The SportsCrew | AFC North Preview - 2016/17 Season
2016/17 Season - AFC North Preview
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Stromme’s Takes: Facts, Takes and Points: AFC North

Stromme’s Takes: Facts, Takes and Points: AFC North

Mike Stromme

Predictions:

  1. Cincinnati Bengals (12-4)
  2. Pittsburgh Steelers (10-6 Wild Card)
  3. Cleveland Browns (6-10)
  4. Baltimore Ravens (4-12)

The Bengals are the blueprint of what you’d want a solid football team to look like, no real weakness… The Steelers have an absolutely explosive offense, but they also have some warts… The Browns, believe it or not, have the making to be a fun, young team to watch on offense. However, I have questions on the defense… The Ravens are an ageing team, I believe a rebuild is just around the corner.

 

Cincinnati Bengals:

To me, the Bengals are as solid as they come. No, they don’t have an aspect of their game that’s 10/10. However, they’re a team full of 7/10s, they don’t have a true weakness.

No, Andy Dalton is not an elite quarterback. But is he a strong option? Absolutely. Dalton was having one of the most efficient seasons of his career before his season ended in Week 14. He had a 66.1% completion percentage and a TD-INT ratio of 25-7, both of which were career-highs. His QBR of 73.11 in 2015 was, by far, the best of his career. Only Carson Palmer, Ben Roethilsberger, Drew Brees and Russell Wilson had a better QBR than Dalton in 2015.

What many forget about Dalton is how young he actually is. While he’s not a rookie, he’s still just entering his 6th season in the league and just entering his prime. The dropoff in interceptions and rise in completion percentage suggests to me that he’s becoming a more cerebral QB and making better decisions. Nothing flashy, but a solid option.

A.J. Green is one of the elite WRs in the league. And, while there’s some changes behind him on the depth chart, I believe there will be a near seamless transition from Mohammed Sanu and Marvin Jones to Brandon LaFell and

The Red Rifle was steady in 2015, just like the rest of the Bengals (image from bleacherreport.com)

The Red Rifle was steady in 2015, just like the rest of the Bengals (image from bleacherreport.com)

Tyler Boyd.

Boyd, the former Pitt Panther, was selected in the second round of last spring’s draft. According to the Cincinnati Inquirer, he’s done nothing but impress in camp thus far. He seems to not only be picking up the playbook, but excelled in camp thus far.

LaFell, who is now entering his seventh season in the league, owns a career catch rate of 57.1% and has averaged 44.3 yards per game. Nothing flashy, but still a decent option for Dalton at WR3.

Like I mentioned in my fantasy tight end rankings, I expect a regression in Tyler Eifert’s touchdown numbers. It’s not that I’m worried about that ankle injury that may or may not keep him out of the early portion of the regular season, he’ll physically be fine. I’m more worried that the change in OC will result in a more diverse dispersal of red zone targets. His numbers between the 20s will be just fine, he’s a reliable TE.

On their own, neither Gio Bernard or Jeremy Hill are elite running backs. But together, they create one of the better thunder/lightening run combos in the NFL. Bernard is one of the premier pass-catching running backs in the league, but he doesn’t do particularly well running between the tackles. Hill, on the other hand, can be that clock-churning, bowling ball running back you can trust in short-yardage situations (as made evident with his 20 career rushing touchdowns in just two seasons). Together, they form a formidable rushing duo that can do a variety of things on the gridiron.

Yes, Hue Jackson might be gone upstate. But, I fully expect a seamless transition between offensive coordinators. New OC Ken Zampese has been Marvin Lewis’ QB coach since 2003. Before that, he was the WR coach/”passing game coordinator” with the Greatest Show on Turf: the 2001 and 2002 St. Louis Rams. This could get interesting.

This defense is a very solid unit. They stopped the run (7th in rush yards against), they turned the ball over (fourth in defensive turnover percentage) and most importantly, they kept opposing offenses from scoring (seventh in scoring percentage allowed).

The front-seven is an experienced bunch that can get to the QB when need be. DE Carlos Dulap and DT Geno Atkins both ended 2015 with double-digit sack totals; the entire defensive line finished the season with 34.5 total sacks. The linebacking core added 13-year vet Karlos Dansby to join veteran Rey Maualuga and the always hard-hitting Vontaze Burfict, who will re-join the team after serving his three-game suspension for… Well, you saw the hit.

