By: Michael Markoch
Two of the most intriguing divisions in the NFL next season are the North divisions. Both divisions have a team that was at the bottom of the league last year, each have a team that fell short of expectations, and each have a team that was top tier in the league last season. Some of these teams have made head-scratching moves and some have made very predictable ones, but one thing is for certain, these two divisions are going to be some of the most intriguing next season.
Cincinnati Bengals (Last Season: 2-14, 4th place AFC North): Entering this offseason, the Bengals were in clear rebuilding mode, and so far, all of their moves have replicated that notion. In free agency, the Bengals were surprisingly active. Starting with franchise tagging star wide-out A.J. Green, the Bengals added good pieces in many areas including former Texan D.J. Reader on the defensive line, Xavier Su’a-Filo on the offensive line, and Trae Waynes and Vonn Bell to shore up the secondary, and they have the first overall pick in the draft on Thursday.
With that pick, the Bengals are expected to select LSU quarterback and reigning Heisman trophy winner Joe Burrow to become the face of their franchise. The Bengals hold six other picks besides number one and should look to address the significant lack of depth they experienced last season. If all things go well, the Bengals could be a force in the AFC North next season, I’m not saying worst to first, but they could make some noise if young Burrow pans out.
Cleveland Browns (Last Season: 6-10, 3rd place AFC North): If there’s one question surrounding the Browns this offseason, it is what happened? How did a team with such high expectations fall so flat on their faces? Entering free agency, it was all about Baker Mayfield and his development after a rough sophomore season. So they added All-Pro Jack Conklin to be their starting right tackle as well as one of last year’s leading statistical tight ends in Austin Hooper to give the offense a two-headed tight end monster. They also added multiple defensive pieces on one and two-year deals such as safeties Andrew Sendejo and Karl Joseph, and pass rusher Adrian Clayborn without locking in any long-term commitments.
As for the draft, the Browns hold the tenth overall pick and have one glaring need; left tackle. Fortunately, it is one of the best offensive tackle classes we have ever seen and the Browns are almost surely guaranteed one of the top tackles at tenth overall. Other needs the Browns might decide to address are linebackers and overall depth on the defensive side of the ball. The people who weren’t going around crowning the Browns champs last season said they were a year away. Well, now with a new coaching staff and less optimism, the Browns are now primed to make a gigantic leap, but the AFC North is going to be a gauntlet to prove themselves in.
Pittsburgh Steelers (Last Season 8-8, 2nd in AFC North): The Steelers have a lot of question marks, especially surrounding Ben Roethlisberger, who is coming back for possibly his last season. After season-ending elbow surgery a year ago, no one really knows what he will be able to bring to the team and how effective he will be. However, there is one side of the ball the Steelers aren’t lacking in and that’s defense. With a top five scoring defense last season and all of the main pieces still intact, the Steelers will most likely look to the offensive side of the ball to get the most out of Roethlisberger next season. In free agency, Pittsburgh added tight end Eric Ebron, who will be a much-needed red-zone threat, guard Stephen Wisniewski, and fullback Derek Watt to help with the run game.
Unfortunately for the Steelers, they do not have a first-round pick due to the Minkah Fitzpatrick trade last season, but that shouldn’t stop them from adding depth. There aren’t many holes on this Steeler’s roster, but they should probably start looking for Ben Roethlisberger’s replacement because if last year proved anything, Mason Rudolph and Develin Hodges are not the answer at quarterback. They could also use another wide receiver as Juju Smith-Schuster had a disappointing season as the number one guy. But for the Steelers, it all depends on Big Ben, if he returns to old form the Steelers could be contenders, but if he shows his age and disappoints, they might just end up at the bottom of the dangerous AFC North.
Baltimore Ravens (Last Season 14-2, 1st in AFC North): For a while last year during the regular season the Ravens were the best team in the NFL, and it wasn’t even close. Then the Tennessee Titans happened. It was arguably he biggest upset of the season because the Ravens had won 12 games in a row up to that point with the MVP at quarterback in Lamar Jackson. However, Baltimore has almost everybody coming back this year and added some nice pieces such as former Bronco Derek Wolfe and kept some vital players in Matthew Judon and Jimmy Smith.
