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Guest blogger Joe Sparshatt reviews AFC North activity so far

For a few years now, there’s been a popular consensus that the NFC West is the strongest division in football. This may be true in terms of recent playoff pedigree. However, when picking my division winners at the start of the season, every year I find the AFC North is the hardest division in football to call. Looking at how the four teams are shaping up this year, I think the 2016 season will be no different.

Pittsburgh Steelers

SteelersThe Steelers are a team that in my view could quite conceivably finish Super Bowl Champions, or struggle to make .500. Now, that’s quite the ceiling for a team that could finish 8-8, but when you step back and look at their make up, it starts to make sense.

Last year, the Steelers 10-6, finished 3rd in offensive yards per game, and 3rd in pass yards per game. It’s obvious where their strengths lie.

With Le’Veon Bell, they have the most dynamic running back in the NFL – after missing the first 2 games of the 2015 season through suspension, Bell rushed for 556 yards and 3tds, adding another 136 yards receiving. His season was cruelly cut short, a season ending MCL tear after a tackle from Bengal Vontaze Burfict.

I don’t care if you want to argue with me, Antonio Brown is the best receiver in the NFL. Now this might be a 3-way argument between Brown, OBJ and Julio Jones, but for me, there is no contest. If you look at 2015 season in isolation, Brown set numerous receiving records, including most catches in a two-season span – surpassing hall of fame incumbent Marvin Harrison. He also became the first receiver in NFL history with 125 catches in consecutive seasons. What makes this season all the more impressive is that he did it without his starting QB for 4 games. Did I mention the guy can return punts? Unfortunately his season was cut short by concussion in the playoffs after a hit from Vontaze Burfict. Are we noticing a pattern here?

And finally, Big Ben Roethlisberger. Big Ben can divide opinion but the fact is he is a top 5 NFL QB, and when he plays the Steelers have a chance to beat anyone. Ben played 12 games in the regular season in 2015, throwing for 3938 yards, 21 TDs and 16 interceptions. Herein lies the problem for the Steelers offensive juggernaut. If one of these players were to miss time, things start to shake.

If the Steelers were to keep all 3 of these mercurial players fit for 16 games and beyond, I have no doubt they would be late January contenders. However, all 3 have issues staying on the field, and while the Steelers have got by with stand-in performances from the likes of DeAngelo Williams, they really need to focus on the defensive side of the ball to keep things close when their offensive steam train starts to stutter.

There’s been no heir apparent for Troy Polumalu, and while James Harrison returned to Pittsburgh and played 15 games, he’s far from his prime. They have their shortcomings, but with young players starting to shine from the rough, Pittsburgh will be looking for a return to the dominant days of the Steel Curtain. 2014 first round selection Ryan Shazier has finally started to show promise, they’ll be hoping for similar improvement from Bud Dupree who had a disappointing rookie year.

Their main offseason move has seen them sign perennial break out candidate Ladarius Green at tight end, to replace the retired Steeler cult legend Heath Miller. Green could really be a great fit in this offense, in Miller’s advancing years he became more of a security blanket than genuine threat. If Green is able to use his potential to dominate mismatches afforded to him by defenses paying attention to Brown and Bell, he could fill the void left by Martavis Bryant’s suspension. Perhaps if the Steelers can draft a talented CB in the draft at #25, they’ll be able to take some pressure from the offense as a whole. This is a team I believe could go all the way, but it’s a house of cards ready to fall.

Baltimore Ravens

ravensThe 2015 season is one to forget for the Ravens, who went from 10-6 and a divisional playoff appearance (falling to the eventual champions, the Patriots), to a 5-11 season. However, its testament to John Harbaugh and the coaching staff at Baltimore that they were able to navigate numerous injuries to their starters and still be a respectable outfit.

In Joe Flacco, they have their dependable franchise QB, however he had to make do without his number 1 WR from week 8 onwards. Steve Smith Sr was enjoying quite the final year in the NFL, but after tearing his Achilles against the Chargers, he was done. Smith has since went back on his plans to retire and will return for the 2016 season, which I for one am excited about. There’s something about Smith that makes him hard not to like, you’ll struggle to find a more competitive player out there on a Sunday.

Ravens were also without important defensive players Terrell Suggs and Chris Canty, their 1st and 2nd round draft picks Breshad Perriman and Maxx Williams, not to mention being down to their 3rd and 4th string running back at a point. Week 17 saw Joe Flacco go down too, who tore both his ACL and MCL. Flacco remarkably stayed in the game, leading the game winning drive to give the Ravens a 16-13 win.

