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State of the AFC North: Flacco debate; Steelers will be busy in offseason

The debate on whether Joe Flacco is elite continues, but should it? The Steelers take their first steps toward getting over their playoff loss. Browns tackle Joe Thomas is a really likeable guy and he isn’t afraid to make himself the butt of the joke.

NFL: Baltimore Ravens at Cincinnati Bengals Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

What’s going on in the AFC North this week as we approach Super Bowl 51? The Ravens have a dilemma at the tight end position. The Steelers are trying to get better this offseason, but one of their most important pieces is already thinking about retiring. And, we take a look at a realistic view on the Browns drafting quarterback Deshaun Watson.

Baltimore Ravens

Too tight at tight end

Sometimes in the NFL, a team has an issue at a position because they can’t find a real impact player there. Other times the team collects too many talented players at one position, and it becomes a game of musical chairs that ends with a talented player landing on another team.

The Ravens currently have that situation at tight end. After Dennis Pitta’s bounceback year, the Ravens are in quite the pickle at the position. The Ravens have five other tight ends on the roster in Benjamin Watson, Crockett Gillmore, Maxx Williams, Nick Boyle, and Darren Waller. The last four are all young tight ends who are developing into play makers.

The usual NFL roster consists of two to three tight ends, so the Ravens will have to trim some fat this offseason. The only problem is there isn’t much fat to trim. Any of these guys would make a majority of NFL rosters.

Pitta can likely be ruled out of being cut. He had an incredible season, plus, if the Ravens cut him they’d be hit with a $7.7 million cap hit. Gillmore and Williams make compelling arguments as they have both flashed signs of production. Waller also has the versatility to play receiver, and the old saying goes “the more you can do, the more valuable you are.”

That leaves the two players the team would be most likely to part ways with in Boyle and Watson. Boyle also showed flashes like Gillmore and Williams, but he has had issues with PEDs and has been suspended a couple times now. When the competition is this close, that could be what gets you to the chopping block. Next up, Watson showed promise in his last year in New Orleans, but he missed all of last season with a torn Achilles. He will be 37 in December. If the Ravens decided to cut him they’d save $3 million towards the cap, which is among their best options at the position. If he’s cut before next season, he would have never played a regular season game for the Ravens.

It won’t be an easy decision to make, but the Ravens have a good problem at tight end going into next season.

No longer elite

A long running joke has been whether or not Joe Flacco is elite. The joke seems to go back to the offseason before he won a Super Bowl, and you think that getting a ring would put an end to it. However, it merely bought him some time.

Flacco isn’t elite, and he has shown us that for the past two seasons. To be fair, 2015 was decimated by injuries, but he still struggled for much of that season when healthy, finishing with 14 touchdowns and 12 interceptions in 10 games. In fact, if you go back and look, Flacco has never thrown less than 10 interceptions. He also has never reached the 30 touchdown mark in his career.

People may argue that it’s because the Ravens run the ball so much, but that isn’t the case. In fact, since 2011 Flacco has thrown more than 500 passes each year, except in 2015 when he played 10 games and had 413 attempts. Last season he threw the ball 672 times, second only to Aaron Rodgers, to finish with 20 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. A very ugly ratio.

Flacco is a talented quarterback, but he simply hasn’t been putting the team on his back the way Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady do.

Cleveland Browns

Thomas beats us to the joke

Joe Thomas is a pretty funny guy. He is constantly making jokes on his social media.

Often times he gets his teammates with some pretty good pranks. This time though, Thomas trolled the Browns’ 2016 season after the AFC’s Pro Bowl win.

You wouldn’t necessarily expect it, but he is a pretty outstanding follow on Twitter.

Realistic view of Browns drafting Watson

By the time the Draft comes around, I think everyone in Cleveland will just feel relief. The pressure is on the Browns to get their two first round picks right. After essentially passing on Carson Wentz with the second pick last season by opting to trade the pick to the Eagles, the Browns put everything into this year’s Draft.

The Browns have the first and 12th pick in the draft, and since they need help at almost every position, it’s no wonder it’s been a popular topic for draft analysts. One debate that has surfaced since the National Championship is whether the Browns should take Clemson’s Deshawn Watson with the first overall pick. Watson finished his second thrashing of Alabama’s defense by winning the big one for Clemson, but is that all the evaluation we need on Watson?

