AFC North Season Predictions

By The TFL Staff

This week the TFL Crew tackles the North, specifically the AFC North. The questions for this division could totally be on a suspenseful prime-time  television show. Can the Steelers re-sign Le’Veon Bell? Can the Ravens get past injury problems? Is this finally the Browns year to win more than 5 games? Will the Bengals ever fire Marvin Lewis? Find out now!

Offensive Player of the Year- Antonio Brown, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers

This should come as a very little surprise to anyone reading this. What should be a surprise to most is that no wide receiver has ever won the MVP award in the history of the NFL. Picking Antonio Brown to win OPOY should be a no-brainer to most considering he is the most known wide receiver in this division next to AJ Green. Brown has been nothing short of incredible in his NFL career. The only tough choice here is picking between Brown and Bell, but ultimately I’m going to have to go with the former. While both players are elite at their positions, it is Brown who has a bigger impact. In the past Bell has dealt with suspensions and injuries while Brown has kept a clean slate and been a consistent contributor week in and week out since being drafted by the Steelers in 2010. Despite Bell’s absence in those instances, Brown has put the Steelers on his back and has led them to great success. There’s not much to say about Brown that hasn’t been said. Known as much for his wacky touchdown celebrations as he is for his spectacular play, Brown is the #1 receiving threat for the Steelers, and one of the top threats in the league. Teams are often required to double cover to keep Brown contained, opening up other options for the Steelers. The impact and presence that Brown has in each game makes him the MVP of this division.

Defensive Player of the Year- Ryan Shazier, LB, Pittsburgh Steelers

For the first time in a long time I look at this division and I have a big question mark when it comes to all four of the defensive units. The Browns are the Browns, the Bengals are just waiting for a coaching change, and the Ravens and Steelers are only half as good as their great defenses in years past. So for defensive player of the year, I have to go with a safe pick, a Steelers linebacker.

Im going with 4th year product from The Ohio State Ryan Shazier. Him and Lawrence Timmons are one of the best inside linebacker pairings in the NFL. Timmons is almost a shoe in to record 100 tackles a year, but Shazier has the ability to do more. He is the perfect blend of a throwback linebacker with the amazing athleticism of the new generation players. It is only a matter of time before the former Buckeye is seen as a top-5 backer an he tops his partners production.

This is the year everyone will have an eye on Shazier. His last two years have been nothing short of consistent, and by consistent I mean the same exact tackle and sack totals. Its hard to believe you can legit repeat number year to year but it happened. 87 tackles is a good total for a full season, but Shaz only played 12 and 13 games respectively these last two seasons. More impressive is his pass coverage numbers. Three INTs and 9 pass defended are solid CB numbers, so as a linebacker Shazier is better than Nolan Carrol in coverage (But who isn’t to be honest?) After this year he is going to make a little over $8 million for one year, he will break the bank every year if he takes his inevitable leap in production this year. And I guarantee he knows that as well.

The schedule helps out Shazier tremendously. He wont face an offense that finished in the top-12 last year, and only one offensive line that finished in the top-10 in PFF’s rankings in the first eight games. That will lead him right up to the bye week. If he is healthy for the bye week, that’ll be great because Pittsburgh will face teams that’ll be fighting to make the playoffs outside of the Browns. I see a fast start for Shazier and hopefully a full 16 games season. We will see both this year and yet again there will be another generational linebacker that the Steelers have.

Predictions: 102 Total Tackles, 6 sacks, 4 forced fumbles, 4 Interceptions, 8 pass deflections.

Rookie of the Year- Jabrill Peppers, SS, Cleveland Browns

The Browns saw what the Cardinals did with Tyrann Mathieu and decided to get their own swiss-army knife.

Peppers brings a lot of positives to this defense. In a secondary that brought in Jason McCourty (CB) and Calvin Pryor (FS) to help CB Joe Haden and S Campbell Ibraheim, Peppers will have pieces around him to work with. Reports claim Peppers is bringing everything he’s got and more to camp, but to be fair he is playing against Brock Osweiler. Let’s get serious though. Peppers’ speed, tackling ability, and ruthless hitting is what makes him such a versatile player. He can transition smoothly from strong safety to slot cornerback and even to linebacker. DC Gregg Williams will have fun being able to move Peppers around in a defense that now has Myles Garrett bringing pressure too. Because of his wide array of utilization, Peppers can soar past Garrett and become Rookie of the year.

