AFC North Season Preview
By: Luke Fontaine
Good Free Men Staff Writer:
The Steelers should be gearing up for another easy playoff run. But instead management and the league's best running back are playing games.
If the Leveon Bell financial dispute isn't settled after Week 1, then the Steelers are in panic mode. Bell not showing up all season long, is a not far-off reality.
The coaches don't want to sign him long-term and the Steelers roster is even starting to speak out, saying Bell is "screwing them over," paraphrasing for the sake of being polite.
That's where I look to sophmore running back James Conner. The Steelers enjoy having a single-back to carry the work load and most backs in the black and gold, who do this, end up successful.
In 2015, when Bell went down with an injury after only playing 6 games. Now unrostered, RB Deangelo Williams took off immediatley eclipsing 1,000-yards rushing and scoring 12 TDs in 12 games.
This goes to show, almost anyone could be a successful back in Pittsburgh. James Conner, could very likely be a reliable, more affordable option for the Steelers this year.
I would not be surprised if he broke out and became a center piece of the Steelers dynamic offense for years to come.
The Baltimore Ravens are one of the more mysterious teams in the league. Similar to the Oakland Raiders, it's hard to know if they're pushing to contend or moving towards a rebuild.
The Ravens drafted rookie QB Lamar Jackson in this years draft, but also remain adamant that Joe Flacco is their QB. I would not be shocked whatsoever, if Lamar doesn't see a snap until Week 16 during a throw away game.
That being said, I believe the Ravens are still ready to contend. Lamar Jackson might be the shiny new toy, but I think the Ravens are focused on winning and Flacco is their best option for the time being.
Flacco whether elite or not, has to be cut some slack for not having many good WR options to throw to since losing Steve Smith Sr.
That's where I think the Ravens should be praised for the some of the underrated signings they made this offseason.
They capitalized on the Raiders swapping-out of Jordy Nelson for Michael Crabtree. Crabtree seems a lot older than he is, but he's still very much inside his prime window at only 30 years old.
Many may look to last years stats as evidence of declining, as he moved from 1,000 yards receiving to 680 yards. However, Amari Coopers numbers took a hit as well and if it weren't for 2 big games by Cooper. Crabtree definitely put up more consistent play, week-to-week.
I think it's highly logical to think that as long as Flacco is at QB, Crabtree will probably put up big numbers this year.
Flacco doesn't like to run like his back-ups do, running back Alex Collins will be a good running back, but he won't put up eye-catching numbers.
So where does the production come from? all Crabtree in 2018. Big year from him coming up, giving the Ravens offense the spark they need to contend for the division.
The Cleveland Browns are done being the league joke. So this year they made big moves and spent some of their extensive salary capital on proven free agents.
They added to their offense two weapons in Tyrod Taylor and Jarvis Landry, which should make the Browns twice as good as they were last year, roster wise.
The biggest overhaul coming in the form of defensive backs. Filling 7 of 10 positions with new bodies.
The easy pick says Myles Garrett is going to break out, which is pretty much a given. I mean, just look at the guy. He's 6'4", 270 lbs, absolutely shredded and has all the pass-rush techniques down to a science.
But the biggest contingent that the Browns success relies upon is Head Coach Hue Jackson.
Before his tenure with the Browns began, he was a 1 year-coach with the Oakland Raiders in 2011. In Oakland, he began well as they went 7-4, but then went on to win only 1 of their next 4 games and missed the playoffs.
He was fired at the end of the season after the hiring of GM Reggie McKenzie, who wanted to move in a different direction.
Cleveland then pick up Jackson in 2016 to be their new Head Coach, from there he would only go on to win 1 game out of the next 2 seasons. (32 games total)
Amazingly, Hue kept his job after the hiring of GM John Dorsey. Now with a set roster, Hue will be on a tight leash.
It doesn't help that the Browns start off the season against the Steelers and Saints. However, if the Browns can win 1 of those games, they have a major breakthrough on their hands.
Again this all relies on Hue Jacksons ability to impute a winning mentality into a team, that hasn't won a Sunday football game since the short-lived Johnny Manziel era, in 2015.
The Bengals have a similar problem to the Browns. Where the Bengals also have a good roster but they lack a proven coach.
Coach Marvin Lewis has been with the Cinncinatti Bengals since 2003. A jaw-dropping amount of time for any coach. Specifically a coach that has never won a playoff game.
The only coach to tenure with a team longer than Lewis, is Coach Belichick with the New England Patriots. Belichick has been with the Patriots since 2000, since this time they have won 5 Super Bowls and have 28 playoff wins.
After another mediocre 2017 campaign, many speculated that last year would be the final year for Lewis, instead GM Mike Brown extended him for 2 more seasons.
That's almost as ridiculous as Hue Jackson being extended for another season after winning only 1 game in 2 seasons.
The Bengals absolutely have a roster that could contend for a division title in the AFC North. But it's going to take this coaching staff to do what they're paid to do and lead the team into consistent winning form.
Saquon is going to balance out this offense well, Jonathan Stewart may nab-up some goal-line TD's here and there. But at the end of the day, the entire back-field belongs to Saquon.
The last player to watch is Linebacker Alec Ogletree. Even though Ogletree had a down year, I think in this Giants 3-4 defense you're going to see him thrive.
The man plays like a 30-year old veteran, as he lead the LA Rams defense last season. But at only 26, he acts very mature for his age, which is why the Giants made it a priority to get him.
Ogletree is going to be the glue on the Giants defense for years to come. He will be directing traffic like he has in the past, I'm sure his numbers will rise beyond last years very quickly.