Continuing our training camp series, we next take a look at the AFC and NFC North, looking-in on two historic divisions with strong rivalries within each.
Baltimore – Word out of the Baltimore Ravens training camp is that the team is in flux. The last time Baltimore captured the division title was their Super Bowl winning year in 2012. Years removed from that run, led by a historic defense, Baltimore is trying fight its way back to the top of the AFC North and football relevancy. Returning is franchise quarterback Joe Flacco. The Ravens are at a crossroad with Flacco as injuries and poor play have taken this once upper echelon quarterback to a player in danger of not making the 2019 roster. Joe Flacco could still one of the most crucial elements of the team as the Ravens success has been tied to the success of their quarterback play and their receiving core, which has also been retooled this season. The Offense has added Michael Crabtree, Willie Snead, and John Brown to the new-look receiving core, and drafted tight ends, Hayden Hurst and Mark Andrews, to add another dimension to their offensive plan. If Flacco isn’t the answer, the Ravens have an eye on the future with the drafting of dynamic college quarterback and former Heisman winner, Lamar Jackson. If Flacco and the Ravens falter early, then we could see the beginning of a new quarterback era with the unleashing of Jackson. On the defensive side of the ball, the Ravens have a mix of veteran and young players, led by stalwart Terrell Suggs, C.J. Mosley (linebacker), and Eric Weddle (safety). Though productive, Suggs and Weddle are in the latter part of their careers, and the Ravens are slowly looking to create a youth movement. The Ravens are a team with enough talent, skill and veteran leadership to make some noise in the AFC North but known for their Jekyll and Hyde performance at times, the Ravens will look towards building consistency to make a playoff run this year.
Cleveland –The Cleveland Browns have long been at the bottom looking up at the rest of the NFL, having. 26 different quarterbacks take a snap under center as a starter since 1999. With a carousel of quarterbacks, it is very difficult to build consistency within the offense but with a new GM and two of the top 5 picks in the NFL draft, the Browns are looking to reverse their fortunes and become a team that other squads cannot overlook in the AFC North. The Browns hope to have the quarterback of the future in mercurial 1st overall pick, Baker Mayfield. Cleveland hopes this year’s selection will be the franchise quarterback they have been looking for since the retirement of Bernie Kosar. Over the last few years, the Browns front office has been trying to offset the trend of selecting underperforming draft picks by adding both established vets and drafting young, versatile skill players like defensive backs, Denzel Ward, Jabrill Peppers, and Myles Garrett, or tight-end, David Njoku and running-back, Nick Chubb. Add the free agent signings of wide receiver, Jarvis Landry as well as Carlos Hyde with Damerious Randall, and Cleveland has started to lay the foundation of a team that could be on its way up and looking at a potential playoff berth in the future.
Pittsburgh – Perennial kings of the North, the Steelers enter 2018 as a balanced team with a top offense and strong defense. But, like every other team in the league, Pittsburgh will look to address many questions as the regular season steadily approaches. Ben Roethlisberger is back for another run, but the whispers of retirement became extremely loud as Big Ben had one of his least productive seasons as a pro last season. There were rumors of a strained relationship between him and All-World receiver Antonio Brown and it was said the potential strain could have attributed to a drop-in performance for the duo. However, with Roethlisberger vocalizing his renewed determination to return this year for a super bowl run, the potential storm in the clubhouse looks to have passed. Another storm may be brewing with the refusal of the club to give top back, Le’veon Bell, the contract that he desires. This has caused distractions within the organization and many to question his future with the team. Because of this, 2016 draft pick and back up, John Conner, has emerged as the next man up and is being groomed to take over if Bell moves on. Unless or until speculation turns to reality, Pittsburgh has arguably the best running back and receiver in the league at their disposal. Defensively, the loss of leader, Ryan Shazier, has been and will continue to be felt on and off the field, but d-line disruption specialist, Cam Heyward, and second year rusher, TJ Watt, look to add pressure to quarterbacks around the league. Supporting the defensive line and stepping in for Shazier is linebacker, John Bostic, a veteran that looks to make an impact and pick up where Shazier left off. The one glaring hole in the Steelers defense was the secondary, but with last season’s addition, Joe Hayden, seeing his second year in the system and young corner, Artie Burns, getting mentored by the vet, Pittsburgh believes that they will have a more competitive unit this time around. The Steelers are a dangerous team and the favorites to win the North. If the defense is able to keep pace with the offense, then the chance of watching Pittsburgh play in February is very realistic.
