Aug. 30, 2018
2018 Countdown To Kickoff Power Rankings: AFC North
The Zone Press’ fifth annual countdown to kickoff is underway. Just like last year, we’re going division by division. Next, we take a look at the AFC North.
1. Pittsburgh Steelers (Overall Power Ranking: 10)
2017 Results: 13-3 (Lost in Divisional Round)
2017 was supposed to be the year of redemption for the Pittsburgh Steelers. They were finally going to get the proverbial monkey off their back by finally beating the New England Patriots in the playoffs, and returning to the Super Bowl. Everything fell into place as well. The Killer B’s were finally all healthy in a playoff game. But unfortunately for the Steelers, they were looking too far ahead. They even overlooked a Jacksonville Jaguars team that had already smashed them during the regular season. The cost of their arrogance proved to be steep as they didn’t even get to the Patriots. As the Steelers prepare to enter 2018 with a virtually unchanged lineup, the pressure will be on Pittsburgh to finally get over the hump and deliver a seventh Lombardi Trophy.
Key Additions: Jon Bostic, Morgan Burnett, Terrell Edmunds, and Mason Rudolph.
Key Losses: Martavis Bryant, Chris Hubbard, Mike Mitchell, Robert Golden, and William Gay
The Closing Window: As previously mentioned, this could be it for this incarnation of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Ben Roethlisberger is closing in on retirement one way or another. He’s taken a beating over his career and even mentioned retirement last season. Le’Veon Bell is in a contract year once again, but the franchise tag will no longer be a factor in contract negotiations. He will likely leave for the highest bidder once the season is over. If both were to leave, the Steelers would have to immediately go into a rebuild. And there’s no telling what happens to Antonio Brown in this scenario. knowing this, the Steelers cannot afford any more setbacks in the big games.
Defensive Outlook: After years of being shaky in the defensive side of the ball, the Steelers were finally able to put something together. Last season, the Steelers ranked fifth in passing defense, 10th in rushing defense, and fifth in total defense. While most of the roster remains the same, they’ll need to replace Mike Mitchell. While Mitchell struggled to tackle at times, he was solid in coverage. To replace him, the Steelers drafted Terrell Edmunds and picked up Morgan Burnett in free agency. Edmunds will eventually be the longterm option for the position, but I expect the experience to win out in favor of Burnett this season.
QB Heir: One of the more interesting stories of the offseason is the Steelers drafting Mason Rudolph in the third round of the 2018 NFL Draft. What made it interesting is that Roethlisberger didn’t even try to hide his feelings on the move. This just reinforces the first storyline for the Steelers. Time is running out, and the team is wise enough to see the window is closing.
Season Outlook: Pittsburgh is basically bringing back the same team that went 13-3 last season. They’re on the short list of AFC teams that will compete for the Super Bowl. Anything less than a championship is considered a failure for this team.
Fantasy Player to Watch: JuJu Smith-Shuster
2. Baltimore Ravens (Overall Power Ranking: 17)
2017 Results: 9-7 (2nd in AFC North)
Considering everything that happened last season, the Ravens were fortunate to finish with nine wins. They had to deal with a wealth of injuries and drops in production across the board. The defense slipped from 7th in the league to 12th. That’s not too bad on paper considering the defense is the only thing that kept this team afloat last season. Offensively, the Ravens finished 27th in the league and had 34 turnovers to go with that ranking. Entering the 2018 season, the Ravens are one of the more interesting teams. The drafting of Lamar Jackson has brought the hype to the Ravens camp. Furthermore, it could bring about the end of the Joe Flacco era in Baltimore sooner than later. Over the past three seasons, the Ravens have failed to win 10 or more games and failed to secure a playoff berth. By that definition, they are a team stuck on the NFL treadmill. This season will go along way to determine what happens next. Will, they pull it together and rejoin the ranks of the playoff teams? Or will they blow it up and start over with their new quarterback?
Key Additions: Robert Griffin III, Lamar Jackson, Michael Crabtree, John Brown, Willie Snead, and Hayden Hurst
Key Losses: Danny Woodhead, Mike Wallace, Jeremy Maclin, Ben Watson, Crockett Gilmore, Austin Howard, and Lardarius Webb.
