Let’s follow as I continue my journey throughout the NFL with my second installment: the AFC North.
“Get Your Popcorn Ready”
Strength- With the addition of Pro Bowl wide receiver Anquan Boldin from Arizona, the Ravens are expected to have one of the most explosive offenses in the league. Joe Flacco, out of Division I-AA Delaware, enters his third season as the Ravens’ QB. After winning Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2008, Flacco improved greatly in 2009 and finished the season with an 88.9 rating and 21 touchdowns. Running back Ray Rice is quickly climbing up many fantasy draft charts. Rice ran for 1,339 yards with a 5.3 yard per carry average. He also led the team with 78 receptions. Rice will be complimented by Willis McGahee, who plowed into the end zone 12 times in ’09, and fullback Le’Ron McClain. Baltimore’s receivers, once considered above average at best, are now a serious threat to opposing defenses with Boldin. Not only was Boldin the fastest wide receiver to reach 500 receptions (80 games), his 586 total is the most in Cardinal’s franchise history. Baltimore’s other weapons include Todd Heap, Derrick Mason, Mark Clayton, and Donte’ Stallworth.
Weakness- Baltimore always has a strong defense. While the front seven, led by the future Hall of Famer Ray Lewis, will continue to remain stout against the run, the once proud secondary may be vulnerable in 2010. Cornerback Domonique Foxworth was placed on Injured Reserve on August 1st. Foxworth started all 16 games last season, and was tied for the team lead with four picks. The Ravens signed free agent corner Walt Harris in the first week of July, and a month later, also placed him on Injured Reserve. Chris Carr, who has 10 starts in six seasons (four last season with Baltimore), will most likely fill one cornerback position. Corner Fabian Washington only has one interception in the past two seasons with the Ravens. Lardarius Webb, a third round pick from last season, also made four starts and recorded six passes defended and no interceptions. Both Washington and Webb are out of training camp with injuries. Baltimore should be actively searching to trade for a corner. Safety Ed Reed missed all of December in 2009 with various injuries, and it is unknown when he will return after undergoing hip surgery in the offseason and being placed on the Physically Unable to Perform list. Reed’s game changing presence will be missed. He has returned three picks for TD’s in the past two seasons.
Biggest Question- After watching the Ravens easily handle the Patriots in the Wild Card round last year, and the addition of Anquan Boldin and rookies Sergio Kindle and Terrence Cody on defense, it would appear Baltimore has a solid roster at all positions. However, as seen in the cornerback situation, the injury bug has bitten the Ravens. Reed is going to be 32 in September. Is his age catching up to his reckless style? Previously mentioned rookie Kindle will miss at least all of the preseason with a fractured skull after suffering a non-football injury. Ray Lewis is now 35, although he has yet to see any signs of decline in performance. Starting nose tackle Kelly Gregg is 33, and defensive end Trevor Pryce is 35. On offense, the 36 year old Derrick Mason is recovering from a sprained ankle and center Matt Birk, 34, has yet to practice with an elbow injury. Can these veterans continue to maintain such a high work load and remain healthy?
Strength- Cincinnati has arguably the best duo in the league at the cornerback spot. Leon Hall and Johnathan Joseph locked down the outsides of a defense that finished fourth in the league in total yards allowed, sixth in pass yards allowed per game and points allowed. Individually, Hall and Joseph both picked off six passes, tied with guys like Darrelle Revis and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. Statistically, the tandem had seasons almost identical Revis, who may be regarded as the best corner in the league. Hall had 71 total tackles with 30 passes defended. Joseph made 69 tackles, knocked down 24 passes, and returned one of his picks for a touchdown. Revis had only 54 tackles, but interrupted a league high 37 passes. It will be interesting to see how opposing offenses attack the Bengals through the air after these defenders proved they are the best one-two punch in the league.
