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2018 NFL Predictions: AFC North

By Adam Hatlan

Ah, the AFC North. The “black and blue” division, as I like to call it. A division that has been dominated by two teams since 2013, features a Super Bowl champion from the 2012 season, and houses one of the NFL’s perennial basement dwellers since they re-joined the NFL in 1999. On that note, let’s take a look at how these teams will shape up for the 2018 season.

1. Baltimore Ravens

2017 OFFSEASON & REVIEW

Record: 9-7

Postseason Result: N/A

Offseason Acquisitions:

  • WR Michael Crabtree(Raiders)
  • WR John Brown(Cardinals)
  • WR Willie Snead(Saints)
  • Robert Griffin III(FA)

Offseason Departures:

  • WR Jeremy Maclin(FA)
  • Danny Woodhead(retired)
  • DB Lardarius Webb (FA)
  • TE Ben Watson(Saints)
  • WR Mike Wallace(Eagles)
2018 PREVIEW/THE BIG QUESTION

Offense: Even though the Ravens traded up to get Lamar Jackson at number 32 in the 2017 draft, Joe Flacco’s job is not in danger. Should Flacco get hurt though, Jackson offers an intriguing skill set for the Ravens offense and he has been playing well in preseason… The running back trio of Alex Collins, Javorius Allen, and Kenneth Dixon could rival the Browns for the best backfield in the division. Collins is a legit breakout candidate this season after posting a 212-973-6 stat line last year, after being waived by Seattle less than a week before the start of the 2017 season… The top three statistical receivers are gone (Wallace, Maclin, Watson). FA signees Crabtree, Brown, and Snead provide Flacco with a new stable of younger weapons at receiver that should help improve what was a passing game ranked 29th in 2017. Rookies Hayden Hurst and Mark Andrews were drafted to bolster what was a weak position after the departure of Watson. Can Marshal Yanda return to form? The success of this already weak line depends on his health.

Defense: Former linebacker coach Don Martindale takes over at defensive coordinator for the departed Dean Pees. The defense shouldn’t lose a step in the transition. The linebacker crew of Matt Judon, Patrick Onwuasor, C.J. Mosley, and the ageless Terrell Suggs is one of the better units in the division. Mosley (132 tackles) and Onwuasor (90 tackles) are a fantastic clean-up crew in the middle, while Suggs and Judon get after the quarterback (19 sacks combined). Can Suggs, who played in over 77% of defensive snaps, continue that type of production at his age? Time will tell. The secondary features veteran safeties Eric Weddle (6 INT) and Tony Jefferson (56 tackles, 2.5 sacks). Second-year pro Marlon Humphrey and rookie Anthony Averett are the future at corner, with aging veterans Brandon Carr and Jimmy Smith on the roster. Humphrey played in just over 50% of snaps last season and was second on the team in PBU (11). Humphrey will break out this year. Every player on the defensive line is under age 30. They didn’t get after the quarterback much last year. DT Carl Davis and DE Chris Wormley are two younger guys I think could be players to watch this year.

Bottom Line: Flacco has weapons in the passing game and the offense will benefit. Also, how much, if at all, do we see Lamar Jackson this year? Baltimore’s offense could be very dynamic with Jackson on the field.

Prediction: 11-5

 

2. Pittsburgh Steelers

2017 OFFSEASON & REVIEW

Record: 13-3

Postseason Result: The Steelers earned a first round bye and the number two seed, but they drew another matchup with the Jacksonville Jaguars defense, who had already beaten them early in the season. They couldn’t adjust the second time around and lost to the Jaguars in the divisional round.

Offseason Acquisitions:

  • SS Morgan Burnett (Packers)
  • LB Jon Bostic (Colts)
  • SS Nat Berhe (Giants)

Offseason Departures:

  • OL Chris Hubbard (Browns)
  • S Robert Golden (Chiefs)
  • CB William Gay (Giants)
  • WR Martavis Bryant (Raiders)
2018 PREVIEW/THE BIG QUESTION