Present/Future at QB: Head Coach John Harbaugh has stated that there’s no controversy in the quarterback room. So barring injury, fans can expect Flacco to be the starter in Week 1 and beyond. So far in the preseason, Jackson has shown flashes of his ability, but nothing that screams immediate impact. So in the event of an injury to Flacco, I expect Robert Griffin III to take over in his stead. Jackson will obviously be the team’s project at quarterback and heir apparent.
New Receiving Targets: Supporters of Joe Flacco often point out that the Ravens have consistently failed to put weapons around the quarterback. Well, maybe the front office heard them. The Ravens drafted Tight End Hayden Hurst from South Carolina. Hurst had good hands back in college and should be an immediate contributor on offense this year. They also picked Mark Andrews, Jaleel Scott, and Jordan Lasley. As for veteran help, the Ravens got Michael Crabtree, Willie Snead, and John Brown. And those are just the new faces on the offense. The only players Flacco are familiar with are Breshad Perriman and Chris Moore. The former might not even be on the roster once the season starts.
Defense: The Ravens will bring back most of their defense from 2017. As previously mentioned, they did take a step back last year when compared to their 2016 results. That case is driven home when you consider the quarterbacks they played last season. The defense never really dominated on a consistent basis. They needed one stop against the Cincinnati Bengals to secure a playoff spot, and couldn’t get the job done. On top of that, some of their best defensive players are getting long in the tooth. Eric Weddle is 33, Jimmy Smith is 33, Terrell Suggs is 35. Eventually, we’ll begin to see diminishing returns from them. For the Ravens to have any shot at serious contention, their defense will need to be flat out dominant.
Season Outlook: Despite their great defense, the Ravens shouldn’t be considered a real threat for the Super Bowl. They may be able to make some noise in the division if the Steelers regress. At best, they’re a fringe wild card team.
Fantasy Player to Watch: Alex Collins
3. Cleveland Browns (Overall Power Ranking: 25)
2017 Results: 0-16 (4th in AFC North)
Well Cleveland, it can’t possibly get any worse now, can it? Everything was down for the Browns last season: attendance, wins, production, and respect. What more can be said about a team that couldn’t muster a single victory last season? The less said about that the better. The 0-16 debacle will now give way to the Baker Mayfield era. All eyes will be on the quarterback situation in Cleveland, and rightfully so. They’ve been trying to find a quarterback since they re-entered the NFL in the late 90s. Mayfield will be the future, while veteran quarterback Tyrod Taylor will likely be the quarterback this season. The offense is now full of weapons, life, and competitive fervor. The defense is young and looks to make strides in the right direction. Everyone associated with the Browns is reacting to last season in the right way. They’re taking it personally and will do anything to shed the laughingstock label. There’s even hype of a playoff berth being possible with this team. But I’m sure the fans of this team will settle for just one win. They can at least win one game.
Key Additions: Tyrod Taylor, Carlos Hyde, Jarvis Landry, Jeff Jannis, Darren Fells, Chris Hubbard, E.J. Gaines, Mychal Kendricks, Damarious Randle, Baker Mayfield, Nick Chubb, and Denzel Ward.
Key Losses: Joe Thomas
QB Outlook: Taylor has been named the team’s starter by Hue Jackson, and it will likely remain that way once the season starts. Taylor never got a fair shake in Buffalo and is coming off of a season where the Bills made the playoffs. So far in the preseason, he’s looked pretty good. Mayfield has also had his bright spots during the preseason. In fact, some want to see him start sooner than later. Thus far, Mayfield has shown that his game has the potential to translate well to the NFL. He’s shown flashes of navigating outside of the pocket and throwing passes on the move. Furthermore, he’s shown solid decision making for a rookie. But we all know that won’t hold for long. He’ll eventually have to go through his growing pains in the league. The real question is when Taylor will be set aside in favor of Mayfield. If things are going poorly through six games, I expect Mayfield to see the field. If they’re around .500 or better, Taylor will remain the guy.
A wealth of Weapons: Dare I say it? The Browns actually have formidable weapons on the offensive side of the ball. Starting in the backfield, the combination of Carlos Hyde and Nick Chubb will be carrying the ball for the team. Hyde is a proven runner in the NFL while Chubb was one of the best running backs in college football during his time at Georgia. Jarvis Landry was their biggest signing during the offseason. He’s a big play receiver that will play across from Josh Gordon. David Njoku was an underrated Tight End a year ago as well. Whoever is the quarterback, he won’t have much trouble finding someone to get the ball to.
