With rosters in place and training camps inching closer, it is time to evaluate what we know about each team. In this series, TGH will predict where each team will land in their division, and whether or not they will be in contention for the playoffs.
Today, the AFC North is evaluated.
First Place – Baltimore Ravens
After collecting the best record in the NFL in 2019 (14-2), the Ravens will once again run away with the AFC North.
Baltimore only had two key departures; Offensive guard Marshal Yanda, one of the best in the league, retired in the offseason, and tight end Hayden Hurst was traded to Atlanta. Those losses were counterbalanced by a great draft and some impressive free agent signings.
Their new duo of defensive end talent headline their offseason acquisitions. Derek Wolfe was signed from the Denver Broncos after a career-high in sacks in 2019. Then, in an incredible move, the Ravens immediately flipped the fifth round pick they received for Hayden Hurst to the Jacksonville Jaguars to acquire five-time Pro Bowler Calais Campbell.
The draft only bolstered their roster as they drafted the position-less defensive athlete Patrick Queen, an incredibly productive college running back in J.K. Dobbins and one of the most underrated players in the draft, defensive tackle Justin Madubuike.
Should Lamar Jackson return to MVP form, the receiving core benefit from another year in the system and the back end of the defense thrive after a full year together, this team could be close to unstoppable. Now, Harbaugh and the crew just have to turn it into postseason success.
Second Place – Cleveland Browns
Starting with the obvious, the Browns did the best thing they could have in the offseason; Replace their head coach. Freddie Kitchens was unproven and unready for the job, while Kevin Stefanski has experience working with a potential-filled quarterback and a talented receiving core. Honestly, that move should be enough for two to four more wins on its own.
Cleveland also addressed the biggest need on the entire roster via free agency. Jack Conklin signed a three-year, $42 million deal, and Browns fans will immediately see where that money went. He is one of the best tackles in the league and Baker Mayfield will be much more comfortable behind him.
Other, lower profile additions include Austin Hooper, an incredible red zone option at tight end and Karl Joseph, a veteran safety that can almost be a second defensive backs coach. Their draft was good, with the highlights being offensive tackle Jedrick Wills to pair with Conklin and LSU safety Grant Delpit.
The only thing to dislike about the Browns’ offseason is just how much defensive back talent the team lost. All told, Cleveland lost four back end players, while not necessarily replacing them with new starters, which could encourage teams to throw all over them.
Expect the Browns to leave the drama behind in 2020, with shifted focus and clearer goals. It will be hard to overcome the juggernaut Ravens in the AFC North, but they will be a threat to secure a Wild Card spot.
Third Place – Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers are in an interesting spot in 2020. It seems as if they can either thrive in the chaos they provoke with their defense, or fall victim to perceived offensive shortcomings. Perhaps even both, which makes their AFC North placement so hard to predict. The only way to do it is to take a look at the facts.
Pittsburgh’s 38-year-old quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, is coming off elbow surgery which kept him out of 14 of 16 games in 2019. While their backups were sometimes serviceable, they did not quite inspire confidence, and the team leaned on its turnover-dependent defense.
However, that defense, led by T.J. Watt and the newly-acquired Minkah Fitzpatrick was excellent, and carried them to their 8-8 record. Although they missed the playoffs, the Steelers found an identity. The team no longer has to lean on their strong arm QB and weapons like Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell, who both left for objectively worse situations.
Pittsburgh’s only real loss on defense was Javon Hargrave, which they can overcome. They did not lose any key pieces on offense, either. The bad news is, the Minkah Fitzpatrick trade, for all the good it did the team, still robbed them of a first round selection. Their 2020 draft, as a result, was nothing special.
This team seems to be one of the biggest question marks in the league. If “Big Ben” stays upright then they could shock the AFC North. If he misses even a few games, the offense seems too anemic to overtake the new-look Browns. Where the Steelers place is anyone’s guess, but third feels about right if Cleveland can get their act together.
Fourth Place – Cincinnati Bengals
Well, the Bengals certainly have the shiniest toy of anyone on the playground to start 2020.
After their abysmal 2-14 season, the Bengals selected Joe Burrow first overall. Considering the aging of Andy Dalton and the fact that Burrow had (maybe) the most impressive college football season of all time, the pick made perfect sense.
Plus, the Bengals now have a receiving core for Burrow that rivals anyone’s. A.J. Green, John Ross, Tyler Boyd and now Tee Higgins are all fantastic weapons for a quarterback who needs as many throwing reps as he can get. Not to mention Joe Mixon, who puts up AFC-best numbers even with a terrible offensive line.
The defense improved a bit, but the acquisitions were nothing to get too excited about. Vonn Bell and D.J. Reader would be nice pieces on a playoff-ready team, but the Bengals will still struggle on that side of the ball.
As mentioned above, the real problem is the offensive line. If the Bengals line is not injured, it is underperforming. The line may prove to be a nightmare for a rookie quarterback looking to make his mark. That is what will hamstring Cincinnati in the 2020 season.
With some bolstering in the right places, one could make an argument for the Bengals placing higher in the AFC North, especially if they play well against their own division. But the youth and the holes will be too much to overcome this season. Just wait ’til next year.
Featured Image courtesy of The Boston Globe
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