Having already stated that the RAVENS are far from a lock to capture this division in 2015 let’s take a look at the contenders and pretenders in the AFC North.
The remainder of the AFC North features a group of tough teams to beat on Sunday, but an equally tough group to evaluate. The BENGALS have evolved under the guidance of HC MARVIN LEWIS from being a perennial loser into an annual 10-Win team. But they also have been a one-and-done Play-Off entry under the field generalship of QB/ANDY DALTON. DALTON is a solid leader with an average NFL arm, but still turns the ball over too frequently, as evidenced by his 19 TD/17 INT performance of 2014. Part of his struggles to improve as an NFL QB can be traced to the lack of emergence of a true No.2 WR to compliment AJ GREEN. Speedster DEMARIUS MOORE/WR/VFA was the only significant addition to their receiving corps and though he stretches opposing D’s he threatens more than he delivers. A healthy return of MARVIN JONES/WR might be a big help for DALTON’s numbers. A healthy TYLER EIFERT/TE would provide a boost this year, as could R/TYLER KROFT/TE. JEREMY HILL & GIO BERNARD is a solid running tandem with that thunder & lightning compliment in their running styles. The OL should pretty much be the same solid starting 5 from 2014, but the Draft yielded the team’s potential OT duo of the near future in CEDRIC OBBUEHI & JAKE FISHER. All-Pro ANDREW WHITWORTH is 33-years old and RT/ANDRE SMITH is coming up on Free Agency. Expect vet OL Coach PAUL ANDERSON to be fast tracking OGBUEHI & FISHER for starting work soon. This Offense ranked 15th in the League last year and OC HUE JACKSON should be able to do better with the assembled talent! On the other side of the ball, the BENGALS D ranked 12th in the League in their first year without MIKE ZIMMER. DC PAUL GUENTHER has some interesting talent to juggle including the return of 3 ex-Bengals who had tried VFA but were let go by their new teams: DE/MIKE JOHNSON, DT/PAT SIMS, CB/BRANDON GHEE. In a homecoming party of sorts QB/JOSH JOHNSON was also re-signed as a VFA. VFA/A.J. HAWK was signed on to back-up REY MAUALUGA at MLB. Rookies JOSH SHAW & DERRON SMITH were drafted to bolster a secondary that is long on familiar names, but perhaps short on actual starting level talent. The BENGALS ranked 16th in the NFL on the Turnover Table with a break-even total of 0. If the D could pick up the pace on Forced Fumbles (only 6 in ’14) and DALTON could reduce that INT total it could result in another Win or two and some Play-Off home cooking.
The STEELERS cranked it up on Offense in 2014 and it looks as though BIG BEN and OC/TODD HALEY have really clicked as a duo. The team ranked second in Yards/game and 7th in Points/game. LEVEON BELL came in as a trimmer/quicker RB and piled up 1361 yards for second best in the league. ANTONIO BROWN/WR exploded to lead the league in catches & yards. Throw in guys like HEATH MILLER/TE, MARTAVIS BRYANT/WR & MARKUS WHEATON/WR as well as a solid OL and it looks as though that O output can continue. The STEELERS also added VFA/DEANGELO WILLIAMS/RB, WR/SAMMIE COATES/R & TE/JESSE JAMES/R to bolster the returning skill position guys. WILLIAMS will be critical to the attack while BELL sits out a league suspension to start the season. The Defensive side of he ball will be where the vast majority of personnel changes will come. It’s the dawn of a new day on that side of the ball. The D was ranked 18th overall in the NFL and contributed greatly to the team ranking 16th on the Turnover Table by only generating 21 total Takeaways. New DC KEITH BUTLER will try to infuse some new talent and new schemes (if TOMLIN lets him) in the absence of former DC DICK LaBEAU, S/TROY POLAMALU, DE/BRETT KEISEL, CB/IKE THOMAS, and other old standby’s. The STEELERS spent most of their Draft looking for impact defenders and got some, who deserve to play not red-shirt. ER/OLB/BUD DUPREE, CB/SENQUEZ GOLSON, CB/DORAN GRANT, DE/L.T. WALTON, E/ER/ANTHONY CHICKILLO & S/GEROD HOLLIMAN should all earn playing time. The team also brought in BRETT BOYKIN/CB/RS/T, MATT CONRATH/DE/VFA & CLIFTON GEATHERS/DE/VFA who should all push for playing time as well. Then stir in youngsters who battled injury in 2014 like RYAN SHAZIER/ILB, JORDAN ZUMWALT/ILB & JARVIS JONES/OLB. BUTLER has to live with learning curves for young guys, which LaBEAU could not seem to tolerate in his complex schemes. If BUTLER adopts the KISS method and lets his youngsters play through their early mistakes he could be in charge of a dynamic D by December. In that case this team could make my projection look bad. Sounds like an awful lot of change for the traditionally stand pat STEELERS organization to swallow in one fell swoop however.
I have the BROWNS ranked as nothing more than spoilers because they still do not have an answer to their QB dilemma. The past couple of years the organization seems to have finally settled down to building a solid NFL roster, despite some bad character personnel decisions (MANZIEL, GORDON, GILBERT). This year GM/RAY FARMER & HC/MIKE PETTINE have primarily brought in fundamentally sound players and have added another solid group of Rookies for this year’s edition. VFA’s DWAYNE BOWE/WR, BRIAN HARTLINE/WR & ROB HOUSLER/TE will help revamp their receiving corps, not to mention R/WR//RS/VINCE MAYLE, who though raw has nice potential. An interesting Draft Pick was that of undersized TE/MALCOLM JOHNSON/R who is likely to fill a multi-purpose role as a blocking H-B, and a slot receiver. JOSH McCOWN/VFA/QB is the new starter as the team tries to resurrect the career potential of JOHNNY MANZIEL/QB. The Rookie RB tandem of TERRANCE WEST & IASAIAH CROWELL could give the team a solid 1-2 punch over the next couple of seasons, behind an above average OL, assuming OC/ALEX MACK comes back from a broken bone in his leg. Draftee DUKE JOHNSON/RB could steal some time from those two as a change of pace RB, with good catching hands. CAMERON ERVING/R played OT & OC at FSU with equal alacrity and will get a chance to unseat perhaps MITCHELL SCHWARTZ at RT if he’s not needed at OC.
With former DC PETTINE in charge it should come as no surprise that 7 of 12 Draftees were on the defensive side of the ball, led by super large NT/DANNY SHELTON. NATE ORCHARD will have to find his pro slot either at DE or OLB, but either way mark him down as a superior Edge-Rusher. XAVIER COOPER/R looks like a solid candidate to fit in as a 3-4 DE after impressing greatly at the COMBINE and in personal workouts. SS/IBRAHEIM CAMPBELL/R could be serving a brief apprenticeship under DONTE WHITNER at the SS slot. VFA additions to the D are led by TRAMON WILLIAMS/CB & RANDY STARKS/DE. This up and coming team could add up to 20 new faces this season to the final roster. My guess is that by the end of this season the general feeling will be that this team is ready for a Franchise QB to be put in place for 2016. If they can do so somehow the core roster in Cleveland could be good enough to contend for the Play-Offs in 2016 and beyond. In 2015 a lot of teams will not want to be tangling with his young, physical team on Sundays.
This division is tough and talented. The toughest part of most of their schedules will be beating up on each other within the division.