This will be part of a series of eight articles where I briefly go over the teams’ offseason moves and their drafts (which will not be factored in that heavily unless I feel the two teams were on equal footing prior to the draft). I will also list these teams in the order I predict they will finish and give a range of wins that each team can expect next year.
The Baltimore Ravens got off to a fast start in 2009, winning their first three games, but then they went on a slide, as Joe Flacco endured a sophomore slump. They managed to end the season at 10-8, destroying the Patriots in Foxboro and repeatedly shooting themselves in the foot to lose at Indianapolis the following week. That being said, Ray Rice emerged as a major weapon and was very dynamic and a home run threat every time he touched the ball, just ask the Patriots about that. Rookie Michael Oher made a huge impact filling in admirably for Jared Gaither, who is one of the best left tackles in the league in his own right. However, the 2009 season exposed some issues with the Ravens. Their secondary would routinely give up multiple big plays per game, e.g. the loss in Minnesota, and their defense as a whole seemed to be regressing. They had to find Joe Flacco a number one wide receiver, as well as a tight end, as while Todd Heap was effective this year, he may have also set a personal record for the longest time he ever spent off the injury report and the Ravens cannot count on that stroke of good fortune again. Their kicker was also an issue and poor kicking cost them at least two games.
The Ravens first decided to address their lack of a number one wide receiver by trading for Anquan Boldin who along with incumbent receiver Derrick Mason, could make for a very dangerous receiver duo. They brought in Cory Redding and Donte Stallworth who likely have a negligible impact this year, unless the former is starting over Cody. They then drafted two tight ends to help Flacco in the likely event that Heap gets hurt, again. They spent their first two picks on the mammoth Terrence Cody and linebacker Sergio Kindle who should also help with the defense. This helps their secondary as both are able to rush the passer which makes the beleaguered secondary look better. Kicker and second cornerback may be an issue next year.
The Ravens have a pretty rough 2010 NFL schedule. They get to play the NFC South and AFC East ad they have to play six postseason contenders between those two divisions as well as the Texans and Broncos. Thankfully their division itself does not seem to be too strong, so they can get some wins in interdivision play. Ravens fans can expect 10-13 wins in 2010, a division title as well a possible first round bye.
The Bengals started off the 2009 season hot. After losing to Denver in the infamous Stokely play, they proceeded to win their next four, largely behind a surprisingly staunch defense and a punishing running game. At the mid-point of the season, though they began to collapse, culminating in back to back losses to the Jets, in which Carson Palmer looked awful and was widely inaccurate. The 2009 season was also tragic for the Bengals as the wife of defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer and receiver Chris Henry both died over the course of the season, which would be more than enough to rock any locker room, but Coach Marvin Lewis deserves a lot of credit for keeping everyone’s emotions in line. The Bengals needs largely boiled down to defensive line help (just look at the Jets games for proof) as well as weapons for Carson Palmer as Chad Ochocinco was the only major weapon that the Bengals had. Getting a kicker who is remotely clutch would be a nice improvement after Shayne “Shank” Graham’s choking display that would have made Nate Kaeding proud.
The Bengals moved quickly to address these issues. They signed Antonio Bryant (though that may cause more harm than good as while he is talented, he only plays hard in a contract year as well as being very disruptive to locker room chemistry) Matt Jones, and Mike Nugent who may be more clutch that Graham. They drafted Carlos Dunlap (like people did not see that coming as he had Bengals written all over him) and Geno Atkins to buff up the defensive line and drafted Jermaine Gresham, Jordan Shipley and Dezmon Briscoe to help buff up their receiving corps. With all of their major needs seemingly fixed via free agency or draft, one would think that the Bengals would be set to make a major run in 2010.
However, they have a few problems. Firstly, Carson Palmer looked awful last year and he routinely overthrew receivers, which will likely persist into 2010. The team has added a bunch of guys with major character issues in Antonio Bryant, Matt Jones and Carlos Dunlap who may cause major issues in the locker room. Finally, in early 2009 everything seemed to go the Bengals way, but they finished the season on a 3-5 stretch which is especially putrid when you realize that they played the Browns, Chiefs, Lions, Raiders (as well as the Vikings, Jets twice and the Chargers), which leads me to believe that they were not as good as they appeared to be in early 2009. They also have the league’s toughest schedule. Bengals fans can expect 7-10 wins in 2010 and an outside chance at a wild card berth.
