AFC North Preseason Preview
In recent years the AFC North has been one of the most competitive divisions with 11 North squads in the playoffs the past five seasons as the division has snagged six wild card spots including taking both AFC spots in 2011 and 2014. The Bengals, Ravens, and Steelers have mostly shuffled around in the top spots in recent years with the one constant being a basement finish for the Browns. The scenario is expected to be similar in 2016 with the Browns being the only team in a major transition but there will be a lot to watch for in the North in the upcoming preseason.
Over/Under Win Total: 8.5 (EVEN OVER, -130 UNDER)
Odds to win the AFC North: 11/4
Odds to win the AFC: 14/1
Odds to win Super Bowl: 33/1
STAFF CHANGES: Former Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier is now the defensive backs coach with Matt Weiss moving over to linebackers coach after Ted Monachino was hired as the new Indianapolis defensive coordinator. Joe Cullen is now the defensive line coach but Frazier is a big hire for John Harbaugh’s staff as he has a lot of credibility in the league and could easily be in line for a defensive coordinator position in the near future.
KEY POSITON BATTLE: Running Back
Six players are in camp for likely four spots as Justin Forsett’s lead role could be challenged. Lorenzo Taliaferro filled in admirably last season and he will get an opportunity. Veterans with experience including Trent Richardson and Terrance West will be looking to earn a backup spot while rookie Kenneth Dixon had a great career at Louisiana Tech and will be in the mix after being a 4th round draft pick.
OTHER POSITIONS TO WATCH: Tight End features four pretty big names with Benjamin Watson, Dennis Pitta, Crockett Gillmore and Maxx Williams on board. All four could make the team with the Ravens often utilizing the tight end in the offense but that would mean trimming the roster in other spots. The left side of the offensive line has some question marks with Eugene Monroe retiring while cornerback also is likely to feature a spirited battle for the defense.
SEASON OUTLOOK: Baltimore won the Super Bowl after the 2012 season and has finished 3rd in the AFC North each of the three seasons since, although they did make the playoffs in 2014. Last season’s 5-11 campaign was the worst since Brian Billick’s final season with the team and while a lot of signs point upward for the Ravens they sit in a division with two serious AFC contenders and moving up will be a challenge. Baltimore’s schedule is favorable early in the season as this is a team that needs to take advantage with a strong start. Several key games between fellow AFC wild card candidates are in the first two months and those games could make or break the season for the Ravens.
Over/Under Win Total: 9.5 (-135 OVER, +105 UNDER)
Odds to win the AFC North: 7/4
Odds to win the AFC: 8/1
Odds to win Super Bowl: 18/1
STAFF CHANGES: There was some speculation that Marvin Lewis could be let go after another playoff failure last season. That didn’t happen but offensive coordinator Hue Jackson headed across the state to Cleveland. Former quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese will be the team’s third offensive coordinator in three years. Cincinnati also lost three defensive coaches to other teams and Kevin Coyle has returned to the team to fill the defensive backs position under defensive coordinator Paul Guenther.
KEY POSITON BATTLE: Defensive Tackle
It is a good problem to have but Cincinnati has great depth on the defensive line and there should be a good battle to earn spots on the roster. Geno Atkins and Domata Peko are the presumed starters but DeShawn Williams and Pat Sims will make a push with Sims being a factor last season though his age and contract might make him expendable. Brandon Thompson might not be able to play right away coming off an ACL injury from late last season as he may be left inactive early in the season. Andrew Billings was also a 4th round pick that many graded much higher but concerns over a possible knee issue pushed the Baylor product back to the mid-rounds.
OTHER POSITIONS TO WATCH: At cornerback William Jackson III is a candidate to push for a starting spot as Cincinnati’s 1st round draft pick. Leon Hall left the team so there may be an opportunity but he will be in competition with 2014 1st round pick Darqueze Dennard and Dre Kirkpatrick and Adam Jones are still on the roster. With the departure of Marvin Jones and Mahomed Sanu there are openings at wide receiver. Brandon LaFell was signed and 2nd round draft pick out of Pittsburgh Tyler Boyd will get an opportunity to earn playing time as well. Brandon Tate seems likely to maintain a spot in the offense with his experience in the offense and capability to contribute on special teams as well.
SEASON OUTLOOK: The Bengals never seem to be the AFC North favorites but they have won three of the last seven division titles while making the playoffs six of the last seven seasons. Cincinnati has been 10-6 or better in each of the last four seasons and if Andy Dalton returns to form this is a team that should be considered a serious threat in the AFC, especially with the North teams appearing to have favorable schedules as a whole this season. The early season schedule is difficult, playing on the road vs. playoff contenders in four of the first six weeks plus hosting the Super Bowl champions as the pressure will on early this year coming off last season’s miserable ending with another devastating playoff loss.
