2014 Scout AFC North Preview

A look at the AFC North heading in to the 2014 season...

Baltimore Ravens
By Aaron Wilson, RavensInsider.com

OUTLOOK: The Ravens are expected to emerge as a playoff contender again after missing the postseason last year for the first time under coach John Harbaugh. Baltimore returns with the NFL’s 12th-ranked defense but have to upgrade the offense in order to contend. With wide receiver Steve Smith joining the team with a three-year, $11 million deal in March, there’s a good chance the offense will become more productive. If that happens, the Ravens should rebound strongly from an 8-8 season. They also need quarterback Joe Flacco to quickly transition to a new playbook and cut down on turnovers to succeed.
 
OFFSEASON:  The Ravens have had a strong offseason with the exception of off-field legal problems that are largely resolved now. The team signed Steve Smith and Owen Daniels, traded for Jeremy Zuttah and retained Dennis Pitta, Eugene Monroe, Jacoby Jones and Daryl Smith. Off the field, though, four players were arrested and running back Ray Rice is facing a potential multigame suspension for an alleged domestic violence incident.
 
OFFENSE: Under new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak, the Ravens are installing a different playbook that emphasizes the running game, a zone-blocking scheme, and West Coast passing principles. Kubiak will try to cut down the role of quarterback Joe Flacco after a season where he threw 22 interceptions, revive the NFL’s 30th-ranked rushing offense and take full advantage of skill players Torrey Smith, Steve Smith, Marlon Brown, Pitta, Rice, and Jones.
 
DEFENSE: The Ravens’ defense is a strong group led by linebackers Terrell Suggs, Elvis Dumervil, Daryl Smith and Courtney Upshaw, plus nose tackle Haloti Ngata and cornerbacks Jimmy Smith and Lardarius Webb. The Ravens ranked 12th in total defense last season and figure to be one of the better defenses again this season. They need to replace defensive tackle Arthur Jones with potential candidates Timmy Jernigan, DeAngelo Tyson and Brandon Wiliams.
 
SCHEDULE: The Ravens’ schedule isn’t that difficult overall. Baltimore starts the season with division games, but the schedule gets easier as the season goes on. The Ravens have a favorable-timed bye week in the middle of the season. The team also faces their traditional rivals in the AFC North, starting the schedule with three division games.
 
ROOKIES: C.J. Mosley, the Ravens’ first-round draft pick, is a former Butkus Award-winning linebacker from the University of Alabama and could start as a rookie. The Ravens also drafted Florida State defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan in the second round and he could contribute a lot as a first-year player. Third-round tight end Crockett Gillmore figures into the equation as a blocker while another third-rounder, safety Terrence Brooks, is competing for a starting job at free safety. 
 
WILL MAKE THE PLAYOFFS IF... the offense improves significantly and the defense maintains its high standard. As long as the offense cuts down on turnovers, improves in the red zone and gets the running game back in gear. Rice’s suspension and progress from a poor season a year ago are major keys for the Ravens. If the offense isn’t better, this team will remain a .500 outfit.

THE FRANCHISE:
QB Joe Flacco

MVP - Offense:
WR Steve Smith

MVP - Defense:
LB Daryl Smith

BREAKOUT PLAYER:
CB Jimmy Smith

FAN FAVORITE:
WR Torrey Smith

OVERRATED:
OT Eugene Monroe

SWAN SONG:
TE Owen Daniels

ROOKIE STUD:
LB C.J. Mosley

ROOKIE DUD:
S Terrence Brooks

BEST FA SIGNING:
WR Steve Smith

WORST FA SIGNING:
S Darian Stewart

BIGGEST FA LOSS:
DE Arthur Jones

TEAM TO BEAT:
Cincinnati Bengals

MUST-WIN GAME:
Pittsburgh Steelers

BIGGEST FAN RIVAL:
Pittsburgh Steelers

Cincinnati Bengals
BengalsInsider.com

OUTLOOK: Until Andy Dalton’s arrival, no quarterback had guided the team to three consecutive playoff berths. But just getting there is no longer good enough after the Bengals were one-and-done in each of those postseason games by a combined 77-33. Last year was particularly frustrating with the Bengals earning a home game by winning five of their last six games, only to lose 27-10 to San Diego. Dalton has an excellent supporting cast, led by star receiver A.J. Green and a potential thunder-and-lightning backfield of second-year standout Giovani Bernard and rookie Jeremy Hill. The defense has holes to fill.

OFFSEASON: Free agency was not kind to the Bengals unless the goal was to receive compensatory picks in the 2015 draft. The Buccaneers raided the Bengals for stud defensive end Michael Johnson and offensive tackle Anthony Collins for a combined $73.8 million. Plus, they released aging outside linebacker James Harrison. But at least they signed Jason Campbell and Marshall Newhouse. Yawn.

