Last season was a bit of an anomaly in the rugged AFC North. The heated rivalry for division supremacy between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens seemed to wane. While the rivals split their two games, Baltimore made the playoffs and Pittsburgh did not; making it the just the second time in the past five seasons that the black and yellow didn’t make it to the postseason.
Taking over in the Steelers’ absence was the Cincinnati Bengals. The young guns in the division again made it to the postseason, giving them back-to-back seasons doing so. With the Bengals flashing a young roster and the Steelers showing more and more salt in their pepper, could a change in the division be coming?
For all the challenge over power at the top of the division, there was some continuity at the bottom: Cleveland finished last…again. But even the Dawg Pound is hopeful that this time the Browns have finally turned the corner after an aggressive offseason.
But it wasn’t just the Browns who had an aggressive offseason plan. Here’s how the division looks now as the offseason is over and we roll toward training camp.
Baltimore Ravens: 3rd
The Ravens will have the biggest target on the back of any team in league this season. They are the returning Super Bowl champions and the losses suffered in the offseason could be too great to make a repeat.
Not to mention they are now handcuffed to Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco. Their first franchise quarterback was rewarded with a six-year $120.6 million dollar deal. With the wealthy contract, the Ravens were forced to part ways with many vital veterans Anquan Boldin, Ed Reed, Paul Kruger, and Bernard Pollard.
Biggest Addition: Elvis Dumervil, OLB
Thanks to an epic kerfuffle involving a team, a player, and a fax machine, the Broncos were forced to cut one of their premier sack artists. Dumervil tallied 63.5 sacks with the Broncos and had a career best 17 while playing outside linebacker for the Broncos in 2009. He returns to the position in Baltimore which, in tandem with Courtney Upshaw, will help fans forget about losing Kruger.
Biggest Loss: Ray Lewis, ILB
He didn’t sign with another team, but Lewis did retire. The face of the franchise and the emotional leader for 17 years. Lewis was the live force of the Ravens and will be sorely missed. What makes the future hall-of-famer more missed? The abrupt retirement of Rolando McClain, leaving just rookie Arthur Brown and veteran Daryl Smith in the middle with little depth behind them.
Biggest Rookie Impact: Matt Elam, S & Arthur Brown, ILB
Elam and Brown, the teams first- and second-round picks, both will be counted on heavily and tested early. Brown is expected to man the middle of the linebacking corps, an ultra thin position with no clear second starter playing next to him. Elam will replace another future hall-of-famer in Ed Reed, who signed with Houston. Safety is another position that will see two new starters. How Elam and Brown produce could dictate how well the defense performs.
Breakout Player: Tandon Doss, WR
The third-year receiver will step into the slot position. With the departure of Boldin, the receiver position is another scarce position. Doss was a fourth-round draft choice back in 2011 and will be counted on in the slot as Jacoby Jones will now step up to start. He only has seven career receptions and will have to produce more in ’13.
Cincinnati Bengals: 1st
The Bengals are the verge of something big. Real big. The offense is talent loaded and the defense ranked sixth in the league last season. All Cincinnati has to do is get it all together on offense and with a nucleus of quarterback Andy Dalton and receiver A.J. Green, that could happen this season.
With the Ravens in transition, the Steelers getting old, now is time for the cats to pounce. They dedicated the draft to getting Dalton more weapons and that should prove to be the key, especially after bringing back the offensive line — one of the sturdiest in the league.
After being ousted in the first round playoff by the Houston Texans two years in a row, the Bengals should have the playoff experience to not let that happen again.
Biggest Addition: James Harrison, OLB
Stealing the ferocious Harrison from the Steelers is not only a great move but also a reflection of the times. Harrison, a defensive player-of-the-year with the Steelers, is now a member of the rival Bengals. Harrison however will have to drop into coverage more playing in a 4-3 defense versus the 3-4 which the Steelers run. If he can stay healthy and transition, Harrison will make a great defense greater.
Biggest Loss: Pat Sims, DT
Another reason the Bengals seem prime to take the division is they upgraded while not losing any key components. The biggest question mark was offensive tackle Andre Smith and he was resigned. Sims is their biggest loss as the the Bengals like to use a heavy rotation along their defensive front. Sims will start in Oakland but was a backup in Cincy.
Biggest Rookie Impact: Tyler Eifert, TE
With the dual-tight end formations becoming more and more prominent in the NFL, the Bengals went out and drafted a compliment to veteran Jermaine Gresham. Eifert has the versatility to provide an instant spark on offense. A moving chess piece at Notre Dame, Eifert is expected to be the same mismatch nightmare he was in South Bend.
