By Lucas Kochevar
We're inching closer and closer to NFL football as the preseason officially starts this week. The Hall of Fame game showed us a little bit of nothing, but Dorian Thompson-Robinson was pretty fun. The division preview series is starting to slow down too as we approach the season with two more divisions to go. The one today is the toughest division in football, in my opinion: The AFC North. The division has four playoff caliber teams superstars all over. Despite Joe Burrow's calf strain, the Bengals are a big time offensive threat and could race with any team in the league. The Ravens finally put the Lamar Jackson contract dispute in the rearview and brought in great offensive coordinator Todd Monken. The Steelers are always reliable under head coach Mike Tomlin. Even the Browns feel like a competitive team now that the nasty man at quarterback has a full offseason under his belt.
Cincinnati Bengals (12-4 Last Season)
The Bengals have now been a competitive team for two seasons with the emergence of superstar Joe Burrow. They'll look to make it three consecutive AFC North titles behind the leadership of Burrow and this offense. I'm not so sure it'll be as easy as it has been the past couple of years. Burrow is already dealing with a calf strain that'll keep him out "several weeks" according to head coach Zac Taylor. The Bengals have been fortunate with the Steelers figuring out the new era at quarterback and Lamar's injury woes with the Ravens, but that could change this season. The Bengals lost a couple of guys in the offseason that could tough to replace. I've praised safety Jessie Bates III multiple times on this site and I think his reliability in the back end will be missed. Hayden Hurst was also a very dependable target at tight end for this Cincy offense.
The departures shouldn't be all the talk with this team still. They made a big splash in free agency by signing the top tackle on the market in Orlando Brown Jr. and he should provide some big support to an offensive line that's struggled. The Bengals offensive skill positions will be the same as they have been for the past couple of seasons with star receiver Ja'Marr Chase leading the way. He's one of the best young talents in the league and should have a big year. On the other side of him is another super talented receiver in big body Tee Higgins. The passing offense should be crisp once again, but the run game will be important if they want a balanced attack with Joe Mixon. The defense should also be talented again as they've managed to retain their defensive coordinator through two off-seasons. As I mentioned, losing Bates is a blow, but they've drafted the safety position the last couple of drafts and Dax Hill from Michigan will be an X-factor entering his first year as a starter.
I'm expecting big things from the Bengals. Similar to the Bills, they're one of the premier teams that could get over the hump once they beat the Chiefs. It all depends on the supporting cast to help Burrow. There are certain players on the team that you know what you're gonna get, but it's up to the guys in between the margins to get them to the next level. Linebacker Logan Wilson, who just got a contract extension, and tight end Irv Smith Jr., who they acquired in the offseason, come to mind as two of those guys. Their good players have to pull their weight. I like the Bengals to make the playoffs at the very least. I'm still unsure they'll win the division, but they should be the favorites.
Baltimore Ravens (10-7 Last Season)
The Baltimore Ravens entered the offseason with a lot of questions surrounding Lamar Jackson and they answered them all by extending Jackson. There was some doubt whether or not he would return, however, he signed the extension and the Ravens are going full steam ahead as a team that wants to compete. The Ravens feel like an energized club now that Lamar is tied down to their future and they hired offensive coordinator Todd Monken from the national champion Bulldogs. With John Harbaugh at the helm, the Ravens could be a dark horse Super Bowl Contender.
I emphasize the arrival of Monken for this Ravens team because I've seen what he can do for an offense and I was crushed to see him leave as UGA student. Monken's pass happy attack should help Jackson make easier decisions and improve his decision-making. Monken makes the offense just easier and cohesive. The pass offensive coordinator played to Lamar's running and I think that put a cap on them. Monken comes in and I expect big things from Mark Andrews. Brock Bowers turned into a Super Bowl with this offense and if Andrews can look like him, it'll be a great connection between Jackson and Andrews. On top of that, they brough in Odell Beckham Jr. and rookie Zay Flowers. This receiving group is the best Jackson has had since becoming the quarterback. That bar is low, but this group does easily clears it. The defense should be decent too as they re-signed Roquan Smith. It always feels like they have some mean dudes along the defensive line and this group is no different. Kyle Hamilton is the guy I'm excited to see as he had a solid rookie year and remains a fantastic athlete.
