The AFC North has had a different division winner for each of the past four seasons. The Ravens won the division in 2012, the Bengals in 2013, the Steelers in 2014, and most recently the Bengals again in 2015. While the Cleveland Browns spent the offseason remaking their entire organization for the umpteenth time, it seems that these three teams perennially remain in the dogfight for the division crown.
The Pittsburgh Steelers enter 2016 as the odds-on favorite to win the division (potentially extending the streak of a different team winning the AFC North to five straight seasons). Even after losing quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and star running back Le’Veon Bell for a combined 14 games last season, they still finished with a 10-6 record, and pulled off an upset victory over Cincinnati in the Wild Card playoff game. As per their traditional modus operandi, the team eschewed making any significant additions in free agency, and focused on adding young talent through the draft whom they can develop into future starters (thanks to their benchmark organizational stability). Cornerback Artie Burns from the University of Miami (their first round pick) and defensive back Sean Davis out of the University of Maryland (taken with their second round pick) are ultra-athletic guys who will initially provide depth to the much-maligned Steelers secondary, but will groomed into eventual starters.
But as long as this team has Roethlisberger, Bell (whose appeal for his four-game suspension resulted in a reduction to two-games this past week), and sublime receiver Antonio Brown, the offense has the ability to outscore nearly anyone they play. Even with wide receiver Martavis Bryant lost for all of 2016 (he was suspended by the NFL missing his mandated drug tests), the team is optimistic about some of the young, offensive talent they’ve drafted and developed: namely, wide receivers Markus Wheaton and Sammie Coates. Both players have had great training camps, and will be heavily relied upon to fill Bryant’s shoes. The team’s one significant free agent acquisition — tight end Ladarius Green, signed to replace the retired Heath Miller — also adds a significant shot of athleticism to the offense, and another weapon for Roethlisberger to utilize. It’s hard not to see this team winning 11 or 12 games in 2016.
Like the Steelers, the Bengals rely on the organizational stability they’ve had under head coach Marvin Lewis (the second longest tenured head coach in the NFL). They simply keep replacing the talent they lose — both on the field, and from their coaching staff — with individuals they’ve groomed internally. The Bengals biggest offseason loss might’ve been offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, who helped guide quarterback Andy Dalton to an MVP-level season before taking the head coaching job in Cleveland; Ken Zampese, the team’s quarterbacks coach for the past three season, was promoted to offensive coordinator to replace Jackson.
Otherwise, the Bengals return 18 of their 22 starters from last season. Cornerback Leon Hall remains unsigned, as he’s looking for a big contract with the Bengals (update: Hall signs with Giants); Cincinnati also drafted cornerback William Jackson III (update: Jackson III tears pectoral muscle) as a potential replacement, and also re-signed cornerback Adam Jones to man the other starting cornerback spot. Pro Bowl free safety Reggie Nelson wasn’t retained, either, and he’ll be replaced by Derron Smith, the Bengals sixth round pick in 2015 who many thought could be a late round gem. On offense, they let consistently under-performing right tackle Andre Smith leave town, and will likely replace him with Jake Fisher, their first round pick in 2015. At wide receiver, they’ll replace Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones — their #2 and #3 receivers behind A.J. Green — with rookie Tyler Boyd (their second round pick in the 2016 NFL Draft) and free agent acquisition Brandon LaFell. But, the bottom line for this team remains: they’ll go as far as Andy Dalton can take them.
The Baltimore Ravens finished with an uncharacteristic 5-11 record last season (it was their first losing season in seven years), mostly after being ravaged by injuries. Still, with John Harbaugh as their head coach, Joe Flacco in place as their quarterback, and General Manager Ozzie Newsome continuing to deftly stock the team’s talent cupboard, they’re always going to be in contention within the division. The Ravens selected a whopping 11 picks in the 2016 NFL Draft, headlined by left tackle Ronnie Stanley (who will replace free agent departure Kelechi Osemele and the retired Eugene Monroe, both of whom the team used at left tackle last year). The rest of the offense remains largely the same, though; Stanley will take over at left tackle, and backup John Urschel will step in at left guard (Osemele’s original spot last season). At wide receiver, the team bolstered their depth by adding vertical threat Mike Wallace, who can hopefully stretch the field while veteran Steve Smith recovers from his torn Achilles tendon injury.
Ironically for the Ravens organization, it’s the defense that’s seen a lot more changes that we’re accustomed to. They will allow unheralded guys like Brent Urban and Lawrence Guy take over for Chris Canty’s old spot alongside studs Timmy Jernigan and Brandon Williams on the defensive line. They let linebackers Daryl Smith and Courtney Upshaw leave town, and will replace them with Arthur Brown (their second round pick in 2013) and Elvis Dumervil (who’ll likely rotate snaps with rookie Kamalei Correa, the Ravens second round draft pick). In the secondary, they moved cornerback Lardarius Webb to safety — bumping cornerback Kyle Arrington into the starting lineup — and replaced Will Hill (and his myriad of legal troubles) with longtime Chargers safety Eric Weddle.
And finally, the Cleveland Browns. Where to begin, as far as the changes they made? Hue Jackson replaces Mike Pettine. Sashi Brown is the new Vice President of Football operations, and he’ll work in tandem with Jackson and Paul DePodesta — the Browns new Chief Strategy Officer and longtime baseball analytics guru — to help reconstruct the Browns (yet again). The team maneuvered all over the 2016 NFL Draft board, and ending up selecting 14 players that will help re-infuse this team with some badly needed talent. Quarterback Robert Griffin III will be another part of the resurrection project, as Jackson will try to help him reclaim some of the magic that Griffin created while in Washington. But in general, this roster is such a mess that it will take years before they’re really in contention.