Cincinnati – Cincinnati is looking to claw its way back to a playoff berth after missing the post season each of the last two years. Much of the Bengals success relies on the play of quarterback, Andy Dalton. Dalton’s play has steadily declined the past few years and with it the cohesiveness of the offense. Dalton hopes 2018 is the year for him to get back on track as Cincinnati tries to put the pieces around him to bolster their offense. All-Pro receiver, AJ Green, is back to lead the receiving corps, but the Bengals hope to get production from young receivers, Tyler Boyd and John Ross. Both have been unremarkable to this point, but Cincinnati hopes this is the year for one of the two to step up and seize the 2nd receiver role to take pressure off Green and exploit the continuous double coverages Green is sure to see during the season. There is excitement in the clubhouse as Dalton has potentially two match-up nightmare targets in tight ends, Tyler Kroft and Tyler Eifert. Eifert is a very productive pass catcher when in the game but hasn’t been able to stay healthy the last few years. Kroft has seemingly emerged from nowhere and become a favorite target for Dalton in the red zone with Eifert out. With two athletic tight-ends, the addition of lineman, Cordy Glenn, and the one-two punch of running backs, Joe Mixon and Geo Bernard, there is enough talent in Cincinnati to keep teams from overlooking this talented offense. Defensively, the Bengals have been a tough, opportunistic defense that relies on physicality to intimidate and outmuscle opposing teams. A year older, the Bengals defense was already seen as a step slower last year but hopes to provide emotional leader and thumper, Vontez Burfict, with support in the signing of linebacker, Preston Brown. Brown will be relied on heavily and early with Burfict serving a four-game suspension to start the season. If the Bengals are able to limit mistakes and some of the mental lapses that plagued them in the 2017 season, Cincinnati could not only pose a serious threat to AFC North, but also see a return to the post season.
Chicago – Entering year-two of the Trubisky project, the Bears are excited about the potential improvement of their franchise quarterback as they take the training-wheels off and allow Mitchell Trubisky more freedom and command over the offense. Chicago has been searching for consistent wide receiver production since the departure of Alshon Jeffrey and hope to have found it in one of the surprise off season moves of the year with the signing of Allen Robinson. Robinson is a force when healthy but coming off a season ending ACL tear in 2017, it is yet to be seen if Robinson will return to old form. The defense is led by hard hitting linebacker, Danny Trevathan, and young corner, Kyle Fuller. Chicago hopes to keep competitive by getting supporting pieces and past 1st round selections, Leonard Floyd and Eddie Goldman, to solidify their defensive line and produce a pass rush that will allow Trubisky and the offense opportunities at good field position. Like most teams, the Chicago Bears will lean on the growth of Trubisky to determine the level of success that can be had in the NFC North, but with the talent and potential held by the young gun-slinger, a reinvented and reinvigorated franchise could be just around the corner.
Detroit – Detroit is a team that, each year, gets closer and closer to putting it together, whether it be improved defensive play from Darius Slay and Ziggy Ansah, or the excellent play of leader, Matthew Stafford, keeping games close. The Lions are a team looking for a consistent running game to help take the pressure, and number of hits, off their star quarterback, Matthew Stafford. Enter the bruiser that is LeGarrette Blount. The Lions hope this veteran back can use his toughness and well-known power back running style to help Detroit in the redzone. This move is hoped to help two-fold as the addition of Blount helps to share the load with Ameer Abdullah, a classic small back, increasing his chances of staying healthy and giving Detroit a solid one-two punch of thunder and lightning. If Detroit can find its running game and the defense continues to learn how to make plays, then the Lions could make the playoffs and potentially be looking at a first playoff win since 1991.
Green Bay – Green Bay and future Hall of Fame quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, are looking forward to 2018 as 2017 was essentially a lost year due to Rodgers being forced to the shelf with an injury for most for most of the season. Back to lead the offense, Rodgers is hoping to get help from a healthy receiving corps, with Davante Adams and Randall Cobb both struggling with injuries last year but coming into 2018 healthy. Gone is Green Bay favorite and a top target for Rodgers in receiver, Jordy Nelson, but joining the offense is tight end Jimmy Graham, a redzone threat and extreme miss-match between the 20s. If Graham is able to regain form, then he will add a very dangerous element to what could be an explosive Packers offense in 2018. Their ‘bend but don’t break’ defense lost corner, Damarious Randall, and was not active in free agency on the defensive side of the ball, so Green Bay will look internally for someone on the roster to step up next to pass rush specialist, Clay Matthews, and hard-hitting safety, Haha Clinton – Dix. A perennial playoff competitor as long as long as Rodgers is behind center, this trend should continue in the NFC North as one of the top teams in the division and NFL.
Minnesota – Many teams were put on notice as the Minnesota Vikings offense caught up with its world class defense. All cylinders were firing as the Vikings became contenders in 2017. Thought to be in trouble after the injury of two quarterbacks, Case Keenum came on to execute an extremely efficient passing game that produced career years for Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs. Supported by then-rookie, Dalvin Cook, the offense’s established running game opened up to an opportunistic passing game. Coupled with a defense that was led by ballhawk, Harrison Smith, and linebacking menace, Eric Kendricks, the Vikings made it all the way to the NFC championship game. This year the Vikings have tweaked the offense by letting go of running back, Jerrick McKinnon, and all quarterbacks on last year’s roster outside young backup, Kyle Slotter. Enter Kirk Cousins, the crown jewel of the 2018 free agency class. Choosing the Viking as his destination, the league was abuzz as many think Cousins is the missing piece to take the Vikings from contender to champion. But games are played on the field and not paper, and Cousins has yet to take a snap in Minnesota. With that said, the Vikings are primed to make a serious run at not only topping the NFC North, but also the NFL.
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