2017 NFL Preview: AFC North

The AFC North boasts both veterans and rookies

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The Sideline Report’s preview of the 2017 NFL Season continues today with ever ultra-competitive AFC North

Baltimore 

Key Additions 

S Tony Jefferson, CB Brandon Carr, RB Danny Woodhead, WR Jeremy Maclin

Key Losses 

OT Ricky Wagner, LB Elvis Dumervil, WR Steve Smith, LB Zach Orr, DT Timmy Jernigan, C Jeremy Zuttah

What does a successful season look like? 

This is a Ravens team that will need to get good contributions out of their rookie class immediately, due to the amount of talent lost this past off-season. If Joe Flacco and Jeremy Maclin can hit it off from week 1, this all of a sudden becomes a different Baltimore offense. Former first round pick Breshad Perriman’s break out year could finally be on the cards, which would be a welcome sight for Ravens fans. RB Kenneth Dixon’s season ending injury is a blow, so finding somebody, anybody, to carry the load on the ground behind an offensive line missing two starters from last season (centre Jeremy Zuttah and Guard/tackle Ricky Wagner) will be critical. On defense, the Ravens may need to ask a bit of rookies Chris Wormley and Tim Williams, while they will be hoping safety Tony Jefferson brings his career best form from Arizona across to Baltimore to match with last year’s gun recruit Eric Weddle. All going well, this has the look of a sneaky play-off team. Injuries could wreak havoc due to lack of depth, but remember, this is a Ravens team that led the AFC North most of last season until that famous Antonio Brown touchdown.

What does a disastrous season look like?

This doesn’t look like a team that will implode, despite the question marks. That’s just not what John Harbaugh coached teams do. However, this is a team that has lost plenty of talent over the off-season. If they can’t replace Wagner on the line or Smith on the perimeter on offense, Flacco may have a long season under centre. The Ravens return a top 10 defense last year in both yards and points allowed. After losing Orr, Jernigan and Dumervil from the front 7, there may be too much asked of the Raven rookies. If the offense falters again and the defense can’t match the output from a year ago, it could be just another average season in Baltimore.

Cold Hard Truth 

There’s just too many questions on this team, particularly the defense. Despite the ifs and buts, this is a group that always seems to benefit from great coaching. Playoffs look beyond them, but 8-8 or possibly 9-7 could be a good result for a team with more questions than answers.

Cincinnati 

Key Additions 

LB Kevin Minter, RB Joe Mixon, WR John Ross,  OT Andre Smith

Key Losses 

G Kevin Zeitler, OT Andrew Whitworth, LB Rey Maualuga

What does a successful season look like? 

2015 draft picks Jake Fisher and Cedric Ogbeuhi finally fulfil their potential as quality bookends on an offensive line that could be make-or-break this season. Joe Mixon stars in his rookie season after being a controversial selection in last Aprils draft, rushing for well over 1,000 yards and is at the top of the offensive rookie of the year lists all season. John Ross stays healthy and proves a demon, not just opposite gun wideout AJ green, but also as the Bengals designated return specialist. Rookie DE Jordan Willis proves to be a steal out of the third round, pushing double digit sacks in a standout first campaign, while second year CB William Jackson proves why he was a first rounder 2 seasons ago, helping an otherwise mundane secondary that dearly needs an influx of youth and talent. There’s a lot resting on the shoulders of the first and second-year players, but all going well, the Bengals have the makings of a team ready to go toe to toe with the Steelers in the division.

What does a disastrous season look like? 

Similar to last year. The offensive line is in disarray, unable to recover from the key losses in Free Agency, meaning whenever QB Andy Dalton’s playmakers AJ Green, John Ross and Tyler Boyd get open down the field, Dalton is on his back six yards behind the line of scrimmage. If the defense doesn’t get any impact from its exciting rookie class, coach Marvin Lewis may be on his last legs. Last year was poor at 6-9-1, anything less than that would be a disaster.

Cold Hard Truth 

The offensive line looks like it may hold an otherwise decent football team hostage. Marvin Lewis and Andy Dalton are keen to prove last season an aberration, but if the defense struggles again with no difference makers and the offensive line makes it impossible to move the chains, the playoffs look a stretch. More than capable of 10-6.

