NFL Divisional Breakdown AFC North

You’ve got the defending Super Bowl champs, and 3 other teams that have had really good years in the past 3 years. If everyone plays to the paper rankings, this could surprise as the best division in football. And if that actually happens, I expect all the credit for calling it right.

Pittsburgh Steelers
Super Bowl champs last year, and you’d have to have them as paper champs for the upcoming year also.

Head Coach: Mike Tomlin
Offensive Coordinator: Bruce Arians
Defensive Coordinator: Dick LeBeau
Special Teams Coordinator: Bob Ligashesky
Owner: The Rooney’s

Offensive Starters (Projected)
QB: Ben Roethlisberger (I’m thrilled that I can finally spell his name without looking it up)
HB: Willie Parker
FB: Carey Davis
WR: Hines Ward
WR: Santonio Holmes
LT: Max Starks
LG: Chris Kemoeatu
C: Justin Hartwig
RG: Trai Essex
RT: Willie Colon
TE: Heath Miller

Defensive Starters (Projected)
DE: Aaron Smith
DE: Brett Keisel
DT: Casey Hampton
LB: LaMarr Woodley
LB: James Farrior
LB: Lawrence Timmons
LB: James Harrison
CB: Ike Taylor
CB: Deshea Townsend
FS: Ryan Clark
SS: Troy Polamalu

Special Teams
K: Jeff Reed
P: Daniel Sepulveda

Position Battles:
When you win the Super Bowl and bring back most of the starters, there isn’t going to be much in the way of battles this fall.
Willie and Rashard will have a goal line back battle.
The other battles are for backup roles.

Rookies to Watch:
The Super Bowl champs get the last pick in the draft making it harder to pick up a contributor in the draft. That’s the theory anyway. Combine that with Pittsburgh not having a second round pick, rookies aren’t going to be making much impact on the Steelers this year. Ziggy Hood was the Steelers first round choice and he will see action on the D-line. But I don’t see him latching on to one of the starting positions.

Season Expectations:
They are the champs until someone else wins the Super Bowl. Ben is still one of the top QB’s in the league. Parker and Mendenhall provide a solid running game. Ward, Holmes, and Miller provide options for Roethlisberger and the defense is full of playmakers and lead by a master mind in LeBeau. And the schedule won’t hurt them much either. The get the NFC North for out of conference games which means they have to go up against the ever dangerous Lions, they get the Bears early so Cutler might not be completely settled in yet, they get the Vikings before both teams bye so they still won’t have a QB. The Steelers also get matched up with the AFC West which is three more easy wins. I count maybe six or seven difficult games. Depending on how the Browns and Dolphins are this year. Pittsburgh, barring a key injury, will be one of the top two seeds in the AFC and be a real threat to repeat.

Baltimore Ravens
The power of the uni-brow isn’t sneaking up on anybody this year.

Head Coach: John Harbaugh
Offensive Coordinator: Cam Cameron
Defensive Coordinator: Greg Mattison
Special Teams Coordinator: Jerry Rosburg
Owner: Stephen J. Bisciotti

Offensive Starters (Projected)
QB: Joe Flacco
HB: Willis McGahee
FB: Le’Ron McClain
WR: Derrick Mason
WR: Mark Clayton
LT: Michael Oher
LG: Ben Grubbs
C: Matt Birk
RG: Marshal Yanda
RT: Jared Gaither
TE: Todd Heap

Defensive Starters (Projected)
DE: Paul Kruger
DE: Trevor Price
DT: Haloti Ngata
LB: Terrell Suggs
LB: Ray Lewis
LB: Tavares Gooden
LB: Antwan Barnes
CB: Fabian Washington
CB: Domonique Foxworth
FS: Dawan Landry
SS: Ed Reed

Special Teams
K: Graham Gano
P: Sam Koch

Position Battles:
DE: Paul Kruger, Justin Bannan, Trevor Price, and a host of other guys are going to be fighting for a spot on the front line. Baltimore switches between 4-3 and 3-4 more than any team in the league, so they’ll all see plenty of playing time.
LB: Tavares Gooden, Jameel McClain, and Jason Phillips will be in fight for the other ILB next to Lewis
K: I know, how interesting. Still, Steve Hauschka and Graham Gano are going at for the Kicking job in Baltimore. I gave it to Gano because he has a 65 yarder to his credit in HS and apparently made a 67 yarder in HS that was negated by penalty. So he’s got a leg and I’m starting to look at him in fantasy drafts…

Rookies to Watch:
Gano is a rookie, so watch out for him. Baltimore really had a nice draft, they’ve got a couple rookies to watch out for. Michael Oher is going to be a mainstay on the line for years and years. He may not be Jonathan Ogden, but he’ll fill the shoes well enough. Jason Phillips and Paul Kruger are two defensive players who really fit well into Baltimore’s scheme and could be the next set to grow up in Baltimore and become stars.

Season Expectations:
Think anyone would actually believe me if I said I’ve been a huge fan of Ed Reed before these last couple magic years? I have by the way, I’ve been a huge fan of his since his days at the U. Seriously, how did teams complete passes against that secondary? Ed Reed and Sean Taylor that was sick. I wish Miami would get back to that. Oh yeah, NFL. Baltimore surprised a lot of people last year with Joe Flacco and the usual side of amazing defense. That recipe should work pretty well again this year. A healthy McGahee will help even more. Flacco is a year more experienced and just got Mason back, so he should take a step forward again this year. The schedule wasn’t exactly nice to them though. While Pittsburgh skates through the non-division games, Baltimore pulls the Patriots and the Colts. The rest of the schedule isn’t much different than Pittsburgh’s and there is no reason to think that Baltimore will miss the playoffs this year.

Cleveland Browns
New coach, pretty much the same level of talent. It’s a crap shoot.

