2018 AFC North Preview

Welcome to the 2018 AFC North preview, which is the second installment in our 2018 NFL Season preview series.  If you haven’t read part one, be sure to check it out.  To outline again, we’re going to look at each team in the division and make predictions against every team’s Vegas win total, break down the rosters, and make some division wide predictions at the end.  Again, the order in which the teams are listed is what I am projecting as the division’s final standings come season’s end.  Let’s get started on the 2018 AFC North preview.

Pittsburgh Steelers – O/U 10.5 – Under

We all know the Steelers have the best quarterback in this division, arguably the best receiver in football, and arguably the best running back in football.  So let’s just skip ahead to the rest of the roster.  The other weapons at Roethlisberger’s disposal include JuJu Smith-Schuster and rookie James Washington.  JuJu was incredible last season, but his production came on an unsustainable level of efficiency.  If you’re just looking to project season stats for him, the increased volume may very well counter balance the definite regression in efficiency, and will be a quality second receiver for the Steelers.

Washington going to the Steelers was one of the best fits for him in the NFL.  Washington was possibly the best deep ball tracker out of all the receivers that were available in the 2018 NFL Draft.  Remember those 4 deep shots down the field that Martavis Bryant used to get during his Steelers days?  Yea, those are going to go to Washington now, who has lit up the preseason.  It’s just the preseason, but his performance is right in line with the scouting report.

According to Pro Football Focus, the Steelers enter the season with the 4th best offensive line in the NFL.  Great quarterback, elite weapons, elite offensive line.  Not sure how much more I need to talk about this team’s offense, but I do want to mention the Le’Veon Bell situation.  It is almost a guarantee that Bell is with a different team next season, which means the Steelers are going to ride Bell into the ground since they don’t have any long-term skin in the game.  Additionally, Bell is coming off a season in which he amassed 431 touches (!) including the playoffs.  We all know the mystical magic number is 370 touches and a running back just breaks the following year.  431 is quite larger than 370 and Bell already hasn’t been the picture of health throughout his career.

The defense is where I’m having trouble deciding if this team will hit the over or the under.  They have a pretty decent pass rush, 14th by PFF, and it’s fair to project development from T.J. Watt.  It’s the rest of the defense that is causing trepidation.

What happened to Ryan Shazier sucks, there is no other way to put it.  But Pittsburgh did nothing to replace him, and their defense experienced quite the drop off after his injury.  Pittsburgh has one of the worst group of linebackers in the entire NFL.

Instead of using their first pick on a linebacker, the Steelers decided to draft an overvalued safety solely because the Patriots live rent free in their brains, and Gronk terrifies them.  That was not the best use of draft capital, and between the linebacker and safety positions, Pittsburgh figures to have issues matching up with tight ends all season long.  Good luck beating the Patriots.

The rest of the secondary isn’t all that encouraging either.  It has been years since Joe Haden was actually a quality starter, and Artie Burns has been only decent so far in his career.  Their secondary landed the 23rd ranking headed into 2018 according to Pro Football Focus.

Additionally, Pittsburgh doesn’t project to benefit from a cupcake schedule, as they have the 9th most difficult slate according to Mike Clay.  They also overachieved by 2.4 wins last season, as they went 13-3 but posted a pythagorean win expectation of 10.6.  Of course Vegas was cruel enough to make their win total this season that exact number.  I feel weird taking the under on 10.5 for the team that was 3rd in DVOA and 7th in point differential last year, but I think this defense is going to really struggle without Shazier and there is a really good chance Le’Veon Bell gets injured.

Baltimore Ravens – O/U 8 – Over

This might be one of my favorite overs.  The fact the Ravens didn’t make the playoffs last year is a joke, even though it is their own fault for choking at home week 17 against the Bengals.  The Ravens had the 8th best point differential last season at +92 but finished 9-7.  The Steelers, in contrast, finished +98 but went 13-3.  No, those 6 points aren’t worth four wins.  Baltimore was left out of the postseason while the Bills (-57) and Titans (-22) got in.

