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NFL Division Preview: The Supreme AFC North Breakdown

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Last, but certainly not least, we take a look at the division the Bengals call home and examine whether the Bengals can repeat as AFC North Champions in 2014.

Gregory Shamus

I believe the AFC North is the best (and deepest) division in the AFC. The AFC North is the home of the 2012 Super Bowl Champion Ravens, the upstart Bengals, the veteran Steelers and the improved Browns. Can the Bengals and Andy Dalton defend their 2013 Division title? Is the Steelers championship window still open? Can the Ravens return to their championship form? And can the Browns turn potential into victories?

1) Cincinnati Bengals

2014 Prediction: 11-5

2013 Record: 11-5, 1st Place

Confidence in Pick: 75%

Key Losses:

  • Andrew Hawkins, WR (signed with Cleveland)
  • Anthony Collins, OT (signed with Tampa Bay)
  • Michael Johnson, DE (signed with Tampa Bay)
  • Chris Crocker, S
  • Josh Johnson, QB
  • Kyle Cook, C (retired)
  • James Harrison, OLB (retired)

Key Additions:

  • Jason Campbell, QB (released by Cleveland) - will back-up QB Andy Dalton
  • Marshall Newhouse, OT (formerly with Green Bay) - roster depth
  • Will Svitek, OT (formerly with New England) - roster depth

Suspensions/Injuries:

  • Marvin Jones, WR (foot - 3-4 weeks)

Coaching Changes:

  • Resigned - Jay Gruden, OC (accepted HC position with Washington)
  • Resigned - Mike Zimmer, DC (accepted HC position with Minnesota)
  • Hired - Hue Jackson, OC (promoted from running backs coach with the Cincinnati Bengals)
  • Hired - Paul Guenther, DC (promoted from linebackers coach with the Cincinnati Bengals

Reasons for Optimism:

Offensive Weapons - No other team has the depth of offensive talent that the Bengals offer at the skill positions. A.J. Green is a top five receiver and a three-time Pro Bowler. Jermaine Gresham is a two-time Pro Bowl tight end. Tyler Eifert is a Pro Bowl caliber tight end. Giovani Bernard is one of the quickest and most versatile backs in the NFL. Jeremy Hill is a potential "Bell Cow" back. Marvin Jones is coming off a 700+ yard 10 TD breakout season and Muhamed Sanu is a top notch slot receiver. To top it off, they have a top five-10 offensive line and a quarterback coming off a 33 TD season.

Hue Jackson - This is addition by subtraction. Jay Gruden did a good job developing a young Andy Dalton and a young offense, but he got too cute for his own good at times and was too lenient on players making mistakes. Hue Jackson will bring an attitude and swagger to the offense, backed by years of NFL OC and HC experience. His run-centered system will take pressure off Dalton and allow the passing game to take advantage of Dalton's short throw accuracy. In Gruden's system, Dalton threw 30+ passes in 13 of his 17 games in 2013, 40+ passes in seven games and 50+passes in three games.

In 2013, Dalton averaged 37+ passes per game (seventh in the NFL). Any scheme that has Andy Dalton throwing 37+ times per game is a system destined to fail. The Bengals were 0-3 when Dalton threw 50+ times (Miami, Baltimore) and 2-5 when Dalton threw 40+ times. When Dalton threw the ball 30 times or less, the Bengals were 5-0 and 7-1 when he threw it 35 times or less. Unlike Gruden, Hue Jackson knows how to develop a run game and will not have Dalton throwing the ball 30+ on average. Look for Dalton to throw 25-35 passes per game and look for him to be more accurate and efficient with those passes.

Andy Dalton - Say what you want about Dalton, but only three QBs in the history of the NFL have thrown for 20+ TDs in each of their first three seasons (Marino, Peyton Manning), he is the only Cincinnati quarterback to lead his team to three traight playoff appearances and he holds the franchise record for yards and TDs in a season. That is impressive. Dalton's stats (including his 0-3 playoff record) are very similar to those of Peyton Manning through his first three years and first three playoff appearances.

