The AFC North is one of the more interesting divisions in football this year. The reigning divisional champion Baltimore Ravens seem disrespected and are even picked to finish last by some. The Cleveland Browns have more hype around them now than ever. The Cincinnati Bengals are without Marvin Lewis for the first time since 2002. And the Pittsburgh Steelers must face life without Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown. Safe to say this will be a wild year in the AFC North. Let’s take a peek at some things to observe in training camp for each team.
We’ll start with the defending divisional champs, the Ravens. It will be nice knowing the keys of the offense will be in the future of their franchise with Lamar Jackson at the start of camp, not Week 11. Still, many questions surrounding Jackson’s ability to be a legitimate NFL quarterback linger. Many of these concerns centered around his ability to make accurate throws. He posted a pedestrian 58% completion rate last season and really struggled making throws across his body and down the left sideline.
Jackson admitted to lazy throwing mechanics at points last season. He will need to make massive strides as a thrower to help the Ravens win the AFC North again.
Jackson’s development lies partially with new offensive coordinator Greg Roman. Baltimore switched to a run-heavy mindset last year, finishing third in run-play percentage. This will help Jackson as he continues to develop as a thrower. However, he led the league with twelve fumbles last season. Ball security must be addressed.
Roman also mentioned wanting to speed up the offense and play-calling this season. He believes this uptempo style will help Jackson control the pace of his offense and simplify communication.
On the defensive side of the ball, the search for Terrell Suggs’ replacement continues. No C.J. Mosley on that side of the ball also really hurts that linebacker corps. While there will never be a true “replacement” in Baltimore for Suggs, Tim Williams could provide a nice alternative this season. He appeared in ten games a season ago, recording just two sacks. Keeping a legitimate pass rush is key to the Ravens maintaining the elite defensive status in the AFC North.
Is that NOT you… Marvin?
For the first time in over 15 years, the Cincinnati Bengals will be overseen by someone not named Marvin Lewis. Instead, the tenth Head Coach of the Bengals, Zac Taylor, will be captaining the striped ship.
The former Nebraska quarterback and Big 12 Player of the Year (2006) has spent the last seven seasons as an offensive oriented assistant coach at both the collegiate and NFL levels. The last two seasons were spent with the Los Angeles Rams, serving as their quarterbacks coach last year and helping turn Jared Goff into one of the top signal callers in the league. The Bengals are hoping that Taylor’s experience in LA can finally bring some postseason success to southern Ohio.
One major fault of the Bengals for the last decade or so has been their team and player discipline. This factors in both on AND off the field happenings. The retirement of Adam Jones will contribute to killing this narrative, and Vontaze Burfict finding a new home with the Oakland Raiders will help as well. Of course, Lewis received a lot of the blame for this as well. The three of them being gone has many in Cincy optimistic that this team will no longer shoot themselves in the foot on Sundays. Boneheaded plays have cost this team big time before and the Bengals will be best served to learn from their history…
Ironically, one of the areas where the Bengals invested the most is one of their weaker areas. 11th overall pick from the 2019 NFL Draft, Jonah Williams, is out for the season after left shoulder surgery on a torn labrum. The versatile and reliable Clint Boling announced his retirement from the NFL in the offseason. Alex Redmond is facing a four game suspension to start the new campaign.
Second year center Billy Price must turn a corner this year. He played well while healthy last season, although he appeared in just ten contests. A familiar face will appear on the Bengals offensive front for Price this year. Familiarity in the form of Michael Jordan. The former Buckeyes spent time together on Ohio State’s O-Line, Price at center and Jordan at guard. Jordan played center at OSU last season with Price in the NFL. It will be interesting to see if the chemistry between these two nets Jordan a starting spot in his rookie year. Cordy Glenn and Christian Westerman are two names to watch on the left side of Cincy’s line.
With the season-ending injury to Williams, Sample becomes the highest selected rookie on the team. Expectations should not go through the roof because of this, however, more eyes will be on him throughout camp and into the season.
His job at Washington was not to score touchdown after touchdown for the Huskies. Rather, he served as the highest rated power-5 tight end in terms of run blocking according to Pro Football Focus.
With the offensive line already an area of concern, expect to see Sample in their for his blocking prowess sooner rather than later.
