Is Pittsburgh the team to beat? Scouts break down the Bengals, Browns, Ravens and Steelers
Pittsburgh won a second straight AFC North title last season and the Steelers enter 2018 as a legitimate Super Bowl contender. While most of the attention focuses on the offense, especially in regards to running back Le'Veon Bell's contract situation, how the defense fares for a full season without linebacker Ryan Shazier will be critical to the team's success.
Baltimore just missed out on a playoff berth in 2017 and the Ravens are hoping offseason additions on offense will help quarterback Joe Flacco bounce back. Cincinnati needs some of its younger players to step up or Marvin Lewis' tenure with the Bengals could be coming to an end. And while Cleveland went 0-16 last season, there is optimism surrounding the Browns following the acquisition of several new starters and an intriguing draft class that's headlined by No. 1 overall pick Baker Mayfield.
In order to get an accurate assessment of how the AFC North looks heading into the 2018 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.
"From afar, it looks like the Ravens’ window has closed with Joe Flacco as the quarterback. They have not made the playoffs in four of the past five seasons, the owner contemplated moving on from John Harbaugh in January, and GM Ozzie Newsome revealed in February that 2018 would be his last season."
"The reality is that Flacco got hot during their Super Bowl run in 2012 but has been average to below ever since."
"Enter Lamar Jackson as a first-round quarterback, and 2018 looks like Flacco’s final year."
"Alex Collins was a revelation as the former Seahawks fifth-round pick rushed for nearly 1,000 yards last season."
"[Guard] Marshal Yanda will return in 2018 after missing the entire season with an ankle fracture, but they lost center Ryan Jensen to the Buccaneers in free agency, and only Ronnie Stanley at left tackle is close to being at the top of his position group across the league."
"The wide receivers have been unproductive and miscast for so long, it was not surprising for them to sign John Brown from Arizona and Ryan Grant from Washington, only to have Grant fail his physical [and later sign with the Colts]."
"What does it say that their best defensive player is headed into his 16th year? That’s Terrell Suggs, who still strikes fear in opposing quarterbacks and offensive tackles."
"The secondary is probably their strongest position group."
"Newsome will always be remembered as the steadying voice in Baltimore and one of the league’s best drafters, but I’m still not convinced this is more than a nine-win team."
"In a surprising development, head coach Marvin Lewis signed a two-year extension and will return for his 16th season. The Brown family has a very particular way of operating their team, and they simply do not like change. However, it makes them an easy target when they continue with a coach who has never won a playoff game and a roster full of character-risk players. Lewis and Andy Dalton get all the blame, but the biggest failing for the Bengals has been the deterioration of the offensive line in recent years."
"Left tackle Andrew Whitworth proved to be a huge loss up front last season when Jake Fisher and Cedric Ogbuehi struggled to stay competitive. Center Russell Bodine was a disappointment, too, but he left for the Bills. Clint Boling is their best offensive lineman, but you would have to be in an NFL personnel department or his family to know it. In the first round, they chose Ohio State center Billy Price who should become an anchor in the middle."
"John Ross played 17 snaps as a rookie, so they need him to get healthy and on the field opposite A.J. Green, who continues to perform at a Pro Bowl level."
"Tight end Tyler Eifert was brought back on a one-year deal, but he has appeared in only 10 games over the past two seasons."
"The defensive front actually played well in 2017 led by Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson."
"Injuries at linebacker killed their chances when Vincent Rey and Nick Vigil simply did not produce, and Vontaze Burfict will now sit four games due to a PED suspension."
"It should be more of the same in 2018 with Lewis and Dalton leading an up-and-down, inconsistent football team."
"The eye rolls have stopped around the league regarding the Browns and their new personnel department."
"In free agency, with the assets left behind by Sashi Brown and Co., [new GM] John Dorsey took advantage of their cap situation and multiple draft picks by trading for or signing Tyrod Taylor, Carlos Hyde and Jarvis Landry, among others."
"Taylor takes care of the ball, which will be very important as they forge a new identity in 2018. But what will the timeline be with Baker Mayfield? It will be the ever-present question all summer and into the season."
"Hyde will pair off well with Duke Johnson and Nick Chubb to give the Browns a reliable backfield."
"Landry will bring toughness and production to the table, but Cleveland still needs Josh Gordon and/or Corey Coleman to become realistic threats down the field. With Gordon, you never feel totally convinced that he can stay focused, but under different management, maybe he can finally reach his full potential." [Editor's note: Corey Coleman was traded to Buffalo on Aug. 5 for a seventh-round pick in 2020.]
"The entire league was stunned when they picked Antonio Callaway from Florida, because he brings more baggage than Gordon did back in 2012."
"They traded Danny Shelton to the Patriots, and stopping the run has consistently been as big an issue as finding a franchise quarterback."
"Denzel Ward was a major surprise at pick No. 4 even though he can fly."
"Anything around six wins or more would be a successful year for the Browns, but no coach sits on a hotter seat than Hue Jackson, who enters 2018 with one win in two seasons in Cleveland."
"After an embarrassing playoff loss to the Jaguars that saw their defense shredded and poor clock management, Mike Tomlin fired Todd Haley and made several changes to his coaching staff. The reality is that as long as Ben Roethlisberger is the quarterback, the Steelers will be in contention."
"While David DeCastro is one of the best guards in the league, his other four line mates were disappointing in 2017. Ramon Foster and Maurkice Pouncey showed some age and seemed to slip last year, while Alejandro Villanueva and Marcus Gilbert were average at best."
"The Le’Veon Bell saga will likely continue through the summer, so that will be the main story heading into camp. He’s a tremendous talent, but no one can afford spending $14 million per year on a running back."
"Antonio Brown is a marvel to watch; he wins at all levels of the passing game. JuJu Smith-Schuster was impressive as a rookie, so Martavis Bryant was traded."
"Cameron Heyward bounced back from injury and had an awesome season. He is arguably the league’s most underrated defender."
"T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree seem set at the outside backer spots, but after the scary Ryan Shazier injury, they did nothing to bolster their inside depth."
"Their secondary has been ordinary since Troy Polamalu’s retirement, in all honesty."
"The light turned on for Artie Burns at one corner, and Mike Hilton was a revelation as a second-year player."
"The Bell story notwithstanding, if the offensive line and secondary hold up, Pittsburgh might be able to make amends for what happened in 2017; motivation should not be a problem."