Breakout Player: Mohamed Sanu, WR
As a rookie, Sanu had an impressive season despite playing only nine games. Limited by injuries, Sanu made the most of his playing time. Making three starts in those nine games, Sanu brought in 16 catches for 154 yards and four touchdowns. Not to mention, heaving a 73-yard touchdown to A.J. Green in Week 3. Fully healthy, Sanu should start opposite Green.
Cleveland Browns: 4th
It’s the same old song and dance in Cleveland. But could this actually be the time they got things right? A new owner in Jimmy Haslam, a new coaching staff consisting of head coach Rob Chudzinski, offensive coordinator Norv Turner, and defensive coordinator Ray Horton has people believing the Browns finally got things right.
Well the coaches have plenty of new players to coach and the players could provide a new mentality to the lackluster Browns. Big things could be in the works for the Cleveland Browns down the stretch if things pan out…of course that’s a big if.
Biggest Addition: Paul Kruger, OLB
Kruger left the division champs for the division losers. Odd? Yes, but money talks and Kruger was rewarded handsomely and will start on the outside as the Browns switch to a 3-4 defense. In four seasons in Baltimore, Kruger developed his skills and turned in his best season last year with 42 tackles and nine sacks. All career bests. If he continues, Kruger could haunt Baltimore.
Biggest Loss: Sheldon Brown, CB
No one can escape age. Brown’s contract ran up and remains a free agent. After slipping to 25th in pass defense last season, the Browns deemed a change was needed. Brown attributed seven interceptions and 34 passes defended in his three years in Cleveland. Those are numbers Cleveland hopes to get out of their slew of untested veterans and rookies as they seek to replace him.
Biggest Rookie Impact: Leon McFadden, CB
One of the leading candidates to replace Brown is McFadden. A three year starter at San Diego St., the diminutive corner (he’s 5’9″) is expected to be counted on early and often even if he is not deemed starter. McFadden finished his collegiate career on a high note breaking up 12 passes and tallying three interceptions.
Breakout Player: Chris Owens, CB
See the trend here? Corner will be a key spot to watch in training camp. Owens will be one of the veterans battling McFadden for a starting spot opposite Joe Hadden. A five-year vet, Owens played his first four seasons in Atlanta and started 12 games over that time. This will be his first shot to lock-down a starting gig and has already gained praise from head coach Rob Chudzinski who noted his “really good feet, mirror skills, and cover skills”.
Pittsburgh Steelers: 2nd
It was an off year for the Steelers and showed what could be a turning of the tides. The Steelers not only missed the playoffs but also posted their lowest win total of the past five years. In the wake of such a season and facing tight salary cap limitations hard decisions were made by the organization. The familiar faces of Max Starks, Casey Hampton, James Harrison, Mike Wallace, Willie Colon, and Rashard Mendenhall are gone. A new season with new faces, Pittsburgh will look to recapture the division without missing a step.
Biggest Addition: William Gay, CB
You could call this the biggest re-addition, Gay started for the Steelers in 2011 after playing with the team for four years previously. Last season he signed on with the Arizona Cardinals and again started 15 games. With the Steelers’ losing starter Keenan Allen to New Orleans this offseason, Gay provides experience and familiarity with the coordinator Dick Lebeau’s system.
Biggest Loss: Mike Wallace, WR
A thin wide receiving corps got even thinner when Wallace left. A proven target and legitimate deep threat, the absence of Wallace will put more pressure on Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders. The Steelers have only four veteran receivers on the roster and will need third-round rookie Markus Wheaton to step up and help provide a deep threat that is now missing opposite Brown.
Biggest Rookie Impact: Le’Veon Bell, RB
There’s a strong possibility that Pittsburgh’s first four picks will be tested from the get-go. The most tested, however, will be Bell. The former-Michigan State Spartan is the leading candidate to replace Mendenhall. Bell is a big bruiser who bulldozes through tacklers at 235lbs. In his lone season as a starter, Bell totaled nearly 1,800 yards and found the end zone 12 times.
Breakout Player: Cortez Allen, CB
A fourth-round draft pick in 2011, Allen saw increased playing time in his second season with the team. After tallying just 15 tackles in as many games as a rookie, the third-year player out of The Citadel notched three starts and totaled 55 tackles, 10 passes defended, two interceptions, and three forced fumbles. Allen could very well be growing into a top cornerback under our noses and with the steady Ike Taylor getting older, Steelers brass couldn’t be happier.
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