The Ravens have the 28th pick in the draft and have a few holes in their defense, mainly at linebacker. In consecutive seasons, Baltimore lost Za’Darius Smith, C.J. Mosley, and Terrell Suggs, and are missing that x-factor linebacker Ray Lewis once was. Maybe Wisconsin’s Zach Baun or Ohio State’s Malik Harrison will be a good fit, but the position must be addressed for this team to reach their potential. As for that potential, the Ravens will be and should be the favorites in the AFC North next season with eyes set on the Super Bowl.
Detroit Lions (Last Season 3-12-1, 4th in NFC North): The Lions are in an interesting position this offseason. After a lost season in which franchise quarterback Matthew Stafford suffered a season ending injury, some believed the Lions should consider taking a new quarterback with their 3rd overall pick. That is not likely to happen because they believe Stafford is more than competent, plus the Lions need so much more help elsewhere. Along with those rumors the Lions have made some strange moves this offseason by releasing Damon “Snacks” Harrison, trading Darius Slay, and signing even more former Patriots like Danny Shelton and Jamie Collins that haven’t showed much in their careers.
With the trade of Slay, it makes complete sense for Detroit to take Ohio State’s Jeff Okudah with their pick, but recent news mentions that they may be looking to trade down with the right team. The Lions have good pieces but lack significant depth and have a coach that is running out of time in the organization. The thing the Lions need most is good football players, so taking the best player available might be the best thing for them. The more talent and depth they gain, the closer they will get to climbing out of the NFC North cellar.
Chicago Bears (Last Season, 8-8, 3rd in NFC North): Who is going to play quarterback for the Chicago Bears? Will they give former number two overall pick Mitchell Trubisky another chance, or will they turn the reigns over to Super Bowl LII MVP Nick Foles, who they recently acquired in a trade? This is the main question surrounding the Bears next season. The defense will still be pretty good, and they have decent weapons on offense, they just need to pick someone to get them the ball.
The Bears paid Jimmy Graham a head-scratching amount of money and signed Robert Quinn and Artie Burns to help their dominant defense, but without a first-round pick, they aren’t in a great position to add more pieces. For the Bears, it’s simple, settle on a quarterback and stick with him. The Bears were 12-4 two short years ago and have all the pieces to do that once again, but if not they will have another rough season.
Minnesota Vikings (Last Season, 10-6, 2nd in NFC North): The Vikings are one of the only teams that arguably got worse this offseason. They released All-Pro Xavier Rhodes and traded star wide receiver Stefon Diggs to Buffalo. They also lost veterans Andrew Sendejo and Everson Griffin on their defense as well, which makes a person wonder, what are they doing? The Vikings are going all in on Kirk Cousins, signing him to a 2-year, $66 million extension to remain their quarterback. Running back Dalvin Cook and wide receiver Adam Theilen are back as well to give their offense some firepower, but defensively, they ae missing key pieces.
If there was any positive from the Diggs trade, the Vikings acquired a second first-round pick. They desperately need a cornerback, as well as another bookend pass rusher. They also could use significant upgrades on the offensive line. That doesn’t sound like a team that was in the Divisional Playoff round a year ago, but they were, and if they want any chance of getting back there or even farther, they will need to hit on their draft picks.
Green Bay Packers (Last Season, 13-3, 1st in NFC North): If there was a glaring need for the Packers last year, it was wide receiver. Sure, they have Davante Adams who is one of the best wideouts in the game, but after him it’s hard to even remember anybody’s name. They added Devin Funchess in free agency, but he hasn’t shown much in his career, so they need to hope someone falls.
Top draft receivers such as Jerry Jeudy, Henry Rugss III, and Ceedee Lamb will most likely not be on the board when the Packers pick at 30th overall, so they’ll have to find a diamond in the rough. Maybe Colorado’s Laviska Shenault Jr. or Baylor’s Denzel Mims will be a good pick, but they need to give Aaron Rodgers someone to throw to. Add one of them with their already top ten defense and the Packers can be Super Bowl contenders.