- Cleveland Browns
Yes that’s right, the motherfucking Browns are going to win the division. In Kevin Stefanski’s first year as Head Coach last season he and his staff got this team to make major strides including winning a playoff game in division rival Pittsburgh’s stadium. They also gave the Chiefs a battle in the divisional round. That team loaded up this offseason to go to the next level.
In free agency, they signed safety John Johnson and cornerback Troy Hill away from the Rams and also got defensive end Jadeveon Clowney. Through the draft, they added a great cornerback prospect from Northwestern in Greg Newsome ll and a great linebacker prospect from Notre Dame Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah to round out the defensive overhaul. The main reason this team will win the division however will be its offense. They return all five starters to an offensive line that in PFF’s grades finished 1st in both pass blocking and run blocking. Odell Beckham Jr. will be back from injury and has the offseason to build a rapport with Baker Mayfield. Mayfield should be expected to take a big leap this season as he’ll be in year two of Stefanski’s version of the Shanahan/McVay offense but also his surroundings are strong. Notable year one to year two improvements in this offense include Matt Ryan 2015 to 2016, Jared Goff 2017 to 2018, Jimmy Garoppolo 2018 to 2019, and Aaron Rodgers 2019 to 2020.
The Browns have an elite offensive line and Odell, Jarvis Landry, Donovan Peoples-Jones, Austin Hooper, and young tight end Harrison Bryant to throw to. This team also has not one but two great running backs to hand the ball off to as well in Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. Both of those guys are great receiving backs as well. Mayfield has all the tools this season and if you watched him last season he was improving throughout the year and gained his confidence back. This Browns team not only will win this division but they’re a real threat to the Chiefs in the AFC. The ceiling is an AFC Title and Super bowl appearance.
Projected win total: 12 plus games
Lamar Jackson finally got what he needed this offseason and that’s receivers. The Ravens signed Sammy Watkins to a one year deal and they made two great draft picks with Rashod Bateman from Minnesota at the end of the first and Oklahoma State’s Tylan Wallace in the fourth. Pro Football Focus graded Baltimore’s receivers 28th last season, so again it was needed but anyone who saw a few Ravens games could tell that. These three new additions to go with tight end Mark Andrews and Marquise “Hollywood” Brown could make for a formidable group of pass catchers.
PFF graded the defense 12th last season but Yannick Ngakoue and Matt Judon are both gone so they could take a step back. An interesting move was trading away Orlando Brown and replacing him with Alejandro Villanueva, a sure downgrade. They will finish second in this division because they lost more than they added, at least for this season. Receivers usually hit their stride in year two or three so expecting both Bateman and Wallace to be big difference makers in year one is probably unrealistic.
The Browns seem to have more in place but the Ravens are still very capable of winning the division and it will be a close finish. John Harbaugh needs to prove he can win in this era and not fall behind the young, on the rise Kevin Stefanski. The Ravens are in the playoffs of course but in the loaded AFC, they will finish anywhere from wildcard knockout to an AFC title game appearance.
Projected win total: 11 plus games
The Tomlin Roethlisberger era in Pittsburgh is very close to its end and this team has fallen behind not one but two division rivals and just doesn’t appear to be a real contender for the conference or Super Bowl. The offensive line can’t run block as evidenced by their 31st ranking in run blocking on PFF. Rookie running back Najee Harris isn’t going to have a good situation in front of him.
Can Roethlisberger at 39 still play at a high level? He has the weaponry with Juju Smith-Schuster, Diontae Johnson, and James Washington. Second round pick Pat Friermuth could also contribute early. The defense was elite last season but can they play that well again? Bud Dupree is gone and there are plenty of good offenses in this league. The defense will still be strong but they had 27 takeaways last season good for 2nd in the league and turnovers aren’t stable on a year-to-year basis. The Steelers also played a rather weak slate of quarterbacks come their way and that won’t be the case this year. Their schedule was weak in general ranking 29th in strength of schedule. The Steelers will be close to the Browns and Ravens but really do look like the third best team in this division.
Projected win total: 8 to 10 wins
4. Cincinnati Bengals
There’s no chance this team wins the division and quite frankly despite the exciting pieces you just have to question if Zac Taylor is at all good and can actually win games. This season Taylor will have no excuse as the offense has the quarterback, receivers, and running back to where he needs to show something. Joe Burrow is coming back from a torn ACL and his offensive line graded as PFF’s 27th pass blocking unit and nothing noteworthy was done to address it. Rookie Jackson Carman might be able to fix one hole on the line but more needed to be done. Taylor will need to use scheme and his weaponry to help keep Burrow upright and get the ball out fast. One thing he could do is increase by a significant amount the number of play action passes Burrow throws. Burrow was 32nd in play action drop back % at 21.9% last season. That’s shocking he doesn’t use it more considering he had worked under Sean McVay. Get that number closer to 30% for Burrow’s play action drop back %. Expect a team that’s fun to watch but has a bad record and is searching for a new Head Coach next offseason.
Projected win total: 4 to 7 wins