While the secondary didn’t do well on-paper last season (3,976 passing yards allowed, 64.2% completion percentage against). They’re a talented bunch. Adam “Don’t call be PacMan” Jones is a 10-year vet that can still make plays (3 INT and 12 PD in 2015). Behind Jones is not one, not two, but THREE first-round picks at the CB position in Dre Kirkpatrick (2012), Darqueze Dennard (2014) and William Jackson III (2016). All still relatively young, all still very talented.

While Reggie Nelson and his NFL-leading 8 INT bolted West this offseason, fourth-year safety Shawn Williams is primed to fill the void. Williams started just four games and finished the season with 2 INT and 5 PD. While I don’t expect him to lead the league in INT like Nelson did, I don’t think the drop-off will be all that drastic.

The Bengals are a solid team all around who I believe will repeat as AFC North champions.

 

Pittsburgh Steelers:

Man, the Steelers are a fun team to watch.

I mean, having two of the world’s best skill position players really helps. We all know Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell are beasts. Just incredible talents who will run this league for years to come.

Nobody has reaped the rewards of having those two players than Big Ben Roethlisberger. Big Ben went from “the better real-life than fantasy” QB, to a viable fantasy option with the emergence of Antonio Brown an Le’Veon Bell. When he’s on the field and healthy, this offense is lethal. However, when he’s not, and the likes of Michael Vick, Landry Jones and Charlie Batch have to start games in his absence, the offense takes a big step back.

This Steeler offense will be fun to watch once again in 2016.

This Steeler offense will be fun to watch once again in 2016.

In Roethlisberger’s 13-year NFL career, he’s started all 16 games just three times. He’s a QB that takes a constant beating. His 6′-5″ 240 lb frame makes those hits a little bearable and he has played through injuries that would sideline other QBs. That being said, he still takes a lot of hits, he still misses time and while he can handle pain better than most at his position, he still gets hurt. And at age 34, how much longer can he take that type of punishment?

While ESPN’s Sal Paolantonio is fairly confident that Le’Veon Bell will avoid another drug-related suspension, his teammate Martavis Bryant wasn’t so lucky, as he was handed a full-year ban for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy. While Bryant is a talent that will be missed, the “next man up” mentality will take hold for these Steeler WR. They have talent behind Bryant in Wheaton and second-year wideout Sammie Coates. Wheaton will be a legitimate deep threat in this offense, where Coates will assume a slot receiver role as an option underneath. Either way, I don’t think this passing attack will miss a beat. Free agent signing Ladarius Green will have an impact at tight end as well.

While I think this defense has some talent, especially up front, I think there’s lots of room for improvement.

As a unit, the Steelers sacked the QB 48 times last season, good enough for third in the NFL. However, they sacked the QB on just 7.1% of dropbacks. Don’t get me wrong, that’s still top ten in the league, but it’s not top five. In my opinion, Heyward, Tuitt, Harrison and company would be in a much better position to succeed if the secondary played a little better.

The Steelers allowed 4,350 passing yards (30th) and a 64.3% completion percentage (22nd) in 2015. This lead to the defense allowing 327 first downs (22nd). In order to really reap the rewards of this strong defensive front, the secondary really needs to step up.

The secondary was addressed through the draft, the team’s first and second picks were spent on DBs. If they grow-up quickly (and that’s a tall order) this team can take a giant leap forward. But, I just don’t see it happening this season. It’s tough to rely on one rookie to succeed right away in any NFL secondary, let alone two. However, they’ve set themselves up well for the future.

A high-flying offense and a defense that can hit the QB and turnover the ball will be good enough to get into the playoffs and the possibility to make some noise when they get there is strong.

 

Cleveland Browns:

I’m a Hue Jackson believer, I’m a fan of Robert Griffin III and I believe that this offense can succeed.

Nevermind the success Jackson had with Cincinnati over the past few years, let’s examine the last time he was a head coach.

