2018 NFL Preview - AFC North

by Drew Pelto, BBM Staff Writer

Pittsburgh Steelers - The bane of my existence, you can probably go ahead and pencil them in for yet another division championship because the universe hates me. However, could we be seeing the end of the Steeler quasi-dynasty? It has become increasingly clear that Le'Veon Bell doesn't want to remain in Pittsburgh much longer (imagine what a coup it would be if he ended up in Cleveland!). Ben Roethlisberger had his first-ever five interception game last season, and has floated the idea of retirement here and there. Once the model of consistency, he has had six games with a completion percentage of 60 or less in each of the last two seasons: compare that to having nine in the previous three seasons combined. Maybe I'm overly hopeful, maybe I'm grasping at straws a bit here. On defense, the loss of Ryan Shazier will be a huge hurt, but it gives plenty of other players a chance to prove themselves. Enter Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt. Had the Browns listened to me, Dupree would have been theirs on draft day instead of the future uber-bust Cameron Erving. Instead, they get to face him twice this season, including opening weekend where he's coming off his best professional season yet, picking up six sacks last season as a first-time starter. You can guarantee defensive coordinator Keith Butler will be dialing his number up early and often. Double-digit sacks are almost a given (across the season I mean, not just on opening weekend; although that Cleveland left tackle situation gives me pause for concern). Ten-plus wins are a certainty as the Steelers try to push for one last hurrah before Bell leaves and talk of Roethlisberger riding off into the sunset grows louder.

Baltimore Ravens - The jury is still out as to whether or not Joe Flacco is an elite quarterback, but that may not matter for much longer with the late-first-round selection of Lamar Jackson. Jackson has the luxury of waiting and learning from the sidelines behind a competent quarterback, while the team also upgraded its receiving situation: Mike Wallace and Jeremy Maclin are gone (1188 yards and 7 TD between them), replaced by Michael Crabtree and John Brown (1314 and 13 combined with the Raiders and Cardinals, respectively) while also adding a pair of solid rookie tight ends in Hayden Hurst and Mark Andrews. On the other side of the ball, expect the typically-stout defense for which Baltimore is known, as they'll return nearly every member of last year's squad. The Ravens may not be quite back in the hunt to win the division yet, but they'll keep it interesting down to the wire and push for a wild card spot.

Cincinnati Bengals - Can someone explain Marvin Lewis to me? Sure, seven playoff appearances in fifteen seasons is nice, but going 0-7 in those playoff games, combined with having a team that isn't trending in the right direction, and it leave me wondering how he still has his job. While there's a lot to be said for stability (compare the Steelers coaching and front office history to that of the Browns), is Marvin Lewis still the right man for the job? The Bengals will be interesting to watch on offense: apparently they've retooled their playbook this season, as well as their offensive line, which should give them some better options for the dynamic A.J. Green, and allow Andy Dalton a little more time in the pocket. Dalton has been an excellent ball protector with an average of just 9 interceptions a year over the last three seasons, but his accuracy has suffered: perhaps better protection will boost that. The defense will again be solid, but with Vontaze Burfict again missing time due to suspension, they'll have to work without their linchpin for the first quarter of the season. Will 7-9 save Lewis' job? I don't see the Bengals doing much better than that.

Cleveland Browns - New general manager John Dorsey followed a spectacular offseason of trading and signing with a dismal dump of a draft. I am on the record as believing the Browns should have taken Sam Darnold and Bradley Chubb over Baker Mayfield and Denzel Ward. I ran into a few NFL media people at a Starbucks in Arlington the day after, and they agreed with me on Mayfield (but not so much on Ward; they seemed to think either Ward or Chubb would have been good, but gave a definite edge to Ward). Tyrod Taylor is the quarterback the Browns need-- he doesn't turn the ball over and while he may not have the cannon arm or incredible downfield placement, he at least keeps the ball moving. Expect a big year from Jarvis Landry with this-- He's finished 1st, 4th, 7th, and 17th in the league in receptions in his career. He's never been a big yardage guy, but like Taylor, he keeps the ball moving. Carlos Hyde is a proven running back with a couple nice backup options on Duke Johnson and Nick Chubb. The loss of Joe Thomas leaves a gaping hole at left tackle, but the Browns made some smart moves to potentially fill it: Joel Bitonio can slide over there, former top five pick Greg Robinson was plucked off the free agent wire, and undrafted free agent Desmond Harrison has been whispered about as a potential steal and the left tackle of the future-- if not the present. Expect a breakout season from second-year defensive end Myles Garrett. The Browns' rapidly-improving pass rush should also aide the secondary that has been aided by acquisitions of Damarious Randall, E.J. Gaines, Terrance Mitchell, and T.J. Carrie, while also giving a year of experience to Jabrill Peppers. Could they quietly be the best defense in the division? Anything is an improvement over 0-16, but you could see the Browns in the mix for a wildcard spot-- which would be an improvement over much of the last two decades.

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