AFC North could be facing upheaval

© Imagn

Since realignment in 2002, picking the AFC North champion has usually been picking the winner of a two-horse race. In those 18 seasons, the Cleveland Browns have zero titles. The Cincinnati Bengals have four. The other 14 campaigns have been won by the Baltimore Ravens or the Pittsburgh Steelers. Will the 2020 season bring change to the AFC North? Maybe.

Baltimore Ravens

2019 record: 14-2

2020 season win total: 11.5

2020 division odds: -280

2020 non-division games: at Texans, at Colts, at Patriots, at Eagles, at Redskins, Jaguars, Titans, Giants, Cowboys, Chiefs

Nearly everything went right for Baltimore in 2019 — except for advancing to the Super Bowl. The Ravens fell at home to Tennessee in the divisional round as double-digit favorites. After winning the Super Bowl in 2012, Baltimore has not made it past the divisional round since.

Quarterback Lamar Jackson was named league MVP in 2019. He led an offense designed to lean on his incredible mobility, taking it all the way to the No. 1-ranked rushing offense in football. Despite leading the league with 36 touchdown passes and throwing only six interceptions, Jackson’s passing offense ranked only 23rd. But when you amass the greatest number of single-season team rushing yards in history, passing yards become an afterthought. Baltimore’s defense allowed the offense to dominate time of possession by ranking seventh against the run and fifth in defending the pass. All of this translated into the Ravens being No. 1 in DVOA.

How does a 14-2 team look to improve in 2020 and reverse its recent postseason woes? In free agency, the Ravens acquired 33-year-old Calais Campbell from the Jacksonville Jaguars. The 12-year veteran and five-time Pro Bowl defensive end should help the Ravens put more pressure on opposing quarterbacks after ranking 18th in the league in 2019 with only 37 sacks. Baltimore maintained its astute player-personnel reputation by putting together another very well-received draft class, adding LSU linebacker Patrick Queen with its first-round selection and Ohio State running back J.K. Dobbins in the second round. Stalwart offensive guard Marshal Yanda has retired, so the Ravens took offensive linemen with their third- and fourth-round selections.

The Skinny: I can’t imagine the Ravens not being good again in 2020. Sure, opponents ought to be better prepared for Jackson and the rushing attack. But this team has no real holes, and one could argue that, on paper, it improved. In my opinion, coach John Harbaugh and the organization are as good as it gets. The challenge will be avoiding regression from a 14-2 record, a No. 1 ranking in DVOA and a turnover differential of + 10 in 2019. Any bets for me right now are a pass. I do not want to lay almost $3 to win the division, and while I lean Under the season win total, I do not have conviction about it.

Cincinnati Bengals

2019 record: 2-14

2020 season win total: 5.5

2020 division odds: 29/1

2020 non-division games: at Texans, at Colts, at Dolphins, at Eagles, at Redskins, Jaguars, Titans, Cowboys, Giants, Chargers

If you look at some of the numbers and recall what you saw on the field in 2019, the Bengals probably were not as bad as a 2-14 record suggests. Their rushing defense was dead last in the league. Their turnover differential was nearly rock bottom at -14, and they were 29th in DVOA. But the Bengals were 21st in rushing offense, 17th in passing offense and 20th in passing defense. Half their losses were by an average of four points. This team had its moments, but I still think Cincinnati is quite a way from winning the division.

With the first pick in the draft, it came as no surprise that Cincinnati took quarterback Joe Burrow of LSU, who is an Ohio product. Later the Bengals took three linebackers in an effort to improve their porous run defense. They also took Clemson wide receiver Tee Higgins with the 33rd pick overall. Burrow already has weapons with A.J. Green, Tyler Boyd, John Ross and Joe Mixon. I would have thought about giving Burrow protection first, but the Bengals did not go offensive lineman until the sixth round — and this is a line that surrendered 48 sacks in 2019.

Cincinnati’s free-agent haul looks good for second-year coach Zac Taylor, but Xavier Su’a-Filo was the only offensive lineman acquired. Su’a-Filo has good skills but was a backup the last two seasons in Dallas. The secondary was improved by adding three cornerbacks — Mackensie Alexander and Trae Waynes from Minnesota and LeShaun Sims from Tennessee — and safety Vonn Bell from New Orleans. Nose tackle D.J. Reader was a great grab from Houston as Cincy continues to try to stop the bleeding in defending the run. Acquiring veteran linebacker Josh Bynes from the Ravens adds an excellent mentor for the young linebackers who were drafted.

The Skinny: The combination of the league’s worst defense against the run, an aging quarterback and a rookie head coach was a losing recipe in 2019. Taylor gets another crack in 2020 with what looks to be a vastly improved defense and a shiny rookie quarterback fresh off a national championship and a Heisman Trophy. The offensive line remains a question mark, and it is unlikely that Burrow will immediately transition to the NFL game. While 29-1 is an awfully juicy price to win the division, it is the longest of shots for a reason. I do believe this team can win six games in 2020, though, as only five games will be against 2019 playoff teams. Look Over the season win total of 5.5.

