It’s time for Regular Season Predictions! For this article I’ll be predicting the 2018 AFC North teams, predicting the worst record they could have (Floor) and the best (Ceiling). Let’s not waste any time attempting to explain the Browns and other teams.
1. Pittsburgh Steelers
2017 was an odd year for the Steelers. While they went 13-3 and secured the second seed in the AFC, it never felt like I was watching a dominant team. In addition to getting murdered by the Jaguars twice, the Steelers managed to lose or be in close games to teams like the Bears, Bengals, Andrew Luck-less Colts, Aaron Rodgers-less Packers, and even the Browns.
Optimum Scouting’s Justis Mosqueda has done research on teams winning close games, and has found that a significant amount of them regressed in terms of win-loss record the following season. The Steelers were 8-2 in close games last year, making them a potential regression candidate for Mosqueda.
Going in, 2017 felt like the Steelers’ best chance to win a Super Bowl with this window, and it’s disappointing considering my anticipation for the offense going into the season. Martavis Bryant was a vertical and screen pass catching monster in his first two seasons, and big things were expected for him returning from suspension and injury. Combine that with the best receiver in football in Antonio Brown, the best running back in Le’Veon Bell, a stud offensive line and Ben Roethlisberger, and this should’ve been a team that could challenge New England at last.
As it turned out, Pittsburgh did challenge the Patriots, but then the Jesse James fiasco happened, and then Roethlisberger threw an improbable interception on a fake spike to destroy any hopes the Steelers had at clinching the AFC’s first seed. Bryant’s season didn’t go as planned either, as he was overtaken by rookie JuJu Smith-Schuster and was promptly traded to the Raiders this April.
Now, going into 2018 I don’t know what to think of Ben Roethlisberger. His incidents with now Browns offensive coordinator Todd Haley have been well documented, but I felt his quality of play (especially downfield) took a nosedive. He got better in the second half of the season, but with retiring looming around in his head, this did not look like the top quarterback we’ve come to expect. The new offensive coordinator, Randy Fichtner, has been with the Steelers since 2007. I thought Haley’s play calling was under appreciated, and I don’t know how good Fichtner will be be going in.
So there’s a few uncertainties for the Steelers, but there’s also plenty of talent on the offense. If Bell actually plays in the first half of the season, he joins Brown, Smith-Schuster and rookie James Washington as the pass catchers in Pittsburgh. The offensive line is also one of the best in football, and all that really needs to be proven is the tight end position.
On defense, the loss of Ryan Shazier is a massive dagger, but there’s still a few players to like. Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt are a phenomenal defensive end duo, Bud Dupree is a really good linebacker, and T.J. Watt had a phenomenal rookie season.
Still, the secondary has issues. I’ve never been a big Joe Haden or Artie Burns fan, and Sean Davis is coming off a rough sophomore campaign at strong safety. Safety Morgan Burnett was signed to a three-year deal, but I don’t think he helps much either.
I’m not sure what Mike Tomlin’s job security looks like, but he’s been getting a pass from the front office for years for leaving his teams unprepared for games they should win. He has to step up if he wants to continue earning the Steelers’ trust. Pittsburgh is getting another home game against New England, so they need to light their asses on fire for this one; There’s little margin for error against the Patriots.
The Steelers could either have a another successful season or regress to a mediocre team based on how close a lot of their victories were, the loss of Todd Haley, the play of Roethlisberger, the lack of preparation, and the loss of Shazier.
For now, I’m choosing the former. Despite my concerns with Roethlisberger, I think he still has some quality left in him, especially with this offensive line and receiving corps. But if he struggles, it may be time to consider looking at third-round pick Mason Rudolph.
The time is ticking on Pittsburgh’s window.
2. Baltimore Ravens
In Week 17 last year against the Bengals, the Ravens were a fourth down away from making the playoffs for the first time since 2014. Then Andy Dalton threw the game winning touchdown to Tyler Boyd and Baltimore’s entire season was in shambles.
In response, Baltimore had an active offseason in an attempt to reshape their offense. It’s pretty ambitious for a franchise whose identity has long been on the opposite side of the ball.
So with this in mind, the Ravens could be a fun or boring team in 2018 for one simple reason: Quarterback.
Joe Flacco is arguably the worst starting quarterback in football. Want accuracy, good reads, good play under pressure, poise in the pocket, good mechanics, and great control of arm strength? Flacco to this point offers none of that. He’s gradually gotten worse since his first extension after the 2012 Super Bowl run, and it’s at the point where the Ravens have finally decided to get a quarterback in order to 1) force Flacco into an Alex Smith 2017-esque season where he lights a fire under himself, or 2) move on from him completely.
However, the Ravens could be a fun team with rookie Lamar Jackson. Jackson was my QB1 coming out of this class because of a great combination of downfield accuracy, poise, and running ability. While he has some accuracy issues to certain areas of the field, he has a fine foundational skill set to build on so he can work on his issues.
