AFC North Preview 2016

As said in my last column, I’m previewing two NFL divisions each week as part of my NFL season preview. Today I’ll be taking a look at the teams in the AFC North and their pros and cons heading into the season.

2016 Pittsburgh Steelers:

Pros:

Even as it’s missing Martavis Bryant for the rest of the season, Pittsburgh’s offense will likely be elite, if not easily the best offense in the league. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is prime for an MVP season given that he may have the NFL’s best at running back (Le’veon Bell), as well as certainly its top wide receiver.

In case you’ve been living under a bridge for a while, the latter is in reference to Antonio Brown, who over the first six seasons of his career has looked about as good as any wideout in football history. This sounds like hyperbole for the gazelle-like 5’10 and 180 pounds possession fiend, but a look at the numbers shows it really isn’t.

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Claiming Brown is the best receiver ever obviously goes into “hot take” category, but when it comes to six-season starts to careers, he’s just about as good as anyone else. The numbers show he isn’t anywhere close to as good of a red zone threat as his contemporaries are, but he’s arguably on their level – if not better than most of them – as a route runner both down the field and in the slot. Consider that guys like Moss, Johnson, Rice and Owens are all taller and have at least 20 pounds on Brown, whose combination of vertical speed, acrobatics and quickness is unmatched in the NFL today. In terms of Career Approximate Value, he’s second only to Moss on this list for most successful overall wideout in the first six seasons of their career.

If you don’t believe the numbers, consider what Denver Broncos cornerback (and one of the league’s best) Chris Harris Jr. had to say about the hardest receiver to cover in football. Or just watch Brown thoroughly eviscerate Harris, a man who at the time simply didn’t allow touchdowns in man coverage.

On defense, Pittsburgh last season had one of the league’s most remarkable turnarounds, going from No. 30 in 2014 to No. 11 in defensive DVOA. Former Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison was a huge part of the turnaround, adding five sacks in fifteen games and constant pressure on the outside. Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt and Arthur Moats anchor the rest of a defensive line that last year helped anchor the league’s 5th best rush defense per DVOA and its No. 7 adjusted sack rate for a defense. A solid safety duo in Michael Mitchell and Robert Golden should also help this defense improve in stopping the passing game as well, even with the loss of Will Allen.

Cons:

Pittsburgh’s offense isn’t totally invulnerable. Ramon Foster, David DeCastro and Marcus Gilbert are all average or above average for their positions, but left tackle Ryan Harris had a brutal year when he played for the Broncos (despite being part of a Super Bowl winning team). Moreover, center Maurkice Pouncey missed all of last season and could look slower in his return. That said, players like Richie Incognito show that lineman can still return in professional form, if not look even better than ever, but players like Incognito are exceptions to the general arc of a player’s career. Then again, Pouncey was an All-Pro center just two seasons ago.

Meanwhile, linebacker Lawrence Timmons is coming off a brutal year, looking exploitable in the passing game, while fellow linebacker Ryan Shazier came off a second season where he was hurt with a bad shoulder injury and looked underwhelming on the field.  The Steelers don’t have to worry about cornerback sieve Antwon Blake any more, but replacing him with a first round pick like Artie Burns is clearly a long-term move and not so much an immediate fix. Pittsburgh wouldn’t have to worry about starting Burns, were it not for an untimely Lisfranc injury to 2015 second round pick Senquez Golson, who could be missing up to 12 weeks a season after already missed his rookie year with a torn labrum in his shoulder.

Best Case: Big Ben leads an incredible all-time great offense with the league’s most dominant receiver and the defense stays around the same level or just good enough to let the offense score 33+ points a game en route to a 14-2 record and Super Bowl victory. Get ready for the inevitable “SevenBurgh” hashtags. 

Worst Case: Big Ben gets hurt or regresses with the offensive line – and the offense stays really good, but the defense totally collapses with regressive seasons from their linebacking core. The team probably gets a wild card at 9-7, but struggles in the playoffs. 

2016 Cincinnati Bengals:

Pros:

Somehow last season Andy Dalton went from being the baseline quarterback for competence to having a legitimate argument for being Top Ten at his position, prompting former Wall Street Journal and current The Ringer contributor Kevin Clark to put Dalton fifth on his Top Ten QB list, one spot ahead of Aaron Rodgers.

