Cincinnati won the AFC North for the second time in three years last season, but lost in the Wild Card Round for the fifth straight season. The Bengals will try once again to get over that hump this season, but will face a stiff test from the Steelers and Ravens, which are hoping for better health after stumbling to 5-11 in 2015. Cleveland is starting over (again), with new head coach Hue Jackson as the Browns are instituting a full-scale youth movement and yet another quarterback audition/tryout.
In order to get an accurate assessment of how the AFC North looks heading into the 2016 season, Athlon asked NFL scouts to talk anonymously about the Ravens, Bengals, Browns and Steelers.
Note: These scouting reports come directly from NFL scouts and do not necessarily reflect the views of Athlon's editorial staff.
“After a season full of injuries in 2015, this team has as many ‘ifs’ as any club in the NFL. If Joe Flacco can return to form, if Steve Smith Sr. can recover from an Achilles, if Breshad Perriman can actually play, if free agent Mike Wallace can find a connection with Flacco, if Terrell Suggs can come back from his Achilles, if C.J. Mosley can bounce back from his sophomore slump, if Lardarius Webb can make the adjustment to safety and if Eric Weddle can play to All-Pro form, then the Ravens might be able to reach the playoffs again."
"They signed tight end Benjamin Watson away from New Orleans and drafted tackle Ronnie Stanley at No. 6 in the first round to stabilize the protection for Flacco."
"Justin Forsett is a gutsy, little player, but maybe Buck Allen is the better answer at RB."
"Kamar Aiken led the team with 75 catches, but he’s likely their third or fourth wideout this year"
"The silver lining on defense was the emergence of DE Lawrence Guy and rookie Za’Darius Smith, so their hope is that with Suggs back in the fold, along with Elvis Dumervil, they can return to the top of the pressure charts."
"The secondary is shaky and will depend on what happens up front."
"For 10 seasons, no one has really punted better than Sam Koch; he has been a field-position changer for them.
"It really comes down to Flacco; if he plays up to his contract, they can win, otherwise, this team is in the middle of the pack.”
“You could literally cut and paste last year’s comments about Cincinnati, because it all comes down to what happens in the playoffs for them. After the ridiculous, monumental meltdown at home against the Steelers, the way 2015 ended will overshadow virtually the entire 2016 regular season."
"AJ McCarron stepped in and played more than adequately as a backup after [Andy] Dalton got hurt, but there isn’t and shouldn’t be a QB controversy here."
"Jeremy Hill and Gio Bernard give this offense balance and versatility from the backfield."
"A.J. Green is one of the best in the game, but the WR corps has been re-made with the free-agent losses of Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu and the additions of Brandon LaFell and rookie Tyler Boyd."
"Their offensive line is underrated and one of the strengths of the roster, especially center Russell Bodine."
"The Bengals got a Pro Bowl from Carlos Dunlap, who recorded 13.5 sacks, and Geno Atkins came back to life with 11 sacks of his own to earn All-Pro honors."
"Vincent Rey is not known to casual fans, but he epitomizes the modern-day linebacker with his range and explosiveness."
"In a passing league, no team has invested more into its corner population than Cincy; the Bengals currently have four No. 1 draft choices at the position, with Will Jackson being the latest addition to the group.”
“In another iteration of organizational change in Cleveland, Sashi Brown was elevated from handling contracts to the top front office position, while Hue Jackson was brought in from the Bengals as head coach. In their outside-the- box approach, Paul DePodesta was hired from baseball and is expected to take the idea of analytics in football to a completely different level."
"On the field, the Browns opted to sign Robert Griffin III as a free agent, which took them out of selecting a quarterback at the No. 2 spot in the draft. Only time will tell if this was the right move, but the reality is that the notion of a franchise QB is at least another season away."
"Baylor WR Corey Coleman was their first choice at No. 15, and he brings legit speed to the table, but RG3 will only have veteran journeymen or untested rookies in his receiving corps."
[Editor’s note: On July 25, the NFL announced that Josh Gordon had been conditionally reinstated from his indefinite suspension. He will miss the first four games of the season and be required to meet additional requirements as outlined by Commissioner Roger Goodell.]
"Tight end Gary Barnidge is likely to be their most consistent option again this year."
"After center Alex Mack and right tackle Mitchell Schwartz walked in free agency, this offensive line is in the midst of a makeover. Former first-round choice Cam Erving will take over at center, but he was simply awful as a rookie guard."
"People around the league really respect left tackle Joe Thomas and wonder how he keeps going in a situation that has been so dire."
"Once again, the defense was awful against the run, and until that improves, this club has no chance to win."
“The Steelers believe they have made enough moves on the offense and defense to make another run for the next 3-4 years with Ben Roethlisberger as their starting quarterback. League outsiders see Big Ben as a top-flight QB, and insiders will tell you that he is almost indefensible due to his size, arm strength, mobility and instincts for the game."
"With a healthy Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown coming off another sterling season with 136 total receptions, this offense is poised to maybe be the best in the league, despite the fact that Martavis Bryant will miss the 2016 season with a full-year suspension."
[Editor's note: Le'Veon Bell is facing a possible four-game suspension for violating the NFL's drug policy, pending appeal.]
"The free-agent signing of Ladarius Green should help at TE, and keep an eye on second-year player Jesse James."
"There has to be some concern about the left tackle spot even though former Army Ranger Alejandro Villanueva got 10 starts after Kelvin Beachum went down with a knee injury and then left for Jacksonville in free agency."
"Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt form one of the best combinations of 3-4 defensive ends in the entire league."
"Linebacker Lawrence Timmons is one of the NFL's most underappreciated players — all he does is play sideline-to-sideline and rack up 100-plus tackles virtually every single season."
"Their drafted outside linebackers have been a disappointment; they didn’t exercise the fifth-year option on Jarvis Jones, and Bud Dupree only had one sack as a rookie.”