Peppers only weaknesses come in his ball production. In Michigan he only recorded 11 pass deflections and one interception. His size also prevents him from playing any outside cornerback role, which could hurt if his number is called. However; because Peppers can be moved around, he’ll get plenty of snaps, which means plenty of opportunities to make a play. I expect him to make a turn around and force a good amount of turnovers in his career. He reminds me of Eagles SS Malcolm Jenkins, who like Peppers, makes lots of tackles, but tends to miss big turnovers. Unlike Jenkins, Peppers is young, and has his whole NFL career to address that issue.

Prediction: 100 Tackles, 11 Pass Deflections, 2 Interceptions (1 returned for Touchdown) 3 Forced Fumbles (1 returned for Touchdown)

Teams playing in January: 

Pittsburgh Steelers

The Steelers have been, and still are, the most consistent team in this division. Big Ben will once again take the reigns of this Steelers offense this year. They got a big scare from him this off-season after he mentioned retirement. He had a lengthy silence before informing the team he would return for another season.  The Steelers have been to more Super Bowls than almost any other team in the NFL. The standard for greatness in Pittsburgh, needless to say, is high. So is it fair to use the term “drought” when it comes to the Steelers and their ultimate postseason destination of choice? Perhaps it’s a bit harsh, but the Steelers are now six seasons removed from their last AFC Championship and eight removed from their last Super Bowl victory.  Two of the main players from that momentous night in Tampa, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and linebacker James Harrison, remain key members of a 2017 Steelers team that is determined to get back to the Lombardi. The players around them now are almost completely different, but each side of the ball boasts a group that has grown together and is hitting its prime at the right time to help their elder veterans get another shot at the game’s top prize.

An area that Pittsburgh most certainly doesn’t lack in is offense. The Steelers have arguably the best running back in football with Le’Veon Bell, the best wide receiver with Antonio Brown, plenty of supplementary playmakers and a solid offensive line, but they’ll only go as far as Roethlisberger is able to carry them. The past two years have been tough on the 35-year-old veteran, who missed stretches of 2015 and 2016 with various injuries. Though most assumed he’d be back for his 14th season, Roethlisberger waited until early April to make it official. Clearly, he’s on the back end of a Hall of Fame career, but he’s still one of the best quarterbacks in the league, completely healthy or not. The Steelers are 28–13 with Roethlisberger under center over the past three seasons — a stretch that has seen him post three of his four highest passing yards-per-game averages.

The glory days of The Steel Curtain are in the past. The Steelers of this era simply need a defense that can hold off opponents enough to let their high-powered offense go to work and build multiple-possession leads. They certainly have the makings of just that, especially if a number of their younger players build off the promising performances they posted in 2016. Pittsburgh needs to be more consistent against the run. The Steelers regressed from fifth in the NFL in 2015 to 13th last season in rushing defense largely because of some aberration games (222 rushing yards surrendered to Miami, 231 to Cleveland). Pittsburgh went 2–4 in games in which it allowed more than 100 rushing yards. Some of the ups and downs that the defense suffered through can be attributed to youth and injuries, as Pittsburgh relied heavily on rookie NT Javon Hargrave and rookie Sean Davis at SS as they took out Cameron Heyward during the second half of the season. The good news for Pittsburgh is that Heyward will be back at his spot on the end of the defensive line and players such as Hargrave, Davis and up-and-coming pass rusher Bud Dupree will be a year older and better. The depth on the back end will be supplemented by a mix of old and young with William Gay, rookie Cameron Sutton and the potential return of Senquez Golson, the former second-round pick who has missed the past two seasons with injuries. The Steelers certainly aren’t counting on much from Golson, so Sutton, a third-round selection out of Tennessee, should be expected to take on some kind of role as a rookie — just like a number of his counterparts who have grown together and improved with each passing season.

The team all-together is poised to give a loaded New England team a run for their money. The offense will only continue to get better, and with a healthy defense this team can put a dent in the AFC North. The Bengals in my opinion are the only threat to the Steelers accomplishing such. I don’t really like the sound of Joe Flacco being out for an extended period of time, as well as the fact that Baltimore doesn’t quite have an “elite” QB in Ryan Mallet. I like the steelers to win this division, and be playing in the AFC Championship game.

