2017 NFL Season Preview: AFC North

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The Open Man previews the 2017 NFL Season with breakdowns of all 32 NFL teams. Today’s preview features the AFC North, one of the NFL’s most competitive divisions of the past decade. 

Pittsburgh Steelers

The Pittsburgh Steelers quietly have retaken their throne atop the AFC North in recent years, after a brief cold spell with back to back 8-8 seasons. The Steelers rebounded to unseat Baltimore, and now boast two of the last three AFC North titles, as well as an appearance in the AFC Championship Game in 2016.

There is no question the Steelers are back to prominence, and the next question for them is if they can build on their success to overcome the New England Patriots’ dominance over the AFC as a whole.

Pittsburgh features a scary-good offense that can credibly be argued will stack up with New England, should the two meet in the Playoffs come January.

The NFL disciplinary board has been the Pittsburgh offense’s gravest threat. This year, however, Martavis Bryant returns from his season-long suspension, and the Steelers will get a full season from running back Le’Veon Bell.

Beyond that, Justin Hunter was added in free agency and the speedy JuJu Smith-Schuster was selected in the second round out of USC to take the already explosive attack to a higher level of depth.

On defense, linebacker Ryan Shazier continues to develop into one of the best players in the league at his position. The question mark for the Steelers is if the defense can match the talent of the deep offense and Shazier’s development could be the key to that in 2017.

With an increase in depth on offense and the return of Martavis Bryant, expect the Steelers to win their second straight division crown. If Ben Roethlisberger can stay healthy, the Steelers could even be Super Bowl-bound in a season where expectations are deservedly high in Pittsburgh.

Cincinnati Bengals

2016 was a return to failure for the Cincinnati Bengals after a long period of regular-season success and subsequent postseason disappointment for head coach Marvin Lewis.

It is a trope at this point to bring up the stat, but bears repeating: The Cincinnati Bengals have managed to not win a single playoff game in Marvin Lewis’ 14 seasons in charge. That includes throughout their streak of five seasons making the playoffs from 2011-15.

If there is one thing that does give the Bengals hope after a year of missing the playoffs and five straight AFC Wild Card losses it is their success in the division under Lewis. He has four AFC North titles to his name.

Still, he’ll need to contend in the division this year if he wants to keep his job. An expiring contract puts Lewis firmly on the hot seat and anything short of a playoff run could call for the end of a long reign as head coach of the Bengals.

In the draft, the Bengals took a controversial risk to bring in Joe Mixon to revitalize their offense. On a team already filled with players who are viewed as character risks, the Bengals added a toxic player in the hopes that Mixon can deliver on the field right away in the backfield.

The Bengals also drafted John Ross from Washington in the first round to boost an offense that regressed after former offensive coordinator Hue Jackson took a head coach job with the rival Cleveland Browns.

Ross beat Chris Johnson’s infamous 40 yard dash record with to become an instant household name at the combine. With a 4.22 second 40 yard dash, Ross has beyond NFL speed and is set to make plays alongside A.J. Green and Tyler Eifert in his rookie season.

On defense, the Bengals will miss veteran linebacker Vontaze Burfict for the first five games of the season for a late hit on fullback Anthony Sherman. Burfict continues to burn the Bengals with his dirty play after costing the Bengals a playoff win against Pittsburgh and will need to clean up his act when he does return this season.

With the picks of Ross and Mixon, the Bengals have the talent if they can stay healthy to make the playoffs this season. They will have to deal with the absence of Burfict, but the Bengals are the closest team in the division to being able to compete with the Steelers and should rebound from a letdown 2016 season.

Baltimore Ravens

Life has been difficult for the Baltimore Ravens since their Super Bowl triumph in 2012. That Super Bowl moment was the culmination of five consecutive playoff appearances for the Ravens.

Since winning the Super Bowl over the San Francisco 49ers, the Ravens have had just one winning season. Even worse, the Ravens have finished third in the division four times over that five year period.

Gone are Ray Lewis and Ed Reed and this new Ravens era has brought little success. Which has to be a concern for the Ravens front office that built a reputation for the franchise based on sustained playoff success ever since they moved from Cleveland to Baltimore.

The Ravens invested this offseason on injecting talent to end the regression. Safety Tony Jefferson was signed for $36 million and cornerback Brandon Carr was added for $23.5 million to completely overhaul the secondary.

Unfortunately for the Ravens, their offense might still not be good enough to make those defensive additions matter. The Ravens situation at wideout is nowhere near the standard of where it was when they won the Super Bowl off the backs of Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin.

The Ravens’ free agency additions of Danny Woodhead and Jeremy Maclin are the types of bland veteran signings that have created their problems in the first place.

At the present moment, the Ravens are not good enough and can’t seem to make the roster moves to get back to where they once were.

Signing veteran players in free agency on the decline and missing in the draft has brought a decline in Baltimore. That decline should continue this season and put head coach John Harbaugh on the hot seat.

Cleveland Browns

The Cleveland Browns began their rebuild under the offensive mind of new head coach Hue Jackson in 2016. Tanking from Week 1, the Browns finished 1-15 in a perfect tank season to earn the 1-15 season required to earn the first overall pick without the embarrassment of a winless season in the record books.

Cleveland’s rebuild paid instant dividends at the 2016 NFL Draft where the Browns cashed in on three first round picks to bring in considerable young talent to build around.

Myles Garrett was drafted first overall out of Texas A&M and projects to be a franchise pass rusher. Jabrill Peppers was drafted 25th overall from Michigan and could become a solid safety if developed correctly.

The Browns then spent the 29th pick on David Njoku, an athletic tight end out of Miami and their second round pick on quarterback DeShone Kizer from Notre Dame. Hue Jackson has named Kizer his starting quarterback and his success could be crucial to the Browns rebuild.

If Kizer can prove he is the guy, the Browns front office could turn their focus to spending their future top picks on pieces to continue their strategic rebuild rather than chasing a quarterback. Kizer didn’t have the career he wanted at Notre Dame, but will be a Week 1 starter in the NFL and is set up with an ideal opportunity to become a successful quarterback.

The Browns might still struggle to win on the field with a young roster that is still filled with players who went 1-15 just last season. The good news is that with Garrett, Peppers, Njoku and a rookie starting quarterback in Kizer, there will be a reason to watch the Browns and hope for a proper rebuild to construct a winner the right way.