Sunday, September 1, 2013

2013 NFL Predictions - AFC North

1) Cincinnati Bengals

Here’s my “stepping up to the big boy table” team of ’13.  They’ve won 19 games and made the playoffs in the last two seasons and have young building blocks on both sides of the ball. 

The first of their top talents is AJ Green, a third year receiver who is already among the best in the game.  And he’s doing it in a limited offense.  Andy Dalton has a limited arm, and Cinci’s complimentary receivers are, yes, limited.  I think what we’ve seen from Dalton is what we’re going to get.  He’ll keep the Bengals in games, but he won’t regularly be the reason they win them.  The NFL becomes more of a QB league every year, but you can still win with a Dilfer if you excel in other areas.  Fortunately for the Bengals, they do.  They made two great additions in the draft picking up Tyler Eifert and Giovani Bernard.  Eifert is a more dynamic pass catcher than Jermaine Gresham but will team with the former Sooner to maximize Dalton’s intermediate strength.  Bernard is more versatile and talented than BenJarvus Green-Ellis and should take over as primary ball carrier sooner rather than later.  I like the 1-2 combo and the passing game they’ve developed.  I was impressed by their second half run, winning 7 of 8 by an average of 14 points, and I believe it will only get better with the new additions.    

Cincinnati has possibly the most underrated defense in the game.  Geno Atkins may not be a household name just yet, but he’s the best professional at his position.  Although his sack numbers are what get him attention, he’s the total package and the #1 reason the Bengals are so successful on this side of the ball.  They retained their best pass rusher, Michael Johnson, and have depth at the position with the addition of Margus Hunt.  Undrafted free agent Vontaze Burfict turned out to be quite the steal last year, and they’ve added former Steeler, James Harrison, to the linebacking crew.  He’ll have to adjust to a new defense, but he looks like a guy with some game in him still.  Rey Maualuga remains the weak link to the front seven.  Cinci’s secondary was banged up for a good bit of last year but when healthy is a deep unit.  Leon Hall is still their #1, but unfortunately last year’s highly drafted rookie, Dre Kirkpatrick, has yet to push veterans Terence Newman and Adam Jones.  Safety could be their weak spot this season.  I’m not a big Reggie Nelson fan, and George Iloka won an uninspiring camp battle for the other starting spot.

If the Bengals were a stock, I’d be buying.  Denver and New England get most of the attention when it comes to AFC contenders, but I believe Cincinnati is going to have a say before all is said and done. 

MVP – Geno Atkins
Breakout – Giovani Bernard
Disappointment – Rey Maualuga

2) Baltimore Ravens

Baltimore wasn’t the best team in the league last year, but they were the best when it mattered most.  They’ll have an even tougher Lombardi hill to climb this season.  Ray Lewis retired, and Anquan Boldin was traded to the Super Bowl runners up.  The exodus didn’t end there.  Also gone are Ed Reed, Dannell Ellerbe, Paul Kruger, Bernard Pollard, and Cary Williams. 

You’d like go through more than a handful of names before you got to Joe Flacco when discussing the game’s best passers, but the Ravens QB, deservedly so, won over a lot of new fans with his play down the stretch last season.  There may not be a better, more consistent deep ball passer in the league.  Torrey Smith enters his third year and will be counted on to step up big time in Boldin’s absence, especially when you look at the rest of the depth chart.  Jacoby Jones has proven to be a poor #2, and the undrafted Marlon Brown may see a lot of action by default.  Not helping things in the passing game is the loss of Dennis Pitta to a hip injury for the season before it even started.  Due to the deficiencies at receiver, Ray Rice will assume an even bigger role this year.  I expect him to have a year that matches or exceeds his career season in ’11.  Bernard Pierce proved himself to be a starting caliber runner in his own right last year and figures to see plenty of touches.  That could mean more of Rice in the passing game, which would be the best way for the Ravens to mitigate the Boldin and Pitta losses given their available resources. 

The Ravens did a nice job responding to their losses on this side of the ball.  Kruger cashed in on his big year and will be replaced by Elvis Dumervil, the former Bronco who left the mile high city after a contract snafu.  Having a completely healthy Terrell Suggs is an obvious plus and gives the Ravens a fine 1-2 pass rushing combo.  Haloti Ngata remains an elite defensive lineman, but Terrence Cody is still underwhelming.  Watch for Brandon Williams, a small school guy I was high on in the draft, to make an impact.  That’s a net gain up front.  The loss at linebacker of both Ellerbe and Lewis will be tough to recover from right away, I really liked their selection of Arthur Brown in the draft.  He should be an instant contributor and one of the better rookie defenders in the entire league.  Courtney Upshaw looked like a bust last year and reportedly hasn’t made significant strides yet in camp this year.  Losing Reed hurts the Ravens more than it helps the Texans in my opinion, and the loss of Cary Williams is more than made up for by the healthy return of Lardarius Webb.  I’m big on their other corners, Jimmy Smith and Corey Graham, too. 