Weakness– The Cincinnati offense was not the most efficient in 2009. They were 24th in the league in yards per game with 309.1. They also struggled scoring points, with only 19.1 per game, 22nd in the league. Their 12 fumbles lost was also ranked 22nd. Carson Palmer threw for just over 3,000 yards, 21 touchdowns, and completed 60.5% of his passes. Those numbers might not look bad on paper, but they are nowhere near what Palmer did before he missed 12 games in 2008 with an elbow injury. On the bright side, Cedric Benson finally played up to is potential, after being drafted fourth overall by Chicago in 2005. Benson started all 13 games he played in, and ran for 1,251 yards and six touchdowns. The comedian of the league, Chad Ochocinco, had over 1,000 receiving yards for the seventh time in his career. In an attempt to jump start the offense, tight end Jermaine Gresham was taken with the team’s first round pick. The team also signed two free agent receivers, Antonio Bryant and Terrell Owens. Bryant was given a four year deal worth $28 million despite a bum knee, which is still recovering from surgery. After some recruiting by Palmer and his good buddy Ochocinco, the Bengals offered T.O. a one year contract. Owens wants to prove he still has some miles left on his tires.
Biggest Question– The Bengals are known for taking chances on players who have troubled pasts. Many are wondering how well the team will be able to work together, especially the relationship between Ochocinco and T.O. Both athletes have their own reality television shows, and both are known for their over the top celebrations. Owens has a well recorded history of tarnishing his relationships with his quarterbacks, most recently in Dallas with Tony Romo. After a well behaved year in Buffalo, T.O. impressed Palmer during some private workouts, and Palmer went on to persuade the front office to bring him on board. Ochocinco insists he and T.O. are good friends and that there will not be any problems. Another troubled player on the roster is corner Adam “Pacman” Jones. Jones was suspended multiple times for violating the Personal Conduct Policy. The Bengals believe Jones can help as a kick returner and a back-up corner. Benson also had his share of arrests while in Chicago.
Strength- The Browns once again found themselves on the bottom of the AFC North Division. You might not think there was anything to salvage from another 5-11 season. However, the Browns did win their last four games against Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Oakland, and Jacksonville. The Browns were also 8th in the league with 130.4 rushing yards per game. Four different players had over 220 yards, starting with Jerome Harrison who led the team with 862 yards and five touchdowns. Harrison finished the season strong during the win streak with 286 yards and three TD’s against the Chiefs, 148 yards and a score against Oakland, and 127 yards and a touchdown against the Jaguars. Jamal Lewis started eight games and ran for 500 yards, but was cut in the off-season and may retire due to multiple concussions. Joshua Cribbs’ official position is wide receiver, but he was also the main back in Cleveland’s wildcat offense. Cribbs ran for 381 yards and a score with a 6.9 yard per carry average. Another strength of Cribbs that must be mentioned is his kick return ability. He has at least one touchdown via kick return every year since 2005, and a career high three in 2009 (also had a punt return touchdown in ’09). There is no doubt Joshua Cribbs is the most talented athlete on the Browns.
Weakness- The Browns no longer have either quarterback from the 2009 season (Brady Quinn and Derek Anderson). Former Seattle coach and current Cleveland President Mike Holmgren has begun to bring in the players he likes to rebuild the Browns. Veteran Jake Delhomme and former Seahawk Seneca Wallace now fill the quarterback depth chart along with rookie Colt McCoy. While fans hope this trio performs better than the previous duo, without weapons to throw too, the Browns might not improve the worst passing offense in the league. The 37 year old Bobby Engram, also a former Seahawk, is by far the most experienced receiver, but only played in five games and caught five passes with Kansas City in 2009. Mohammed Massaquoi started 11 games as a rookie last year. Fellow second year receiver Brian Robiskie has received some praise in camp. Chansi Stuckey, Syndric Steptoe, and Joshua Cribbs give Cleveland some young athletes, but not the most talented wide receivers.
Biggest Question- How long will it take for the Holmgren effect to turn around the Browns organization? With Quinn traded to Denver for running back Peyton Hillis, Colt McCoy is the new future face of the franchise. Some other big transactions completed under Holmgren include acquiring former Pro Bowl corner Sheldon Brown and linebacker Chris Gocong from Philadelphia through a trade, signing former Patriot tight end Benjamin Watson, and drafting defensive backs T.J. Ward and Joe Haden. Some of the young talent on the team not already mentioned include fullback Lawrence Vickers, offensive linemen Joe Thomas and Alex Mack, defensive tackle Rubin Ahtyba, linebackers D’Qwell Jackson, Jason Trusnik, and Kaluka Maiava, and corners Brandon McDonald and Eric Wright. The Browns know Holmgren’s personnel can carry the organization down the path less traveled in Cleveland sports, toward a championship.
Strength- The front seven on Pittsburgh’s defense is among the best in the league. Let’s start by looking at the down linemen. Veteran end Brett Keisel recorded 54 total tackles and three sacks in 2009. Nose tackle Casey Hampton started all 16 games and recorded a career high in tackles with 43 and sacks with two and a half. At the other end position, Aaron Smith started the first five games before suffering a shoulder injury. In those games he got to the quarterback twice. Ziggy Hood, a 2009 first round draft pick, should begin to see significant time. Pittsburgh added two more ends through the draft, Jason Worilds (2nd Rnd) and Thaddeus Gibson (4th Rnd). The Steelers also have a talented group of linebackers. LaMarr Woodley led the team with 13.5 sacks in ’09. Former Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison made 79 tackles, 10 sacks, and forced five fumbles. Lawrence Timmons started 13 games, recorded 78 tackles, seven sacks, and four forced fumbles. James Farrior led the team in total tackles with 108. He also had 3 sacks and an interception. Back-up inside linebacker Keyaron Fox started three games, and returned his only pick 82 yards for a touchdown against Minnesota. Returning to Pitt after a season with Detroit, Larry Foote is coming off a 99 tackle season and had two QB sacks with the Lions.
Weakness- I guess it’s a good thing that quarterbacks Ben Roethlisberger and Dennis Dixon are mobile. The offensive line gave up 50 sacks last year, second worst in the NFL. If in fact Dixon starts the season at QB while Big Ben is suspended, the line will need to perform at a much higher level so the inexperienced back-up can find a rhythm. The Steelers also finished 19th in total rush yards, with a 4.2 yard per carry average. To add some salt to the wounds, tackle Willie Colon is on Injured Reserve. Colon started all 16 games for the Steelers from 2007-09. To fill the void, Flozell Adams was recently signed. Adams played left tackle for the Cowboys, and has only missed 14 regular season starts since entering the league in 1998. Dallas cut Adams, 35, this offseason in order to get younger on their line. He will move to the right side where Colon played. Maurkice Pouncey was drafted 18th overall this year to address the line problems. Pouncey became the first center selected by Pittsburgh since the 1937 Draft. The former Florida Gator can also play guard.
Biggest Question- Ben Roethlisberger can practice with the team during training camp, but when the regular season begins, he will be suspended for the first four to six games. League Commissioner Rodger Goodell reportedly will decide if the suspension will be reduced by the end of the month. Another scrambling quarterback Dennis Dixon should get the starts with “Big Ben” on the bench. Dixon made one start in 2009 in a Week 12 loss to Baltimore. He went 12 for 26, with 145 yards, a touchdown, and an interception. He also ran for 27 yards and a touchdown. The first four games are against Atlanta, at Tennessee, at Tampa Bay, and back home against Divisional foe Baltimore before a Week 5 bye. I see potential losses against Atlanta, the Titans, and the Ravens. If the suspension does reach Week 6, the Cleveland Browns will come to town. Remember, Cleveland did beat Pittsburgh in Week 14 last year. With such a strong AFC, can the Steelers survive a possible 1-3 start?
Division Prediction- The Browns hope to build off a strong finish in 2009 and give their AFC North rivals some trouble this year. If Troy Polamalu stays healthy, and the absence of Big Ben early does not haunt the Steelers, they will make a strong wildcard bid. I wanted to pick the Ravens to win the division, but their weak secondary will be a real problem with non-divisional opponents like the Patriots, the Texans, and the Saints. The Bengals have given Palmer some solid weapons to revamp the offense, and the defense will remain strong. Give Cincinnati their second straight AFC North Championship.
Coming Friday: AFC South.