Pittsburgh Steelers – 1st in the AFC North
Last Season Record: (13-3)
Key Additions: Mason Rudolph, James Washington, Chuks Okorafor, and Jonathan Bostic. The Steelers had some phenomenal offseason acquisitions. Mason Rudolph was a, albeit brief, Heisman candidate for portions of last season, making him a solid successor to Roethlisberger’s throne. Replacing Martavis Bryant with Rudolph’s former teammate, James Washington, is a perfect match. Steelers tackle Marcus Gilbert has described new teammate Chuks Okorafor as “the most ready rookie we’ve had, talent wise”. Bostic is coming off possibly his best season with the Colts and adds depth to the dumpster fire that is Pittsburgh’s linebacker position.
Key Losses: Martavis Bryant, Mike Mitchell, and Arthur Moats. Needless to say, Ryan Shazier will not be playing football in the upcoming season as he continues to rehab from his spinal injury. The loss of Martavis hurts one of the strongest receiving groups in football, but the Steelers are no strangers to being without Bryant, whether that be suspensions or injuries. The release of Mitchell should come as no surprise after he managed to snag only four interceptions in his four seasons in Pittsburgh, but he was still a key member of that defense, starting in over 60 games. Although Moats wasn’t exactly an All-Pro linebacker, he was a crucial role player when Shazier and Matakevich went down injured. With Shazier out for the year and Moats gone, the weight on Bud Dupree’s, Jon Bostic’s, T.J. Watt’s, and Vince Williams’ shoulders will build immensely.
Prediction: (11-5) The Steelers are one of the greatest enigmas in recent NFL history. You would think that a team comprised of, among others, the best receiver in the NFL, the best running back in the NFL, and a two-time Super Bowl champion quarterback wouldn’t struggle as much with attaining postseason dominance as the Steelers have the past several seasons. This upcoming season will be no different. Even in their mediocre division, Steelers fans can continue to rip their hair out as they watch their team play down to their opponents’ level and create nail-biters that had previously been deemed blowouts. Expect a strong start to the season games against the revamped Browns, struggling Ravens and Bucs, and the Pittsburgh-owned Bengals. Losses will come later in the season in games on the road against the merciless Jacksonville defense, against a Denver defense that somehow continues to improve, in New Orleans, and against the conference rival Patriots.
Baltimore Ravens – 2nd in the AFC North
Last Season Record: (9-7)
Key Additions: Lamar Jackson, Robert Griffin III, Michael Crabtree, Willie Snead, Hayden Hurst, and Orlando Brown. Lamar Jackson and RGIII create a solid foundation for the post-Flacco era in Baltimore, which could be arriving as soon as Week 15 or as late as 2021, depending on how well he can continue to play at an “elite” level. Crabtree is a perfect signing for the Ravens because he gives Flacco a proven threat at wide receiver. Although Snead didn’t have a standout season last year, he has shown that he can be a solid 70-75 reception guy in a season, with his youth allowing for room to improve. The Ravens drafted Hurst in the 25th overall, showcasing their desire to load Flacco up with as many weapons as possible. Orlando Brown is one of only three players to be named Big 12 Offensive Lineman of the Year multiple times. He towers over current Baltimore RT Alex Lewis (6’8” 345 pounds vs 6’6” 312 pounds) so expect him to see playing time soon.
Key Losses: Austin Howard, Jeremy Maclin, and Lardarius Webb. I know what you’re thinking; yes, these moves were necessary for cap space in the future. That doesn’t make them excellent moves though. Maclin got anywhere from 91-143 targets per season in six of his eight seasons, with averages of about 65 yards a game and a touchdown every other game in that six-year span. He’s proved that he’s not a number one option, but he’s also not some scrub. Webb may have only started a handful of games, but he was a key role player in the defense that got minutes every week, forcing two interceptions, a fumble, and getting two sacks. Austin Howard played a crucial role in the Baltimore offensive line, with his departure leaving all the pressure on rookie Orlando Brown and the subpar Alex Lewis.
Prediction: (7-9) The Baltimore Ravens made several moves this offseason to simultaneously boost their offense and prepare for the future. However, their tough schedule will prove to be a challenge that is just too much to handle. Their out of conference opponents won 73% of their games last season, and Baltimore has been terrible on the road recently. Some easy home wins against the Bills, Bengals, and Bucs will highlight the season. Brutal losses on the road against Pittsburgh, Atlanta, and Carolina will be nightmares to forget this upcoming season.
