The VSiN pro football experts have been hard at work this summer, writing up team previews and predictions for all 32 teams, including their favorite individual season win total and College Football Playoff bets.
Here are the team previews and best bets for the AFC North:
When a team has a quarterback three seasons removed from an MVP season with a 37-12 record as a starter, you’d think that player would be the team’s biggest bright spot. However, that is not the case for Lamar Jackson, who enters 2022 coming off his worst season as a pro. Not everything that went wrong for Baltimore was on the shoulders of Jackson, but his decline each season since his MVP is cause for concern heading into his fifth year.
Outside of his rookie season in which he started just seven games, Jackson was at his worst as a passer in 2021. He committed 18 turnover-worthy plays in just 12 games — two fewer than his career-high in 2020 when he started all 16 games — and his Pro Football Focus passing grade of 65.9 was his worst since his rookie year. As the season went along it got worse for Jackson, as he committed a turnover-worthy play on 4.3% of his pass attempts while completing just 61.6% of his passes from Weeks 6 to 13. However, there are signs Jackson will be able to rebound nicely if the offensive line holds up its end of the bargain.
Jackson was pressured on 37.0% of his dropbacks in 2021, which was the second-highest rate of his career as a starter. When under pressure, Jackson did not perform well, completing just 52.7% of his pass attempts with a turnover-worthy play rate of 4.8%. However, when kept clean, his completion percentage jumped to 69.1% and he averaged 7.7 yards per attempt while committing a turnover-worthy play on just 2.9% of his attempts. Jackson shoulders some of the blame as PFF says he invited the ninth-highest rate of pressure among qualified quarterbacks last season (18.1%), but there is no question the Ravens’ front office went into the offseason with a mission to improve the offensive line.
Baltimore brought in Morgan Moses for depth at tackle as the team awaits the healthy return of Ronnie Stanley, and they drafted Tyler Linderbaum at center to fill the hole left by Bradley Bozeman’s departure in free agency. Stanley is the lynchpin to the line, as he has consistently graded as one of the best pass blockers in the league when healthy. An improved offensive line also means better run blocking for Baltimore, which finished 29th in Football Outsiders’ adjusted line yards per carry metric (3.82). In fact, the unit finished no higher than 13th in any of the major rushing statistics that Football Outsiders tracks. Improvement in both facets will allow Jackson to flourish and allow this once-dominant ground game to rediscover its identity.
A little bit of luck won’t hurt Baltimore either, especially after a seemingly snakebitten season in 2021 which saw the Ravens lose the second-most games to injury. Most of those absences came in the defensive backfield. Baltimore addressed that by adding to its defensive back depth with the signing of Marcus Williams, an elite coverage safety who fits perfectly with the Ravens’ defensive philosophy. Baltimore will have a slightly new look under first-time defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald, but with the returning talent this defense team should return to the top half of the league at the very least.
The front seven should be stout against the run once more. Calais Campbell and Josh Bynes were strong run defenders on the interior, and Odafe Oweh showed real promise as an edge defender against the run in the 615 snaps he played. Baltimore finished first in adjusted line yards allowed per carry (3.45), second in defensive stuffed rate (24%) and eighth in defensive power success rate (62%) last season. The degree of their success this year will vary but expect this to be a top-10 unit against the run once more.
The betting market seems to reflect all these positives for Baltimore. The Ravens are favored to win the AFC North at a consensus price of + 155 and their win total of 9.5 is the second highest in the division. Should the team receive some better luck when it comes to health, it has a schedule that can be navigated for more than 9.5 wins. The crossover divisional matchups are with the AFC East and NFC South with standalone games against the Giants, Broncos and Jaguars. As usual, the Ravens will be contenders in this division and a playoff team in the AFC.
Pick: Over 9.5
The defending AFC champions enter 2022 with a better roster than the one that lost to the Rams in the Super Bowl. Cincinnati improved its biggest weakness in the offensive line, addressed a departing free agent with a quality replacement and drafted some young talent to bolster a shaky secondary. If Joe Burrow can replicate his 2021 season, there’s no reason Cincinnati can’t compete for a conference title yet again.
Burrow was among the best quarterbacks in the NFL last season, leading the league in PFF passing grade (91.2) while ranking fifth in turnover-worthy play rate (2.4%) and eighth in expected points added per dropback (0.13). Burrow did all of that while under fire due to one of the most porous offensive lines in the NFL. According to Pro Football Focus, the Bengals’ offensive line was responsible for 85.1% of the 221 dropbacks in which Burrow was under pressure, but that should change this season with the additions of Alex Cappa, Ted Karras and La’el Collins. If the offensive line improves as expected, there’s a chance Burrow gets even better. When kept clean Burrow was a surgeon, completing 73.7% of his attempts for 8.8 yards per attempt with a 2.8-1 TD-to-INT ratio and a turnover-worthy play rate of just 1.4%.