So you aren’t going to be too surprised when I tell you the Ravens underperformed their pythagorean win expectation by 1.5 games.  They also finished 7th in DVOA last season, ahead of playoff participants Jacksonville, Carolina, and Kansas City.

And I want to address this before going deeper into the roster: Lamar Jackson is not going to play this season.  The hype train has calmed a bit after the preseason, but I never thought he was going to play this year.  This team will be in playoff contention all season long and Harbaugh won’t make the switch to a rookie if the playoffs are within reach.  And don’t tell me just cuz his brother benched Alex Smith for Colin Kaepernick that means John will do the same.  Smith got injured and Kaepernick was lighting the NFL on fire with the spread option, so short of a Flacco injury Jackson won’t see the field this season.

But I’m not a Flacco supporter.  I think you can make the case he is the worst quarterback in this division.  He might actually be 5th.  But I trust his weapons heading into this season more than any other season in recent memory.  Crabtree isn’t a world beater but isn’t he the best receiver they have had since Steve Smith?  All reports out of camp are that John Brown looks amazing again and has created chemistry with Flacco.  I am sad about the Hayden Hurst injury as they obviously had big plans for him since they took him over Calvin Ridley, but he should be back by week 3.

I’m also an Alex Collins believer.  He just shows too well across multiple analytics for me to be skeptical.  Among running backs last season, Collins finished 6th in DYAR, 3rd in DVOA, and in the top 5 in PFF grading.  He was also top 10 in both elusive rating and breakaway percentage among running backs that received at least 100 carries.

The offensive line is a concern, as the unit heads into the season ranked 24th in the NFL.  This may actually hold them back more than Flacco, but they have a solid starter in Ronnie Stanley and one of the best guards in all of football in Marshal Yanda.  If Orlando Brown can be an OK starter at right tackle then 3/5 positions up front are solid.

This defense is weird to me.  They finished last season 3rd in DVOA despite being only 13th in adjusted sack rate.  Baltimore enters the season with the 25th ranked pass rush, and the lack of depth behind Terrell Suggs, and Suggs age for that matter, is concerning.  Baltimore is apparently counting on Tim Williams to make a large leap in his second year.

But, my god, this secondary.  It ranks 4th entering the season, but that was before the Jimmy Smith suspension came down.  When everyone is available, however, they’re an elite unit.  Eric Weddle and Tony Jefferson form one of the best safety duos in the league and their corners run three deep with Smith, Marlon Humphrey, and the returning Tavon Young.  There should be a decent amount of coverage sacks in Baltimore this season.

Factor in that the Ravens are looking at the 6th easiest schedule and a modest 8-8 should easily be beaten.  I expect the Ravens to reach double digit wins and get into the playoffs this season.

Cincinnati Bengals – O/U 6.5 – Over

The Bengals are the odd team no one is picking to make the playoffs that I want to pick to make the playoffs just to be bold and different.  Their season was derailed last year due to one of the worst offensive lines in the league, and the Andy Dalton with time to throw and the Andy Dalton with pressure in his face are two completely different people.

To address their offensive line situation the Bengals traded for Cordy Glenn and drafted Billy Price in the first round.  Based on what they were working with last year both of these guys are massive upgrades for Cincinnati.  These maneuvers only got them up to the 26th best offensive line, but going from worst to 26th matters, and I think the 26th ranking might be under selling them a little bit. They ranked 24th in adjusted line yards and 20th in adjusted sack percentage last season, so I don’t think it’s crazy to think they might have, say, the 20th best offensive line now?  Going from last to below-average is a big deal.

There were two major developments from the Bengals week 3 preseason game, and one of them concerns the offensive line.  Cordy Glenn left with a shoulder injury and at the time of this writing the severity of it is unknown.  There is speculation that he was held out for the rest of the game as a precautionary measure due to the fact that Glenn remained on the sidelines and was seen in good spirits.  I really, really hope he is ok because I’m actually very excited about the Bengals offense in 2018.  Which brings me to development #2:

John Ross is a human joystick.