Cincinnati Bengals – 3rd in the AFC North
Last Season Record: (7-9)
Key Additions: Matt Barkley, Cordy Glenn, Billy Price, Preston Brown, and Jessie Bates. The Bengals have an incredibly poor offensive line, but the addition of Bills LT Cordy Glenn could prove to be a man amongst boys this season. Billy Price was taken in the first round by Cincinnati, proving that they desperately wanted a young player who could be used as a starter to fill the gap left by Russell Bodine’s departure. Matt Barkley will be serving as Andy Dalton’s backup until sometime around Week 14 when the Bengals have just decided to give up and fully embrace tanking. On the defensive side, Preston Brown has been brought in with motivation to prove his talent due to his one year contract. Bates, the 2nd round draft pick, will prove to be a solid safety at 2nd or 3rd on the depth chart.
Key Losses: Jeremy Hill, Chris Smith, and Vontaze Burfict for four games. I’m only including the Vontaze Burfict suspension here because—Bengals fans will hate to admit this even though they secretly know that it’s true—he’s Cincinnati’s 4th or 5th best player. And I don’t mean that as a compliment. Even though Hill only played seven games last season, he’s displayed the talent of an NFL running back by racking up 29 touchdowns and 2,757 yards in the 2015-2017 seasons. Having to split time between Mixon, Bernard, and Hill was going to be tough, but it could’ve proven to be a three-headed monster to compliment Andy Dalton’s passing game. Chris Smith’s leaving for Cleveland means that youngsters Jordan Willis and Sam Hubbard (they were both drafted either this year or last year) will contributing significant minutes at DE, meaning they’ll need to work hard to make that next step as capable starters in the NFL.
Prediction: (5-11) Although the Bengals did make some small improvements to their roster, they’re still one of the four or five worst teams in the league. Five or six wins is a reasonable expectation this summer, assuming they don’t lose someone like Dalton or Green. If that were to happen, you’re looking at two or three wins max. The Bengals simply don’t have the star power to succeed in a division that also contains Super Bowl champion quarterbacks Ben Roethlisberger and Joe Flacco combined with the exponentially improved Browns. The majority of their wins will come early against the Ravens at home, an Andrew Luck-led Colts team that hasn’t seen their star quarterback in ages, and a struggling Dolphins squad. A tough road schedule and division play will wreak havoc on the Bengals, especially in Atlanta, Carolina, and against the Broncos at home.
Cleveland Browns – 4th in the AFC North
Last Season Record: (0-16)
Key Additions: Baker Mayfield, Tyrod Taylor, Carlos Hyde, Nick Chubb, Jarvis Landry, Chris Hubbard, Austin Corbett, Chris Smith, Mychal Kendricks, T.J. Carrie, Damarious Randall, Denzel Ward, and E.J. Gaines. I had a goal in mind of trying to focus on only a handful of new players for each team in this section, but with the Browns, the entire roster has been thrown out the window. The battle between Mayfield and Taylor at quarterback will be incredible, Carlos Hyde and Nick Chubb add a dimension to the run game, and the combination of Josh Gordon and Jarvis Landry will be very exciting. Chris Hubbard will likely be the new starting right tackle and Austin Corbett should see some minutes at guard or center. Christ Smith should either start over Emmanuel Ogbah at DE or provide a key role player performance on defense. Mychal Kendricks, Denzel Ward, and T.J. Carrie will all likely be starters in their respective roles, while E.J. Gaines gets some major playing time off the bench.
Key Losses: Joe Thomas, Isaiah Crowell, Jason McCourty, Josh Keyes, DeShone Kizer, and B.W. Webb. Obviously, Joe Thomas was a major loss for the Browns, as a role model and probably their best player in recent history. Isaiah Crowell was a force in the Cleveland run game the past two seasons, averaging 202 attempts and over 902 yards per season. DeShone Kizer fell victim to the seemingly infinite trap that is the role of a newly acquired Cleveland quarterback, so who knows what he could’ve developed into in a better scenario. Jason McCourty, B.W. Webb, and Josh Keyes all leaving puts a lot of pressure on the young players to step up and perform well at corner and linebacker.
Prediction: (4-12) When I say that the Browns will go 4-12 this season, I don’t mean that in a bad way. This is a very optimistic 4-12 with a bright future on the horizon. Going from one win in two seasons to four wins in one season is no small task for one offseason. The combination of team chemistry, player development, and off the field issues will determine whether the Browns can capitalize on their newly acquired talent or sink to the bottom of food chain per usual. Wins against the terrible Jets, Bucs, and the upset at home over the Chargers will bring the team together in the first half of the season, only for that hope and overconfidence to spiral out of control in the second half against tough opponents like Houston, Kansas City and Atlanta.