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GZL14 | AFC North | Breaking through Steel?
By John Stanley
Special to gzl-football.com

GZL DIVISION PREVIEW
AFC North
Friday, January 11th, 2014
John Stanley, GreenZone Media Committee




Can the Steelers return to glory under HOF GM Ricky Lung? That is one of the many questions surronding the AFC North this year. The Steelers have been the one constant in the division since GZL opened its doors. They have won 75% games and are now with their 3rd GM, but much of their roster remains the same from when the won the Super Bowl just 2 seasons ago. Ricky Lung has come in and added his own twist to the roster, and it will be interesting to see if that will be enough to bring PIT back to the top where they belong.

On paper, the Baltimore Ravens should join the Steelers atop the division fighting for the division and a playoff spot. The Ravens have been just about average in their first 4 GZL seasons going 36-28. Since GM Joe Gaspar has taken over, however, the Ravens have been aggresive in trades and added lots of talent to the roster. Gaspar went (9-7) in his first year and will almost certainly improve on that record in this coming year. Loaded on offense, and improved on defense, the Ravens are poised for a deep playoff run. They will be a team to watch in the AFC.

Then there is the Browns and Bengals. Two teams who have taken different paths to this point, but now are largely the same. Both teams are young teams, who have young QBs at the helm, and they could very well struggle to win a lot of games this year. With that said, both teams are moving in the right direction. GM Brad Mallett in CLE has had the team steadily improving from year one to now, and while I project a step back in this coming season, it isn't because of a lack of talent but has more to do with the inexperience of the talent they do have. Mallett has CLE going in the right direction, but they just won't become playoff caliber overnight, especially with a young QB still learning his way. CIN on the other hand was very successful in their first 3 seasons, making the playoffs each year with identical (10-6) records, but they took a step back in year 4. They have a talented roster on defense, but are very young and inexperienced on offense. It could be another trying year in CIN, but the talent is there, like CLE, it just will take time and patience for both teams to realize that talent.



Baltimore Ravens

Key Additions:
CB Demarcus Milliner (Draft)
CB Sanders Commings (Draft)
CB Eric Victorino (Draft)
C Sedrick Strong (Draft)

Key Losses:
FB Le’Ron McClain (Cut)
CB Nnamdi Asomugha (Contract Expired)
CB Domonique Foxworth (Trade)
FS Tom Zbikowski (Cut)
DT Jacques Bailey (Trade)
C Chris Chester (Cut)

Strengths:
There really wasn’t a whole ton of movement from the Ravens this offseason, and I don’t think they needed much. Most of their football team could be considered a strength, but you have to love the combo of big-armed QB Joe Flacco and stud HB Adrian Peterson. The two of them on their own could win you a lot of games. Add to that a pretty solid receiving core and top OL, the Ravens are poised to put up a lot of points. On defense, they are also very good across the board. Their DLine is stocked with stud players like Da’Quan Bowers and Haloti Ngata, and at the next level players like Manti Te’o, Sergio Kindle and Dannell Ellerbe are also very good. In the secondary they are ultra-talented but young. They were able to trade up and add DeMarcus Milliner the stud CB out of Alabama at 1.2, and also added 2 more CB with their next 2 selections. Paired with their two young safeties Dana Garcia and Mariano Mcgehee, the Ravens should boast a young and talent secondary.

Weaknesses:
If I am being honest, there really aren’t many weaknesses that can be seen on this Ravens team. They are talented on both offense and defense boasting some of the top and most talented players at a number of positions. If I had to nitpick though, one area that may hurt them this year is the youth in their secondary. While players like Milliner, Commings, and Victorino are all very good at CB, they are also all very young, which could hurt them if teams choose to attack them because of their inexperience. But like I said, that is merely nitpicking, this team is very talented and very deep across the board.

MVP:
HB Adrian Peterson

Prediction:
(11-5) I wanted to go 12-4 this year for Baltimore, but that’s a tough prediction to live up to. I think they can easily go 11-5 with the talent on this roster, with the chance to do even better. I think they’ll win the division, and at the very least get a WC spot.


Pittsburgh Steelers

Key Additions:
WR Devery Henderson (Free Agency)
LE Marcus Spears (Free Agency)
QB Matt Leinart (Trade)
LT Austin Laurie (Draft)
LE Margus Hunt (Draft)
LG Bull Victorino (Draft)
FB Tyson Benson (Draft)
DT Ron Brace (Free Agency)

Key Losses:
RT David Diehl (Cut)
LE Adam Carriker (Cut)
C Justin Hartwig (Contract Expired)
RG Willie Colon (Trade)
WR Limas Sweed (Trade)

Strengths:
The obvious strength of the Steelers is on offense. At QB they have one of the best in the league in Big Ben, with now a viable backup in Matt Leinart. Big Ben now has a nice group of WR/TE to throw to in Mike Wallace, Devery Henderson (added in FA), Emmanuel Sanders and Fendi Onobun at TE. The passing attack should be pretty potent and Big Ben should once again be one of the top passers in the league. They also still have Rashard Mendenhall to add some balance to the offense, as well as a very good OL strengthened with 2 draft picks along the left side in Austin Laurie and Bull Victorino.

