In a reversal of roles, the Ravens are getting most of the offseason hype, and the Browns are having a relatively quiet time.
Baltimore opened as a 4/11 favorite to win the AFC North, ahead of Cleveland and the Pittsburgh Steelers (each at 15/4) and the Cincinnati Bengals (28/1), according to BetOnline.
While Kansas City is favored to win the AFC championship at 3/1, the Ravens are right behind them at 7/2, followed by the New England Patriots (6/1), Houston Texans (12/2) and the Browns (14/1).
By all accounts, Cleveland will satisfy one of its biggest needs in the NFL draft by selecting an offensive tackle. Louisville’s Mekhi Becton and Alabama’s Jedrick Wills Jr. are two players being linked to the Browns with the 10th overall pick. Cleveland has a lot of firepower back on offense; the question is whether Baker Mayfield can bounce back from his disappointing 2019 season.
With new coach Kevin Stefanski calling the shots, Cleveland could be one of the league’s most improved teams. The Browns were certainly humbled last season and appear to have a new sense of purpose and won’t be taking any opponent for granted. They’ve also spent the most money in free agency ($72 million) behind the Dolphins ($146 million) and Raiders ($75 million), according to Spotrac.
The Steelers have also been mostly overlooked this offseason because of their difficult salary-cap situation. Nonetheless, Pittsburgh will be a challenge for the Ravens because of their stout defense that includes Bud Dupree, who had 11.5 sacks last season, and budding superstar T.J. Watt, along with Minkah Fitzpatrick patrolling the secondary.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger expects to be 100 percent after suffering a season-ending elbow injury last year. A stable quarterback situation should propel Pittsburgh back into the playoff picture.
Cincinnati will add LSU quarterback Joe Burrow to its roster via the draft and that could be a game-changer for the division in the coming years. The Bengals will need to add some playmakers and stout offensive line around Burrow, but they seem to be putting together an effective plan in place. Cincinnati boosted its defense with the free-agent acquisitions of defensive tackle D.J. Reader and cornerback Trae Waynes. They’re stocking up to counter the Ravens’ high-powered offense.
“Baker Mayfield is a tremendous talent,” Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta said at the 2020 NFL Scouting Combine. “Lamar, we feel really good about him. Joe Burrow is one of the best quarterbacks we’ve seen in a long time. And then Ben is a Hall-of-Famer.
“It just makes our division really fun. Every game is a dogfight. There are no easy games in the AFC North. We respect those guys very, very much and we can’t wait to get started.”
Still, the Ravens are deservedly the favorites to win the division. The team has a strong roster back in the mix, including reigning MVP Lamar Jackson. DeCosta should be able to fill the hole at middle linebacker in the draft and also add depth to the offensive line, which is hampered by the recent retirement of right guard Marshal Yanda.
The Ravens are coming off their best year in franchise history and broke the NFL’s single-season rushing yards record. However, the players have remained humble and need to take the next step in the playoffs and a one-and-done performances in the past two years.
Jackson is ready to put in the work.
“I want to work on my timing, getting the ball out even faster because those guys in the league, they’re coming,” Jackson said on SiriusXM NFL Radio. “Defensive guys, they’re running 4.4s, 4.5s. It’s like, ‘Man, we’ve got to get this ball out of your hand and put it in a dynamic playmaker’s hands faster.’ I want to work on everything, though, even the running. I just want to be a great player.”