Prediction: 10-6

Baltimore Ravens

The Harbaugh-Flacco era has been through some rough patches recently. From an injury-marred 2015 season and non-productive 2016 season, the Ravens are in a bit of trouble right now. Since their Super Bowl victory in 2012 this team has a combined record 32-34. However John Harbaugh’s excellent coaching ability and the Raven’s offseason moves make this season look brighter than previous ones. If the Ravens can address a few issues, they can look to make a name for themselves in the playoffs.

Let’s address the offense first because of injuries. Reports say Joe Flacco could be back week 1, and the signings of camp arms like Ryan Mallet and Thad Lewis could very well mean so. However, once Flacco returns, he must be protected by his line. Two LGs (Alex Lewis and rookie Nico Siragusa) are both out for the season, leaving third stringer Jarell Broxton up to play. OT Ronnie Stanley has also missed his second straight practice, which could mean a lot of things. One thing for certain is that these injuries are causing too much rotation around the line. The Ravens must find their 5-6 guys they can plug in with players like RG Marshal Yanda and C Ryan Jensen. When the Ravens do this, they can unleash an offense full of potential.

Joe Flacco’s weapons, if healthy, are the following; A deadly pass-catching RB in Danny Woodhead with support from emerging Terrance West. Then in the receiving corps, Flacco will have the opportunity to throw it deep to Mike Wallace or newly signed Jeremy Maclin. Don’t forget about former first round pick Breshad Perriman, who will finally get a chance to emerge this year as a slot receiver. With Steve Smith Sr. gone, this is his year to compete and push his way to the top of the Ravens depth chart. As for TE, Flacco has literally way too much. He’ll have Benjamin Watson and Larry Donnell, both starting TE material. If he doesn’t like those he’ll have former second round pick Maxx Williams returning from injury to make some plays. Like I said, if Flacco can stay healthy, this offense can pave the way to playoff contention.

On defense things are looking pretty good. The front seven is a little young but has veteran guidance. 28 year old NT Brandon Williams will have to guide DEs Brent Urban (26) and Kaufusi Bronson (26) as well as DTs Willie Henry and rookie Chris Wormley (Both 23). These are all young players, but are to enter their prime soon. With proper coaching we could see this line emerge into something great. As for LBs, Terrell Suggs and C.J. Mosley are back again to dominate the middle. They too, will try to guide Kamalei Correa, the 2016 second round pick returning from injury. The Ravens also drafted Tyus Bowser in the second round to add depth (And no, I didn’t pick his name because he reminds me of a certain video game reptile). With elderly guidance, this front seven can form into something special.

In the secondary, the Ravens did some shopping over the summer. CB Brandon Carr from Dallas and FS Tony Jefferson from Arizona have both signed 4 year deals with the team. They also drafted rookie CB Marlon Humphrey to mix some youth in the secondary. These three will join veterans Jimmy Smith (CB) and Eric Weddle (SS) in an attempt to boost a secondary that Pro Football Focus now ranks at 7. The Ravens signed slot CB Brandon Boykin this offseason after missing 2016 due to injury. At 27, Boykin has a lot of potential as a dangerous slot corner. With second year corner Tavon Young out for the season, it helps Boykin in the competition to emerge as a starter maybe.

If the Ravens can figure out their offensive line issues before the start of the season, then get hype Baltimore fans! Harbaugh is a coach with level 10 intellect (just one level under Belichick) and Flacco is a solid QB under center. This NFL team may only be 21 years old, but don’t underestimate their ability to win.

Prediction: 9-7

Teams going to Jake Delhomme’s BBQ

Cincinnati Bengals

This is as weird of a year it gets for Cincinnati. Not only is Marvin Lewis back for some reason, but this team is stuck in the middle of no where. Add a pretty difficult schedule to the mix and you’ll see continuous sighs from a more than frustrated fan base.

This season will hinge on the defense, and they will most likely let down. The Bengals unit ranked 17th last year in total defense, but didn’t do anything about it. Other than few draft picks, nothing. I mean losing their leading tackler last year (Carlos Dansby) is such a Bengals move, signing Kevin Minter can maybe soften the blow, but that wouldn’t be something I would bet on. Every other position is basically the same, and what is the one thing we all know in the NFL. Repeat after me . . . You can’t have the same exact roster from a losing year and expect to turn it around. Coach Lewis I asked you to repeat after me dammit. So in other word the Bengals will never get the picture with Marvin Lewis and this front office at the helm.

