With the preseason officially in the rear-view mirror, real football is right around the corner. The new additions each team has made during the off-season have gotten a chance to work together, and positional battles have (for the most part) been decided. The AFC North looks to be strong once again, but as is the case with literally everyone, each team in it has their strengths and weaknesses. But how does each team compare to the rest in the division? I take a look at the offensive side of the ball below. We’ll start with the least glamorous position, the offensive line, then work our way out from there.
1. Steelers: Left to right: Alejandro Villanueva, Ramon Foster, Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro, Marcus Gilbert. This line is easily top 5 in the league when healthy. They have been together as starters for 3 straight years now, and are all still in the prime of their careers. You don’t normally see this mixture of chemistry, skill level, and youth together, so this group certainly stands out. This unit finished outside of the top 10 last year, but Marcus Gilbert missed time with injury and Ramon Foster had the worst year of his career. If Foster can get back on track and everyone can stay healthy, the sky is the limit for this group.
2. Browns: Left to right: Joel Bitonio, Austin Corbett, JC Tretter, Kevin Zeitler, Chris Hubbard. The departure of Joe Thomas is still hurting Cleveland to this day. The team employs an elite level group at the interior of their O-Line, but the tackles have been a liability. Shon Coleman was a disaster at right tackle a season ago, so they brought in former Steelers backup Chris Hubbard to take over for him. They experimented with moving him to the left side, but he didn’t stick there either and now has lost the starting job outright. Joel Bitonio has been forced outside to left tackle, giving second-round pick Austin Corbett the opportunity to start on day one. Tretter and Zeitler have been great at center and guard respectively and should be expected to keep up a high level of play, but there are questions everywhere else. Hubbard doesn’t have much in the way of starting experience, but has looked serviceable in his limited playing time. Bitonio has been a solid contributor at LG for the Browns throughout his career, and if he can keep that level of play at LT he could patch up a weakness from a year ago. Corbett obviously has high expectations as an early second rounder as well. If all goes well, this is an above average line, but if the new additions struggle it could turn out to be very leaky.
3. Ravens: Left to right: Ronnie Stanley, James Hurst/Alex Lewis, Matt Skura, Marshal Yanda, Orlando Brown Jr. What a volatile situation we have. Assuming they’re both healthy (which honestly isn’t a given, they both experienced recent injuries), Stanley and Yanda should be the anchors of this team. Stanley is an underrated left tackle who’s played well for us since his rookie year, and Marshal Yanda is one of the best linemen in all of football. After the two of them, there’s nothing but questions. Orlando Brown has certainly looked the part at right tackle. The job is his as of right now, and he hasn’t shown a hiccup yet. That said, he also hasn’t played a football game that matters at the NFL level, so the jury is still out. If he continues to play at the level we’ve seen, he’ll be an absolute steal. I’m not sure who gets the start between Alex Lewis and James Hurst, but they’ve both shown to be capable of holding down the position. I think Lewis is the starter ideally, with Hurst being a backup due to his versatility. I’d prefer to not see him play tackle ever again, but I suppose he technically could if needed. Center looks to be the glaring weakness, as Skura has been pretty horrendous during the preseason and Bozeman hasn’t exactly eased my mind. That said, center looked the same way last season and then Ryan Jensen broke out and is now the highest paid center in the league. Don’t underestimate our coaching staff, they’re very good at scheming around the strengths of the line and raising the unit to a higher level.
4. Bengals: Left to right: Cordy Glenn, Clint Boling, Billy Price, Trey Hopkins, Jake Fisher. This group was awful a season ago. They ranked 28th overall, but I’d venture to say they were actually even worse than that. Improvement was essentially inevitable, and they definitely made some great additions this off-season. Drafting Billy Price at center and trading for left tackle Cordy Glenn makes this group significantly better, but they’re still a unit that’s expected to finish near the bottom of the league. Glenn is potentially a top 10 LT when healthy, but his injury history is extensive. Boling was decent but far from great last year. Billy Price was potentially the best center in college football a year ago, but he’ll be recovering from an offseason injury and hasn’t played at the NFL level yet. Trey Hopkins isn’t a starting caliber guard, and Jake Fisher is an early first-round bust. The right side of this line will give Andy Dalton nightmares, and even if everyone plays to their maximum potential this unit doesn’t have a particularly high ceiling.
1. Steelers: It should come as no surprise that Ben Roethlisberger is the best quarterback in the division. He checks all the boxes and makes his ranking at number 1 easy. He’s had the longest career out of the competition, has accomplished the most throughout his playing time (including 2 Superbowl wins), and is playing at the highest level of the starting 4 to this day. Pittsburgh also drafted Mason Rudolph in the 2nd round of this year’s draft as an eventual contingency plan.
