AFC North Preview 2020
The AFC North has had many battles over the years but has mostly been controlled by the Ravens and Steelers, as both Cleveland and Cincinnati have had a hard time keeping up recently. The Ravens are still one of the most complete teams in football with an absolutely electric offense and a menacing defense. The Steelers fought their way through injuries in 2019 and should be better with those players returning. Their defense took strides last year after a couple uncharacteristic years. The Browns will hope another new head coach rejuvenates the team and actually helps them win. They have players but haven't been able to put it togther. The Bengals have another tough year ahead in their rebuild, leaving this still as a 2 team race.
Offense: Baltimore has one of the best offensive units in the league. QB Lamar Jackson burst onto the scene in his second season with a dual-threat ability that perfectly complemented their backs and receivers. They have playmakers all over the field, making this an almost impossible team to defend and keeping opponents guessing.
Outside Linebacker: Ravens' OLBs have always been known for pass-rushing, and that remains a vital part of their defense. Veterans Matthew Judon (9.5 sacks in 2019) and Pernell McPhee will lead the way, while Tyus Bowser and Jaylon Ferguson (NCAA's all-time sack leader) look to emerge as key reserves.
Corner: Marlon Humphrey, Marcus Peters, Jimmy Smith- three strong names and players to lead a secondary. All these guys have a knack for making plays, and each has been a top NFL DB at some point in their career. Should be another strong unit.
Defensive Line: Calais Campbell, Brandon Williams, and Derek Wolfe will be a good starting unit, but I'm not sure about their reserves. They have a couple promising rookie DTs, but only one reserve DE. I know their defense doesn't rely so much on that position, but you'd like to see it be deeper than that. Like I said, they're a really good team, so I had to nit-pick a bit.
Safety: Now that Earl Thomas is out, they only have one player cemented as a starting safety (Chuck Clark). The other players at the position on the current roster include 2 rookies and 2 young veterans with experience as reserves. Someone has big shoes to fill in Baltimore.
With this running game, someone is about to make themselves known. Last year, it was Gus Edwards. This year, I was torn between Justice Hill and rookie J.K. Dobbins, but I went with the 2nd year strictly because he has a year in the NFL under his belt. Hill had 58 carries as a rookie, not a lot but enough to get a taste of what he can expect. In college at Oklahoma State, Hill showed abilities as a run and as a receiver, finishing his 3 year career with 3,843 yards from scrimmage. A back with those capabilities should cut out a role and thrive in this offense.
How does Nick Boyle play as the consensus #2 TE?
Mark Andrews's breakout season made Hayden Hurst expendable. While Hurst didn't light the world on fire, he was a better player than most of the other tight ends on their roster. Nick Boyle is clearly the 2nd best and will slide into the vacated role. He's been productive in his career. We'll see how he responds to the expanded role.
Does the offensive line continue to gel?
They've got great, young players who have started their careers on extremely positive notes. The fact that they've gotten to grow together and achieve success early in their careers should help them as they continue to develop. Hopefully, that's exactly what happens, because they're a key cog in the machine.
Who replaces Earl Thomas?
I tackled this in the section above, but it needs to be listed here as well. It's a potential issue that people didn't see coming and will need to be addressed.
Final Record: 13-3
Wide Receiver: Tyler Boyd, Auden Tate, and John Ross all had career years in 2019, and that was without A.J. Green. Green has been the teams best receiver for years. Getting him back to add to these young guys will help their development and make a strong unit.
Running Back: People questioned Joe Mixon's character before he was drafted, but the Bengals took a chance on him, and he has rewarded them so far. In 3 seasons, he's run for over 1000 yards twice, showing capabilities of a true workhorse. They also have veteran Gio Bernard, who has made a good career out of being a complementary receiving back.
Defensive Tackle: They signed an underrated, yet very much sought-after, player in D.J. Reader away from Houston and several other suitors. He will pair with veteran Pro Bowler Geno Atkins. The team also recently signed Mike Daniels, another former Pro Bowler. Daniels has dealt with injuries the past couple of seasons but is a good interior pass rusher.
