AFC North Divisional Predictions: Lamar and the Ravens Cruise to the Finish Line
From Antonio Brown’s fallout with the Steelers to Myles Garrett’s incident with Mason Rudolph, the AFC North provided fans with a ton of drama and entertainment during the 2019 NFL season. While the Ravens finished with the best record in football last season, the Cincinnati Bengals finished last and received the number one overall pick in the draft. In a division with plenty of talent this season, the AFC North has a real favorite with three other teams fighting for second place.
In this article, I’ll be making my predictions as to how each team will fare this season in their quest to win the division. As usual, my rankings are based on each team’s odds, win projections, and each team’s additions during the offseason to improve their rosters.
|Team||Odds to win Division||Win Totals||2019 Record||2019 PF||2019 PA||DIFF|
1. Baltimore Ravens
The Ravens should be the clear favorite this season, as they won an NFL-best 14 games last season and cruised to the playoffs as the number one overall seed. Baltimore has the best odds at winning the division again, -200, and are projected to win 11.5 games. As funny as it sounds, the Ravens could be even better this season. They have one of the best coaches in the NFL with John Harbaugh, a great young quarterback in Lamar Jackson, and have one of the most balanced teams in the NFL. Raven’s general manager, Eric DeCosta, made a series of significant moves during the offseason that I think could get Baltimore over the hump in 2020.
As I mentioned earlier, Baltimore compiled the best record in the NFL last season. A large part of their success was the play of Lamar Jackson, who broke out in year two after a somewhat lackluster rookie season. In 2019, Jackson threw for 3,127 yards, 36 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions on his way to winning NFL MVP. The 2nd year pro also finished with a 113.3 passer rating and ran for 1,201 yards on the ground. To put things into perspective, Jackson ranked 6th in the NFL last season as a quarterback. Jackson led a Baltimore offense that led the NFL in scoring in 2019, averaging 31.9 points per game.
Much of the Ravens’ success on offense was their commitment to the ground game, as they rushed for 204.8 yards per game -tops in the NFL. Along with Jackson, the running back Mark Ingram II posted a 1,000-yard season. In his first season in Baltimore, Ingram rushed for 1,018 yards and 10 touchdowns. The veteran running back also caught 5 touchdown passes last season. Through the air, Baltimore was more average, though, compiling 210 yards per game (24th in the NFL). Their leading receiving was tight end Mark Andrews, who caught 64 passes for 852 yards and 10 touchdowns.
In an effort to give Jackson more weapons on the outside, the Ravens drafted Texas’ Devin Duvernay and SMU’s James Proche in the draft. Duvernay ranked 13th in the class among wide receivers and could start right away out of the slot. The two join a wide receiver group that ranked dead last in total yards last season (1,419). Baltimore also added running back J.K. Dobbins in the second round of the draft, who should become Ingram’s replacement as the veteran turns 31 this year. Dobbins provides the Ravens with excellent value, as he was ranked as the draft’s 27th best player.
The Ravens were elite on offense in 2019, but they were elite on defense too. With four Pro Bowlers on defense last season, the Ravens held opponents to 18.2 points per game -third-best in the NFL. A defense with the likes of Earl Thomas, Marlon Humphrey, and Matt Judon got even better during the offseason. Baltimore traded for perennial Pro-Bowler Calais Campbell, added long-time Bronco Derek Wolfe, and added a ton of talent in the draft. After trading for Campbell, the team signed him to a two-year contract that includes $20 million in guaranteed money. In the draft, they added the top-ranked inside linebacker by selecting LSU’s Patrick Queen in the second round. In addition to Queen, the team added the fourth-ranked defensive tackle, Justin Madubuike, in the third round of the draft. The Ravens also resigned starting corner Jimmy Smith and DE Jihad Ward.
2. Cleveland Browns
Yes, experts have the Browns ranked 3rd in the division this season, but there’s too much talent on the roster for me to give the Steelers the edge over Browns in 2020. With so many expectations coming into 2019, the Browns disappointed tremendously and finished with a 6-8 record. I expect their play to improve drastically this season, and I expect them to match, and even outplay their 8.5-win projection. The team finally looks to have a head coach, as they brought in Minnesota Vikings assistant, Kevin Stefanski. The addition of Stefanski should bring much-needed stability into the organization and could be a culture-setting figure for the Browns.