Burrow also benefits from arguably the deepest receiving corps in the league. Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins combined for 3,223 receiving yards (regular season plus postseason), and even though C.J. Uzomah departed in free agency, the addition of Hayden Hurst helps offset the loss. Burrow also has one of the best runners in the league behind him in Joe Mixon, who ran for a career-best 1,205 yards and 13 touchdowns in the regular season while averaging 3.05 yards per carry after contact. The interesting factor here will be the new personnel being introduced to the line. While all the three newcomers will be an upgrade in terms of pass protection, only Collins is an elite run blocker. How much Mixon’s production is altered due to the new line is hard to predict, but it is a factor to monitor.
Cincinnati might have made improvements along the offensive line in the offseason, but the front office did not sign a single defensive free agent, which means bettors can expect a defense similar to last season. Cincinnati was average at best in 2021, ranking 13th in scoring (21.8), 19th in both defensive DVOA (+ 3.0%) and EPA per play (-0.04) and 21st in yards allowed per play (5.6).
The weakest position group for the defense is linebacker. Logan Wilson graded out as the best player in the group but his PFF defensive grade was a measly 61.5 overall. Akeem Davis-Gaither was the best run defender by grade (70.1), but he was only on the field for 33 run plays so it’s hardly a sample size worth taking seriously. The next-best run defender had a grade of 65.2. Wilson and Germaine Pratt, the two linebackers who dropped back in coverage the most, gave up a reception rate of 85.1% and allowed 903 total yards between them. All three starters return and will again be the weak link of the defense.
The Bengals are in somewhat decent shape at defensive line and defensive back. There are some weaknesses such as Eli Apple, who gave up 56 receptions, 686 yards and seven touchdowns last season and is projected to be a top-three corner for this team yet again, but there are quite a few strengths. Trey Hendrickson is a top-tier edge rusher who totaled 87 pressures with a pass-rush win rate of 21.4%, fourth highest among qualified edge defenders, and both Vonn Bell and Chidobe Awuzie are very solid in coverage. While there might not be much improvement, there’s no reason why this defense should be worse than it was last season.
It’s confusing to see Cincinnati as the second choice to win the AFC North despite a higher win total than Baltimore and the improvements made on the offensive line. However, one thing that works against the Bengals is the seventh-hardest schedule in the league by win-total projections. Cincinnati must face Buffalo, Tampa Bay, Kansas City and Dallas, all division favorites. Add divisional games and tricky spots against Miami and New Orleans, and it’s hard to lay a price on Over 10 wins.
Pick: Under 10
For the first time in nearly two decades, the Steelers enter a season with an unproven commodity at quarterback. Mitchell Trubisky, Mason Rudolph and Kenny Pickett could all see snaps this season, and it’s going to be a challenge for Mike Tomlin, who has never finished a season with a losing record.
Despite rumblings early in the offseason that Rudolph was pushing Trubisky for the starting job, it seems the former Bears signal caller will indeed be under center when Pittsburgh faces Cincinnati in Week 1. Trubisky has not started a game in nearly two years, but his athletic ability gives the Steelers something they haven’t had at quarterback. Having said that, Trubisky will need to show growth as a passer if this team is going to have success. In his last two seasons in Chicago, he averaged just 6.42 yards per attempt while committing 43 turnover-worthy plays. For his career he has committed a turnover-worthy play on 4.1% of his pass attempts, a mark which would have been fifth worst among qualified quarterbacks last season. The reality is Trubisky is not likely to show much improvement, and there is a very good chance Rudolph or rookie Pickett see starts this year. In any case, the quarterback who draws a start on any given week will have some decent talent to work with at the skill positions.
Diontae Johnson is coming off his second consecutive 1,000-yard season and Chase Claypool is an immensely talented wide receiver that has yet to break out. The front office added George Pickens in the second round of the draft, giving Pittsburgh three young and talented pass catchers. Najee Harris rushed for 1,200 yards last season despite running behind an extremely weak offensive line, and therein lies the largest problem for this team. The Steelers brought in James Daniels and Mason Cole to help shore up this group, which allowed 81.5% of the pressures Ben Roethlisberger faced, but Cole posted a 44.1 PFF passing grade in 2021 and has never been an elite pass blocker. Both are great run blockers, though, and that could help Harris put up more efficient rushing numbers. If Pittsburgh is going to reach its maximum potential, the line needs to show real improvement.
Pittsburgh was one of the worst run defenses in the NFL last season — 26th in PFF’s rush defense grade and 27th in rush defense DVOA — and there was not much done to address that weakness. Cameron Heyward is an elite run-stopping interior lineman and T.J. Watt defends the run well along the edge, but outside of those two this front seven lacks quality run stuffers. Opponents converted at a 70% rate in power situations and averaged 1.31 second-level yards per carry (30th in the league) and 1.15 open-field yards per carry (31st). Outside of drafting DeMarvin Leal in the third round, this group essentially is the same. Devin Bush is another year removed from an ACL injury, so there could be some improvement, but bettors should expect another subpar run defense.
