Sports Blog Movement NFL Preview: AFC North

SBM NFL crystal ballUnless you live in Ohio, you might want to go read about baseball, maybe hockey, anything other than NFL football. Chances are you are probably not going to like what follows, unless of course you have a accurate grasp on reality. If you do then nothing that follows should shock or surprise you.

Suffice to say, this isn’t your normal AFC North.

cinCincinnati Bengals- 2012 10-6 (Lost in Wild card Round)

Key additions- TE Tyler Eifert (Draft) RB Giovani Bernard (Draft) OLB James Harrison (FA)

Key losses- OLB Manny Lawson (FA) CB Nate Clements (FA) S Chris Crocker

The Bengals had a pretty good off-season. In fact, by Cincinnati standards, it was awesome. Not because of what free agents they signed or who they drafted, but because they didn’t lose every player with talent or pedigree.

THAT is the usual Bengals off-season standard.

They franchised Michael Johnson (good) re-signed Andre Smith (we’ll see) and Rey Maualuga (Dumb). The only three guys they lost were easily replaceable. None of them were essential to the young team that tied for the best record in the always competitive AFC North.

The Bengals got better simply by staying together and gaining experience. Considering what is going on in the rest of the division, that earns A+ across the board.

Giovani Bernard and Tyler Eifert will join an already above average offense and be allowed to contribute without the pressure that usually comes with being a high pick in the Queen City.

The resigning of Maualuga is very Bengal-ish. He probably single-handedly cost them the division title AND their wild card game but they brought him back anyways. Bringing James Harrison over from the Steelers will provide little more than attitude and swagger, which the Bengals have always lacked to be sure, but expecting him to have a significant impact is a pipe dream.

They have a rugged and fast defensive line and a respectable secondary. Their offense is probably one of the best in the AFC and I wouldn’t be shocked to see them in the top five statistically by years end. I look the roster over and see a 12-4 team.

But they are still the Bengals, and at least once a year Marvin Lewis is good for one face-palm inducing decision that costs his team a game. Prediction: 11-5

balBaltimore Ravens- 2012 10-6 (Super Bowl Champions)

Key additions (FA) DE/OLB Elvis Dumervil (FA) S Michael Huff (FA) S Matt Elam (Draft)

Key losses- WR Anquan Boldin(Trade) C Matt Birk (RET) NT Maake Kemoeatu (FA) DE/OLB Paul Kruger (FA) ILB Ray Lewis (RET) ILB Dannell Ellerbe (FA) S Ed Reed (FA) S Bernard Pollard

I’ve read all kinds of bullshit about the Ravens ever since they won the Super Bowl. Some talk of a dynasty. Others slap on a sandwich board, cry for the end of the world and claim the team will collapse and lose 14 games.

Others get on TV and claim Joe Flacco is the best QB in pro football.

I find it difficult to explain how monumentally wrong that is because my ability to form complete sentences is impaired due to the blinding rage I feel at such abject stupidity. So for the sake of brevity and sanity: Joe Flacco is not the best QB in the NFL.

Unfortunately for the Ravens he is about the only one left from a roster purge not seen on a newly crowned champion since the Florida Marlins of a decade ago. Gone are the heart and soul, Lewis and Reed. Gone are two of the best three LB’s they still had in Kruger and Ellerbe. Gone is their top playmaker in Boldin. Gone is the coma inducing Pollard, the safety that allowed Ed Reed the freedom to poach errant passes so effectively. For God’s sake that isn’t a free agent list, it’s a pro-bowl squad.

Want to know the truth? Without Paul Kruger, the Ravens don’t even make the playoffs last year. Seriously. Not Lewis, not Flacco, not Suggs. But Paul Kruger. Go watch the tapes.

And if you think they make it past Indy or New England without Boldin then you really shouldn’t be talking about football out loud.

Admittedly, they still have Ray Rice. But with so many other pieces gone teams will stuff the line and force Flacco to throw to Jacoby Jones. Ed Dickson and Tory Smith are good, but Boldin was what made that passing game work. The people who think otherwise are the same asshats going around telling the world Flacco is the bess…

…telling people that Joe Flacco is the bessst Q..