Weaknesses:
While I mentioned the whole entire offense as a strength for this team, I will also mention the whole defense as a weakness. While there are some very good individual players on the defense, as a whole they are weak IMO. GM Lung looks to have moved to more 34 personnel up front with bigger and stronger DLineman and he also now boasts a slew of LB. With that said, the personnel up front on the DLine is just about average for a 34 scheme, and Ron Brace who looks to potentially be the starting NT is below average. The LB position could be the strength of an underwhelming defense as a whole, as they do possess players like Lawrence Timmons, Lamar Woodley, and Martin Butler. The thing that really concerns me though, is the age in the secondary. While experienced, CBs like Ike Taylor and Chris Gamble aren’t what they once were, and are now a step slow. That leaves two rather inexperienced players at CB in Jonathan Wade and Samuel Price which teams could attack if they begin to get more playing time then they should. Troy Polamalu at SS is also quite a bit slower than he was in his prime, which could cause them some more trouble back there. The only real legitimate player in the secondary is starting FS Jimmy Rivera.

MVP:
QB Ben Roethlisbergr


Prediction:
(10-6) Despite some deficiencies on defense, in the end, Big Ben is too good of a QB for this team not to be good.


Cincinnati Bengals

Key Additions:
CB Jason McCourty (Trade)
QB Ryan Tannehill (Draft)
LE William Gholston (Draft)
HB Eddie Lacy (Draft)
QB Collin Klein (Draft)
LOLB Arthur Brown (Draft)
WR Frank Foster (Draft)
DT Hansen Wood (Draft)

Key Losses:
CB Jonathan Joseph (Trade)
DT Pat Sims (Trade)
LE Dwight Freeney (Cut)
QB Carson Palmer (Trade)

Strengths:
The first obvious strength with this team is the talent on defense. In the secondary they have some great talent. At CB they have Leon Hall, Jason McCourty, Ras-I Dowling who are all very talented. At safety they also have a very nice tandem of Reggie Nelson and Brandon Meriweather. It will be tough to throw on Cincy. At the LB level they are loaded with veterans like Keith Rivers, Rey Maualuga and Geno Hayes and one of my personal favorite rookie LBs in Arthur Brown. On DLine they also have some talent with Domata Peko, Jarvis Moss and William Gholston. On defense, they are really talented and deep, which could be really beneficial if their offense falters early on with the inexperience that they have. On offense there are a few things I like, one of them being the OT tandem of Brandon Albert and Jonathan Cooper. They also have two pretty good TE in Gresham and Fauria. HB Eddie Lacy also has a lot of promise, but is still young.

Weaknesses:
The two big weaknesses on Cincy that will likely keep them from doing much this year is at the WR position and QB position. First, at WR they have a number of average talents but no true #1 weapon. Guys like Shipley, MSW, and Young are all guys that can be solid for an offense as a #2 or 3 WR, but as a #1, you are pushing it, especially with young QB. Which brings me to the next weakness, at the QB position. This weakness isn’t so much a weakness because of talent, per say, but rather that with the inexperience at the position, it will be a weakness this year. The Bengals actually took 2 QB in the top 2 rounds in Tannehill and Klein, and at this point it is unclear who will start. Tannehill projects more long-term upside, with Klein more ready to play right now. Whoever starts though, I still feel the same way, the team will struggle initially, just like any team does with young QBs. Couple that with average WR, weak interior OL, and also a rookie HB, and you probably won’t win a ton right out of the gate.

MVP:
CB Leon Hall

Prediction:
(6-10) The Bengals roster is actually pretty talented, especially on defense, but with young players at QB and HB, and the lack of talent at the WR position, I think the team will have trouble winning this year.


Cleveland Browns

Key Additions:
WR Patrick Edwards (Draft)
K Patrick Gostowski (Draft)
LT Matt Summers-Gavin (Draft)
LE Gutierrez Rivera (Draft)
LG Eric Steinbach (Free Agency)
RT Cornell Harrell (Trade)

Key Losses:
RG Davin Joseph (Trade)
QB Vince Young (Cut)
WR Robert Meachem (Cut)
FS TJ Ward (Cut)
RE Phillip Merling (Cut)

Strengths:
Like the Ravens, the Browns didn’t make a ton of additions in the offseason, but they did add a few talented players in the draft. The real strength of the team for the Browns lies with HB Peyton Hillis. When healthy, he is one of the more productive backs in the league. Last year he was only able to play 6 games, but if he can play the full season, he should help young QB Boston Mallett play better. Along the OL the Browns are really talented with players like Joe Thomas and Alex Mack, along with Cornell Harrell, Jeff Otah, and Bryant McKinnie. They should be able to keep Boston Mallett upright and create some nice running lanes for Peyton Hillis. On defense, the Browns are pretty average but have a few really talented players surrounded by a number of more average, solid players. The Browns really have 1 star on every level on defense. On the DLine, they have Cameron Jordan, at LB they have D’Qwell Jackson and in the secondary they have Joe Haden. All 3 of them are some of the top players at their respective positions and help to make an average defense, better than average as a whole.

Weaknesses:
While talented, QB Boston Mallett is still pretty young and has some developing to do before he becomes a top passer in the league. His need for development could keep the Browns passing attack and offense as a whole towards the bottom of the league, but if the right balance between run/pass can be found, then Mallett can still be successful. It will be interesting to watch. On defense, as already mentioned, there are only a few top players surrounded by average players. Along the DLine, they lack a real bookend with Cameron Jordan and at DT they are merely average with players like Ahytba and Sammie Lee Hill. At LB, they are a little young, but do have some promising players in Rick Jones, Sean Spence and Ross Homan. In the secondary, they are pretty solid, so I wouldn’t consider that a weakness, but I do think the defense as a whole could struggle a bit and will be in the back half of the league. In addition, the passing game, I think, will also struggle until Mallett develops.

MVP:
HB Peyton Hillis

Prediction:
(5-11) I have the Browns going backwards a little bit. I think (7-9) was a pretty good year for them last year, and with the talent on the roster not really getting much better, and teams around them improving, it could be a tough year in CLE.


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