Offense: New offensive coordinator, Randy Fichtner, was quarterback coach and stays within the system. This will help ease the transition to a new coordinator and should maintain consistency. 36-year-old Ben Roethlisberger returns for his 15th season as quarterback. Staying healthy will be critical, especially since he’s backed-up by a rookie third-rounder Mason Rudolph. The wide receiver group is young and led by veteran Antonio Brown, who will be attempting to complete his sixth consecutive 100-catch season. He will get his seventh in 2018. Gone is headache Martavis Bryant. JuJu Smith-Schuster and rookie James Washington offer solid up-and-coming second and third options. Smith-Schuster came on strong in the second half of 2017 and is poised for a breakout campaign in ’18. The Steelers will try to get everything they can out of the do-it-all Le’Veon Bell, in what is likely his last season in Pittsburgh. Bell is an elite pass-catcher and provides Roethlisberger with another weapon behind the fourth-best offensive line headed into 2018, per PFF.

Defense: The defense will look to fill the void of LB Ryan Shazier. Shazier was world class, but the signing of Jon Bostic will help. The linebacker unit remains strong, as TJ Watt, Vince Williams, and Bud Dupree each had over six sacks. The addition of safety Morgan Burnett provides a valuable veteran leader in the secondary, as he teams up with Joe Haden and talented youngster Artie Burns. Cameron Heyward leads a strong defensive line group which accounted for 23 of the team’s 56 sacks. Heyward will continue to be a dominant force for Pittsburgh, he just needs everyone else on the line to show up.

Bottom Line: Can Big Ben stay healthy? This team goes as far as Big Ben’s health. It will also be interesting to see if the offense stays the same or takes a step back with Haley gone.

Prediction: 11-5

 

3. Cincinnati Bengals

2017 Offseason & Review

Record: 7-9

Postseason Result: N/A

Offseason Acquisitions: 

  • OT Cordy Glenn(Bills)
  • LB Preston Brown(Bills)
  • OT Andre Smith(Cardinals)
  • QB Matt Barkley(Cardinals)

Offseason Departures: 

  • RB Jeremy Hill(Patriots)
  • LB Kevin Minter(Jets)
  • QB AJ McCarron(Bills)
  • DE Chris Smith(Browns)
  • WR Brandon LaFell(FA)
  • S George Iloka(Vikings)
2018 PREVIEW/THE BIG QUESTION

Offense: Andy Dalton is back at quarterback for his eighth season, along with new back-up Matt Barkley. Bengals fans gotta hope Dalton doesn’t get hurt. WR A.J. Green had another 1,000 yard season in 2017, and likely gets another in 2018. Second-leading receiver Brandon LaFell is gone, leaving Tyler Boyd (22 rec) as the leading returning receiver. A healthy John Ross could provide some deep threat relief for the offense in what is largely a group of unknowns at the position. The Tyler’s (Eifert and Kroft) are back at tight end. Kroft had a good season after Eifert got hurt. Kroft will again have a good season not if, but when, Eifert gets hurt again. Jeremy Hill is gone at running back, but Gio Bernard and Joe Mixon are back. Mixon should breakout, even with the crap preseason he’s had. Mixon could become a pro-bowler this year. A rebuilt O-line – Glenn and rookie first-rounder Billy Price – will hopefully lessen the 39 sacks allowed and provide Mixon/Bernard with some good running lanes.

Defense: Former Lions DC Teryl Austin in the new leader of the defense, and if the Bengals can get the Teryl Austin from a few years ago, well, things will turn around. If not, it feels like a lateral move. The front four may be the strongest unit of the defense. Starters Carlos Dunlap, Geno Atkins, and Michael Johnson, as well as rotational player Carl Lawson, accounted for 30 sacks last year. Add talented rookie Sam Hubbard to the mix and this unit might be the best in the division. Vontaze Burfict and Nick Vigil had 148 tackles combined in 2017, just four more than FA acquisition Preston Brown had by himself (144). Vincent Rey added 85 tackles, but Brown is a nice piece to the front seven, especially with Burfict suspended for the first four games of the year. The Benagls intercpeted only 11 passes in 2017. That could go up with a strong front seven that will hopefully be putting more pressure on opposing quarterbacks. William Jackson had 14 passes defended in his first season (2016 injury as a rookie), and Dre Kirkpatrick also had 14. Rookie Jessie Bates is a good addition to the secondary and had good production at Wake Forest. He will look to replace the highly productive George Iloka.

