a surprise run.

Final Record: 3-13

One division down, seven to go. Up Next: NFC North

Until Next Time,
Justin C
Follow Me On Twitter @JCWonka

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