The AFC North saw the biggest transformation heading into the 2019 NFL Season with stars such as All-Pros Antonio Brown, Le'Veon Bell, CJ Mosley departing and Pro Bowlers like Odell Beckham Jr., Kareem Hunt, and Earl Thomas joining the fray.
The Cleveland Browns may have made the biggest leap after a 7-8-1 season by adding Beckham Jr. and Hunt along with other quality starters, but the Pittsburgh Steelers still boast Super Bowl champion Ben Roethlisberger and rising star JuJu Smith-Schuster.
The Baltimore Ravens, led by second-year quarterback Lamar Jackson, lost a multitude of talent but are determined to continue their success, which carried them to a playoff appearance last season.
New head coach Zach Taylor may not the most well-known name, but the Cincinnati Bengals have put him in charge of the rebuild. In the first year without Marvin Lewis steering the ship, anything is better than the mediocrity Cincinnati has come to know.
A month away from the 2019 NFL season means it is time for a slew of predictions.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Last Season: 9-6-1
The Pittsburgh Steelers surprisingly have a lot to prove coming into the 2019 season.
Can they win without Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell? Is Juju Smith-Schuster ready to take the next step and be a number receiver? Has the championship window closed or was last season just a fluke? And finally, is Mike Tomlin worthy of keeping his job after another upsetting season?
The answer is Yes.
The Steelers knew this season was going to be one to get back on track and doing so started in the offseason.
Letting Bell, who sat out all of 2018 due to a contract dispute, walk in free agency was not easy, but the emergence of James Conner laid to rest any concerns as to if Pittsburgh would miss a step in the running game.
1,470 total yards and 13 touchdowns later and Pittsburgh willingly let Bell leave. As for Brown, Pittsburgh could not have prayed for a better scenario. Brown was traded to the Oakland Raiders for a third and fifth-round pick. While the picks are not what the expected return was to be, Pittsburgh washed their hands of the ego-driven receiver.
Pittsburgh then shifted focus to their draft and with their first overall pick selected linebacker Devin Bush to add star power in the absence of Ryan Shazier. While Bush will need time to grow, he has already been called "best rookie thus far" by Colin Cowherd of FS1.
Smaller additions of veteran linebacker Mark Baron and receiver Donte Moncrief further prove what Pittsburgh's plan has been all along. Signing quiet veteran players to replace obnoxious non-team centered stars.
Pushing past the offseason, Pittsburgh has had the quietest training camp in years. A good thing after nearly a decade of Antonio Brown nonsense.
The current Steelers roster may not be the deepest nor may it be littered with stars like it once was. Still, the veteran leadership of Roethlisberger and head coach Mike Tomlin along with the stellar offensive line will be more than enough to push Pittsburgh atop the AFC North.
Verdict: 10-6, AFC North Champions
Cleveland Brown: Last Season 7-8-1
Are you ready to get dangerous? Baker Mayfield and the rest of the Cleveland Browns are, and the team truly can be with their upgraded roster.
The tide turned in Week 3 for the Browns when Mayfield took over for an injured Tyrod Taylor. Quickly showing his ability to lead a team that was in the midst of a 19-game losing streak, Mayfield led Cleveland from behind to defeat the quarterback many touted as the better prospect, Sam Darnold, and secure Cleveland's first win in a calendar year.
As the season continued the Browns prove to be a viable, albeit surprising, force in the AFC North. The turnaround from Taylor to Mayfield was so drastic Cleveland fired head coach Hue Jackson, and find themselves in the playoff hunt until week 15.
Now with first-year head coach Freddie Kitchens and the additions of receiver Odell Beckham Jr. and veteran pass-rusher Olivier Vernon, expectations have never been higher.
According to Odd Shark, the Cleveland Browns have the best odds to win the AFC North at +125. It is a stretch to give Cleveland higher odds than last year's AFC North champion Baltimore Ravens or even the re-tooled Steelers. The Browns do have the easiest schedule in the division besides the Cincinnati Bengals.
With the additions of star talent and the 10th easiest schedule in football according to CBS Sports, Cleveland seems like a lock for the playoffs, right?
The Browns were an abysmal 2-6 on the road last season with four of their losses coming against either division foes or above .500 hundred teams. The Browns were also 1-7-1 against playoff teams last season.
The case for the Cleveland Browns to make the playoffs is valid based on their strong offseason, but one year of mediocre success against below .500 teams is not enough to hand them the division.
Verdict: 9-7, Fighting for the Wild Card
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Baltimore Ravens: Last Season 10-6, AFC North Champions
The Baltimore Ravens were one of the few surprise teams last season especially after Lamar Jackson took over in Week 11. Jackson, 70 percent of the time, used his legs to carry the Ravens to the playoffs.
In the playoffs, Jackson was almost nonexistent. The Los Angeles Chargers held Jackson to 54 yards rushing. While he totaled 194 passing yards and two touchdowns, the majority of which came in the fourth quarter, Jackson could not lead the Ravens to victory.
