Steelers’ O, Ravens’ D Highlight 2017 AFC North

Training camp starts this week! Need to get caught up on where every NFL team stands as the season approaches? Here’s a handy preview complete with odds to let you know what to expect from each team heading into the 2017 season.

Also see: NFC WestNFC South; NFC East; NFC North; AFC West; AFC South; AFC East.

BALTIMORE RAVENS

The Ravens were not a loaded offensive team heading into training camp and already, things have gotten much worse. Running back Kenneth Dixon is out for the season, and Joe Flacco will miss anywhere from 3-6 weeks with a back injury. Training camp may not seem important for a veteran entering his tenth season, but consider all the changes Baltimore’s offense is going through. Marty Mornhinweg took over play-calling halfway through last season, so this is his first camp running the offense. The team is also without Steve Smith and Dennis Pitta this year; newcomer Jeremy Maclin will help fill the void, as will tight end Ben Watson, who missed all of last season with a torn achilles. Throw in new running back Danny Woodhead (also coming off injury) and the Ravens have a bunch of weapons Flacco needs to get familiar with. The best thing about Baltimore’s offense last season was kicker Justin Tucker, and if Flacco can’t get healthy, that will remain the case.

Baltimore was still a force in 2016, though, narrowly missing the playoffs thanks to a Week 16 loss to Pittsburgh. The strength of the Ravens was once again a defense that snuffed out the run, but also saw resurgent play from the secondary thanks to the addition of Eric Weddle. Somewhat concerningly for a defense that finished sixth in DVOA, the unit has undergone a lot of changes, losing Timmy Jernigan, Lawrence Guy, Zachary Orr, Elvis Dumervil, and Shareece Wright. However, after adding Tony Jefferson, Brandon Carr and using their first four draft picks on the defensive side, it’s reasonable to expect that Baltimore will be able to limit opponents as effectively as last season.

While the defense could lift a backup QB to a win or two, it’s important that Flacco can go right out of the gate: Baltimore opens the season with three of their first four games against division rivals, including a Week 4 tilt with Pittsburgh right after a London trip.

2017 Ravens Odds

  • Odds to win AFC North: 2/1
  • Odds Colin Kaepernick starts a game for the Ravens: 2/1

 

CINCINNATI BENGALS

Keep looking for holes Gio Bernard, you won’t find any this season. (Peter Bond, via Flickr)

 

On the one hand, the Bengals missing the playoffs in 2016 was a good thing, because it protected their fans from another Wild Card heartbreak. On the other hand, it could signify the end of the Bengals consistently being a contender. As a team that builds almost exclusively through the draft, Cincinnati can’t afford to blow any one class. Unfortunately, early returns on their 2015 draft have not been kind. Neither first-round pick Cedric Ogbuehi or second-round pick Jake Fisher looks like a starting-level tackle; yet thanks to losses suffered in free agency, both likely will be this season. So even though Cincy went out and got Andy Dalton new weapons to complement AJ Green in the passing game, he may not have enough time in the pocket to find them.

On defense, the Bengals hope that cornerback William Jackson III will bring some youthful exuberance to the defense after missing his entire rookie season. Pairing him with Dre Kirkpatrick gives Cincy a promising corner tandem for years to come. Unfortunately, they may get roasted in coverage if there’s no rush up front. Outside of Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap, no one on the defensive line was effective last season. If some of these mid-round picks don’t pan out soon, Cincy’s D will keep sliding down the ranks.

In their 50th season, the Bengals get to open the year with back-to-back home games for the first time since 1983. Playing the Ravens on Sunday and the Texans on Thursday, that four-day stretch will provide a good sense of whether Cincy is ready to bounce back and be a force in the AFC, or if this franchise is trending in the wrong direction.

