Baltimore Ravens (11-5)
The Ravens' season was cut short by the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots in what some would call a shoot out in the AFC championship game. The Ravens' staple has been defense being led by Hall of Famers in the past such as Ed Reed, and Ray Lewis. But now, with Haloti moving on to Detroit in the off-season, and a new core of defensive backs the Baltimore Ravens are in search for their new defensive leader that will carry the team year in and year out. Offensively they look to bring all their weapons back and add a new toy in Perriman. And although Flacco has had a more than adequate group of receivers during this reign, he's never had this type of threat on the outside that is making early comparisons to Dez. Steve Smith Sr has announced this will be his last season, so expect an encore and dog fight every game. Barring any defensive back injury set backs the Ravens should fight through but eventually conquer the majority of their AFC competitors.
Cincinnati Bengals (9-7)
Cincinnati has been the most consistent team in terms of expectations in the AFC North. Marvin Lewis has began a winning tradition in Cincy and as result Andy Dalton got paid like an elite Quarterback in the NFL. I believe the same meltdown that Atlanta encountered last year will occur this year for the Bengals. When you have the same mundane voice in the locker room preaching year in and year out, for over a decade it can have a dulling affect in the locker room. Despite Marvin's 2-year extension, complacency will creep in for both Dalton and the Bengals as they take a small step back in the divisional power ranking. This team lives and dies on the play of the defense and the health of AJ Green. And yea they are deep at running back, it ultimately comes down to Andy. At best Andy is a poor man's Matt Ryan and with the prominent number of rising AFC quarterbacks in addition to the "living legends" their is no room for mediocrity.
Cleveland Browns (8-8)
The Browns are due for a few surprises this year, but the playoffs are not one. Defensively the Cleveland Browns return many of their core standout players. Joe Haden ranks among the top 5 corners in the league and is very close to being shut down if not already considered one. Another year of continuity with Mike Pettine at the helm will do some good for the Browns. If your confident in Luke McCown as your starting quarterback in this division than I'm confident in the Browns being a 500 ball team. There is no name worthy ball carrier relieving the pressure Either. If Johnny enters the picture he doesn't have the respectable weapon unless your calling Dwayne Bowe elite. The D will manage to win them 4 games, their kicker will win 2, and Luke and Johnny can net out 1 a piece. If Pettine is not fired by Week 10, he will be by week 16.
Pittsburgh Steelers (6-10)
After a brief playoff appearance last year. I predict the Steelers will take a step back. The first season without Polamalu, Dick Lebau, and a locker room full of talented but under-performing, unproven younger players. My main concern outside of the defensive ineptitude is the brutal schedule. Aside from the fact that all AFC North teams play nearly identical schedules. The Steelers post bye week schedule is a gauntlet at the time of year where your 2nd string player are starters due to injuries and they already lack great depth. Antonio Brown will see a lot more man under and double teams forcing the younger Martavias Bryant and rookie Sammy Coates to come up big. Bell is not ready to be a bell-house running back and although he was highly productive so was Doug Martin and Giovanni Bernard. He still needs to grow as a man. Pittsburgh is a few defensive personnel changes from being in contention once again.
Dre Kirkpatrick CB Cincinnati Bengals
High expectations were placed on the corner from Alabama when he was drafted 5 years ago. Since he became a member of the Bengals, they have been particularly deep at the corner position. With the exit of Terrance Newman, and both Hall and Jones being considered "over the hill" 10 year vets, look for Kirkpatrick to take on a larger responsibility in taking on the bigger receivers in the AFC. Marvin has been patient in the development of his 1st round draft pick, and now it is time to put it all together on the field. Whether it be through performance or injury--Dre will be thrown into the mix at defensive back this year and should have some success in the Cincinnati secondary.
AFC North Rookie of the Year
Danny Shelton DL Cleveland Browns
Typically all 1st round draft picks are considered "Rookies to watch" but in the case of Shelton, much is riding on the shoulders of the 6'2", 300 pound defensive lineman. Danny is expected to be the center piece of an elite front 7, and a potential top 5 NFL defense. The Browns have been solid in pass defense so if Shelton can provide the plug in the run defense for coach Pettine than the Browns will be able to play in any game against any opponent. Shelton has every opportunity to be a rookie sensation for the Cleveland Browns in this upcoming NFL season.
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