The Big Ben and Joe Flacco days are over in the AFC North now, but it is still one of the closest divisions in the NFL. Four teams with elite superstars believe they can win it this year. Let’s take a look at what each team did this offseason, and what to expect from each AFC North team in our final preview before Sunday’s kickoff.
AFC North Preview
4. Cleveland Browns
Key losses – WR Rashard Higgins, CB M.J. Stewart, FB Andy Janovich, WR Jarvis Landry, TE Austin Hooper, C J.C. Tretter, QB Baker Mayfield, QB Case Keenum, LB Mack Wilson
Key additions – WR Jakeem Grant, QB Jacoby Brissett, QB Deshaun Watson, DT Taven Bryan, P Corey Bojorquez, C Ethan Pocic, WR Amari Cooper, DE Chase Winovich, CB Martin Emerson, LB Alex Wright, WR David Bell, K Cade York
Re-signed – DE Jadeveon Clowney (1-year), S Ronnie Harrison (1-year). RB D’Ernest Johnson (1-year), LB Anthony Walker Jr. (1-year)
Extensions – TE David Njoku (4-years, $56 million), CB Denzel Ward (5-years, $100 million), QB Deshaun Watson (5-years, $230 million)
Needless to say, it was a rough 2021 for the Browns as they finished 8-9. Even so, this off-season could’ve been even worse. They brought in some talent, but also criticism, by trading for quarterback Deshaun Watson. Watson will be suspended for the first 11 games of the season after receiving a huge contract and that could prove to be detrimental.
After a season ranked 18th in the NFL, the Browns offense could get off to a rough start. Due to Watson’s suspension, they will have Jacoby Brissett starting under center. They have a top-tier offensive line, but Brissett’s inability to be a quality starter will hold the offense back. They brought in receiver Amari Cooper to help, but with Donovan Peoples-Jones as your #2, they will be a bottom-tier group.
The line will help in the run game though. With the duo of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, they should be a top rushing team again. Harrison Bryant is back to try and prove he can be the long-term starter at tight end. This offense will struggle with Brissett, but should be top-ten with Watson.
The defense ranked third last season in total defense and will look to continue to repeat that success. The line has elite defensive end Myles Garrett, but I’m not sold on the other pieces there. Garrett can bolster them to a top-15 group, maximum. They have a nice linebacker room with Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah next to Anthony Walker, who should have a good season this year.
Their secondary is very good, with Denzel Ward being a star at cornerback. Greedy Williams and Greg Newsome II played great in coverage last season and could improve. The safety tandem is solid, even after a rough season last year from John Johnson III. This defense could fall from its ranking last season but should still be top-15.
This team would’ve been a playoff contender if it wasn’t for the Watson suspension. Since it happened, I have them finishing 6-11, and 3-3 against the AFC North. A bad start will hinder their chances.
3. Pittsburgh Steelers
Key losses – WR James Washington, ILB Joe Schobert, WR Juju Smith-Schuster, QB Ben Roethlisberger, WR Ray-Ray McCloud, OG Trai Turner
Key additions – OG James Daniels, ILB Myles Jack, C Mason Cole, QB Mitchell Trubisky, CB Levi Wallace, WR/ST Gunner Olszewski, S Damontae Kazee, DT Larry Ogunjobi, OL Jesse Davis, LB Malik Reed, QB Kenny Pickett, WR George Pickens, DL Demarvin Leal
Re-signed – CB Ahkello Witherspoon (2-years), S Terrell Edmunds (1-year)
Extensions – WR Diontae Johnson (2-years, $36 million)
Ben Roethlisberger’s last season ended after going 9-7-1, squeaking into the playoffs. They move now to quarterbacks Mitchell Trubisky and Kenny Pickett to compete for the job. Head coach Mike Tomlin is back looking to keep his streak alive of not having a losing season. However, it will be tough to do that in a loaded AFC.
Big Ben’s last year was anything but pretty. They finished 23rd in total offense, and they may have gotten worse. Wideout Juju Smith-Schuster left for Kansas City, and we don’t know how good — or not good — Trubisky or Pickett will be. Trubisky is starting week one, but with a bottom-three offensive line, he’ll have a tough time keeping the job.
Najee Harris is looking to improve on his 3.9 yards per carry last season. He showed signs of being a superstar in this league and will need to improve to keep that “future superstar” narrative.
The receiving corps is solid with Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool. They’re getting help from rookie receiver George Pickens, who has looked good so far. They’ll also have Pat Freiermuth at tight end, and he is looking to prove he can be the long-term option there.
The defense took a step back last season, and I expect them to remain in a similar spot. They ranked 24th in the league, but have one of the best pass rushes in the league. T.J. Watt and Cameron Heyward lead the way as some of the NFL’s best at their positions. A top-five line is followed by an improved linebacker room. Bringing in Myles Jack to play alongside Devin Bush could be a real force this season.
The secondary is what hurts the Steelers, and in a pass heavy league, that is not good. Levi Wallace is with Cameron Sutton and Ahkello Witherspoon, which creates a lackluster cornerback group. Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds is a great duo at safety, but I’m just not sure they can make up for the cornerbacks.
