Posted July 10, 2013

2013 NFL Preview: AFC North

AFC North, Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns, Division Previews, Pittsburgh Steelers
The Ravens should have a fearsome D-line in 2013 with Elvis Dumervil and others joining Terrell Suggs.

The Ravens should have a fearsome D-line in 2013 with Elvis Dumervil and others joining Terrell Suggs. (Bob Rosato/SI)

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.

Baltimore Ravens

Key moves: 

Additions:
Signed OLB Elvis Dumervil, DE Chris Canty, S Michael Huff, DT Michael Spears; drafted LB Arthur Brown, S Matt Elam

Subtractions:
LB Ray Lewis, WR Anquan Boldin, S Ed Reed, S Bernard Pollard, OLB Paul Kruger, CB Cary Williams

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.

Cincinnati Bengals

Key moves:

Additions:
Signed OLB James Harrison, QB Josh Johnson; drafted TE Tyler Eifert, RB Giovani Bernard; DE Margus Hunt, S Shawn Williams

Subtractions:
OLB Manny Lawson, CB Nate Clements, S Chris Crocker

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.

Brandon Weeden will be key for the Browns in 2013.

Brandon Weeden will be key for the Browns in 2013. (Jason Miller/Getty Images)

Cleveland Browns

Key moves:

Additions:
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

Subtractions:
WR Mohamed Massaquoi, TE Ben Watson, DE Frostee Rucker, CB Sheldon Brown, S Usama Young, K Phil Dawson, WR/KR Joshua Cribbs

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.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Key moves:

Additions:
Signed QB Bruce Gradkowski, CB William Gay; drafted OLB Jarvis Jones, S Shamarko Thomas, RB Le’Veon Bell, WR Markus Wheaton, QB Landry Jones

Subtractions:
RB Rashard Mendenhall, WR Mike Wallace, OT Max Starks, OLB James Harrison, G Willie Colon,  NT Casey Hampton, CB Keenan Lewis, S Will Allen, S Ryan Mundy

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.

38 comments
evanrc
evanrc

I do not understand the NFL sometimes.  Boldin was the integral key to the Raven's offence on so many occasions.  Why trade him with such haste?


MickeyfromPittsburgh
MickeyfromPittsburgh

Not so fast, please -- here and everywhere -- with coronation of the NFC West as the NFL's best. The Niners & Seahawks are exciting up-and-coming teams; I love to watch them. But. In last year's head-to-head in the SB, it was the Ravens who prevailed, scoring quite a few points on the vaunted Niners' D. And let's see if the Seahawks can sustain last year's success ... I think the real story of the current NFL is an interesting parity at the upper levels, with a lot of good teams and ongoing changings of various guards. 



DonG
DonG

The comments are very interesting.  My problem with them is what happened to proper spelling and grammar.  Is it time for schools to get back to basics?  Do your computers have spell check?

Bussman24
Bussman24

*Best Division in Football??  Maybe if you throw out the NFC West.  AFC North HAS been good and does have the defending champ but looking ahead to 2013 and beyond, no way they are better then the NFC West.  Baltimore is good, but not great... they had a great playoff run.  Pittsburgh is old as crap.  Cleveland is.... well, cleveland!!  Only Cincinnati looks like it's on the upswing.

And I'm a Skins fan, so no bias here.  I just know good football when I see it....

LayneWhite
LayneWhite

Oh yes! It is a great time to Steelers fan! 
I say that somehow, within the next 3 years we could see our entire division make it to the play offs somehow haha

Yes... even the Browns....

Orphan45
Orphan45

Ravens signed MARCUS Spears, who is Michael Spears?

Sulkaman
Sulkaman

The Browns could finally get in the conversation and be competitive in the division this year. Not saying they'll win the division, but I wouldn't overlook them on the schedule if your team plays them. I believe they did the most to improve their team during the off season. Particularly on defense.  And if you have a good defense you stick around in games and things happen.

