2014 NFL Season Preview: AFC North

Baltimore Ravens

Additions: RB Justin Forsett, WR Steve Smith, TE Owen Daniels, C Jeremy Zuttah, S Darian Stewart.

Draft Picks: 
Rnd Pick# Pos.   Player                     College
1          17           LB        C. J. Mosley                  Alabama
2          48         DT        Timmy Jernigan         Florida State
3          79          S           Terrence Brooks        Florida State
3          99         TE        Crockett Gillmore      Colorado State
4          134       DT        Brent Urban                 Virginia
4          138       RB        Lorenzo Taliaferro    Coastal Carolina
5          175        G           John Urschel                Penn State
6          194       QB        Keith Wenning             Ball State
7          218       WR      Michael Campanaro   Wake Forest

Losses: FB Vonta Leach, WR Tandon Smith, TE Ed Dickson, OT Michael Oher, DE/DT Arthur Jones, ILB Jameel McClain, CB Corey Graham, S James Ihedigbo.

Analysis:

The Ravens had a very “Ravens” type of draft. They just kept drafting rock-solid defensive players. CJ Mosley is going to be a captain for this team for a very long time. Timmy Jernigan is a run plugger that can own the middle of the line of scrimmage. Terrence Brooks is a very good addition to the back seven and will contribute.

Haloti Ngata played well last year but not up to the normal Ngata level of play. It can be argued that Arthur Jones was better than Ngata over the duration of the year. Now it’s Brandon Williams and Chris Canty, both who played well enough last season. Jernigan will get his snaps for sure. The linebacker unit is loaded with an insane amount of talent. Technically the starters are Terrell Suggs, CJ Mosley, Daryl Smith, and Courtney Upshaw. Throw in Elvis Dumervil and Arthur Brown and this is one of the best and deepest groups in the league.

In the secondary, Ladarius Webb is *thisclose* to becoming a shutdown corner. He certainly looked like one back in 2011 and he might be rounding back into one for 2014. Jimmy Smith played very well last season, too. Asa Jackson is the nickel back but has very limited snaps so it’s hard to know if he’s up to the task. Matt Elam is a fast player at safety but isn’t disciplined and sometimes gets himself out of position. James Ihedigbo was a strong player on the backside for the Ravens but he’s now gone and it’s Darian Stewart starting at free safety.

Battered and broken, the offensive line struggled last season. It was so bad that the Ravens added Eugene Monroe at LT in a mid-season trade from the Jaguars. He and Marshal Yanda were the only real highlights from an otherwise putrid offensive line. That poor play affected everyone on the offense. QB Joe Flacco was awful at driving the ball down the field and the running backs could not find room to run. Ray Rice had one of his worst years and Bernard Pierce fair much better.

Torrey Smith is still a number 1 wide receiver. The addition of Steve Smith is probably more hype than what he’ll contribute in offensive production. Smith wasn’t very good in Carolina last year and it’s strange signing by the Ravens based on that. Marlon Brown and Jacoby Jones are the #3 and #4 receivers this year. Jones has his moments of flashing because of his ability to get deep but he’s got to get better to be a good options as a consistent 3rd receiver.

Gary Kubiak takes over as the OC after Jim Caldwell departed for the head job in Detroit. Some believe that Kubiak is a major upgrade but it’s hard to know how much of the offensive struggles in Houston were due to poor QB play or to his scheme. Probably a little of both. The Ravens need a bounce back year. If Kubiak can get the offense corrected, the Ravens are a dangerous team.

 

Cincinnati Bengals

Additions: QB Jason Campbell, OT Marshall Newhouse, S Danieal Manning.

Draft Picks: 
Rnd Pick# Pos.    Player                     College
1          24          CB         Darqueze Dennard     Michigan State
2          55          RB         Jeremy Hill                   LSU
3          88         DE         Will Clarke                     West Virginia
4          111         C            Russell Bodine             North Carolina
5          164        QB         AJ McCarron                Alabama
6          212        LB         Marquis Flowers         Arizona
7          239        WR       James Wright               LSU
7          252        CB         Lavelle Westbrooks   Georgia Southern

Losses: QB Josh Johnson, WR Andrew Hawkins, OT Anthony Collins, C Kyle Cook, DE Michael Johnson, OLB James Harrison, CB Brandon Ghee.