It sounds ridiculous, but look at how remarkable Dalton’s improvement has been. After throwing 13, 16, 20 and 17 interceptions in each of his first four years, he threw only seven last regular season in 13 games, while also tossing 25 touchdowns. You could attribute this, to luck, but according to Football Outsiders, Dalton only outperformed his expected interception total by 0.1, while only having nine adjusted interceptions throughout the year, adjusting for picks that come from wide receiver drops and dropped takeaways by defenders.

Who knows – if he wasn’t hurt heading into the playoffs, maybe Bengals fans could have seen Dalton finally lead the Bengals to a victory over Pittsburgh rather than watching AJ McCarron play in a meaningful game. For now, his skeptics can continue to point towards his abysmal playoff record as ammo against Dalton, despite him leading the No. 1 passing attack in the NFL last season per DVOA.

Either way, Dalton’s supporting cast is also just about as good as it gets. Wideout AJ Green and tight end Tyler Eifert make up one of the league’s best one-two punches as passing options, both being unquestionably top five at their position, as well as overwhelming in man coverage. An offensive line trio of right guard Kevin Zeitler, premier left tackle Andrew Whitworth and left guard Clint Boling add stability to an offense that might not be No. 2 in DVOA again, but still hang with the best of the league, given the return of Giovanni Bernard and Jeremy Hill as a strong running back duo.

The Bengals also have reason to believe in their defense. After doubts about how defensive tackle Geno Atkins’ injuries were going to affect him in the long-term, Atkins looked once again like a premier interior pass rusher in the league, contributing 11 sacks and playing all 16 games in the regular season. Supporting him on the outside are familiar and effective teammates in end Carlos Dunlap, middle linebacker Rey Maualuga and the occasionally questionable human being, but great run stopper Vontaze Burfict.

If Atkins and the line has another strong year, their pass defense should look just fine, with the return of corners Adam Jones, the promising Darquez Dennard, free safety George Iloka and Shawn Williams. Talent is one virtue, but continuity in a scheme is also important for a defense’s development – not to mention a 13th straight year for special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons doesn’t look too bad either.

Cons:

Though the Bengals are set on most of their skill positions, Dalton’s fractured thumb last year still stands as a concern for Cincinnati to look ahead for. Even if it’s not, there’s still warranted nature for its luck when it comes to turnovers.

Usually highly variable and almost unpredictable, the Bengals went from having a league average turnover differential (zero in 2014) to having the league’s third best (plus 11 in 2015). As I wrote above, some of this can be attributed to Dalton’s growth as a quarterback, but unless you’re a player like Tom Brady, maintaining low interception rates over the course of multiple seasons is almost near impossible. Ask Nick Foles how that turned out.

Moreover, the Bengals look like they’re still going to start third-year center Russell Bodine, who seems to have declined in his growth as a player. Despite his strengths as a gritty second-level zone blocker, Bodine particularly struggles against players with a greater reach, as he did against Brandon Williams in the third week of last season. Most of this is due to Bodine’s short arms and relatively slow speed as a lineman, as you can see below.

If Bodine is a clear weak link on the offense, Dre Kirkpatrick is an even more obvious pick for worst possible returning starter on defense, and his more than $7 million “poison pill” cap hit this season (as part of his $8 million, four year deal he signed  shows that Kirkpatrick is not only playing in a contract year, but also for his job. There’s a real possibility that if he doesn’t turn up his level of play, Dennard or even first-rounder William Jackson III (if he returns from a torn pectoral muscle) could take Kirkpatrick’s presumed starter spot.

Ranked as the third worst cornerback in the league and on an otherwise pretty well-rounded Bengals defense, Kirkpatrick deserved a lot of scorn received from Cincinnati fans. Despite his 6’2, 190 pounds frame, Kirkpatrick was bullied frequently at the line by large receivers, extremely prone to getting faked out by cuts across the middle of the field and also inconsistent as a tackler. Like Bodine, Kirkpatrick’s short arms cause a lot of problems for him against No. 2 wideouts that can both outbully, outsmart and outrun him.

Best Case: Andy Dalton silences his critics and leads the most balanced offense in the league, while Geno Atkins turns into a defensive player of the year candidate. Cincinnati gets over its playoff hump and Dalton has a 2012 Joe Flacco-esque run of dominance en route to a 12-4 season and Super Bowl victory.

Worst Case: Either through injuries or a decline in play, the offense regresses to being just above average and the Bengals fall off defensively. Unable to contend with the Ravens or Steelers successfully, Cincinnati finishes 8-8, barely missing the playoffs and costing head coach Marvin Lewis his job.