I’m sure number two corners are going to have a ton of fun trying to cover that this season.  Ross essentially missed his entire rookie year due to injury and then subsequently just falling too far behind to get onto the field.  He sure seems to have caught up.  Remember, John Ross was the 9th pick of his draft, so he has talent, and the defense can never pay him too much attention because the Bengals have A.J. Green.

Which reminds me, the Bengals have A.J. Green.  Is there a more consistent yet less talked about star receiver in the NFL?  Seriously, when was the last time someone got all gaga over Green?  You hear about Brown, Julio, Beckham, Keenan Allen when he is good, kinda Michael Thomas these days.  But never A.J. Green.  Everyone keeps taking him for granted, and one day he will be gone.

I’m expecting a breakout season from Joe Mixon.  He is just too talented.  He has a true three down skillset and defenses can’t stack the box against him.  The offensive line is better.  Remember, some people thought he was the most talented back in the 2017 draft class, which featured Leonard Fournette.

PFF ranks the Bengals pass rush as 10th in the league, but I think they are really underselling them.  This is a top five unit, if not better.  Their edge rushers go at least four deep, with Carlos Dunlap, Jordan Willis, star-in-the-making Carl Lawson, and Sam Hubbard, who I really liked coming out this year.  Sandwiched between all of them is Geno Atkins, probably the third best interior rusher in the NFL behind Aaron Donald and Fletcher Cox.  Four deep at edge with an elite interior disrupter.  I dunno, sounds pretty similar to the 2017 Eagles if you ask me.

Let me also state this: William Jackson III is a fucking stud.  This is a tiny sample size, but last season in two games, Antonio Brown saw 7 targets with Jackson defending him.  Brown caught 0 passes and Jackson recorded 4 pass breaks on those 7 targets.  I don’t know what else you want me to say.  That’s as good as you can possibly play against the best receiver in football.  For the full season, Jackson was one of only 4 corners to receive a 90+ PFF grade.

The rest of the secondary is pretty solid, as PFF has them ranked 14th overall for 2018.  The team is weak at linebacker, especially given the Burfict suspension.  But they tabbed ultra upside guy Malik Jefferson in the draft and could perhaps make him into an immediate contributor.

If Tyler Eifert plays at least 10 games this season I don’t think it’s crazy to say the Bengals have an elite array of offensive weapons.  Dalton is good enough when kept clean, which won’t always be the case, but should happen more often this year as opposed to last year.

The Bengals will bring an elite pass rush to every game day, an absolute lock down corner, and a solid secondary overall.  At least 7 wins shouldn’t be that difficult against the 8th easiest schedule for this roster, and they could be playoff contenders if their offensive line doesn’t completely tank their chances.

Cleveland Browns – O/U 5.5 – Under

I don’t think the Browns have a last place roster, and I do think they should be able to get to 6, 7, maybe even 8 wins.  But Hue Jackson is absolutely terrible.  The fact he still has this job is nothing short of mind numbing.  He has to have compromising material on Jimmy Haslam, there just isn’t another explanation.  Bill Belichick has coached in more Super Bowls the past two seasons than Hue Jackson has won games.  Think about that.  The lone Browns win the past two seasons came on a Saturday, which means the Browns haven’t won a football game on a Sunday since the calendar year 2015.  It’s 2018.  Football is primarily played on Sundays.  Think about that.

So no, under Hue Jackson’s stewardship I don’t have any faith the Browns could hit this over.  Perhaps with any other coach, literally any other coach, I would take the over, but I just can’t with Hue Jackson.  Last year the Browns went 0-16 despite a pythagorean win expectation of 3.3.  I manually went back through the 32 year database of FootballOutsiders to look at wins against pythagorean expectations for every single team, because apparently I hate myself.  Want to venture a guess as to what team is the biggest underachiever in the database?

