AFC North preview: Ravens look to build on their run
The AFC North should be entertaining and far more competitive this season.
The Baltimore Ravens enter the season with high expectations and a high-powered offense that will give many defensive coordinators nightmares. The Pittsburgh Steelers will look to rebound with Ben Roethlisberger's return, while the Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns will look to reverse their fortunes from a year ago.
Let’s break down how the AFC North looks for 2020.
2019 record: 14-2, lost in Divisional round
Key additions: WR Devin Duvernay, J.K. Dobbins, DE Calais Campbell, DL Derek Wolfe, G D.J. Fluker
Key departures: G Marshal Yanda, TE Hayden Hurst, WR Seth Roberts, T Andre Smith (COVID opt-out), CB Brandon Carr
In 2019, Lamar Jackson showed his rookie performance was no fluke. He was named the NFL's MVP and he headed of the most dominant rushing attacks the league has ever seen. He set the single-season rushing yards record for a quarterback and threw for nearly 40 touchdowns.
Jackson has a 19-3 record as a starter in the regular season. Unfortunately, playoff success has eluded him, which is where the Ravens will hope to improve.
The Ravens are the co-favorites to win the Super Bowl, with the Chiefs, and anything short of that will be considered a failure.
As phenomenal as Jackson is, he still needs decent targets, and that's where the Ravens need the most help.
Dez Bryant's appearance for workouts is huge. If the Ravens were to add a piece of his caliber to help Jackson, it would elevate expectations even more.
Do not overlook the loss of offensive lineman Marshal Yanda, who was a key piece to their rushing attack and may end up in the Hall of Fame.
On the defensive side, Calais Campbell is a big addition on the field and in the locker room, as "the Mayor" looks to improve a defensive line that got run over by Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry in the playoffs.
The Ravens added depth on the defensive line, as well, and improved their ability to stop the run. Earl Thomas will also have another offseason under his belt and should be able to contribute more.
The Ravens’ window might only be one more year, given the expiring contracts they have, so they need to make a deep playoff run before time runs out.
2019 record: 8-8
Key Additions: DL Chris Wormley, TE Eric Ebron, OLB Alex Highsmith, WR Chase Claypool
Key Departures: G Ramon Foster, DT Javon Hargrave, LB Ryan Shazier
The defense of the Steel Curtain days may never be repeated, but this year’s unit for Pittsburgh will be dominant.
Depth at every level will make it difficult for opposing teams to game plan, and the addition of Alex Highsmith makes them even stronger. Bud Dupree was hit with the franchise tag after a breakout season, and he and T.J. Watt are a dangerous pass-rushing combo.
However, the team will only go as far as Roethlisberger takes it.
After he went down in the second game of the season last year, the Steelers simply did not get enough consistent offensive output to challenge for a playoff spot. Receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster must bounce back from a poor season, but the addition of Eric Ebron might help take some of the pressure off. He and Vance McDonald should allow the Steelers to run more two-tight end sets, which will help James Connor and the rushing game and give Roethlisberger more options in the play-action set.
If Big Ben can stay healthy and the defense lives up to expectations, a return to the playoffs may be in the cards.
2019 record: 6-10
Key Additions: QB Case Keenum, WR Donovan Peoples-Jones, T Jack Conklin, T Jedrick Wills, TE Austin Hooper, S Andrew Sendejo, DT Andrew Billings
Key Departures: TE Ricky Seals-Jones, TE Demetrius Harris
The emergence of Nick Chubb took a lot of pressure off Baker Mayfield last season, but the quarterback will need to make strides this year, after a poor second campaign.
The Browns invested heavily to improve the offense, with acquisitions to bolster the offensive line and the weapons around their young quarterback.
They will expect big things from Austin Hooper, who received the most lucrative deal ever given to a tight end. He will be an instant weapon for Mayfield, and the improvements at offensive line and fullback will help Chubb take even more pressure off the signal caller.
The front office also improved its run defense, which was the third worst in the NFL last season, with the addition of Andrew Billings from the Bengals. However, the unit has been dealt a blow already, as linebacker Mack Wilson hyperextended his knee in practice last month. Wilson participated in 89% of the defensive snaps last year, so he will be missed.
Myles Garrett will be back with a chip on his shoulder, but if the linebackers are not able to improve upon last year, the defensive issues might still be too many to get the Browns past .500.
2019 record: 2-14
Key Additions: QB Joe Burrow, RB Samaje Perine, WR Tee Higgins, CB Trae Waynes, DT D.J. Reader, S Vonn Bell
Key Departures: CB Dre Kirkpatrick, QB Andy Dalton, DL Ryan Glasgow, LB Preston Brown, CB Darqueze Dennard
Andy Dalton’s time is over. We now enter the Joe Burrow era in Cincinnati.
The No. 1 pick in the draft put up superhuman numbers in his final season at LSU, where he won the national title and proved he was the best quarterback in college football. Now he is asked to re-energize a franchise that has fallen on hard times.
Burrow has plenty of weapons at his disposal, including fellow rookie Tee Higgins, who has joined a talented receiving corps that features A.J. Green, Tyler Boyd, and John Ross. Depth at running back will also help ease the transition for Burrow.
The Bengals made big investments on the defensive side of the ball, as well, with the additions of Vonn Bell and Trae Waynes to the secondary. They also shored up the defensive line with D.J. Reader.
Cincinnati also selected three linebackers in the draft, obviously with the intent to improve one of the worst defensive units in the NFL.
Every defensive group has been improved in the offseason, and while the Bengals will need further improvement to get on the better side of .500, expect them to be much more competitive and exciting.