That's not to say I don't have my concerns about Dalton (I most certainly do), but let those facts sink in. With the exception of INTs, Dalton has improved each year in every major category, including wins (9, 10, 11). With the weapons Dalton has and a system designed around his strengths, Dalton should find even more success in 2014.

Giovani Bernard - Bernard is one of the most versatile backs in the NFL and arguably the best "young" and up-and-coming running back the NFL has to offer. He has the quickness, hands and route running ability of a guy like Sproles, yet is big enough to run between the tackles and pick up blitzes. With the addition of Hill, Bernard becomes even more dangerous.

Jeremy Hill - What the Bengals offense lacked in 2013 was a big powerful back that could get the tough yards. In the 6'1" 238 lb rookie from LSU, they have found that. Hill will get his touches and his presence allows Hue Jackson to use Bernard in a lot of different ways and makes Bernard even more dangerous.

Defense - In 2013 the Bengals had the top defense in the AFC in terms of yards and PPG and the number three defense in all of the NFL. Though they lost Michael Johnson, Johnson's replacement (Wallace Gilberry) actually had more sacks than Johnson in 2013 and they gain back the best DT in the league (Geno Atkins) and one of the best slot corners in the game (Leon Hall). The loss of Zimmer will be felt, but it will be offset and then some by the return of Atkins, Hall and Emmanuel Lamur.

Reasons to be Cautious:

Bad Dalton - Despite the impressive stats listed above, I do still have my concerns with Dalton. No quarterback in the NFL has a greater disparity between his good days and bad days and Dalton's playoff performances are of great concern - now 0-3, 56.9 percent completion, 718 yards, 1 TD and 6 INTs and 3 fumbles. Making the playoffs is one thing, but eventually, you have to win.

Loss of Mike Zimmer - Certain coaches are loved by their players and because of that, players will do anything for the coach and for the team and as a group, are able to play above their individual talent level. Zimmer is one of those coaches. While the Cincinnati defense is very talented, they are built with many players that have been cast off as too old, too troubled or not talented enough.

Paul Guenther is a disciple of Zimmer (and was Zimmer's top choice for the Minnesota DC job), but he has never called plays in the NFL level and it remains to be seen whether he can get the same production from his guys. Early indications are that he can, but only time will tell.

Age and/or Inexperience at the Cornerback Position - The Bengals have five cornerbacks on their roster, all five of which are first round picks. However, three of those (Newman, Hall, Jones) either have age concerns, injury concerns or both. Behind them are two first round picks (Kirkpatrick and Dennard), who though talented, have little to no NFL experience. If the Bengals starters go down or begin to show their age, the Bengals will be relying on two young, unproven corners in a pass happy league.

Marvin Lewis - Lewis deserves credit for what he has done to restore this franchise, but that does not hide the fact that he is now 0-5 in the playoffs and has been thoroughly out-coached in those games by less than impressive coaches. The worst thing you can say about a coach is that his team looked unprepared, and in their playoff games (and other big games for that matter), Lewis's teams have looked incredibly unprepared and overwhelmed by the situation (as did Lewis).

Overall:

This is not a "Homer" pick. This is a pick based on talent and weaknesses. The Bengals are the most talented and deepest team in this division, probably in the AFC and arguably in the NFL. They have the most balance (top 10 offense and defense) and the least amount of weaknesses. The key to how far this team goes is Andy Dalton. If Dalton plays good football and limits his turnovers, this is a legitimate Super Bowl contender. If he continues to turn the ball over and falter in big games, the Bengals could miss the playoffs.

2) Pittsburgh Steelers

2014 Prediction: 9-7

2013 Record: 8-8, 2nd Place

Confidence in Pick: 50%

Key Losses:

  • Jonathan Dwyer, RB (signed with Arizona)
  • Jerricho Cotchery, WR (signed with Carolina)
  • Emmanuel Sanders, WR (signed with Denver)
  • Ryan Clark, S (signed with Washington)
  • Brett Keisel, DE
  • Levi Brown, OT
  • Larry Foote, ILB (signed with Arizona)
  • LaMarr Woodley, LB (signed with Oakland)
  • David Johnson, TE (signed with San Diego)
  • Eric Olsen, C (signed with Tennessee)
  • Al Woods, DT (signed with Tennessee)
  • Ziggy Hood, DT (signed with Jacksonville)
  • Felix Jones, RB
  • La'Rod Stephens-Howling, RB
  • Plaxico Burress, WR
  • Fernando Velasco, C