…the best QB in thhhh..

You know what, I can’t even type it. Can’t do it. It’s just too friggin’ stupid.

Look, plain and simple the Ravens lost nearly everyone with talent off of a team that finished 10-6, barely made the playoffs, needed a miracle to beat the Broncos and a goal line stand against the 49ers. They walked a fine line the entire post-season and to their credit won a lot of games that teams with less heart and soul would have lost.

But they lost their heart, soul and most of their skill this offseason. But hey…THEY STILL HAVE THE GAMES BEST QB! Prediction: 9-7 (and that is being generous)

 

cleCleveland Browns- 2012 5-11 (4th in AFC North)

Key additions- RB Dion Lewis (FA) WR Davone Bess (Trade) DE/OLB Barkevious Mingo (Draft) DE/OLB Paul Kruger (FA)

Key losses- WR Mohamed Massaquoi (FA) TE Ben Watson (FA) KR/WR Joshua Cribbs (FA)

I understand the need to fire coach Shurmur. Not only did he never produce a winning team during his tenure as coach, but he was  Mike Holmgren hire. When team presidents and GM’s move on, so do the coaches. In Shurmur’s defense he took on a team that was a complete wreck, and while he never had a winning record, he at least got the ship pointed in the right direction.

The Browns have quietly put together a nice string of very productive draft classes. What they lack in star power they make up for in functionality. In the AFC North it’s always substance over style, and the Browns have a solid foundation of the former with a nice sprinkle of the latter.

Trent Richardson is probably the best RB no one ever talks about. He was the best offensive threat and earned the focus of defense’s attention, and he still scored 11 TD’s. Josh Gordon only had 50 receptions but ranked 8th in yards per reception (16.1 YPC), higher than more well known deep threats like Mike Wallace and DeSean Jackson. The addition of Davone Bess gives QB Brandon Weeden another quality target. I loved the addition of RB Dion Lewis. He provides an excellent change of pace to the brutal style of Richardson and will help a lot on 3rd downs, an area the Browns struggled at last year (30th, 30.7%.)

The scary part of all of that is that Richardson, Weeden and Gordon were all rookies last year. Those are three players, three talented players, growing together for the next 3-4 years.

But the strength of this team in 2013 will be it’s defense. As a Steelers fan I hated the addition of Ray Horton as the Browns defensive coordinator, everyone in Cleveland should be happier than a freshman with a fake ID. He spent five years learning the 3-4 as the secondary coach under none other than Dick LeBeau. That’s like learning how to be a douchebag from Skip Bayless. Give a Dick LeBeau-trained coach quality edge-rushers like Paul Kruger and Jabaal Sheard, free to make plays behind the mammoth Phil Taylor and add in a few playmakers like Barkevious Mingo (was this guy born to play football in Cleveland or what?) and Joe Haden and…well, that’s the recipe for a top five defense.

I’m serious. The Browns will have a top 5 defense this year. This is going to happen.

This is a very talented team. Easily the most talented group Cleveland had sent out on the field since Marty Shottenheimer was staring across the field at Chuck Noll. But they are still young, with a new coach and a new system on both sides of the ball. Still, Cincy better not get too comfortable. By 2014 there is going to be a whole lot of orange at the top of the AFC North.   Prediction: 7-9

pitPittsburgh Steelers- 2012 8-8 (3rd in AFC North)

Key additions- DE/OLB Jarvis Jones (Draft) RB Le’Veon Bell (Draft) WR Markus Wheaton (Draft)

Key losses- G Willie Colon (FA) RB Rashard Mendenhall (FA) WR Mike Wallace (FA) OT Max Starks (FA) NT Casey Hampton (RET) OLB James Harrison (FA) CB Keenan Lewis (FA)

In the last 6 months the Steelers have lost their former Defensive Player of the Year (Harrison), their best WR and most lethal offensive threat (Wallace), their most consistent and reliable LT (Starks), their most fearsome Guard (Colon), their best RB (Mendenhall), and arguably the best 3-4 NT of the last dozen years (Hampton).

