Five things we want to know about the AFC North as the Ravens prepare for training camp – Boston Herald
If the NFL is looking for parity, it could not have asked for more from the AFC North in 2021.
The divisional race went down to the penultimate week, with all four teams in playoff contention and the Cincinnati Bengals climbing from worst to first and ultimately to the Super Bowl. Injuries left the Ravens, the AFC’s top seed after 12 weeks, on the outside looking in. But they’re preparing for another divisional slugfest in 2022 as they try to catch the Bengals, while the talented Cleveland Browns await news on their quarterback and the Pittsburgh Steelers explore life without their longtime face of the franchise.
Here are five questions we’re asking about the AFC North as training camp looms:
Who’s going to play quarterback in Cleveland?
The Deshaun Watson situation raises troubling questions that go far deeper than the outcome of a divisional race. The Browns guaranteed Watson a record $230 million because they believe he can be the centerpiece of a championship team. They did so despite the fact he was facing 24 lawsuits from women alleging sexual misconduct and with full knowledge that he might face a suspension from the NFL. Watson has subsequently settled 20 of the 24 civil cases and he’s awaiting a disciplinary verdict from an independent judge, with the league reportedly seeking an indefinite suspension that would keep him out for the entire 2022 season at minimum.
The Browns would be a formidable foe with the 2020 version of Watson at quarterback, playing behind one of the league’s best offensive lines and backed by the elite running back tandem of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. Was that potential worth the risk of alienating fans in Cleveland and around the country, who will never be OK with a franchise giving a piece of its soul to an accused serial sex offender? Browns fans will be wrestling with this question for years to come, and that’s assuming Watson will still be a Pro Bowl quarterback whenever he returns to the field.
If that does not happen in 2022, can the Browns win big with Jacoby Brissett — who is 14-23 as an NFL starter — under center? These are not questions you want to face in July if you’re harboring Super Bowl ambitions, which the Browns are despite their 8-9 record and minus-22 scoring differential last season. But they chose this.
Are the Bengals due to take a step back?
Cincinnati raced ahead of expectations in 2021, beating the Ravens twice, seizing the division and coming within three points of a world championship. With former No. 1 overall pick Joe Burrow ensconced at quarterback and a revamped offensive line built to protect him, the Bengals have every reason to believe they are still ascending.
But we know NFL narratives are not always so tidy. The 2021 Bengals ranked just 17th in DVOA, Football Outsiders’ measure of overall team efficiency, with below-average marks for both offense and defense. Their plus-84 point differential was more impressive, but they were hardly immune to bad losses and finished just two games ahead of the Ravens in a season when they benefited from the best injury luck in the division. They won three playoff games by a combined 13 points.
This is, admittedly, a glass-half-empty way of looking at a team with an elite young quarterback-wide receiver pairing. The Bengals hit big on Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase, they draft well every year and they spent the offseason patching their weaknesses on the offensive line and in the secondary. They deserve to be favored going into the preseason, even if Pro Football Focus recently declared that the Browns have a better roster. But they could be better and finish with worse results if they’re not as healthy or if other teams step forward.
What do we make of the Steelers post-Ben Roethlisberger?
Not since 2003 have the Steelers gone into a season without Roethlisberger. Coach Mike Tomlin, who has never worked with another starter, acknowledged life on the other side could be “scary, but exciting.”
It’s not as if the Steelers have to replace 2014 “Big Ben.” The 2021 version could still pull out a game in the fourth quarter, as the Ravens learned twice down the stretch, but he was no longer much of a threat to throw downfield or extend a play. He was down to guile and quick releases, and Pittsburgh’s offense suffered.
It’s difficult to imagine that Mitch Trubisky, a former No. 2 overall pick who never developed in Chicago, is the long-term answer, especially playing behind a below-average offensive line. The Steelers would probably love it if first-round pick Kenny Pickett blows Trubisky and Mason Rudolph out of the water in training camp, but he was a divisive prospect criticized by draft analysts for his lack of an elite skill set. Even if he becomes the starter this year, he will have to worry about developing behind that suspect line.
Roethlisberger’s absence is not in itself a season killer for a team that can fall back on Tomlin’s leadership and defensive superstars T.J. Watt and Cam Heyward. But the absence of a clear successor is a major reason why so many analysts will pick the Steelers to finish an unfamiliar fourth in the AFC North.
Which offseason move could turn the 2022 divisional race?
Let’s set the Watson mess aside for the moment. The Browns made other important moves, trading for wide receiver Amari Cooper and bringing back defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, but until their quarterback situation is settled, we’re talking window dressing on a smoldering house.
The Bengals did not rest on their laurels coming off their surprising Super Bowl run. They recognized that Burrow needed more protection — Cincinnati finished third-worst in the league with 55 sacks allowed — and added three above-average starters to their offensive line. Projected right tackle La’el Collins was one of the best linemen in the league in 2019 and very good in 10 starts for the Dallas Cowboys last season. He could be a substantial upgrade over Riley Reiff and Isaiah Prince. It’s scary to think of Burrow reaching another level as he works from a more comfortable pocket; that possibility is on the table.
The Ravens, meanwhile, operated like a team that will have to counter this growing aerial threat. They expect their secondary to improve with better injury luck in 2022, but that was not enough for general manager Eric DeCosta, who made his biggest offseason splash with a $70 million deal for safety Marcus Williams, one of the best back-line cover men in the sport. The Ravens have lacked a big-play threat on the back end of their defense for several years, but Williams, just entering his prime at 26, is expected to change that and give cornerbacks Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters more latitude to take risks. The Ravens know they’ll have a hard time winning the division if they allow Burrow to throw for 470 yards per game as they did in 2021. Williams is their answer and the best candidate to alter the AFC North race this year.
Is any team set up to rule the North for the rest of this decade?
This division has always resisted the tyranny of a single overlord. As consistently formidable as the Ravens and Steelers have been, could we imagine either winning 11 straight AFC North crowns, as the New England Patriots did in the AFC East from 2009 to 2019? Or even six straight, as the Kansas City Chiefs have since 2016 in the AFC West?
Because of Burrow, the Bengals, coming off their first divisional title since 2015, look like the team of the future. But we might have said the same of the Ravens coming off Lamar Jackson’s 2019 MVP season. Or the Browns as they ramped up their star power after pushing the Chiefs in the divisional round of the 2020 playoffs.
The AFC North was extremely competitive, if devoid of an outstanding regular-season team, in 2021, with all four combatants bunched between eight and 10 wins. Pro Football Focus placed the Browns, Bengals and Ravens sixth, eighth and 12th, respectively, in their recent roster rankings, suggesting we’re in for more of the same.
As we look past this season, so much for the Ravens will come down to their contract extension negotiations with Jackson. Well-debated flaws aside, he’s 37-12 as a starter and no one will dismiss the Ravens as a contender if he’s locked in as their franchise player. If he’s not, who knows?
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