Linebacker: The casual fan will not recognize a linebacker on this roster. Josh Bynes has the most NFL experience, playing well for several teams over his career. Other than Bynes, you're looking at a unit mostly comprised of rookies and second years. I think a couple of these guys will work out eventually, but for now it's not a good unit.
Offensive Line: Not many good or even average starters and not much depth at all. That's not a good formula for an o-line, especially when you just drafted a future superstar QB. They need major improvements to get where they want to be.
You likely haven't heard much about the 3rd year safety from Wake Forest, but you will. In his first 2 seasons, Bates has amassed 137 tackles with 16 passes defended and 6 interceptions. The tackles may go down as the front of the defense gets better, but he clearly has the abilities and instincts of a very good, play-making safety.
Biggest Question Mark
Can they get their defense to be good enough?
The defense is weak at many spots. They have some talent and made improvements throughout, but it probably won't be enough this year. They'll likely have to keep building barring a few break out performances.
Does Burrow make an impact quickly?
Joe Burrow finished his career at LSU on a phenomenal note. Unfortunately, he isn't in a great situation as he starts his NFL career. He is their starter and the type of player who could lead a franchise, we just don't know when his impact will truly be felt.
Final Record: 3-13
Defensive Line: Myles Garrett, Adrian Clayborn, Olivier Vernon,Sheldon Richardson...these guys have all played at a high level in the NFL. Vernon has struggled since he got to Cleveland, but if he could get any of his old form back, they'll gladly take it. DT Larry Ogunjobi has quietly become an impactful player as well on the d-line. Depth may become an issue, but having 5 guys to rely on is a good start.
Running Back: Nick Chubb had a break out year in 2019. I expect him to continue that throughout most of his career. They also have Kareem Hunt, the former star for the Kansas City Chiefs. That means they essentially have 2 number one backs, both of whom are 25 and younger. Major advantage for Cleveland here.
Offensive Line: Signing Jack Conklin was a good boost, but not enough to stop this from being a weakness. J.C. Tretter and Joe Bitonio are also good players, but the rest of the unit is average at best.
I thought Takitaki played well from what I was able to see last season. In his second year, I'm expecting him to take a step forward, much like fellow former BYU Cougar Fred Warner. I don't expect him to get on that same level, just show progression toward that. Without Christian Kirksey, he should get ample opportunity to prove his worth.
Biggest Question Mark
Which Baker Mayfield are they getting?
After a solid rookie season, Baker Mayfield just looked of in 2019. He wasn't making the same throws, the offense wasn't as smooth in the passing game, and he threw many more interceptions. We'll see which player they get and how the new coaching staff aids his progression as an NFL QB. I hope he figures it out, because he's fun to watch when he's on.
What kind of production will they get from their receivers?
Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry held up their ends of the bargain last year, but they can't be forced to do everything for this team. The Austin Hooper addition will certainly help, but they need to find more capable receivers. Who do they turn to if they have to deal with injuries? Right now, I don't see a clear answer.
Final Record: 7-9
Defense: Defensive line? Check. Linebackers? Mostly check. Secondary? Check. The Steelers have a very good defense. While, yes, they can improve in some aspects, they work well as a unit. Although they struggled at the beginning of last season, the tide seemed to turn when they traded for Minkah Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick gives them a ball-hawking safety that they haven't had in a while (really since Troy Polamalu). He makes their secondary much better and allows the linebackers to worry less. They have a stout pass rush and defensive line, so they don't need to worry about much.
Health: They showed good depth last season, but several key players suffered injuries. Mike Tomlin displayed a great ability to respond and adjust to adversity through those. They played well, but this is a much better team when they can rely on those players. Could make a big difference in the results of the season.
Johnson made 59 catches for 680 yards as a rookie in 2019. That's a great place to start, and I expect him to build on that in year two. He's a speedy slot receiver with good return ability. In fact,he led the league in punt return average last year.
Biggest Question Mark
Is Ben Roethlisberger fully recovered and can he stay healthy?
Ben hasn't been able to stay healthy lately. Last year, he had a nasty elbow injury that required surgery similar to Tommy John. He's always been a big armed QB, but will he still be after the procedure? He's getting older and his body might not be able to bounce back as quickly. They did alright without him, but this is a different team with Ben on the field.