Early NFL Power Rankings – A Trip To The AFC North
Yesterday I started up our early look at the power rankings for the NFL teams. Where the rankings during the season focus on team's current record, the teams they played, and how they did against those teams. These are looking at where the team left off at the end of the season, how well they it's believed they did in free agency and the draft, injury updates, and any changes in the coaching staff. At this point, a lot of experts are weighing in to judge the off-season prior to training camp starting up next month.
Here I'm going to look at those same factors, but instead of ranking by the entire NFL, I'm doing to break it down by division — starting with the AFC North.
Pittsburgh Steelers – You may think the strength of this team is it's playmakers, but I'm going to disagree. They have great playmakers, but the key to their high-power offense lies in the fact they have a cohesive offensive line whose starters have been together for four years. When you have a group that works together like that, you get better through experience and familiarity. Add in the fact they've got Ben Roethlisberger, Le'Veon Bell, Martavius Bryant, and Antonio Brown are all returning and they added JuJu Smith-Schuster in the draft means this offense is just going to keep on clicking as long as they are healthy. The downside here is that Big Ben is getting older and their defense isn't nearly on par with their offense. They should have no problem winning their division, but they haven't shown what it takes to get back to the Super Bowl yet.
Cincinnati Bengals – Though the Bengals came in third in their division, it was more from injury than lack of talent on the team. A.J. Green, their top receiving threat was having an excellent year before he got hurt. Andy Dalton has proven to be a good regular season quarterback but hasn't done much in the playoffs. And Marvin Lewis is a highly respected coach… but regardless of how well they do during the season, the carriage turns back into a pumpkin during the playoffs. The big question mark now will be the offensive line as they lost two starters with Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler leaving in free agency. This may be the make-or-break year for Lewis who has been leading the Bengals since 2003 but has gone 0-7 in the playoffs. That might also be the case with Dalton if things don't change.
Baltimore Ravens – The Ravens are a good team that you know are always going to be competitive as long as Joe Flacco is healthy. And their GM Ozzie Newsome is one of the best talent evaluators in the game, making their drafts top notch… at least on one side of the ball. Their defense is still good, but not quite the legendary level it use to be. The biggest concern though has to be the balance on offense. They are having to throw the ball way too much, 2 to 1 passing plays to rushing, and that often means the defense is on the field more often. The team hasn't hit on a big time difference make on the offensive side of the ball in years and Flacco just doesn't have the talent around him to do more than compete. With the right pieces, the team could stand toe-to-toe with the Steelers on a regular basis, but they haven't been able to get those pieces in a while.
Cleveland Browns – The Browns enter the second season of their Money Ball experiment. The team is without any really good option at quarterback. Instead of using one of their four first round picks on a signal caller of the last two years, they drafted Cody Kessler in round 2 last year and DeShone Kizer in the third this year. They have no veteran QB on the roster to help guide these two young players. They are building a decent defense, adding the top prospect Myles Garrett this year, but you can only do so much without if your offense isn't at least competent. Their other option, Brock Osweiler, was believed to be a salary dump move like they do in the NBA, but now the team may have to seriously consider him as a starter. He did alright in Denver filling in for an injured Peyton Manning, but when given the reigns of a team of his own, he ended up getting run out of Houston in one year. If they can get one of the young QB's to step up like Dak Prescott did for the Cowboys, it could seriously change this teams fate… but at the moment it appears to be a long shot.