OFFENSE: It’s a make-or-break season for Dalton, even after throwing for a team-record 4,293 yards and 33 touchdowns. Dalton lacks elite physical tools, but he’s a winner. He’s 30-18 in three seasons but 0-3 in the playoffs. New offensive coordinator Hue Jackson has installed an up-tempo offense. The versatile Bernard should carry a bigger load.

DEFENSE:A lot is riding on defensive tackle Geno Atkins’ ACL, especially after losing Johnson and Harrison. According to league data, the difference between Atkins on the field vs. on the sideline was a whopping 0.8 yards per carry. Plus, he had 12.5 sacks in 2012 and six in nine games in 2013. Other than penalties, linebacker Vontaze Burfict has gone from undrafted to standout.

SCHEDULE: The first-half schedule isn’t exactly how you’d want to draw it up with Week 1 at Baltimore, a too-early Week 4 bye, Week 5 at New England, Week 7 at Indianapolis. Then it’s an unusual three-game home stand against Baltimore, Jacksonville and Cleveland, followed by a rare three-game road trip to New Orleans, Houston and Tampa Bay. They face the Steelers twice in December and host Denver in Week 16.

ROOKIES: Cornerback Darqueze Dennard was selected in the first round in part because 2012 first-rounder Dre Kirkipatrick hasn’t delivered. If Hill (second round) can keep his nose clean, he’ll add a bruiser in the backfield. Towering Will Clarke (third round) will be asked to replace the towering Johnson. The team traded up for only the third time to get center Russell Bodine in the fourth.

WILL MAKE THE PLAYOFFS IF... Dalton earns a contract extension. Dalton, Cam Newton and Peyton Manning are the only quarterbacks in NFL history to throw for 3,000 yards in each of their first three seasons. So he’s got the track record to get it done and he’s got the supporting cast on offense to achieve big things. But one touchdowns and six picks in the playoffs won’t cut it.

THE FRANCHISE:
WR A.J. Green

MVP - Offense:
WR A.J. Green

MVP - Defense:
DT Geno Atkins

BREAKOUT PLAYER:
TE Tyler Eifert

FAN FAVORITE:
WR A.J. Green

OVERRATED:
TE Jermaine Gresham

SWAN SONG:
CB Terence Newman

ROOKIE STUD:
CB Darqueze Dennard

ROOKIE DUD:
RB Jeremy Hill

BEST FA SIGNING:
S Danieal Manning

WORST FA SIGNING:
OT Marshall Newhouse

BIGGEST FA LOSS:
DE Michael Johnson

TEAM TO BEAT:
Baltimore Ravens

MUST-WIN GAME:
Baltimore Ravens

BIGGEST FAN RIVAL:
Pittsburgh Steelers

Cleveland Browns
By Lane Adkins, TheOBR.com

OUTLOOK: The 2014 Cleveland Browns season could be interesting and competitive if the offense can play on a consistent level. The QB position will be under the microscope as the Cleveland offense resets under the tutelage of offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. New head coach Mike Pettine looks to be doing and saying all the right things so far, but if the ship starts to sink, will Jimmy & Co. pull the plug yet again?

OFFSEASON: It was yet another offseason of change in Cleveland. There’s a new front office, new head coach and coaching staff, and an offseason full of positive talk and talent acquisition. Mike Pettine has gained the attention of the Browns locker room and early responses have been promising.  The drama carousel that is Josh Gordon fully came to a stop with his latest offseason charge of DWI. His full season ban appeal is still spinning around (at press time), but if you were his teammate, how would you feel about getting him back in the locker room?

OFFENSE: The Browns need a quarterback who is going to step up and a group of wide receivers to spread the ball around to.  If not, Cleveland will likely run the ball -- a lot.

DEFENSE:The defense should be the strength of this season’s Cleveland Browns. Adding veterans Donte Whitner and Karlos Dansby via free agency should help stabilize a defensive unit that displayed promise a season ago. Missing out on keeping TJ Ward was a big hit, but lots of people have high hopes for rookie Justin Gilbert.

SCHEDULE: The Browns schedule is tough early so expect them to take their lumps in the first games of the season. But as the year progresses, the Browns could be a team to watch in the AFC North.

ROOKIES: Quarterback Johnny Manziel garners all the attention, but the Browns will likely benefit much more from rookies CB Justin Gilbert, OG Joel Bitinio, LB Christian Kirksey and RB Terrance West this season. Each rookie is very talented, has shown serious upside in camp sessions, and has the opportunity to compete for a starting role.

