Hello again football fans. It’s been a while since I’ve popped up here at BSL, did I miss anything?

Oh, that’s right, it’s been a particularly crazy “offseason” in the NFL, and the AFC North had a good share of that action.

I’ll be contributing pieces before and during the season covering the other teams in the AFC North, and it seems like a good place to start is by looking at where the teams stand following the first wave of free agency and the draft. I’ll address them as I seem the teams in the current divisional pecking order.

Cincinnati:

Soon after the Bengals lost the Super Bowl to the Rams, I was confident that this team would be ripe for a fall in 2022. After all, they benefitted from the easy last-place schedule in 2021 and would graduate to a more difficult first-place schedule in 2022. For all the bad luck the Ravens had with injuries, Cincy was at the other end of the spectrum, enjoying relatively few significant injuries-hard to picture them being that fortunate two years in a row. Yes sir, reality would bite them in the tushie and knock that smirk off Joe Burrow’s face, and Head Coach Zac Taylor would remind everyone that he was in over his head.

It turns out that, after studying this team in preparation for this series, I came away quite impressed with their organization. They have a plan, and they are methodically executing it. And no, I no longer think Taylor is in over his head. He doesn’t have a public presence that inspires confidence, but I won’t let that fool me anymore. Taylor and Director of Player Personnel Duke Tobin are building a winning culture, adding players who love the game and the work that goes into preparation, and who are leaders. They specifically target players who have been team captains and who seek responsibility beyond their own assignments, thinking team-first.

That’s great, but what about that porous offensive line that probably cost them the Lombardi Trophy in February? How about signing former Tampa Bay G Alex Cappa (4 years, $40M), former Patriots C/G Ted Karras (3 years, $18M) and former Cowboys T La’el Collins (3 years, $30M)? Ok, that’s pretty good, but what about that shaky secondary that helped the Bengals finish 26th in the NFL against the pass last season? That was addressed with Cincy’s first two draft picks, S Daxton Hill from Michigan (guess the Ravens can’t get all the Wolverines), and DB Cam Taylor-Britt, who played CB and S at Nebraska.

Even while team founder Paul Brown spins in his grave while his son Mike allows another year of major free agent spending, the Bengals have steadily put together what could be the best roster in the division, and one that should keep getting better, at least until Burrow and star WRs JaMarr Chase and Tyler Boyd prepare for new contracts in the next 2-3 years. I suspect the Bengals brain trust (not said with irony anymore) is already planning for that.

The Bengals are not likely to be a one-season flash in the pan. They still look like the best team in the AFC North to me.

Baltimore:

I’ll leave most of the Ravens’ analysis to the other capable folks here at BSL, but suffice it to say that with stars returning from injury and the bountiful haul in this year’s draft, Baltimore should bounce back nicely and be a serious contender for the division title and a playoff spot. I think the AFC North will be a two-horse race in 2022.

Pittsburgh:

The Steelers are a team in transition, especially on offense. They need to be after another lackluster performance last season in Big Ben’s swan song. General Manager Kevin Colbert is also stepping down after a career putting together teams that earned two Super Bowl trophies but has only won three playoff games since 2010. He left behind a gift, Pitt QB Kenny Pickett, the first QB Pittsburgh had drafted in the first round since they chose Roethlisberger in 2004.

Will this gift keep on giving? Pickett and free agent signee Mitch Trubisky will compete for the starting job leading an offense that returns only one starter from opening day in 2020. The offensive line has been revamped again (a regular event in recent years), adding G Mason Cole from the Vikings (3 years, $15.75M) and G James Daniels (3 years, $26.5M). The middle of the line should be improved, but both tackle spots could still be an issue.

Pittsburgh has playmakers, RB Najee Harris, WRs Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool, joined by heralded draft choices George Pickens and Calvin Austin III, and TE Pat Freiermuth, a beast in the red zone. Baltimore is not the only city not thrilled with their offensive coordinator, as it remains to be seen if Steelers OC Matt Canada can come close to replicating the success he enjoyed in college (where he was interim coach at Maryland in 2018 after D.J. Durkin’s dismissal).

The Steelers’ defense was the worst in the NFL against the run last year, which is hard to believe. They signed free agent LB Myles Jack (2 years, $16M), but most of the improvement will have to come organically. They are hoping for a successful return from DE Stephon Tuitt, who missed all of 2021, and LB Devin Bush, who underwhelmed coming back from a 2020 ACL injury. He is already being called a bust (he was the 10th overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft) and the Steelers did not pick up his 5thyear option for next year.

I see the Steelers hovering around .500 again and maybe sneaking into the playoffs, although I doubt it. The key storyline for 2022 will be the QB position-have they found their franchise QB, and if not, what then? They’ll have a new GM to wrestle with that issue should it arise.

Browns

The Cleveland Drama Queens, I mean Browns…no, I mean Drama Queens-geez, what a soap opera they continue to produce. They managed to piss off most of the front office people in the NFL and a segment of their fan base with the deal for QB Deshaun Watson. Cleveland gave up three first round picks, one third rounder, and two fourth rounders and bestowed a 5-year, $230M FULLY GUARANTEED contract upon him for deigning to provide his services to the Browns.

In the meantime, the incumbent QB, Baker Mayfield, is handing the situation very…not well. Every time hie opens his mouth and whines his value drops even further. It is already assumed any trade partner, if there is one, will require Cleveland to pick up a substantial part of his $18M guaranteed contract, something that is generally not done in the NFL. Yes indeed, the Browns are blazing new, expensive trails.

Of course, Watson’s availability remains an unanswerable question while the NFL investigates and then evaluates evidence from the 22 women who have charged him in a lawsuit with inappropriate conduct and sexual assault. BTW, who gets massages from at least 40 different therapists, as it appears Watson did? Hmmm.

Cleveland management is counting on the team being better and returning to the playoffs to overcome the negativity that burst out after the Watson deal. Is that likely?

Maybe down the road, but I don’t think so in 2022. Unlike what I wrote about the Bengals, it is unclear that the Browns really have an overall plan or have built a team culture that can navigate the very choppy waters they face from all the off the field stuff. They clearly have a much better QB and a talented team. They need some help at receiver and the interior DL, but they’ve got a good roster. They did lose six games by less than a touchdown in 2021, and I question if they have the leadership in the locker room to do much better this year.

That’s how I see the AFC North right now, but we all know how everything can change in the four months before the regular season opens. I think we’re in for a wild ride, and I’ll be here to talk about it.

Sounds like fun.

Jim Johnson
Jim Johnson

Jim Johnson spent most of his life in Maryland, growing up with the Orioles, the Colts, Terps, and later Ravens. He started his sports writing career as “The Courtmaster,” covering the Terps and ACC hoops and was a frequent guest on Bob Haynie’s old WNST show and other sports talk across the region. He is currently in his second run at BSL. After previously covering Maryland and Big Ten Football, he now writes about the NFL, primarily the action in the AFC North. Jim covers both current and historic stories, seeking perspective and having fun in the process.

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