The Baltimore Ravens have one primary goal for the 2014 season: win the AFC North. That is no easy feat, however, as even the Cleveland Browns have built themselves into a tough out and no division game is a guaranteed victory. So far, all the attention has been focused within the Ravens—on how the players are performing and how the team is coming together.
Of course, Baltimore wants to maximize its potential as a football team, but it is just as important to take a look at the rest of the division and how it has changed this offseason.
The offseasons of the other three AFC North teams will be summarized in terms of key additions, key losses and a rookie to watch in 2014. Each preview will close with a “big question” that each team will need to answer this season, and then all the information will be consolidated to show that the division is completely up for grabs.
Key Additions: CB Darqueze Dennard, RB Jeremy Hill, OT Marshall Newhouse, S Danieal Manning
Key Losses: DE Michael Johnson, OT Anthony Collins, C Kyle Cook, DC Mike Zimmer, OC Jay Gruden, OLB James Harrison, WR Andrew Hawkins
The disparity between additions and losses is the reason why many Bengals fans are somewhat concerned about the team heading into 2014. There is still enough talent on the roster—on both sides of the ball—to win the division and make the playoffs, but the team hasn’t improved in any significant way that would lead you to believe that Cincinnati is poised to win its first playoff game since 1990.
This opinion was echoed by ESPN Insider Field Yates in his preview for the Bengals:
Ultimately, the question is, did this team go from three straight playoff appearances to taking the next step? I do not think they are enough improved to consider them challenging for one or two playoff wins. The loss of Zimmer is gigantic. They could miss Collins on their [offensive] line knowing some of the concerns relating to injury and other question marks with Andrew Whitworth and Andre Smith.
I understand the price tag for Michael Johnson was too high. I wouldn't be surprised if the money was going to contracts for nucleus players, but for now, they have money unspent that is just sitting and waiting.
As Yates points out, letting Johnson walk wasn’t a bad decision for the Bengals in a financial sense, but he’s been a very productive pass-rusher for them, and his impact was felt far beyond the 3.5 sacks he registered in 2013, as evidenced by his Pro Football Focus ranking (subscription required) as the fourth-best 4-3 defensive end in the league.
Then there is the loss of both coordinators. The Bengals were prepared for those departures and replaced them with in-house candidates, but you can’t understate how important Gruden and Zimmer were to the team’s recent success, and the changes leave the door open for growing pains as both sides of the ball adjust to new coordinators.
Cincinnati’s rookie class can provide some immediate contributions—especially the likes of Darqueze Dennard and Jeremy Hill—but will it be enough to offset the losses of the offseason? With an even tougher schedule than the Ravens, thanks to games against the New England Patriots and Denver Broncos on the schedule, the Bengals have no margin for error in their division games.
Rookie to Watch: Jeremy Hill, RB, LSU
The lone criticism of former offensive coordinator Jay Gruden was that he went away from the running game too frequently. In that regard, his replacement—Hue Jackson—will be an upgrade. Jackson is expected to bring a more balanced play-calling style to the table, and he has a dynamic playmaker at his disposal in Giovani Bernard.
Rookie Jeremy Hill could become the thunder to Bernard’s lightning, and in doing so, he would be an improvement over BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who held too prominent a role in the Bengals offense last year.
Hill is arguably the most talented back in his class, but he fell down draft boards due to character concerns. Nevertheless, he’s strong, powerful and explosive and will play a large role in his debut season.
Biggest Question Left to Answer: Can Andy Dalton Silence his Critics?
Would you believe that we’ve made it this far without discussing quarterback Andy Dalton? Like with most NFL teams, the fate of the Bengals ultimately rests on the shoulders of their quarterback. Dalton is certainly not immune to criticism, but the attention will be amped up this season as Cincinnati decides whether or not he’s the long-term answer at the position.
He has a tremendous cast of characters surrounding him on the offense, but poor postseason performances (three games, 70-of-123 for 718 yards, 1 TD, 6 INTs, 56.2 passer rating) and a complete lack of arm strength have loomed over his impressive regular-season production.
Can Dalton step up his game in the biggest moments? That’s the question the Bengals will try to answer this season, and the answer will make or break their season, because there is enough talent around him to make a playoff run.
Key Additions: CB Justin Gilbert, QB Johnny Manziel, RB Ben Tate, S Donte Whitner, ILB Karlos Dansby, RB Terrance West, WR Andrew Hawkins, WR Miles Austin, WR Nate Burleson
Key Losses: WR Josh Gordon (suspension), ILB D’Qwell Jackson, S T.J. Ward, QB Brandon Weeden, QB Jason Campbell, WR Davone Bess
The Cleveland Browns have put together a shockingly competent offseason, and there is cause for optimism in Ohio that goes beyond the return of LeBron James. Cleveland drafted with patience and intelligence, trading down in the first round to acquire an additional first-round pick in next year’s draft to keep the rebuilding momentum going.
First-round pick Justin Gilbert is an excellent all-around corner who would walk into No. 1 jobs on many teams around the league, but he has the benefit of covering secondary receivers, as the tandem of Joe Haden and Gilbert could become one of the best in the league.
The Browns did a solid job of replacing key defensive players (T.J. Ward and D’Qwell Jackson) with quality starters (Donte Whitner and Karlos Dansby), and that defensive front will once again cause problems for opposing O-lines.
Cleveland’s strength lies on the defensive side of the ball, but the questions are on the offense. The hysteria created by drafting Johnny Manziel (who already leads the league in jersey sales) was promising, until the news broke that superstar receiver Josh Gordon was facing a season-long suspension.
The Browns were short on targets to begin with, and losing one of the best receivers in the league is a brutal blow. With a very good offensive line, solid running backs and what should be competent quarterback play at the very least, the lack of weapons in the passing game will be the limiting factor for the Cleveland offense.