Head Coach: Eric Mangini
Offensive Coordinator: Brian Daboll
Defensive Coordinator: Rob Ryan
Special Teams Coordinator: Brad Seely
Owner: Randolph D. Lerner

Offensive Starters (Projected)
QB: Brady Quinn
HB: Jamal Lewis
FB: Lawrence Vickers
WR: Braylon Edwards
WR: Mike Furrey
LT: Joe Thomas
LG: Eric Steinbach
C: Alex Mack
RG: Floyd Womack
RT: Ryan Tucker
TE: Steve Heiden

Defensive Starters (Projected)
DE: Corey Williams
DE: Robaire Smith
DT: Shaun Rodgers
LB: Kamerion Wimbley
LB: D’Qwell Jackson
LB: Eric Barton
LB: Alex Hall
CB: Eric Wright
CB: Brandon McDonald
FS: Abram Elam
SS: Brodney Pool

Special Teams
K: Phil Dawson
P: Dave Zastudil

Position Battles:
QB: All eyes are on this battle. This offense has the chance to pretend to be decent and it will be up to Brady Quinn or Derek Anderson. The team’s season hinges on one of the two having a good year.
WR: Braylon Edwards is injured early in camp, but after him there are a lot of decent if not spectacular players. Mike Furrey caught a lot of balls in Detroit, Josh Cribbs is a slightly bigger version of Devin Hester, David Patten is a solid pro, and they have rookies Mohamed Massaquoi and Brian Robiskie.
DE: Corey Williams, Robaire Smith, CJ Mosely and Shaun Smith are all going to get playing time on the line, camp will determine how much each player gets.
LB: Beau Bell and Alex Hall will have fight over the starting OLB position opposite Wimbley and Jackson has David Bowens to compete with for the other starting ILB position.

Rookies to Watch:
This was an outstanding year for Centers in the draft and Alex Mack was the best of them. Joe Thomas and Alex Mack will be teammates at the Pro Bowl many times in their careers, it’s hard to really watch a center, but he will greatly help the Browns running game which will help the QBs by taking away all the pass rush. I also have to mention rookie LB Kaluka Maiava he could sneak up and be a contributor on defense, especially if he takes his uncle’s advice and takes off his shoe, turns it sideways and sticks it straight up Mangini’s candy ass!

Season Expectations:
It all rides on what kind of play they get out of the QB position. If Quinn or Anderson steps up and has a decent year they will be able to contend for a Wild Card spot. I think they made big strides towards shoring up the defense, they’re still weak on the backside, but they shouldn’t be giving up 200 yards rushing a week this year. They will get tested in week 1 as they go up against Adrian Peterson and the Vikings rush attack. I like the WRs they added, Robiske will be a nice fit in the slot if they can find someone to line up opposite Edwards and if Edwards comes back from whatever is keeping him out of practice. The schedule is pretty brutal and won’t help them at all. I don’t think they make the playoffs, but they could be a spoiler and sneak in.

Cincinnati Bengals
OchoCinco should change his number to 81 or something just to mess with everybody.

Head Coach: Marvin Lewis
Offensive Coordinator: Bob Bratkowski
Defensive Coordinator: Mike Zimmer
Special Teams Coordinator: Darrin Simmons
President: Mike Brown

Offensive Starters (Projected)
QB: Carson Palmer
HB: Cedric Benson
FB: Jeremi Johnson
WR: Chad Ochocinco
WR: Laveranues Coles
LT: Andrew Whitworth
LG: Nate Livings
C: Kyle Cook
RG: Bobbie Williams
RT: Anthony Collins
TE: Chase Coffman

Defensive Starters (Projected)
DE: Robert Geathers
DE: Michael Johnson
DT: Tank Johnson
DT: Domata Peko
LB: Keith Rivers
LB: Rey Maualauga
LB: Dhani Jones
CB: Jonathan Joesph
CB: Leon Hall
FS: Chris Crocker
SS: Roy Williams

Special Teams
K: Shayne Graham
P: Kevin Huber

Position Battles:
RT: Anthony Collins gets the start right now because he’s there, but if/when Andre Smith signs that will turn into a key battle on the line.
TE: Reggie Kelly went down with a blown achilles which opened up the spot for a younger guy. Ben Utecht, Chase Coffman and Daniel Coats will be in the fight. Coffman and Utecht are great receivers so Coats needs to excel at blocking to get some time.
S: Crocker and Williams will probably start, but there is going to be a fight for playing time. The Bengals expect to play 3 safeties at times so the third S spot will get used and they’ve got experienced players there looking for the job.

Rookies to Watch:
Man crush number 2. Rey Maualuga. Why he dropped in the draft as far as he did I will never know. He’s strong, he’s fast and he’s led one of college’s best D’s the last 2 years, so he’s smart too. He’s going to be a force running around the field for Bengals.

Season Expectations:
The Bengals…could be pretty good. They get a healthy Carson Palmer, a motivated Ochocinco, Coles has been a good receiver. Cedric Benson has looked great early in camp. The line in young, but they’ve got talent and athleticism so they should be ok. The defense has some players on it too. Especially in the back 7. The Linebacking core is outstanding and Roy Williams gives them an enforcer on the back side. If Michael Johnson plays up to his potential and can be the pass rusher they need this defense will at least be good enough to let the offense outscore the other team. However, they are pretty thin. They’ve got a couple safety backups, but after Hall and Joesph the CB position is weak. Rashad Jeanty and Abdul Hodge are the best reserve LBs and Hodge has never lived up to the hype he had out of college. And the D-line has no depth to it at all. So they’re counting on the defense staying very healthy, which doesn’t happen often in the NFL. If they can stay healthy, they could make a run back to the top of the division, if not, they’ll be the Bungles yet again.

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