Monday, August 31, 2009

NFL 2009 Preview - AFC North

Baltimore Ravens

Last Year: 11-5

Baltimore was very, very careful with QB Joe Flacco last season, relying on the ground game and committing extra players to pass protection. As a result, their passing plays were mediocre instead of terrible. They'll have to let Flacco out of his shell this year or defenses will adjust. Joe is very lucky to have the dependable Derrick Mason back - he almost retired. Mark Clayton and Demetrius Williams are the little-used other receivers, and they have yet to show they are anything special. Todd Heap's new role last year as primarily a blocker was disappointing to fantasy owners last year, but he may have helped Flacco and the Ravens more than he could have as a receiver.

In the backfield, Ray Rice is expected to start, but I don't see him as anything more than a change of pace back. Wilils McGahee is a back who can do just about everything halfway decent - outside runs, inside runs, helping in the passing game, but excels at nothing. Still, he should be the starter over Rice IMO. Le'Ron McClain will be used less as a runner and more as a fullback this year, but can still provide a few strong power runs a game.

The Ravens front 7 had one key departure this offseason: Bart Scott. His replacement, Tavares Goodman, could be good, but one expects the Ravens will miss Scott some. In the secondary, a CB job needed filling, as Ivy and McAllister are gone. They plucked the Falcons' best DB (though that's not saying much), Dominique Foxworth. This is still a very dangerous defense.

So the defense will keep clicking, but time is running out on the old-school plan on offense. There will be some regression, but this is probably still a winning team.

2009 Projected Record: 9-7

Cincinnati Bengalss

Last Year: 4-11-1

Last year the offensive line collapsed from perennial great to probably the worst in the AFC. Things will get at least a little better. Anthony Collins and first round pick Andre Smith are raw but talented starting tackles. Andre Whitworth and Bobbie Williams will be Guards again, which is where they played when the O-line was actually good. And Ghiaciuc is gone, the man never had a chance against any Nose Tackle, not good when all the teams in your division run 3-4. *Broke while writing this* Andre will miss the first few weeks with a broken foot, moving Whitworth to tackle (not terrible), and Livings to guard (also not terrible).

But just how much will they improve? Hopefully enough to keep QB Carson Palmer healthy. He hasn't been able to elude pass rushes like he did before he injured his knee, so protection is key. The good new is that his elbow problem looks like it's in the past. He'll certainly have plenty of weapons. TJ Houshmandzadeh left, but the team signed Laveranues Coles to replace him. Coles has lost a step, but so had TJ, and he can fill Housh's role at only a slightly lower level. The star of the show is undoubtedly Chad "Esteban" Ochocinco, the most interesting football player in the world. He battled injury (and a QB who had no time to throw downfield) last year, but I fully expect him to return to elite form this season if Carson stays upright. Kick return and trick play threat Andre Caldwell will be the slot receiver, and Chris Henry is a talented weapon that is finally staying away from off-field trouble.

In the backfield, no one seems to be pushing Cedric Benson for his role as feature-back, which is troubling. This line won't be great at run-blocking, and Benson needs good blocking to be effective.

The best news is on defense, where the team took a major step forward last year, and is an effective pass rush away from becoming an elite D. The addition of Tank Johnson could help just a bit. He'll rotate with Domata Peko and Pat Sims at DT. On the edges, Geathers and Odom are at least healthy, but Odom has been a bust at rushing the passer. Michael Johnson was drafted in the 3rd round as a situational pass rusher. At linebacker, the team drafted Rey Maualuga and will get back a healthy Keith Rivers. Dhani Jones, Rashad Jeanty, and Brandon Johnson started most games last year, and are all returning.

In the secondary, Jonathan Joseph is healthy this year, and both he and Leon Hall are primed to break out with a little help from the pass rush. The team added hard-hitting but can't-cover Roy Williams to rotate with Marvin White, Chinedum Ndukwe, and Chris Crocker. The good thing about having so many injuries last year is that there's lots of experienced depth.

Palmer back plus an improved defense should result in a bounceback season for the Bengals.

2009 Projected Record: 9-7

Cleveland Browns

Last Year: 4-12

Derek Anderson has proven he has very little upside, while Brady Quinn hasn't. It should be a no-brainer to let Quinn grow this year. He's got a good pass protecting line, but there's a lot of concern about his receivers. Braylon Edwards has only shown flashes of the potential he promised as the top 5 pick a few years ago, but the only thing he does consistently is drop passes. Perhaps a new supporting cast is what he needs, we'll find out this year. Other receivers are rookie Brian Robiskie, journeyman WR/DB Mike Furrey, KR specialist Josh Cribbs and veteran David Patten. At tight end, Kellen Winslow has been replaced by blocking specialist Robert Royal.

Jamal Lewis was the main back last year, but there are rumors he may be cut. He still has something left in the tank, but is 30 and still thinks he can be a feature back (not likely). Jerome Harrison is a decent scatback and ideally would take some of his carries. James Davis wasn't impressive last year at Clemson, but the team has liked his preseason.

The Browns defense was pretty average last year, and the shift from Crennel to Mangini won't require a lot of transition. The main change to the starting lineup is replacing Sean Jones with Abram Elam. They should be average-ish again but there's not a lot of hope for a leap forward.

Mangini was able to take the Jets to the playoffs in his first year there, but he'd have to be a magician to pull it off in Cleveland. Last year was pretty painful for the Browns at times, and this year won't be much better.

2009 Projected Record: 5-11

Pittsburgh Steelers

Last Year: 12-4, champions

Ben Roethlisberger had bad protection that he made look worse, and played poorly in general, but was still able to ride the defense to a super bowl win. He'll probably get better as the pass protection gets better. Hines Ward is a key blocker and possession receiver, who doesn't seem to be on the decline at all despite being 33. Coverages focused more on Santonio Holmes after his breakout season the year before, which freed up Hines and caused Holmes to struggle. Santonio is talented enough to keep developing and adjust to being a #1 WR. Heath Miller was still solid at tight end, so Pittsburgh's aerial attack is in good shape.

On the ground I still think Rashard Mendenhall is unimpressive, and Willie Parker's decline may continue. Parker's ypa has lowered each year, and the myth that he is "fast" is still annoying. (yes he was faster than Bettis, but who wasn't?) He didn't fumble once last year, but had injury problems. Pittsburgh's ground attack should be mediocre once again.

Then there's the defense, which is achieving dynasty-like status under Dick LeBeau. Last year they were hands down the best D in the league, and they haven't changed much. In the front 7 the big change is replacing Larry Foote with Lawrence Timmons. That's exactly what they drafted him for 2 years ago, and he has looked like he's ready for the job. The team lost a good corner in Bryant McFadden, but is replacing him in the lineup with another good one, William Gay.

2009 Projected Record: 12-4

Current Division Future Odds:

(Disclaimer: I don't bet futures or suggest you tie up money for that long)

9/10/2009 7:30 PM Odds to win the 2009 AFC North Division
911 Pittsburgh Steelers -210
912 Any Other +180
9/10/2009 7:30 PM Odds to win the 2009 AFC North w/o Pit Steelers
913 Baltimore Ravens -205
914 Cincinnati Bengals +285
915 Cleveland Browns +465

Fifty turnips on the Steelers. 100 on the Bengals.

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