A new quarterback behind a bad offensive line will lead to a bad offense in 2022, and I believe Mike Tomlin’s streak will end. I have the Steelers going 7-10 after finishing 2-4 against the AFC North. The only chance at the playoffs is their defense carrying them.
2. Cincinnati Bengals
Key losses – OT Riley Reiff, TE C.J. Uzomah, OG Quinton Spain
Key additions – OT La’el Collins, C Ted Karras, TE Hayden Hurst, OG Alex Cappa, S Daxton Hill, CB Cam Taylor-Britt, DL Zachary Carter, C Ted Karras
Re-signed – CB Eli Apple (1-year), DT Josh Tupou (1-year), WR Stanley Morgan (2-years), QB Brandon Allen (1-year), Jessie Bates (Franchise Tag), DT B.J. Hill (3-years)
Extensions – HC Zac Taylor (5-years)
The Bengals reached the Super Bowl last season, and head coach Zac Taylor was rewarded with a 5-year extension. Even after last year’s run, they added more talent to their roster. Yet, they are still not looked at as real contenders. They finished 10-7 last season, so we’ll have to see if they can improve on that.
The offense is almost identical to last season with quarterback Joe Burrow leading the way. They finished 13th in the NFL last season in total offense after a monster season by Ja’Marr Chase. He is the center of one of the top receiving corps in the league. Burrow and Chase have the highest expectations for a QB-WR duo this season.
The offensive line has improved over the years, and is finally top-ten. They spent big there in free agency, and it should pay off. Three big moves in La’el Collins, Ted Karras, and Alex Cappa will help open up holes for running back Joe Mixon. This offense is going to keep getting better as their guys get more experience.
The Bengals finished 18th in total defense after ranking 26th in passing defense. They should still be solid against the run with great linebackers and defensive line. Germaine Pratt and Logan Wilson are looking to build off a strong 2021 as the starting linebackers. The strong season helped lead them to a fifth-ranked finish against the run.
The secondary is much improved with rookie safety Daxton Hill coming in. He will work with and next to an amazing duo of Jessie Bates III and Von Bell. Mike Hilton led the corners, and Chidobe Awuzie showed he can be the #2 in Cincy. Eli Apple has been inconsistent, but provides some help behind Hilton and Awuzie.
The national media isn’t sold on the Bengals, and neither am I. However, they will make the playoffs at 11-6, while going 4-2 against the AFC North. It was a surprise to see a Super Bowl run last year, and I would be surprised again this season.
1. Baltimore Ravens
Key losses – WR Marquise Brown, C Bradley Bozeman, CB Tavon Young, LB Chris Board, S Deshon Elliott, WR Sammy Watkins, CB Anthony Averett, P Sam Koch, OLB Jaylon Ferguson, DC Don Martindale
Key additions – S Marcus Williams, OT Morgan Moses, DT Michael Pierce, RB Mike Davis, CB Kyle Fuller, RB Kenyan Drake, S Kyle Hamilton, C Tyler Linderbaum, OLB David Ojabo, DT Travis Jones, P Jordan Stout
Re-signed – FB Patrick Richard (3-years), ILB Josh Bynes (1-year), DE Calais Campbell (2-years), DE Justin Houston (1-year)
Extensions – K Justin Tucker (4-years, $24 million), HC John Harbaugh (3-years)
It was a tough season for the Ravens last year, as they finished 8-9 and last in the AFC North. It felt like injury after injury for them, but now they are back and healthy. They traded away wideout Marquise Brown, as he wasn’t loving his time in Baltimore. With Lamar healthy and ready to go, they are looking to make it back to the playoffs.
Baltimore ranked sixth in total offense last season behind another great rushing attack. Lamar Jackson is looking to return to MVP form after a battle-filled 2021. Their offensive line has the potential to be great with Ronnie Stanley and Morgan Moses as the starting tackles. This will help the run-heavy Ravens wear down defenses with running backs J.K. Dobbins and Mike Davis.
The receiver room got weaker with the trade of Brown, but they still have some guys to watch. Rashod Bateman showed flashes of being able to be a #1 WR, but Devin Duvernay and Demarcus Robinson behind him could hold the group back. Tight end Mark Andrews is looking to continue being elite, as he’ll open up the field for Lamar.
The defense struggled last year, ranking 24th in total defense. The secondary should be back to being elite with Marcus Peters coming back from missing all of last season. With one of the best corners in Marlon Humphrey next to him, the cornerbacks are looking like the best group in the league. Marcus Williams joins the safety group alongside rookie Kyle Hamilton to create a scary tandem.
The defensive line is still solid with Calais Campbell and Michael Pierce. I’m waiting for Patrick Queen’s monster season, and it could be this year. The linebacker room is above average with Josh Bynes next to him. This defense is healthy again and should be top-five in the league.
I believe people are forgetting how good Lamar Jackson is. They are contenders, when healthy, and we’re going to be reminded about that this season. I have the Ravens finishing 12-5 after going 2-4 against the AFC North.