BaxFootballGuru
BaxFootballGuru

The AFC North has sent at least 2 teams to the playoffs in each of the last five seasons. They've also sent 3 teams to the Super Bowl over that span. Quite a group...

Rickapolis
Rickapolis

Come on, you all, tell us again how Flacco isn't an outstanding QB. Oops, except he wins in the playoffs EVERY year.


RayHuggyBearYoung
RayHuggyBearYoung

@DonG People want the speed of getting a comment up and ignore the red lined words.  I am guilty of it as well.  But back to football, as a midwest person this is my second least favorite division.  And this site says midwest is a misspelling. 

BrendanMiles
BrendanMiles

@Bussman24 "Baltimore is good, but not great... they had a great playoff run"....isn't  the playoffs when great teams are supposed to come good?

nfinitwordsfoto
nfinitwordsfoto

@Bussman24 They are the best division in football if you remove the NFC (all of them) and the AFC West. 

Any division that's probably going to have Cincy as it's best team sucks. 

Bussman24
Bussman24

@BaxFootballGuru key word.... 'sent'.... if you replace that with 'will send', I don't think you'll see the same statistics.

jbc123
jbc123

@Rickapolis  Rick, Trent Dilfer, Doug Williams, Jeff Hostetler,Brad Johnson, and Jim McMahon all won Super Bowls. My guess is that Flaco fits right in with these guys rather than with the more exalted names that also won the game. He did have one heck of a 'contract year' though. Too bad they had to wreck the team to pay him. One and done.

nfinitwordsfoto
nfinitwordsfoto

@Rickapolis I agree that Flacco is a middle of the pack starter as far as NFL quarterbacks go.  Too much credit and too much blame goes to a QB on the team that wins and loses but I will say that Flacco did get hot and was playing really well during the playoffs this year but it was far above his normal level of play. 

I always hate when people cite a qb as better because of winning or not winning though.  You have to do the same thing for every position on the field.  Using the logic of Flacco is awesome because the Ravens team won the superbowl this year, the same would be said for Albert McClellan.  He only beat Patrick Willis in the superbowl so he's clearly better.  All he does is win.

BaxFootballGuru
BaxFootballGuru

@Bussman24 @BaxFootballGuru Not sure what you mean. I stated a fact. It's 5 straight years not 6. You can speculate if you want, I just gave you the facts which you can't dispute. Is it the best division in football? I just gave you the facts. I didn't make a prediction...

Orphan45
Orphan45

@jbc123, you, are an idiot. Doug Williams was an excellent QB throughout his career, and McMahon was very good.  Trent was above average and Hostetler was pretty good.  Brad Johnson was smart but not gifted.  Flacco (TWO c's) is probably closer to Doug Williams than any QB you mentioned.  Is he on Peyton's or Brady's levels?  No, not yet, but he can and MAY get there, he is in his 2nd contract, year 1 so we will see from here on out.  But if you are JUST including this one past year you are showing you have no concept of history nor Joe's career. 5 years, 5 playoff appearances, 3 AFC Championships 1 Super Bowl and it could have been 2 had Lee Evans had held onto the perfectly placed pass in the end zone.

Do you support the Steelers and Big Ben?  What did HE do in his first 5 years?  Do you consider HIM "Elite"?  Joe Flacco has done something NO OTHER QB has EVER done.  Just by definition of the word, this makes Joe elite.  And as for your more than limited knowledge of NFL salary caps and contracts, the team actually freed UP money by giving Joe his contract, money they sorely needed because they were cap strapped.  Had they NOT signed him, they would have had to cut many more players and not been able to sign the FAs that they did.

Annabel
Annabel

Your statement "Too bad they had to wreck the team to pay him." is just plain wrong and you clearly have no idea what you are talking about.  

Flacco's cap number in 2013 is $6.7M and $14M in 2014.    Only half of the $120M is guaranteed. He essentially got a 3 year deal.  Contract will be redone after he gets his 60M in 2015.


