2013 NFL Preview: AFC North
With training camps about to begin, we take a division-by-division look at where each team stands heading into the 2013 season.
Is the AFC North the best division in football? An argument certainly could be made, given that the Vince Lombardi Trophy resides in Baltimore and the North has sent at least two teams to the playoffs each of the past six seasons.
If that run ends in 2013, it only will be on account of the Bengals, Browns, Ravens and Steelers pummeling each other in a highly competitive race. Of course, maybe those teams simply will put a hurting on the rest of an unimpressive AFC, just as they did in 2011 when Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati all locked down playoff berths.
Even the Browns appear close to rejoining the party, with a new coaching staff and upgraded roster breeding belief in the Dawg Pound. They have a long road to the top, however, with the Ravens defending their crown, and Cincinnati and Pittsburgh waiting in the wings.
What's the upcoming season hold for this knock-'em-down, drag-'em-out group? Let's take a look.
Where they got better: Rather amazingly, on defense. Or at least the potential is there for this defense to be better -- particularly in the front seven -- despite those massive losses laid out above. The defensive line should benefit from the steady, veteran presence of Chris Canty at DE and former Cowboy Marcus Spears. Landing Elvis Dumervil looks like one of the huge coups of the offseason, especially since Baltimore can pair him with a healthy Terrell Suggs. The big question mark here is up the middle, where Jameel McClain and rookie Arthur Brown will have to replace Dannell Ellerbe (who signed with the Dolphins) and the legendary Ray Lewis.
Where they got worse: Wide receiver. No real way around it, as the Ravens' decision to trade Anquan Boldin has left them hoping Jacoby Jones, Tandon Doss, Deonte Thompson, David Reed, Aaron Mellette and any other WR darts they decide to throw will land as a reliable No. 2 receiver. Boldin was a huge piece of the Ravens' Super Bowl run, so even if TEs Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson pick up some slack, replacing Boldin will be difficult. The mountain will be even harder to climb if Torrey Smith can't handle the No. 1 role or improve on his 49-catch total from last season.
Breakout player: Corey Graham, CB. Running back Bernard Pierce is almost too obvious an answer at this point. Graham, meanwhile, finds himself in a terrific situation as Baltimore's No. 2 corner, after successfully replacing Lardarius Webb (the team's No. 1 CB) last season. Graham more than held his own during the regular season and picked off two passes in Baltimore's playoff win at Denver.
Where they stand: The defending champs traversed a whirlwind offseason and emerged as one of the AFC favorites again. With a shiny new $120 million contract, Joe Flacco will have to prove again that he's worth those bucks, and the Ravens' lack of go-to receivers will challenge Flacco in an entirely new way. Baltimore's defense, despite having all sorts of talent, also has to prove it can thrive without Lewis and Ed Reed, its heart and soul for a decade-plus. A tough schedule and challenging division await, but Baltimore has the pieces necessary to capture a second straight title.
Where they got better: In the passing game -- and maybe in the run game, too, depending on what Giovani Bernard can bring there. There is little question, though, that the Bengals are expecting the versatile Bernard (47 catches at North Carolina last season) and multi-level threat Tyler Eifert to help Andy Dalton crank up the aerial attack. Eifert's ability to line up pretty much anywhere, despite his designation as a tight end, should come in handy for a team that's yet to find a reliable No. 2 WR to complement A.J. Green.
Where they got worse: Possibly at linebacker. Much of the verdict will come down to whether or not ex-Steeler James Harrison has anything left in the tank after a frustrating 2012 season. Harrison also has to adjust from the Steelers' 3-4 to the Bengals' 4-3 (though his main mission still will be to rush the passer). Next to him, the Bengals held on to Rey Maualuga, and coach Marvin Lewis says he'll keep Maualuga in the middle, despite his awful showing there last year. Vontaze Burfict was a revelation last season, but can he carry the load if Maualuga and a breaking-down Harrison falter?
Breakout player: Shawn Williams, S. The Bengals' third-round pick in April, Williams could end up starting next to Reggie Nelson at safety. Williams is an aggressive, hard-hitting player who can come down into the box and help Cincinnati mask Harrison's and Maualuga's shortcomings.
Where they stand: The Bengals have made the postseason each of the past two seasons (and three of the last four), and there's no reason to believe they'll fall out of the picture any time soon. There is a solid base of young talent here, led by Green and DT Geno Atkins, and Cincinnati has surrounded them with enough pieces to believe that there could be a breakthrough coming for this squad. Is this the season the Bengals get over the top, both in the division and in the playoffs? If QB Andy Dalton is up to the task, it's very possible.
