New-look Browns early AFC North favourites despite history of losing?

Cleveland Browns tight end David Njoku (85). Cleveland Browns and the Minnesota Vikings play in the NFL London Games at Twickenham Stadium in London on Sunday, October 29. photo: Olvier Ryan/ NFL

It’s been one of the busiest off-season’s in recent memory, following up on an NFL season for the ages. Contenders have been bolstering their rosters while the bottom of the league has committed to their rebuilding process’. 

So who is coming out on top this year in the AFC North? Let’s find out.

Baltimore Ravens

The Baltimore Ravens were a slight surprise in 2018. 

Keep in mind, Baltimore’s roster had everything it needed to win their division. A defence that was one of the best in the NFL, solid receivers, two talented tight ends and depth at running back. So what was surprising?

The Ravens were able to overcome benching ex-Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco and let rookie QB Lamar Jackson go to work mid-season. That usually ends in disaster for a team in the middle of a playoff hunt. However, it worked.

Unfortunately, the momentum came to a halt at the start of the playoffs, falling to the surging Los Angeles Chargers. Jackson struggled to throw the football and their 4th quarter comeback was too little too late.

The Ravens remained optimistic going into the offseason. After hiring a new offensive coordinator, it appears the organization is all in on Jackson. This became even more apparent after trading Flacco to Denver. 

It’s hard to determine whether Baltimore lost or gained more during the off-season. They cut RB Alex Collins and safety Eric Weddle but signed Mark Ingram and Earl Thomas. While these may be considered upgrades, they then lost CJ Mosely to free agency. He signed with the Jets.

The rest of the roster remains more or less the same. In a division as intense as the AFC North, it seemed like the Baltimore Ravens may have needed to be a bit more aggressive to hold on to their division title. 

2018’s second and third-place finishers are coming in hot. If Lamar Jackson doesn’t find consistency in his throwing attack and the defence can’t replace Mosley adequate, Baltimore’s season might be finished without a postseason berth.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Before injecting Jackson into their starting lineup, the Pittsburgh Steelers were riding high and at the top of the division. Even through adversity and internal power struggles, they played well enough to win. 

However, a late-season slump, including some heartbreaking road losses in Denver, Oakland and New Orleans, ended the Steelers hopes of hoisting the Lombardi Trophy. With so much to prove and retaining equal amounts of talent, it ended up being a matter of addition by subtraction this past offseason.

Disgruntled stars Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown found new homes via free agency and trade, which meant the beginning of a new era. Long-time QB Ben Rothlisberger will be relying on James Conner and JuJu Smith-Schuster to step as full-time number one options.

Fortunately for Rothlisberger, the two young emerging stars played much like number one option in 2018 that it doesn’t feel like it will be too much of a transition for Conner and Smith-Schuster. If Conner can stay healthy and Smith-Schuster can stay consistent and away from the drops, the Steelers offence with remain as dynamic as ever.

2019 should be a season filled with success for Pittsburgh. They finished 6th in total defence and kept most of that side of the ball in-tact. They will look towards keeping drama free as a means of achieving their only goal: winning another Super Bowl.

Head Coach Mike Tomlin will have seemingly less on his plate this year. With the Pittsburgh Steelers only focus in 2019 being football, the sky’s the limit.

Cleveland Browns

It must feel like a lifetime for Cleveland Browns fans since their beloved franchise has finished anywhere other than fourth place in the AFC North.

Before 2018, the Browns have spent every season in the basement of their division since 2002 with the exception 2 odd years out. 2002’s playoff appearance, a distant memory. Yet Cleveland is not just a darkhorse playoff team for 2019. Some believe they are AFC North favourites.

The talent is there. They have big-time playmakers on both sides of the ball. Baker Mayfield, David Njoku, Nick Chubb, Myles Garrett and Denzel Ward are the real deal. LSU teammates Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckam Jr. have reunited, ready to terrorize secondaries across the league.

The addition of OBJ is monumental, and there’s a surplus of firepower on offence and defence. Nonetheless, this is the Cleveland Browns. Uncertainty is a step up from consistent inadequacy, but there are question marks. 

The hiring of rookie head coach Freddie Kitchens for starters is intriguing yet puzzling. With so much talent and even more ego, it may have made more sense to hire a veteran head coach instead. Greg Williams, who was the interim HC after the not so surprising firing of Hue Jackson, was ripe for the taking. Instead, he now will be the defensive coordinator of the Jets.

Now after many, many years of being outright awful, the Browns would of course rather have more talent than less. Though Kitchens and Mayfield may find it they have too many mouths to feed on offence. That will only become more apparent when Kareem Hunt comes back from suspension to join the Cleveland backfield. 

The biggest takeaway for the Cleveland Browns is that they have the pieces to win now. Even given the stiff competition in the division, they are more than capable of beating any team in the entirety of the NFL.

That being said, no team is the team to beat after almost two full decades of being the laughing stock of the whole league. So they have much to prove before being crowned anything at all. The talent is there, it’s time to see if they have what it takes to execute. 

Cincinnati Bengals

Marvin Lewis finally said farewell to the organization that gave him a head coaching job for nearly twenty years. It’s now the Zac Taylor era for the Cincinnati Bengals.

Taylor spent time as a quarterback’s coach for the Dolphins and Rams before his debut as a head coach. The unit he will be obtaining is one with many holes and few in the way of direction. 

Entering 2019, with every other team in the AFC North improving, it’s hard to imagine anything other than a full-on rebuild for the Bengals. Joe Mixon has proved to be a very solid player and AJ Green is a perennial pro bowler when healthy, the rest is up in the air.

Andy Dalton appears to have much to prove to remain as the long term starter for Cincinnati. With the 2020 NFL draft Class headlining top-shelf quarterback talents such as Tua Tagovailoa and Justin Herbert. 

Dalton will need to show he can stay off the IR as well, as injuries have plagued him the past few seasons. Only time will tell if he can go back to his pro-bowl self like in 2014 and 2016.

They finished in the bottom half of total offence and defence in 2018, including dead last in total yards allowed. It starts at the top though, attempting to remedy your coaching issues is the place to start. Taylor, alongside an entirely new coaching staff, will likely spend 2019 seeing what they are working with.

Do not expect much from the Cincinnati Bengals this year. With the Ravens, Steelers and Browns all having far superior rosters, it’s difficult to see the Bengals finishing anywhere but last in the AFC North. 

As it was time for a change at head coach at the end of last season, we may see Andy Dalton find the same fate as his long-time head coach Marvin Lewis when the curtain falls on 2019.

Predictions

Andre Dixon:

Cleveland Browns 

Pittsburgh Steelers 

Baltimore Ravens

Cincinnati Bengals

 

Paulie Fiorentino:

Pittsburgh Steelers 

Cleveland Browns 

Baltimore Ravens

Cincinnati Bengals