With an offense full of weapons and potential, the Browns disappointed last season, finishing 22nd in scoring per game (20.9). Cleveland’s lack of success mostly fell on the lackluster play from a porous offensive line and quarterback Baker Mayfield’s inconsistency. The Brown’s line ranked 23rd in the NFL last season, and the tackle position was the main reason as to why the line ranked so low. The Browns made two very significant moves to address the position in the offseason, signing former Titan Jack Conklin to a 3-year deal and drafting Alabama’s Jedrick Wills with the team’s first draft pick in the 2020 draft. The two tackles will start right away on an offensive line alongside guard Joel Bitonio, and center J.C. Tretter.
Despite a lousy offensive line, the Browns rushed for 118.8 yards a game last season -which ranked 12th best in the NFL. Most of their success on the ground should be given to second-year running back, Nick Chubb. After coming up short in 2018, Chubb rushed for more than 1,000 yards in 2019, racking up 1,494 yards and 8 touchdowns. Chubb was one of the few bright spots on an offense that disappointed in 2019. After an impressive rookie campaign, Baker Mayfield regressed in his sophomore season, as he threw for 22 touchdowns but also 21 interceptions. I expect Mayfield to be much better in 2020, as he has a better line and more weapons at his disposal.
The team signed former Falcons tight end, Austin Hooper to a 4-year contract that gives Mayfield an excellent receiving option over the middle and in the red zone. Hooper has at least 500 yards and 3 touchdowns over the last three seasons and joins a pass-catching group that already includes Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. Both Landry and Beckham posted 1,000-yard seasons in 2020 and should both improve their numbers if Mayfield plays to his potential this season. The Browns also placed a second-round tender on running back Kareem Hunt and traded for fullback Andy Janovich in free agency.
On defense, Cleveland ranked 20th in opponent scoring in 2019, giving up 24.6 points per game. I expect that number to improve this season, as the team added a ton of talent on the defensive side of the ball. In free agency, the team signed former first-rounder Karl Joseph, defensive end Adrian Clayborn, and lineman Andrew Billings. Joseph is projected to start while Clayborn and Billings should provide the Browns with excellent depth up front. In the draft, the Browns added LSU’s Grant Delpit, the 3rd-ranked safety, in the second round of the draft. Delpit is a ball-hawking safety who projects to start right away in Cleveland’s secondary. Along with Delpit, the Browns drafted Missouri’s Jordan Elliot and LSU’s Jacob Phillips, who both ranked inside the top five at their positions in the draft.
3. Pittsburgh Steelers
In 2019, the Steelers season was somewhat lost when starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger went down in Week 2 with an elbow injury that cost him the rest of the year. In Roethlisberger’s absence, the team went on to finish with an 8-8 record but struggled mightily on the offensive end. While many experts have given Pittsburgh the second-best odds to come out of the AFC North, I have the Steelers ranked third in the division, and for a couple of reasons. First is the health of Roethlisberger, where I gave a few questions as to how healthy he is and how quickly he can regain his productions among the best quarterbacks in the NFL. Second is the team’s lack of weapons on offense, as they didn’t exactly address their needs in the offseason particularly well, in my opinion.
As expected, without Roethlisberger, the team’s pass-catchers struggled last season. Pittsburgh had no receivers or tight ends that recorded even 800 yards receiving in 2019. After a terrific rookie season in 2018, wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster posted only 552 yards and 3 touchdowns. Fellow wideout James Washington led Pittsburgh in receiving, recording 44 receptions for 735 yards and 3 touchdowns. The team’s lack of productions through the air also hurt them in the ground game, as Pittsburgh averaged 90.4 rushing yards per game. They didn’t fare much better in the scoring department either, where the team ranked 27th in scoring per game (18.1 PPG). Although Roethlisberger’s return this season should undoubtedly help them improve their point production, I’m not quite sure that I will push the Steelers over the top.