 Analysis:

The biggest loss of this team is really the loss of defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer. However, I’ll neve rworry about a Marvin Lewis-lead defense. Not to mention they’ll get Geno Atkins back from injury. Atkins is a dominant force and when he’s on, it can be argued he’s the best defensive tackle in the league. Carlos Dunlap is a remarkable mix of size and athletic build. Keep an eye out for DE Margus Hunt this year. He’s a guy who possesses exceptional strength and is still learning to play the position. If he catches on and gets a couple of go-to moves, he could be dominant.

Rey Maualuga is still slow but plays decent enough in the hole against the run. Vontaze Burfict is the bread winner of this group. He’s prone to some games where he can be manipulated by good QBs, but Burfict is supremely athletic and has a nose for the football. He’s one of the better outside linebackers in the league because of his versatility.

The Bengals are still full on good cornerbacks. Leon Hall, Terrance Newman, Adam Jones, Dre Kirkpatrick, and rookie Darqueze Dennard are all very good. Reggie Nelson played well at safety last season but the big surprise was George Iloka. Iloka is a versatile player who is probably best when he’s in pass coverage but isn’t afraid to hit when he gets the chance. If he continues to develop, the Bengals should have a defense that ranks with the best in the league.

Former OC Jay Gruden left to take the head coaching job in DC. While Gruden isn’t a bad coach, it was actually a blessing in disguise as it opened the door for Hue Jackson to move into the OC role. Jackson is a bit of a wizard at getting more out of his players on offense. I firmly believe that he’s going to make Andy Dalton look like a franchise QB this year (notice I said “look” and not that he actually is). Dalton is a streaky player and Jackson will be able to temper the lows and exacerbate the highs of Dalton’s game.

Andrew Whitworth and Andre Smith lead a very good offensive line. The OL lost Anthony Collins but it shouldn’t affect them too much. Kevin Zeitler and Clint Boling are very good in their own right. There’s still some depth at the position as Mike Poliak is a versatile backup that played well in limited snaps last season.

I’m still waiting for Tyler Eifert to break out. He’s a well-rounded tight end that needs more targets. He’s athletic and displays good hands and body control yet I still can’t figure out why the Bengals don’t get him on the field more. Jermaine Gresham is solid in multiple ways but Eifert is a more dynamic threat.

AJ Green is a top 5 receiver in the league. He’s followed by some solid and underrated talent in Mohammed Sanu and Jones. I like the addition of Brandon Tate for depth and it appears the Bengals might use Dane Sanzenbacher in multiple ways, especially out of the slot. Giovanni Bernard has the potential to be special and Jackson should help him get to that next level. He’ll be a big part of the run and the pass game.

This is a good roster and a well coached team. I love the depth of this team and deep teams usually means playoff appearances. With better QB play, this could be one of the best showings that the Bengals have had in a long time and get their first playoff win in 22 years.

 

Pittsburgh Steelers

Additions: RB LeGarrette Blount, WR Darrius Heyward-Bey, WR Lance Moore, NT Cam Thomas, ILB Arthur Moats, CB Brice McCain, S Michael Mitchell, P Adam Podlesh.

Draft Picks: 
Rnd Pick# Pos.   Player                        College
1          15          LB         Ryan Shazier                   Ohio State
2          46        DE        Stephon Tuitt                  Notre Dame
3          97         RB        Dri Archer                         Kent State
4          118       WR       Martavis Bryant             Clemson
5          157        CB        Shaquille Richardson   Arizona
5          173        C          Wesley Johnson              Vanderbilt
6          192       OLB     Jordan Zumwalt             UCLA
6          215       DT        Daniel McCullers            Tennessee
7          230      TE        Rob Blanchflower           Massachusetts

Losses: RB Jonathan Dwyer, WR Emmanuel Sanders, WR Jerricho Cotchery, TE David Johnson, OT Levi Brown, C Eric Olsen, DE/DT Ziggy Hood, NT Al Woods, DE/OLB LaMarr Woodley, ILB Larry Foote, S Ryan Clark.

