1) Baltimore Ravens
(12-4, 2nd in ’10)
Key Gets – Vonta Leach (FB, Texans), Bryant McKinnie (OL, Vikings), Lee Evans (WR, Bills), Ricky Williams (RB, Dolphins), Bernard Pollard (S, Texans), Jimmy Smith (CB, Colorado), Torrey Smith (WR, Maryland), Jah Reid (T, UCF), Tandon Doss (WR, Indiana), Tyrod Taylor (QB, Virginia Tech)
Key Gones – Josh Wilson (CB, Redskins), Derrick Mason (WR, Jets), Todd Heap (TE, Cardinals), Willis McGahee (RB, Broncos), Le’Ron McClain (RB, Chiefs), Kelly Gregg (DL, Chiefs), Jared Gaither (OL, Chiefs)
Key Games – wk1 v. Steelers, wk4 v. Jets, wk6 v. Texans, wk9 @ Steelers, wk14 v. Colts, wk15 @ Chargers
Last year Baltimore’s season finished with a playoff loss to Pittsburgh that should have been a win. Since that loss I like what they’ve done, starting with the addition of Vonta Leach. He’s going to be huge for Ray Rice and the running game; big time pick up. I think Rice secures his spot among the game’s elite backs this season. He’ll score at least 10 TDs and total more than 2,000 all purpose yards. Bank on it. The offensive line has potential to do some real damage this year. They’re solid at guard with Ben Grubbs and Marshal Yanda, and Michael Oher might just be better off now at RT. If Bryant McKinnie remembers how much he likes getting paychecks, this group will dominate. Evans’ better days are behind him, but the Ravens are hoping he’ll spread the field better than Mason and allow Anquan Boldin more room to make plays (or at least keep the spot warm while Torrey Smith learns the offense). Championship teams are built on solid defenses and sound QB play. Joe Flacco has shown steady improvement in each of his three seasons as a pro, and I see no reason why he doesn’t take his game to the next level in ’11. That defense still fields some bad dudes, and Ray Lewis is still the baddest of them all. Haloti Ngata is an elite talent who you absolutely must spend extra time game planning for, and I’m expecting for Terrence Cody to have a really big second year lining up next to him. Terrell Suggs, always tough, put up his first double digit sack season since ’04 in ’10, and I’ve mentioned Jarrett Johnson before as a solid, underrated player. Still love him; still underrated. Losing Wilson will be a big blow to the secondary, especially if Ed Reed starts playing to his age. He’ll turn 33 when the Ravens take on the Steelers in week 1 but is apparently healthier than he’s been the last couple of seasons. Tom Zbikowski will put down the boxing gloves and attempt to take ownership of the SS job. As an added bonus, the Ravens might get something out of Sergio Kindle this year.
Ray Lewis said he’d retire if they won it all, and I think there’s a good chance he’s looking for a new career next year.
Team MVP – Ray Rice
Breakout Player – Terrence Cody
Disappointment – Lee Evans
2) Pittsburgh Steelers
(12-4, 1st in ’10)
Key Gets – Jerricho Cotchery (WR, Jets), Cameron Heyward (DL, Ohio State), Marcus Gilbert (OL, Florida), Curtis Brown (CB, Texas), Chris Carter (LB, Fresno State)
Key Gones – Max Starks (OT, overweight, out of shape free agent), Antwaan Randle El (WR, free agent)
Key Games – wk1 @ Ravens, wk3 @ Colts, wk4 @ Texans, wk8 v. Patriots, wk9 v. Ravens, wk12 @ Chiefs
The Steelers may have the most question marks of all the serious contenders. On offense – How much does Hines Ward have left? How many times will Ben Roethlisberger get sacked behind an offensive line consisting of below average blockers in Jonathan Scott and Ramon Foster, the heavily penalized Chris Kemoeatu, and post Achilles Willie Colon? Like the Ravens, this team is still known by its defense, but there’s special talent in the offensive backfield. I’ve been a Rashard Mendenhall since his Illinois days and think he builds upon an impressive third season, solidifying his place as one of the games best all-round backs. If I’m the Steelers, I’m a little worried about the severe drop in talent behind him if he were to show any wear from his 614 touches over the last two seasons. Emmanuel Sanders came on late last year and is getting a lot of preseason hype, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Antonio Brown made just as big an impact this season. Brown isn’t as explosive, but I think he’s a consistent target that balances well with Wallace and has shown some chemistry with Roethlisberger. Speaking of Wallace, that guy is going to finish as a top 7 receiver this year; big time numbers. Which will fail James Harrison first – his back or his mouth? He’s 33, and James Farrior is ancient. Fortunately for the Steelers, the two other linebackers are elite players. Both LaMarr Woodley and Lawrence Timmons have responded to all challenges and look to be the foundation of the next Steeler defensive era. I love their defensive ends. Aaron Smith and Brett Kiesel have been two of the most productive and consistent players in the game, but they’re both comfortably on the slow side of 30 and have missed some time over the last couple of seasons. Behind them has been Ziggy Hood, a guy I loved coming out of Missouri, who shined big time last year and now Cameron Heyward, a large dude who’s a perfect fit in this defense. I’ve still got questions about their secondary. Is Troy Polamalu 100% over last year’s Achilles issues? If so, look out! How bad will the lack of talent at corner hurt them? With half the starting linebackers being on the wrong side of their career peaks, that secondary may feel the brunt of a possible weakened pass rush.