Anyway, given the cap numbers in 2013 and 2014 it is clear that his salary had nothing to do with Lewis & Birk retiring, Ed Reed getting old, injured and overpaid, Pollard being a bigmouth that Harbaugh did not like, Kruger getting overpaid by Browns, etc..  The only mystery is not keeping Boldin for one more year.  Regardless, Flacco's contract had nothing to do with any of these personnel moves. 

Orphan45
Orphan45

@nfinitwordsfoto @Rickapolis Sadly both of you fail to realize that Peyton is a better QB during the season and may end up being considered one of the greatest of all time, but his playoff record is far worse than Flacco's and Joe has had playoff success ALL 5 YEARS he has been in the league.  No OTHER QB can say the same.  At the end of the day, we fans may love our QBs have 5K yards and 50 TDs and only 8 INTs, but the owners and GMs look at Ws & Ls, and playoff wins and THOSE are the opinions that ultimately matter.  And for the record @nfinitwordsfoto, McClellan doesn't play ILB like Patrick Willis does, he's an OLB/ DE.


nfinitwordsfoto
nfinitwordsfoto

@Rickapolis If Flacco plays more like playoffs Flacco this year and not like regular season Joe, then I'll give him his due but I suspect that he's a product of his system more than anything else.

Randy26
Randy26

@Orphan45 @jbc123 Yes, in his first 5 years.  His first year was the 2004 season.  2005 season: Super Bowl.  2008 season: Super Bowl.

8 playoff wins, 2 Super Bowls in his first 5 years.  Flacco can have that extra win : P

nfinitwordsfoto
nfinitwordsfoto

@Orphan45 @jbc123 Joe did NOT do it by himself.  There's 21 other starters on the field.  Are every single one of them elite?  Nope. Some of them were average and a few of them might even have been below average. 

Randy26
Randy26

@Orphan45 @jbc123

"Do you support the Steelers and Big Ben?  What did HE do in his first 5 years?"

He won twice as many Super Bowls as Flacco.  

nfinitwordsfoto
nfinitwordsfoto

@JayStern @jbc123 @Annabel If it wasn't for Torrey Smith getting incredibly lucky to be wide open against Denver, Flacco would not have been in last year's superbowl. 

You can't quote the luck only when it suits you.  A lot of stuff in the game comes down to a lucky play. 

Orphan45
Orphan45

@JayStern and just like that you show what YOU know about football.  You are relying on what you say "fantasy geeks think"?!?!?  As Ray Lewis said in his Old Spice commercial, this is not fantasy football, this is for real football.  At the end of the day, STATS are only FOR fantasy football.  Wins and losses are for REAL football.

Orphan45
Orphan45

@jbc123 Pollard did NOT leave for $, he left because he was cut.  Kruger had 2 years of solid production after 3 years of wasting space.  Had Suggs not gotten hurt, it could have be argued that that last year would not have been so good.  But he did deserve a pay day that the Ravens would have never paid him even IF they didn't have to give Joe his contract.  Reed was offered a fair deal 2 years at 12M but opted to take his talents to Houston for 2 years at 15M.  Could Ozzie have paid him that?  Maybe, but to what end?  As much as it pains me to see him in any other uniform, he is not going to give them 16 games and it was past time for new blood in the Defense.

JayStern
JayStern

@jbc123 @Annabel jbc.... liars figure and figures don't lie. All the fantasy geeks think Joe Flacco is "average" because he, well has played average....

Two things.One:  Flacco played under Cam Cameron's direction. Enough said. Look up Cam's QB's and see what they did AFTER they left Cam. Two: Joe has stepped up every year in the playoffs. If it wasn't for Lee Evans' drop and Cundiff's choke, the Ravens would have played in the last two SB's. Not too shabby for an average Joe..... and for less than $7 mil a year.

jbc123
jbc123

@Annabel Kruger, Pollard , and Reed all left for $. Nice to see the moderator is on the job.

jbc123
jbc123

@Annabel  I just looked up the Flaco contract and the effect a signing bonus has on the team. The whole $29 million bonus counts against the cap on the year following a players release, or is prorated if he stays. If you don't think the teams have to count a couple of years down the line when figuring these numbers,I think you're missing the point. Every dollar has to be planned and accounted for.

