2019 NFL Season Preview: AFC North Edition

As the juggernaut of the AFC, the North could send three teams to the playoffs this season.

As a part of our preparation for the upcoming NFL season, my fellow FTS Writer Adam Simkowitz and I decided to dive deep into every teams’ offseason, picking the most interesting players and storylines to follow this season. Accompanying these players and storylines are draft class summaries, teams’ strengths and weaknesses, and record predictions. We’ll release two AFC and NFC division previews per week, and we now we’ll kick off the second week with the northern divisions.

Here are the previous division previews:

AFC East Preview

NFC East Preview

NFC South Preview

AFC South Preview

Baltimore Ravens

2019 Draft Grade: A- – As a Steelers fan, it pains me to see Baltimore continuing to draft well. They drafted three playmaking athletic freaks; Miles Boykin’s (WR) athletic profile is almost identical to D.K. Metcalf’s, Justice Hill (RB) is as explosive as any RB in this class, and Marquise Brown (WR)s pretty much a more refined Desean Jackson. Their offensive is slowly morphing into a powerhouse, but it all depends on whether or not Lamar Jackson can consistently throw the ball accurately. If his ball placement improves, the Ravens will wreak havoc on NFL defenses for the next 5-8 years with these playmakers. Trace McSorely (QB) looked really good this preseason, and he’ll likely make the final roster as a third QB. Jaylon Ferguson (EDGE) wreaked havoc at Louisiana Tech, and I think the second rounder will get a chance to showcase his pass-rushing prowess this season.

Player to Watch: Earl Thomas III, Free Safety – This is kind of a weak pick. Earl Thomas is a household name, and everyone knows how dominant he can be. I’m just really interested in seeing the impact that he will have on the Ravens’ defense. Thomas III is a rare talent, and he’s one of the most valuable and impactful defensive players in the NFL at a position that isn’t traditionally viewed as valuable. He’s coming off of a broken leg, and he’ll be 30 years old this season. I think that he was by far the most important free agent signing this offseason, and I really believe he can change this Baltimore defense.

Positional Strengths: Cornerback, Safety

Positional Weaknesses: Wide Receiver

Projected Record: 9-7

Cincinatti Bengals

2019 Draft Grade: B- – Jonah Williams (OT) at #11 is my favorite pick of the draft, and it’s not close. It’s a damn shame that he’s already landed on the IR. The Bengals haven’t had the best injury luck with their recent first round picks. The second round pick of Drew Sample (TE) fills the hole left by Tyler Kroft and the oft-injured Tyler Eifert, and Germaine Pratt (LB) will add depth at inside linebacker, their weakest position. Rodney Anderson (RB) had potential to get some touches backing up Joe Mixon this year, but he went down with a torn ACL this preseason.

Player to Watch: Carl Lawson, Edge Rusher – This is a true sleeper pick. I pretty much had to choose an obscure player though, because the Bengals suck. Last year, Lawson played in seven games. He registered 25 pressures in these games while playing only 225 defensive snaps, according to Pro Football Focus. He’s an efficient pass rusher, and that was just his second season. I’m really looking for another jump to be made by Lawson this year.

Positional Strengths: Running Back, Edge Rusher

Positional Weaknesses: Offensive Line, Linebacker

Projected Record: 5-11

Cleveland Browns

2019 Draft Grade: B+ – Browns’ General Manager John Dorsey has proven again and again that he has a ridiculous eye for talent. Greedy Williams (CB) was one of my favorite picks of the draft, falling all the way to the mid-second round due to tackling concerns? Denzel Ward and Greedy will make for one of the scariest secondaries in the NFL come ~2022. I don’t love the selections of Sione Takitaki and Sheldrick Redwine, who are also two of my nominees for the best worst names of the draft. Redwine fills the Browns’ only true need at safety though, and I like his athletic profile. Mack Wilson is a young, raw inside linebacker who showed glimpses of coverage skills and natural instinct in the preseason. I absolutely believe that the Browns could turn him into an impact starter, and I bet we’ll see him this regular season.

Player to Watch: Myles Garrett, Edge Rusher – There’s currently a clear tier of transcendent defensive talents in the NFL. It consists of Aaron Donald, Khalil Mack, Von Miller, and Bobby Wagner. By the end of this season, Myles Garrett will be included in this tier. This year will be his third season in the NFL, and this offseason has seemed to be the trademarked “I’m going to morph into an absolute physical monstrosity this year” offseason, as made popular by athletes like Victor Oladipo and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Myles Garrett has a shot at having a Defensive Player of the Year season, and I’m really excited to watch him wreck offensive tackles this year.

Positional Strengths: Wide Receiver, Quarterback, Running Back, Defensive Tackle, Defensive End

Positional Weaknesses: Offensive Line, Linebacker

Projected Record: 10-6

Pittsburgh Steelers

2019 Draft Grade: A – For the seventh year in a row, the Steelers have drafted a defensive player in the first round. And in the words of fellow FTS writer Adam Simkowitz, “Their defense is still not good.” HOWEVER, I really like their draft class this year. This totally isn’t the Steeler fan in me talking, but I believe in a Devin Bush (MLB) DROY run this year. They’ve had a need for a good corner for about 25 years, so I’m guessing that third-round pick Justin Layne (CB) is the answer. Diontae Johnson (WR) is a wideout that severely underperformed in the combine, but his on-field speed is unreal. He’s undersized, he creates separation at an elite level, and he’s one of the best route-runners in this class. Overall, it was a solid draft for the Steelers. Much better than last year.

Player to Watch: Devin Bush, Linebacker – My expectations for Devin Bush are way too high this year. But they’re totally justified. The rookie from Michigan is one of the most electric linebackers I’ve ever watched in college football, and his combine numbers backed that on-field speed up. He led all Steelers in tackles in the preseason, he was literally everywhere on the field at all times. He’s an inside linebacker that can move from sideline to sideline as quickly as anyone, and he still has insane pass-rushing efficiency, which is a skill that is needed in Keith Butler’s defense. I’m expecting a defensive rookie of the year award for Bush, and I will accept nothing less.

Positional Strengths: Quarterback, Defensive End, Running Back

Positional Weaknesses: Cornerback (Just for now, don’t sleep on Cam Sutton and Mike Hilton)

Projected Record: 11-5

STORYLINES TO WATCH

The Good, the Bad, and the Bengals – The AFC North will most likely be the best division in the AFC this year, and they’re really only being challenged by the AFC West. The Steelers, Browns, and Ravens are all teams that are worth paying close attention to, they’re all capable of making deep runs in the playoffs this year. The Bengals on the other hand, are extremely bad. Just check out their linebacking corps. They literally have four linebackers on their roster. Their offensive line is a mess; they have a fourth-round rookie starting at guard, the corpse of Cordy Glenn at tackle, and their 2018 first-round pick Billy Price has been benched in favor of Trey Hopkins, a former undrafted player.

The Baltimore Ravens’ Offense – This season, the Baltimore Ravens are going to run the ball with a passion and ferocity that the NFL hasn’t seen since the 1970’s. Their new offensive coordinator is Greg Roman, who was the mastermind behind Colin Kaepernick’s record-breaking rushing performances in the early 2010’s. Lamar Jackson is one of the most exciting quarterbacks I’ve ever watched, and his running abilities are going to be absolutely unleashed this season. While the entire NFL is turning toward a pass-first, play-action heavy offensive approach, the Ravens are attempting to do the contrary.

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