2. Ravens: I said it last year and I’ll say it again for 2018: Joe Flacco is a better quarterback than Andy Dalton. Sure, Dalton has put together a few great seasons (more on that below), but the supporting casts aren’t even comparable. There’s no way around the fact that Joe Flacco has been the worst starting quarterback in football over the last 3 seasons. It’s been frustrating to watch him play, but a lot of that can be attributed to his 2 major injuries. While the dream of Flacco playing at his Superbowl run level of play ever again seems dead, he has shown a lot to be excited for in his preseason action thus far. Ideally, Flacco gets back to playing at a high level for the next season or 2 while Lamar Jackson develops into the league’s next big playmaker.
3. Bengals: Andy Dalton is a decent quarterback that has benefitted from being in a great offense throughout his career. While I don’t believe Dalton is holding his team back, I also don’t believe he’s really elevating it either. But that’s not to say he hasn’t had great success. Dalton sported a winning record in his first 5 seasons in the league before a recent slump, and throughout that time has shown flashes of high-level play. His 2013 season saw him throw for 33 touchdowns, and in 2015 he looked to be playing even better before an injury cut the season short. Those 2 seasons are more of an anomaly than anything though, as the other 5 were incredibly average. Dalton doesn’t have a huge arm, a high completion percentage, or the kind of mobility that’d instill fear in a defense. He doesn’t really do anything at the top level, but he does everything decently and runs the Cincinnati offense well.
4. Browns: One day the Browns will have a stable quarterback situation. Murphy’s Law states that anything that can happen will happen. That includes even the most absurd of events, none more mind-boggling than the idea of a franchise quarterback in Cleveland. Yet, here we are. I believe in Baker Mayfield. I believe in his abilities on the field, and I believe he has a winner’s mentality combined with natural leadership. Tyrod Taylor will be the opening day starter for the Browns, but you don’t draft a guy number 1 overall to sit him forever, and it’s only a matter of time before Mayfield takes over. For the time being, Taylor is a dual threat QB that should keep the defense honest against what looks to be a good offense on paper. He plays a little too conservative for my taste and looks almost afraid to throw into tight coverage, but taking care of the ball and limiting mistakes should help a team that made a ton of them a year ago improve immediately. Tyrod will keep the offense on track and make the Browns competitive in games this year, but the goal is to pass the baton to the future potential superstar. There’s a chance for upward mobility for the position next year, but as of now I can’t justify putting the Browns over anyone here.
1. Steelers: Leveon Bell is arguably the best running back in the NFL, and if he’s not he’s top 3 at the very least. He excels at everything as an RB, with a good mixture of power and speed along with elite quickness and vision. He’s essentially patented his own style of running as well, he has great patience and waits for the hole to open in the line before bursting through. On top of all of that, he’s a great wide receiver as well. You can literally line Bell up at any of the playmaker positions and he’ll be a huge threat. A lot of backs get their receiving yardage through swing passes and cheap completions that are essentially extended handoffs, but Bell is running routes downfield as a legitimate receiver. He had 85 catches last year in addition to his 321 runs. He’s in the prime of his career at the moment and is an absolute game breaker in the backfield. Fortunately for Ravens fans, he’s indicated that this will be his last year in Pittsburgh. We’ll see if that holds true next year, but the whole division will be letting out a sigh of relief if he joins a team elsewhere (no offense to James Conner.)
2. Browns: I swore the Browns were going to draft Saquan Barkley number 1 overall and then get their QB of the future with the 4th pick. Thankfully that didn’t happen, because Barkley looks like the best RB prospect in the last decade. That said, Cleveland still did a lot of good for themselves this off-season. Letting Isaiah Crowell walk wasn’t a big deal, he was just a decent power back at best and wasn’t a top-level guy (despite what his fantasy football hype from a year ago would tell you). They kept Duke Johnson, one of the best receiving backs in the league, on the roster which should be a big benefit on third downs and obvious passing situations. They also added Carlos Hyde in free agency and Nick Chubb in the draft. Hyde is already an upgrade, as he’s coming off of back to back seasons with 1000+ total yards and 8+ touchdowns. If he can stay healthy there’s no doubt he could produce at the same level. But health has been his biggest issue, he’s missed 12 games in the last 3 seasons and has been banged up for countless others. Chubb could be a high upside pick, especially if he sees extended play time. Some draft analysts had him as high as number 2 among rookie running backs.
