This is the second installment of our 2016 NFL Off-Season recap and preview articles. After discussing the AFC West a couple weeks ago, we move on to the AFC North. The division has been one with much parity over the past decade, with three different teams holding AFC North division titles in the last four seasons.
Last year, the Cincinnati Bengals were able to take advantage of the situations going on throughout the division. The Baltimore Ravens had many injuries that put winning on the back-burner to getting healthy. The Pittsburgh Steelers dealt with a lackluster defense that couldn’t keep up with their high-powered offense. The Cleveland Browns were the Browns. All of this came together in a thrilling AFC Wild Card game that saw the Steelers edging out the Bengals by two points.
Cleveland finished the season in fourth place in the division for the fifth straight year. They had a tough time finding a starting quarterback, as they shuffled between Josh McCown, Johnny Manziel, and Austin Davis. They never seemed to get off on the right foot. WR Josh Gordon was still suspended, so the offense was reliant on a bunch of unknowns including TE Gary Barnidge and RB Duke Johnson. Lucky for Cleveland, these players were able to find a role and succeed in a season that was mostly lost.
The Browns lost five impact players from the 2015 roster. C Alex Mack, DB Tashaun Gipson, RT Mitchell Schwartz, LB Karlos Dansby, and WR Travis Benjamin were all lost to other teams in free agency. This left some pretty large holes on an offensive line that was questionable at best. Mack and Schwartz both started all 16 games, and Mack was selected to his third Pro-Bowl. Gipson was a Pro-Bowl selection in 2014, but he suffered from a statistical regression when he began to play snaps at both CB and FS. Dansby started all 16 games last year, but his production has dipped with age. Benjamin was forced to be a number one receiver in Cleveland, and he responded with his best season of his career. Unfortunately, he was overpaid for his one season of success by San Diego.
Manziel was released by the Browns in March, but he was not picked up by any other organization. The quarterback proved to be a complete waste of a first-round pick by the Browns. His off-field antics have resulted in a complete collapse of his short NFL career. If he were to come back to a team, he will have to sit out the first four games due to suspension.
To replace some of these departing pieces the Browns brought in QB Robert Griffin III and LB Demario Davis. After his knee injury in Washington, RG3 never truly returned to his Pro-Bowl form. His running ability was contained, and he seemed to lose a big part of his game. The second pick in the 2012 Draft was replaced by Kirk Cousins and was eventually allowed to walk in free agency. Davis has not missed a game in his four year career. He will be expected to play a pivotal role in the Browns defense, and hopefully he can bring more than Dansby had in his later years.
WR Corey Coleman out of Baylor was the team’s first-round pick. He should make an impact in his rookie season as the number one receiver, atleast until Gordon comes back.
Prediction: Cleveland will be much better off if they let RG3 be the athlete he can be. When he is allowed to play to his full potential, he can be an extremely effective weapon. We also get to see Josh Gordon in week five. I see the Browns finishing in fourth place in the division once again, but their record will improve slightly to 5-11.
The Ravens finished the season in third place with a record of 5-11. The lack of success by Baltimore was due to many injuries to significant pieces on the roster. LB Terrell Suggs was injured in the season opener and missed the entire year. WR Steve Smith suffered a season-ending injury in week eight that severely limited the amount of offensive weapons for Joe Flacco. In week 10, Flacco and RB Justin Forsett were lost for the season. Four stars missed significant time, and it was unfair to expect anything great from the remainder of the roster.
The three biggest losses for the Ravens during the offseason were G Kelechi Osemele, LB Courtney Upshaw, and LB Daryl Smith. Osemele has been a staple on the offensive line in Baltimore for four years. He will likely be replaced by his backup, so that could be a significant loss. Upshaw has started nearly every game the last two seasons, and Smith has played every game in his three seasons with Baltimore. The linebackers are being replaced by some younger players who have come into the league over the last two seasons.
LT Eugene Monroe also decided to retire before the age of 30. The offensive line was already taking a hit with the loss of Osemele, and now with Monroe becoming a free agent before retiring, the Ravens had to use their first-round pick on a new left tackle.
Baltimore brought in WR Mike Wallace, FS Eric Weddle, and TE Benjamin Watson to make it just a little easier on Joe Flacco. Wallace has had little success since leaving the Steelers in 2013, but the Ravens are hoping that he will fill the hole that Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones left a couple years ago. He may be able to stretch the field, and he has a quarterback who throws the deep ball extremely well. Watson had a career resurgence last season with New Orleans. He now will replace the hole left by Owen Daniels and Dennis Pitta, who have been go to guys for Flacco. Weddle will be the leader of the secondary. His hard-hitting ability will bring back some of the attitude to the defense that they were missing.
OT Ronnie Stanley was drafted with the sixth pick in this year’s draft. He will slide into replace Monroe as the backside protector. The transition is always difficult, but I believe Stanley has the talent to make a quick move into the LT spot.
Prediction: The Ravens will improve from last year, simply from returning healthy players. Watson and Weddle also bring significant improvement to positions of need. I can see the Ravens going 8-8. This is not because I think they are a bad team, I just believe the North is such a tough division that it will be difficult for the top three teams to all have an above .500 win percentage.
