Posts Tagged ‘AFC North’

The dust has settled. The draft’s finished. Houston sent in the clown. Here are some of my predictions for the 2014 season for the AFC North.

Cleveland just okay, not great

I predicted Cleveland would become a playoff team on the assumption that Cleveland would draft wide receivers early and often. And that troubled-superstar Josh Gordon would be on the field. Cleveland failed to draft one wide receiver. Not even in the later rounds. They could’ve taken Odell Beckham at number eight. Instead they’re looking at Miles Austin, Earl Bennett, and Andrew Hawkins duking it out for starting jobs at wideout. Cue the laughter. Maybe in 2015 Cleveland will be a power team. They could draft Amari Cooper and Josh Gordon will be back.

The way things are now, Ben Tate will get injured about week six, and the Browns will be relying on a couple of rookies on offense (Manziel, Terrance West) to keep them in games. Maybe the Browns go 8-8, but they don’t look like a playoff caliber team anymore.

Pittsburgh returns to relevance

The Steelers reestablished their brand with a pair of tough defensive linemen (Stephon Tuitt, Daniel McCullers) and athletic linebackers (Ryan Shazier, Jordan Zumwalt) in the draft. Shaquille Richardson and Wesley Johnson should help stabilize positions of need. Wide Receiver Martavis Bryant should fight for the number two spot with Markus Wheaton and both will play a major role in the offense with Lance Moore stepping in as a role player. Dri Archer is a natural complement to bruising LeVeon Bell and LeGarrette Blount. Pittsburgh’s offense will have greater ability to spread defenses out and ultimately win double-digit games this season. I expect week seventeen to be the deciding match for the Steelers and Bengals to win the AFC North.

Cincinnati – Searching for an identity

Cincinnati has a strong defense with inconsistent QB play. The drafting of Jeremy Hill suggests the Bengals want to be a power run team..? A.J. Green and the Gresham/Eifert duo combine for a strong passing attack. WR Marvin Jones has demonstrated a nose for the endzone with ten touchdowns on only 51 receptions. Cincinnati can get by on talent against the NFL’s weaker teams, but to stay competitive against Baltimore and Pittsburgh they’ll have to get more consistent. The drafting of A.J. McCarron sends a clear signal to Andy Dalton that his job is not secure without improvement. If Dalton plays like Dalton, expect to see Cincinnati end the season with 9-10 wins.

Baltimore at a crossroads

A healthy Dennis Pitta, bringing in Steve Smith and the drafting of Mike Campanaro into the offense should help Ravens fans forget about the offensive ineptitude that plagued Baltimore in 2013. Colorado State TE Crockett Gilmore looks like he’ll replace departed Ed Dickson. Ray Rice, even if he misses no time struggled last season. We may see Bernard Pierce taking more handoffs with Rice’s on and off-the-field struggles.

Baltimore added three potential starters with their first three selections in C.J. Mosley, Timmy Jernigan, and Terrence Brooks. If Baltimore can stay healthy, they can make the AFC North one of the toughest divisions in football. The Ravens have a very beatable schedule. Baltimore should near the 9-10 win mark like Cincinnati in 2014.

The Cleveland Browns have been a franchise in turmoil for the past several years. In 2013, they fired their head coach after another embarrassing 4-12 season. But the front office showed some promise. They sent young power running back Trent Richardson to Indianapolis for a first round pick. Hindsight has shown that Cleveland came out of that transaction as the clear victor. They start the 2014 season with former Bills defensive coordinator Mike Pettine running the show as head coach and two first round picks, one in the top five. In a shaky AFC North, Cleveland will become one of the AFC’s heavyweights and enter the playoffs taking the NFL by surprise with a veteran defense and balanced offense.

Pillars on defense:

Joe Haden, CB

Haden’s established himself as one of the league’s top corners. He doesn’t get the attention that Richard Sherman or Aqib Talib get because his team never ends up in the playoffs, nor does he run his mouth after a big win.

Donte Whitner, SS

Whitner replaces departed defensive back T.J. Ward. Whitner is a tough defender who will bring a high level of physicality to the defense.

Karlos Dansby, ILB

Dansby’s a seasoned veteran who brings leadership to replace the departed D’Qwell Jackson. Dansby’s shown he can be effective rushing the passer, in coverage, and against the run. He was a defensive powerhouse last season in Arizona and will make an enormous difference in Cleveland in 2014.

