An AFC North Outlook

Street Talk An AFC North Outlook

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ITH Projected 2008 order of finish:
  1. Pittsburgh 
  2. Cleveland 
  3. Baltimore 
  4. Cincinnati 
Baltimore Ravens
2007 Record:   5-11
Free Agency:
Players Added: Kerry Reed, WR (Dolphins); Jim Leonhard, S (Bills); Fabian Washington, CB (Raiders); Frank Walker, CB (Packers); Brendon Ayanbadejo, LB (Bears).
Players Lost:  BJ Sams, RS (Chiefs); Devard Darling, WR (Chiefs); Cullen Finnerty, QB (Broncos); Musa Smith. RB (Jets).
Players Drafted: 
1st  Round – Joe Flacco, QB (Delaware); 2nd   Round – Ray Rice, RB (Rutgers); 3rd Round – Tavares Gooden, LB (Miami); 3rd Round – Tom Zbikowski, S (Notre Dame); 3rd Round – Oniel Cousins, OT (Texas-El Paso); 4th Round – Marcus Smith, WR (New Mexico); 4th Round – David Hale, G,T (Weber State); 6th Round – Haruki Nakamura, S (Cincinnati); 7th Round – Justin Harper, WR (Virginia Tech); 7th Round – Allen Patrick, RB (Oklahoma).
Outlook:  The Ravens have the look of a team with an abundance of talent and an equal amount of question marks. New Head Coach John Harbaugh and new Offensive Coordinator Cam Cameron are hard at work in planning to morph the team into one that is a threat with the football instead of one that has only proven the ability to stop the opponent. Of the 10 players drafted by the club, 7 are offensive performers. With the retirement of QB Steve McNair, the training camp and preseason activity figures to yield an open competition for the QB job featuring veteran Kyle Boller, 2nd year player Troy Smith, and rookie Joe Flacco.
The team returns almost all of its key skill set players, and barring injury they should serve the team well. With the return or retirement of T Jonathan Ogden still to be determined, the offensive line is mostly young with promising talent.  With a new offensive system and coaching staff, it may take some time for the unit to gel. The defense returns mostly intact and is still a playoff caliber unit, when healthy. Haloti Ngata began showing Pro Bowl form, and the unit will be very difficult to run against. However, they need to get back to their suffocating and QB- pressuring style to help a secondary that was injury plagued and burned far too frequently in 2007. The pass-rushing specialist was an area not targeted in the 2008 draft.
ITH Skinny:  The Ravens should improve their 5-11 mark of a year ago, but will need to find quality QB play and the offense to gel quickly in order to become a serious playoff contender. Realistically, 2008 is the year for the new coaching staff to begin setting the foundation for the future.         
Cincinnati Bengals
2007 Record:   7-9
Free Agency: 
Players Added:  Ben Utecht, TE (Colts); Brandon Johnson, LB (Cardinals); Darryl Blackstock, LB (Cardinals); Antwan Odom, DE (Titans); Travis Brown, WR (Seahawks).
Players Lost:  Chris Henry, WR (released); Nick Turnbull, S (Falcons); Bryan Robinson, DE (Cardinals); Tab Perry, WR (Dolphins); Alex Stepanovich, C (Falcons); Landon Johnson, LB (Panthers); Justin Smith, DE (49ers); Madieu Williams, S (Vikings); Chris Manderino, FB (Chiefs).
Players Drafted: 
1st Round – Keith Rivers, LB (USC); 2nd Round – Jerome Simpson, WR (Coastal Carolina); 3rd Round – Pat Sims, DT (Auburn); 3rd Round – Andre Caldwell, WR (Florida); 4th Round – Anthony Collins, OT (Kansas); 5th Round – Jason Shirley, DT (Fresno State); 6th Round – Corey Lynch, S (Appalachian State); 6th Round – Matt Sherry, TE (Villanova); 7th Round – Angelo Craig, DE (Cincinnati); 7th Round – Mario Urrutia, WR (Louisville).
Outlook:  The off-season in Cincinnati has been anything but quiet. The team has removed WR Chris Henry and suspended LB Odell Thurman from its roster. With these 2 tumors removed from the cancerous locker room, Marvin Lewis needs to figure out how to get his team to develop a will to succeed. This will be difficult with divas like WR Chad Johnson who wants a new contract and has requested a traded. The Bengals can count on Ocho Cinco being a major distraction. How does Lewis get WR TJ Houshmandzadeh to curtail his own whining and QB Carson Palmer to not be the detached and forlorn leader of his offense? A trimmed down and healthy RB Rudy Johnson and former Colts TE Ben Utecht should help. The team drafted 3 WR to help fill the void left by the aforementioned Henry, and the offensive line may end up being the strength of the unit.
The Bengals have yet to establish any kind of defensive consistency, and it would appear that they are still trying to find key missing pieces to the puzzle. Gone are former standouts Justin Smith, Landon Johnson, and Madieu Williams and the Bengals must find a way to replace this talent. Keith Rivers has the look of an outstanding addition at LB, and with returning studs at CB in Johnathan Joseph and Leon Hall, the defense has some pieces in place. Antwan Odom should have an immediate impact as a pass rusher.
ITH Skinny:  The Bengals have moved backwards for 2 straight years since winning the AFC North in 2005. It will take a super-human effort from Marvin Lewis to convert the 2008 version of me-first players into a successful team. Lewis recently passed out orange T-shirts to all of his players that read "NOW" on the back in bright, white letters. Lewis’ message is that Cincinnati needs to win this season — with no excuses and no looking ahead to future seasons.
 Cleveland Browns
2007 Record:   10-6
Free Agency:
Players Added:  Shantee Orr, LB (Texans); Rex Hadnot, G (Dolphins); Donte’ Stallworth, WR (Patriots); Corey Williams, DT (Packers); Shaun Rogers, DT (Lions); Steve Cargile, S (Broncos); Jereme Perry, CB (Dolphins); Terry Cousin, CB (Jaguars).