Can the Steelers make it a 4th division title in 5 years? I think they come up just short; one game or a tiebreaker separating the top two teams.
Team MVP – Rashard Mendenhall
Breakout Player – Antonio Brown
Disappointment – Jonathan Scott
3) Cleveland Browns
(5-11, 3rd in ’10)
Key Gets – Brandon Jackson (RB, Packers), Phil Taylor (DL, Baylor), Jabaal Sheard (DE/OLB, Pittsburgh), Greg Little (WR, UNC)
Key Gones – Lawrence Vickers (FB, Texans)
Key Games – wk2 @ Colts, wk 9 @ Texans, wk13 v. Ravens, wk14 @ Steelers, wk16 @ Ravens, wk17 v. Steelers
With a shady offensive line and a still developing Colt McCoy under center, expect a lot Peyton Hillis again this year. Talk about a breakout player. Last year, Hillis rushed for nearly 1,200 yards and added another 500 in the receiving game on 61 receptions, second best on the Browns. Can he really do it again? Brandon Jackson isn’t anything more than a third down back, and Montario Hardesty still isn’t full recovered from last year’s knee injury. Hillis won’t flop, but aside from Joe Thomas and Alex Mack, there’s not much at all to like on that OL from a run or pass blocking perspective. That’s really going to hinder Colt McCoy’s progress as he takes over the offense in his second year as a pro. I’ve seen a lot of mentions of his progress this preseason, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he secured the job long term. I still believe his physical limitations will cap his growth at some point. Mohamed Massaquoi really shouldn’t be starting, let alone be anyone’s #1 receiver. I believe Greg Little will quickly and clearly take that #1 receiver role, and I’ll be surprised if he doesn’t finish the year as their top pass catcher. On defense they’re shifting to a 4-3 front and don’t have the personnel to make a seamless transfer. Taylor and Sheard will help, but this is a front seven that was awful at getting to the passer last year. Not sure I can count Sheard being a dominant rookie. The linebacker unit is pretty weak to put it kindly. D’Qwell Jackson is a big medical question mark in the middle, and Scott Fujita and Chris Gocong are better off in the old Cleveland scheme (for what that’s worth). Joe Haden is already the most talented player on this team. He shined as a rookie, and I expect him to do more of the same this year. He and TJ Ward are clearly the top talents in the back end of a blah defense.
No one expects the Browns to do any better than third in this division. If nothing else they should get a pretty good idea whether or not McCoy is the guy to build the team around going forward. I think he still has the job this time next year.
Team MVP – Joe Haden
Breakout Player – Colt McCoy
Disappointment – Usama Young
4) Cincinnati Bengals
(4-12, 4th in ’10)
Key Gets – Bruce Gradkowski (QB, Raiders), Manny Lawson, (LB, 49ers), Nate Clements (CB, 49ers), Bo Scaife (TE, Titans), AJ Green (WR, Georgia), Andy Dalton (QB, TCU), Dontay Moch (LB, Nevada), Clint Boling (OL, Georgia)
Key Gones – Carson Palmer (QB, “retired”), Johnathan Joseph (CB, Texans), Chad Ochocinco (WR, Patriots), Terrell Owens (WR, who gives a shit?)
Key Games – wk6 v. Colts, wk10 v. Steelers, wk11 @ Ravens, wk13 @ Steelers, wk14 v. Texans, wk17 v. Ravens
Marvin Lewis has become quite the magician. He enters his 8th season as head coach of the Bengals, and all he’s done is take the franchise from laughingstock to boringly average. Add to that they’re without their QB because someone finally had the cojones to stand up to the ludicrousness that is Mike Brown. In for Carson Palmer steps Andy Dalton, a rookie QB who while I think has a solid future ahead of him, isn’t quite ready for prime time. When your other options are Bruce Gradkowski and Carson’s much less talented brother Jordan, throwing Dalton into the fire might not be a bad idea. AJ Green is going to be special, and I like that Jerome Simpson seemed to finally be putting it together at the end of last season. Throw in slot man Jordan Shipley and future All Pro TE Jermaine Gresham, and that’s a pretty talented group of pass catchers. Question is – will Dalton have time to get it to them behind a declining offensive line? LT Andrew Whitworth is underrated, and much maligned (deservingly so) RT Andre Smith is reportedly looking like a football player this preseason. Can Cedric Benson break 1,000 yards for a third consecutive season with a more crowded box? Leon Hall is a very underrated cover man, but losing Joseph on the other side is going to really hurt an already shoddy defense. The Bengals were even worse at getting to the QB than the Browns last year. If it were not for rookie Carlos Dunlap’s 9.5 sacks, Geno Atkins would have led the team with 3, yes 3, sacks. They’ll need fellow second year man Michael Johnson to step his game up in ‘11. I like Lawson in this defense, and maybe being surrounded by both he and Keith Rivers will help Rey Maualuga reach his potential. Maybe their next head coach will specialize in defense…oops.
There are young foundational pieces in place, but it’s going to take a while for them to produce substantive wins.
Team MVP – Leon Hall
Breakout Player – Michael Johnson
Disappointment – Rey Maualuga
1) Baltimore Ravens
2) Pittsburgh Steelers
3) Cleveland Browns
4) Cincinnati Bengals
Division MVP – Ray Rice
Division Breakout – Colt McCoy
Division Disappointment – Jonathan Scott