AFC North 2010 Season Preview: Pre-Draft Edition
The AFC North was a dominant division last year, having only one team with a losing record and two teams that made the playoffs.
Pittsburgh nearly made the last wild-card spot if New England had won their last regular season game.
Now it's time to take a look at how the teams are shaping up heading into the 2010 season before the NFL Draft in April.
1). Cincinnati Bengals (10-6)
The Cincinnati Bengals came roaring back from a terrible record in 2008 to reclaim the division for the first time since 2005.
Last year they had a dominant running game with the addition of the trio Cedric Benson, Larry Johnson and Bernard Scott. Their run offense was ranked ninth in the league with an average of 128.5 yards per game.
They're looking to improve their passing game this year and have signed Antonio Bryant from the Buccaneers to the squad, hoping to fill the gap that Henry and Houshmanzadeh left.
They recently passed over Terrell Owens, which was a good move. They don't need another diva in the locker room, as Chad Ochocinco is already slated to appear on Dancing with the Stars and his own reality dating show.
Retaining the majority of their starters and making offseason moves to make the squad even better, the Bengals are primed to retain the division crown and get their first playoff victory in 20 years.
A lot of their defensive starters will also be returning from injury this year and should make their defense pretty formidable.
However, will Ochocinco's seeming necessity to be in the public spotlight distract him and the team and provide a negative impact on the season?
Prediction: 9-7, third in the division.
2) Baltimore Ravens (9-7), AFC Wild Card
The Baltimore Ravens and the entire NFL wasn't ready for the domination Ray Rice last year. He shredded the field and defenses with both his running and pass catching abilities.
Thanks to his talents, the Ravens boasted the fifth ranked running attack in the league.
Flacco disappointed some, as he was forecast to have an amazing season as he continues to develop. No such luck as the Baltimore passing game was ranked a measly 18th.
Part of the issue was a lack of any true blazer or deep threat receiver.
However, the team made an excellent move recently and picked up Anquan Boldin. This is exactly the type of veteran receiver that could really turn Baltimore's offense around.
The defense continues to age and is a glaring weakness heading into the draft.
However, with the kind offense that Boldin, Rice, Flacco and Mason bring to the table, it looks like a lot of teams are going to be playing catch-up once their offenses take the field.
Tight-end also appears to be an immediate need for the Ravens as they head into the draft.
Prediction: 11-5, second in division. First wild-card seed.
Pittsburgh Steelers (9-7)
History repeated itself as Pittsburgh could not retain their Super Bowl title nor even make the playoffs following a great season.
Many signs point to an aging defense that does not have the stamina to play all four quarters of football.
Also, the loss of Troy Polamalu to knee issues seemed to entirely deflate an often-dominant defense. This is evident as the passing defense was ranked in the middle of the pack at 16th, yet their run defense ranked third overall.
Without Polamalu opposing quarterbacks just don't seem to fear the defense the way they do when he's playing.
The bigger question is how the team can beat the Minnesota Vikings, then go on to lose to the Raiders, Chiefs and Browns?
Some accuse the team of playing to the other team's level, which in a lot of cases is not a good thing.
The good news is the emergence of Mike Wallace as the Steelers' deep threat. This year may be a breakout year for him and I'd count on him as a possible fantasy sleeper.
Mendenhall also looks to improve on an impressive season, despite not starting every game and being sat against a crucial divisional game at Cincinnati
The addition of Randle El to the team is somewhat of a question mark, but having him as a number four receiver (likely replacing the disappointing Limas Sweed in the lineup) adds some serious depth to a team that had two 1,000 yard receivers, a 4,000 yard quarterback and a 1,000 yard running back for the first time in franchise history.
Additionally, Randle El adds an element of unpredictability if the team decides to return to using trick plays with him or lines him up as the quarterback in the Wildcat formation.
The Steelers need to address their aging defense, shoddy offensive line and also their cornerback position come draft time.
Prediction: 11-5, division champion
Cleveland Browns (5-11)
The Cleveland Browns improved from a three-win season to a five-win season.
Baby steps, right?
The major issue with the team the past decade has been quarterbacks.
The team and fan base can't decide who they want under center, and therefore have had so little consistency, they're lucky they won five games.
Jerome Harrison provided a great spark as he had a few amazing games, which is a step in the right direction.
A very overlooked statistic is that Cleveland actually finished eighth last year in rushing offense.
Joshua Cribbs also dominated defenses no matter how he was being used. With a good quarterback under center he could be very dangerous this year.
The big question is, who will be under center?
The team finally released Derek Anderson and seems to be shopping Brady Quinn around as well.
Seneca Wallace might be the guy to turn this team around, but isn't really the play maker they need under center.
On the other hand, with the acquisition of tight-end Benjamin Watson, Scott Fujita and the new contract for Cribbs, this team could be a sleeper next year and provide some good competition for the rest of the division.
Prediciton: 8-8, last in the division.