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2017 NFL Team Preview: AFC North

Cleveland Browns

NFL: Detroit Lions at Cleveland Browns
Credit: Ron Schwane/USA TODAY Sports

Key Acquisitions: Kenny Britt, Kevin Zeitler, J.C. Tretter, Brock Osweiler

Rookies: Miles Garrett, Jabrill Peppers, DeShone Kizer, David Njoku

Key Losses: Terrelle Pryor

Record: 4-12

Cleveland’s offensive line just became one of the best in the entire league again. The Browns gave up 66 sacks in 2016, which led to RGIII, Josh McCown, and Cody Kessler all miss time due to injury. These quarterbacks aren’t the most sturdy players in the league, but a bad o-line is definitely not a help.

The Cleveland Browns have a lot of unknowns heading into the preseason. Entering training camp, Hue Jackson stated that Cody Kessler is the starter. Now for the start of the preseason, that might be true, but rookie DeShone Kizer can make a run at the job, as can former Houston Texans quarterback Brock Osweiler. It is still yet to be seen if the “franchise” quarterback is on this Browns roster, but this QB battle will definitely be interesting to watch this preseason.

First overall pick Myles Garrett is running with the first team defense and is going to be the starting defensive end. Garrett had two official sacks in Cleveland’s Orange and Brown scrimmage, but reports said that Garrett actually had four total. If Garrett can come in and be an immediate threat off the edge, that would be a huge boost to a struggling Browns pass rush that only had 26 sacks last season. Cleveland’s defense was near the bottom of the league in 2016, but with safety Jabrill Peppers and defensive end Myles Garrett contributing, I expect the Browns defense to improve slightly from last season.

I talked up the offensive line but still have the Browns finishing last in the division. I expect Cleveland’s offense to be more effective as they establish a starting quarterback, and with the great offensive line, running backs Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson could each have great seasons. The Browns defense will improve slightly, but ranking up from 28th to 23rd isn’t much of a step up. So congratulations to the Cleveland Browns organization for not finishing last in the NFL, or did I speak too soon?

Cincinnati Bengals

Andy Dalton
Credit: Aaron Doster/USA TODAY Sports

Key Acquisitions: Kevin Minter, Andre Smith

Rookies: John Ross, Joe Mixon, Jordan Willis, Carl Lawson

Key Losses: Karlos Dansby, Margus Hunt, Domata Peko, Andrew Whitworth, Kevin Zeitler

Record: 5-11

Wow, this team just got a whole lot worse. Can a playoff-caliber team turn into to a 5-11 squad in a matter of an offseason?  Well, apparently the answer is yes, the Bengals are looking like they are on the path to a disappointing season. In 2016, the Bengals finished the season with a 6-9-1 record. Their offensive line was horrendous, top receiver A.J. Green tore his hamstring in week 11, and went on to miss the rest of the season. Red zone threat Tyler Eifert missed the first six weeks of the season due to an ankle injury that he sustained in the 2015 Pro Bowl, and he still hasn’t been able to find the field consistently. Running back Giovani Bernard also tore his ACL in week 10, and is still a question mark for the start of this season.

Jumping into the 2017 season, the Bengals offensive line will be one of the worst in the NFL. Pro Football Focus ranked the Cincy o-line 31st out of 32 teams. With the loss of left tackle Andrew Whitworth and right guard Kevin Zeitler, this line has the potential of being one of the worst in the league. Running back Jeremy Hill broke out in 2014, but has not been more than a goal line specialist since. This lack of a running attack led to the selection of 2nd round pick Joe Mixon. Mixon was a risky pick entering the 2017 draft. The former Sooners running back was big a question mark due to his sketchy past in which he punched a woman on his 18th birthday. You can hate him as a person, and I completely understand, but you cannot deny his talent as a football player. Some draft experts had Mixon rated higher than Leonard Fournette heading into the draft process. Mixon has a good chance to come in and bring a boost to the running game, a factor that the Bengals offense has been missing.

The Bengals lost long time defensive tackle Domata Peko and linebacker Karlos Dansby. This shouldn’t hurt the defense too much as the Bengals finished top-10 in points allowed and passing yards. Adam Jones is suspended the first game of the season, but after week one, the Cincy defense should be firing on all cylinders (even if those cylinders are dirty).