The last time Hue Jackson was a head coach was 2011. He was let-go after one season after leading the Oakland Raiders to 8-8, which was respectable given that no skill position player amassed 1,000 yards and Carson Palmer threw more INT than TDs after coming over in a trade with Cincinnati after his “retirement”. A rusty Carson Palmer/Jason Campbell, Darren McFadden/Michael Bush, Denarious Moore/Darius Heyward-Bey/Jacoby Ford and Kevin Boss were 9th in total yards, 16th in points for, and 13th in scoring percentage.

If it weren’t for Tebow Time, this team might have won the AFC West that year.

Fast forward five years, and Jackson now has Robert Griffin III, Isaiah Crowell/Duke Johnson, Josh Gordon (Week 5 on)/Corey Coleman/Andrew Hawkins and Gary Barnidge. I would argue that Jackson has more offensive talent in

Hue Jackson looks to turn around a Browns offense that hasn't seen success in years. (image from bleacherreport.com)

Hue Jackson looks to turn around a Browns offense that hasn’t seen success in years. (image from bleacherreport.com)

2016 than he did in 2011.

That “red shirt” year RGIII had last season might have been the best thing for him. In 2012, Mike Shanahan absolutely abused Griffin III with all the read-option calls. He was basically playing on one leg by Week 17 and Wild Card Weekend of his rookie season. He was rushed back way, way too soon in 2013 and it clearly carried over into 2014. A year off to clear his head paired with a change in scenery might cure what ails him. For the first time in his career, there’s no pressure, no spotlight. He can come in, and just play football.

The Browns got another boost when they got the word of Josh Gordon’s reinstatement. In 2013, Gordon balled-out like Odell, Antonio and Julio. He finished the year with 87/1,646/9 on 159 targets. If he can deliver even just 85% of that production from Week 5 on, Browns fans will be in for a treat.

Given what Jackson did in Cincinnati with Bernard and Hill, expect a similar dynamic between Duke Johnson and Isaiah Crowell with Johnson assuming the passing-down role. Johnson caught 64/534/2 on 74 targets last season, he’s a very explosive playmaker.

While I expect the offense to improve, I don’t have similar expectations for this defense. This defense caps the ceiling of this team.

While the secondary has some talent in Joe Haden and Tramon Williams, I don’t have much faith in safeties Jordan Poyer and Ibraheim Campbell to replace the production of Donte Whitner and Tashaun Gipson.

And while the team did bring in Demario Davis from the Jets to replace Karlos Dansby, they did nothing to improve a run defense that was absolutely brutal in 2015 (2,055 yards against, 30th in the NFL). Maybe 2015 first round pick NT Danny Shelton takes a step forward in 2016, but you can’t expect one guy to turn around a run defense.

By trading down from the number two pick in the draft last May, the Browns added 14 draft picks to an already young core. This team is rebuilding the right way, and will take a step in the right direction in 2016.

 

Baltimore Ravens:

While the aforementioned Browns got younger and faster, the Ravens are only getting older.

The 2015 Ravens were not a fluke, this team really is on a sharp decline. Despite winning the Super Bowl just four years ago, this team is getting really old really fast.

You can blame the team’s underwhelming record on injuries, but the fact of the matter is, the team was a sinking ship well before Flacco, Smith and Forsett all went down.

The team was 1-6 before Steve Smith blew his Achilles and 2-7 before Forsett and Flacco both went down. Losing Terrell Suggs in Week 1 was a blow, but I don’t know if he alone could have saved this team.

This team is relying on too many ageing players at too many key position. Steve Smith Sr. is coming off a pretty devastating Achilles injury and entering his 16th season in the league. Justin Forsett will be 31 by season’s end (which is like 65 in running back years). Their top two pass rushers, Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil are 33 and 32 respectively and Suggs’ coming off an Achilles injury as well.

So, instead of getting younger through the draft, they brought in a bunch of ageing free agents. The team signed WR Mike Wallace, 30-years-old and coming off the worst season of his career (39/473/2 on 72 targets). TE Ben Watson, age 35, although he’s coming off a career year in New Orleans. And FS Eric Weddle, age 31.

I just don’t see where this team got better. All they did was add a bunch of ageing veterans to block all the young players they drafted (all 11 of them). Maybe the idea is to add veterans to help guide these young players? But it could also stunt their growth. Who knows? To me, this just looks like a team on the decline.

 

 

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