Our division-by-division check-in takes us to the AFC North today as the PFF analysts offer their takes on which players will break out, which rookies will stand out, and which teams will be left out… of the playoffs.
Are the rookies in Cleveland really that interesting? Eight wins for the Bengals? Another breakout receiver from the North? Our guys let you in on where they stand as the season draws closer.
Got choice of your own? Leave a comment below.
Who is the one player from this division you see having a breakout year?
Sam: I love watching Revis and any players who are trying to join him in that rarefied atmosphere.. Lardarius Webb is right on the cusp, with a complete skill-set and no significant weaknesses Since coming back from his major knee injury he has only been getting better, but he’s not the Baltimore CB I’m interested in. That would be Jimmy Smith. Smith has an eye-popping physical stature and athleticism to rival that of Patrick Peterson, and to my eyes he looked better than the Cardinal last year albeit in vastly differing circumstances and with less asked of him. If the Ravens can get that player to really step up opposite Webb then they have a ridiculous advantage over almost any team in the league with the CBs they can deploy.
Khaled: There are more glamorous names out there (particularly on the Ravens defense) that are more sure-fire successes, but I’ve been won over by the performances of Steelers defensive lineman, Steve McLendon despite only seeing him in limited action (220 snaps). I remember him starting in Week 7 against the Cardinals and being a complete handful. He’s a different type of player to Casey Hampton, but he’s been drawing plenty of praise in camp that his game tape from last year backs up.
Neil: Carlos Dunlap, the exceptionally productive pass rusher of the Bengals, should really be my choice here but he’s so often injured I’m shying away. Instead I am going to the Steelers’ receiving well once again. In this article last year I struck gold with my selection of Antonio Brown and while I don’t think Emmanuel Sanders will have quite that impact, I think he’ll do significant damage picking up the snaps relinquished by Hines Ward.
Ben: Maybe I’m just a little bit over-awed by the deep ball or maybe I’m overlooking the drops (eight last season, including four in one game), but I think Torrey Smith is going to have a terrific season with Joe Flacco and really develop his game beyond simply being a deep threat. He was in and out in 2011; as likely to be devastating to an opposition as he was to be frustrating to his own fans. However, with a year of experience under his belt and a full offseason to work with the coaching staff and his quarterback, Smith is ripe for an outstanding year as a more rounded and consistent weapon for the Ravens.
The over/under lines for season win totals in the division have been set at: Pittsburgh 10; Baltimore 10; Cincinnati 7.5; Cleveland 5.5. On which team would you put your theoretical $100?
Sam: The two lines that stand out to me in this division are the ones for the Ohio teams: Cincinnati and Cleveland. Both seem off; one on either side of the line. For the Bengals, 7.5 wins seems like a harsh return for a team that went to the postseason last year and didn’t look out of place once they got there despite a rookie quarterback leading them. The Bengals seem to be a victim of simply being overlooked in favor of the Ravens and the Steelers every year and I think they deserve a little better than that. The Browns may have improved and, in theory, now have a focal point for the offense, but I’d wager they finished under 5.5 wins rather than over it. I see them again being in and around the ugly end of the standings in 2012 and though they may be markedly better, I’m not sure they’ll top five wins in the end.
Khaled: I haven’t seen a lot of Brandon Weeden, but what I have seen hasn’t inspired me. Trent Richardson may prove the real deal but with a lack of pass rush and an impotent passing game I can’t see Cleveland getting to six wins. I’ll take the under on them.
Neil: It’s hard to go under on a team with 5.5 wins, but that’s what I’m doing with Cleveland. It just feels like a franchise that’s being held together with bailing wire at the moment and, although that might breed some “Dunkirk” spirit, I don’t see it.
Ben: I’d split my theoretical $100 and put $50 each on the Ravens and Steelers to get more than the 10 wins that their over/under is set at. Between them, they have registered six 10-win seasons in the last four years and frankly I’d be confident that both will get another, but at least one of them will do to make sure that I win my money back.
Which rookie are you most looking forward to seeing in action?
Sam: I’m interested in the pair of first round rookies the Browns plan to deploy in their new look offense–Brandon Weeden and Trent Richardson. In a league that is casting workhorse running backs into part of a committee, the Browns went aggressively after a guy they expect to do everything for that offense; apparently the best RB prospect since Adrian Peterson. You have to admire that kind of approach and their will to buck the league-wide trend, and I’m looking forward to seeing how Richardson relates to his billing. As for Weeden, I had no problem with drafting someone of his age if you got it right and he becomes a legitimate NFL quarterback. Maybe you won’t have him for 15 years, but if you get him for eight ,you’d take it, right?
Khaled: I was looking forward to seeing David DeCastro, and if he was poor, seeing if being a Steelers lineman means praise comes your way whether you deserve it or not. But injury has unfortunately halted that, which is a shame for all concerned. Instead, I’ll go for Brandon Weeden. Given how the Browns ditched Colt McCoy for him and his age, he better be good from Day 1.
Neil: The Bengals found one part of their interior defensive line going forward last year in Geno Atkins. The question I’m interested in is if Devon Still has enough about him to replace Domata Peko later this year or early next. So far the signs haven’t been great but I’m interested to see whether he can improve as the year progresses.
Ben: I’ve been tracking the Top 10 picks of the draft through the preseason so I must say that Trent Richardson is a player who interests me as he’s the only one I’ve yet to see play a down against NFL opposition. Is he the savior of the Browns’ franchise, the feature back to drag them into relevance? Or is he a white elephant for a Browns’ team that doesn’t realize that the NFL has changed and that a workhorse back in a run-first offense is a thing of the past? Both from a player performance stand point and a barometer for the state of the NFL, Richardson’s success or failure in Cleveland holds a great deal of intrigue.
Who is going to make the playoffs and who is going to win it all?
Sam: I think three teams will be fighting it out for the postseason again, and let’s face it, the Browns aren’t one of them. As for which two will make it (assuming all three don’t), and in what order, I really couldn’t pick them, except to say that I think the Bengals will be one of them (I have to say that after saying they’re better value then 7.5 wins, right?). The Ravens have enough talent to overcome the loss of Suggs, but will they prove that on the field? Let’s say it’s enough to cause them to miss out this year and the Steelers take the division.
Khaled: Every year I discount the Bengals and this year won’t be any different. When push comes to shove, the Ravens will be that little bit better on offense to hide the defense not being as good. The Steelers need Big Ben to stay healthy but that defense is always going to cause problems, suffocating the life out of a number of teams and earning them some wins. I don’t think either wins it all, but they’ll be there or there about.
Neil: Both Pittsburgh and Baltimore will make the playoffs again but this time I don’t see them being joined by Cincinnati. I have no idea how good the Steelers could be if they could put together even an average OL, but it’s in tatters again and I see this stopping them from going all the way. The Ravens look better on offense this year but I still don’t feel they have a dynamic enough attack to compete with an improved New England in the Championship game.
Ben: The Ravens and Steelers are both threats to win it all. The Ravens have lost in the playoffs four straight seasons and have that hunger to go one step further than last year. Meanwhile, the Steelers may not be at their 2008 best, but there are plenty of game-breakers and players with the experience to take a title–you cannot count them out. The Bengals are again playoff contenders but I’d suggest that asking a young team to fire for a second year in a row might be a bit of stretch and they will go through some growing pains this season.