The defensive backfield is somewhat overrated as well. Of the four players who were on the field for more than 1,000 defensive snaps last season, none received a PFF coverage grade better than the 67.7 posted by Terrell Edmunds. That includes Minkah Fitzpatrick, who is coming off his worst season as a pro by PFF standards. Levi Wallace joined the team in the offseason, but he is hardly a game-changing presence in the secondary. An elite pass rush led by Watt and Heyward will mask a lot of weaknesses, but should either miss time, the warts of this defense will be magnified.
Tomlin is one of the best coaches in the NFL and his record of seasons without a losing record is a testament to that, but he is only human and this team is the worst he’s had. The quarterback situation is untenable, and he will likely start three different players at the position throughout the season. This defense also has some glaring weaknesses that are being masked by the performance of two elite defenders in Watt and Heyward. Pittsburgh also has the fourth-hardest schedule in the league when measured using projected win totals. When you add up all of those factors, the -120 price on Under 7.5 seems like a price worth laying.
Pick: Under 7.5
After an offseason of noise, the Browns head into the season with clarity. Deshaun Watson will not be available for the first 11 games, and it seems Jacoby Brissett will lead the team. There is certainly a chance Jimmy Garoppolo is acquired at some point in the coming weeks, but regardless of who is under center this roster is playoff ready.
Quarterback questions aside, the defense begins and ends with its power running game. Cleveland led the league in yards per carry (5.1), adjusted line yards per carry (4.85) and second-level yards per carry (1.60) last season, and that unit returns largely intact. Nick Chubb finished the regular season with 1,258 rushing yards while ranking second in yards after contact per carry (4.24) and forcing 57 missed tackles, making him a fantastic blend of power and finesse. This ground game being the best in the NFL is why Cleveland still has hopes of being a very competitive team despite the potential weak link at quarterback. Brissett can play within structure and manage an offense built on its ground game. In 259 dropbacks last season, he posted a PFF passing grade of 74.0 and completed 62.7% of his passes. He needs to cut down on the turnover-worthy plays — he committed one on 3.6% of his dropbacks last season — and 10.6% of the pressures allowed were allowed by him. That’s a sign that Brissett holds on to the ball too long, which can kill an offense just as much as poor offensive line play.
Having said that, poor offensive line play is not something Brissett will have to deal with. Cleveland’s offensive line allowed the second-fewest total pressures last season despite dealing with injuries to key role players. Wyatt Teller and Joel Bitonio are great pass blockers and Jedrick Wills Jr. showed some potential as an above-average pass blocker. That above average pass protection should allow Brissett and this passing attack to perform at an above-average rate, but there are some clear inefficiencies in the passing game. Amari Cooper joins the wide receiver group this season, but the leading returner at this position is Donovan Peoples-Jones and a lot is expected of unproven commodities such as Demetric Felton and Jakeem Grant.
Perhaps the most underrated aspect of this roster is its defense, which finished 11th in defensive DVOA last season. They have a star at two of the most important positions in defensive end Myles Garrett and corner Denzel Ward, and emerging star Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah was fantastic as a rookie linebacker last season. With those three pieces this team should once again be an elite pass defense. They finished seventh in pass defense DVOA and posted the highest coverage grade by PFF standards (90.6). Garrett was PFF’s highest-graded pass rusher last season. He not only totaled 78 pressures, but his presence allowed Jadeveon Clowney to rack up a career high in sacks. Ward is an elite cover corner who has not allowed more than 490 yards in a season, and his presence regularly snuffs out an opponent’s leading pass catcher. In today’s NFL, having an elite pass defense is a fantastic strength, and this masks a problem up front for the Browns when it comes to stopping the run.
Cleveland finished 23rd in rush defense DVOA in 2021 and the team made no real additions to shore up that part of the game. Opponents converted 72% of their power situations against this front seven while averaging 0.72 open-field yards per carry. The Browns did not generate many tackles for loss in the run game either, stuffing only 13% of opponent runs behind the line of scrimmage. That figures to be a problem once more. Owusu-Koramoah graded out well as run stopper, but not a single linebacker on this roster graded higher than 58.5 by PFF standards against the run. Interior defensive line is arguably the Browns’ weakest position, and the only real addition was fourth-round pick Perrion Winfrey out of Oklahoma.
It’s hard to realistically invest in Cleveland’s success from a futures standpoint given the weakness at quarterback, lack of depth at wide receiver and below-average run defense. The Browns play in a tough division as well, but they do have the eighth-easiest schedule in the league, which means not all is lost. Other than Week 1 against Carolina, I believe Cleveland is going to be a solid team to back early. The early part of the schedule features five teams that ranked 20th or worse in rush defense DVOA.
Pick: Over 8.5