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Previewing AFC North Based on Offseason Personnel Moves

Joshua AxelrodCorrespondent IOctober 21, 2016

Previewing AFC North Based on Offseason Personnel Moves

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    A hectic offseason in the AFC North has resulted in a lot of questions for its four teams.

    It is probably easiest to just go down the list:

    • Will the Baltimore Ravens’ offense survive the loss of Anquan Boldin? What about that defense, which also went through a significant personnel shuffle?
    • Can the Cincinnati Bengals’ offense possibly get more stale and predictable? Also, has any team had a quieter offseason?
    • Are the Pittsburgh Steelers officially too old, or can they bounce back and contend for a playoff spot again? Can Ben Roethlisberger and Todd Haley get on the same page for an entire season?
    • How will new offensive and defensive coordinators affect the Cleveland Browns? Does anyone in the NFL have a better name than Barkevious Mingo?

    The AFC North looks like it is experiencing a surprising amount of parity. Every team—yes, even the Browns—has the potential to compete for the division crown.

    Of course, certain offseason personnel moves have set the theoretical balance of power in the AFC North. Let's take a look at how each team can be expected to do next season.

Baltimore Ravens

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    The Ravens obviously have the highest expectations of any AFC North team next year. Winning the Super Bowl tends to do that.

    Baltimore started the offseason by dismantling its championship defense and trading Joe Flacco’s top target to another Harbaugh-led team.

    In a span of a few weeks, Baltimore lost Ed Reed to the Houston Texans, Dannell Ellerbe to the Miami Dolphins, Paul Kruger to the Cleveland Browns and Anquan Boldin to the San Francisco 49ers.

    Do not forget that they will also be without Ray Lewis, who finished his last ride in the Super Bowl. That is a serious hit to the Ravens’ leadership and craziness quota.

    As usual, general manager Ozzie Newsome did not panic. Instead, he went out and plugged his holes.

    He acquired Chris Canty and Marcus Spears to patch up the defensive line and pounced on Elvis Dumervil when he became available. Newsome drafted Florida safety Matt Elam and Kansas State linebacker Arthur Brown to replace Reed and one of the departed linebackers.

    Baltimore’s defense looks solid. The offense might suffer without Boldin, though Flacco still has Torrey Smith, Dennis Pitta and Jacoby Jones. Plus, the Ravens can always rely on Ray Rice when necessary.

    The Ravens put themselves in a great position to defend their crown. As long as nothing silly happens, expect to see them in the playoffs.

    Projected Record: 12-4

Cincinnati Bengals

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    The Bengals look pretty much just like the team that got bounced in the first round of the playoffs by the Texans last season.

    Same decent but unspectacular quarterback. Same serviceable but boring running game. Same crop of average receivers (with the exception of the amazing A.J. Green). Same middle-of-the-road defense.

    All they really managed to accomplish was re-signing a few key pieces while making some unremarkable free-agent signings. They did not bungle anything and their draft was solid, but then again it is hard to mess up when you do not try.

    The Bengals re-signed a lot of talent, most notably right tackle Andre Smith, kicker Mike Nugent and linebacker Rey Maualuga. Free agency netted them backup quarterbacks John Skelton and Josh Johnson.

    The only interesting move Cincinnati made was taking a chance on former Steelers linebacker James Harrison. Maybe he will return to form and be a beast for the Bengals. Or the fact that he stayed in the division will just make Pittsburgh angry and motivate them more to take the Bengals down.

    Actually, their draft produced two potential offensive stars in Notre Dame tight end Tyler Eifert and North Carolina running back Gio Bernard. The Bengals needed to add talent on offense, so kudos.

    It is hard to see the Bengals going any further than last year with their offseason moves. Look for Cincinnati to compete but remain painfully average.

    Projected Record: 9-7

Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Full disclosure: I was born and raised in Pittsburgh and am thus a diehard Steelers fan. I try to stay as realistic as possible about the Steelers’ chances every year, though sometimes a black-and-gold haze can cloud my judgment.

    Anyway, the Steelers spent their offseason desperately trying to get younger and more dynamic. They made a decent amount of progress in this goal despite doing very little with free agency.

    The Steelers let some of its stars go, including Harrison, diva wide receiver Mike Wallace, disappointing running back Rashard Mendenhall, rookie running back Chris Rainey, penalty-prone left tackle Willie Colon and promising cornerback Keenan Lewis. The only loss the Steelers might live to regret is Lewis.

    Pittsburgh's only notable free-agent signings were backup quarterback Bruce Gradkowski, running back LaRod Stephens-Howling and cornerback William Gay. That is one motley crew.

    What the Steelers lacked in big pickups they made up for with a solid draft. Georgia linebacker Jarvis Jones, Michigan State running back Le’Veon Bell, Oregon State wide receiver Markus Wheaton and Syracuse safety Shamarko Thomas all have the skills to contribute right away.

    The Steelers still have Roethlisberger, one of the most consistent defenses in the NFL and a Super Bowl-winning coach in Mike Tomlin. Their quiet yet efficient offseason was an example of the formula that has led to a lot of success for the Steelers over the years.

    There is no reason they cannot be a serious threat in the AFC North.

    Projected Record: 10-6

Cleveland Browns

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    It seems like the Browns are always a sexy pick to defy expectations and become a contender. That might be easier said than done this year.

    First and foremost, Cleveland hired Norv Turner as an offensive coordinator. He certainly knows how to call plays, but Cleveland does not have the weapons to take advantage of his talent.

    New defensive coordinator Ray Horton should have a less difficult time finding success with the Browns. Cleveland’s defense has been fairly stout for a few seasons now, and the additions of free agents Paul Kruger and Desmond Bryant give Horton more talent to make his life easier.

    The Browns did not lose too much in free agency, though they are now without receiver Josh Cribbs. They will miss Cribbs’ versatile skill set, though the offense was not going to be particularly dynamic with or without him.

    The only player in the Browns’ 2013 draft class worth mentioning is Mingo, a former LSU outside linebacker. Cleveland made only five picks overall and did not generate much buzz with its draft.

    Cleveland’s defense will be solid and running back Trent Richardson is a monster. But starting Brandon Weeden at quarterback is no way to build a contender. The Browns will probably have their billionth consecutive rebuilding year.

    Projected Record: 6-10

Overall AFC North Predictions

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    The Ravens are the clear favorite to win the division despite the loss of a few major players in the offseason. Cleveland is still the worst team in the AFC North even though it improved a bit.

    The wild cards are Cincinnati and Pittsburgh. Both teams have the potential to either make a playoff push or implode.

    I may be biased, but I still have more faith in the Steelers than the Bengals. Pittsburgh is way too proud to miss the playoffs two years in a row. Plus, no one in their right mind should trust Andy Dalton over Roethlisberger.

    The Bengals did not do nearly enough this offseason to improve on last season’s successes. They are more or less the same team that folded quite easily in the playoffs last year.

    The Steelers could go either way depending on how much impact their young players have right away. But if I have to choose between Sixburgh and the Bungles, I will go with the Steelers all day, every day.

    Expect the Steelers to beat the Bengals in the race for a wild-card spot.

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