As mentioned, expectations around the Cleveland Browns are the highest they have been since their return to the NFL – maybe ever… After winning seven games following a winless season, the Browns added top-tier wideout Odell Beckham Jr. With Baker Mayfield caught in multiple media feuds, running back Duke Johnson uninterested in the Browns situation, and Kareem Hunt’s domestic violence situation (and suspension) now attached to this team, there is an unprecedented tension surrounding Cleveland. Freddie Kitchens’ group has handled everything fairly well to this point, but the number of eyeballs on this Browns squad will only increase as the season creeps closer.
Protecting the Future of the AFC North
Similar to the Bengals, Cleveland has some questions regarding the offensive line. The two guard positions will be the biggest concern here. In exchange for OBJ and Olivier Vernon, the Browns gave the New York Giants their starting right guard Kevin Zeitler. This leaves starting duties to second year man Austin Corbett, who started just once last season. On the left side, unofficial draft bust Greg Robinson (drafted second overall in 2014) was serviceable after taking over for the dreadful Desmond Harrison. With rookie Brian Fineanganofo behind him on the depth chart, the starting right guard spot is Robinson’s to lose. Keeping Baker Mayfield upright is crucial if the Browns have aspirations for the AFC North Crown.
The defensive side of the ball features many new faces this year. A lot of those faces will most likely start the season in key roles. Olivier Vernon is expected to start opposite of Myles Garrett, potentially allowing Garrett to wreak havoc one-on-one against offensive tackles. New defensive coordinator Steve Wilks should be able to find a multitude of ways to use the versatile defender.
Andraez “Greedy” Williams, the cornerback out of LSU and Cleveland’s top draft selection, will most likely start opposite of Denzel Ward. Greedy is talented as can be, recording 19 pass deflections and 8 interceptions in his two years on the field with the Tigers. The weaknesses on his draft profiles typically centered on willingness to play and “love of football”, something I always take with a grain of salt when looking at rookies. I expect Williams to have a solid year, especially with some of the talent around him.
It is also worth mentioning that Morgan Burnett will possibly start at the other safety position with Damarious Randall. Burnett spent last season with Pittsburgh, but never found a true fit with the Steelers. Unless he is beat out by rookie Sheldrick Redwine, Burnett has a chance at a fresh start in Cleveland.
Drama Free… Maybe?
A silver lining Steelers fans might find in the departures of Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell is the expectation of less drama surrounding the team. Bell sat all of last season after failing to meet a contract agreement with Pittsburgh. The Steelers found a potential star with James Conner, making Bell’s absence less painful.
AB had all sorts of drama around him last year also. This culminated in Brown sitting Pittsburgh’s season finale against Cincy, a game with possible playoff implications attached to it. Pittsburgh would win the game, but miss out on the postseason as the Ravens clinched the AFC North with a week 17 win over Cleveland. The Steelers decided to move the unhappy Brown to Oakland in exchange for third and fifth round picks.
Brown was Pittsburgh’s number one receiver after Mike Wallace left following the 2012 season. For good reason, too, as he led the league in both catches and receiving yards twice each. Ben Roethlisberger will need a legit number two receiver next to Smith-Schuster. New addition Donte Moncrief has shown potential to be that guy. James Washington and Eli Rogers, also experienced Steelers, are assumed in the mix as well. It will be interesting to see who emerges as Big Ben’s number two receiving option.
Talk to a Steelers fan and they will gripe all day about the defense. However, Pittsburgh’s defense was solid last year, allowing the sixth fewest total yards in 2018. Part of the problem is with the liability of a few positions.
A replacement for Ryan Shazier is yet to be discovered. Defensive coordinator Keith Butler is hoping that Michigan product Devin Bush can be that guy. He’s an athletic playmaker who controls the middle of the field well, crucial to any successful defense in the modern NFL. Mark Barron is another name in that hat for who will start at inside linebacker for Pittsburgh. Training camp should provide some answers.
A second cornerback is also something the Steelers desperately need. Joe Haden has been impeccable to the Pittsburgh defense since coming over from Cleveland. Artie Burns and Cameron Sutton both showed an inability to play the position consistently. Enter Steven Nelson, who started the last three seasons at corner in Kansas City. Nelson was part of some bad defensive Chief teams, but head coach Mike Tomlin is excited to plug Nelson into the Steelers secondary.