NFL off-season outlook: AFC North

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And so it has come to this. As much as we like to say the NFL has an ‘off-season’ it is really better described as the ‘non-playing season’.

The NFL has a firm grasp on the American sports market and what we have between May and June is the closest thing to an off-season the sport has.

From July to May we have OTA’s, Training Camp, Preseason, Regular Season, Playoffs, Superbowl, Free Agency, NFL Combine and Draft buildup, NFL Draft and then Rookie contract signings. In that order.

So NBA and Major League Baseball really only have two months of the year to obtain a full share of the market, why do we think the NBA so unnecessarily extends the break between games in the playoffs?

Either way, it’s neither here or there.

The fact is that we are entering the true NFL off-season and now is the time to really assess the moves and subsequent shakes of NFL front offices and coaching regimes in build up to the regular season.

And we start this with the division housing the Lombardi trophy, the AFC North.

AFC North: Baltimore

In Theory
The Ravens had their defence pillaged following their Superbowl run with the retirement of Ray Lewis, losses of both safeties Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard to the Texans and Titans respectively, sack leader Paul Kruger signing in division with the Browns and Dannelle Ellerby cashing in on a contract year down in Miami.

Baltimore’s offense took a hit with key playoff performer Anquan Boldin leaving for a measly sixth round pick,

In Reality
The Ravens lost NAME QUALITY on defence, with the additions of rookies Matt Elam and Arthur Brown replacing ageing and liable Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, Elvis Dumervil replacing Paul Kruger whose only consistent production came in a contract year.

Michael Huff is a more rounded player at Safety than Bernard Pollard, former Giant Chris Canty can play any position across the D-Line. Previously a backup linebacker, Danelle Ellerby’s position will be supplanted by a number of different fronts including former Alabama stand outs Courtney Upshaw and Rolando McClain.

Note: McClain merely days ago retired at the age of 23 to sort out ‘personal reasons’ but this is under the assumption that he reinstates himself either before commencement or early on in the season.

The Ravens offense will not look that different without Anquan Boldin purely because for the majority of the season, Anquan Boldin was not seen.

Boldin was clutch in the playoffs, personifying the Ravens mentality and should have a debt of gratitude paid to him by the Crab cake-eating Baltimoreans.

However, based on a 16 game regular season there are many options whom can provide more productivity statistically speaking than Boldin did.

Remaining Questions
What offensive gameplan will the Ravens stick to? Hey Diddle Ray Rice Up the middle? Two tight end sets? Can Tandon Doss step up and Torrey Smith become more than just a deep threat? Will the term ‘Ravens D’ strike up the same image of fear?

Cincinnatti

In Theory
The Bengals are the apple of the offseason’s eye with few losses and key veteran as well as rookie additions to an already proven young roster.

Adding James Harrison on D brings in veteran leadership to pair with the rookie known as ‘The Eastern Block’, Estonia’s own Margus Hunt and under the radar undrafted free agent Jordan Campbell out of New Mexico Highlands U (formerly of USC).

On offense, Andy Dalton has no excuses with dynamic multi-threat Giovanni Bernard out of UNC as well as banger Rex Burkehead that provides a three-headed running game with the Law Firm Benjarvus Green-Ellis. Combine these with the addition of Tyler Eifert who provides the Bengals with a two tight end set which are so the rage these days in the NFL.

In Reality
The fact is that Bengals are still the ‘Bungals’ and such pre-season praise (and subsequent pressure) won’t be alleviated until Cincinnatti prove themselves able to win in January. The Bengals made a leap by reaching playoffs two years in a row, but in both years got bounced by AFC pretenders the Houston Texans.

But well done Cincinnati for being co-offseason champions with the Miami Dolphins.

Remaining Questions
Can the ‘Red Rifle’ Andy Dalton reach that next level? Can the Bengals D becoming more opportunistic than stingy? Will Mohammed Sanu emerge as the number two receiver that the need? Can AJ Green supplant ‘Megatron’ as the best WR in the game?

Cleveland

In Theory
The Browns were remarkably unremarkable this offseason with few big splashes made on the field on offense or defence as well as the front office.

Cleveland were front runners to acquire an undecided Chip Kelly but ultimately went with the talented offensive play-caller in Rob Chudsczinski previously of Carolina, a relatively understated start to the Joe Banner/Michael Lombardi regime.

No major splashes were made offensively in free agency or on draft day and supposed lame duck quarterback Brandon Weeden will have the starting job going into year two.

In Reality
Defence should be stout given the additions of Superbowl pass rusher Paul Kruger, underrated lineman Desmond Bryant, rookie pass-rush specialist (and new best name in the NFL) Barkevious Mingo as well as the return of a healthy Phil Taylor playing the NT and being able to use talented second year pro Jabaal Sheard as a moveable cog in the pass rush.

The biggest addition however may be on the sidelines with the addition of defensive coordinator Ray Horton, previously of Arizona and more or less the only reason they won as many games as they did. It sure wasn’t quarterback play that did it.

Offensively, not much progress was made other than signing the reliable slot receiver Devon Bess from Miami. Suspect the Browns to run a primarily run based offense until more playmakers are available in years to come.

However, if one was to take into account that second year WR Josh Gordon was technically taken with this year’s second round pick (he was taken in the supplemental draft last season), the Browns acquired a proven young talent at the position for years to come.

Remaining Questions
Will Brandon Weeden suffer a slump? Will Joe Banner stick with Lombardi/Chud for long enough to show progress? Can Trent Richardson stand up to a full season? Will Barkevious Mingo really supplant D’Brickashaw Ferguson or Frostee Rucker as the best name in the NFL?

Pittsburgh

In Theory
Pittsburgh by all logical explanations will be weaker on both offense and defence in what can be attributed to a dire salary cap situation (all those in favour of naming Pittsburgh’s salary cap situation ‘dire’?)

The Steelers could only sit back and watch as once loved players like James Harrison and Mike Wallace traded in their Terrible Towel for a drifter’s bindle and skipped town for greener pastures (in theory).

In Reality –
The reality is that at a number of key positions, the Steelers not only improved on the gridiron but off the field as well.

Jarvis Jones will replace pass-rusher James Harrison opposite Lamar Woodley and replace both his playmaking ability as well as provide a significantly more cost effective contract at the position.

With Troy Polamalu’s game time as well as production flailing due to injury, Shamarko Thomas provides instant depth at the safety position and is an absolute assassin at 5’8 215lbs.

Thomas’ play is quite reminiscent of the great Colts safety Bob Sanders who while his productive window was short, threw his body around like a missile and was a constant playmaker when on the field.

Rookie running back Le’Veon Bell was a victim of the diminishing stature of the position but can run vertically, laterally and catch the ball out of the backfield which should provide consistency at a position mired in mediocrity in recent years.

Matching the Patriots free agent tender on Emmanuel Sanders also keeps at least a competent receiving duo in the Steel City for the next year.

Remaining Questions
Can Big Ben stay standing? How will Dick LeBeau utilise rookie Defenders? Will Landry Jones see game time? Can the Steelers return to ‘Pittsburgh Football’?

Next article I’ll be covering the Adrian Peterson, the NFC North, Adrian Peterson, my Minnesota Vikings and Adrian Peterson.

Of course in the most objective way possible, trust me.

Blue 23, Omaha, Omaha, Hut, Hut.

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