It was a great story, ride, or whatever you want to call it, but the Ravens aren’t likely to be among the first few teams mentioned as Super Bowl participants from the AFC.  I think they’ll be better defensively, but will the target on their back prove to be too much?

MVP – Ray Rice
Breakout – Jimmy Smith
Disappointment – Courtney Upshaw

3) Pittsburgh Steelers

These guys looked reeeeeealy old last year down the stretch in losing five of their last seven games.  Can they rebound, or will they fall further back in the division? 

Ben Roethlisberger remains one of the best innovators at his position.  He’s had to put more and more on his shoulders each season, and that looks to be the case again this time around.  Projected primary back Le’Veon Bell sustained a foot injury this preseason, so the Steelers will kick things off with the uninspiring combo of Isaac Redman, Felix Jones, and La’Rod Stephens-Howling.  I like Bell, but who knows when he’ll be ready?  Antonio Brown became Ben’s #1 target last season, and Emmanuel Sanders and rookie Markus Wheaton will be productive second and third options.  I don’t think Wallace was a huge loss, especially considering what Wheaton brings to the table.  Heath Miller’s value is understated, and he’s trying to come back from a knee injury sustained at the end of last season.  The key to this offense, once again, will be the performance of their uninspiring offensive line.  Getting last year’s draft pick, David DeCastro, back healthy is a big boost, but the flipping of tackles in training camp with Marcus Gilbert going to the right side and Mike Adams to the left doesn’t appear promising. 

Most of the familiar faces return on defense; the notable losses being veterans James Harrison and Casey Hampton.  Jason Worilds will get first shot at replacing Harrison, but first round pick Jarvis Jones should see the field quite a bit as well.  Lawrence Timmons remains their most consistent linebacker and will need to take on an even bigger role this year if the Steelers are going to contend.  Troy Polamalu is reportedly healthier now than he’s been in either of the past two seasons, but both he and his safety counterpart, Ryan Clark, are on the down side of their respective careers.  The lack of playmakers at the cornerback position should be more evident than ever this season as each of the other teams in this division pick up their passing games. 

I wasn’t big on these guys last year, and I’m a real hater this year.  They’re a tough team to bet against, but I think they’ll need too many things to go wrong with the rest of the division (namely Cincinnati and Baltimore) to make much noise. 

MVP – Ben Roethlisberger
Breakout – Le’Veon Bell
Disappointment – LaMarr Woodley

4) Cleveland Browns

The Holmgren era is over, and with it Browns fans hope is the five year stretch of four and five win seasons.  Can this team finally become relevant again? 

For years the talent on Cleveland’s offensive line went to waste as the lack of playmakers at the other offensive positions was well below par.  Things began to change last year with the addition of Trent Richardson at running back, and there should be an even bigger boost this year with Rob Chudzinksi installed as head coach and Norv Turner as his offensive coordinator.  If Josh Gordon gets his head on straight, he’ll be the featured receiver, and Jordan Cameron has a chance to be the next tight end to have his game elevated by coach Chud.  I think we’ll see good things from Brandon Weeden as this offense should emphasize his strong arm and decision making. 

The Browns focused on defense this offseason in an effort to get more consistency from a unit that has shown flashes of potential.  They’ll be huge if nothing else up front with Phil Taylor, Desmond Bryant, and Ahtyba Rubin checking in at nearly a grand combined.  They gave Jabaal Sheard more pass rush help with the additions of Kruger and first round pick Barkevious Mingo.  I’m not a Mingoholic, but he’s in a great spot since he’ll be broken in as a pass rushing specialist.  Joe Haden continues his ascent to the top of the league’s list of corners, but they’re still shuffling candidates at the other spot. 

I think this team is definitely headed in the right direction.  While an improvement upon five wins is likely, there’s too much talent in the division to expect much of a climb, if any, in the standings. 

MVP – Trent Richardson
Breakout – Jordan Cameron
Disappointment – Greg Little

Division MVP – Geno Atkins
Division Breakout – Jordan Cameron
Division Disappointment – LaMarr Woodley

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