Rookie to Watch: Terrance West….seriously? Johnny Football!
People are watching every move Manziel is making in the offseason, so he’s definitely the rookie to watch when the season starts.
First, it will be fascinating to see how the Browns deal with the “quarterback drama” and whether Manziel will start from Week 1.
Manziel is the man to watch for entertainment purposes, but he has the ability to make plays out of nothing, and he could potentially give the Browns enough of a spark to compensate (to some degree, at least) for the lack of quality receiving options.
Biggest Question Left to Answer: How Superhuman is Johnny Manziel?
Unless more personnel moves are made, the Browns likely won't be able to move the ball through the air very efficiently. Jordan Cameron is clearly the No. 1 option in the passing game, but it’s unlikely that Miles Austin, Nate Burleson or Andrew Hawkins will be able to make enough plays to become significant threats.
Given the talent along the O-line and at running back, the Browns should be able to run the ball well, but that might not be the case on the field since opposing defenses don’t need to worry about the passing attack and can load up in the box.
Manziel is the only player capable of providing some balance to the offense and keeping defenses from honing in on the running game—both with his scrambling ability and his penchant for making big plays in the passing game.
Until the receiving corps improves, it’s hard to imagine the Browns getting out of the AFC North cellar this season, but Manziel is a playmaker, and he could make things interesting if he has a spectacular rookie year.
Key Additions: ILB Ryan Shazier, DE Stephon Tuitt, RB LeGarrette Blount, S Mike Mitchell, WR Darrius Heyward-Bey, WR Lance Moore
Key Losses: WR Emmanuel Sanders, OLB LaMarr Woodley, ILB Larry Foote, S Ryan Clark, DT Ziggy Hood
The last few offseasons have seen a changing of the guard on defense for the Steelers—much like what Baltimore experienced after its Super Bowl victory. Like the Ravens, Pittsburgh used a couple of early-round picks on an inside linebacker and defensive lineman who will hopefully form the foundation of the defense moving forward.
Ryan Shazier in particular has unparalleled athleticism and quickness for his position, and he could be very productive both in coverage and as a blitzer in Dick LeBeau’s creative pressure packages.
The biggest change of the offseason for Pittsburgh was the loss of Emmanuel Sanders in free agency. As Chris Burke of Sports Illustrated explains, Sanders is not irreplaceable by any means, but it’s unclear who will replace him in 2014:
Sanders is not a game-changing wide receiver in this league. He never will be compared to Calvin Johnson or A.J. Green or Brandon Marshall or even the Steelers' own Antonio Brown. But what he was for this team—and for QB Ben Roethlisberger—was a steady and reliable presence on a roster without too many guys fitting that bill. Sanders finished last season with 67 catches for 740 yards and six touchdowns, all ranking in the top three on the team.
Are those stats irreplaceable? Hardly. Beyond Brown and TE Heath Miller, however, the Steelers have a rather uncertain setup at receiver. Just this offseason alone, they added Heyward-Bey, Lance Moore and rookie Martavis Bryant, who join 2013 draft pick Markus Wheaton. At least one or two of those players must provide some help for Brown in the passing game or Roethlisberger is going to struggle to move the football.
There are enough weapons on the roster (e.g. Antonio Brown, Heath Miller, Le’Veon Bell) for Ben Roethlisberger to get the job done, but it’s unclear whether the Steelers can be an offensive power until one of their secondary receivers steps up to replace Sanders.
Similar situations emerge all across the roster where young players need to improve and replace the veterans that departed, but we’ll get to that in a second.
Rookie to Watch: Martavis Bryant, WR, Clemson
I highly recommend you watch Shazier for his closing speed alone, but Martavis Bryant is a more intriguing player because he could turn out to be the No. 2 receiver the Steelers are looking for.
Physically, he’s a monster at 6’4” and 215 pounds, but he has the speed of a much smaller receiver, as shown by his 4.42 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine.
Bryant is raw and needs to work on his hands—at least based on what we saw from him at Clemson—but he has the physical tools to be a red-zone threat in the NFL from day one. Expectations shouldn’t be too high for the rookie this early in his career, but he could surprise everyone and become a legitimate threat opposite Antonio Brown.
Biggest Question Left to Answer: Will the Young Talent Step Up?
The Steelers will be relying on a lot of young (albeit talented) players to develop into role players, and their success will depend on how well those youngsters put it all together.
At wide receiver, Markus Wheaton and the aforementioned Martavis Bryant have the talent to be quality secondary options, but the passing attack will suffer a little if Pittsburgh needs to rely on Lance Moore or Darrius Heyward-Bey to be No. 2 guys.
On defense, Jason Worilds and Jarvis Jones will need to fill the shoes of LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison (who left last offseason) as all-around linebackers who can get after the quarterback. Likewise, Shazier and Stephon Tuitt could give the defense a significant boost with solid rookie seasons.
It’s hard to know what to expect from such young and unproven players, but the Steelers will be counting on them to step up when they’re called upon.
Where Do The Ravens Stand?
In the words of Austin Powers, “but what does it all MEAN, Basil?” It means that the AFC North will be one of the more interesting division races in the NFL, with three teams having relatively even chances of taking the playoff spot that goes with the division crown.
The Browns have had a tremendous offseason—probably the best of any AFC North team—and positioned themselves to improve significantly over the next couple of years, but the probable loss of Gordon is a damning blow that really hurts Cleveland’s chances of making any noise in 2014.
Regardless, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh both have rosters with similar talent levels as the Ravens, and each team has its own concerns to address before the start of the season.
The division picture for the Ravens will be a lot clearer after Week 3, by which point they will have half of their division games out of the way. Division games are always critical, but these teams are so close that their regular-season encounters will be must-watch television.