One bright spot is they actually made some changed on offense, but not the changes that’ll win a division. The two biggest add this offseason were rookies. Do NOT get me wrong, John Ross and Joe Mixon will be game changer sooner rather than later, but their QB is the limited Andy Dalton. The 9th overall pick John Ross will help free up some space for the offense, more specifically AJ Green, but I haven’t seen Dalton throw a ball more than 50-yards down field on a consistent basis, so Ross’s 4.22 40 speed could be wasted right off the bat. Ross is a good intermediate and short route receiver, but his speed is what made him a high pick, not his other average skills. Their second round pick Mixon is the only rookie who will have a good amount of touches and a better chance at impacting day one. Fellow backs Jeremey Hill and Gio Bernard fell down the mountain fast and unexpectedly. Hill all of a sudden became bad, and Bernard tore his ACL last season. The back field looked good one day, then awful the other, Mixon will be the starter and the Bengals hope he won’t fall off a cliff.

The offense would look better than last year but like the Bengals always do, they ruined it. They lost two key starters on the o-line due to free agency from a line that gave up 41 sacks a year ago. It will be a rough year in Cincinnati. They have talent at skill positions, but lack of talent big time at the support positions, that will hurt the Bengals the whole year. But the way this is going it still wont be enough for Marvin Lewis to lose his job like it is every year. This excuse will probably be their difficult schedule.

Prediction: 6-10

Cleveland Browns

This is going to be fun. It has been a long time since the Browns have a more optimistic outlook at a season than an AFC North rival (look above). It will be another losing season in Cleveland but at least it will be fun this time around.

It all started in the first round, with three selections the Browns got a boat load of talent with every selection. Myles Garrett, Jabril Peppers, and David Njoku all offer franchise talents. The two defensive selections, Peppers and Garrett, will most likely be day one starters, Peppers might not be a full-blown starter but he will play a lot. Garrett was taken number one overall and no one was challenging him for that spot. He is your prototype pass rusher with size, speed, and strength. Jabril is a swiss army knife who can play any back seven position of defense and make an impact.

Cleveland needed a tight end as well, and Njoku is exactly what they needed. At Miami he wasn’t “the guy” with only nine starts. But he posted 700 receiving yard working with other players in a TE committee. The talent is there, but the polish isn’t. The good thing is the Browns need a lot of polishing elsewhere so he is right along for the ride. Thankfully most of that polishing wont be happening on offense. Yes the Browns QB situation is is scrambles like it always is, but for once there is a decent supporting cast around the position. The o-line was addressed in free agency finally, and the Browns added WR Kenny Britt who is coming off a career year. The WR position isn’t the greatest, but Corey Coleman and Britt are a better duo than any Browns duo in the past few years, yes it has been that bad. It would have been nice to keep Terrelle Pryor but Cleveland can’t do everything right. Hue Jackson and his unit are still waiting for the QB savior, maybe this time they drafted him in DeShone Kizer, who won’t start right away and along with Njoku because he needs a lot of polishing. One day Coleman Njoku and Kizer will lead the charge for the Browns, but not today.

The defense finally looks decent for the Browns. Joe Haden is still a top corner in this league, and the additions of Calvin Pryor and Jason McCourty makes this secondary NFL age all around. They add experience to this team, something Cleveland often avoids in free agency. They will cover, and their first overall selection will have the green light to go full banzai and russ the QB. Outside of all the previous mentioned, it gets a lot worse. Jamie Collins will do his thing but can only do so much with no help. This unit was ranked 31st last year in total defense, but unlike the Bengals did something about it. But it is hard to jump into the top-15 after finishing second from last.

Can we start a “Trust The Process” branch in Cleveland? Because this is what it is in the football sense. Hue Jackson and co. may have just made Cleveland respectable for once. There is a plan, it wont come to fruition this year or the next, but there finally is a plan to pull Browns fans out of their misery if that is possible.

Prediction: 4-12

Welp, that’s all for this week folks! Join us next time as we search farther in the North for something called Discount Double Check. We’ll get back to you as soon as possible on that.

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