If Jackson does start, he’s getting a completely revamped receiving corps.
Yessir, the Ravens got busy in free agency, grabbing Michael Crabtree, John Brown and Willie Snead. Crabtree was great during his time in Oakland, and will provide Baltimore with a proven veteran that combines refined footwork and route running with athletic hands and ability after the catch. Brown is talented, but injuries and his sickle cell trait sapped his potential in Arizona. Hopefully he realizes that potential with a second shot. Snead is ok, but he was practically a no show in his last season in New Orleans, only posting one catch.
The Ravens also drafted tight ends Hayden Hurst and Mark Andrews. Hurst was a first round selection, which confused many, and Andrews was selected in the third round. Hurst will be 25 this season, so what we see from his rookie season could vert well be close to his ceiling.
On the offensive line, guard Marshal Yanda is returning from a broken ankle he suffered early in 2017, and if he returns to 100% it’s a massive boost to the line. Ronnie Stanley is also a quality left tackle, and the team extended guard James Hurst for four more years and moved him to right tackle. Whether that’ll work will be determined. Alex Lewis, who has been mostly injured in his first two seasons, is returning at left guard, but he’s mostly an unknown.
Out of the backfield, Alex Collins was a pleasant surprise. He offers little value as a receiving back, but was a consistent runner in 2017. Outside of that, the running back depth is underwhelming. Javorius Allen has been limited, and Kenneth Dixon, returning from injuries and a suspension, is intriguing but has also had a limited sample size.
On the opposite side, the Ravens should have one of the best defenses in the league. They went defense heavy in the 2017 season, and it very well could pay off this year due to the insane level of depth. The defensive line has starting caliber players in Brandon Williams, Brent Urban, ageless Terrell Suggs and Michael Pierce. C.J. Mosely is one of the best linebackers in football period, and the secondary features an insane amount of talent in Brandon Carr, Jimmy Smith, Eric Weddle and Tony Jefferson.
Let’s consider that Marlon Humphrey and Tyus Bowser have yet to take heavy snaps as well. There’s loads of talent on the Ravens defense.
As long as the offense is complimentary to the defense, I don’t see why this can’t be a playoff team. Of course, it all starts with the quarterback play. If Flacco starts, Baltimore is not a playoff team. If Jackson starts, they could have some struggles while banking in a starter that has more long term upside than what Flacco has shown in recent years, but could be a playoff team if Jackson simply plays at a complimentary level.
Right now, I think they will be wasted by Flacco once again, affecting their record early on.
3. Cincinnati Bengals
The Bengals are a fascinating team heading into the 2018 season. There’s young studs on both sides of the ball, and an improved offensive line should give Andy Dalton more room for error.
Of course, Dalton was bad last year when the offensive line couldn’t protect. He couldn’t operate under pressure, constantly missing open receivers and even going as far as throwing the ball away on fourth down multiple times. Dalton’s always been a limited, first read only quarterback, but plays semi-competent with a strong supporting cast. He’s not the worst starting quarterback, but Cincinnati really shouldn’t be keeping him for as long as they have.
This season, the biggest need for the Bengals was offensive line, and they addressed that need in two humongous ways: First by trading for Bills left tackle Cory Glenn, and second by drafting Ohio State center Billy Price in the first round. It’s still not a phenomenal offensive line, but it’s not going to be the awful unit it was last year.
Marvin Lewis forgot to play John Ross during his rookie season, and with the second-year pro getting great reviews at camp, hopefully he’ll break out. If he does, he and A.J. Green could be one of the best receiving duos in football. Josh Malone is also a player to watch, and the tight end depth (Tyler Eifert, Tyler Kroft, and C.J. Uzomah) is real damn good. Tyler Boyd doesn’t have the most explosive skill set, but he’s not a bad player either.
The departure of Jeremy Hill gave Joe Mixon the keys at RB1 for good. Mixon had some struggles in his rookie season, but should be poised for a breakout sophomore year with a better offensive line. Giovani Bernard remains a valuable receiving back as well, giving the Bengals a quality backfield.
On defense, having Geno Atkins (arguably the second best defensive tackle in the league), Carlos Dunlap and Carl Lawson rushing your quarterback is a terrifying thought (with Sam Hubbard developing at defensive end during his rookie season as well), but that hasn’t stopped Marvin Lewis from trying Lawson out at linebacker and putting him as a third stringer at defensive end for no reason. Lawson is a freak pass rusher who provided a lot of pressure for his sample size in his rookie season, and as such should not be punished for being one of the team’s best pass rushers
Vontaze Burfict will be suspended for four games, which will leave Jordan Evans in his place as weakside linebacker. Safety Shawn Williams has been a consistent player for the Bengals since his contract extension, and third-year corner William Jackson III is an outstanding talent who is due for a breakout year. 2nd round safety Jessie Bates III could very well take George Iloka’s job as well.
