Thursday, August 22, 2013

NFL Preview: AFC North

Today we return to the AFC and take a look at the division that produced last season's Super Bowl Champion. The AFC North has seen every team not named Cleveland win the division in recent memory. Last season it was the Baltimore Ravens. Pittsburgh, despite looking like they'll have a down year, is never a team to count out. Cincinnati has one of the best wide receivers in the game in A.J. Green. And Cleveland...well, they're still Cleveland, despite having a promising running back in Trent Richardson. Who will take the division crown this season? Let's find out:

Baltimore Ravens: It's not very often that you see a defending Super Bowl champions' roster undergo as much change as this year's Ravens. It's even more rare to see a roster undergo so much change and be able to say that they're actually better than they were the previous season. Yet you could absolutely make the argument that that's exactly what has happened in Baltimore. The Ravens have lost two sure-fire Hall of Famers in Ray Lewis and Ed Reed (now in Houston), but have replaced them with guys who are just as talented and, most importantly, younger. Elvis Dumervil has been a superb pass-rusher during his time in the NFL and the Broncos did not want to see him go. Matt Elam, the rookie safety from the University of Florida, has all the talent to become the next great safety in this league. It remains to be seen if the new additions can replace the leadership that Lewis and Reed provided, but from a pure talent standpoint, the defending champs have upgraded.

Cincinnati Bengals: The Cincinnati Bengals have also improved their standing in this division during the off-season. In April's draft, the Bengals brought in two weapons that should greatly improve their offense. Tight end Tyler Eifert should be a threat right away down the seam and in the red zone. More importantly, though, he will give opposing defenses another person to concentrate on, which should open up opportunities for the aforementioned A.J. Green. The Bengals also drafted Giovani Bernard, a big running back from the University of North Carolina. Paired with "the lawfirm" (BenJarvus Green-Ellis), Cincinnati's run-game should be improved from last year, which will also free things up for both Eifert and Green. While the Bengals have certainly improved, I don't think it's enough to overtake the Ravens for divisional supremacy.

Pittsburgh Steelers: While the Steelers seem to be at or near the top of this division every single year, it's hard for me to picture them doing it again this year. They lost a lot of production in free agency with the departure of their top receiver, Mike Wallace, and one of their defensive leaders in James Harrison. The drafting of Le'Veon Bell should work to sure up their running game, but a recent injury may jeopardize that potential for the first half of the season, if not the entirety of it. They did nothing of note in the draft or free agency to replace what they've lost in Wallace. Instead they are relying on guys like Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders to step up and fill the void. I don't think I see that happening and am looking for a considerably down season this year in Pittsburgh.

Cleveland Browns: Then there's Cleveland. Another candidate for the NFL's worst roster. Other than Trent Richardson, the cupboard is pretty bare for the Browns. Second-year quarterback Brandon Weeden has shown some significant improvement during this preseason, but he's still not at a level comparable to the other QB's in his draft class (Luck, RG3, Wilson, and Tannehill), and, despite only being in his second season, will turn 30 the day after their week six match-up with Detroit. Why Cleveland drafted him to be the face of the franchise is beyond me, but I'll save that tirade for a different article. Weeden doesn't have much to throw to in Cleveland, leaving the bulk of the offensive responsibilities to Richardson. While Richardson is more than capable of carrying the load in Cleveland, you have to have more than a running back to be successful in this league (unless you're the Minnesota Vikings). When the front office decides to get an actual franchise quarterback and some weapons for him to throw to, they might be able to field a competitive team. Until then, the Browns will continue to be cellar-dwellers in both this division and the AFC as a whole.

Only two more divisions to go. Stay tuned for my previews of the AFC South and the AFC West!

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