It's true Jackson has had limited success in the playoffs, but this feels like a team that can change that. Overall, it's a solid team and the coaching is top notch. The Ravens are one of those teams that just look like trash some weeks, but you look up and they have double digit wins. I think they've upgraded from last season and they still managed to win ten games. I expect a big year from Jackson and I think their offense will be humming by the time December rolls around. I also really like Flowers to have a strong rookie season. I think the Ravens will finish near the playoff race, but a tough AFC might keep them out.
Pittsburgh Steelers (9-8 Last Season)
The Pittsburgh Steelers have been over .500 every season under Mike Tomlin and they barely squeaked over the mark last year. This season, I'm expecting more from them. They go into the season fully committed to Kenny Pickett and the rest of this young offense. Last season with Mitchell Trubisky, they never seemed serious, but when Pickett was in a rhythm they were a serious threat. With Pickett's continued growth and the Steelers typical elite defense, the Steelers should look to make a jump. They didn't make a ton of moves in free agency so they are relying heavily on the development of this young group.
The group is, obviously, led by Pickett and I'm very curious to see if he does make a jump this season. The rest of this division has guys that have done it at the highest level and Pickett is the worst of them. Still, he can have a very solid year and keep up the steady improvement that most young quarterbacks have in that sophomore season. He has talented players around him in Najee Harris, George Pickens and Diontae Johnson. Those three will be important, but the biggest X-factor has to be the offensive line. Their O-line has been dreadful the past couple seasons so they need that unit to be better for Pickett's sake. I haven't mentioned the potential best defensive player in football in T.J. Watt. The star pass rusher was hurt last season so him being healthy would be a big boost to this defense. The Steelers are also very young on the defensive side of the ball with rookies Joey Porter Jr. and Keanu Benton. I really like both of these guys, but they'll need time to grow into their own. I still have hope that this defense will be among the leagues best. Minkah Fitzpatrick is also another guy I forgot to mention but his playmaking will be huge for this defense.
The Steelers are going to be a good team. I would bet on that. The Steelers will need their guys to make big strides if they want to compete in the AFC. As I mentioned earlier, the AFC will be a slaughterhouse and the Steelers won't have time to wait on young players development. There should be some patience with these young guys. It's an important year for development and they should be focused on the long term, not the short term. The Steelers could be pretty good in the very near future, but pump the brakes for now, Steeler nation.
Cleveland Browns (7-10 Last Season)
The Cleveland Browns have a win-now mentality and the way that they've approached this offseason backs that up. They still have a good base roster and they added a couple pieces that could be very productive players. They rescued Elijah Moore from the Jets and signed Za'Darius Smith from the Vikings. Two minor players to the general public, but they could be big time contributors. On top of that, they have Deshaun Watson for the entire season. No matter how you feel about Watson, he's a very talented player. The issue he ran into last season was just the lack of play. He had to knock off the rust after not playing for well over a year. Now, he looks to return to normalcy and if he can reach the level he was at before, the Browns will be dangerous.
The Browns offense will clearly depend on how Watson performs and he doesn't have any excuses. They have one of the better offensive lines in the league with strong veterans. They have the best pure running back in the league in Nick Chubb and some very formidable receivers in Amari Cooper, Elijah Moore and Donovan Peoples-Jones. Those three aren't household names, but they're pretty talented guys. They also have some peak guys on the defense. Myles Garrett is one of the best defensive players in the league and Denzel Ward is one of the better corners in the league. Ward just got rewarded with a big contract so he'll look to live up the that hype. They are similar to the Steelers and Bengals defense in the fact that they have some young, talented players that are going to be starters for the first time. Grant Delpit is the name that sticks out to me as someone to watch out for.
The Browns have the talent to be a really solid team. I once again have to iterate that the AFC is super tough this season. The biggest factor for the Browns could be their coaching staff. Head coach Kevin Stefanski came out of the gates hot with the Browns faithful by making the playoffs and beating Pittsburgh, however, these past couple of seasons has thrown his position into question. I like him and think he schemes up a great offense behind some good play-action. The Browns have a solid overall team and I can see them fighting for a playoff spot, but this division will be a war.