Things aren’t the norm in the AFC North this year.
For the first time since the NFL moved to four divisions per conference in 2002, the Browns are the betting favorite in the North.
Between Baker Mayfield’s impressive rookie season, the new offensive weapons at his fingertips, and Pittsburgh’s loss of Antonio Brown, things are shifting fast in this always-competitive division. The Steelers could still be dangerous, but they have more questions than usual.
The same goes for the Baltimore Ravens. They’re largely hoping for the passing and decision-making development of QB Lamar Jackson, who certainly has the athleticism to be a game-changer at this level.
Another big question for Baltimore is their replacements on defense. Losing key contributors on all three levels is never easy.
Neither is losing your No. 1 playmaker, as Brown had been for the Steelers. The disgruntled wideout was sent to Oakland in a trade and now Pittsburgh is hoping to find enough production across from JuJu Smith-Schuster at wide receiver.
Cleveland shouldn’t have much to worry about with old college buddies Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry at WR. But they’ll have their fair share of questions on the defensive side of things still.
Will all their offensive talent be enough to carry them to their first division title since 1989? On MyBookie, they’re listed at +140 odds to win the North.
So here’s a breakdown of what will make or break their bid, and the three teams—even the Bengals— competing against them.
Cleveland Browns +140
This is easily the most talented team Cleveland has had since coming back into the league in 1999.
Mayfield became an undisputed franchise quarterback once Hugh Jackson (head coach) and Todd Haley (offensive coordinator) were fired last year. The Browns made the smart move to promote interim OC Freddie Kitchens to head coach to keep that continuity with Mayfield.
With the QB settled in, the pieces have started to fall into the place around him.
Though it’s been well documented, it’s worth saying once again that this team is extremely deep at receiver. In terms of raw talent, Antonio Callaway could be a No. 1 receiver. He stretches the field like very few receivers. And he’s probably the fourth best pass-catcher on this team.
Beckham Jr. and Landry will lead the way and are a great blend of a deep threat and a reliable chain-mover. David Njoku at tight end is likely to leap up to the level of O.J. Howard or even George Kittle in terms of young guys at the position. He’s a freakish athlete and becoming a better route-runner by the day.
Running back won’t be a problem for this team either. Nick Chubb is developing into a better all-around back. And if they end up keeping Duke Johnson, they’ll have a very capable pass-catcher out of the backfield.
And if trade him instead, they’ll be getting another dynamic receiving halfback eventually. That would be Kareem Hunt, who will serve an eight-game suspension but was a great value pick-up for this team if he gets his head straight.
The line is not completely solidified. Besides Joel Bitonio, I’m not sold on the guard play.
The trade of Kevin Zeitler for Olivier Vernon wasn’t my favorite because I think Cleveland is a little too confident in their depth on the O-line. But compared to the majority of teams at these positions, it looks like a nitpick.
So the question becomes, did the team make the defensive improvements to be a well-balanced club?
Vernon should be a reliable pass-rushing source in the immediate future. He and Myles Garrett (13.5 sacks in 2018) should provide copious pressure.
And beefing up the interior line with Sheldon Richardson was huge too. For a team that gave up the 5th-most rush yards-per-game last year, he was a crucial add in free agency to clog the middle.
It’ll be a little interesting to see how the linebackers fair. Jamie Collins was sent packing after leading the team in tackles in 2018. Joe Schobert is reliable in the middle, but not an otherworldly talent. So it’ll be intriguing to see how much play-time draft picks Sione Takitaki and Mack Wilson get.
The secondary is in much better shape now with the presumable steal of Greedy Williams in the second round. If his tackling improves, he could become the best value pick of the round.
With Denzel Ward having an encouraging rookie campaign, the loss of Jabrill Peppers in the secondary shouldn’t hurt as much.
Pittsburgh Steelers +175
It’s been a while since Pittsburgh didn’t have the best offensive skill players in the division.
But even with Brown gone, Smith-Schuster had already come close to supplanting him as the team’s No. 1 wideout.
Finding a suitable No. 2 for the Steelers might take some time. Besides Brown and Smith-Schuster, there were no other Steeler wide receivers to reach 300 yards. Donte Moncrief might have to be a temporary solution on the other side.
There’s no doubt the pass-game will still be very active. Ben Roethlisberger probably wouldn’t allow it to be any different. But so many of his passes were forced last year, that it seems this team could use a few more carries from James Connor.
The former Pitt running back replaced Le’Veon Bell in wonderful fashion last season, becoming a Pro Bowler in the process. They’re going to need even more out of him this year to return to the playoffs. But don’t count out the potential of Benny Snell Jr. either, even if he was only a 4th round pick.
They will have to deal with the loss of Marcus Gilbert at tackle. But the veteran-laden group should still be a major strength for one more year.
A unit that certainly wasn’t a quality one in 2018 was the secondary. Steven Nelson seems to be the brightest spot at corner now, but that’s still not saying a ton. Terrell Edmunds still has a major learning curve at safety and Joe Haden may or may not keep his job across from Nelson.
CB Justin Layne was a huge 3rd round selection for them, a rare mix of great talent and need that far back in the draft. He’ll have a chance to start later in the season.