Cleveland Browns

2019 record: 6-10

2020 season win total: 8.5

2020 division odds: 6/1

2020 non-division games: at Cowboys, at Giants, at Jaguars, at Jets, at Titans, Texans, Colts, Eagles, Redskins, Raiders

The Browns were the biggest offseason darlings before last season. The team had won seven games after an 0-16 season, rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield had shown some flashes of brilliance, a new coach had been hired and several big-name free agents had come aboard. But as expectations soared, the 2019 results fell well short. And after just one season, that new coach, Freddie Kitchens, is gone.

In steps Kevin Stefanski, becoming Cleveland’s 12th coach in 20 years. Stefanski’s NFL coaching career had been spent entirely in offensive roles with the Minnesota Vikings, graduating to offensive coordinator last season before moving to the Browns. Stefanski inherits a roster with a great deal of talent. The challenge will be converting that talent into a successful, cohesive team.

On offense, the Browns pulled off a couple of notable additions via free agency in tight end Austin Hooper, coming over from Atlanta, and offensive tackle Jack Conklin, coming over from Tennessee. They also traded with Denver for fullback Andy Janovich. Mayfield now has Nick Chubb, Kareem Hunt and Janovich in the backfield to go along with Odell Beckham Jr., Rashard Higgins and Jarvis Landry at wide receiver. Hooper joins David Njoku at tight end, and Conklin joins Pro Bowl guard Joel Bitonio along the line. Defensively, the Browns added safeties Karl Joseph and Andrew Sendejo and cornerback Kevin Johnson. Tackle Andrew Billings joins Sheldon Richardson and Myles Garrett for support across the defensive front.

And the Browns made progress in the draft. The offensive line got another terrific boost with the 10th overall selection, adding tackle Jedrick Wills of Alabama. LSU safety Grant Delpit was snatched in the second round, and more help on the line was added in the third round with defensive tackle Jordan Elliott of Missouri. Nine picks later, Cleveland went back to LSU for linebacker Jacob Phillps. In the fourth round, the Browns picked up their third tight end, Harrison Bryant, the Mackey Award winner out of Florida Atlantic.

The Skinny: The Browns have hired first-year general manager Andrew Berry, 32. Rookie coach Stefanski is 37. If the acquisitions this offseason through the draft and free agency are any indication of what this youthful 1-2 punch is capable of, the Browns seem in good hands. For a 6-10 team that ranked 23rd in DVOA and had a turnover differential of -8 in 2019, the win total and division numbers look to be aggressive, but I think the oddsmakers know this team ought to be much better than what Kitchens produced last season. I don’t think 6-1 to win the division is a bad play, and I think the general perception on this team is probably low, meaning it could be a perfect time to be a buyer. But I will stick with betting on Over 8.5 wins.

Pittsburgh Steelers

2019 record: 8-8

2020 season win total: 9

2020 division odds: 4/1

2020 non-division games: at Cowboys, at Giants, at Jaguars, at Titans, at Bills, Texans, Colts, Eagles, Redskins, Broncos

Last season was maybe the weirdest ever witnessed for the Steelers. They were torched by the New England Patriots in their season opener 33-3. Ben Roethlisberger was injured in the next game and never returned. Behind Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges at quarterback, Pittsburgh won seven of eight games midseason, and Mike Tomlin was being discussed as NFL coach of the year. Rudolph was involved in a brutal scuffle with Cleveland’s Myles Garrett in mid-November that led to multiple fines and suspensions. Ultimately the Steelers finished 8-8 and second in the division.

Tomlin did an excellent job with this club in 2019 after becoming so limited without Roethlisberger. Tomlin leaned on his defense and it paid off, ranking 14th in the league against the run and third in defending the pass. The Steelers led the NFL with 54 sacks. But the offense was so bad some weeks that one wondered how it would even get a first down. Pittsburgh was 25th in rushing offense and 27th in passing offense. For the final eight games, the Steelers averaged just 14 points per game.

The Steelers have made moves to address the offense this offseason via free agency. Two-time Super Bowl champion offensive lineman Stefen Wisniewski comes over from Kansas City. Fullback Derek Watt comes over from the Chargers and joins his brother, linebacker T.J. Watt. Pittsburgh added a Pro Bowl tight end in Eric Ebron from the Colts and acquired defensive end Chris Wormley via trade with the Ravens. The Steelers also picked up seven players from the XFL.

In my eyes, the Steelers’ free-agent and draft activity was good but not great. Notre Dame wide receiver Chase Claypool was selected in the second round, 49th overall, and joins a depth chart of JuJu Smith-Schuster, Diontae Johnson and James Washington. Running back Anthony McFarland Jr. out of Maryland was selected in the fourth round. He’s a speedster, joining James Conner, Benny Snell, Jaylen Samuels and Watt. These are nice players, but I don’t see anyone in the draft haul being an immediate impact player.

The Skinny: This offseason seems typical of the Steelers. Tough, blue-collar, guys, not necessarily big names ... but you put them all together and they just might find a way to be really competitive, right? We’ll see. It does not appear that Roethlisberger, who just turned 38, has a plethora of weapons. His backfield must remain healthy. The defense ought to be superior again, but as a whole, it feels like a slightly above-average season ahead. The win total looks spot on at nine, and 4-1 to win the division is probably a good number too. It’s just a pass for me. It is difficult to imagine the Steelers being average for two seasons in a row, but I believe they are headed for mediocrity again. One can argue that it is a buy-low spot, but nothing jumps out at me offensively. When in doubt, best to pass.

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