Rejoice, ladies and gentlemen, for we are almost at the promised land that is the 2019 NFL season. Before we know it, the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears will be playing some real football on opening night. There’s plenty of new faces in new places around the league, but that’s no truer than in the AFC North where it feels like every team (with the possible exception of the Bengals) is significantly different than they were a year ago.
2018 Finish – 10-6, lost in wild-card round
Players to watch: Lamar Jackson, Earl Thomas, Mark Ingram Jr.
Projected record: 11-5
These Baltimore Ravens are your grandfather’s Baltimore Ravens, built around an elite defense and dominant run game designed to wear out and suffocate their opponents. Teams of this build are a true rarity in the modern game, but last season proved to be very effective after transitioning from old stalwart Joe Flacco to the rookie Lamar Jackson, going 5-1 in the regular season post-change.
Most of the core crew on both sides of the ball have returned, with the exception of Eric Weddle, who the Ravens replaced with Earl Thomas, Michael Crabtree, and John Brown, who was directly replaced in the draft in the form of Hollywood Brown and Miles Boykin, and CJ Mosley, who the Ravens are depending on promising in-house options to replace. Point is, the roster is relatively the same and how far said roster goes will depend on the development of Lamar Jackson.
If Jackson takes a leap as a passer, expanding beyond the occasionally explosive, yet usually inconsistent accuracy displayed as a starter last year, the Ravens should repeat as AFC North champ and win a playoff game or two. If he’s similar to the quarterback we saw last season, the Ravens will run the risk of being exposed as a one-dimensional team as they were for most of their season-ending loss against the Chargers last season in the playoffs.
2018 Finish – 9-6-1
Players to watch: Terrell Edmunds, James Conner, JuJu Smith-Schuster
Projected record: 8-8
Headed into the 2018 season, the Steelers find themselves in a position alien to them, as the perceived 3rd best team in the division behind the league-wide darling Browns (who we’ll get to momentarily) and the defending division champ Ravens. Despite trading perhaps the best receiver in the league Antonio Brown to the Raiders and (officially) losing Le’Veon Bell to the Jets, the Steelers should still have the firepower offensively to compete with just about everyone on the backs of Pro Bowl QB Ben Roethlisberger and third-year stars James Conner & JuJu Smith-Schuster.
Both Conner and Smith-Schuster excelled in larger roles during 2018, with both making the Pro Bowl and the latter finishing 5th in the league in receiving yards, and should take even greater steps forward this season. However, the concern for the Steelers comes in the form of their defense. During the 2018 season, both the inside linebackers and the entire secondary were glaring issues that cost them big time all season.
For the Steelers to prove their 2018 playoff absence was a mere aberration, they’ll have to depend on young draft capital invested in their weaker positions which includes 2018 first-round pick, Terrell Edmunds.
Edmunds, a safety, was thrown into the fire immediately for Pittsburgh with mostly poor results, but Edmunds did show some promise towards the end of the season. The Steelers will be banking on Edmunds to build on his end of season improvements and serve as a steady hand with playmaking capabilities at the safety position, something that has eluded Pittsburgh for years now.
2018 Finish – 7-8-1
Players to watch: Baker Mayfield, Odell Beckham Jr., Greedy William
Projected record: 10-6
In what can only be seen as a miracle from the heavens, the Cleveland Browns finally appear to be a competent organization with a talented roster primed for a playoff push out of the AFC North. All jokes aside, the job John Dorsey has done flipping a 0-16 roster into one of the better ones in the league on paper should be applauded.
As if firing Hue Jackson and unleashing Baker Mayfield in the second half of the season to finish 5-2 wasn’t enough, Dorsey has gone all-in with the acquisitions of Odell Beckham Jr. and Olivier Vernon to put the Browns in a position to succeed for the first time in forever. Now, as we all know, nothing in this league is won on paper and saying big names will translate into wins in much more easier said than done.
New head coach Freddie Kitchens had loads of success when promoted to offensive coordinator last year under Gregg Williams and showed a rapport with Mayfield that belied their inexperience together, but how will Kitchens fair in his first head coaching gig? How will the offensive line hold up after losing stud guard Kevin Zeitler in the Olivier Vernon trade? Can they replicate the rookie year success of Denzel Ward with 2019 2nd rounder Greedy Williams, who is projected to start opposite Ward this year?
The Browns will have to find these answers, preferably early on with the Ravens and Steelers poised to make runs at the division title as always, but having an offensive repertoire of Odell Beckham Jr, Jarvis Landry, Nick Chubb and David Njoku with young star Baker Mayfield, plus Myles freaking Garrett on the other side of the ball is a pretty, pretty good safety net to fall back on if the answers they receive aren’t the ones they’re looking for.
2018 Finish – 6-10
Players to watch: A.J. Green, Geno Atkins, Joe Mixon
Projected record: 4-12
In a division with three teams with clear playoff aspirations, the Bengals have settled into a transitional period. The franchise finally parted ways with long-time head coach Marvin Lewis after finishing 2018 last in the AFC North, hiring Rams QB coach Zac Stacy as their new head coach in a blatant attempt to capture a bit of Sean McVay magic.
Stacy will be tasked with figuring out the assets he wants to move forward within the imminent rebuild, most importantly at the quarterback position with Andy Dalton entering his age-32 season. As for this season specifically, the Bengals have a problem with having top-end talent dispersed throughout the roster (AJ Green, Joe Mixon, Geno Atkins, William Jackson III, Jessie Bates III) but a huge drop off under those guys, exacerbated when looking at their dismal offensive line and linebacker corps.
The Bengals should be invested in prioritizing reps for their recent draft picks in John Ross, Jackson III, Bates III, Andrew Billings, and Jordan Willis. If Andy Dalton can catch a second wind and the young players on the roster can take a leap, the Bengals have a chance at making some noise in the AFC North, but as it looks now the Bengals are looking at the start of a rebuild under a new regime.