2016 AFC North Preview and Predictions
Baltimore Ravens (2015 record: 5-11): The number of injuries that the Ravens’ offense was dealt in 2015 was unreal . QB Joe Flacco, WRs Steve Smith and Breshad Perriman, TE Dennis Pitta, and RB Justin Forsett all missed significant time with various breaks and tears. Flacco is back and healthy, but he may struggle as he did last season, as his receiving corps is lackluster. Smith is 37 and Achilles tears are so hard to come back from. Perriman appears healthy but is basically a rookie. FA TE Ben Watson, who had a career year in New Orleans last year, was brought over for to help the offense; already blew out his own Achilles. Pitta should be OK, but is injury-prone himself and can’t be counted on for a full season. Kamar Aiken had a nice breakout last season and should have a solid campaign. Mike Wallace was signed, but he hasn’t been relevant in years. The RB slot is in flux as well, as Forsett was released; this leaves the uninspiring trio of Javorius Allen, Terrance West, and Kenneth Dixon. The line is solid and added first round stud Ronnie Stanley via the draft.
Defensively, though, the line is the main area of concern. They did add some talent and depth in the middle rounds of the draft in Bronson Kaufusi and Willie Henry; the squad needed some youth. The secondary is hoping that CB Jimmy Smith is healthy; his foot issues rendered him very beatable last season. The middle of the defense will be led by star LB CJ Moseley, a veritable stud. Unfortunately, no other LB on the roster deserves to start, so opposing offenses will gain some yards if they reach the second tier of the defense. HC John Harbaugh is a great coach and tactician; if they can stay healthy, they could be in the playoff hunt.
Cincinnati Bengals (2015 record: 12-4): Ho-hum. Another great regular season, another bombastic playoff failure in Cincinnati. But this wasn’t the same Bengals team that’s imploded in years past. This one showed a very ugly side in that bloodbath of a loss to Pittsburgh. Call it what you will; undisciplined, dirty, whatever. This team needs to grow up, and do it fast. They’ve proven to have all of the right pieces; a solid QB in Andy Dalton, a nice RB tandem, and a punishing defense. They did lose two key receiving options, though, in Marvin Jones and Mohammed Sanu. Brandon LaFell was brought in, but he’s nothing but a perennial disappointment. Tyler Boyd was drafted but, like many Bengals, has character concerns – though he’s behaved thus far. Star TE Tyler Eifert had offseason ankle surgery and won’t play for a few weeks. That’s a big loss, as he was ready to vault into superstar status. RB Jeremy Hill was awful last year and nearly fumbled his way off of the roster. He could team with Giovanni Bernard to form a formidable duo IF he shows the burst that he did as a rookie. The line is one of the best, so no worries there – or on defense.
LB Vontaze Burfict is loaded with both talent and stupidity; he’ll miss the first three games after his playoff antics. Karlos Dansby was signed to help out in Burfict’s absence – a nice grab. The squad also got deeper as the Bengals used three of their top four picks to add depth to the defense. The AFC is down, and the Bengals are really good. If they don’t win a playoff game this year, expect some changes, from the front office on down.
Cleveland Browns (2015 record: 3-13): Let’s first tell you about the ‘good’ in Cleveland. The defense isn’t wretched. CBs Joe Haden and Tramon Williams are a nice duo, but Haden needs to play more than five games this season. Rookie DL Emmanuel Ogbah was a great 2nd round pick and should provide some immediate help with the pass rush. And on offense, TE Gary Barnidge had a breakout season with 79 grabs for 1,043 yards and 9 TDs. Now for the ‘bad;’ pretty much everything else. Offense? Disastrous. Robert Griffin III is not a viable QB any longer. Josh Gordon and his bong are back at WR (after another short suspension); he claims he’s learned his lesson. Let’s hope so, because he really is a joy to watch play. Running game? Duke Johnson and Isaiah Crowell are barely second-teamers. The o-line is young and possesses little to no viable talent. The rest of the defense is bereft of NFL quality ability. The city of Cleveland deserves so much more than what this ownership group has given them.
Pittsburgh Steelers (2005 record: 10-6): The Steelers, despite losing WR Martavius Bryant for the year, will continue to have one hell of a prolific offense. Ben Roethlisberger continues to make his case for the Hall of Fame, and it certainly helps having Antonio Brown to throw to. Brown is AVERAGING 125 grabs per season over the last 3 years. That’s a stunning number. Sammie Coates and Markus Wheaton appear to be the next options in Bryant’s absence. Also missing is TE Heath Miller, who retired. Ladarius Green was brought over from the Chargers, and is very athletic. He’s coming off ankle surgery, though, and may need a few games to get his legs under him. Star RB Le’Veon Bell won’t be back til game four, but D’Angelo Williams filled in fairly nicely and should suffice for the first few games. The o-line has improved over the past couple of seasons and should be fine this year as well.
The defense has some holes and some pressing needs weren’t addressed. The line should be OK, but the linebackers (aside from Ryan Shazier) are either old and regressing (James Harrison & Lawrence Timmons) or overrated and underperforming (Jarvis Jones & Bud Dupree). One or both of the youngsters really needs to step up. The secondary was burned often and may see more of the same, unless athletic rookies Artie Burns and Sean Davis are ready to step in and contribute right away. Expect growing pains. Despite the holes on defense, there’s nothing keeping the Steelers from making a deep playoff run again this year.