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2020 NFL Preview: AFC North

Photo credit to Evan Habeeb, USA Today Sports

Written by Stephen Brown III

We round out the AFC half of our preview with the AFC North. A year ago, just about the only thing people could agree upon was the Bengals would be in last. The Browns were the sexy team to pick to win the division. The Steelers were the tried and true stable pick, and the Ravens were the biggest question mark since many thought their 2018 second half of the season success couldn’t be replicated. However, not only did they replicate the success, they built upon it. And with Big Ben missing almost the entire season and the Browns being the Browns, they ran away with the division. But can they do it again?

Baltimore Ravens, Last year record: 14-2, 1st place

After starting the season 2-2, the Ravens hit their stride and rattled off 12 straight wins while securing the one seed. Unfortunately, they were knocked out in the divisional round by the red-hot Titans. However, this team is looking to build even further on their 2019 success. They return their 2018 first-round pick and 2019 MVP, Lamar Jackson. Personnel wise, this team really didn’t make any big changes. They traded Hayden Hurst who, while not a bad player, just wasn’t getting the looks with Mark Andrews leading the way. The only big addition this team made on offense was drafting running back JK Dobbins out of Ohio State. Dobbins is a solid running back who should see a lot of touches in this run-heavy offense. And with Ingram getting older and getting a lot of touches, finding his replacement was a necessity. As far as what to expect from the offense, there’s no reason to expect that this team won’t be explosive again. Teams had plenty of film last year on this offense and still couldn’t stop it. As long as Lamar Jackson stays healthy, the offensive side of the ball should be the strength of this team.

On defense, this team should be much the same as last year. Their big loss was Earl Thomas, who was released for conduct detrimental to the team. However, they added Calais Campbell to the DL and drafted Patrick Queen from LSU to lead the linebacking core. This team was 4th last year in DVOA according to Football Outsiders and with most of the unit returning, I wouldn’t be surprised to see them in the top 10 again.

This team’s success really comes down to Lamar Jackson. He’s one hit away from this team being essentially irrelevant. But as long as he stays healthy, there’s no reason this team can’t win double-digit games and the division.

Final Record: 12-4

Pittsburgh Steelers, Last year record: 8-8, 2nd Place

It was clear that this team’s season was over after week 1. After getting smacked around by the Patriots, Big Ben just didn’t look right. After leaving their week 2 game against Seattle, Big Ben was ruled out for the season. Despite this huge loss, the team still went 8-8 and was in the playoff hunt right up until the end of the season. On offense, they obviously get Big Ben back for 2020, which is a huge upgrade. A lot of people are down on Juju Smith-Schuster after a down first year as the number one target. However, considering he only played 12 games and he had two horrendous QBs throwing to him, I’m not ready to write him off yet. As long as Big Ben returns to form, I expect the same from Juju. The rest of the offense is pretty similar to last year. James Connor leads the backfield with James Washington and Diontae Johnson rounding out the receiving core. The only real addition this team made on offense was signing tight end Eric Ebron. Assuming everyone is healthy, this team should once again be offensive juggernauts in the AFC.

As I mentioned, this team was 8-8 last year, and spoiler alert, it wasn’t because of their offense. This defense carried this team to 8 wins According to Football Outsiders, this defense was ranked third in DVOA. That was largely thanks to the acquisition of Minkah Fitzpatrick and the drafting of Devin Bush. Oh, plus they have this guy named TJ Watt who is starting to look almost as good as his All-Pro, future hall of fame brother. This team really didn’t make any major moves this offseason on the defensive side, so there’s really no reason to expect them to not be a top 10 unit once again.

Just like the Ravens, the Steelers success will be predicated on the health of their QB. This team is strong from top to bottom. That’s evident by their .500 record last year with a couple of potatoes playing QB. As long as Ben plays average football, this team should definitely clinch a wild card berth and could even possibly compete for the division.