Signed QB Jason Campbell, QB Brian Hoyer, DT Desmond Bryant, OLB Paul Kruger, OLB Quentin Groves; traded for RB Dion Lewis, WR Davone Bess; drafted OLB Barkevious Mingo, CB Leon McFadden; hired HC Rod Chudzinski, OC Norv Turner, DC Ray Horton
Where they got better: Outside linebacker. The Browns are shifting to a 3-4 defense under new coordinator Ray Horton, so they put a premium on finding pass-rushers this offseason. They did just that in spades, ripping Paul Kruger from Baltimore, signing veteran Quentin Groves (who played under Horton in Arizona last season) and drafting Barkevious Mingo. Those three, plus returning Brown Jabaal Sheard, will be expected to provide most or all of the team's pressure on opposing quarterbacks. It could be a sensational group, too -- Kruger, Sheard and Groves combined for 20 sacks last season, while Mingo had 8.5 tackles for loss at LSU.
Where they got worse: Safety. OK, maybe the Browns did not get measurably worse at that position, but they certainly do not look better than they did in 2012. Cleveland released starting free safety Usama Young in April, then did very little to replace him outside of drafting Jamoris Slaughter (who tore his Achilles last September) in Round 6. Slaughter will try to knock Tashaun Gipson from the starting spot, next to SS T.J. Ward, but neither should breed too much confidence heading into the year. This is the one position of need that the Browns really neglected in the offseason.
Breakout player: Jordan Cameron, TE. Cameron showed promise last season, his second in the league. He finished with 20 catches for 226 yards and a touchdown. Expect those numbers to skyrocket in 2013, with the athletic, 6-foot-5 Cameron thriving in Rod Chudzinski's downfield-passing scheme. QB Brandon Weeden could use a favorite target, especially with WR Josh Gordon suspended two games to start the year, and Cameron may be it.
Where they stand: After five seasons with an average of 4.6 wins, the Browns will be better. This is a more talented roster than Cleveland has had in several years, with an impressive coaching staff to lead it. What will that all mean, in a very tough division? That's the million-dollar question for the Browns and their hungry fans. During that miserable five-year stretch, Cleveland won either four or five games each season -- no more, no less. Weeden may be the key to breaking that drought, because the schedule is relatively friendly and the roster ought to be a competitive one.
Where they got better: Safety. This is a two-fold improvement. 1. Troy Polamalu, after missing nine games last season with various ailments, reportedly is in his "best shape since his days at USC." And 2. Pittsburgh stole Shamarko Thomas in Round 4 of the draft, and the rookie provides the roster with exciting depth behind (for now) Ryan Clark at free safety. The Polamalu news should be particularly exciting for the Steelers, given how badly this defense has struggled to replace him when he's out of the lineup. At his best, Polamalu is a game-changer and a singular talent, capable of disrupting even the best offenses with his devil-may-care approach. Having him on the field completely alters the dynamic of the defensive unit.
Where they got worse: On the offensive line. Maybe Marcus Gilbert is ready to lock down Ben Roethlisberger's blindside a year after losing the majority of the season to injury. And maybe Mike Adams can make a leap forward at right tackle in his second NFL season. Barring significant improvement from pretty much everyone on this line (save center Maurkice Pouncey), though, Pittsburgh might spend the year lamenting the losses of tackle Max Starks and imposing guard Willie Colon. Those two longtime Steelers are elsewhere now -- Starks in San Diego, Colon in New York -- and they left behind a line that's a question mark at best.
Breakout player: Antonio Brown. The Central Michigan product more than adequately filled his role as the Steelers' No. 2 WR each of the past two seasons -- 69 catches for 1,100 yards in 2011; 66 for 787 last season. He figures to be the go-to guy now that Mike Wallace is in Miami, and both the talent and rapport with Roethlisberger is there. Brown is on the verge of stardom. Where they stand: The hardest team to peg in this division. Last season fell apart so rapidly for the Steelers, who were 6-3, then lost five of their next six games. Still, had they knocked off Cincinnati in Week 16, they might have been a playoff team, even in an off-year. Another summer of cost-cutting has left Pittsburgh with several new faces in the lineup again, as no fewer than six starters off the 2012 team were sent packing. But the defense still has ample playmakers and Roethlisberger's offense should be better. Baltimore and Cincinnati have knocked the Steelers down a peg or two in the AFC North. Just don't be surprised if Pittsburgh gets up off the mat and returns to the postseason.