So, where does this leave the Ravens looking forward? Getting Flacco back is obviously a priority, and he’s looking good for the new season. Steve Smith is returning, similarly Suggs will look to anchor the linebacker corps. Mike Wallace has been signed to be a Torrey Smith like deep threat for Flacco to launch balls at, and if a combination of Smith / Perriman / Wallace can gel in the offensive scheme of Marc Trestman – the Ravens could be a dangerous outfit. Another notable addition to their D includes Safety Eric Weddle, who joins from San Diego on a 4-year contract. With a 6th overall pick in the 2016 draft, they’ll look to land one of the top prospects. Now, Rams recent trade shenanigans certainly throws a spanner in to the works, but presuming QBs go 1 and 2, the Ravens will have their choice of one of the highly rated defensive players (Ramsey, Jack, Buckner and Bosa) or perhaps they’ll look at the top rated running back in the draft Ezekial Elliot. Another name that might fall, who was thought to be the best player in the draft (and consensus pick for the Titans before the trade), Laremy Tunsil would be a steal at #6. An offensive tackle might not be a sexy draft pick for the fans, but an NFL ready left tackle to protect Joe Flacco’s blind side for years to come? That’s hard to pass up.

Cincinnati Bengals

Again, the Bengals follow that theme of being hard to place.bengals Cincinnati has made the playoffs 5 years in a row, which is an achievement in itself. They’ve also failed to progress from the wildcard round in each of those 5 playoff appearances, which has begun it’s own narrative for Head Coach Marvin Lewis and Quarterback Andy Dalton. On one hand, you have to applaud the ability to continually make it in to the post season. Conversely, how can you praise a team that has effectively stood still for 5 years and not progressed? Granted, another team in this division yearns for the days of a post season appearance, but when the expectation is set at a minimum of a playoff appearance, is anything but advancing from the wildcard round a failure?

Andy Dalton had a turn around season last year before he fractured his thumb in week 13. Previous seasons had seen Dalton as a bit of a joke, no one really believed he could take the next step. He was seen as a game manager, propped up by his great supporting cast. 2015 saw ‘Red’ Dalton take a real step forward. He was making big time throws, less interceptions, and winning games rather than simply ‘managing’ them. However, the doubters would still ask, how much was Dalton’s true progression, and how much was down to Offensive Coach Hue Jackson. AJ Green, the ever dependable top 10 wide receiver remains, and 2015 saw a breakout year for Tyler Eifert in tight-end, looking to join the Gronk leagues.

So far the offseason has seen his WR2 and WR3 in Mohammed Sanu and Marvin Jones leave for pastures new, though at least one has been replaced by former Patriot Brandon LaFell. Veteran Karlos Dansby has joined a talented defense propped up by DT Geno Atkins, CB Leon Hall, and mean linebackers Maualuga and previously mentioned Burfict. The Bengals also boast one of the best combination ground attack options, with true thunder and lightning duo Jeremy Hill and Gio Bernard.

The big question is, can the Bengals take the next step? I think it really depends on how Dalton adjusts to his new OC, Ken Zampese. The departing Hue Jackson has moved cross division, and was largely credited with Dalton’s improved year, and while Dalton can’t be blamed for his injury (or indeed, Hill’s fumble in the playoffs), there’s growing concern he will regress. Presuming the Bengals draft someone to catch passes opposite AJ Green (Corey Coleman from Baylor or Will Fuller from Notre Dame perhaps) I don’t have a problem seeing the Bengals making the playoffs yet again. I just can’t shake that nagging feeling of watching Dalton and co trudge out of the wildcard round yet again.

Cleveland Browns

brownsIt’s the hope that kills you, they say. With the Browns, it’s got to the point where I just want them to have a controversy free, 8-8 season. Going back to when their team had Bill Belicheck as their head coach (if you haven’t seen the Cleveland Browns “A Football Life”, stop now and go and watch), to watching their team move to Baltimore and become Super Bowl champions (twice), to their return to the AFC North in 2002 and their countless failed draft busts at QB. The Browns have become a joke. They are the “factory of sadness”. The truth is, they are a proud franchise with a passionate fan base, and I truly want to see the team give their fans something to cheer about.

Without wanting to sound like a broken record, there is a new hope in Cleveland. No, it isn’t a young scavenger who has questionable parentage and a knack for the force (sorry). It’s Hue Jackson, fresh from his remarkable transformation of Andy Dalton; his next task is to turn around the fortunes of the Browns. He started well, giving an impassioned speech, winning round the fans and beat-writers alike. He was also quick to distance the franchise from TMZ magnet, and previous draft failure Johnny Manziel.