In most cities this would be a death sentence. In Pittsburgh it barely even makes the news. The Steelers are so accustomed to having their roster raided on an annual basis that it has become something of a local joke. Like a tradition.

Of course, it is also a tradition to know when to allow players to leave (aging veterans like Harrison and Hampton) and when to keep young talented players around (Lewis and Wallace.) In years past when players did leave there was a capable replacement ready and waiting to fill the void. When Hines Ward retired, in came Antonio Brown. When Joey Porter was released, in came James Harrison. And so on.

Traditionally the Steelers also finish better than 8-8. You can see where I’m going with this.

Lewis and Wallace leaving via Free Agency during the prime of their careers is not the norm. They left not because they didn’t want them, but couldn’t afford them. They got into cap trouble extending the deals of aging veterans and had nothing left. So now, not only are they in cap trouble, but the veterans are gone and so are their replacements. For a team that avoids free agent spending, those are the kind of mistakes you just cannot afford to make.

To make matters worse their drafting has been atrocious lately. The seven draft picks from 2008 should be 27-28 years old and in the prime of their careers right now. None are still wearing a Steelers jersey. Only two of the eight players drafted from 2009 still remain, and almost half of their 2010 draft class is gone as well. So from 2008-2010 the Steelers drafted 25 players and only 8 (eight!)  remain in uniform. The 2012 class looks worse still with two players missing the majority of last season due to severe injury (DeCastro, Spence) and three others aren’t even playing football anymore.

Three players failing within a year? To the point where they aren’t even on someone’s practice squad? That almost never happens anywhere, but certainly not in Pittsburgh.

Cap trouble, free agent departures, under achieving draft classes and aging veterans all add up to a team that just isn’t very talented. Their offensive line is porous on the edges and their defensive line isn’t much better. The only player under 34 in their defensive secondary (Cortez Allen) has three career starts on his resume’ and is currently recovering from knee surgery. Heath Miller, their All-Pro tight end, is coming off major knee reconstruction and won’t be playing until mid-season. They are still searching for the replacement for Jerome Bettis and Le’Veon Bell is the latest top pick expected to pick up and carry the mantle of great Pittsburgh RB’s. But he has had his second injury and hasn’t played a regular season game. His status for the season opener is doubtful.

Ben Roethlisberger is still a winning QB with an decent supporting cast. What they lack in skill (and speed) on defense can be masked by the guile of the unit’s leader, the ageless wonder that is Dick LeBeau. Give LeBeau 11 guys that can still tie their own shoes and he will produce a top five defense.

But an injury prone QB and 74 year old Hall of Fame assistant coach cannot make up for 5+ years of mistakes. It’s time to do something else very untraditional in Pittsburgh. It’s time to rebuild.  Prediction: 6-10

9 Comments

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9 responses to “Sports Blog Movement NFL Preview: AFC North

  1. Hell Yes. This is spot on.

    I’ve had enough of the slurping of the Ravens. Last year was a very off year for a lot of NFL teams. And had they not drawn the Colts first, Peyton not thrown that awful pick in the playoffs, and the Patriots playing one of the worst AFC cahmpionships you’ll ever see them play, you’d be able to watch a Youtube clip of Colin Kaepernick on the Tonight Show right now

    Meehan

  2. Also, good to see you don’t trust the Steelers. I’ve read people picking them above .500. Those are the same people that you probably were talking about saying Flacco is the best QB in the NFL.

  3. I don’t trust the Steelers either, but I still have them ahead of the Browns. Only because I will never trust the Browns.

  4. Not even Joe Flacco’s mom thinks that Joe Flacco is the best quarterback in the league.

    Hey, my NFL futures contest is up, meaning you have another chance to not win one of my contests.

  5. Pingback: SBM Exclusive Feature: The Ex-Kicker’s Round Table On NFL Contenders and Pretenders in 2013 | Sports Blog Movement

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