Four Questions: AFC North
As we do at this time each season, we’ve cornered a group of our analysts and handed them a set of questions designed to pick their brains about what they expect for the upcoming year.
Giving you a glimpse into what they’re thinking as we head into the 2014 season, Ben Stockwell, Sam Monson, Steve Palazzolo and Gordon McGuinness have been good enough to share their answers.
Four analysts, four questions, division by division, next up…
Who wins the division and why?
Sam – Bengals. It’s less because of Cincinnati than because of my lack of confidence in every other team in the division. I think the Bengals are by far the best roster top to bottom, but I still have major concerns over Andy Dalton, despite his newly loaded wallet. Despite that, I think he’ll prove good enough to help the rest of the team win the division and then get bounced from the playoffs.
Ben – I’m not sure whether they’ve made the necessary strides to do any better than one and done in the playoffs but I don’t see any reason why the Cincinnati Bengals won’t be right in the mix to retain their division crown in the regular season. The most notable losses are among the coordinators, but the personnel on the field is largely unchanged and that’s a recipe for continuing regular-season success.
Steve – The Bengals probably have the best roster, they just happen to employ the division’s most inconsistent quarterback in Andy Dalton as well. I think their talent wins out and Dalton takes a step forward in his development.
Gordon – Ravens. I’ll be honest I could see any of three teams winning this division but ultimately I’m going with the Ravens to bounce back from a poor 2013 season. I think the addition of Gary Kubiak is pretty significant and think he’ll get the most out of Joe Flacco. If he can limit the mistakes that have plagued much of Flacco’s career, we know the Ravens’ signal-caller can go on an impressive run and they’ll become the team to beat in the North.
Which position unit most intrigues you in the division?
Sam – The Cincinnati O-line is one of the best in the league, and they really give that offense a fantastic base from which to work. Andrew Whitworth is one of the best linemen in the NFL whether he is playing left guard or tackle, and the rest of the unit has been getting stronger as the young players they have drafted develop.
Ben – There’s plenty of talent at outside linebacker for the Browns but the production and performances last season were inconsistent at best. Can Paul Kruger re-discover his form from the Ravens’ 2012 Super Bowl run? Can Barkevious Mingo start to piece together the flashes that he showed in a handful of games last season on a more consistent basis? Can Jabaal Sheard produce more than just one exceptional performance this season? The talent is there for one of the best edge-rushing groups in the league, but at this point it is just potential.
Steve – The Steelers’ linebacking corps has undergone a near-complete overhaul in recent years with Lawrence Timmons the lone mainstay. Their 3-4 defense is predicated on getting pressure off the edge, so second-year OLB Jarvis Jones will have to take a step forward in that department while OLB Jason Worilds has to prove that last year’s second-half surge was no fluke. Throw in rookie ILB Ryan Shazier and this group is teeming with unproven, yet intriguing, potential.
Gordon – Cleveland’s quarterbacks. The obvious pick? Perhaps, but I’m intrigued to see 1) when Johnny Manziel first takes the field and, 2) how he does when he actually does. He looked rattled and fairly erratic for much of the preseason, but he’s the sort of player who leaves you with enough interest that you’re going to be fascinated to see how he performs, good or bad.
Who is your pick for breakout player?
Sam – I have a soft spot for Andrew Hawkins of the Browns. He may be small, but he has fantastic quickness and can give them the kind of slot weapon that Davone Bess was supposed to bring to the team. My only concern is whether the team has the offense or quarterback play to make best use of his skills.
Ben – Staying in Cleveland, if Ben Tate can stay healthy he looks set for a very good season at running back. Whenever he got his hands on the ball in Houston he looked like a dangerous runner but whether he was on the trainer’s table or stuck behind Arian Foster, Tate couldn’t do it consistently. After a disappointing preseason for Terrance West, Tate should have the opportunity to claim a workhorse workload and I expect him to run with it.
Steve – I was a big fan of OLB Barkevious Mingo during the 2013 draft process and think he still has immense upside to live up to. He wasn’t consistent enough as a pass rusher a year ago, and some mental mistakes plagued him in the running game, but I think he shores them up and takes a big step forward this year. Even if it takes him a few games to get going, but the end of the year I think he’ll be a much improved player.
Gordon – Shamarko Thomas. Thomas is a player I think the Steelers need to find a way to get on the field more. He’s not quite an every down type of player yet but there were a couple of times in preseason where I saw him read the play well and close quickly to limit the opposing offense to just a couple of yards. I like the burst he shows and could see him excelling close to the line of scrimmage if given the chance.
Which rookie has the biggest impact, for good or bad?
Sam – From watching Ryan Shazier tape before he was drafted I saw Alec Ogletree, and expected a similar struggle during his rookie season. I’ve been turned around a little from watching him in the preseason and have raised my expectations significantly. I think he’ll still have his struggles, but he’ll make a far bigger impact overall.
Ben – BenJarvus Green-Ellis is gone in Cinncinati and I don’t think Giovani Bernard can be a bell-cow type back, and with his versatile skill set I’m not sure you’d want him to be. The man to fill Green-Ellis’ role and add more spark to it is Jeremy Hill. His powerful running will allow Bernard not only to stay fresh but also continue to be used a versatile weapon in the offense while Hill keeps the ground game ticking over.
Steve – Ravens linebacker C.J. Mosley will get every chance to make an impact this season as he’s slated to step into an every-down role. He has the ability to make an impact in coverage while holding his own in the running game, even though he didn’t always show it during the preseason.
Gordon – Dri Archer. One thing that jumped out when you watched Pittsburgh this season is that they need to find a way to get the ball in the hands of Dri Archer. He’s as fast on the field as his 4.26 second 40-yard dash at the combine suggested and the Steelers look set to use him on offense and have him share punt return duties with Antonio Brown. From eight catches this August he had two go for 40 yards or more so don’t be surprised to see him make a few highlight-reel plays in 2014.
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