Drum roll please…

THE 2017 CLEVELAND BROWNS!  The 3.3 win underachievement is tied for the worst in the 32 year history in the FO database (the 2001 San Diego Chargers were the other team to underachieve by 3.3 wins).  Normally I am the type of person to say if you underachieved your pythagorean wins then you’re better than your record, and some injuries, close game loses, or bad fumble bounces (aka luck) just didn’t go your way and it will balance out the following season.  Nope, not when Hue Jackson is in charge.  He’s just a very bad head coach.  I mean look how long it took him to figure out last season that Duke Johnson is better than Isaiah Crowell.

(Time spent compiling/manipulating the FO data: an hour. Money earned during said hour: $0. Further proving Hue Jackson is absolute garbage: Priceless)

The loss of All-Universe tackle Joe Thomas is going to hurt, but the Browns are still solid up front.  They sport a top five interior line unit, and apparently rookie Austin Corbett has looked good in camp and the preseason.  This got them the 14th ranked offensive line heading into 2018, but if Corbett is an immediate impact player they should wind up in the top 10.

Whatever it is you think about Tyrod Taylor, he is a massive upgrade from what the Browns have had at quarterback since, I dunno, the dawn of time?  Over the past three years, here is where Taylor has ranked in some key QB metrics:





















At worst Tyrod is a serviceable starter in the NFL.  And boy gee golly am I excited for the Mayfield era.

The Browns are also pretty loaded in weaponry.  We have all seen the potential upside of Josh Gordon and he seems to have straightened his life out.  We all know exactly what Jarvis Landry brings to the table.  David Njoku is an athletic freak and matchup nightmare at tight end.  Duke Johnson is a phenomenal pass catching back, and Carlos Hyde is a good enough running back that he should be successful behind this offensive line.  Plus Tyrod poses a running threat as well.

I think the Browns will end up having a decent pass rush but nothing spectacular.  Myles Garrett is an absolute stud.  Carl Nassib made a drastic improvement from year one to year two, so if he can improve half as much into year three he will be a solid contributor.  I expect the best season yet from Emmanuel Ogbah, and I like that Cleveland added Chad Thomas in the draft as they can line him up all over the field.  Jamie Collins can help as a spot rusher as well.

I’m decently bullish on the secondary.  If Denzel Ward immediately handles the top corner responsibilities, I like the matchups Cleveland can deploy using E.J. Gaines, Briean Boddy-Calhoun, T.J. Carrie, and Terrance Mitchell.  I expect improvement from Jabrill Peppers too.

An underachieving team that accomplished a massive quarterback upgrade with a defense that is probably better than people are expecting is normally a recipe for a large improvement.  Not when your coach is Hue Jackson though.  This team should be able to win at least 5 games, which is a huge leap from 0, so I guess that is one way to look at it.  My biggest fear is they do go 5-11 or 6-10 and the owner says “See! They’re improving! Let’s let Hue do his thing.”  Browns fans have suffered enough.

Quick Hitters

Offensive Rookie of the Year: James Washington, WR, Steelers

I was all set to go with Hayden Hurst because the Ravens throw to the tight end so often and they drafted him over Calvin Ridley so they obviously have plans for him.  But his injury concerns me however, even though he shouldn’t miss too much time.  This does open the door for James Washington to put up some highlight reel plays in a more explosive offense.

Defensive Rookie of the Year: Denzel Ward, CB, Browns

This is kind of a cop out since he is the highest drafted defensive player in the division, but he went with the 4th pick for a reason, right?  His movement skills are things that cannot be taught, and we saw two rookie corners last year come in and make massive impacts for their defenses.  Rookie corners typically struggle though.

Breakout Player: Joe Mixon, RB, Bengals

Hit me up in August of 2019 when you’re taking Joe Mixon in the top 6 of your fantasy draft.

Comeback Player: John Ross, WR, Bengals

Did you SEE the video I embedded earlier?

True or False, Hue Jackson is Fired Mid-Season


filed under: NFL

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *