Tuesday, June 19, 2012
AFC North: More or Less
By Jamison Hensley
After running the numbers, ESPN.com pro football writer John Clayton arrived at a win total for every team in the division for 2012. Is the figure too high, too low or spot on?
CINCINNATI BENGALS: The Bengals didn't sit pat after last season's surprising 9-7 season and a trip to the playoffs. Cincinnati had one of the most productive offseasons in the league, even though it didn't make a splash with a big-name signing. The Bengals' prize in free agency was former Patriots running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who provides more ball security and a bigger punch in the red zone than Cedric Benson. There was a significant upgrade at both guard positions with free agent Travelle Wharton and first-round pick Kevin Zeitler.
The biggest question is who will start at the No. 2 wide receiver spot opposite A.J. Green. After losing two of their top three wide receivers from last season (Jerome Simpson and Andre Caldwell left in free agency), the Bengals didn't sign a wide receiver in free agency and didn't draft one in the first two rounds. Cincinnati will likely go with either Brandon Tate, Mohamed Sanu or Armon Binns.
The Bengals' defense returns nearly intact after finishing No. 7 last season. Leon Hall, the team's top cornerback, is looking to get back on the field by training camp after an Achilles injury ended his 2011 season. But the Bengals don't need to rush him back after drafting Dre Kirkpatrick in the first round and signing three former first-round cornerbacks in free agency: Adam Jones, Terence Newman and Jason Allen. Defensive end Carlos Dunlap is looking to become an every-down player this year and could have a Pro Bowl-type season.
More or less? The Bengals are determined to put together consecutive winning seasons for the first time since 1981-82, so they'll surpass Clayton's forecast. Cincinnati can reach a double-digit win total and make a run at the division title if quarterback Andy Dalton takes the next step in his progression.
CLEVELAND BROWNS: Fixing the NFL's 29th-ranked offense was the priority this offseason. The Browns used their first three draft picks on offensive players, and all three should start immediately as rookies. Running back Trent Richardson brings a hard-nosed style, quarterback Brandon Weeden adds much-needed arm strength and right tackle Mitchell Schwartz upgrades the weakest spot on the offensive line. Not to be overlooked is the hiring of Brad Childress as the team's offensive coordinator. But coach Pat Shurmur will still call the plays for the Browns.
Despite these additions, there are some major doubts about whether the Browns' offense will take the necessary step forward because of their wide receivers. Cleveland lacked speed and dependable hands (Cleveland was tied for the most drops in the NFL) at this position last season, and the Browns did very little to change that. The only new receiver who might make an impact is Travis Benjamin, a rookie fourth-round pick. Defenses aren't sweating over Greg Little, Mohamed Massaquoi and Josh Cribbs.
The Browns' defense has to figure out how to stop the run this year. Cleveland gave up 147.4 yards on the ground per game, which was an average of 43 yards more than any other team in the division. The addition of free-agent defensive end Frostee Rucker should help in this area, but the injury to defensive tackle Phil Taylor is a big blow to the defense. Taylor is trying to return by the first half of the season after tearing a pectoral muscle this offseason. Scott Paxson, John Hughes and Billy Winn are competing for Taylor's spot.
More or less? Clayton is spot-on with four wins, although I will put an asterisk by it. The Browns will be a much better team despite not improving on last season's win total. A challenging schedule, a tough division and a lack of playmakers in the passing game will lead to the fifth straight season of at least 11 losses.
BALTIMORE RAVENS: The Ravens came within a dropped pass of getting to the Super Bowl, and nothing has gone right since that painful AFC Championship Game. The key is how the AFC North champions respond to the loss of linebacker Terrell Suggs. The reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year partially tore his Achilles in April and is expected to miss a significant portion of the season. Suggs, who had a career-high 14 sacks last season, will be replaced by Paul Kruger, who has 6.5 sacks in his three-year career.
Baltimore is also dealing with the expected no-show of running back Ray Rice (franchise tag) this offseason, the unexcused absence of safety Ed Reed at mandatory minicamp, the weight issue of offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie and the loss of guard Ben Grubbs in free agency. The Ravens hope that Reed will report to training camp on time and McKinnie will lose the 9 pounds needed to get back on the field. There is no timetable for Rice, who could sit out most of training camp if he doesn't get a long-term deal by the July 16 deadline.
The area of concern is the offensive line. Baltimore is looking to replace a Pro Bowl left guard in Grubbs with veteran Bobbie Williams, a soon-to-be 36-year-old lineman coming off ankle surgery. If McKinnie struggles with his weight, the Ravens are going to have to think about shifting Michael Oher from right to left tackle and starting Jah Reid at right tackle.
More or less? It's difficult to go against a team that has gone to the playoffs every year under coach John Harbaugh (including two AFC Championship Games in four seasons), but this is the year when the off-the-field distractions cause the Ravens to drop off a bit. Baltimore will fall just shy of Clayton's predicted total and finish with nine wins.
PITTSBURGH STEELERS: A salary-cap purge and a need to get younger forced the Steelers to say goodbye to several longtime leaders: wide receiver Hines Ward, linebacker James Farrior and defensive end Aaron Smith. The biggest change, though, was replacing Bruce Arians with Todd Haley at offensive coordinator. This meant a new system for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who has repeatedly talked about the challenge of adjusting to Haley's scheme. It isn't known what direction Haley will take with the Steelers, but he should take advantage of an explosive and deep receiving group that includes Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery. That is, when Wallace decides to report to the team after protesting his restricted free-agent status.
The two injury concerns are running back Rashard Mendenhall and nose tackle Casey Hampton; each had ACL surgery in January. General manager Kevin Colbert said he anticipates both will be placed on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list, which means they'd miss the first six weeks of the regular season. Isaac Redman, who had 121 yards rushing in a playoff game last season but not much experience beyond that, will take over for Mendenhall. The Steelers would replace Hampton with either backup Steve McLendon or rookie fourth-round pick Alameda Ta'amu.
The biggest improvement for the Steelers came on the offensive line. Pittsburgh used its first two draft picks on guard David DeCastro and offensive tackle Mike Adams, which is a significant improvement over two undrafted players who started last season (Doug Legursky and Ramon Foster). These additions will move Willie Colon to guard. This should reduce the hits on Roethlisberger, who has been sacked an NFL-high 261 times since 2006.
More or less? Clayton is in the right neighborhood, but the Steelers will get one more win than his forecast. As long as Roethlisberger remains healthy and the Steelers have a top-five defense, Pittsburgh will contend for a Super Bowl every season.