Baltimore Ravens

Best Players to Wear 5 in NFL History joe flacco
Credit: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Key Acquisitions: Danny Woodhead, Tony Jefferson, Brandon Carr, Jeremy Maclin

Rookies: Marlon Humphrey, Tyus Bowser, Chris Wormley, Tim Williams

Key Losses: Steve Smith Sr., Kamar Aiken, Vladimir Ducasse, Lawrence Guy, Kyle Juszczyk, Ricky Wagner, Timmy Jernigan

Record: 8-8

Training Camp has been full of bad news for the Baltimore Ravens. Joe Flacco is out with a back injury that really has no clear timetable for a return. I hear 4-6 weeks, but then coaches say he is close to returning. I believe in the notion that we shouldn’t pay attention to stuff like that. Coaches lie, and lie, and do a little more lying. Sophomore running back Kenneth Dixon was expected to have only a partially torn meniscus, which would have only kept him out for 6-8 weeks. Once again, more of the media reported the story not knowing the facts. This led to false information, and he is actually done for the entire season. Tight end Crockett Gillmore tore his MCL and will require surgery while fellow tight end Darren Waller was suspend the entire season for violating the League’s substance abuse policy. Rookie guard Nico Siragusa hit the trifecta, tearing his MCL, PCL, and ACL.

Lets jump to the regular season. I believe the Ravens are going to be lacking on the offensive line. Right guard Marshal Yanda is still great heading into his age 32 season, but the line as a whole is shaky. And they will be blocking for the injured Joe Flacco, who had a down 2016 only throwing for 20 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. Flacco isn’t playing up to his 3-year, $66 million extension standards, and in order for the Ravens to make a playoff push he will need to step it up in 2017.

The running backs will be undermanned without Kenneth Dixon due to his meniscus tear. It looks as though Terrance West and receiving back Danny Woodhead will take the main load for the Baltimore backfield. Expect Lorenzo Taliaferro and Buck Allen to contribute as they have been producers in the past dating back to the 2015 season.

The Baltimore defense was stingy in 2016, ranking top-10 in both receiving and rushing yardage allowed, total yards, and total points. Brandon Carr is looking to man one of the starting corner spots. Tony Jefferson signed a 4 year 34 million dollar contract and was one of the biggest defensive names in this off season’s free agency market. With not losing many pieces to the defense and with the additions in the secondary, I expect this defense to stay near the top.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Le'Veon Bell
Credit: Peter Diana/Post-Gazette

Key Acquisitions: Coty Sensabaugh, Tyson Alualu

Rookies: T.J. Watt, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Cameron Sutton, James Connor, Joshua Dobbs

Key Losses: DeAngelo Williams, Lawrence Timmons, Jarvis Jones, Markus Wheaton

Record: 11-5

The Pittsburgh Steelers come into the 2017 season with very few distractions. Le’Veon Bell is fully healthy and isn’t missing any games due to suspension, but Bell has yet to report to training camp due to contract negotiations. The 25-year-old believes he should be paid as a number one running back and as a number two receiver. Reports say he doesn’t plan on holding out any regular season games, which can actually bode well for his health. While Bell is out, expect rookie running back and cancer survivor James Connor to get a plenty of action this preseason. Wide Receiver Martavis Bryant has only been “conditionally” reinstated by the NFL, which means he can take part in off-field team activities, but cannot participate in practice or preseason games. I expect Bryant to be fully reinstated soon, as long as he hasn’t shown any lack of character recently.

There is one last report I feel the need to talk about. Ben Roethlisberger is not going to retire! The Steelers key pieces in Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell are both still in their primes and the team is a contender every year. If the Steelers season goes bad and they miss playoffs in 2017, then you can make an argument for Big Ben retiring next season, but I wouldn’t be too worried.

The Steelers defense did not add very much this offseason. The Pittsburgh D ranked in the middle of the pack last year in yards allowed and total points. T.J. Watt, brother of NFL superstar J.J. Watt, is looking at a situation where he could be earning some playing time. James Harrison is still a complete freak at age 39, but he only played 56% of snaps in 2016. This will give T.J. Watt some valuable playing time as Harrison’s time in the NFL past 2017 is unknown.

This season is looking like it could be the year Pittsburgh makes a run for the Lombardi Trophy. With Ben Roethlisberger having one of the best offenses not only in the NFL but maybe of his entire career, this could be the year we crown a new AFC champion.

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