Over/Under Win Total: 4.5 (-115 OVER, -115 UNDER)
Odds to win the AFC North: 20/1
Odds to win the AFC: 50/1
Odds to win Super Bowl: 100/1
STAFF CHANGES: Former Raiders head coach and 2015 Cincinnati defensive coordinator Hue Jackson will be Cleveland’s ninth head coach since the team was reactivated in 1999. Only Romeo Crennel lasted as long as four seasons and none have produced a winning record, although Butch Davis did lead the Browns to the playoffs with a 9-7 season in 2002. Former Colts offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton will be an associate head coach and will lead the quarterbacks as Jackson intends to lead the offense himself. Ray Horton was the defensive coordinator for the Browns in 2013 and he served in that role for the Titans the past two seasons. He is back in Cleveland to lead the defense for Jackson’s staff this season while Chris Tabor is a holdover running special teams.
KEY POSITON BATTLE: Quarterback
The Browns resisted drafting a quarterback in April and instead signed Robert Griffin III, who starred for the Redskins in his rookie season of 2012 only to fall out of favor with the organization. Josh McCown will be a veteran option if that plan fails with Austin Davis, who is also from the 2012 draft class, in the mix as well. Davis played in a handful of games for the Rams in 2014 and also filled in with mixed results last season before the Browns turned to Johnny Manziel.
OTHER POSITIONS TO WATCH: Linebacker appears to be an area with little stability for the Cleveland defense. Rookies Joe Schobert and Scooby Wright could compete for time with free agent Demario Davis as well as the other returning players on the roster. Eyes will also be on 1st round draft pick Corey Coleman and the wide receiver position with Andrew Hawkins and Terrelle Pryor also returning while the team still will be waiting on any chance that Jose Gordon could return.
SEASON OUTLOOK: After a modestly successful 7-9 2014 season the Browns fell back to 3-13 last year and in seven of the last eight years Cleveland has failed to top five wins. They are firmly expected to struggle in the AFC North this season and likely finish back among the worst teams in the league. Cleveland does have some promising matchups in the first two months of the season as it wouldn’t be impossible for the Browns to have a competitive start if Hue Jackson can find the right mix on offense as the defense should be capable. The late season schedule looks difficult as a slow start could spell a very challenging season as the best opportunities for wins should be early in the season.
Over/Under Win Total: 10.5 (-125 OVER, -105 UNDER)
Odds to win the AFC North: 13/10
Odds to win the AFC: 11/2
Odds to win Super Bowl: 12/1
STAFF CHANGES: Keith Butler took over for Dick LeBeau last season as the defensive coordinator for the Steelers and the results were promising with a high sack and high turnover unit that was very good against the run. The staff under Mike Tomlin remains mostly intact from last season with Todd Haley leading the offense. Tomlin is actually the fifth longest tenured head coach in the league with the same team and the stability for the organization makes the team one of the AFC favorites again this season.
KEY POSITON BATTLE: Safety
The secondary went through some ups-and-downs last season for the Steelers and it will be a position of interest in preseason action. Will Allen started 13 games last season for the Steelers but he was not re-signed. Robert Golden started three games early in the year at strong safety but played less late in the season although he was re-signed to a three-year deal. Shamarko Thomas has been mostly a bust for the Steelers and may be in his last opportunity to earn meaningful time on the field. Sean Davis was a 2nd round pick in the draft and the opportunity to take the spot is there.
OTHER POSITIONS TO WATCH: Kicker has been an interesting position for the Steelers in recent years as Josh Scobee was dismissed midseason last year. Chris Boswell did the job the rest of the season including hitting some big kicks in the playoffs but long-time Steelers kicker Shaun Suisham is back after missing last season due to an ACL injury. It seems likely Boswell keeps the job but Suisham will get an opportunity. Alejandro Villanueva and Ryan Harris could be in a heated battle at left tackle as the position was a weak spot for the team last season. Landry Jones and Bruce Gradkowski will also provide the Steelers with a battle for the back-up spot behind Ben Roethlisberger, who missed some time last season and seems to constantly make his way to the injury report.
SEASON OUTLOOK: As one of the most popular teams in the league and one of the most stable organizations the Steelers have almost always been considered one of the AFC favorites in recent years and that won’t change this season. Pittsburgh was very close to making the AFC Championship last season and the defense showed promising signs last season to go along with a very productive offense that should battle fewer injuries than last season. Optimism for Pittsburgh is also built on a schedule draw that many rate among the most favorable slates in the league.
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