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The AFC North teams have a lot of question marks going into free agency and the draft.
The Baltimore Ravens have returned from the world’s biggest stage with all the spoils. They paraded around the streets of Baltimore, went on late night shows and sang with Eddie Money on NFL Network. That is now over and the official start of free agency marks a new season and the point when we stop celebrating the past and start looking towards the 2013 season. Many teams have already started the process of looking to the future by getting rid of individuals who are not going to be a part of it. Teams will begin to form and the smoke will clear. At the beginning of each season the contenders have three goals that they want to achieve, the division, the conference and the Super Bowl. Let’s explore that first goal and the Ravens outlook in the AFC North.
The Pittsburgh Steelers are the hardest team to figure out. Ben Roethlisberger is coming back healthy off of last season’s injury laden campaign, but can he stay healthy? The question will be answered by their offensive line. According to Football Outsiders, the Steelers were 14th in pass blocking and 27th in run blocking. Big Ben’s ability to avoid sacks really skews the numbers and masks how bad their line really was. They definitely need to add depth in the offseason as the injuries they have experienced seem to have gone beyond bad luck and into the injury prone category. The Steelers need to find lineman who can play all 16 games making it easier for Roethlisberger in the pocket. Pittsburgh also looks to be losing its deep threat as they have not offered Mike Wallace a long term deal. The Ravens see Wallace and the Steelers twice and maybe three times a season and this is someone I am happy to see go. Wallace is a game changed, but the Steelers will be left looking to fill out their receiving core as Mike Wallace looks elsewhere for Larry Fitzgerald type money. Unless Big Ben and the offensive line can magically stay healthy, I can’t see the Steelers doing much better then 9-7.
The Cincinnati Bengals’ 2013 season will tell a lot about the future of the franchise and the quarterback position. Everyone in the AFC North and NFL is waiting to find out if Andy Dalton is someone who can make big throws when it matters the most or someone who rides a great defense and a ridiculous young wide receiver to a few playoff appearances. The Bengals have the defense to compete for a championship, but Andy Dalton must step up if they want to make it to the next level. In their last two meaningful games of the season (Pittsburgh Steelers and Houston Texans), the offense produced a grand total of four field goals. Their defense kept them in the game. This team is going to go as far as Andy Dalton will take them and if he doesn’t take a truly meaningful step in a positive direction this year, then they needs to look in a different direction. In the current NFL, you cannot win the Lombardi Trophy with a “game manager.” Other probably had a similar discuss about Joe Flacco in the last few year. Unless Dalton becomes a top ten quarterback in this league, I don’t see them being much better then 8-8.
The Cleveland Browns are coming off a season that was much better than most casual fans will recognize. They played two very competitive games against the Ravens, took the Cowboys to overtime and beat the Steelers. They drafted Brandon Weeden, who certainly showed flashes of greatness last year. I feel like this team is in a similar situation as the Bengals, though. This is a quarterback driven league and teams need to make a decision quickly if the guy they are starting is the right one. Weeden is dealing with a rag-tag group of receivers, but if they can get him some weapons he can be a starting quarterback in this league. They do not have great depth on defense and certainly have holes, but they have two potential super stars in Jabaal Sheard and Joe Haden. The Browns deceptively competitive season still got everyone fired. The outlook on the Cuyahoga River might be a bit better than what meets the eye. There is still an incredible amount of uncertainty at coach and quarterback, which is not a recipe for a winning season. Unless something crazy happens, the Browns will be somewhere around 5-11 or 6-10.
With all that being said, these teams are still trying to build their 2013 rosters through the draft and free agency. These teams can certainly find players that can make an impact right away and improve their win total by 2 or 3 games. At this point I think the Ravens have a great chance to make it 3-in-a-row with another 10-win season.