Players Lost:  Matt Stewart, LB (Cardinals); Chaun Thompson, LB (Texans); Simon Fraser, DE (Falcons); Ricardo Colclough, CB (Panthers); Scott Player, P (Patriots).
Players Drafted:  4th Round – Beau Bell, LB (UNLV); 4th Round – Martin Rucker, TE (Missouri); 6th Round – Ahtyba Rubin, DT (Iowa State); 6th Round – Paul Hubbard, WR (Wisconsin); 7th Round – Alex Hall, DE / LB (St. Augustine).
Outlook:  The Browns were in the playoff hunt to the very end in 2007 and didn’t quite make it even though they ended with a 10-6 mark. QB Derek Anderson and the offensive line stepped forward in what was a very successful campaign and the offense thrived with the running of Jamal Lewis and the strong skill position play of TE Kellen Winslow, Jr. and WR Braylon Edwards. Add WR Donte Stallworth to the mix and the Browns have as potentially explosive an offense as you will see in the AFC. T Joe Thomas played in Pro Bowl quality fashion in his rookie season and the line had a very solid campaign. Derek Anderson threw 29 TD and 3,787 yards, but 8 of his 19 INT came in the 5 December games including 4 in a 19-14 loss to the Bengals that effectively sealed the Browns playoff fate.
The Browns have beefed up their D-line via the acquisition of Corey Williams and Shaun Rogers, which should help to improve the 27th rated rush defense. The Browns overall defense was not very good in 2007, so improvement from that unit is a must if the Browns are to make the playoffs in 2008. A more consistent pass rush would help out a secondary that will not have Davon Holly (injury) and Kenny Wright (released). Underrated return specialist Joshua Cribbs provided a valuable dimension to the Browns attack in 2007, so look for teams to kick the ball away from him this year.
ITH Skinny:  The Browns will be a trendy pick by many to win the AFC North in 2008. In order to get there, they need Derek Anderson and Jamal Lewis to put up big numbers consistently and hope that the additions of Williams and Rogers on defense make them a prime time group. This is an exciting young team that can make the playoffs if they can figure out how to beat the Steelers, who they have lost to 15 times in their last 16 head-to-head match-ups.
Pittsburgh Steelers
2007 Record:   10-6
Free Agency:
Players Added:  Anthony McFarland, DT (Colts); Justin Hartwig, C (Panthers); Keyaron Fox, LB (Chiefs); Mewelde Moore, RB (Vikings).
Players Lost:  Clark Haggans, LB (Cardinals); Brian St. Pierre, QB (Cardinals); Jerame Tuman, TE (Cardinals); Alan Faneca, G (Jets); Allen Rossum, RS (49ers)
Players Drafted:
1st Round – Rashard Mendenhall, RB (Illinois); 2nd Round – Limas Sweed, WR (Texas) 3rd Round – Bruce Davis, OLB (UCLA); 4th Round – Tony Hills, OT (Texas); 5th Round – Dennis Dixon, QB (Oregon); 6th Round –  Mike Humpal, LB (Iowa); 7th Round – Ryan Mundy, FS (West Virginia).
Outlook:  The Steelers lost 5 of their last 8 games in 2007, including a home playoff loss to Jacksonville. Many believe that the injury to RB Willie Parker was the major impetus for the late-season fade, but truth be told the offensive line was the true trouble spot. It appears that the team hasn’t done much to correct that situation in the off-season, opting instead to invest its top 2 draft selections in skill position players like Mendenhall and Sweed and the free agency signing of RB Mewelde Moore. Alan Faneca left for the Jets and a huge contract. There can be no denying the fact that Ben Roethlisberger carried the offense on his broad shoulders in 2007 throwing for over 3,100 yards and 32 TD passes with only 11 INT and a 104.1 QB rating. A stellar, yet unheralded receiving corps leads the way for the offense with Hines Ward, Santonio Holmes, and Nate Washington consistently making big plays. With some help from a deeper backfield and improvement on the O-line, the Steelers offense should be a potent group in 2008. The addition of McFarland should help the defense, but is somewhat offset by the loss of Clark Haggans. The Steelers are looking for 2007 draft pick LaMarr Woodley to replace Haggans and to get after the opposing QB. One key piece of the defensive return to the Blitz-burgh days is the health of S Troy Polamalu who missed 5 games in 2007 due to injuries to his knee, shoulder, and abdomen.     
ITH Skinny:  The Steelers remain the top dog in the AFC North and should repeat as the division winner. However, they do not possess the kind of overwhelming talent to walk away with the crown. The offensive line remains a question mark even though the team has acquired terrific young talent at the skill positions. They will need some of these youngsters to step up in order to win the division and to advance in the playoffs.   
Photo by Sabina Moran

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Eric Buckner

About Eric Buckner

Eric Buckner is a native of Baltimore and has lived in the area his entire life. A graduate of Towson University , Eric has been a student of professional football since the day he wept in his grandfather's bedroom after the Baltimore Colts were upset by the New York Jets in Super Bowl III. A loyal fan of the Colts and subsequently the Ravens, Eric's passion for the NFL is unwavering as evidenced by his near flawless attendance record at Ravens' games. He's missed only one preseason game -- back in 2005. We'll cut him some slack since he was on his honeymoon. You won't find Eric slacking when it comes to covering the AFC North for   More from Eric Buckner


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