WILL MAKE THE PLAYOFFS IF… Quarterback Brian Hoyer or Johnny Manziel emerge as a force in the offense.  With Jordan Cameron potentially producing another epic season coupled with a stout run performance from rookie Terrance West and newly signed free agent bruiser Ben Tate, this team has the o-line stability and a talented enough defense to compete in a downtrodden AFC North.

THE FRANCHISE:
LT Joe Thomas

MVP - Offense:
TE Jordan Cameron

MVP - Defense:
CB Joe Haden

BREAKOUT PLAYER:
RB Terrance West

FAN FAVORITE:
QB Johnny Manziel

OVERRATED:
RB Ben Tate

SWAN SONG:
OLB Paul Kruger

ROOKIE STUD:
DB Justin Gilbert

ROOKIE DUD:
QB Johnny Manziel

BEST FA SIGNING:
LB Karlos Dansby

WORST FA SIGNING:
RB Ben Tate

BIGGEST FA LOSS:
S T.J. Ward

TEAM TO BEAT:
Cincinnati Bengals

MUST-WIN GAME:
Pittsburgh Steelers

BIGGEST FAN RIVAL:
Pittsburgh Steelers

Pittsburgh Steelers
By Jim Wexell, SteelCityInsider.net

OUTLOOK: The Steelers went 6-2 in the second half of the season as Ben Roethlisberger bought into offensive coordinator Todd Haley’s pleas to get rid of the ball and Haley bought into Roethlisberger’s pleas for a more no-huddle offense. Also, the injured players who doomed their first half -- Maurkice Pouncey, Le’Veon Bell and Heath Miller -- are all back and healthy. The overhaul of the O-line has finally been completed and is expected to blossom under new offensive line coach Mike Munchak. A similar overhaul of the defensive front seven will be completed if rookies Ryan Shazier and Stephon Tuitt adapt quickly. The ability to stop the run should help the back end’s pass coverage this season.

OFFSEASON: They picked up Mike Mitchell to replace Ryan Clark at free safety and they drafted Ryan Shazier to play the weak-side ILB position. Both players will add needed speed. On offense, Munchak should put the finishing touches on the offensive line and LeGarrette Blount provides a powerful element behind Bell in the backfield.

OFFENSE: It’s all ready to roll, but the losses of Emmanuel Sanders and in particular Jerricho Cotchery provide the main question marks. Can Lance Moore replace Cotchery as the inside possession receiver? And can second-year man Markus Wheaton replace Sanders as the starter? Rookie Martavis Bryant will add a red-zone threat.

DEFENSE:How long will it take Ryan Shazier to understand the defense? He’s bumping Lawrence Timmons over to the captain’s chair inside. Jarvis Jones should make the next step as a pass-rusher in his second season. The secondary is criticized nationally, but those close to the team believe in Ike Taylor, Cortez Allen and Will Gay as the cornerbacks. Cam Heyward is emerging as a star on the defensive line, but can Cam Thomas or Stephon Tuitt replace Brett Keisel?

SCHEDULE: On paper, it appears easier than in the past few years. They play the up-and-down NFC South while the additional games against the Jaguars, Texans, Colts, Jets and Titans don’t seem too fearsome.

ROOKIES: Shazier will start inside after presumably holding off comeback player of the decade, Sean Spence. Tuitt will replace Keisel once he grasps the difficulties of the system from his taskmaster coach John Mitchell. Dri Archer will be a speed threat out of the backfield and Bryant is undertaking some hard coaching and hopes to help out in the red zone.

WILL MAKE THE PLAYOFFS IF... the elders remaining on defense -- Taylor and Troy Polamalu -- stay healthy and if young linebackers Jarvis Jones and Shazier can develop, and offensively if Markus Wheaton can help outside opposite Antonio Brown.

THE FRANCHISE:
QB Ben Roethlisberger

MVP - Offense:
QB Roethlisberger

MVP - Defense:
LB Lawrence Timmons

BREAKOUT PLAYER:
DE Cameron Heyward

FAN FAVORITE:
SS Troy Polamalu

OVERRATED:
DE Cam Thomas

SWAN SONG:
SS Troy Polamalu

ROOKIE STUD:
LB Ryan Shazier

ROOKIE DUD:
None

BEST FA SIGNING:
RB LeGarrette Blount

WORST FA SIGNING:
DE Thomas

BIGGEST FA LOSS:
WR Jerricho Cotchery

TEAM TO BEAT:
Cincinnati Bengals

MUST-WIN GAME:
Cincinnati Bengals

BIGGEST FAN RIVAL:
Baltimore Ravens


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