It can be argued that linebacker was just as big of a concern for Pittsburgh. Grabbing Devin Bush in the top-10 and adding Mark Barron in free agency should answer their questions inside.
There’s a collection of pass-rushing talent coming back too. T.J. Watt and Cameron Hayward are the obvious stars on the line. Stephon Tuitt gets plenty of love too, as he should. But DT Javon Hargrave is a very undervalued contributor in the middle, ranked in the top-20 among interior linemen.
Baltimore Ravens +300
Baltimore had a tough task this spring. Not only did they need to re-tool their defense after losing four top players. They also needed to add skill talent around their QB of the future, Lamar Jackson.
The losses of MLB C.J. Mosley and edge rusher Za’Darius Smith were critical, but they got some outrageous money from their new teams. Terrell Suggs and Eric Weddle were other leaders lost, but the Ravens found a replacement for the latter.
Earl Thomas is coming off a significant leg injury. But anywhere near 100%, he’s elite. The Thomas-Tony Jefferson combo will be a dangerous one at safety. CB Marlon Humphrey’s progression into a top-15 CB after two years makes him more than worth the first round pick the Ravens used on him.
And Brandon Carr, despite being the unsung guy of the group, caused the 8th-worst QB rating by opponents last season, even better than Humphrey.
As for replacing Mosley, Smith, and Suggs, things were a bit tougher. Patrick Onwuaser is a worthy fill-in, but it doesn’t answer the questions on the outside for Baltimore. They’re going to be fine against the run with their DT’s, but the edge-rushing could take a big hit.
But it was the trade-off they took in order to improve their skill positions.
Even with John Brown off to Buffalo, Marquise “Hollywood” Brown will allow Baltimore to all but forget the departure. The latter Brown could develop into the best wide receiver the Ravens have ever had. Now Jackson has him and Willie Snead to throw to, though Michael Crabtree is unlikely to return.
Was their most important offensive free agent pickup. The running back position was solid down the stretch of the regular season for the Ravens. But that crumbled in the playoffs, primarily because Jackson was bottled up.
Getting a physical back like Ingram and a good insurance policy in Justice Hill in the draft should boost their offensive repertoire.
Protecting Jackson will continue to be the greatest desire for the Ravens and the o-line changed very little in the off-season. Guard Marshal Yanda and tackle Ronnie Stanley bring a lot of stability for the run and pass.
Cincinnati Bengals +1400
With three quality teams in their division, the Bengals are probably in the running for the No. 1 pick this year.
QB Andy Dalton has been rather unspectacular as of late. A.J. Green, his best target, hasn’t been able to stay healthy. Joe Mixon has panned out well like many thought he would as a second-round steal. But besides that, 2018 breakout Tyler Boyd is really the only other one to get excited about on offense.
Pumping up a weak offensive line with Jonah Williams in the first round has them moving in the right direction. But they also re-signed Bobby Hart to a three-year contract for over $16M, the Bobby Hart that ranks 69th among tackles.
Cordy Glenn and Billy Price were both substandard last year too. And when the Bengals had a chance to add to their line or any number of needed positions, they took a tight end instead.
They also moved up in the fourth round to get quarterback Ryan Finley, showing they may not have that much confidence in Andy Dalton as they once did.
Flipping over to other side of the ball, the Bengals were really uneven last year on D.
It’s hard to complain too much about the secondary. Their two leading tacklers, Shawn Williams, and Jessie Bates, are well-rounded safeties. Bates was especially good for only being 21 on the free side. The corners were only a half-step behind these guys.
The linebacking group was an even bigger hole, and now Vontaze Burfict is gone to Oakland. He had clearly lost a step and was too injury prone. But keeping Preston Brown on the inside and not drafting an LB until the third round is a pretty uninspired effort to fill a large hole.
Though the Bengals moved on from a few players they needed to rid themselves of and finally replaced their coach, they have a long way to go.
The Ravens do look better on the back end of the defense with Thomas there now. But this was at the expense of their pass-rush. They lost a lot of leadership on that side of the ball.
Though they have their most skilled wide receiver in some time, there’s some uncertainty of how Jackson’s throws will develop. He’s been getting good marks for the offseason he’s having. He also has a veteran running back that’s not afraid to pick up a blitz and stand his ground.
Between that in the O-line coming back, the Ravens are balanced enough right now to make a playoff run.
For the Steelers, they did the opposite of Baltimore. They loaded up defensively but lost skill talent on offense. Still, if they hadn’t lost Brown, the whole discussion of this division would be different.
Cleveland has clearly built an offensive juggernaut. I already predicted it’d be enough to at least get them a wild-card spot. And though there’s a lot of potential prima donnas on the roster, I’m pulling the trigger on them winning the division.
The Steelers have been there done that, and that will keep them breathing down the Browns’ throats all year. But aside from inside linebacker, there’s not much to complain about with Cleveland. They have the pass-rush and improved it without dipping much in the secondary.
And that’s to go with the abundance of pass-catchers, young running backs with plenty of promise, and one of the top-5 O-lines from last year.
So while the Steelers and Ravens always seem to be at the top by the end of the season, it’s time to start believing this Browns team is for real.