With the Ravens looking to repeat, the Browns transforming into a true contender, the Steelers hoping to right the ship and the Bengals attempting to start a new era the right way, the battle for the division has many rich storylines to watch. So, what are the biggest questions each team in the AFC North faces entering 2019?
Who will emerge as a leader of the franchise?
With Flacco in Denver, Suggs in Arizona and Mosley in New York, the Ravens are looking for a new leader. With Lamar Jackson entering his first full season as a starter, he will need a strong supporting cast of vocal leaders on both sides of the ball. Can Jackson show poise beyond his years? Who will step up on the defense to become the face of the unit that has defined the organization? Coming off a disappointing return to the playoffs, the Ravens will need to show resolve to defend their AFC North title.
Can the defense rebound from free agency losses?
With the departure of Terrell Suggs, C.J. Mosley, Eric Weddle and Za’Darius Smith, Baltimore’s defense will have to transition this season. Can younger players like Tyus Bowser, Matthew Judon, Kenny Young and Tavon Young fill the gap? Will Earl Thomas rebound from his season-ending leg injury and be rejuvenated with a change of scenery? The amount of change to the defensive roster is reminiscent of the turnover after the Ravens second Super Bowl victory. Will the Ravens avoid repeating the disappointment of their 10-6 2014 campaign?
How will Odell Beckham Jr. acclimate?
With Antonio Brown now in Oakland, there was a short lived void in diva receivers in the AFC North, until the blockbuster Odell Beckham move in Cleveland. It is a plot out of a movie with the Jarvis Landry and OBJ reunion, but will it be a happy marriage with Baker Mayfield? Cleveland is in unfamiliar territory with lofty expectations entering 2019, but what if there are growing pains early in the season? Will Beckham sour quickly on his new franchise and poison a young team? One thing is for sure — everyone will be watching.
Can Baker Mayfield keep up with growing expectations?
After taking over for Tyrod Taylor, Mayfield quickly proved Cleveland scouts right and displayed the fiery competitive spirit that fueled his collegiate success. Still, the sophomore slump term exists for a reason, and the Browns will not be satisfied with any moral victories in 2019. Will Mayfield develop his resume as a budding star or have his weaknesses exposed?
How will Pittsburgh’s young skills players responded to increased pressure?
“Emotional” Twitter beef aside, all eyes will be fixed on JuJu Smith-Schuster as the Steelers marquee offensive weapon. With the Le’Veon Bell situation no longer casting a shadow, can James Conner continue his success? The message in Pittsburgh is clear: no one (expect maybe Big Ben) is indispensable. Still, Ben Roethlisberger turned 37 this offseason, and the championship window is narrowing. Will the new look offense flourish or flounder?
Will turmoil and in fighting continue?
Pittsburgh has been grabbing headlines for all the wrong reasons. Having missed the playoffs last season, the microscope will only be more intense. Guard Ramon Foster took to Twitter, asking former players to stop talking to media about their issues with the team.
PSA. Contact me or @MaurkicePouncey or anyone else that you feel comfortable with about anything else next time. I passed this through a few guys still in the locker room and they are ok with this. pic.twitter.com/4xBpm9JWZH— Ramon Foster (@RamonFoster) April 11, 2019
However, Deadspin exposes the irony of Foster’s request, given his bashing of Le’Veon Bell. Will 2019 be more of the same, or will the Steelers finally take their dirty laundry off the line?
Is this Andy Dalton’s last chance?
The Marvin Lewis era finally ended, but what about Andy Dalton’s reign under center? Having failed to win a single postseason game since entering the league in 2011, the Bengals might be looking for a fresh start at quarterback.Depending on how the early part of their schedule pans out, the Bengals could look to move on from Dalton sooner rather than later.
Will Zac Taylor validate the run on Sean McVay’s coaching tree?
Sean McVay’s meteoric rise has lead other organizations to look for fruit on the branches of his coaching tree. This offseason, Cincinnati hired the Rams 35-year-old quarterbacks coach. With no head coaching experience, will Taylor revitalize a stale organization or will he struggle to acclimate to the pressure?