AFC NORTH PREVIEW
Cincinnati enters the 2014 season as reigning champions of the AFC North division, but look to ignite their postseason success as they’ve been eliminated in the first round of the playoffs the past three seasons. The Bengals extended QB Andy Dalton’s contract to a staggering 6 years $115 million figure as he carries the franchise’s trust on his arm. Second year running back, Giovani Bernard, is bound for a breakout season switching to a run-oriented offense behind new OC Hue Jackson. Though the offense will be more run-oriented, WR AJ Green will try to build on another incredible season as a top five wide receiver and a security blanket for Andy Dalton. The Bengals embrace the return of All-Pro DE Geno Atkins as his 2013 season was cut short due to a torn ACL. The return of Atkins and the addition of Darqueze Dennard via the draft should bolster an already strong defensive unit as the Bengals look to repeat as division champs.
Pittsburgh enters the 2014 season in attempt to get over the 8-8 record posted in 2012 and 2013, missing the playoffs in back to back seasons. The Steelers’ were determined to make the defense younger this offseason and did so via the NFL Draft as their first two selections were defensive players. Though the defense got younger, the Steelers lost LB Lamarr Woodley to free agency where they hope rookie Ryan Shazier will fill the void of Woodley. The Steelers offense lost two WRs to free agency as well in Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery, but added WR Lance Moore and RB Legarrette Blount. Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell will see high volume of touches this season as Ben Roethlisberger’s playmakers in an offense that seems under tooled. The expansion of Todd Haley’s offense may lead to a more up-tempo style of play featuring no huddle in attempt to take the Steelers back to the playoffs and over the 8-8 hump.
Baltimore comes off a Super Bowl hangover season in 2013 as they went from champions to mediocrity as an 8-8 team. Gary Kubiak brings his explosive offense to Baltimore as new OC that seems to benefits the likes of Joe Flacco, Dennis Pitta, and Torrey Smith. Baltimore will look to get Ray Rice back to 2012 form after his two game suspension as they establish the zone-blocking scheme. The Ravens selected defensive players in the first three rounds of the NFL draft to add to the makings of a very talented defense led by Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata. Baltimore made a few low-key signings to the offense by adding Steve Smith and Owen Daniels. The Ravens hope the new offense translates to a playoff appearance as they enter 2014.
The Browns disastrous season had few bright spots in Brian Hoyer and Josh Gordon, but the 4-12 record shows the negatives outweighed the positives immensely. The Browns were determined to improve the team this offseason as they fired coach Rob Chudzinski and hired defensive minded, Mike Pettine, as the head coach, Kyle Shanahan as OC, and hiring Ray Farmer as GM. The offseason was an A+ effort by the Cleveland Browns as they signed LB Karlos Dansby, S Donte Whitner, RB Ben Tate and WRs Nate Burleson, Andrew Hawkins and Miles Austin. The impressive offseason didn’t end there as they selected CB Justin Gilbert and QB Johnny Manziel in the first round of the NFL draft as well as RB Terrance West who will possibly share carries as a rookie. The potential year long Josh Gordon suspension looms over Cleveland’s 2014 campaign as well as QB controversy between Hoyer and Manziel, but regardless, Cleveland had a stellar offseason and should be improved.