Left Tackle: It’s a shame that Joe Thomas never got to play in a playoff game, but at least he’ll be in Canton someday. His retirement leaves a hole at the key Left Tackle position. Going from the best in the business to someone new will obviously yield diminished returns, but the Browns will try their best. Joel Bitonio and Austin Corbett were names that popped up early, but it looks like Bitonio will be the guy once the season starts. Bitonio is a veteran in the league but will see how the transition from Guard to Tackle goes for him this season.
Season Outlook: The good news for Browns fans is that there will be an improvement in the wins column. Before last season, this blog said the same thing and it backfired. Fortunately, you can’t do worse than zero victories. Tyrod Taylor is a massive upgrade at quarterback and he has plenty of guys to throw. The AFC North is a one team division, but even the Steelers can play down at times. I can see a win range of five to seven for Cleveland. But now that I said it can’t possibly get any worse, watch as the Browns go 0-0-16 just to spite me. Just watch.
Fantasy Player to Watch: Jarvis Landry
4. Cincinnati Bengals (Overall Power Ranking: 28)
2017 Results: 7-9 (3rd in AFC North)
It’s been a slow decline for the Cincinnati Bengals. What was once a consistent playoff team has now become a team hanging around seven wins on average. In 2015 (their last playoff appearance), the Bengals averaged 25.6 points per game. That same stat was down to 18.1 last season. Their defense is the same average and undisciplined bunch everyone has come to expect from the Bengals. In times like this, it’s time for change to be made and repairs to be made to the culture. Just kidding, Marvin Lewis is still the head coach, and the same players that cause Bengals fans to groan in agony are back again. This season will mark Lewis’ 16th at the helm of the Bengals and has never coached the team to a playoff victory. One can only dream of this level of job security. Well past their nine lives, we’ll see if the Bengals are able to turn things around. If they fail, they’ve fallen a year behind in what should be their retooling project.
Key Additions: Cordy Glenn, Chris Baker, Preston Brown. Jessie Bates, and Billy Price
Key Losses: George Iloka, A.J. McCarron, Jeremy Hill, Sam Hubbard, Malik Jefferson, and Andrew Brown
John Ross on the Rebound: The 2017 first-round pick disappointed in his rookie season after the hype that his combine workout built up. Local observers and media members were impressed in the spring by the progress Ross has made. They cited his work on the outside and the improved connection with quarterback Andy Dalton. With his 4.22 speed, Ross certainly has the talent to become a dangerous deep threat for the team.
O-Line: The Bengals entered 2017 after losing their two best offensive linemen in Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler. This left Dalton with just one blocker capable enough to protect him. As you can guess, the rest of the line was anemic. The front office had no choice but to rebuild the line. The Bills traded for Bills’ left tackle Cordy Glenn prior to the draft and used their first-round pick on Ohio State center Billy Price. While they both will be upgrades on the line, they both have their share of injury history. Price tore his pectoral during the combine and Glenn has missed 16 games over the last two seasons. Trey Hopkins and Cedric Ogbuehi will try to rebound from a bad 2017 as well. So even with the help, the Bengals offensive line is still a question mark.
The Secondary: The position group with the most question besides the offensive line are the defensive backs. With George Iloka gone, second-round pick Jessie Bates will be seeing a lot of playing time. 2016 first-round pick William Jackson is coming off of a solid season and will be the best corner on the team. Darqueze Dennard has never really panned out and Dre Kirkpatrick is looking to rebound from a season riddled with shoulder problems. One thing working in the favor of the secondary is the defensive line’s ability to rush the passer. But if that pass rush were to come up short, they could be in trouble.
Season Outlook: The Bengals have been in a steady decline since that head-scratching and migraine-inducing playoff loss to the Steelers. Since then, the Bengals have kept the same leadership on the sideline and on the field. Meanwhile, the rest of the roster has slowly decayed around them. This is an eight-win team at best, but I even doubt they get that far. This organization is in desperate need of a reboot, but likely will never admit it until it’s too late.
Fantasy Player to Watch: John Ross