Key Additions:

  • LeGarrette Blount, RB (formerly with New England) - roster depth
  • Mike Mitchell, FS (formerly with Carolina) - should start
  • Lance Moore, WR (released by New Orleans)
  • Darrius Heyward-Bey, WR (formerly with Indianapolis) - roster depth
  • Cam Thomas, DT (formerly with San Diego) - should start
  • Arthur Moats, LB (formerly with Buffalo) - will compete for starting job
  • Brice McCain, CB (released by Houston) - roster depth
  • Adam Podlesh, P (released by Chicago) - will compete for punting job.

Suspensions/Injuries:

  • None of note

Coaching Changes:

  • None of note

Reasons for Optimism:

Ben Roethlisberger - Like him or not, the guy wins (career .670 win percentage) and can never be counted out. The most impressive part about Roethlisberger - and what makes him so dangerous - is his ability to extend a play and kill teams when it looks like they have him stopped. There is not a QB in the league that extends plays as well as Roethlisberger or makes more out of broken plays. As long as he stays healthy (a big if with the Steelers line issues over the past few years), the Steelers will have a shot at the division and the playoffs.

Dick LeBeau - Possibly the best Defensive Coordinator of all-time. As long as LeBeau is on the sidelines, the Steelers will have a good defense (#1 in 2012, #13 in 2013).

Antonio Brown - At 5'10" 186 lbs, he is not your average #1, but his speed and elusiveness creates headaches for defenses. Most would be shocked to hear that Brown had more catches (110-84) and more yards (1,499 - 1,492) than Calvin Johnson in 2013. In fact, the only receiver with more yards was Josh Gordon and the only player with more catches was Pierre Garcon (113).

Ryan Shazier - I loved this pick and as a Ohio State and Bengals fan, it pained me to see Shazier go to the Steelers, but I like how he fits in this defense. Shazier will provide the Steelers with the youth and speed they have lacked the past few years. Rookie or not, Dick LeBeau will figure out a way to put Shazier in a position to make an impact in 2014.

Reasons to be Cautious:

Running Back Situation - At one time, the Steelers were synonymous with running the football. Not so in 2012 and 2013 (26th and t-27th respectively). In 2013, they drafted Le'Veon Bell, and though he had 8 TDs and helped in the passing game (45 catches for 399 yards), he only had 860 yards and averaged just 3.5 YPC - not enough for a 6'1" 244 lb power back.

Now in 2014, with the expectations of a bigger and more important role in the offense, Bell and his backup (LeGarette Blount) were arrested shortly before the season opener with marijuana possession and DUI (Bell). While it appears both with escape any suspension, it will earn them a spot in the NFL's substance abuse program and has to bring up questions surrounding their decision making.

Offensive Line - While not all the sacks are the lines fault, this line did give up 37 sacks in 2012 and 43 in 2013 and oversaw a rushing attack that has ranked 26th and t-27th respectively over those years. While the Steelers line is healthier in 2014 and should be better, this is still not a top 15 line, and in a division with three good defenses, that will be a problem at some point.

Play-Makers - Outside of Antonio Brown (and Roethlisberger), the Steelers lack play-makers on both sides of the ball which opponents have to game plan for. We are told that Bell could be this type of play-maker, but we haven't seen it yet. Same with Shazier. Polamalu used to be a play-maker on defense, and while he still can be at times, age and injuries have limited his ability to consistently impact a game.

Defense - The Steelers defense should still have a formidable front seven, improved by Shazier, but the secondary is old and vulnerable to put it nice. In 2013 the Steelers defense was mediocre at best, ranked 13th in yards, 14th in PPG, 21st against the run and 9th against the pass. One thing is for sure, this is no longer a defense that can carry a team.

Overall:

The Steelers are one of those teams you can never count out, but the common sense football part of my brain does not see how this team wins more than 9-10 games. The roster is still fairly old, the O-Line and running game still have question marks, they have 1 proven WR and a secondary that is old and past their prime. In a weak AFC, the Steelers still should be in the playoff picture, but I don't see this as a team that can make a deep run if they would make the playoffs.

