Tight at the Top
There might not be a more competitive division in football than the AFC North, with the Cincinnati Bengals becoming the third different champion in the last three years. Last season marked the fourth time since 2008 that the winner of the AFC North advanced to the Super Bowl.
Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow and Baltimore Ravens QB Lamar Jackson give the division two of the top 10 candidates to win the NFL Most Valuable Player award according to the sportsbook.
With the retirement of longtime Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and uncertainty surrounding Deshaun Watson and Baker Mayfield with the Cleveland Browns, it makes this one of the more difficult division races to project.
The NFL playoff odds list the Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns (+2000) tied for fifth among AFC teams in the NFL odds to win the Super Bowl.
The AFC North odds have three teams almost in a dead heat. Let’s look at how things look at the current time in what could be one of football’s toughest divisions.
Odds to Win AFC North
- Baltimore Ravens +160
- Cincinnati Bengals +200
- Cleveland Browns +250
- Pittsburgh Steelers +850
There was quite a bit of roster turnover for one of the NFL’s most stable franchises. The biggest move was the trade of speedy receiver Marquise Brown. Sammy Watkins is also gone and that leaves Baltimore with a very young group of receivers for former NFL MVP Jackson to throw to. Devin Duvernay, a third-round pick in 2020, and 2021 first-round selection Rashod Bateman will lead the way. The Ravens didn’t draft any receivers but did bring in five as undrafted rookie free agents.
It is a different story at tight end where Mark Andrews is already one of the best players in the league at his position. Baltimore used two of its six picks in the fourth round to take Charlie Kolar and Isaiah Likely. Offensive lineman Tyler Linderbaum was picked in the first round while tackle Morgan Moses was signed as a free agent.
One big change on defense came with the firing of defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale and two of his assistant coaches. Safety Kyle Hamilton, linebacker/edge rusher David Ojabo and defensive tackle Travis Jones were key draft picks. The top six tacklers are back, led by linebacker Patrick Queen. The secondary, featuring cornerbacks Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters, could be the best in the NFL.
Don’t sleep on the Ravens secondary 😴 https://t.co/tVT14opaGG
— Baltimore Ravens (@Ravens) June 28, 2022
The Ravens kept losing running backs to injury a season ago. J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards return after missing the entire 2021 season.
The first order for business for the Ravens is taking care of things inside the division. A 1-5 record against AFC North teams kept Baltimore out of the playoffs.
The rest of the AFC can’t be thrilled to see what the Bengals did when it comes to their offensive line.
They signed guard Alex Cappa from Tampa Bay, center Ted Karras from New England and tackle La’el Collins from Dallas to strengthen the weakest position on the team. If Burrow and Ja’Marr formed one of the top quarterback-receiver tandems with the QB under constant pressure, imagine what is possible if the reconfigured line gives Burrow more time to throw. Fellow receivers Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins also return.
There has been speculation that Chris Evans could have a larger role at running back, which would mean a different deal for starting running back Joe Mixon.
With tight end C.J. Uzomah headed off to the New York Jets, the Bengals signed Hayden Hurst. The biggest loss might be defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi. The Bengals did sign or franchise tag seven defensive players who could have signed elsewhere.
Cincinnati used its first two draft picks on Michigan safety Daxton Hill and Nebraska Cam Taylor-Britt to bolster secondary.
Kicker Evan McPherson made a huge difference as a rookie, especially in the postseason.
The schedule might be tricky with six 2021 playoff teams among the squads that Cincinnati will play outside the division. That could impact how the NFL predictions shake out for the Bengals.
Things will get interesting after a Week 10 bye with games against Pittsburgh, Tennessee, Kansas City, Cleveland, Tampa Bay, New England, Buffalo and Baltimore to end the regular season.
The Cleveland Browns just can’t help themselves. Playing in a division where Pittsburgh and Baltimore are examples of how NFL franchises are supposed to be run and with a young Cincinnati fresh off a run to the Super Bowl, the Browns seem to be there to provide comic relief.
If it isn’t constant coaching changes, there are questionable roster moves. The one during the offseason takes first prize. Even though Baker Mayfield led the Browns to a playoff win in 2020, the first for the franchise since 1994, the Browns decided to send a package of draft picks, including three first-rounders, to Houston for Deshaun Watson. Watson was being sued by a number of women alleging sexual misconduct during massages and is the subject of a league investigation.
Watson could be on the receiving end of a lengthy suspension and an irate Mayfield has asked for a trade. What this could mean is that Jacoby Brissett might be the quarterback for some, if not all, of this season.
It is unfortunate because Cleveland has more than enough talent to make a run at the playoffs.
Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt form a dynamic duo at running back, Amari Cooper was acquired from Dallas to give the Browns more help at receiver, and the offensive line could be one of the league’s best.
On the other side of the ball, defensive end Myles Garrett is listed by the NFL lines as one of the top candidates for NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors. Fellow former No. 1 overall pick Jadeveon Clowney is another top pass rusher as is Chase Winovich, acquired in a trade with New England.
The Browns have been using top-100 picks to bolster the secondary while Anthony Walker and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah lead the list of returning linebackers.
It is so hard to know what the 2022 season is going to look like until there is some clarity on what the NFL plans to do with Watson and if the Browns can get anything in return for Mayfield.
Take a Look at Other 2 NFL Articles for This Week
There are also quarterback questions in Pittsburgh, but for different reasons.
With the retirement of longtime starter Ben Roethlisberger, former top-five pick Mitch Trubisky and 2022 first-round pick Kenny Pickett will be vying to be the starting QB.
Even with the departures of receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Washington, Pittsburgh is bursting with talent at the skill positions. It starts with receivers Chase Claypool and Diontae Johnson. Running back Najee Harris and tight end Pat Freiermuth made significant contributions as rookies. The Steelers used a second-round pick on receiver George Pickens. so whoever the quarterback might be, he won’t lack for receiving options.
The weakest part of the Pittsburgh offense in recent years has been the offensive line and it could be no different in 2022. They did sign guard James Daniels, but most of the rest of the linemen will be the same ones who played in 2021.
T.J. Watt had more than 20 sacks a season ago and he is listed by the NFL picks as the favorite to be the NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
Larry Ogunjobi was signed away from division rival Cincinnati to team with Cam Heyward at defensive tackle while rookie DeMarvin Leal should be another key piece of the defensive line.
Without Joe Schobert, the linebacker group will be led by Alex Highsmith and Devin Bush.
Minkah Fitzpatrick is one of the top safeties in the NFL while Levi Wallace was signed to help at the cornerback position.