2017 Bengals Odds

  • Odds to win AFC North: 4/1
  • Odds the Bengals win a playoff game in 2017: 30/1
  • Over/under sacks allowed in 2017: 42.5
  • Over/under number of players you can name on the Bengals All-50th team: 5.5

For such a long-standing franchise, the Bengals history isn’t exactly decorated with tons of household names. Heck, they only have two Hall of Famers! (I’m not counting Charlie Joiner; he was a Charger.) If you can name six or more — without cheating — I’m sure our editor will send you something Bengals-y. Years of fandom has saddled him with a storage locker’s worth of a mediocre teams’ merchandise.

[Editor’s note: no mediocre soup for you!]

CLEVELAND BROWNS

Last season was a crucial one for the Moneyball Browns, and after almost screwing it up in Week 17, Cleveland secured itself the number-one overall pick. After trading back multiple times in the 2016 draft, the Browns adopted a similar strategy this year, but still ended up with four picks in the first 52 selections. Cleveland has suddenly amassed a ton of young high upside talent on both sides of the ball, and that will only increase with five selections in the first two rounds of the 2018 draft. Danny Shelton, Emmanuel Ogbah and first-overall pick Myles Garrett will form a terrifying d-line for years to come, while Corey Coleman, David Njoku and Isaiah Crowell could all be longtime contributors on offense, if the Browns can find their QB of the future (be it Cody Kessler, DeShone Kizer, or someone else).

With the Jets stealing Cleveland’s tanking idea this season, the Browns only option is to start trying to win with this young group. They have an excellent offensive line (ranked second by PFF heading into the year), so there will be plenty of time and space to make plays. The big question will be if the Browns have amassed enough playmakers at the skill positions to contend just yet. This wasn’t meant to be a quick rebuild, so it’s unlikely that Cleveland is anywhere near the playoffs this year; but escaping the basement of the AFC North (for the first time in six seasons) is certainly on the table.

Despite having more career concussions than wins, Cody Kessler might just be the Browns QB of the future. (Keith Allison, via Flickr)

 

2017 Browns Odds

  • Odds to win AFC North: 19/1
  • Odds Brock Osweiler gets cut before the season: 1/2

PITTSBURGH STEELERS

Once again, the excitement around the Steelers surrounds the offense and its near-limitless potential. On paper, it reads like a championship fantasy football lineup: Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant. Add in the fact that Pittsburgh won nine straight games last year before dropping the AFC Championship in New England, and it’s understandable why there are lofty expectations for the team. But there’s also some smoke blowing out of west Pennsylvania, warning of another letdown year. Bell is skipping camp after negotiations for a longterm deal fell through, and he’ll play this season under the franchise tag. Meanwhile, Bryant is still not fully reinstated, and also has a beef to settle with Big Ben, the same Big Ben who thought about retirement, and also hasn’t been that good over the last two seasons.

If the offense falls short of expectations, the defense could pick up some of that slack. The secondary played much better in 2016, particularly after the Steelers discovered their pass rush halfway through the season. Blitzing like crazy, Pittsburgh generated 30 sacks over their final nine games; they’ll be tempted to keep up that approach even after drafting edge rusher T.J. Watt. In fact, the Steelers may find their sack totals very high in the first half, only to come crashing down in the second, when they play some of the game’s best QBs under pressure: Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Matt Stafford and Andrew Luck.

Pittsburgh is the favorite to take the North this year, but they’ll have plenty of competition to be New England’s second-fiddle (see the entire AFC West). Perhaps one of those other teams can knock off the Pats for them, because history has shown Big Ben can’t beat Brady.

2017 Steelers Odds

  • Odds to win AFC North: 6/5
  • Odds to win AFC Championship: 9/1
  • Over/under combined touchdowns between Bell and Brown: 24.5
Boris

Hockey may be a wildly unpopular sport in the U.S., but where no one is paying attention, there's a ton of value for Boris to mine. An avid NHL fan of over 20 years, Malloy made his first bet against a friend during the 2001 Stanley Cup Finals (going against Ray Bourque) and has been hooked ever since. He has yet to pay off that debt of $2, but he's made plenty back since. In between worrying about the league's next lockout, he regularly contributes to MTS and is also fluent in football, basketball, baseball and French (sort of).