3) Baltimore Ravens

2014 Prediction: 7-9

2013 Record: 8-8, 3rd Place

Confidence in Pick: 50%

Key Losses:

  • Michael Oher, OT (signed with Tennessee)
  • Arthur Jones, DE (signed with Indianapolis)
  • Tandon Doss, WR (singed with Jacksonville)
  • Ed Dickson, TE (signed with Carolina)
  • Dallas Clark, TE (retired)
  • Jameel McClain, ILB (signed with New York Giants)
  • Corey Graham, CB (signed with Buffalo)
  • James Ihedigbo, S (signed with Detroit)
  • Rolando McClain, ILB (to Dallas for a conditional 2015 sixth-round draft pick)
  • Vonta Leach, FB

Key Additions:

  • Justin Forsett, RB (released by Jacksonville) - roster depth
  • Steve Smith, WR (released by Carolina) - starting possession receiver
  • Owen Daniels, TE (released by Houston) - should start in two tight end sets
  • Will Rackley, G (released by Jacksonville) - possible starter at left guard if Kelechi Osemele moves to right tackle.
  • Aaron Ross, CB (formerly with New York Giants) - roster depth
  • Dominique Franks, CB (formerly with Atlanta) - roster depth
  • Darian Stewart, S (formerly with St. Louis) - could start - not a lock though
  • Jeremy Zuttah, C (from Tampa Bay for a fifth-round pick in the 2015 draft) - should start

Suspensions/Injuries of Note:

  • Ray Rice, RB (wife beating - 2 games)

Coaching Changes:

  • Resigned - Jim Caldwell, OC (accepted HC position with Detroit)
  • Hired - Gary Kubiak, OC (former HC with Houston)

Reasons for Optimism:

Improved Wide Receiver Situation - The addition of Steve Smith, while not overly exciting, should improve the Ravens passing game, and though Pitta is not a receiver (per se), his return from injury will also help improve the Ravens 18th ranked pass offense.

Defense - Though the Ravens have lost a lot on defense over the last two offseasons, they have done a good job of replacing talent. I like the drafting of Mosley and Jernigan, Ngata and Suggs, though on the downside of their careers, are still studs and the Ravens possess one of the better front sevens in the league.

Coach - I believe Harbaugh's teams often play down to their competition and lose games they shouldn't lose, but he has a good track record of getting into the playoffs, and once there, his teams have performed well.

Reasons to be Cautious:

Joe Flacco - Flacco gambled big time in 2012 with his contract and won...big time. But lets' look at the facts. In a salary cap sport, Baltimore now has a $20 million QB that has never thrown for 4,000 yards or 25 TDS and has a career completion percentage of just 60.2% - in fact, Flacco's completion percentage has not been over 60% since 2010.

In his 6 years in the league, Flacco has averaged 20 TDs, 13 INTs, about 3,650 yards and an 83.7 rating. Not exactly $20 million stats. In fact, in 2013, the first year under his big deal, Flacco had his worst years in terms of TD/INT ratio (19/22) and second worst year in terms of completion percentage (59.0%).

Flacco can look brilliant one series and clueless the next. While I do not completely understand the QBR stat, I do know that 50.0 is deemed average and Flacco's career QBR is just 51.2 and his last two seasons have been under 50.0. So, while Flacco is paid at an "Elite" quarterback level, he is at best, producing at an "Average" quarterback level.

Running Back Situation - Maybe Ray Rice was injured in 2013, maybe it was a product of his line, but the fact of the matter is that in 2013, Rice had his worst season as a starter in terms of yards, YPC, receptions, receiving yards and TDs. It has to be wondered if at age 27, he is starting to decline.

One thing is for sure, the extra scrutiny he will be receiving after his tumultuous offseason will not help. His backup, Bernard Pierce is a s decent spot starter, but not a full time back, and if either falter, it is a long drop to the #3 back.