Analysis:

Pittsburgh had a bit of roster turnover this offseason in an effort to get younger and better. They let a few guys go that needed to go – Dwyer, Hood, Foote – but also let some other guys go that they could’ve used this year – Brown, Woodley, Sanders. If Lance Moore has anything left in the tank I’ll love that addition. His play in New Orleans last season says that’s not the case. Darrius Heyward-Bey is an interesting add as he will finally have a decent QB to get him the ball and could look like a different player. Cam Thomas is going to be the key add from free agency for Pittsburgh.

Ryan Shazier is an athletic rookie who is a smart player but still has issues with over pursuit. One of his best traits is running the seam underneath tight ends and that was on display in the preseason. He’s going to be a good player but he’s a guy that QBs can manipulate early on. Dri Archer is pure speed. He’s going to be fun to watch on kick returns and it will be interesting to see how Todd Haley incorporates him into packages within his offense. Steelers are going to need Stephen Tuitt to be good early to help shore up a defensive line that was really bad last year outside of Cam Heyward.

Jarvis Jones still looks lost on the field so it’s going to be important for Jason Worilds to continue his good play from last season. I think Worilds is probably one of the most underrated players in the league at this point. He’s really good on the edge and is the best past rusher on this team now that Woodley is gone.

The secondary lost Ryan Clark but still has Troy Polamalu. This secondary is crazy aggressive and good QBs use it to their advantage. Tom Brady attacked that predisposition by using his eyes to lure defenders to one side of the field opening up routes on the opposite side. This defense has to play more disciplined against good teams. They should eat up young QBs but struggle against the top-echelon QBs because of their tendency to be aggressive. Ike Taylor and William Gay are still solid players (Gay had a really good year in 2013). The addition of Cortez Allen should be a good one for this secondary.

By far the biggest addition is that the Steelers are getting back Maurkice Pouncey from injury. He’ll help solidify a line that was really bad last season. Ramon Foster and David Decastro were still good on the interior but there are huge question on the edges with Kelvim Beachum and Marcus Gilbert. Heath Miller looks healthy and will help in all facets of the offense.

Le’Veon Bell looked good as a runner last year and I’m not really sure why the Steelers added LeGarrette Blount except for depth purposes. Blount is a guy that runs with good vision and balance and is a load to try to bring down. Maybe they plan on using him like they did Dwyer in past seasons?

The offense still revolves around Ben Roethlisberger’s ability to get the ball down the field. Antonio Brown gives him that ability. Lookout for Markus Wheaton who could explode onto the scene this year. This kid was phenomenal in limited snaps last season and it was easy to see that he provides a dynamic that the other receivers on the field didn’t.

The Steelers are in a sort of transition mode right now and it makes them hard to predict. They’re going to do the things they always do well – be physical and play defense. There are holes in the roster and the aggression is a real problem as it’s now become more of a negative than a positive.

Cleveland Browns

Additions: RB Ben Tate, WR Andrew Hawkins, WR Miles Austin, WR Nate Burleson, S Donte Whitner.

Draft Picks: 
Rnd Pick# Pos.  Player                     College
1          8            CB       Justin Gilbert              Oklahoma State
1          22         QB       Johnny Manziel          Texas A&M
2          35         OT       Joel Bitonio                 Nevada
3          71          LB       Christian Kirksey       Iowa
3          94         RB       Terrance West            Towson
4          127        CB       Pierre Desir                 Lindenwood

Losses: QB Brandon Weeden, QB Jason Campbell, WR Davone Bess, G Shawn Lauvao, G Oniel Cousins, ILB D’Qwell Jackson, CB Chris Owens, S T.J. Ward.