After the game, Los Angeles stated they knew "60 to 70 percent of the Ravens plays." If the Ravens, and more importantly Lamar Jackson, do not adapt, they will not survive.
The Ravens have a similar schedule strength to the Browns, but instead of additions, Baltimore's offseason could be described as a mass exodus of star players.
Receivers Michael Crabtree and John Brown, who led the team in total targets, receptions, receiving touchdowns and yards are gone. Running backs Alex Collins, team leader in rushing touchdowns, is also no longer with the team.
When it comes to defense, the Ravens saw All-Pro linebacker CJ Mosely bolt for the bright light of New York. Franchise sack leader Terrell Suggs is now in Arizona and 2018 sack leader Za'Darius Smith took a hefty contract with the Packers. Even veteran safety Eric Weddle departed for sunny California.
A total of 13 offensive touchdowns, 17 sacks, and multiple team leaders are out in Baltimore so who's in?
Mark Ingram was brought on to be the number one back, and in a system that relies heavily on running between the tackles, Ingram has shown the ability to lead the ground attack. In the three seasons, Ingram carried the ball over 200 times he averaged 1,043 yards and nine touchdowns while remaining relatively healthy throughout the season.
Earl Thomas was the notable free-agent signing by Baltimore this offseason. Tasked with replacing Weddle, Thomas is the ideal fit for Baltimore's system, but Thomas is no longer the spry 26-year old standout of the Legion of Boom. He is a 30-year old coming off of a broken leg that cost him the majority of the 2018-2019 season. While Thomas is reportedly at full health, it is worth nothing Thomas also suffered a broken tibia in 2016 forcing him to miss all the final five games of the season and the entire playoffs.
The 2019-2020 Baltimore Ravens have the toughest test of all AFC North teams. Not because of their schedule or the new starter implemented on both sides of the ball, but rather the growth of Lamar Jackson.
Will Lamar Jackson continue to be a run-first quarterback, a type of player which never lasts more than a few years, or will John Harbaugh work with the second-year quarterback to adapt to the NFL style of play? Jackson does not need to cease running the football but must develop into a more conscious and well-rounded pocket passer.
Quarterbacks like Russell Wilson, Cam Newton, and even Aaron Rodgers or the recently retired Andrew Luck are the mold Jackson should shoot for. Designing plays for scrambling quarterback is fine until he evades the pocket and is laid out by a defender i.e. RG3. Jackson should use his legs to extend plays or find holes in the defense to gain big yardage rather running the read-option, which teams like the Chargers game planned for ultimately leading to a first-round exit.
If Jackson cannot adapt, Baltimore could be in for a below-average finish to the season.
Verdict: 8-8, Missing the Playoffs
Cincinnati Bengals: Last Season 6-10
The first dumpster fire, I mean rebuilding team, of the 2019-2020 NFL prediction, the Cincinnati Bengals come into the season with many question marks.
How long can the team call Andy Dalton their franchise quarterback? Will AJ Green be healthy enough to contribute to the team? How will Zac Taylor fair in his first season as head coach?
In short, there are far more questions than answers when it comes to the Bengals this season.
If we are being honest, Dalton is not the guy for the Bengals. They need to move on, and I think if the Bengals are as bad as predicted, this season could be the last without a quarterback competition. In regards to AJ Green, he will return during the middle in the season, but it could easily be his last in Cincinnati.
The one bright spot among a sea of overpaid and under-performing veterans is Joe Mixon. In his second season, Mixon broke out in a big way with 1,168 yards and nine total touchdowns. Mixon's breakout season put him in the top ten of running backs and will have teams circling him on whiteboards.
Mixon, just like Todd Gurley in Los Angeles under Sean McVay, should see more plays designed for him with Zac Taylor wearing the headset. Taylor coached under McVay, the main reason he got the job in Cincinnati, and will adapt the usage of running backs into his system.
Unfortunately, Cincinnati's offensive line needs massive improvement. Coming into the season ranking 20th in the preseason poll, according to The Huddle, the Bengals have the worst set of tackles in the NFL and a subpar set of guards. Another cause for concern is 2019 first-round pick Jonah Williams will miss the entire season with shoulder surgery, and the implementation of a new offensive system will add to their struggles.
Receiver Boyd is set to have another solid season and will lead the offensive weapons. This year is the make or break year for John Ros, as he been closing in on bust territory. Even Tyler Eifert, who's battled injuries over the last few seasons, must produce or it could be his last season on the Bengals roster.
With that said, the Bengals defense has its solid pieces like Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins on the front seven and even William Jackson in the secondary. The pieces around them leave little hope for success.
In Zac Taylor's first year as head coach, it will be more of the same for Cincinnati as they try to adjust to a new system and see which player fit. While they may find a diamond in the rough, this year will be a shift from the Lewis era to the Taylor era with major overhauls to the roster coming similar to what San Francisco has done.
Verdict: 6 -10, Top Ten Pick in the 2020 Draft
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