Offseason - In the eyes of the NFL and the Ravens, the Ray Rice wife beating situation is over and done with. But, it is not over and done with in the eyes of the media and fans. Every new stadium the Ravens go to, they are going to hear about it, get asked questions about it and every time another abuse situation occurs, it is going to rear its ugly head. So, whether the Ravens want to admit it or not, this will be a distraction in 2014, it will be a matter of how well the Ravens, particularly Rice, handle the distraction.

Explosive Players on Offense - Torrey Smith can make the explosive play, but outside of him, it is question marks. Ray Rice used to be able to make explosive plays, but after seeing what appeared to be a shell of Ray Rice in 2013, I am not sure he still has it in him. Same can be said for Steve Smith. Smith was once synonymous with big plays, but at age 35 and having had some recent injury issues, how much can the Ravens expect of Smith has yet to be determined. Worse yet, Smith is not the type of player that is going to be ok with a backup role.

Secondary - As I said above, I really like the Ravens front seven and if those guys can pressure the quarterback, issues in the secondary could become moot. However, if the Ravens can't get to the quarterback, receivers could have a field day against a suspect Ravens secondary. Jimmy Smith, Ladarius Webb, Matt Elam and Darian Stewart will be exposed by talented receivers and tight ends. Teams that can spread the field against the Ravens (like Cincinnati) should find success.

Leadership - Over the last few years the Ravens have lost a lot of leadership, most notably Ray Lewis, and I have yet to see someone fill that void. Flacco is not a leader and teammates have basically said as much. Ray Rice is clearly not a leader. And while I thought John Harbaugh was, after hearing his responses to the Ray Rice saga, I question his leadership as well. If things start to go wrong in Baltimore, who is going to turn the ship around?

Overall:

The Ravens are a hot pick in the AFC North, but I am not buying it. The Ravens sole victory over a 2013 playoff team was a 20-17 overtime win at home over the Bengals. In fact, the 2013 Ravens were outscored by the 5 playoff teams they played by a 160-88 margin (1-4) and surrendered 49 points to Denver, 41 to New England and 34 to Cincinnati.

If not for narrow wins over the Vikings, Lions, Dolphins and Browns, this could have been a 4-5 win team, and lest we not forget, the Ravens were not exactly a great team in 2012 either, they just caught fire (and luck - Denver) at the right time. This is a team that wasn't far from missing the 2012 playoffs. They have a shot at a playoff spot because the AFC is so weak again, but I don't believe they can win the division.

4) Cleveland Browns

2014 Prediction: 5-11

2013 Record: 5-11, 4th Place

Confidence in Pick: 60%

Key Losses:

  • T.J. Ward, S (signed with Denver)
  • Willis McGahee, RB
  • Brandon Weeden, QB (signed with Dallas)
  • Jason Campbell, QB (signed with Cincinnati)
  • Greg Little, WR (signed with Oakland)
  • Davone Bess, WR
  • D'Qwell Jackson, ILB (signed with Indianapolis)
  • Shawn Lauvao, G (signed with Washington)
  • Oniel Cousins, G (signed with Tampa Bay)
  • Paul Hazel, LB (signed with Houston)
  • Brandon Bogotay, K

Key Additions:

  • Donte Whitner, S (formerly with San Francisco) - should start
  • Ben Tate, RB (formerly with Houston) - should start
  • Andrew Hawkins, WR (formerly with Cincinnati) - should start
  • Nate Burleson, WR (released by Detroit) - should start in three wide receiver sets
  • Miles Austin, WR (released by Dallas) - roster depth, but could move up
  • Jim Dray, TE (formerly with Arizona) - should start as blocking TE
  • Paul McQuistan, G (formerly with Seattle) - will battle for starting job
  • Karlos Dansby, ILB (formerly with Arizona) - should start
  • Zac Diles, LB (formerly with Tennessee) - roster depth
  • Isaiah Trufant, CB (formerly with New York Jets) - roster depth
  • Aaron Berry, CB (formerly with New York Jets) - roster depth

Suspensions/Injuries of Note:

  • Josh Gordon, WR (full year - substance abuse)

Coaching Changes:

  • Fired - Rob Chudzinski, HC (now special assistant to HC Chuck Pagano with Indianapolis).
  • Fired - Norv Turner, OC (now OC with Minnesota)
  • Fired - Ray Horton, DC (now DC with Tennesse)
  • Hired - Mike Pettine, HC (former DC with Buffalo)
  • Hired - Kyle Shanahan, OC (former OC with Washington)
  • Hired - Jim O'Neill, DC (former LB coach with Buffalo)