3. Ravens: I wanted to put us higher, I really did. Alex Collins had a break out season a year ago, and was often the only positive member of one of the worst offenses in the league. His ability to bounce zone runs to the outside is his greatest asset, and it pairs up well with his high motor. Collins’ legs keep churning no matter the down or the score, and he’s hard to bring down. Because of that, he has a nice little highlight reel of making plays out of nothing last year. On film, he doesn’t particularly have elite level speed, acceleration, or quickness, but he makes it work. He’s got great power and plays a style of football you like to see in a Ravens uniform. He was just under 1000 rush yards in 2017 despite not playing a quarter of the season, and will only get better with a healthy Marshal Yanda back. We also have Buck Allen, who is a good change of pace and receiving back, and Kenneth Dixon, who you can’t write off quite yet. We also have a handful of undrafted free agent backs that could crack the final roster or step up in the event of an injury. We have a talented backfield that figures to be an integral part of the offense once again. I’m looking at 2018 as a “prove it” year before moving this unit up in next year’s list.
4. Bengals: This rating doesn’t feel right, but the division is pretty stacked at the running back position. Aside from Leveon Bell, I think Joe Mixon easily has the highest ceiling of any HB in the division. He actually plays a style that’s extremely similar to Bell’s, but maybe lacks the level of sheer talent that makes Bell so deadly. He’s dropped weight in the off-season, and now that he’s not a rookie anymore Marvin Lewis, who’s notoriously limiting with his first year players, should actually give him a workload. Mixon isn’t the level of pass catcher that Bell is but he can more than hold his own. I personally expect him to make a huge jump and have a breakout season in year 2. He also won’t have to deal with Jeremy Hill stealing carries anymore, and has Giovanni Bernard to help compliment his playstyle. Bernard is a much smaller back who relies on elusiveness more than power and excels in the passing game. He’ll provide a nice change of pace. If Mixon plays to the level I expect and Leveon goes to a new team, this is a unit that could go from worst to first on next year’s list.
1. Bengals: Tight end is a surprisingly shallow position in the AFC North. No one particularly stands out as of right now, so these rankings will essentially have to go off of potential. Of the options, Tyler Eifert has shown the highest ceiling thus far, particularly in the 2015 season. During that year he notched 13 touchdowns in as many games, and saw his first pro bowl nod. Eifert has shown to be a difference maker as a pass catcher and a red zone nightmare when he’s on the field, but unfortunately for the Bengals that hasn’t typically been the case. Eifert has yet to play a whole season, and has played in 8 or less games in 3 of his first 5 seasons. There’s no doubt that he was at one point a premier tight end in the league, but it’s unclear if he’ll ever get back to that level. His injury history could likely slow him down and lower his ceiling, or even continue to keep him off the field all together. But when he’s at his best, Tyler Eifert is easily a top 5 TE.
2. Browns: David Njoku managed to sneak in a decent rookie year in the midst of the dumpster fire that was the Cleveland offense. On paper, his stats might not be eye-opening, but tight end is a difficult position to transition to at the pro level, and he wasn’t particularly working with a great quarterback situation. Njoku has ideal size and athleticism, along with great hands to make tough grabs all over the field. Both Tyrod Taylor and Baker Mayfield should be immediate upgrades over Deshon Kizer, and I believe Njoku will have a break out season in his second year. Expectations are high for him in both Cleveland and the fantasy football world, and I believe he’ll live up to the hype. He has the talent to move to number 1 on the list next year, now he’s just got to prove it.
3. Ravens: The injury to Hayden Hurst was a damaging blow, but thankfully it seems like he’ll only miss a few games. Hurst has looked phenomenal in practice and during his time in the preseason no matter what quarterback was throwing him the ball. He catches everything in his radius and is a complete player who could easily have the best season of any rookie tight end in Ravens history (right now that distinction goes to Maxx Williams believe it or not.) The Ravens also drafted Mark Andrews, who’s prolific as a receiver but pretty much useless as a blocker. Most of his work will come out of the slot or as a TE2 when Hurst comes back, but it’ll be interesting to see how he’s used in the meantime. He raised his stock quite a bit with extended playing time in the final pre-season game. Nick Boyle is a potential option as well, but he’s more of a blocker and not overly useful as a receiver. The problem with having the 2 of them as our top options is that it telegraphs what we’re running depending on who’s on the field. Andrews being on the field will generally mean we’re passing, whereas Boyle would be the opposite. Marty Mornhinweg will have to get creative with their deployment. Maxx Williams also remains an option, and should sneak his way onto the opening day roster due to the injury. Once Hurst returns from injury, he should have a lock on the starting job, and he looks to have a bright future.
