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2023 Best-Case/Worst-Case: AFC North


Will the Ravens be celebrating with the Lombardi at the end of the season?

Photo Credit: AlexanderJonesi, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Baltimore Ravens


Arrivals

  • WR Odell Beckham Jr.

  • CB Rock Ya-Sin

  • WR Nelson Agholor

  • DE Jadeveon Clowney

  • OC Todd Monken

Departures

  • OG Ben Powers

  • TE Josh Oliver

  • DE Calais Campbell

  • OLB Justin Houston

  • CB Marcus Peters

Notable

  • ILB Roquan Smith signs five-year contract extension

  • QB Lamar Jackson signs a five-year contract

Impact Draft Picks

  • WR Zay Flowers – Rd. 1 (#22)

  • ILB Trenton Simpson – Rd. 3 (#86)


Best-Case: 12 - 5, 1st in the AFC North


Lamar Jackson finally got paid, and the Baltimore Ravens are ready to take their game to the next level with their tremendous dual-threat quarterback locked up for the foreseeable future. The heavy running attack the Ravens have featured by former offensive coordinator Greg Roman is gone and is replaced by Todd Monken’s spread passing attack. If Jackson can prove he’s among the league’s best passers, the Ravens could have one of the best offenses in the league – especially with the additions made at wide receiver in the offseason.


The defense lost some established veterans, but there are several young players who are looking to step up. Odafe Oweh and David Ojabo lead a remade pass rush while Kyle Hamilton looks to build upon an impressive rookie season at safety. At linebacker, the Ravens boast one of the best tandems in the league with Roquan Smith and Patrick Queen. Smith, in particular, was outstanding after being acquired mid-season – and with an entire offseason in the Ravens, he could be even better. Overall, the Ravens are a balanced team with loads of potential on offense and defense. If everything comes together, the Ravens will be the class of the AFC North.


Worst-Case: 6 - 11, 4th in the AFC North


There’s no guarantee that Monken will elevate this offense – and he’s already been run out of the league once back in 2019 with the Cleveland Browns. Monken was recently successful in college where he helped the Georgia Bulldogs win back-to-back National Championships, but the Bulldogs were far better on defense than they were on offense, and they were also far more talented than nearly every team they faced during those two years. If his scheme fails to elevate Jackson – or if Jackson is just limited as a passer – the Ravens will struggle on offense.


The receivers have been upgraded on paper, but the newly signed Odell Beckham Jr. has an extensive injury history and hasn't had a 1,000-yard season since 2019. The Rashod Bateman breakout has been on hiatus for two years now, while rookie Zay Flowers is undersized and unproven. There's a lot of potential here, but a stunning lack of actual production or consistent availability.


The defense will be relying on young players to generate a pass rush and the secondary already looks thin with top cornerback Marlon Humphrey out for at least week one. If Oweh and Ojabo can't regularly get to opposing QBs, the issues in the secondary will be compounded. Overall, there are enough unknowns in Baltimore that a worst-case scenario season could easily see the Ravens fall to the bottom of the AFC North.


Now the richest man in NFL history, Joe Burrow is poised to continue his run of excellent in Cincinnati.

Photo Credit: All-Pro Reels from District of Columbia, USA, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Cincinnati Bengals


Arrivals

  • LT Orlando Brown Jr.

  • S Nick Scott

  • TE Irv Smith

Departures

  • S Jessie Bates III

  • S Von Bell

  • TE Hayden Hurst

  • RB Semaje Perine

Notable

  • QB Joe Burrow signs five-year contract extension

Impact Draft Picks

  • DE Myles Murphy – Rd. 1 (#28)

  • CB D.J. Turner – Rd. 2 (#60)


Best-Case: 13 - 4, 1st in the AFC North


The Bengals are one of the most talented teams in the NFL and should be considered one of the favorites to reach the AFC Championship Game. They brought back almost their entire offense, and of the players that were replaced, most were massive upgrades (especially Orlando Brown Jr. at left tackle). Joe Burrow is one of the best quarterbacks in the sport and his trio of wide receivers is the envy of the entire NFL. The offensive line, which has been a source of constant frustration over the last two years, has undergone a total makeover, and should be the stoutest unit the Bengals have had since Burrow arrived.