Reasons for Optimism:

Defense - This is a very underrated defense and my guess is that most football fans would be surprised that the #2 defense in the AFC North in 2013 was not the Steelers or Ravens, but the Browns. Joe Hayden is one of the best cover corners and the addition of Justin Gilbert should make the Browns corners one of the better duos on in the league. The Browns have a good mix of young talent (Haden, Gilbert, Mingo, etc) and veteran leadership (Whitner, Dansby, Kruger and Taylor) and should be able to make some plays on defense. In 2013, the Browns defense was ranked 9th and they should stay in the top 10 in 2014.

Jordan Cameron - One of the biggest and most pleasant surprises in 2013 had to be the emergence of Jordan Cameron (80 rec, 917 yds, 7 TDs). Cameron is one of big and athletic tight ends that NFL teams like and creates matchup problems for line backers and safeties. With Josh Gordon out for the year, Cameron should be the top target in this offense.

Improved Running Back Situation - The Browns leading rusher in 2013 was Willis McGahee...at 377 yards and 2.7 YPC! By that standard, I might be an improvement! While I am not convinced Ben Tate is a starting running back nor am I convinced he can stay healthy for a whole season. But, what I am convinced of is that Ben Tate's career 4.7 YPC and the rookie Terrance West are a drastic improvement of what the Browns put in the backfield in 2013.

Reasons to be Cautious:

Quarterback - By my calculation, Brian Hoyer is the 21st quarterback to start a game for the Browns since rejoining the league in 1999....and by the end of the season, Manziel will be the 22nd. Many have said Hoyer played well in his 2+ games in 2013, and while the Browns won all three games, Hoyer didn't exactly play well. In those 2+ games Hoyer had completion percentage under 60% (59.4%), a 6.41 YPA, 47.5 QBR, 5 TDs and 3 INTs. In a league built on quarterbacks, the Browns are at a disadvantage.

Manziel Circus - In 5 years from now, Manziel will either be a star or out of the league and I don't believe there is much in between. Put me in the camp that doesn't think the Manziel pick will pan out well and his inability to stay out of the limelight for partying will be a problem, first as the backup, but second, it will derail his ability to be a good NFL quarterback.

Put aside the Browns track record of drafting quarterbacks and just focus on the fact that Manziel's immaturity combined with his fondness of playing by the seat of his pants and taking unnecessary hits at 6'0" (with 1.5" cleats on) and 210 lbs (soaking wet and with his equipment on) is a recipe for failure. Name a successful NFL quarterback who is well known for partying.

Go ahead, I will wait. Hell, even Joe Namath has said he wouldn't be able to succeed in today's NFL partying the way he did. Call me crazy, but I don't see a small quarterback with concerns about maturity, accuracy, leadership and dedication to be a franchise quarterback.

Lack of Play-Makers/Loss of Josh Gordon - With Josh Gordon selling cars somewhere in northeast Ohio, who is going to make plays for this team and scare a defense? The Browns no longer have a #1 receiver. Tate can be explosive, but has never had to carry a full season's load. Cameron is good, but is no Jimmy Graham, and without Gordon, teams will double Cameron.

Management - I don't trust the vision, judgment, talent evaluation, etc. of this franchise. Their owner is being investigated by the Feds. They have had more coaches and quarterbacks in the last 16 seasons than the Duggars have children. And now they have their supposed "Future Franchise Quarterback" basically telling the owner "I hear your concern about my partying and your plea to tone it down...and I don't care."

Coach - Maybe he will be a great coach, but he is a rookie head coach who was seemingly about 8th on the team's "want list" and is working for a franchise and ownership team that has the stability of a Kardashian household.

Overall:

While the Browns will be no push over in 2014 and will beat some good teams, I still don't see this team getting more than 5-6 wins. A rookie coach; a journeyman (or rookie) QB; and a lack of offensive firepower in a division with good defenses spells 4th place finish. There are still too many question marks and unknowns to predict anything better.