As I mentioned previously, the Steeler’s production through the air affected their ground game significantly last season. Running back James Conner made the Pro Bowl his rookie season, only to finish with a porous 464 rushing yards and 4 touchdowns in 2019. Connor’s play was hampered by injuries and reduced production, which forced Pittsburgh to split carries with backup Jaylen Samuels. While the Steelers do have a terrific offensive line, ranking 9th in NFL by Pro Football Focus, I’m not sure if they have the firepower capable of keeping up with the Browns or Ravens. The team’s two big moves on offense were the signing of tight end Eric Ebron and the addition of wide receiver Chase Claypool in the draft. Ebron last played for the Colts in 2019, compiling 31 receptions for 375 yards and 3 touchdowns.
The Steelers ranked significantly better on defense last season, finishing 5th in the NFL in scoring while holding their opponents to 18.9 points per game. While they spent their first pick and most of their money on the offensive end in free agency, the Steelers did place the franchise tag on linebacker Bud Dupree. Dupree comes fresh off a career year in 2019, making 68 tackles while posting 11.5 sacks. While Dupree is safe on the roster for at least another season, the Steelers have a ton of talent on the defensive side of the ball. Second-year defensive end, T.J. Watt got even better in his sophomore season. He recorded 55 tackles and led the Steelers in sacks with 14.5 (4th in the NFL). Alongside Watt, rookie linebacker Devin Smith recorded 109 tackles, 1 sack, and 2 interceptions. The Steelers also traded for Dolphins safety Minkah Fitzpatrick early in the season last year, where the second-year pro tied for fourth in the NFL in interceptions (5) in 2019.
4. Cincinnati Bengals
While there wasn’t much for Bengals fans to cheer for during the 2019 season, the team did secure the first overall pick in the draft. In doing so, the franchise looks to be headed in the right direction as I believe Joe Burrow will be a superstar in the future. In 2019, the Bengals finished with a 2-14 record but could surprise a few people this year, where I expect them to outplay their 5.5-win projection total. The team went through a tremendous turnaround in the offseason, where they made a significant amount of moves in free agency and the draft.
In free agency, Cincy locked down their secondary by adding cornerbacks Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander. Waynes gives the Bengals an immediate starter opposite of William Jackson III, and Alexander should provide the team with depth. The Bengals also agreed on a three-year deal with former Saints safety Vonn Bell and a four-year contract with former Texan D.J. Reader. Both are projected starters for the team, as Bell creates a nice safety tandem alongside Jessie Bates III. In the draft, Cincinnati selected Wyoming linebacker Logan Wilson in the 3rd round. Wilson could compete for the starting job right away and gives the Bengals terrific value at his draft slot (3rd ranked ILB in the class). The team also added linebackers Akeem Davis-Gaither and Markus Bailey, and defensive end Khalid Kareem in the draft.
On offense, the Bengals should be much better with Burrow at the helm next season. Burrow is coming off arguably the best individual season in college football history. As a senior, Burrow threw for 5,671 yards and 60 touchdowns to only 6 interceptions. While I don’t expect the 2019 Heisman Trophy winner to replicate those numbers, the Bengals should be ecstatic if he even registers half of the numbers he did as a senior. Burrow wasn’t the only great pick for Cincy on offense, as the team selected Clemson receiver Tee Higgins in the second round of the draft. Higgins will start right away on the Bengals opposite of A.J. Green and Tyler Boyd and should become a terrific weapon for the offense.
The additions of Burrow and Higgins are massive for an offense that finished 30th in the NFL in scoring, trailing only the Jets and Redskins last season. With Burrow in the fold, running back Joe Mixon will benefit tremendously and could have an even bigger year than he did last season. In 2019, Mixon quietly finished in the top ten in rushing as he scampered for 1,137 yards and 5 touchdowns. Along with Mixon, receiver Tyler Boyd proved to be a bright spot in Cincinnati’s dismal year last season. Boyd finished the season with 90 receptions for 1,046 yards and 5 touchdowns. It was Boyd’s second consecutive season with at least 1,000 yards receiving.