This truly could be a fresh start for the Browns. Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas still remains on the roster after rumours of offseason trades circled. 2015 breakout tight end Gary Barnidge is the lone bright spot in a barren offense. There’s 2015’s first round pick Danny Shelton, who admittedly struggled somewhat in his first year. So the big offseason question is, where do the Browns go with the number 2 pick?

It’s not as if a high pick guarantees success either. If you look at recent Browns drafts, the players they’ve drafted and missed on, compared to who they could have taken:

  • 2014 draft number 8 pick, DraftedJustin Gilbert Could have hadOdell Beckham Jr WR, Aaron Donald DT, Ryan Shazier LB, Zack Martin G
  • 2014 draft number 22 pick, DraftedJohnny Manziel Could have hadKelvin Benjamin WR, Teddy Bridgewater QB.
  • 2013 draft number 6 pick, DraftedBarkevious Mingo Could have had Sheldon Richardson DT, Kyle Long G, DeAndre Hopkins WR.
  • 2013 draft number 39 pick, DraftedJosh Gordon Could have had Le’Veon Bell RB, Eddie Lacy RB
  • 2013 draft number 68 pick, DraftedLeon McFadden, CB. Could have had Tyrann Mathieu DB, Keenan Allen WR, Jordan Reed TE.

Now, I know hindsight is 20/20, and there are draft busts and steals for every team every year, but the list of busts compared to genuinely good draft picks is again, staggering for the Browns. New GM Sashi Brown brings with him a reputation for moneyball analytics – will the Browns see more value in trading down to acquire more picks? Or will they end up taking a highly rated defensive prospect to anchor their secondary? Or once again, will they end up pulling the trigger on a potential franchise quarterback.

They’ve missed on pro bowl talents before after trading down. For instance in 2014 when they ended up with Justin Gilbert and Johnny Manziel when they could have had Sammy Watkins. Or 2011 when they ended up with the nose tackle Phil Taylor (released), and the following year got Trent Richardson (Free Agent) and Brandon Weeden (backup in Dallas) with the remnants of the same deal with the Falcons. The Falcons wont be looking back considering their choice of Julio Jones finished last season with 1871 yards last year and 8 touchdowns.

The Rams trading up in the draft has of course shaken things up massively, but if the Browns were high on both QBs (I’ve yet to see a definitive answer as to whether they prefer Goff or Wentz), would they take a chance on another potential franchise quarterback? Both have their risks. Goff, has played under bigger pressure in California and is said to be more pro ready, but Wentz is said to have the higher ceiling in terms of his potential. Goff has been compared to Bortles while Wentz is said to remind scouts of Matt Ryan. Neither is say as ready as Andrew Luck was to step in to the shoes of a franchise QB, to carry the weight of a city on their shoulders.

Should they play it safer and go for one of the top ‘blue chip’ prospects, like Jalen Ramsey – who has drawn Patrick Peterson comparisons, or Miles Jack a linebacker with the speed and agility of a cornerback (or a cornerback with the strength and athleticism of a linebacker). Both players would be defensive anchors and could be argued as a safer pick than either QB. Especially when any incumbent QB doesn’t have much talent at WR to throw to (I’m not counting Josh Gordon as an active member of the roster until reinstatement).

So what will Hue and Sashi do? The Browns are often a laughing stock, the butt of all jokes and of late, the source of off-season stories involving misdemeanour and misconduct. I really hope the new management can turn things around, and bring this Franchise back to its rightful proud place within the AFC North and NFL? Only time will tell. There’s that word again. Hope. (Oh, and I haven’t even mentioned possibly great redemption story or train wreck story in RG3)

One thing’s for sure, if Hue does manage to turn it around, this division will get even harder to predict, and would definitely give the NFC West a run for it’s money as best division.

Joe Sparshatt is an avid New York Jets fan who still to this day harbours a man crush for Mark Sanchez. When not watching the NFL, he follows respective Liverpool & Aberdeen football clubs, and keeps an eye out for the Aberdeen Roughnecks results. He’ll happily chat to you about fantasy football all day – even if you don’t care. Find him at @spoejarshatt.

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Joe has been following the NFL since 2009, and after being lucky enough to work in New York twice he gained the affliction of being a Jets fan. Joe enjoys consuming as much NFL content as he can get away with, and is also a fantasy addict. He makes an annual pilgrimage to London for the International Series, and contributes to NFLGirlUK with whatever hot takes or musings he can get away with. Find him on twitter @spoejarshatt.

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