Though the Browns are moving in the right direction, this is a three-horse race between Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and Cincinnati. With kickoff right around the corner (Sep. 7), let’s take a look at what each squad did during the offseason, how they stack up in the division race, and who’s offering the best value for bettors.
The Steelers ran away with the North last year, going 11-5, three games ahead of the Ravens, five clear of Cincinnati, and in a different stratosphere than the 1-15 Browns. Though Pittsburgh lost four straight in the middle of the year, they responded with seven consecutive wins to end the regular season and beat the Dolphins and Chiefs in the playoffs before falling to New England in the AFC Championship.
Arguably the biggest move of the off-season was letting linebacker Lawrence Timmons go, and Pittsburgh has no obvious replacement on the roster. The secondary isn’t horrible, but was suspect in the AFC title game and figures to be vulnerable against elite passing attacks again, the addition of third-round corner Cameron Sutton. That is, unless the pass rush dramatically improves. Linebacker TJ Watt was drafted in the first round to help on that front.
What the defense may be lacking, the offense makes up for in spades. Ben Roethlisberger already had arguably the best running back (Le’Veon Bell) and receiver (Antonio Brown) in the league. Then the Steelers added second-round receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and third-round running back James Conner, turning their embarrassment of offensive riches into a downright travesty.
One of the best franchises in football for over a decade has hit relatively hard times. The Ravens have missed the playoffs in back-to-back seasons and gone a combined 13-19 in those campaigns. Since winning the Super Bowl in 2012, the Ravens have earned just one postseason victory. After staring last season 3-0, they lost four straight one-score games and ended the year 8-8.
The offseason brought significant changes. Tackle Ricky Wagner took big dough from Detroit, and Steve Smith retired. Instead of upgrading the offense, Baltimore used extra cash and resources on defense, signing Brandon Carr and Tony Jefferson to play in the secondary, drafting corner Marlon Humphrey in the first round, and adding linebacker Tyus Bowser and defensive tackle Chris Wormley with their second and third picks, respectively.
It is hard to see how their average (at best) offense is going to get dramatically better, but remember those hard hitting Baltimore defensive teams? The Ravens are trying to get back to an emphasis on shutting down opponents after playing well on that side of the ball last year.
After five straight (one-and-done) playoff seasons, the Bengals regressed to 6-9-1 last year. Though the team’s defense was respectable, the offense struggled. Defections have taken place en masse. Offensive linemen Kevin Zeitler, Andrew Whitworth, and Eric Winston all exited along with linebackers Rey Maualuga and Karlos Dansby, plus defensive linemen Domata Peko and Margus Hunt.
Despite the losses, the front seven is still solid, and Cincy’s biggest questions remain on the offensive side. Quarterback Andy Dalton has new weapons to work with, including first-round receiver John Ross (who broke the 40 time at the combine) and second-round back Joe Mixon (who was only available in the second round because of off-field issues). But all that potential will be for naught if the team doesn’t get better line play, and there’s no reason to expect that. The line was bad with Zeitler and Whitworth. It’s scary to think how bad it could be without them.
A second straight off-season with more losses than gains, and an organization that has recently struggled in the draft leaves little reason to think anything better than eight or nine wins is possible.
Though it isn’t discussed as openly as the Philadelphia 76ers tanking, the Browns 1-15 record last year was mostly by design. Cleveland’s front office knows the team is still missing a few key pieces, and the means to acquiring that talent is through the draft. They have already reaped the benefit of high draft picks, stockpiling first-round talent like Myles Garrett, Jabrill Peppers, and David Njoku. Those players represent a bright future, but don’t turn the Browns into an immediate contender; there’s still no playoff-caliber QB on this roster, unless second-rounder DeShone Kizer is the next Dak Prescott.
That said, this team is not going 1-15 again. There’s too much talent — especially on the completely revamped offensive line — and Hue Jackson is too good (and proud) a coach.
Nobody in the AFC North had a great off-season. The Bengals seem to be getting worse, and the Browns aren’t close to contending yet. The Ravens could have won several games that they lost last season, but such a huge portion of their salary cap is dedicated to Joe Flacco. Pittsburgh might not have “won the off-season,” but they have the best roster. Taking a short price on the Steelers isn’t ideal, but the alternatives are worse.
Photo credit: Paula Lively [http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0] via Wikimedia Commons
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