Analysis:

I was wrong on the Browns last year. I picked them to finish above .500 and they looked like they might be able to get there with Brian Hoyer at QB. When Hoyer went down, it torched any chances the Browns had with Brandon Weeden coming in to throw the ball to the other team. The (potential?) loss of Josh Gordon is a huge blow to the offense as he was the one thing that made it run last year. Without him, now teams can double down on Jordan Cameron. The addition of Miles Austin is one where I see an athletic player that’s slowed a bit but still has potential to be an important piece of this offense. It’s tough to count on him with his injury history.

Four-fifths of the offensive line was quietly pretty good last year. Joe Thomas, Alex Mack, John Greco, and Mitchell Schwartz were solid as a group. Rookie Joel Bitonio and Paul McQuistan look to feel the LG position which was a turnstyle for defenders last season. Behind it, the stable of Ben Tate, Terrance West, and Isaiah Crowell is a solid group. Tate is a decent runner but doesn’t offer anything special. The guy to watch is Crowell. He’s probably the most talented of the group and if he gets some snaps, he can show that he offers a dimension that Tate and West don’t have – burst.

Hoyer gets a lot of flack but he does a few things well that aren’t exciting – he’s smart, makes good decisions, and he makes them quickly. He can’t throw the ball through a wall and his accuracy is suspect at times, but when he’s on and in rhythm he gives the Browns a good chance to win as he often won’t be the guy giving the game away. Cleveland certainly doesn’t want to have to rely on him to carry this offense, though. Johnny Manziel simply isn’t ready to play in the NFL and I don’t understand the push to get him on the field. He’s more a liability than an asset at this point. Also, Kyle Shannahan needs to stop with the “Manziel Read-Option” packages. That’s not who he is as a player and all that’s going to do is get the kid hurt before he ever gets a chance to get his feet wet as a passer.

There are some good pieces to this defense, but most important is Joe Haden. Haden is a shutdown corner and allows this defense to do so many other things because he can take away the other team’s best receiver. Buster Skrine played well opposite Haden last year and I really like rookie Pierre Desir. He comes to the NFL from a small school (Lindenwood) so his learning curve is a bit steeper than most CBs. TJ Ward is out at safety and Donte Whitner is in, though I’m not sure that’s an upgrade. It does however define the roles of the safeties a bit with Tayshaun Gipson now assuming more of a traditional free safety role and Whitner being the enforcer.

I was disappointed in Craig Robertson last year as I expected him to take a big leap forward and really become a household name. He still shows flashes but looked a little lost in a new scheme last year. If anyone can get him on track it’s Mike Pettine. Pay attention to Robertson because he could be a spark like Kiko Alonso was in Pettine’s defense last year.

The front seven is quietly talented – Dansby, Kruger, Rubin, Sheard, and Bryant are all very good in different ways. Barkevious Mingo showed flashes as a pass rusher and this system may be a better fit as Pettine is going to let him get after the quarterback instead of asking him to run all over the field.

The Browns are missing weapons but they’re not as bad as the general public wants to believe. They’ll win a few games this year that will surprise some people. If they can get the running game going, they have a shot at a decent season.

Overall AFC North Outlook:

Cincinnati Bengals (11-5)

I like the way the Bengals schedule sets up. It’s going to be a battle between them in the Ravens. The difference will be who slips up and loses an intra-division game.

Baltimore Ravens (10-6)

I’m hesitant with this as the offense looked so bad last year and it doesn’t seem like an easy fix. A new OC is a good start. I’d be comfortable swapping them with Cincy here.

Pittsburgh Steelers (6-10)

Pittsburgh is taking a step back to take a step forward. Re-tooling is a good thing for the future of the franchise. Unless Big Ben goes down, then they might play for the #1 pick.

Cleveland Browns (5-11)

This feels low for Cleveland but the QB situation plus a tough division makes them look worse than they really are.

 

 

 

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