I’ve saved the AFC North until last to preview partly because the division mystifies me. No one is dominant, but most of them should be good. Remember, the RAVENS, BENGALS & STEELERS all won 10 or more games last season. Even the BROWNS are improving, if only they had a legit NFL starting QB to lead their Offense. To my own surprise, when all is said and done I think I like the RAVENS to come out on top when the smoke clears.
This will truly be the season in which OZZIE NEWSOME/GM gets to show us one more time what a talent wizard he truly is. The team lost some serious veteran talent (OWEN DANIELS/TE, JACOBY JONES/RS, PERNELL McPHEE/ER, HAOLTI NGATA/DT, TORREY SMITH/WR, TYROD TAYLOR/QB) and their OC/GARY KUBIAK. But as usual it is expected that some recent draft picks should be ready to step up, and that includes what looks like a strong 2015 Draft Class. To the surprise of some the Offense ranked 8th in the League in scoring at 25.6 ppg. THat’s a solid number for a team known more for it’s Defense than scoring production. Not surprisingly, the Defense ranked 6th at 18.9 ppg allowed. That 6+ ppg differential is solid in today’s NFL. JOE FLACCO/QB may not be flashy, but he has a very strong arm and makes a lot of clutch plays on 3rd down. His 91.0 Passer Rating puts him in the middle of the pack statistically, but his coaches and teammates have absolute trust and confidence in him. It is also believed that new OC/MARK TRESTMAN will be a great fit with FLACCO; with both his talent and his personality vis-a-vis a guy named CUTLER. I expect FLACCO to have his highest Passing Rating as a pro under TRESTMAN. Don’t look for a ton of new starters on the O, but the depth chart will look very different. By mid-season look for BRESHARD PERRIMAN/WR/R & MAXX WILLIAMS/TE/R to be big parts of the passing attack. STEVE SMITH/WR will still be expected to lead the WR group, even at age 35. But the team also thinks that KAMAR ALLEN & MARLON BROWN are ready to assert themselves as pros. HOwever, the deep ball is likely to show up only after PERRIMAN has earned significant playing time. There are also some coaches who think MICHAEL CAMPANARO has the look of a WES WELKER-type player. If health issues work out the TE spot could be very deep and productive with DENNIS PITTA coming back from another hip injury and R/NICK BOYLE asserting himself as a blocking force in the run game. Speaking of which, the RB corps looks deep and versatile with FORSETT & TALIAFERRO both back and the addition of two Rookies; BUCK ALLEN & TERRENCE MAGEE. The group looks so strong that the team cut BERNARD PIERCE after the Draft. The OL returns intact and is almost 2-deep primarily with good young veteran talent. R/ROBERT MYERS/OG looks like the best of the new talent, but he’s also bit of a project so isn’t likely to help much in 2015.
The RAVENS were only +2 on he Turnover Table, primarily because their injury plagued secondary only managed 12 INT. Look for that mark to improve in 2015 for DC/DEAN PEES.
I expect the Defense to be markedly better if only because it seems almost inconceivable that the secondary can be plagued by as many injuries as it was in 2014. Assuming everyone comes back healthy in that unit expect some serious battles to take place for starting jobs. KYLE ARRINGTON/CB/VFA was signed when the PATS cut him, and should make a nice spare part, with a shot to play Nickel Corner. VFA/S/KEITH LEWIS is expected to battle TERRENCE BROOKS for the FS slot. Keep an eye open for R/TRAY WALKER/CB who was their surprise, small-school 4th Round Draft Pick. NEWSOME has a great record of finding small school gems. The DL is solid and could get a boost from at least 2 new faces. R/CARL DAVIS/DT could back up anywhere on that unit. BRENT URBAN/DE is a tree (6’7) at DE who missed his Rookie season in 2014 due to injury. Could he be the next CHRIS CANTY? Last year’s Round 2 Rookie was TIMMY JERNIGAN who was an impact player at DE by season’s end. At LB, 1st Rounder CJ MOSLEY was a solid starter from the get-go. ZA’DARIUS SMITH an edge rusher from Kentucky could see some serious playing time spelling TERRELL SUGGS/OLB later in the long season, thus saving SUGGS for the Play-Offs. ELVIS DUMERVIL/OLB/ER led the team with 17 Sacks in 2014. Like the OL, the LB corps looks to be 2-deep all around.
Like TED THOMPSON in Green Bay, OZZIE builds his teams through the Draft. Even though the RAVENS are an older roster than the PACKERS (10 players 30+) they build primarily with their own. Of the 90-man roster 62 players are home-grown Draftees or URFA. Unlike THOMPSON, NEWSOME is much more likely to bring in a few VFA players each year to supplement his roster, but he does it selectively. His Camp team has only 9 new vets on their roster. That’s more than the PACKERS (with 0) but they are the only single-digit “outsider” team in the NFL. It should also be mentioned that HC/JOHN HARBAUGH and his loyal staff are good developers of players, and leaders of men on game day. Expect not more than a Baker’s Dozen new faces on the RAVENS September roster, but rest assured that almost all of them will be regular contributors to the cause as the season progresses.