Outside of the safety position, the entire core of an extremely underrated Bengals defense returns as well. First-round pick Myles Murphy will slide into a pass rush rotation with stud defensive ends Trey Hendrickson and Sam Hubbard, which should revive a Bengals pass rush that struggled to bring down opposing QBs at times last year. The safety room will be in flux after the departures of Jessie Bates III and Von Bell, but the Bengals have invested in the draft and free agency to restock the position. The Bengals already looked like one of the most dangerous team in the league and are on the short-list of teams that should be considered Super Bowl favorites – and in a best-case scenario, they'll bring the Lombardi home for the first time.


Worst-Case: 7 - 10, 3rd in the AFC North


Burrow should be fully-healed from his calf strain that kept him out for most of training camp, but if it’s a lingering issue Burrow might not have the same elusiveness that’s become a hallmark of his playing style. That issue could also be compounded by an offensive line that will be adding another new piece after getting three new starters last offseason. It took time for the O-line to jell last year, and if the line needs time this year too, the Bengals could lose a few games early that they shouldn’t, putting them behind the eight-ball in a very dificult division and conference.


Bates and Bell were also two of the leaders on the Bengals defense, and their ability to clean up mistakes and limit big plays was a massive reason the Bengals have been so successful in big games against very good opponents. If new starters Dax Hill and Nick Scott struggle in their roles, the Bengals will have a leaky pass defense for the first time in the Burrow Era.


Finally, running back Joe Mixon had quite a tumultuous offseason that included being charged with aggravated menacing (he was not convicted) and taking a pay-cut to remain with the team. Last year, he looked slow at times and struggled breaking tackles, especially close to the line of scrimmage. If he can't be a consistent presence on the ground, the loss of backup Semaje Perine will be magnified, espcially with the rest of the backfield being completely unproven. The Bengals are too talented at QB and throughout their roster to fall to the bottom of the AFC North, but a disappointing 7 - 10 record and the first losing season since 2020 could be possible.


Can Myles Garrett and the Browns finally live up to the hype?

Photo Credit: Erik Drost, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Cleveland Browns


Arrivals

  • DT Dalvin Tomlinson

  • DE Za’Darius Smith

  • S Juan Thornhill

  • WR Elijah Moore

  • DC Jim Schwartz

Departures

  • QB Jacoby Brissett

  • DT Taven Bryan

  • DE Jadeveon Clowney

  • RB Kareem Hunt

  • DC Joe Woods

Notable

  • Exercised the fifth-year option on LT Jedrick Wills

Impact Draft Picks

  • WR Cedrick Tillman – Rd. 3 (#74)

  • DT Siaki Ika – Rd. 3 (#98)


Best-Case: 12 - 5, 1st in the AFC North


As painful as it might be to admit, the Cleveland Browns are a very talented football team. Much of their season hinges on whether Deshaun Watson can return to his 2020 form, but if he can, the Browns have a borderline top-five QB and a roster that's loaded with talented players at key positions.


The Browns defense also got quite the makeover in the offseason after a disappointing 2022 season. Za’Darius Smith should be that capable complement to perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate Myles Garrett on the edge that the departed Jadeveon Clowney was never capable of being. The secondary is quietly excellent with Denzel Ward, Martin Emerson and Greg Newsom making an outstanding cornerback group, and newly acquired safety Juan Thornhill and Grant Delpit forming a very good safety tandem. Dalvin Tomlinson should significantly improve a leaky run defense, giving the Browns more opportunities to show off their frightening pass rush on 3rd and longs.


Ultimately though, the Browns season will go as Watson goes. If he's put his past behind him and is capable of becoming the player he used to be, the Browns will be an extremely difficult opponent. Their run game is excellent, their pass game could be elite, and the defense looks poised to finally live up to the hype. Don't be surprised if the Browns win the AFC North – if everything breaks their way, that is.


Worst-Case: 4 - 13, 4th in the AFC North


The Browns are another one of those NFL teams that has a "wheels-coming-off" sort of vibe heading into the season. I wouldn't put them in the same extreme category as the Tennessee Titans or the Los Angeles Rams, but they're close.