4. Steelers: A couple of years ago Jesse James was being hyped up as the next Heath Miller. I personally never saw it, but I was willing to be convinced. At this point in his career, I believe it’s safe to say he’s not at that level, barring any significant improvement. This year it looks like Vance Mcdonald will have the starting job, which is only moderately more interesting. That also depends on his health, as he’s currently fighting off a foot injury and is questionable for week one. He was coming off of two solid years in San Francisco before becoming a member of the Steelers midway through last season, and while he didn’t really catch on as any type of significant threat, he fared better than James in the back half of the season. Going into his sixth year I think we’ve seen what kind of player Mcdonald is, which is a serviceable TE that’ll suffice on a team that’s loaded everywhere else offensively. He’s in a position where he doesn’t need to be great, which is good because he won’t be. Everyone higher on the list has some form of appealing upside that both McDonald and James don’t have in my eyes. There will be a few flashy plays between the two, but aside from that they’ll be mostly forgettable.
1. Steelers: I’d do anything to allow us to borrow some of the scouts from Pittsburgh. These guys seem to always draft great players at the wide receiver position. Last year they picked up Juju Smith-Schuster, who has already become one of the most known players in the league after bursting onto the scene his rookie year. He was on the receiving end of a handful of huge plays, and went viral for his post touchdown antics that may or may not have gone too far at times. He’ll be looking to improve on his performance and avoid a sophomore slump as the Steelers’ number 2. This year, the trend may continue. James Washington looks the part of an NFL wide receiver and could turn out to be a potential steal. He’ll see playing time since Martavis Bryant was traded to Oakland earlier in the off-season, and has the potential to make a Juju-esque impact right away. Oh yeah, and they also have Antonio Brown. You know, the best receiver in the NFL? Pittsburgh’s receiving Corp should be filthy once again.
2. Browns: There are rumblings around the NFL media that the Cleveland Browns have the best receiving corp in the NFL. Pair that up with David Njoku, who I already pinpointed as a potential breakout candidate, and a strong run game, and the Browns wind up looking phenomenal on paper. But let’s pump the breaks for just a moment and remember what we’re looking at. In the early parts of the off-season, Jarvis Landry to Baltimore was a popular storyline, and for good reason. He’s a strong slot receiver with phenomenal hands (seriously, watch some of his college highlights) with enough talent to play on the outside as well. He could very well lead the league in receptions. He’ll be paired up with oft-troubled but insanely talented receiver Josh Gordon. Gordon has been suspended for all but 10 games since the 2013 season, but has put a new emphasis on sobriety this off-season. He might never reach the 117+ ypg he put up in 2013, but if he can reach anywhere near that he’d prove to be a bonafide top level receiver. The Browns also drafted Antonio Callaway, who’s in a very similar position as Gordon. He had the talent level to be a first-round draft pick, but fell due to his off-field issues. He’s already been cited for Marijuana possession since entering the league, but if he can stay out of trouble he could help the Browns reach their lofty expectations of having the best WR corp in the league. Side note: total Browns move to bring a receiver with a history of Marijuana-related issues into a locker room with Josh Gordon. Help the guy help himself.
3. Bengals: Honestly, the Bengals and Browns are interchangeable here, but I gave Cleveland the nod by a hair. AJ Green is an elite level WR with a big strong body and a knack for crushing Ravens fans’ dreams. He’s a threat to embarrass you on every 50/50 ball thrown his way, and is never truly covered. In truth, Andy Dalton owes AJ Green around half of his career earnings. He’s paired up with second-year WR John Ross. I mentioned earlier that Marvin Lewis had an antiquated view on rookies and doesn’t really play them, so in truth, this will be Ross’ first chance to make an impact. He tested out as the fastest player in NFL history at his combine last year, and that speed really translates on the field. He absolutely embarrassed the Bills on a deep ball in their last preseason game, and is sure to claim more victims throughout the year if given the chance. So in short, the Bengals have paired AJ Green up with the fastest player in the league, I don’t think I have to break down how scary that could be. Tyler Boyd also looks ready to step up as a legitimate slot option, but that wound is too fresh to talk about still.
4. Ravens: Our biggest focus in the off-season was revamping the receiving group on the team. Despite the ranking here, I think we did a great job. Michael Crabtree is a prolific route runner and a red zone threat. John Brown provides a deep threat and the potential for big time yards after the catch. Willie Snead is a sure-handed slot option who I believe could lead the team in receptions by year’s end. Each guy brings a different skillset than the other, which is essential for creating and effective wide receiver group. Joe Flacco has some weapons again, all of the excuses are out the window, it’s time to produce. That’s not even mentioning Chris Moore is returning as our WR4 and we’ve added rookies for depth as well. The AFC North is a strong division for the WR position, but make no mistake, this group is immeasurably better than what we had a year ago.
And with that, the first half of the series is complete. Make sure to come back next week for the defense and special teams edition.