2016 Baltimore Ravens: 

Pros:

We don’t even have to talk about Xs and Os to see that the Ravens are prime for a turnaround in 2016 – a look at a few “high variance” numbers shows that the team’s chances of improving could come with just a bit better luck.

In addition to finishing 31st in the NFL for turnover differential (negative 14), the Ravens were also 4-9 in one-possession games, at one point starting off the season 1-6, with every game being decided by eight points or less. According to DVOA, Baltimore was No. 17 in the league overall, showing that its 5-11 record for the season showed the Ravens underperforming by just over a win. That’s not to say that closing out a game isn’t a skill elite teams have, but it’s more fair to assume Baltimore was slightly better than their record. Especially given its previous record in one-possession games from 2012 to 2014: a combined 17-14.

Another underrated part of Baltimore’s roster is their continued brilliance in special teams. Along with having arguably the league’s best kicker in Justin Tucker, the Ravens finished last season as the No. 1 team in special teams DVOA, an improvement on 2014’s No. 2. This is another reason to believe Baltimore’s record in one-possession games should improve, since game-winning field goals and special teams returns are innate high variance parts of football. The Ravens being among the NFL’s best in special teams for another season could only help.

The Ravens offense also looks like it could have one of the league’s most underrated wideout duos in the NFL. With veteran star Steve Smith (who tore up the league last year before an awful Achilles tear) and the rising young gun Kamar Aiken returning for another year, quarterback Joe Flacco could be due for a return to form. It’s fair to be skeptical of offensive coordinator Marc Trestman’s ability to work with Baltimore’s personnel, given its No. 20 rank in offensive DVOA, but keep in mind that Trestman also made Josh McCown look like one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL in 2013.

Moreover, the Ravens seemed to have covered up from their previous holes in the secondary. Along with retaining an average starter in Shareece Wright at corner, Baltimore also signed former star and the still effective strong safety Eric Weddle and moved former corner Lardarius Webb to free safety. These aren’t barnburner players by any stretch, but they are solid players that can create depth in a secondary. If nose tackle Brandon Williams can develop into the next Haloti Ngata for Baltimore, this defense could also have one of the most promising young defensive lines, with fellow ends Timmy Jernigan and Lawrence Guy as quality supporting linemen.

Cons:

Even assuming Baltimore doesn’t suffer from losing close games, there’s still a lot of holes on the roster from a talent standpoint. For example, once a staple of its strength, the Ravens’ offensive line is now almost entirely dependent on Yanda, given the departure of guard Kelechi Osmele, who left for Oakland. According to Pro Football Focus, center Jeremy Zuttah is the only other Baltimore offensive lineman that ranked as better than average.

The other three players on the line are question marks, starting with Ricky Wagner coming off a suspect 2015, backup John Urschel replacing a talent like Osmele at left guard and first round pick Ronnie Stanley at left tackle. Baltimore’s line won’t necessarily be subpar next year, but these are a lot of question marks for an offense that still looks to start 30 year-old Justin Forsett at running back. At least Ravens fans won’t have to worry about Trent Richardson coming to play for them since his departure. Or will he return?

On another note, Baltimore’s two most noticeable defensive names, edge rushers Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs, are coming off down years where Dumervil notched only six sacks all year, while Suggs is returning from tearing his Achilles tendon. The two of them are 32 and 33, respectively and look like they are finally past their peak years. To Suggs’ credit, he has returned from the same injury before, but it’s still a pretty good reason to doubt his effectiveness heading into this season.

Jimmy Smith, a former star corner that looked like he could become the best defensive back in football, also heavily regressed in 2015. Though many reports show that he’s feeling much better than last year, when he played with a surgically repaired foot, he adds another injury concern to Baltimore’s defense, which also still lacks good secondary depth.

Best Case: Baltimore transforms their offense into a more vertical and high-flying machine, with Joe Flacco looking like a much better and sustainable 2015 Ryan Fitzpatrick. On the other end, John Harbaugh gets the most he can from a solid secondary, a rapidly improving defensive line and an aging linebacking duo en route to a tough 10-6 record and dark horse AFC contender status as the AFC North champions.

