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State of AFC North: Gordon denied; Ravens considering Cruz

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Josh Gordon gets denied reinstatement to the NFL. The Ravens are hoping to get a payoff from their young players. JuJu Smith-Schuster can’t wait to learn from Antonio Brown.

Cleveland Browns v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

Rookie minicamps and OTAs are underway around the NFL, so it’s a good time to check back in on the rest of the AFC North to see what the Cincinnati Bengals’ division rivals are up to. Baltimore is in the middle of loading up for the future by giving their young guys important reps. Cleveland and Josh Gordon add a new frustrating chapter to their story together. Pittsburgh’s offense is getting a lot of hype going into the 2017 season, but is it too much?

Baltimore Ravens

Ravens and Cruz have mutual interest

The Ravens have a big need at receiver, and many people expected them to fill that need early in free agency or the draft. They haven’t addressed it outside of bringing in some undrafted free agents. Enter: Victor Cruz.

Cruz’s days were numbered when the Giants drafted Sterling Shepard last season, whose NFL comparison was Cruz himself. This offseason, the Giants brought in Brandon Marshall to pair with Odell Beckham Jr. so there wasn’t much room for Cruz, who’s still working to recapture his production before his horrific knee injury.

The Ravens have an obvious need, and Cruz has an obvious need for a job, but does the marriage make sense? It does if Cruz is back to his original athletic ability. Cruz isn’t going to beat people deep, but the Ravens don’t need that with guys like Breshad Perriman and Mike Wallace on the roster. What they need is a sure target for Joe Flacco to move the chains with, and that’s what Cruz did for so many years in New York.

However, Cruz will turn 31 an November, and hasn’t been able to bounce back yet, which isn’t a good sign. It is very hard to predict the health of a player, but that is the biggest if with Cruz. The Ravens have had plenty of success with reviving aged receivers career, looking at Derrick Mason, Steve Smith Sr. and Anquan Boldin. Cruz could be the next on the list.

Youth movement underway in Baltimore

The Ravens are preparing for a face lift. Baltimore has been struggling to make the playoffs and stay competitive the past few seasons. What they’ve been trying hasn’t worked, and it has created a new offseason approach that has been very clear. First was the emphasis on defense by bringing in Tony Jefferson and Brandon Carr. Still the Ravens are taking a new approach by bringing their younger players along more quickly than before. Part of that is necessity, and the other part is adding some youth to a team in desperate need of it.

The Ravens have brought in several players during the past few season who they are hoping can pay huge dividends this season. Going back to the 2015 draft, there are several players who are expected to take on big roles for the Ravens this season. The players on the left side of the offensive line are entering their second season in the NFL: Ronnie Stanley and Alex Lewis. The front seven has three Day 2 rookies from this years draft who the Ravens hope to rotate in to provide some production early. Tyus Bowser is an interesting prospect because of his versatility to play multiple spots in the front seven. Chris Wormley should be expected to rotate in at the defensive tackle spot to help keep guys like Willie Henry and Brandon Williams fresh, and Wormley could possibly push for Henry’s starting spot. Tim Williams also joins the team in hopes of providing pass rushing help for a team in desperate need of it.

The Ravens success next season is reliant on young players growing up quickly, but even if they don’t succeed this season, Baltimore is setting up success in future seasons by getting these players experience early on in their careers.

Cleveland Browns

Kessler will get first shot at starting quarterback spot

The Browns are going to have an interesting training camp to follow. They are finally taking solid steps toward competing, but it’s hard to say they will find instant success with questions at the most important position, quarterback. The Browns have a plethora of options at the position with Cody Kessler, Brock Osweiler, Kevin Hogan and DeShone Kizer. Though, none of those options are great for 2017.

Obviously the most exciting name there is Kizer who is the Browns rookie quarterback, and the one everyone wants to see. Still, he is just a rookie, and this offense isn’t ready to thrust a rookie into the starting job. You want to surround your possible franchise quarterback with weapons and protection before throwing him out into the wolves. The Browns aren’t quite there, yet.

By taking away the possibility of Kizer being rushed out there, we can look at the guy who will be getting the inside track to the job, Kessler. Kessler started a few games last year, and while he was solid the most memorable part of his season were his injuries. He was fairly accurate, completing around 65% of his throws, but he was criticized by Jackson for not pushing the ball down field enough during the season.

With Corey Coleman returning, the addition of David Njoku, a legitimate offensive line in front of him and a year of experience under his belt, it is possible we see a jump in Kessler’s production.

Gordon’s reinstatement bid denied by the NFL

Well here we are again, talking about how Gordon can’t get on the football field. Gordon’s most recent attempt at reinstatement was denied by the NFL, but he can reapply again in the fall. No one has found an exact reason for why he was denied, but it is slightly telling that Gordon’s agent terminated their contract together shortly before the receiver was denied access back into the NFL.

Gordon’s talent has never really been questioned. His breakout season in 2013 where he led the league in receiving yards, despite playing in only 14 games, speaks for itself. But at some point it just becomes sad and/or frustrating to watch this all play out in real time. Gordon was set to return to the Browns last year, but he opted to enter a rehabilitation facility and his conditional reinstatement was void. It is becoming a realer and realer possibility we won’t be seeing Gordon in the NFL ever again.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Steelers’ offense ranked second going into 2017

NFL.com released a list of the top 10 offenses for the upcoming season, and the Steelers rank only behind the Patriots. The Falcons, Cowboys and Raiders sit right behind the Steelers, and those five teams are easily the top five offenses in the NFL. The order of them is up for debate, but the Steelers at two is a tough sell considering the competition.

First, let’s talk about what the Steelers did this offseason to improve offensively. They got Martavis Bryant back from suspension and drafted JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Conner. Outside of that, they are largely the same offense as before. Although, it is true adding anything to an offense that has Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell could force improvement but the Steelers still have some steep competition.

The Falcons and Raiders deserve a lot more respect. The only reason the Raiders shouldn’t be in the second or third spot is the concern of Derek Carr coming off that leg injury. The Raiders had a good season in 2016, but their offense isn’t what held them back from having a great one. That defense couldn’t stop a leaky sink. The Falcons, meanwhile, are coming off a season where Matt Ryan and Julio Jones finally put it altogether, and they rode their offensive success to a 28-3 lead in the Super Bowl. Much of their success can be attributed to their improved pass protection, which was an issue for years.

The Steelers stack up to these teams, and they have a case for being second, but let’s not overhype them to that extent so quickly.

Smith-Schuster can’t wait to meet Brown

Smith-Schuster is what many Steelers fans hope puts them over the top this season. He is a possession receiver with sure hands, and the ability to move the chains. Many draft analysts have mixed views on him, but he went to a team with one of the best receivers to learn from, Antonio Brown. Smith-Schuster didn’t wait until joining the Steelers to draw inspiration from Brown. He has followed him on social media for years, watching his work ethic from afar.

Smith-Schuster could finally be the reliable option for Ben Roethlisberger opposite Brown, so Brown’s mentorship could be mutually beneficial to both receivers. The better Smith-Schuster does, the less defenses can focus on Brown.

The Steelers have struggled to fill that position across from Brown. Bryant has been suspended often, and last season, without Bryant, Bell ended up being the second leading receiver in many categories after missing the first three games.

Smith-Schuster is a lucky guy though. You could do a lot worse than going to a team where you can attach yourself to the hip of one of the best receivers in the league.