Make Your Pick, The AFC North Is Up For Grabs
The Baltimore Ravens should be the set favorite to win the AFC North division, but due to some key rosters losses, the team has gone down this offseason rather than up or even.
The losses were heavy beginning with Ray Lewis retiring, Anquan Boldin's trade, coupled with the additional defensive losses of DE/OLB Paul Kruger, CB Cary Williams, and FS Ed Reed.
On draft day, the Ravens tried to fill these voids drafting S Matt Elam and LB Arthur Brown.
While the remainder has the potential to make the team, starting with DE/DT Brandon Williams, they are clearly developmental players, and for the Ravens to repeat their Super Bowl win, the rookies must play to the level of the their predecessors, which is a hard sell.
Looking to key in on those weaknesses are the Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers. The Bengals have retained their starting lineup and didn't take any big hits on defense. They managed to retain both Johnson and Maualuga, while adding rookies TE Tyler Eifert and RB Giovani Bernard, to add an additional receiving option and an upgrade in the backfield. They also added a rookie I'm a big supporter of, Margus Hunt, to line opposite of Johnson. Hunt has the speed and drive to put up big numbers in the Bengals' pass rush this season.
The Steelers lost James Harrison to free agency, but drafted a winner in Jarvis Jones, so the effect defensively should be minor. They continue to experiment with power running backs that do not spell immediate production at this level. Regardless, they drafted another potential starting power back, Le'Veon Bell. Their next big hit will be debated amongst Steelers' fans during the upcoming season.
Mike Wallace, who had one unproductive year after being Roethisberger's prime target (speed and possesion) for the prior three years of his early career in Pittsburgh, was allowed to walk and signed with the Miami Dolphins. This hit won't hurt too much since the Steelers drafted a very capable Marcus Wheaton in the 3rd round. The defense has the same resemblance of the one used last season, potentially better with a younger Jones manning the OLB position.
Interesting enough, the Cleveland Browns may also make a run at the division title, if they can get a starting QB named prior to the season. They are moving away from the WC set used last season to a more Air Raid offensive style under Norv Turner. If any player for the Browns should be happy with the change, it'll be QB Brandon Weeden, who found success at Oklahoma State manning an Air Raid offense.
The best part about the Air Raid, is it makes opposing defenses focus primarily on the passing game, which in turn can be very beneficial for the right running back to have a very productive year. The Browns have RB Trent Richardson leading the ground game, and he will enjoy a better season than last year's performance. Thus, the offense has a good chance of accomplishing the best production since rejoining the league in 1999. A key player in the pass happy Norv Tuner offense will be newly-acquired receiver Davone Bess. Bess opposite of Josh Gordon in the Air Raid will be very difficult to defend.
The defense switches back to the 3-4 and the Browns added some key players to their roster. Paul Kruger mans the big rush OLB, while 1st round draft pick "Keke" Mingo mans the opposite OLB, bringing speed to couple with Kruger's speed and strengths. The secondary was the chief concern heading into the offseason and the draft. They drafted Leon McFadden, a speedy corner who can start right away for a secondary that remains the thinnest depth concern entering the 2013 season.
The Browns are plugging a stronger and faster front seven to help take the pressure off of the secondary, which in turn would create less targeting down field and allow the secondary to produce better numbers and play vs. opposing pass games.
The big risk here, is if one of the starters goes down with an injury, they have literally no one who can step into the starting role with a solid amount of success. Buster Skrine was an effective corner last season, but also gave up plenty of long balls last year too.
Last season the best two teams in the AFC North finished with 10-6 records. The Bengals have the best shot at cloning last season's final record, but in all fairness 2013 could come down to the team that can remain above .500 (8-8 record) for the season. Every team is a candidate to win the division title, but there can be only one, and the stage is set for a vintage year in the AFC North.