Final Record: 11-5

Cleveland Browns, Last year record: 6-10, 3rd Place

Hopes were finally high for this team heading into 2019 for Cleveland. They finished the previous season 7-8-1. Their first-round QB was looking to build on an impressive rookie season. They added one of the league’s top playmakers, Odell Beckham Jr., to their receiving core. But of course, the Browns did Browns things and finished 6-10. They got away from what earned them success the previous year. Baker Mayfield never seemed to be on the same page as his line or receivers. And it turns our Freddie Kitchens’ success had more to do with beginner’s luck than actual good coaching. This year, I expect this offense to be much better. With new head coach Kevin Stefanski running the offense, this offensive attack will likely lean on Nick Chubb. Chubb is a beast of a back, who rushed for nearly 1500 yards and 8 TDs in 2019. The emphasis on the run game should open up the pass game, letting Mayfield throw to some of these playmakers like OBJ, Jarvis Landry, David Njoku, Austin Hooper, and Kareem Hunt. As long as Baker can return to his rookie year success, this team could be sniffing the playoffs for the first time in nearly two decades.

On defense, this team has a solid cornerback tandem with Greedy Williams and Denzel Ward, an elite pass rusher with Myles Garrett, but not much out. There are some other solid players on the defensive side of the ball like Olivier Vernon, Sheldon Richardson, and Karl Joseph. However, they not only lack depth, but they also lack great starters, specifically at linebacker. Even if the offense thrives, the defense could end up being too leaky to propel this team to success.

Browns fans should be cautiously optimistic. This team hasn’t had a winning record since 2007 and with two great teams in their division, they are at risk of continuing that streak. Plus, it’s the Browns. They always find a way to mess it up. Part of the fun of watching them is seeing how they manage to implode.

Final Record: 8-8

Cincinnati Bengals, Last year record: 2-14, 4th Place

To be honest, this team wasn’t THAT bad last year. Now before you furiously close this tab, hear me out. I know they were 2-14. I know they got the number 1 seed. But if you watched this team early in the season, they were in a lot of games. In their first six games (in which they were 0-6), they had four one-score losses. And three of those four losses were against playoff teams. But losing is contagious and after a slow start, injuries, and a QB carousel (or maybe it’s a QB boomerang since they went back to Dalton), this team’s season spiraled into oblivion. Offensively, this team should actually be pretty good. AJ Green should be back from “injury” (or his injury that turned into extended rest after seeing how bad the team was) and Joe Mixon is the leading back once again. When healthy, John Ross showed flashes of why he was a first-round pick in 2017. Obviously, the big addition for this team was drafting LSU QB, Heisman winner, and FBS champion, Joe Burrow. Burrow broke onto the scene in 2019 by having a record-setting season. He eventually supplanted Tua as the consensus number one pick. If Burrow can translate his skills to the NFL level (which I think he can), then this offense may put up some big numbers in 2020.

Defensively is where the excitement ends for this team. If the average NFL fan looked at their defensive depth chart, they might only recognize one or two names. However, this team does have some solid veterans, such as Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap, DJ Reader, Mackensie Alexander, and Tre Waynes. While this defense lacks any true playmakers, they do have enough good veterans to at least keep them in games when the offense is flowing.

The rebuild is underway in Cincy. They’ve secured their franchise QB and are now looking to build around him. However, there are enough pieces currently in place to aid in his development. The big unknown for this team is second-year head coach Zac Taylor. He was a weird out of nowhere signing last year for the Bengals. His hiring was largely because he’s from the Sean McVay coaching tree, with the Bengals hoping to replicate the magic the Rams have found with McVay. After a disappointing 2-14 season, Taylor will be looking to prove that he belongs in this league and that he’s ready to someday get this team their first playoff win since the 1990 season.

Final Record: 6-10

It seems like I talked myself into every division in the AFC sending three teams to the playoffs, and honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if this division did it. However, after being very high on the Browns last year, I just can’t get behind them again this year. This division is likely a two-horse race in my eyes. While the Ravens have a better offense, the Steelers defense could propel them to win the division. Or maybe age and injuries will finally catch up to Big Ben and this team will be at .500 once again. Really, the only thing I’m sure about with this division is that the Bengals won’t be picking number 1 overall again.

Final Standings

Ravens: 12-4

Steelers: 11-5

Browns: 8-8

Bengals: 6-10

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