While what he did was impressive, it doesn’t warrant Cleveland selecting him first overall. Especially when a player like Myles Garrett is there waiting to be paired with the newly extended Jamie Collins on defense. Watson put up some impressive numbers, but he did it in a way that raises some doubts about his transition to the NFL.

First off, the talent around him was incredible. It is hard to fault a guy for the players around him, but he was throwing the ball to several guys who will be major, instant playmakers in the NFL. Second, Clemson didn’t ask him to make too many NFL-type passes. A lot of what you saw was quick throws around the line of scrimmage. Even with that, Watson threw 30 interceptions in his last two seasons combined which is a major red flag. That’s something teams will have to evaluate him on during his pro day and private workouts. Finally, he isn’t even seen as the top quarterback prospect. Many analysts see him going after Mitch Trubisky, who has his cons as well.

The next concern is whether Watson could be there at 12. Teams like the 49ers, Bears, Jets, Bills, and even the Saints who all might be in the market for a quarterback select before the Browns make their second pick. A few mock drafts have Watson falling to the Bills, which seems right up their alley. If the Browns do want Watson they may have to hop back up into the top 10 to get him.

The media and fans have a tendency to try and elevate quarterback prospects in the Draft, and even if it is the most important position on the field, it isn’t the only one. The Browns can’t afford to reach and have Watson fail this early in a huge rebuild for the team.

Pittsburgh Steelers

First steps for getting over the hump

Welcome to the offseason, Pittsburgh. You got super close, but in the end you’re here with the rest of us. The Steelers are slated at the 30th spot in the 2017 NFL Draft, and they have a few holes going into next season.

The defense especially needs some play makers. James Harrison says he is coming back, how long can he seriously stay competitive? Can he keep defying time? Jarvis Jones will probably be allowed to walk as a free agent, as the Steelers will be tight with cap space, as they usually are.

Right now they are set to have around $35 million in cap space, but they still have to either tag or re-sign Le’Veon Bell. Tagging him would cost about $12 million. Then they have to re-negotiate Antonio Brown’s deal, like they promised they would last offseason. He would likely become one of the highest paid receivers, if not the highest paid. That shouldn’t have too much of an impact on the cap though since he already cost $13 million against the cap last season. They will also either have to re-sign DeAngelo Williams or find a replacement backup running back. The Steelers will have to decide on Landry Jones as the backup quarterback or let him walk, too. They have so many little deals to get done it’ll be hard to truly say who stays and goes.

The bright side is Martavis Bryant is applying to be reinstated, and if he returns that could solve their No. 2 wide receiver issue. However, whether they can rely on him to stay clean remains to be seen.

Needless to say the Steelers will be busy this offseason.

What a hypothetical Roethlisberger retirement would mean

I know, I know, Ben Roethlisberger isn’t retiring this offseason, but he is probably closer to retiring than most people think. He has been dealing with more and more injuries, and he isn’t getting younger. The end is coming, so let’s take a look at what his possible retirement could mean.

First off, quarterback instantly becomes a major concern. A concern the Steelers haven’t had since 2004. Landry Jones becomes a major priority. Not because he should be their long term starter (which he shouldn’t), but he has a ton of experience there, and he could be a bridge quarterback if the Steelers go the way of the draft. Unfortunately, the draft isn’t exactly deep with quarterback prospects this year. Their best hope would be if Watson, Trubisky, or even DeShone Kizer somehow fell, or, if they traded up to get them. Even if Roethlisberger stays in Pittsburgh for another year, the Steelers would be smart to get a head start on finding his replacement.

If the Steelers wanted to remain a contender and not have to develop a quarterback and waste a few years of this talented offense, I’d expect something slightly risky. They could trade for Tony Romo. This is in the extremely unlikely hypothetical that Roethlisberger packs it up this offseason, like he claims he’s considering. If the Steelers got a deal done with the Cowboys for Romo, it would instantly make them a favorite in the AFC and buy them some more time to develop a quarterback for the future. It doesn’t seem like their quarterback of the future is currently on the roster. Plus, it would be great to watch the Steelers choke every year with Romo.

Notes on Steelers free agents and offseason: