As training camps open and rookies get hazed across the AFC, one question lingers: Is Andrew Luck ready to roll in Indy? Last week, Chris Ballard said that Twelve would be a full participant as camp opens. We will see. Raise your hand if you’ve heard this before. For now, let’s just pretend that Luck will be healthy ALL season (I know, it’s a stretch). But before we get to the AFC South, we’ll start in the North. The Steelers have dominated for what seems like my entire life, and I don’t see much changing this year. I do see one change, though. The Cleveland Browns will not go winless. Hard Knocks premiered last night. Josh Gordon is absent from camp. They just traded Corey Coleman, a former first round pick. Dez Bryant is still out there, and rumors are swirling that the Browns are the leading suitors. All signs point north for the Browns. The Ravens and Bengals weren’t very good a year ago, but benefitted from playing the Browns twice. Will Flacco return to Super Bowl form from their run 6 years ago? Will Marvin Lewis finally break through with a playoff victory in the black and orange?
- Pittsburgh 13-3
- Baltimore 9-7
- Cincinnati 7-9
- Cleveland 0-16
Key Addition: Randy Fichtner
Who is Randy Fichtner you say? He’s the new sheriff in town calling plays and coordinating the Steelers offense. Big Ben and freshly-curbed Offensive Coordinator Todd Haley had their disputes and differences that led to Haley finding himself at the bottom of a bottle of bourbon, and then unemployed, albeit not for long (Hello Browns!). Fichtner looks to bring this uber-talented Steelers offense back to life. Martavis Bryant–who was, at his best, the best deep threat receiver in the league (according to me)–is gone. LeVeon Bell is looking to have a career year in the midst of contract negotiations. Big Ben is getting old, but the talent around him is the best in the AFC at running back and receiver. Fichtner can either float or sink, and I predict he’ll float to the top like little Georgie did.
Eye Test: 20/20 (with glasses)
Transitions lenses allow this Steelers team to see clearly and block the sun from burning their retinas. They got rid of Martavis Bryant and his off-field distractions. The defense has been solid every single year under Mike Tomlin and I expect much the same even without the presence of Ryan Shazier. This division is getting a bit better, but still it’s the Steelers to lose, and I do not expect them to do so.
Cleveland Browns (7-9)
Key Addition: Everyone
The difference between this Browns team and last year’s monumental disappointment of a team is night and day. Coming off the second winless season in NFL history, the Browns went out and drafted a franchise quarterback, revamped their backfield with veteran Carlos Hyde and rookie Nick Chubb, grabbed standout receiver Jarvis Landry, added veteran quarterback Tyrod Taylor, stole Denzel Ward at #4 in the draft, may get Josh Gordon back in top form, AND are looking at adding Dez Bryant, a redzone animal. Not to mention, Todd Haley is now on a tour of vengeance through the AFC North after being canned by Pittsburgh. Is it too early to call the Browns the turnaround team of the year?
Eye Test: Near-Sighted
This team is closer than most think. Heavy veteran presence along with an influx of young talent has this team pointed in the right direction. I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say this team will win seven or eight games this year. Buffalo dumped Tyrod Taylor, and Cleveland was smart to grab the dual-threat vet. First overall pick Baker Mayfield may not see the field this season, but for a pure gamer like Mayfield, that may be best for him to have a year or two to adjust to the NFL game instead of being thrown to the wolves like Cleveland quarterbacks of the past.
Key Addition: Lamar Jackson
Now pay close attention, Lamar is not the key addition because of his impact on the field. He is the key addition because Joe Flacco has had no competition and no sense of urgency since he guided the Ravens to a Super Bowl victory approximately 20 years ago. Ray Lewis was on that team right? Yeah, had to be at least 20 years ago. Flacco needs a push and Lamar is just the guy to give it to him. With the Heisman winner breathing down his back, I see Joe having a comeback year and, perhaps, becoming elite once again. And if I’m wrong, then Lamar will step in and probably play poorly for a team that isn’t very good to begin with.
Eye Test: 20/80
The Ravens are in desperate need of an overhaul. Tanking is more of an NBA thing to do, but I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad idea here. They have no clear path for the future, and don’t look good enough to compete anytime soon. Baltimore will win a few games, probably pick between 8-14 in next spring’s draft, and continue to be mediocre until they move on from Joe Flacco and get some real talent at running back and receiver, and find the next anchor on that Raven D.
Cincinnati Bengals (5-11)
Key Addition: Nobody
The Bengals have made no moves that make them a better team. They stuck with Marvin Lewis. They stuck with Andy Dalton. At this point, A.J. Green has to be sick and tired of losing while the front office never takes the next step to get better. Other than Green at wideout, what can you count on with this team? Nothing comes to mind. They lost Jeremy Hill, and are going to rely on second-year man Joe Mixon to try to beat opposing defenses. The defense made no significant upgrades, and although Andy Dalton may be third on the Bengals all-time leading passers list, it seems as though all those yards are simply for naught.
Eye Test: Far-Sighted
This team is planning for the future by being terrible now. Marvin Lewis has made the playoffs a few times, but never won a game. At this point, Cincinnati is likely utilizing him as a placeholder until the next great young coach comes along to capitalize on the first overall picks that they will surely have for the next couple years.