Pillars on offense:

Joe Thomas and Alex Mack, OL

Thomas is the most consistent left tackle in football. He hasn’t missed a start in seven seasons for Cleveland and always performs at a high level. Mack is one of the league’s top centers and unless he finds his way out of Cleveland he will be the leader of the offensive in line in 2014.

Josh Gordon, WR

Gordon took the league by storm last season by leading the league in receiving yards, even missing two games during the season, and having questionable at best quarterbacks throwing him the ball. If Cleveland can find a stable and competent QB situation, Gordon can blossom even further.

Jordan Cameron, TE

Cameron broke out this past season catching eighty passes for over 900 yards. Cameron’s presence on the team will make him a “safety valve” for a rookie or journeyman Quarterback in 2014.

Ben Tate, RB

Tate’s been a caged tiger his first five seasons in the NFL. Houston drafted him to be the starting running back, but suffered from an embarrassment of riches at the position as Arian Foster stepped up and outplayed even Tate at the position. Tate is only 25 years old and doesn’t have the wear and tear that other starting backs have at that age.

The Draft:

Sources trusted by NFL.com say Cleveland plans to spend their first pick in the draft on a non-passer (Clowney, Sammy Watkins, Khalil Mack, Jake Matthews, etc) and a later pick on a passer. If Clowney is not available, Cleveland may look to take Khalil Mack out of Buffalo. Mike Pettine made his name by rushing the passer at Buffalo so it makes sense for him to take well-crafted QB hunter like Mack or Clowney. Whether they select Clowney or Mack, they get out of the top ten with one of the draft’s elite pass-rushers.

If QB Derek Carr gets drafted by Oakland, Cleveland will have to settle for a passer like Zach Mettenberger, A.J. McCarron, or Jimmy Garoppolo. Mettenberger has ideal size for the position and a good combination of big-game experience and admirable passing statistics.

Other major needs Cleveland will likely address in the draft include right guard and wide receiver.

Cleveland can elect to use their late first round pick on a top-tier receiver like Brandin Cooks, Kelvin Benjamin, or Marqise Lee. Doing so would fill a major need for Cleveland and give their QB a variety of deep threats to choose from.

Cleveland should be able to select a guard later on in the draft in the caliber of Cyril Richardson from Baylor or Dakota Dozier from Furman to start right away at right guard.

The final product:

At the start of the regular season, the Browns’ starting lineup could look something like this:

QB: Zach Mettenberger
RB: Ben Tate
FB: Chris Ogbonnaya
LT: Joe Thomas
LG: John Greco
Center: Alex Mack
RG: Cyril Richardson
RT: Mitchell Schwartz
WR1: Josh Gordon
WR2: Marqise Lee
TE: Jordan Cameron

A receiving trio of Gordon, Lee AND Cameron, coupled with Ben Tate at running back makes Cleveland’s offense the most complete in the AFC North (considering Baltimore’s offensive collapse in 2013 and their total lack of receiving options).

Looking at Cleveland’s defense:

DE: Ahtyba Rubin
NT: Phil Taylor
DE: John Hughes
OLB: Khalil Mack
ILB: Karlos Dansby
ILB: Craig Robertson
OLB: Jabaal Sheard (Barkevious Mingo could step up and take this role if Coach Pettine feels he’s ready)
CB1: Joe Haden
CB2: Buster Skrine
SS: Donte Whitner
FS: Tashaun Gipson

Outside of an almost unknown defensive line, Cleveland can field a strong defense in 2014.

  • Tashaun Gipson nabbed five interceptions last season and will be part of a very talented secondary.

  • DT Phil Taylor, a product of the Julio Jones trade Atlanta made to move up in the draft back in 2011 has been a rock in the middle of the defensive line ever since.

  • CB Buster Skrine, not well known outside of Cleveland, has made enormous strides at the CB position since his first two seasons. Skrine may not ever end up in the highlight reel for sportscenter, but he’s provided consistent and reliable corner play in 2013.

With players like Barkevious Mingo, Khalil Mack, and Karlos Dansby, Mike Pettine can orchestrate his patented blitzing patterns and unlock Cleveland’s potential.

A balanced offense paired with a defense spearheaded by Joe Haden, Khalil Mack, and Donte Whitner will put Cleveland in the spotlight next season. This team will be in the playoffs.