After back-to-back disappointing seasons, 2020 Coach of the Year Kevin Stefanski is on the hot seat. If the Browns get off to a slow start, the calls for his job will only get louder, justified or not. The Browns also brought in veteran defensive coordinator Jeff Schwartz to solidify the defense, and while he has a decent track record, he was most recently seen getting fired from the Eagles in 2019 for… having a bad defense. Forgive me if I'm skeptical that improvement is a given from this group.


The receivers are also just adequate. Amari Cooper is a capable #1, but he's had an up-and-down career so far, while the rest of the options include Jets castoff Elijah Moore and tremendously average Donovan Peoples-Jones. If Moore can't step his game up or if Cooper has an off year, it will make Watson's job that much harder.


And yes, even though it's been beaten to death, it's necessary to remember that Watson hasn't played even competent football since 2020. Counting on him returning to his "top-five QB" status is insane. But that's the path the Browns have chosen. If Watson plays like 2022 Watson – and if Schwartz fails to elevate the defense – the Browns are in for a very long, very disappointing season and another year at the bottom of the AFC North.


TJ Watt and the Steelers are ready to take back the AFC North.

Photo Credit: Joshua J. Seybert, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Pittsburgh Steelers


Arrivals

  • LG Isaac Seumalo

  • ILB Cole Holcomb

  • CB Patrick Peterson

  • OG Nate Herbig

  • ILB Elandon Roberts

Departures

  • CB Cameron Sutton

  • ILB Robert Spillane

  • CB William Jackson

  • ILB Myles Jack

  • ILB Devin Bush

Notable

  • OLB Alex Highsmith signs four-year extension

Impact Draft Picks

  • LT Broderick Jones – Rd. 1 (#14)

  • CB Joey Porter Jr. – Rd. 2 (#32)


Best-Case: 12 - 5, 1st in the AFC North


Believing in the Steelers in 2023 is all about believing in Kenny Pickett to George Pickens. Pickett, the Steelers second-year QB, looked steady and confident in his rookie season, and if he’s capable of taking some positive steps in 2023, the Steelers offense has the potential to be dangerous. Pickens has #1 WR ability with his ability to elevate and make incredible downfield receptions, while Diontae Johnson on the other side is an outstanding route-runner and possession receiver.


The offensive line has also been improved and may be able to give RB Najee Harris room to run for the first time in his career. Backup RB Jaylen Warren is extremely elusive and provides an excellent complement to the hard-running Harris, while Pat Freiermuth appears poised to become one of the better TEs in the league as well, providing an outstanding outlet for Pickett. As a whole, the Steelers offense is primed for a breakout year.


The defense under Mike Tomlin is always hard-nosed and disciplined, and after losing T.J. Watt for much of the season, the 2021 Defensive Player of the Year returns fully healthy alongside the newly extended Alex Highsmith to form arguably the best pass rushing tandem in the NFL. The secondary and linebackers are concerning, especially in pass coverage, but Peterson brings a veteran element to the CBs and Fitzpatrick remains one of the best safeties in football. With the Steelers offense providing an explosive element they've lacked since Ben Roethlisberger retired, the defense should be in position to terrify opponents that are attempting desperate comebacks. The Steelers are an up-and-coming team and in the best-case scenario, they could easily win the AFC North.


Worst-Case: 8 - 9, 3rd in the AFC North


Pickett looked good as a rookie but didn’t exactly give the impression that he was about to step into the realm of the NFL’s elite QBs. In a division that has potentially three of the best QBs in the game, that puts Pittsburgh at a significant disadvantage. The offensive line certainly has better players in 2023 than they did in 2022, but it tends to take time for O-lines to jell and if the Steelers struggle out of the gates, they will have a hard time making up ground in an extremely difficult division and conference.


The secondary too, which has been an issue for some time now, suffered some significant losses in the offseason and could be an Achilles heel for an otherwise exceptional defensive unit. This is all really semantics though, because Mike Tomlin is apparently allergic to losing season, so even in the worst-case scenario it’s nearly impossible to imagine the Steelers going any worse than 8 - 9. They’re just always so disciplined and play so hard. They will find ways to win games they shouldn’t, even when they're overmatched from a talent standpoint.

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