Worst Case: The Ravens’ aging defensive players get hurt or are totally ineffective and injuries to veteran players on the offense derail what should otherwise have been Baltimore’s turnaround season. An 0-4 record against the Steelers and Bengals damn the Ravens to 7-9, as mostly silly and totally reactionary questions around Harbaugh’s long-term status as head coach begin to permeate through sports media.

2016 Cleveland Browns

Pros:

Because there’s not much to talk about for the Brown’s strengths, let’s talk about franchise left tackle Joe Thomas and the kind of legacy he already has among his peers.

– Since being drafted with the third overall pick in 2007, Thomas has made nine consecutive Pro Bowls. No other offensive lineman in NFL history has had this happen in his first nine seasons.
– After his initial Pro Bowl rookie season, Thomas has made an All-Pro team in each of the following eight seasons: six of them being on the first team.
– Thomas hasn’t missed a regular season game throughout his professional career.

The left tackle is about as good as it gets when it comes to a high level of play and consistency even when you compare him to his all-time peers in players like Anthony Muñoz and Bruce Matthews, whose Pro Football Focus’ namesake award was given to Thomas last season for being the NFL’s best offensive lineman.

Furthermore, as I’ve written about earlier with Baltimore, Cleveland last year was also similarly unlucky. Along with finishing 28th in turnover differential (-9), the Browns were 1-5 in one-possession games – and their schedule was the second hardest in the league according to Pro Football Reference. Again, that’s not to excuse all their losses as bad luck, but a simple regression to average could be the difference between being in position for  a No. 1 draft and possibly still being in playoff contention by November: especially if cornerback Joe Haden returns healthier and back to his elite form.

Cons:

Here’s the obvious elephant in the room: is there any reason to believe disgraced quarterback Robert Griffin III or wide receiver Josh Gordon still have anywhere near the level of franchise-impact they may have had years ago?

It’s already unfair to their peers to assume that these players can still be league average starters years after playing meaningful minutes in a season. But even assuming they aren’t huge question marks or future bench players, the rest of the offense doesn’t give much confidence either, unless rookie wideout Corey Coleman is secretly Antonio Brown 2.0.

If there’s reason to be wary of Cleveland’s effectiveness in passing, their rushing game doesn’t exactly inspire confidence either. Running backs Duke Johnson and Isiah Crowell occasionally showed promise, but still had subpar years, finishing just below 4.0 yards per carry – the standard for running backs. Not even offensive genius and newly hired head coach Hue Jackson seemed convinced of Cleveland’s running game.

That was also with an offensive line that still had center Alex Mack for 16 games. Replacing him and right guard Mitchell Schwartz on the line are respectively Cameron Erving and Alvin Bailey, both still below 25 years-old, but also coming off years when they were two of the worst linemen in football. Even assuming guards John Greco and Joel Bitonio come out stronger and stay healthier this year, Erving and Bailey both disrupt continuity on the line, as well as effectiveness.

On the defense, there’s also not much consistent talent for defensive coordinator Ray Horton (who also had the same position in 2013 before he went to Tennessee). Edge rushers on the defense like Paul Kruger and Jamie Meder are declining, if not around replacement level for their positions, along with right end John Hughes. At 22 and 23, nose tackle Danny Shelton and outside linebacker Nate Orchard showed glimpses of potential in stopping the run, but were still up and down throughout the season, if not hurt in Orchard’s case.

Even if Haden comes back successfully and plays around the same level he did earlier in his career to create a solid tandem with fellow corner Tramon Williams, that still leaves a glaring hole in the middle of the field. Safeties Donte Whitner and Tashaun Gipson weren’t world-changers last season, but their replacements this season in Ibraheim Campbell and Jordan Poyer barely have experience as long-term starters. The likes of Chris Kirksey and DeMario Davis as middle linebackers should also give Browns fans anxiety when facing teams like Baltimore or Pittsburgh with receiving threats down the field and in the middle of it.

Best Case: Griffin and Gordon return to being capable offensive players, but a breakout rookie season from Corey Coleman leads the Browns’ passing attack to near the top of the league, while the standard Horton blitz-heavy defense can give teams a nightmare if they sleep on Cleveland. A competitive 5-11 season to improve from last year, barring a plane crash or something that injures key starting players for their division rivals, in which case Cleveland finishes 6-10.

Worst Case: The question marks pile up on offense and Joe Thomas misses a few games with injuries. Meanwhile, the defense can’t stop a nosebleed either. At least the Browns get a No. 1 draft pick, finishing as the worst team in the league at 2-14. 

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