Cleveland 

Key Additions 

C JC Tretter, G Kevin Zeitler, CB Jason McCourty, DE Myles Garrett, S Jabrill Peppers, TE David N’Jokou, QB Brock Osweiler

Key Losses

TE Gary Barnidge, WR Terrell Pryor, QB Robert Griffin

What does a successful season look like?

With just one win in 2016, it wouldn’t take much to improve on a terrible 2016 campaign for the Browns. The Browns would love for one of their young signal callers to step up and show they have what it takes, be it second-year pleasant surprise Cody Kessler or rookie Deshone Kizer. Kessler will be given the starting job after showing promise last season, while Kizer will almost certainly get his chance at some point. If one of the two flourishes throwing to two exciting pass catchers in Corey Coleman and TE David N’Jokue behind a quickly pieced together solid offensive line, it could be an exciting season on offense. On defense, fairly or unfairly, rookie pass-rusher Myles Garrett and defensive back Jabrill Peppers must make immediate impacts for this not to be another lost season in the brutal AFC North. If everything falls into place, the Browns may be able to head into the offseason with enormous draft capital off the back of a promising 5-11 campaign.

What does a disastrous season look like?

If this rookie class struggles in the big time in their first season, questions will be asked of Sashi Brown and the new regime. Myles Garrett must come as advertised, and if the young stud looks out of his depth in season 1, the Browns will be accused of whiffing on a number 1 pick once again. If no true running back emerges on offense, there may be simply too much put on the young QB’s shoulders, regardless of the name. One thing is for sure: this Browns team has more young talent than last years, so wins should be more common, though still rare. Another 1 win season would be soul destroying.

Cold Hard Truth

If the Browns are to get back to the playoffs within the next 3 to 4 years, it has to begin with the most recent draft class. Garrett doesn’t have to be the reincarnation of Bruce Smith, but he does have to be the once in a generation type prospect scouts unfairly labelled him this preseason. If Garrett gets to double digit sacks and wins defensive rookie of the year honours, it could mark the turning point of a hopeless franchise. 4-12 and another top 5 draft pick sounds like progress.

Pittsburgh

Key Additions

WR Martavis Bryant, RB Knile Davis, DE Tyson Alualu, LB TJ Watt

Key Losses

LB Lawrence Timmons, WR Markus Wheaton, TE Ladarius Green

What does a successful season look like?

A successful season in Pittsburgh usually end with black and gold confetti falling on the QB, coach and owner. Every season is deemed a failure in Pittsburgh if the Steelers don’t return home with the Lombardi. The last 2 years, the only things that have stopped the Steelers are injuries, and Tom Brady. On paper, this might be the most talented roster in the AFC, and with touchdown gluten Martavis Bryant back in the fold, this is an offense that looks unstoppable when fully healthy. Le’Veon Bell will look to break all sorts of records playing healthy for 16 weeks for the first time, while the defense will be hoping to take the next step after the pass-rush improved mightily down the stretch last season. If rookie TJ Watt can have an immediate impact on the edge, coupled with a young, emerging secondary led by second year players Artie Burns and Sean Davis taking the next step against the best QB’s in the conference (you know who), this Steelers team looks destined for another Championship game appearance,

What does a disastrous season look like?

Missing the play-offs would be a disaster, and is surely impossible unless the Steelers get an injury run of Charger-like proportion. If the secondary regresses, and rookies such as TJ Watt and CB Cam Sutton don’t have an impact, it could put too much of a load on an offense that, in all honesty, can carry much of the load. Ben, Bell and Browns health are paramount, and if any of the 3 miss a significant amount of time, it could bring Cincinnati and/or Baltamore back into the divisional race. Hard to see any less than 8 or 9 wins.

Cold Hard Truth

This is a championship calibre team all round that is certainly a contender to go all the way with a little injury luck. The Steelers have had an ordinary record against the Patriots with Brady at the helm (as have most teams), but rivalries and fortunes in the NFL can change quickly and off the back of just 1 game or even play. This is a Steelers team to watch.

 

 

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