A divisional round exit was the end of, what looked like, a promising season for the black and gold. They finished the regular season 10-6, which was good enough for second in the AFC North and a Wild Card spot in the playoffs. The extremely talented offense did exactly what we expected them to, but when Le’Veon Bell suffered a season ending injury in November, it looked like their season could be in jeopardy. Backup RB DeAngelo Williams showed why he was one of the franchise running backs in Carolina for the past decade. He took the reigns and never looked back. Unfortunately for them, the Steelers ran into to the eventual Super Bowl Champion Denver Broncos, who were not letting anything stop them on their way to a Lombardi Trophy.
In Free Agency, Pittsburgh only really lost two big pieces. They lost LT Kelvin Beachum to Jacksonville and DT Steve McLendon to the Jets. Beachum started the first six games for the Steelers before suffering a season-ending injury. Army veteran Alejandro Villanueva stepped right in and performed in his first season in the NFL. His 6’9″ stature allows him to really get that leverage on defenders on the left side. He should be able to improve and make a jump entering his second NFL season. Not to mention they brought in a LT in free agency. McLendon appeared in all 16 games last year, but his play never really appeared on the stat sheet. He recorded only 11 tackles, but his ability to plug the hole earned him a three-year contract worth north of $10 million.
Franchise TE Heath Miller announced his retirement from football. Although his yards and touchdown numbers were never staggering, Heath was always known for being a primary target for QB Ben Roethlisberger. He converted many big plays in key third-down scenarios for the Steelers, and his presence will be missed by Pittsburgh fans and NFL fans worldwide.
To replace Miller, Ladarius Green was brought in and given a four-year deal. Green was expected to be the incumbent to Antonio Gates’ job in San Diego, but never really got the opportunity with Gates still playing at an NFL level. Green brings a more athletic skill set to the TE position, that can spread out the offense more than it already will be. Pittsburgh also brought in LT Ryan Harris to replace Beachum. Harris has played in every game the last four seasons and will look to bring stability and veteran leadership to a pretty solid offensive line.
With their first-round draft pick Miami Hurricanes CB Artie Burns was selected to Pittsburgh. He will certainly need some time to transition to the NFL, but will bring improvement to a Steelers’ defense that was not very impressive last season.
Prediction: As of right now, the Steelers have Le’Veon Bell suspended for four games and WR Martavis Bryant suspended the entire season. This will certainly impact the offensive output of Roethlisberger’s unit, but not as much as everyone may believe. Williams has proved that he can be a suitable replacement for a short period of time, and the receiving options in Pittsburgh already include Antonio Brown and Markus Wheaton, two of the better young talents in the NFL. I expect the Steelers to finish in first place in the division with a record of 11-5.
Cincinnati won the AFC North with a 12-4 record. This was their fourth division title since the turn of the century. The team remained extremely healthy for a majority of the season, but QB Andy Dalton suffered an injury when it mattered most. A.J. McCarron was shoved into the fire in the final three weeks of the season. He finished 2-1 in the regular season. Head Coach Marvin Lewis remained hopeful that Dalton would be able to return in the playoffs, but that was not the case. McCarron made his first playoff start against the Steelers in the Wild Card round. If Dalton had never gotten injured, they may have made it to the AFC Championship Game.
Due to their success in the 2015 season, Free Agency was not very kind to Cincinnati. They lost many key pieces including WR Mohamed Sanu, WR Marvin Jones, FS Reggie Nelson, and RT Andre Smith. Their number two and three receiving options, Sanu and Jones, accounted for 98 receptions last year, and without them, there will be a lack of chemistry between the deeper pieces on the depth chart and Andy Dalton. Luckily, they were able to obtain a viable number two option, and they still have Brandon Tate, who is okay as a third or fourth option. Nelson was named to the Pro-Bowl last season and led the league in interceptions with eight. He will leave a HUGE hole in the Bengals secondary. Smith started 14 games at right tackle, and he will most likely be replaced by Eric Winston, who has had a solid ten year career in Houston, Kansas City, Arizona, and Cincinnati.
CB Leon Hall, now 31, is a free agent and may be too old to contribute in any significant way. He may get resigned after training camp, so he does not have to go through the daily grind. Without him, Dre Kirkpatrick and Adam “Pacman” Jones are the only significant players left at the CB spot.
The Bengals brought in WR Brandon LaFell to replace Jones and Sanu. LaFell had a forgettable season last year after a solid season with the Patriots in 2014. LaFell has a similar skill set to Jones and should be able to slide in quickly. The team also brought in Karlos Dansby. Although he was underwhelming in Cleveland, he may be able to contribute in a defense that more suits his style of play.
William Jackson III out of Houston was their first-round selection at 24th overall. Jackson will likely start as third on the depth chart and will be able to contribute in some way. Hopefully by the end of the season, he is more comfortable and is somewhat adjusted to the speed of the NFL.
Prediction: The Bengals will regress with some of the lost pieces. I think Reggie Nelson will be a significant loss, and TE Tyler Eifert will probably start the season off on the injury report. I expect to see Cincinnati finishing second in the division with a 10-6 record. They could be better, but there secondary will struggle at points throughout the season.