FF-Winners.Com’s 2017-8 AFC North Preview

The AFC North is another one of those divisions which, theoretically, could be up for grabs for (almost) anyone… except the poor Cleveland Browns, of course. After all, the division hasn’t had a back-to-back champion since 2011 and 2012, when the Ravens won the title both years and ended up winning the Super Bowl after the second division crown), and Pittsburgh and Cincinnati have spent the past four seasons handing the division crown back and forth each year since.

This year, the Steelers head into the season as the favorites to win the division, and make their fourth straight appearance in the postseason. After briefly (but legitimately) contemplating retirement during the offseason, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will be back to orchestrate an offense that finished seventh in the NFL in yards per game last year, and fifth in passing yards per game. Plus, with Le’Veon Bell primed to be available right from the regular season get-go (for the first time in his career), and with the return of wide receiver Martavis Bryant from a season-long suspension (after violating the league’s substance abuse policy), there’s a very good chance that Pittsburgh’s offense could be even more prolific this year. True to the franchise’s long-time modus operandi, they spent their top pick in the draft on a defensive player — outside linebacker T.J. Watt from the University of Wisconsin — for the fifth straight year, as they continually rebuild a defense that was very “un-Pittsburgh-like” in it’s 2016 performance, ranking in the bottom half of the NFL in rushing yards (20th), passing yards (17th), and points allowed (23rd) per game. For a team with a history of totally stifling opposing offenses, time is running out for defensive coordinator Keith Butler — and head coach Mike Tomlin, who installed Butler in place of the venerated Dick LeBeau — to stop this group from being the hindrance from being a real contender in the AFC.

Despite finishing the 2016 with only six total wins, the Cincinnati Bengals still lurk as a team with the potential to steal back the division crown from Pittsburgh. He doesn’t quite have the same supporting cast as Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh, but the Bengals have quietly assembled a very talented group of pass catchers around quarterback Andy Dalton, including superstar wide receiver AJ Green, second year receiver Tyler Boyd (Cincinnati’s second round pick in 2016), veteran Brandon LaFell, newcomer John Ross (the ninth overall selection in the 2017 NFL Draft), and tight end Tyler Eifert (who has the most touchdown receptions of any tight end in the NFL over the last two seasons). Cincinnati’s rushing offense was already in the top half of the league last year (13th in rushing yards per game and tied for 6th in rushing touchdowns), and with the addition of second round pick Joe Mixon, it should be even better.  On defense, Cincinnati will rely on (young) quantity versus quality, largely built on their recent years of good drafting. Edge rushers Jordan Willis (their 3rd round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft) and Carl Lawson (their 4th round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft) will come in on passing downs opposite of ace edge rusher Carlos Dunlap. In the secondary, cornerbacks Dre Kirkpatrick, William Jackson III, and Darqueze  Dennard — all first round selections in the five drafts prior to 2017 — gives the Bengals as deep a group of cornerbacks as any in the NFL.

Five years removed from a Super Bowl victory, the Baltimore Ravens find themselves at a bit of a crossroads. Despite year after year of savvy drafting by General Manager Ozzie Newsome, this team perpetually seems to running in place, never able to take that next step towards being in the mix among contenders in the AFC.  Things have not fared well for the Ravens heading into the 2017 season. Quarterback Joe Flacco hasn’t been able to practice at all during training camp, thanks to back soreness that has been lingering since July. Starting inside linebacker Zachary Orr retired right after the 2016 season due to a spinal condition. John Urschel, who was slated to be the team’s starting Center this year, abruptly retired in the offseason amidst concerns around CTE. Running back Kenneth Dixon, who was supposed to work in tandem with Terrance West in the backfield this year, was first suspended for four games to start the year, and then declared out for the year after undergoing knee surgery. Wide receiver Breshad Perriman, the team’s top pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, continues to struggle to stay healthy. Baltimore’s defense has some interesting pieces, including stud middle linebacker CJ Mosley, pass-rushing stalwart Terrell Suggs, the immovable Brandon Williams (one of the best defensive linemen in the NFL that nobody talks about), and free agent signees Eric Weddle and Tony Jefferson. But that might not be enough for the perennially heralded Baltimore defense, if the offense continues to struggle to put points on the board.

And then, as always on the bottom of the AFC North, there’s Cleveland. In fairness, this is only year two of the total renovations this team undertook starting last offseason. Unfortunately, the product on the field last year reflected that, culminating in their 1-15 record (and questions as to whether head coach Hue Jackson should be fired after just one year on the job). Their league-low win total did secure them the right to draft defensive end Myles Garrett from Texas A&M University with the #1 overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, and make him one of the central cornerstones of their rebuild. There are interesting players on this roster. Joe Thomas and Joel Bitonio might be the best left guard and tackle combination in the NFL. Running back Isaiah Crowell finished just shy of 1,000 yards rushing last year, and Duke Johnson Jr. finished 7th in the NFL in most catches by a running back. Linebacker Jamie Collins, acquired from the New England Patriots during the 2016 season in exchange for one of the bevy of draft picks the Browns have, is one of the most talented linebackers in the NFL. Edge rusher Emmanuel Ogbah, the team’s second round pick in 2016, led the team in sacks last year and will rush the quarterback opposite of Garrett. Wide receiver Kenny Britt and guard Kevin Zeitler, acquired in free agency, will come in and contribute right away. But this team still has so many holes to fill, with none more glaring than their long-term solution at quarterback (although they might have found an answer in second round pick DeShone Kizer).

