The AFC North is used to being on top of the NFL. For years it has been the Ravens and Steelers always in Super Bowl contention, the Bengals knocking on the door and the Browns being the bottom feeders, but could we be witnessing a changing of the guard? With the Ravens and Steelers aging, the Bengals quietly becoming a great team and the Browns building up talent, this may very well the last year of the norm in the AFC North. Justin Fitzgerald and Nick Bougades break it down:
2012 Record: 10-6
2013 Predicted Record: 11-5
2013 Predicted MVP: Halfback Ray Rice
Although the Ravens lost six starters from last year’s defense, their D could be better than last season. They upgraded their front seven significantly with Elvis Dumervil, who will thrive on the opposite side of Terrell Suggs. They also improved their front line by signing Chris Canty and Marcus Spears to take some of the pressure off nose tackle Ngata. They signed linebacker Daryl Smith, who led Jacksonville in tackles for the past five seasons, and should be an upgrade over Dannell Ellerbe. Even with the loss of Cary Williams, Ed Reed, and Bernard Pollard in the secondary, Lardarius Webb returns from an ACL injury and veteran Michael Huff was signed to bolster the secondary. Huff, Smith, Canty and Spears are typical Ozzie Newsome acquisitions, as they’re veterans who plug in key holes and establish a locker room presence. The most interesting part of the defense is safety Matt Elam, who is expected to become the starter during the season. Elam has impressed scouts with his great speed and hard hitting pursuit of the ball, qualities that Reed possessed during his prime.
More questions, however, surround the Ravens on offense. The Ravens traded Anquan Boldin to the 49ers in March, and failed to upgrade the position in the offseason. Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones are locked in as the top two targets, but who the third receiver will be remains a question. The Ravens brought in veteran Brandon Stokley during training camp but also had strong showings from undrafted free agents Marlon Brown and Aaron Mellette during the preseason. Look for Stokley and Brown to emerge as the season goes on.
The Ravens also have questions at tight end, as Dennis Pitta fractured his hip in camp and will miss a significant portion of the season. This leaves the role to Ed Dickson, who struggled to find time last season as a pass catcher but is a good run blocker. To alleviate some of the pressure the Ravens signed Dallas Clark to make up for what Dickson lacks as a receiver. But don’t expect either to replace Pitta’s production as he was Flacco’s top red zone target.
Ray Rice will have another strong season, but the question remains who will be blocking for him. The center position is shaky due to Matt Birk’s retirement and neither Gino Gradkowski nor rookie A.Q. Shipley has emerged to become the starter. Bryant McKinnie is supposed to be the starting left tackle, but showed up to camp out of shape and probably won’t play every game. He’ll have to stave off rookie Ricky Wagner who coaches say has been improving every day.
Even with all these questions and roster turnaround, expect the Ravens to win 9 to 11 games and go the playoffs for the sixth straight year.
2012 Record: 10-6
2013 Predicted Record: 10-6
2013 Predicted MVP: Quarterback Andy Dalton
The Bengals look to take the next step this year and go deeper into the playoffs than Wildcard Weekend, and this all starts with third year quarterback Andy Dalton. Dalton has helped guide his team to the playoffs the last two seasons, but has yet to win a playoff game. He has underperformed in the playoffs as well, tossing 0 touchdowns but 4 interceptions. In order to be a better quarterback, Dalton needs to improve on his decision making as he threw 16 interceptions last season.
The Bengals definitely want to build their offense around Dalton, as they drafted tight end Tyler Eifert to give Dalton another target. The strong tight end tandem of Jermaine Gresham and Eifert makes up for the lack of receivers the Bengals have after A.J. Green.
But one thing the Bengals have is a strong defense. Geno Adkins is the best nose tackle in the league and has superb talent around him with veterans Ray Maulaluga, Robert Geathers and Carlos Dunlap. The Bengals added James Harrison during the offseason, who could prove useful as a pass rush specialist. Their defense ranked 6th in the NFL in total yards last season and look for them to remain in the Top 10 for many years to come.
The bottom line for the Bengals is that they are a still a young team and have a long window ahead of them for Super Bowl opportunities. But that all depends on Dalton who has still failed to what both Joe Flacco and Ben Roethlisberger both did in their first two seasons, win a playoff game.
2012 Record: 8-8
2013 Predicted Record: 10-6
2013 Predicted MVP: Linebacker LaMarr Woodley
It is very safe to say the Pittsburgh Steelers have taken a step back. The once dominant Steelers have simply aged. In addition the young star that is wide receiver Mike Wallace took his talents to South Beach with the Dolphins. They also lost veteran linebacker James Harrison to the division rival Bengals. Injuries have always been a problem for Pittsburgh, so depth is a struggle. The stars of the Steelers are reaching their mid-late 30s with the exception of standout receiver Antonio Brown. Roethlisberger and Troy Polamalu seem to always have a tough time staying healthy. Former Pro Bowl nose tackle Casey Hampton is gone. Le’veon Bell will be out for the first six weeks of the season with a foot injury, Jonathan Dwyer was cut, leaving Issac Redman to fill the starting position. The only reason for them having a winning record this year is their ridiculously easy schedule. Roger Goodell has never been on the good side of Steelers Nation, but for the time being they should be thanking him.
So, this does look to be the last hurrah for the aging, banged-up Steelers. This word is rarely used in Sixburgh, but a rebuilding process might be in the future.
2012 Record: 5-11
2013 Predicted Record: 4-12
2013 Predicted MVP: Cornerback Joe Haden
As the Steelers decline, the Browns seem to be gaining ground in this division. The Browns have been the laughing stock of the AFC North, and really the NFL for so long. However look for that to change. It probably will not be this year, but it looks to me like they are just a few steps away from being a quality team. The main question for me is who will be their franchise quarterback? Personally, I really do not believe Brandon Weeden is the answer. Trent Richardson has the potential to be a star in this league. They have a receiving core that can be improved upon with Davone Bess and Josh Gordon, but they do have a pretty good offensive line and defense. Most of their talent is young, so the constantly failed rebuilding attempts could be over.
Look for the Browns to have yet another disappointing year in 2013, but make a run at the playoffs somewhere in the next 3 years.
AFC North MVP: Ray Rice HB Ravens
AFC North Offensive Player of the Year: AJ Green WR Bengals
AFC North Defensive Player of the Year: Elvis Dumervil LB Ravens
AFC North Rookie of the Year: Jarvis Jones LB Steelers
The Ravens are 30-9 when Rice touches the ball at least 20 times and his roll will be key for the Ravens this season as the Ravens lack depth at receiving position. Rice is known for his pass catching ability, and led the Ravens in reception from 2009 to 2011 before settling for second last season with 61 receptions. AJ Green will continue to be a matchup nightmare for defensive coordinators and could improve on last year’s monstrous 1,350 yard season. Dumervil will shine in Baltimore, and his presence will form the best pass rushing duo in the NFL with him and Terrell Suggs. Jarvis Jones looks to be another budding star at linebacker and could have a double-digit sack total.
Bold Prediction: Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil record at least 25 sacks, and lead a top 5 Ravens defense after they were just seventeenth in total defense last season.
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