It’s a work in progress for the Bengals. The defensive isn’t ready to be one of the league’s best yet, but there’s still some high quality pieces that suggest they’re heading in the right direction. Having Dalton at quarterback limits your offense, but there’s also plenty of quality skill players for him to fall back on. I love the young talent on this team, but they need a new quarterback before they can make playoff noise again.
4. Cleveland Browns
Sashi Brown was martyred.
As a Cleveland born kid and a long time fan since childhood (sadly), I expected the 2017 Browns season to be a step in the right direction, winning at least six games and marking a point where they could finally be taken seriously. That did not happen, and instead they went 0-16 despite having a roster that suggested they should have finished better.
While Brown wasn’t perfect as a general manager, he was responsible for giving the Browns loads of cap space, and nailed several picks such as Myles Garrett, Emmanuel Ogbah, Joe Schobert, Larry Ogunjobi, and David Njoku. Of course, Hue Jackson and Gregg Williams were awful as coaches on both sides of the ball, and combined with a offensive line that struggled with Joe Thomas missing actual playing time and a rookie quarterback in Deshone Kizer that kept turning the ball over, and the Browns’ had the worst season they will ever have.
New GM John Dorsey, thus, has made an effort to gather more talent on the roster. Tyrod Taylor was brought in via a trade, and he was the main reason why the Bills were 9-7 instead of 3-13 like they should have been. Taylor’s mobility is phenomenal, and his downfield accuracy and poise have gradually gotten better despite playing in bad schemes. He is an above average starter.
Jarvis Landry was also brought in via a trade. I’ve never been a big fan of Landry; I’ve always seen him as a slow receiver that hesitates around defenders entirely too much, can’t separate vertically, and is pretty much a running back disguised as a wide receiver. But, because of his passion and efforts to be apart of the community of my hometown, I guess I have to like him now and hope that he proves me wrong.
Outside of Landry, Josh Gordon finally played meaningful football in the second half of 2017, and it made me hungry for more Gordon. If he does come back after correcting himself, that’ll be huge. Corey Coleman was traded to the Bills, and Antonio Callaway, while very talented, needs to stay out of trouble off the field. David Njoku had his drop issues last year, but also flashed signs of quality many times, and Seth DeValve is nice tight end depth as well.
A big story in the offseason was that the Browns actually got to extend a good homegrown player! Duke Johnson is one of the best receiving backs in football, and locking him down was huge for Cleveland moving forward. I’m not a Carlos Hyde guy, but Nick Chubb was a stud at Georgia and should form a nice backfield with Johnson given that the offensive line holds up.
Speaking of which, how good that line will become will vary. Joel Bitonio is a quality left guard who was recently moved to left tackle. Chris Hubbard is starting at right tackle, and rookie Austin Corbett is at left guard, so a lot of investment is being put on guys with small sample sizes. I like J.C. Tretter at center, but Spencer Drango at right guard is something I’m not signing up for. I don’t expect the offensive line to be as good as it was in previous years.
On defense, there’s a lot to be excited about providing that Gregg Williams is competent (doubt it). Myles Garrett had a phenomenal rookie season at defensive end, and with stud third year player Emmanuel Ogbah (the reason why the Browns didn’t take Bradley Chubb) returning and rookie Chad Thomas as a role player, the Browns are set at defensive end. Defensive tackle might be a liability, but Larry Ogunjobi and Caleb Brantley could take big steps forward.
At linebacker, the Browns are deep. Joe Schobert actually made the Pro Bowl last year (being the sole member of the 2017 Browns to do that), and enjoyed a nice 2017 campaign. Jamie Collins is forever underrated by Browns fans and is a monster against the run, Christian Kirksey is solid, and new signee Mychal Kendricks also provides quality depth.
The secondary was a big focus in the offseason. Demarious Randall, E.J. Gaines, and Terrance Mitchell were all brought in during free agency, helping give the Browns more depth. Jabrill Peppers was awful in his rookie season, and I don’t anticipate Williams’ use of him being any better. Still, the selection of Ohio State corner Denzel Ward in the first round makes for an exciting rookie prospect that could very will boost the secondary.
This team shouldn’t go 0-16 again with a quality veteran like Tyrod Taylor and my QB2 in Baker Mayfield, but it’s the Browns, so you never know. The hope is that Todd Haley has the control over this offense, and if he does, the Browns shouldn’t be an atrocious team. There’s loads of young talent on both sides of the ball, so there shouldn’t be any excuses for this coaching staff not to get some wins. Truth be told, if the Browns got any actual coaching, they’d be a really fun team, maybe even a wild card team.
As of right now, though, I’m keeping my expectations low so that I can save my sanity. But I love the front seven, quarterback room and backfield, so hopefully the Browns do more things right than last year. At the very least, this is an entertaining Hard Knocks team.