Just a quick update on how I feel the AFC North is shaping up this year.
As has been most often the case in terms of the past decade, the AFC North is once again most likely a two horse race, what with the Cleveland Browns and the Cinncinnati Bengals having severe deficiencies in one or more categories.
The Pittsburgh Steelers, one of the most revered and ancient of all the current NFL franchises, has won two championships in the past decade. The Baltimore Ravens, one of the youngest expansion teams, has taken home one. For two very different franchises there seem to be a number of striking similarities.
As offseason workouts come to an end and with training camp looming, this is how I see the two elite teams and the other two teams in the AFC North shaping up.
Baltimore Ravens: Predicted Finish 10-6 or 11-5
Key Additions: RG Michael Oher, CB Domonique Foxworth
Key Losses: S Jim Leonhard, CB Chris McAllister, LB Bart Scott, DC Rex Ryan
Key Weaknesses: Wide Receivers
With the departure of defensive coordinator Rex Ryan and Star-LB Bart Scott, the defense is under a ton of pressure this season to continue to perform at a high level this season. Defensive captain and stalwart LB Ray Lewis returns, as does Terrell Suggs, Ed Reed and Terrell Suggs, helping ease the transition.
On offense, the only major weakness on paper seems to be the WR position, with the only consistent option being venerable veteran WR Derrick Mason. QB Joe Flacco and our trio of RBs have looked good in offseason workouts and voluntary sessions so far. First round pick RG Michael Oher was a complete steal at the 23rd pick and has looked very mature in quickly picking up the playbook this offseason.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Predicted Finish 10-6 or 11-5
Key Additions: DT Evander Hood, WR Shaun McDonald, WR Mike Wallace
Key Departures: WR Nate Washington, LB Larry Foote, CB Fernando Bryant, CB Bryant McFadden
Key Weaknesses: Wide Receivers, Offensive Line
Even with the success of winning the NFL championship last season, the Steelers enter this season with needs at the WR, CB and OL positions. Even though Hines Ward has signed a contract extension that will probably keep him in Pittsburgh until retirement, the departure of speedy 3rd WR Nate Washington leaves them without any options other then Ward and Santonio Holmes.
At CB, the retirement of recently re-signed CB Fernando Bryant and the loss of CB Bryant McFadden leaves question marks at the position. To counter this the Steelers drafted CB Joe Burnett in the 5th round.
The O-line is the largest question mark or weakness on the entire roster. Last season, the Steelers O-line gave up over 40 sacks, an unheard of number for a championship-caliber team. The Steelers re-signed franchise player Max Starks but little else other then to draft OT Kraig Urbik in the 3rd round. If the O-line doesn’t get any better this season, the Steelers will find themselves in a world of trouble.
Cinncinnati Bengals: Predicted Finish 7-9
Key Additions: OT Andre Smith, LB Rey Maualaluga, WR Laveranues Coles
Key Losses: G Stacy Andrews, WR TJ Houshmandzadeh
Key Weaknesses: DL, CB, S, LB
As bad as it may seem in the state of Ohio, there IS hope in Cinncinnati this season. I say that with the utmost conviction, even though it would obviously be detrimental to the Ravens for them to do well.
The offense has quietly become better over the past couple months, mainly due to Star-QB Carson Palmer finally returning from injury. He has looked good in offseason workouts and his return, in addition to new WR Lavernaues Coles, only bodes well for WR Chad Ochocinco and the rest of the Bengals offense.
As for the entire defensive part of the Bengals roster, it remains to be seen whether they can play better then they did last season. The addition of LB Rey Maualaluga and DE Michael Johnson in this year’s draft is a step in the right direction and should give them at least a semblance of an improved pass rush. Either way, the defense remains the Bengals Achilles heel and will be the primary basis to how the team finishes in ’09.
Cleveland Browns: Predicted Finish 5-11
Key Additions: C Alex Mack, WR Brian Robiskie, WR Mohamed Massaquoi
Key Departures: TE Kellen Winslow Jr, WR Donte Stallworth, CB Roderick Hood
Key Weaknesses: Quarterback, Wide Receiver, Cornerback
It all comes down to question marks for this troubled team. There are so many question marks that I have limited my review to just the largest of them, including the big one at the QB position. Even as we begin to enter training camp, the Browns are still deciding whether QB Derek Anderson or QB Brady Quinn will be the starter this upcoming season.
Other then that, WR and TE appear to be of major concern to new head coach Eric Mangini and the Browns organization. The departure of their most consistent receiving option TE Kellen Winslow Jr. to Tampa and the loss of WRs Joe Jurevicius and Donte Stallworth greatly depleted the team’s depth. The only remaining starting option is drop-prone WR Braylon Edwards. Hopefully the addition of Massaquoi and Robiskie in the draft will help alleviate some concern.
The CB position stands out as one of the weakest parts of the roster, even among an inconsistent defense as a whole. The only impact moves the Browns made in free-agency and the draft to address this was to sign former-Cardinal/Eagle CB Roderick Hood, former-Raven backup-CB Corey Ivy and to draft rookie-CBs Coye Francies and Don Carey in the 6th round. I don’t have a ton of faith that this will really improve the defensive backfield a great deal.
In review the Bengals, the Ravens and the Steelers all have at least a shot of winning the division crown or at worst earning a wild-card berth. Of these three teams, the Ravens and Steelers are head and shoulders above the others in terms of team chemistry, depth and raw unadulterated talents.
The Browns, seemingly as usual, find themselves on the wrong side of the fence in terms of question marks and lack of battle-tested talent. It’s not that they don’t have a chance to surprise some good teams this year, it’s just that it would be surprising to just about anyone if they manage to win 8 games this season.