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State of AFC North: Browns have a new starting QB; Joe Flacco throwing for first time since injury

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Le’Veon Bell confirms when he will rejoin the Steelers. The Browns name their starting quarterback. Baltimore needs to find a backup plan for Joe Flacco, despite promising he’ll start in Week 1.

NFL: AFC Divisional-Pittsburgh Steelers at Kansas City Chiefs Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

We only have one more week of preseason football before we finally have some games that count. Let’s check in with the rest of the AFC North as they prepare for the regular season. The Baltimore Ravens may need to find a backup plan for Joe Flacco, despite continuing to say Joe Flacco will play in Week 1. The Cleveland Browns finally named their starting quarterback and it’s a new name in Cleveland to join the starting QB jersey. Le’Veon Bell confirms when he will return to the Pittsburgh Steelers and the rookies are starting to show their ability, for better or worse.

Baltimore Ravens

Ravens need backup plan for Flacco

The Ravens are confident Flacco will be ready for Week 1 against the Bengals, and he will probably be recovered by then. Still, they remain one injury away from having to trot out Ryan Mallett or even Josh Woodrum. Neither would be able to keep the Ravens afloat.

The reality is Flacco is 32-years-old coming off a back injury. Injuries like that can be a nuisance because they can flare up almost at any moment. Not to mention, Flacco also suffered a major knee injury in 2015.

The older quarterbacks get, the less durable they become. That is obvious with most players, but it is troubling that the Ravens are so ill prepared for an injury to their quarterback.

John Harbaugh, fresh off a contract extension (through 2019), is promising Flacco will play in Week 1.

That sounds fine for the Bengals as the team has beat the Ravens seven of the last nine times the two teams have played.

Ravens may have found diamond in rough

After the 2017 draft, the Ravens picked up an undrafted rookie by the name of Jaylen Hill. Hill played at Jacksonville State, so if you missed him, don’t feel bad. No one even made much of the news of the Ravens signing him, but he has shown during the preseason that he belongs in the NFL.

The Ravens have an opening at nickel corner after Tavon Young went down for the season, and Hill has shown every single preseason game that he deserves consideration for that position. Of course the Ravens also have players like Lardarius Webb and the first round pick Marlon Humphrey also trying to earn that spot.

Even if it isn’t this season, we should expect to see Hill playing at some point for the Ravens.

Cleveland Browns

Kizer gets the first shot

After plenty of offseason speculation, the Browns and Hue Jackson finally came to the decision they probably would’ve come to at some point during the season. DeShone Kizer will be the starting quarterback for the Cleveland Browns in 2017.

This news comes one week after Brock Osweiler was apparently the favorite to become the starter, but stunk it up in the second week of the preseason. Meanwhile, Kizer played well enough to start the third week of the preseason. Even though his stats weren’t spectacular, Kizer showed enough for Hue Jackson to feel comfortable starting him Week 1 against the Steelers.

The timeline of this competition seems strange, but when you have two guys in front of your rookie who just aren’t good enough to be starters this is what you get.

Cody Kessler started out as the favorite considerring he started a few games last season, but he quickly fell down the depth chart. Jackson was very vocal last season about not being happy with how often Kessler would dump it off instead of airing it out.

Next up was Osweiler, who was the veteran player with a huge contract. However, he only managed one reasonable outing, and when the pressure was placed on him during the second week of preseason, he crumbled.

Whether he had to wait out Kessler and Osweiler during the regular season, at some point Kizer would take over the starting position. Whether he is ready will remain to be seen, but the players in front of him essentially forced him into going out there and taking his lumps as a rookie.

Cleveland’s defense keeps showing improvement

Something that has flown under the radar of the quarterback competition has been the improvement of the Browns’ defense. It was an obvious focus for Cleveland during the offseason as they changed coordinators to Gregg Williams, extended Jamie Collins and used their first overall pick on Myles Garrett.

The Browns’ defense last season was one of the worst units I’ve ever seen. Many times a lack of effort, concentration or just general confusion over assignment would lead to easy scores for the opposing team. It may have only accounted for a score or two per game, but with how close games can be it makes a huge difference.

It’ll be interesting to see just how much this defense has improved once the regular season starts, but the Browns don’t appear to be as much of a doormat as last year.

Browns part ways with Joe Haden; trade Cam Erving to Chiefs

Pittsburgh Steelers

Rookies catch up in third preseason game

A couple of the Steelers’ rookies had slow starts to the preseason, mostly due to injuries. In Week 3 though, wide receiver Juju Smith-Schuster and defensive back Cameron Sutton finally got some playing time.

Smith-Schuster almost had another short day after leaving the game momentarily after his first reception. It looked like he suffered a knee injury, but he was able to return to the game and finish with three catches for 31 yards. He also drew a pass interference call that placed the ball at the goal line, but the following play he and another receiver got tangled up leading to an interception.

Sutton showed off his ball hawking ability. He had a tackle for a loss to go along with two other tackles. He also broke up a pass play. The third round pick is coming off a hamstring injury that kept him out of the first two preseason games, but he is hoping to climb the depth chart quickly and help a secondary that is struggling.

Bell confirms he will return to Steelers

Bell made a public statement after his high school dedicated their football field to him, saying he will be returning to the Steelers on September 1.

This will end a long and ugly contract dispute between Bell and the Steelers. Pittsburgh quickly hit Bell with the franchise tag as they attempted to negotiate a long term deal with their star running back.

However, many reports surfaced that despite being given many lucrative long term offers (no details were ever officially released) Bell declined whatever Pittsburgh was offering, and will now have to play out the $12 million franchise tag.

Bell will be joining the team just in time to practice for their Week 1 game against the Browns. He sat out the entire preseason, which isn’t the worst thing for one of the most heavily used running backs in the NFL.

As this contract dispute comes to an end I can’t help but look ahead to the same exact thing next offseason as the Steelers will likely hit Bell with a $14.5 million franchise tag next year.