The Steelers’ 2009 season should be a great bargaining tool for Troy Polamalu when he asks for a contract extension. Polamalu, who seemed to be injured all year, must have seen what we all saw, the vaunted Pittsburgh defense was below average. In a five game losing streak in the middle of the season, the Steelers gave up 27 points to each the Raiders and Chiefs, and neither of them are offensive juggernauts. Their cornerbacks in particular were very suspect and they had their annual ignored offensive line woes, as only Willie Colon was a decent part of that line. Their defensive line and inside linebackers are also getting old. Plus they had to get a new receiver after trading Santonio Holmes to the Jets. Plus, we have not even gotten to the issue of Ben Roethlisberger who is suspended the first six games of the season following another allegation of sexual assault within a year.
How did the Pittsburgh front office respond to this? They resigned Larry Foote, who will likely rotate with the ancient James Farrior as an inside linebacker. They then mostly left the remainder of their needs to the draft, finally drafting an offensive lineman early in Markice Pouncey, and then proceeded to use two early picks on outside linebackers (don’t they already have Harrison and Woodley?) and a kick returner, and tried to address the need for a cornerback by trading for Bryant McFadden, which is not a viable solution. Their issues in the front seven and the rest of their offensive line and wide receiver (unless you count Antwaan Randle El as a solution) were left unsolved. I also would like to question how the Steelers plan on using all of these outside linebackers as most teams usually only use two.
The Steelers have a rough schedule in 2010 facing the AFC East and the NFC South, as well as Titans and Raiders from their third place schedule. Combine that with 4 games against the Bengals and the Ravens and the Steelers could have a rough year. Roethlisberger is scheduled to miss when the Steelers host: the Browns, Falcons and Ravens and when the Steelers go to Miami, Tennessee and Tampa Bay, which will likely result in a 2-4 record. Steelers fans can expect 7-9 wins in 2010.
4. Cleveland Browns
The best thing I can say about the 2009 season for the Browns is that it ended very well, as the Browns won their last four games. Other than that is was an unmitigated disaster. The Browns won one of their first twelve games, which was the epic 6-3 win over Buffalo. They hired Mike Holmgren as general manager, and while Holmgren was a very good coach, his front office moves in Seattle were subpar. All of their quarterbacks were terrible and Quinn and Anderson were often mocked because they closed their eyes when they threw the ball downfield. The two bright spots on offense was the play of some of their offensive line (Thomas, Mack and Hadnot) and running back Jerome Harrison who came within ten yards of breaking the single game rushing record against the Chiefs. Their defensive talent was questionable, but defensive coordinator Rob Ryan made the most of what he had. Still the defense needs a new defensive end for Corey Williams, and a new crop of defensive backs and some pass rushers. I might as well end the review for the Browns 2009 season on a high note by mentioning that Joshua Cribbs may be one of the best undrafted free agents signing in a long time and often was the only threatening offensive weapons for the Browns.
This offseason Holmgren went to work on fixing this mess of a roster. He tried to fix the quarterback position by cutting the inept Quinn and Anderson and signing Jake Delhomme for seven million dollars per year? Really? Did Holmgren not watch any Panthers games for the last season? He also traded for the mediocre Seneca Wallace and drafted Colt McCoy. That really has to pump Browns fans up. He did trade for Sheldon Brown and Chris Gocong which helps their backfield and pass rushing woes. They signed Scott Fujita, who will help at the inside linebacker position. They also signed Ben Watson. Not much needs to be said about that, which is about as much as he did in New England. They finished fixing their cornerback woes by drafting Joe Haden and their safety issue by taking TJ Ward. For some unknown reason they drafted a running back early, when they had Jerome Harrison, as opposed to filling a need. They also a drafted a guard early in order to replace the departed Rex Hadnot. While some of the issues have seemingly been fixed Browns fans will still be subjected to horrific quarterback play as well as lacking a decent receiver and have some defensive line issues.
The Browns have a rough schedule in 2010 and have winnable games against Buffalo, Tampa Bay, Jacksonville and Kansas City. Browns fans can expect 1-4 wins in 2010.