Annabel
Annabel

@FeliciaFitzgerald@dbumWant to talk rare mistakes?  Ravens let  Trindon Holiday become the first player in NFL history to have a pair of return touchdowns in the same playoff game.  If not for that, Ravens would have been running out the clock instead of throwing a hail mary.  Flacco was 18 of 31 for 331 yards and 3 TDs and 0 Interceptions.  He outplayed P Manning (28 of 42 for 290 yards, 3 TD and 2 Interceptions).  Again, Flacco outplayed Manning.

FeliciaFitzgerald
FeliciaFitzgerald

@dbum I disagree with your analysis.

If you remember correctly, the Ravens were losing to the Broncos in the playoffs. The only (ONLY!!!) reason the Ravens made it to the playoff was because of a ridiculous long bomb that some goofball defensive back allowed to be completed in the waning seconds of the game. 

That was a one in a septillion mistake. It's not going to happen again on planet Earth until after the next ice age - and it had nothing to do with Joe Flacco's skill at QB.

BillMueller
BillMueller

@nfinitwordsfoto @Rickapolis Joe Flacco was being held back by Cam Cameron and his offensive line until the week after the loss to Denver. He has the strongest arm in the NFL and something people don't realize is that he places his passes where either his receiver will catch it, or nobody will catch it. 11 touchdowns and 0 interceptions in the playoffs. Joe will be fine.

Sportsfan18
Sportsfan18

@dbum @nfinitwordsfoto @Rickapolis   Is Brady a product of his system?  I say yes and no.  He's a great QB and would do well on other teams too, but not as well as where he's at.  What is my proof?  Matt Cassel.  He went 11 - 5 when Brady was out the entire year.

How has Cassel done while not playing with the Pats?

Want more?  Thought so.

Cassel completed 63.4% of his passes the year he led the Pats.  His career average is only 58.9% and that is helped by the full yr at 63.4%.  Guess being the QB for a whole yr with the Pats helped him.

Oh, Brady's career completion % is 63.7%, basically the same as Cassel's 63.4% the year he led the Pats.  Brady obviously had to be below 63.7% at times for that to be his average.  This means another QB, Cassel was able to complete passes much better than he has in his career when he had the keys to the Patsmobile for a whole season.

More?  Yes, we want more.

Cassel threw an INT on 2.1% of his passes the year he led the Pats for the whole season.  Wanna guess what Brady's career INT% is?  Correct, it's 2.1%

Wow, another QB completing passes at the same clip and throwing INT's at the same clip as Brady when he played QB for the same team Brady plays with.

Oh, Cassel's career INT% is 2.9% which was helped by the full year at 2.1%.

Brady IS a wonderful QB and he'd do well on other teams.  He IS a much better QB than Cassel.  But when a good to great player is on a good to great team, well careers like Brady's come about...

All I'm saying is that Cassel would have a much better career and numbers if he was the QB for the Pats every year of his career.

nfinitwordsfoto
nfinitwordsfoto

@dbum @nfinitwordsfoto @Rickapolis That's all I'm saying Dbum.  His work through the playoffs is a small sample of his overall career which stacks up right about in the middle of starting QB's.  In order to call him elite, he needs to do it through a season and he has yet to do that. 

I did say I'd give him his due if he does, but until then, the overall numbers and the eye test, tell me he's average. 

dbum
dbum

@nfinitwordsfoto @Rickapolis gotto critique the "product of his system" crap. people have been saying that about brady for his whole career. a quality offensive or defensive system can indeed help a player perform better. but within limits. flacco won a superbowl with what was at that point a mediocre defense and few playmakers at offense (ray rice-elite, torey smith is too inconsistent). it takes some serious skill to accomplish what he did last year.

i do agree with you that he seemed to really get on a roll throughout the end of the season and into the playoffs. he showed everybody he has the talent, now he needs to prove he can focus and put in the work to maintain that level consistently.