Is this the Browns' year? Scouts break down the Bengals, Browns, Ravens and Steelers
Baltimore is the defending AFC North champion, but it's Pittsburgh and Cleveland who have made most of the headlines this offseason. The Steelers are moving forward without Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown, leaving no doubt that this is Ben Roethlisberger's team (although Mike Tomlin's job could potentially be on the line depending on how this season goes).
Meanwhile, the Browns have quickly become the NFL's buzziest team as the combination of an encouraging 4-2 finish behind the head coach/quarterback duo of Freddie Kitchens and Baker Mayfield with the offseason additions of Odell Beckham Jr., Kareem Hunt and Olivier Vernon have many predicting Cleveland will break through in a major way this season.
But let's not forget about the Ravens, as they are going through a transition between longtime general manager Ozzie Newsome stepping down and franchise stalwarts Terrell Suggs, C.J. Mosley, and Joe Flacco among the players who are no longer on the roster. John Harbaugh survived the purge and is now hitching his wagon to dual-threat quarterback Lamar Jackson.
Cincinnati was one of eight teams to hire a new head coach this offseason, but everyone knows that Zac Taylor, who was the Los Angeles Rams quarterback coach last year, has a multi-year rebuild ahead of him. That still leaves Baltimore and Pittsburgh to renew their annual rivalry for control of the AFC North or will this be Cleveland's coming out party?
In order to get an accurate assessment of how the AFC North looks heading into the 2019 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.
"The stability the Ravens have enjoyed for two decades will be challenged in 2019. Since their early loss in the playoffs, GM Ozzie Newsome has officially retired, Joe Flacco was traded to Denver and Terrell Suggs, C.J. Mosley and Eric Weddle all departed in free agency. Those aren't just names, but people who were synonymous with the franchise."
"The new identity of this team will center around QB Lamar Jackson."
"Can GM Eric DeCosta find the right combination of offensive players to enhance [Jackson's] dual-threat ability, and can John Harbaugh and the coaching staff figure out a way to keep him healthy for an entire season?"
"While Jackson sparked a 6–1 finish, he only hit 58.2 percent of his passes and was sacked 15 times in those seven starts."
"They signed Mark Ingram from the Saints, and Gus Edwards was surprisingly effective last year with 718 rushing yards."
"The wide receivers are sub-par, but they drafted Marquise Brown, who is super explosive."
"Brandon Williams is an anchor up front on the defensive line, but Michael Pierce took a step back in 2018."
"Not only did Suggs sign with Arizona, but Za'Darius Smith left for Green Bay, so much will be expected of Matthew Judon."
"Patrick Onwuasor is their most underrated player."
"Justin Tucker and Sam Koch are pivotal in Harbaugh's formula for winning."
"It's difficult to bubble-wrap a 'running' QB, but that is the task ahead for Baltimore."
"If they can be that unique on offense, maybe a return to the playoffs can occur; otherwise, this could be an ill-fated experiment."
The Bengals were catastrophic on defense and that led to the end of the Marvin Lewis era after 16 seasons. They finished 32nd on third downs and in total defense, yet the Brown family went out and hired Zac Taylor, an offensive-minded disciple of Sean McVay."
"Lou Anarumo is the DC, and like Taylor, his only play-calling duties came on an interim basis at the end of the Joe Philbin era in Miami."
"Andy Dalton is 68–50–2 as a starter but only 18–24–1 since 2016. He needs a healthy A.J. Green to have any chance of recapturing his early-career success." [Editor's note: Green is expected to miss the first few games of the season after tearing ligaments in his ankle on the first day of training camp.]
"Cincy bet on Joe Mixon's talent and it showed up with 1,168 yards rushing and 43 receptions."
"Tyler Boyd was solid with 76 grabs; with Green healthy, he should find more single coverage. C.J. Uzomah took advantage of his increased playing time with a steady 43-catch season."
"Tyler Eifert gets one more chance after missing 34 of their last 48 games."
They drafted Jonah Williams to bolster the offensive line." [Editor's note: Williams is expected to miss the entire season after undergoing surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder that he injured during OTAs.]
"Geno Atkins was their only Pro Bowler after he notched 10 sacks."
"Finally, they moved on from Vontaze Burfict and all his issues."
"Their safety tandem was a silver lining to last year's debacle. Shawn Williams had 110 tackles and five picks, while rookie Jessie Bates had three interceptions. Bates is a future Pro Bowler because of his aggressive nature and nose for the football."
"The corner play wasn't great from Dre Kirkpatrick, William Jackson III and Darqueze Dennard, none of whom registered a single interception."
"In an evolving division, winning six games would be a successful first year for Taylor and Co."
"Baker Mania is at full throttle after he tossed 27 touchdowns, and his performance helped Freddie Kitchens get the head coaching job."
"GM John Dorsey slow-played his union with Hue Jackson and now has a coach that will stay in his lane. How much of the head coaching duties will take away from [Kitchens'] play-calling ability?"
"Mayfield flashed spectacular play but must cut down on the 14 picks in his first 13 starts."
"Dorsey only cares about production and not much about character when you consider that he has drafted Antonio Callaway, signed Kareem Hunt [Editor's note: Hunt is suspended for the first eight games of the season] and traded for Odell Beckham Jr."
"Nick Chubb will be the focus of their run game after churning out 996 yards and eight touchdowns as a rookie."
"Jarvis Landry is exactly what you want in a slot receiver; he is tough, can separate and has excellent hands."
"David Njoku approached his potential with 56 catches and four touchdowns as a second-year pro; his vertical speed is a problem for defenses to match."
"Greg Robinson will man the left tackle post, but he is the weakest link in their OL."
"Can we add Sheldon Richardson to the production-over-character list? He will be expected to help a rush defense that ranked 28th in the NFL."
"Defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi is underrated, as is Joe Schobert, who quietly made the Pro Bowl in 2017."
"Denzel Ward was terrific as a rookie corner and is the real deal. A laughing stock no more. Nine wins might get them to the playoffs, and that's clearly within reach."
"Culture and chemistry are still relevant in pro sports, and the Steelers need a dose of both in 2019. Gone are Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell, two lightning-rod talents that simply bucked the system and forged their way out of the Steel City. Ben Roethlisberger's leadership has been called into question, and it will be interesting to see how he responds once training camp begins. He is still a bear of a QB, but without a running game (31st in the league) and his 16 interceptions, this roster is not good enough to just rely on his right arm and ad-lib ability to win."
"The James Conner story is remarkable, and he will only get better after rushing for 973 yards while catching 55 passes. They love Jaylen Samuels, who had 26 receptions as their third-down back."
"JuJu Smith-Schuster will see more defenses geared to stop him after a 111-catch season, but much of that will depend upon the emergence of James Washington, who had only 16 grabs as a rookie."
"Somehow, Pittsburgh tied for first in the league with 52 sacks but finished 28th in interceptions with only eight on the season. That says everything you need to know about their secondary. The real issue is cornerback play, where Joe Haden is a shadow of his former self and Artie Burns has been below average."
"T.J. Watt has a full array of pass-rush moves (13 sacks), and their front is solid with Cameron Heyward, Javon Hargrave and Stephon Tuitt."
"They moved up to No. 10 for Devin Bush, who will make an instant impact at linebacker."
"Playoffs? Likely. Super Bowl? Not a chance."