Times are changing in the AFC North as of late, and for the first time since the NFL moved to a four divisions per conference format in 2002, the Cleveland Browns are the favored bet in the AFC North.
The Browns have witnessed the emergence of a franchise quarterback in fan-favorite, Baker Mayfield, and they’ve made some aggressive moves in the off-season acquiring some other offensive pieces to complement Mayfield.
With the departure of star receiver Antonio Brown, the Pittsburgh Steelers will be looking for other players to stand out and establish themselves. The Steelers are perennial contenders, so the loss of Brown may not necessarily have as great of an impact on the team as a whole.
The Baltimore Ravens are justifiably excited about their young, dynamic quarterback, Lamar Jackson. However, as he continues to develop as an elite QB, the staff will need to address some gaping holes on defense with several key departures.
Meanwhile, the Cincinnati Bengals continue to flounder. Quarterback Andy Dalton has performed below-average as of late, and there don’t seem to be signs of any stirring, dramatic turnaround for the Bengals in the near future.
Now let’s take a look how Vegas has stacked the division and some of the key components that support each team’s odds.
Cleveland Browns +140
As mentioned previously, this is the first time the Browns are the AFC North favorite since 2002. This is also arguably one of the most talented Browns teams in recent history.
After some flashes of brilliance confined to questionably limited playing time in the beginning of last season, Baker Mayfield became Cleveland’s undisputed starter at QB. The dismissal of head coach Hugh Jackson and offensive coordinator Todd Haley definitely played a role in that transition.
The Browns also promoted interim offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens to head coach in order to build stability given Kitchens’ familiarity and relationship with Mayfield.
It’s obvious that the Browns have spent considerable effort to build up an offensive around Baker Mayfield. The acquisition of Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry at receiver provide some dangerous targets for Mayfield. Combined with up-and-comer Antonio Callaway, the Browns now have some legitimate depth at the receiver position.
Additionally, the Browns will have an assortment of talented running backs with the likes of Nick Chubb as well as Kareem Hunt, once he has served his eight-game suspension. Duke Johnson may or may not get traded, but either way the Browns have plenty of pieces put together to run a well-balanced offense this season.
For all of the offensive firepower, the Browns’ defense is somewhat underwhelming. With the addition of Sheldon Richardson on the line, the Browns have some capable pass-rushers as well as a decent secondary. However, the loss of Jamie Collins at linebacker leaves some questions.
It’s possibly an opportunity for draft picks Sione Takitaki or Mack Wilson to establish themselves as rookies.
Pittsburgh Steelers +175
For once, the Steelers do not have the most star-studded roster in the AFC North. However, it’s a bit early to count the Steelers out yet.
Despite losing Antonio Brown, Juju Smith-Schuster is an extremely capable receiver and was arguably close to overtaking Brown as the Steelers’ top wideout. The big question will be who will step up behind Smith-Schuster?
Ben Roethlisberger will have plenty of time to locate new favorite receivers behind a veteran line that looks to return all starters except for tackle, Marcus Gilbert. Still, led by Pro Bowler Ali Villanueva, the Steelers’ offensive line remains one of the team’s biggest strengths.
With a spotty receiving corps, the Steelers will need to continue feeding the ball to running back James Connor and Benny Snell Jr. who has quite a bit of potential despite being a fourth round pick.
Defensively, it appears as though Pittsburgh took the opportunity during the off-season to address some concerns in the secondary as well as at linebacker. Acquiring Justin Layne at cornerback and Devin Bush at linebacker in the draft, plus the addition of LB Mark Barron during free agency should alleviate fears in both areas.
T.J. Watt, Cameron Haywood, and Stephon Tuitt will all return, giving the Steelers plenty of pass-rushing power as well as a veteran presence that will hopefully permeate the rest of the defense.
Baltimore Ravens +300
Out of all the teams in the AFC North, the Baltimore Ravens probably experienced the most critical losses, with a majority of them coming on defense.
Offensively, the Ravens have a tremendous cornerstone in QB Lamar Jackson. The trick has been finding the right components to support Jackson. A veteran offensive line with little turnover from last season is a great foundation, and Baltimore has found some offensive weapons to build upon it.
Jackson already has a target in Willie Snead, but the addition of Marquise Brown will give him options in tight situations. Picking up Mark Ingram as a sturdy and reliable running back in addition to drafting Justice Hill should help keep the Ravens balanced.
Defensively, Baltimore lost C.J. Mosley, Za’Darius Smith, Terrell Suggs, and Eric Weddle which leaves some big holes to fill. The secondary shows promise with the development of Marlon Humphrey at cornerback and if Earl Thomas can quickly return to form following a serious leg injury.
The biggest remaining concerns lie at linebacker and pass-rushing on the edges. The Ravens will need to come up with solutions if they intend to beat their odds in the AFC North.
Cincinnati Bengals +1400
There’s not much of a positive outlook on this Bengals team. Lackluster on both sides of the ball, it’s going to take some serious work to get Cincinnati back into the mix.
Quarterback Andy Dalton hasn’t performed up to expectations and his top receiver, A.J. Green has had issues staying healthy. Further compounding issue is the fact that the Bengals spent a fourth round pick to acquire QB Ryan Finley which doesn’t spark a whole lot of confidence in Dalton moving forward.
Furthermore, the Bengals didn’t do much to bolster a mediocre offensive line through either the draft or free agency. Really the only bright spots on offensive are Joe Mixon’s rookie campaign and the selection of Jonah Williams in the first round of the draft.
Defensively, Cincinnati has a decent secondary with the likes of Shawn Williams and Jessie Bates. However, there’s a noticeable lack of talent at linebacker and along the defensive line. Again, the Bengals didn’t make any impressive moves in the draft or free agency to address those issues.
Free NFL Prediction AFC North
Look, I think it’s incredible what Baker Mayfield has done for the Browns and for Cleveland. They finally have a QB to rally around and it looks like things are on the up and up. However, if this past Super Bowl is any indicator, I think Mayfield and company’s Cinderella-story is still at least a season away.
Mayfield is a promising young quarterback and the Browns have definitely put together some formidable pieces to the puzzle, but a star-studded roster doesn’t necessarily guarantee a good, or winning, team. I expect it to take about a season for everyone to work out the kinks and get on the same page.
It’ll be interesting to follow the story-lines of Baker Mayfield and Lamar Jackson this upcoming season and I think the edge belongs to Mayfield and the Browns. However, I see the Steelers hanging on for one more season and finishing at the top of the AFC North.
Experience wins this round, but I sense a changing of the guard not too far away.