Bottom Line: Marvin Lewis not only needs a playoff win, he needs a winning season in 2018. The front office did a little bit to help out, but if the Bengals are REALLY bad this year, Lewis could be gone. If they hover around .500? Sorry to say Bengals fans, Lewis comes back.

Prediction: 9-7

 

4. Cleveland Browns

2017 Offseason & Review

Record: 0-16

Postseason Result: …………………………….

Offseason Acquisitions: 

  • QB Tyrod Taylor (Bills)
  • OL Chris Hubbard (Steelers)
  • CB T.J. Carrie (Raiders)
  • RB Carlos Hyde (49ers)
  • DL Chris Smith (Bengals)
  • DB Damarious Randall (Packers)
  • WR Jarvis Landry (Dolphins)
  • TE Darren Fells (Lions)
  • DB E.J. Gaines (Rams)
  • QB Drew Stanton (Cardinals)

Offseason Departures:

  • Joe Thomas(retired)
  • QB DeShone Kizer (Packers)
  • DL Danny Shelton (Patriots)
  • DB Jason McCourty (Patriots)
  • QB Cody Kessler (Jaguars)
  • QB Kevin Hogan (Washington)
  • WR Corey Coleman (Bills)
  • RB Isaiah Crowell(Jets)
2018 PREVIEW/THE BIG QUESTION

Offense: Todd Haley enters as new offensive coordinator, coming from Pittsburgh. Haley has a strong background of working with Super Bowl quarterbacks (Roethlisberger, Kurt Warner) and likes using a multitude of different sets. Out are 2017 quarterbacks DeShone Kizer, Kevin Hogan, and Cody Kessler, while in are Tyrod Taylor, Drew Stanton, and first-overall pick Baker Mayfield. Taylor will likely start the season, but should Taylor become ineffective, Mayfield will take over and has a chance to succeed with multiple weapons. With former first-rounder Corey Coleman gone, Jarvis Landry adds a new dynamic at receiver to pair with beast Josh Gordon (should he actually be with the team). Second-year TE David Njoku has looked good in camp and is a good candidate to break out this year. Running backs Carlos Hyde, Duke Johnson, Jr., and rookie Nick Chubb form what should be the best trio of backs in the division. Haley loves using his running backs in the passing game (see: Le’Veon Bell). The offensive line, which has been bolstered over the past two off seasons via free agency/draft, loses Hall of Famer Joe Thomas to retirement. Five-year pro Joel Bitonio has some BIIIIG shoes to fill at left tackle.

Defense: Like the offense, the defensive personnel will look a bit different in 2018. The secondary has been rebuilt and could be a strength of the defense. Damarious Randall gets a fresh start and will switch to his more natural position of safety to pair with second-year swiss-army knife Jabrill Peppers. Add fourth-overall pick Denzel Ward and free agent signings T.J. Carrie and E.J. Gaines, and Cleveland’s secondary is formidable. Joe Schobert and Christian Kirksey are tackling machines in the middle at linebacker. Schobert is becoming a star in the middle. Myles Garrett and Emmanual Ogbah highlight the defensive line, where Garrett should breakout this year. Garrett will reach double-digit sacks.

Bottom Line: The Browns have nowhere to go but up, and with an overhauled front office willing to make smart moves, the future is bright in Cleveland, just not bright this year. The addition of Haley at OC will mean more scoring for a talented offense.

Prediction: 5-11

 

Predicted Division Standings:

  1. Baltimore 11-5 (Wins tiebreaker due to better division record than Pittsburgh)
  2. Pittsburgh 11-5
  3. Cincinnati 9-7
  4. Cleveland 5-11

 

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The GOAT Report-featuring Adam Hatlan

I'm the GOAT. Ok, maybe not. What I actually am is a freelance sports writer for three local newspapers in the Madison, WI area. I love hearing feedback and having friendly discussions about sports.

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5 Responses

  1. I’m new to WordPress and have had a tough time finding good sports blogs to follow. I was very impressed with this write-up (even though I am a Browns fan). I wrote a short piece on some of the Browns players on Hard Knocks. If you have any interest in checking it out heres the link. https://tinyurl.com/y7trjomb
    Also, if it is frowned upon to try to solicit clicks via the comment section. I apologize. Again, I’m a newbie.

  1. September 6, 2018

    […] Adam’s NFC North:                                  Adam’s AFC North: […]

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