FF-Winners.Com’s 2017-8 NFC North Preview

Over the past decade, the Green Bay Packers or the Minnesota Vikings have won the NFC North division nine times in 10 years. Given the way the division looks heading into the 2017 season, it would be very surprising if that trend didn’t extend to 10 times in 11 years.

Green Bay Packers

During the 2016 NFL season, the Green Packers not only went undefeated between the Monday after Thanksgiving weekend through the third week in January of 2017, but they beat opponents by an average of more than 12 points per game. But it all came to an end with a resounding thud, when the Atlanta Falcons ambushed the Packers in the NFC Championship game, storming out to a 31-0 lead at one point, and handing Green Bay a 44-21 defeat. But during that second-half-of-the-season run, Green Bay re-established themselves as one of the top contenders in the NFC, and they’ll look to build on that momentum during the 2017 season. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers is one of the early favorites for the Most Valuable Player award, and rightfully so. After leading the league in touchdown passes (40) and touchdown-to-interception ratio (almost 6-to-1), and finished 4th in total passing yards (4,428), he’ll get to throw to an even-better group of receivers this year, with Jordy Nelson another year removed from his season-ending ACL injury (in 2015), Randall Cobb coming into camp healthy after dealing with nagging injuries all of last year, and Davante Adams coming off a breakout season and looking as sharp as ever. On top of that, the Packers went out and acquired tight end Martellus Bennett, who could turn out to be one of the steals of free agency.

The question for the Packers will be if the defense can keep up its end of the bargain, having finished 22nd in total yards allowed last season, and a dismal 31st in passing yards allowed. Green Bay devoted their top two picks in the 2017 NFL Draft to the secondary, taking cornerback Kevin King and safety Josh Jones, and brought back cornerback Davon House to play the nickel spot. But losing safety Micah Hyde, one of the real leaders in the secondary, may prove to be a very difficult endeavor.

The Packers offense can score on nearly anyone in the NFL, but the question will be whether they can stop anyone from scoring on them.

Minnesota Vikings

This year’s Minnesota Vikings will feature the same storyline as last year’s Vikings — a game-managing quarterback, a dynamic running back, a patchwork offensive line, and a ridiculously stout defense — but with different characters filling many of those roles.

Sam Bradford will be back for the second year in a row as the Vikings quarterback, having taken over the role on the heels of the catastrophic knee injury to Teddy Bridgewater. In the backfield, he’ll spend much of this year handing off the football to rookie running back Dalvin Cook, the team’s second round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft (it’s just a matter of time before he takes over the job from free agent acquisition Latavius Murray). And the line that’ll be blocking for Bradford and Cook will feature as many as four new starters from last year’s group, as Minnesota continually looks to fix the beleaguered unit.

But the same “beleaguered unit” description simply cannot be used for the defense, which will return nine of 11 starters from last year’s group, and should be as good as any defense in the NFL. Minnesota ranked third in the NFL in fewest yards allowed per game overall, and fewest passing yards allowed per game as well. They were fifth in the NFL in quarterback sacks, with three different edge rushers racking up seven or more sacks last season (and that’s even with star linebacker Anthony Barr suffering a big slump for much of last year).

The Vikings are essentially the mirror opposite of their division rivals in Green Bay: their defense will be good enough to limit any opponent from putting a lot of points on the board, but will the offense do enough to actually score enough points to squeak out a win?

Detroit Lions

In a conference that’s filled with a good number of teams that will be vying for the six available postseason berths, the Detroit Lions find themselves in a place that most professional sports teams dread: sprinting on proverbial “treadmill of mediocrity.” They’re interesting enough to be relevant, but not relevant enough to be interesting.

Quarterback Matthew Stafford had a fantastic year in offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter’s offense, finishing with his second highest completion percentage, second highest yards per attempt, and second highest passer rating of his career last season, along with the fewest number of interceptions thrown. And even with that, the Lions still ranked outside the top 10 passing offenses last year (they were 11th) and didn’t have a single receiver finish in the top 10 in receiving yards (Golden Tate was 14th). For all the yards they could put up in a game, it didn’t translate to much, considering Detroit finished 20th in the NFL in total points per game.

Things weren’t better for Detroit’s defense, overseen by highly-esteemed coordinator Teryl Austin. The Lions defense was in the bottom half of the league in total yards allowed per game (18th in the NFL), rushing yards allowed (18th), passing yards allowed (19th), and quarterback sacks (tied for 30th).

So, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that Detroit spent much of the offseason fixing the defensive side of the ball, as almost half the unit will have new starters next season. But in an already loaded conference, and a division with two teams that have postseason aspirations themselves, have the Lions really done enough to make a return trip to the playoffs?

Chicago Bears

For sports fans in the greater Chicagoland area, the mantra this Fall likely won’t be all that much different than it was in the Fall of 2016: “well, at least the Cubs are doing well.”

It was another offseason of offensive upheaval for the Chicago Bears, marked by the team pushing it’s longtime starting quarterback, trading for a quarterback to presumably be the starter, and subsequently drafting a quarterback to also presumably be the starter. And that’s not even mentioning the fact that four of Chicago’s top five wide receivers will be different than the depth chart from last year, after watching their best wide receiver (Alshon Jeffrey) leave town as well.

So now, quarterback Mitchell Trubisky (at some point this season anyway), running back Jordan Howard (who finished second in the NFL in rushing yards last season), and wide receiver Cameron Meredith (the team leader in virtually every receiving category last year) will form the foundation of the rebuilt Bears offense.

Ironically enough, the Bears defense will return all 11 starters from last year’s group. Take what you will from that fact, considering Chicago had the sixth-worst rushing defense in the NFL last year, ranked in the bottom 10 of the NFL in most points allowed per game, and featured exactly zero players with more than eight sacks recorded last year.

Winter is Coming, Chicago fans. And if you root for these Monsters of the Midway, don’t say we didn’t warn you.

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]

EARLY ANALYSIS: NFC NORTH 2016-7 Forecast

NFC North Predictions

Detroit Lions: The Lions lost a huge piece of their recent success when star WR Calvin Johnson announced his retirement. Matthew Stafford will have to find ways to move the ball without Johnson. Stafford threw for 4,262 yards and 32 TDs but also had 13 INTs. Young receivers must step up if they want to score points against QBs Aaron Rodgers and Teddy Bridgewater and their offenses. The defense must also step up and improve as they were 18th in total defense last year and 19th in rushing defense, that is not a formula for success against RBs Eddie Lacy and Adrian Peterson. They drafted Ohio State OT Taylor Decker in the first round to help protect Stafford, but they must also address the receivers and run defense if they want to compete in this very competitive division.

Chicago Bears: The Bears can never seem to have success on both sides of the ball at the same time. Under Lovie Smith their defense was one of the best every year, but their offense was lacking and it cost them a Super Bowl in 2006. Marc Trestman improved the offense but the defense was awful, so they brought in John Fox. Fox has brought balance but must see improvement from QB Jay Cutler who threw for over 3,600 yards but also had a mere 21 TDs to 11 INTs. They lost versatile RB Matt Forte in free agency but will have one of the best young WR duos in Alshon Jeffery and Kevin White, a former first round pick. The passing defense ranked 4th in the league last year, but they ranked 22nd in rush defense. They must sure up that front 7 to stop the great RBs in that division. They drafted OLB Leonard Floyd to help improve both the pass rush and their ability to stop the run. The Bears season depends on how much Jay Cutler and the defense improve, the talent is there for a playoff run.

Green Bay Packers: The Packers were one of the most peculiar teams last year. QB Aaron Rodgers lost WR Jordy Nelson for the season and it affected their offense more than people initially believed it would. Nelson was the true #1, which allowed Randall Cobb to play in the slot creating mismatches. Rodgers had a “down year” but still managed to throw for 3,821 yards, 31 TDs and only 8 INTs, which quite frankly shows that Rodgers is still great in down years. The offense was, however, inconsistent and went three and out a lot. RB Eddie Lacy seemed nonexistent down the stretch but has said he has gotten back into shape. The defense is much like the Bears in that they were great in the secondary, but were bad against the run as they ranked 6th and 21st. WR Jordy Nelson will be back healthy which will open up the offense a lot more, and with a QB in Aaron Rodgers, the Packers are always a deep playoff run contender.

Minnesota Vikings: The Vikings are the reigning NFC North champions, and they have improved this off-season. They ranked 29th in total offense and 31st in passing offense last year, so they went and drafted the best WR in the draft in my opinion in Laquon Treadwell. This will help QB Teddy Bridgewater develop and improve from his 3,231 yards with just 14 TDs and 9 INTs a year ago. Treadwell, along with versatile playmaker Stefon Diggs, will take the pressure off star RB Adrian Peterson to carry the load of the offense. The defense ranked 13th in total defense and 12th in pass defense, but went out and drafted CB Mackensie Alexander from Clemson. Alexander is a great all-around CB, but to me he excels in zone coverage and making plays on the ball, which will be critical against the QBs in this division. The Vikings won the division with a weak offense, but they went out and got a lot better on that side of the ball so they should compete in the NFC North this year as well.

[Analysis by NFL expert Preston Rowe]