EARLY ANALYSIS: AFC North 2016-7 Forecast

AFC North Predictions

Baltimore Ravens: The Ravens had a very disappointing 2015 season, as they were supposed to contend for the AFC North but fell to a 5-11 record. The fall was mostly because of injuries to QB Joe Flacco and other key players like WR Steve Smith. The offensive line was very ineffective and they could not protect whoever the QB was. They finished 26th in rushing and only averaged 267 passing yards a game. The Ravens addressed the OL in the draft by selecting OT Ronnie Stanley from ND, who specializes in run blocking so he will immediately help the run game. The AFC North is defined by cold-weather games where one team must win in the trenches to win the division, if the Ravens improve their OL play and can keep one of the best QBs in the game upright and healthy, then they should get back into contention for the AFC North in 2016.

Cleveland Browns: The Cleveland Browns are one of the more intriguing teams to me this year. I watched the NFL Draft just waiting for the Browns to pull another “Browns move”, but it never happened. I think the new Browns’ regime actually knows how to build a franchise that could develop into a contender down the road. The Browns traded back in the draft twice, getting draft picks and resisting the temptation to reach for players like they did in the past. They got WR Corey Coleman in the first round and have a new QB in Robert Griffin lll. Hue Jackson is a great QB coach so he can develop Griffin into the player he was once as a rookie. The Browns have some talent now, with RBs Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson as well as LT Joe Thomas and CB Joe Haden. The biggest problem for the Browns has been poor coaching a QB play, but everything I have seen so far from Hue Jackson suggests this will no longer be an issue. The Browns will not improve much in the wins column, but they will take strides to compete down the road.

Pittsburgh Steelers: The Steelers finished second in the division with a 10-6 record, which is a testament to how resilient this team is. QB Ben Roethlisberger threw for 3,938 yards and 21 TDs, but also threw 16 INTs. With all the weapons at his disposal in Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant and a workhorse RB in Le’Veon Bell, there is no reason for a veteran super bowl champion QB to throw that many INTs. Bell was hurt for a lot of last year, and so was Roethlisberger but RB DeAngelo Williams and QB Mike Vick stepped up produced. The Steelers won 10 games with key injuries and a lot of turnovers, not to mention the leagues 30th ranked pass defense. They drafted CB Artie Burns in the first round but he does not really fit the scheme. He is a better zone CB and can break on the ball but the Steelers run a lot of man coverage. It will be interesting to see how Burns helps the secondary in 2016. The Steelers are one of the most talented teams in the NFL, but their defense must improve and they must stay healthy if they want to make a deep playoff run which they are capable of doing in 2016.

Cincinnati Bengals: The Bengals were one of the best teams in the NFL last year, but playoff demons continue to haunt this team. The Bengals had the Wild Card game wrapped up and won, but Vontaze Burfict had two crucial 15 yard penalties in the final minutes which set up the Steelers game winning field goal. That game sums up the Bengals, they are extremely talented a can win games but when it matters most in crunch time, they make mental mistakes and lose by shooting themselves in the foot. This is a risk you take when you have players with character concerns like Vontaze Burfict and Adam Jones. The Bengals were in the top 15 for both passing and rushing, which means they are balanced offensively and they use that to their advantage with play action passes to A.J. Green. They also went out and drafted WR Tyler Boyd, who is a big physical WR who can cause problems for defenses on third down. They also drafted a playmaker in William Jackson III who can instantly help improve the 20th ranked pass defense. Jackson is a ball hawk and will create turnovers to give Andy Dalton and company short fields. The Bengals can get it done in the regular season, but they must prove they can win playoff games.

[Analysis by NFL expert Preston Rowe]