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AFC North Preview by Logan Lepiscopo

2022 NFL Season Preview: AFC North

By: Logan Lepiscopo

Cincinnati Bengals

Who Dey Nation! The 2021-22 NFL season will be one to remember for a long time in Cincinnati. From back-to-back top five picks in the 2020 and 2021 NFL drafts to an appearance in the Super Bowl. If Joe Burrow had just a few more seconds of time perhaps the Cincinnati Bengals would have been raising the Lombardi trophy. Nonetheless it is a new season, which means new team transactions. The Bengals did their due diligence on the offensive line bringing in Alex Cappa, La’el Collins, and Ted Karras in free agency. In the 2022 NFL draft it was a feeling that Bengals fans had perhaps lost in recent years, watching Cincinnati come up to pick at the end of the first round. With the Bengals six draft picks they selected five defensive players, Daxton Hill and Tycen Anderson at safety, Cam Taylor-Britt at cornerback, Zachary Carter on the interior defensive line and Jeffrey Gunter at linebacker. 

Strengths: Offense, offense, offense. Let’s start with the strength of all strengths; the Bengals starting three wide receivers. Tyler Boyd, Tee Higgins, and reigning offensive rookie of the year, Ja’Marr Chase are arguably the best wide receiver trio in the NFL. Chase struggled in preseason but then proceeded to griddy his way into a record-setting rookie year.  Higgins improved tremendously from his rookie to sophomore season, and Tyler Boyd has held down his role of being a very trusty third option. Joe Mixon as the starting running back, and Hayden Hurst coming in free agency to take over the starting tight end position with C.J. Uzomah going to the Jets. The offensive line there is not much to complain about with the big three guys added in free agency and Jonah Williams and Jackson Carman steadily developing. Joe Burrow proved that he still has a right to be with Justin Herbert in the best quarterback of the 2020 draft discussion. For all the criticism the Bengals got for taking Ja’Marr Chase over an offensive lineman I would say the 2021-22 NFL season went very well, and Burrow’s play improved as a result. On defense there are a few bright spots, the defensive line should be stellar with Sam Hubbard, D.J. Reader, B.J. Hill, and Trey Hendrickson returning. Safety duo Vonn Bell and Jessie Bates III will stray quarterbacks away from deep passes and now first-round pick Daxton Hill will get to develop behind one of the league’s best. Also we have to show love to the special teams, Evan McPherson has already earned a name for himself in the kicking game after just his rookie season. 

Weaknesses: Linebackers, Logan Wilson had a fairly good 2021-22 season and Germaine Pratt had an alright season, but Akeem Davis-Gaither as a strong side linebacker concerns me. Over his two-year career Davis-Gaither has started just two games, neither of the two games were in 2021. Wilson and Pratt are good linebackers, but they can only do so much considering their all around low PFF grades. Some would argue that the cornerback position is weak, but I beg to differ. Chidobe Awuzie was the 18th highest graded cornerback in coverage, and the 14th highest graded overall. Mike Hilton is one of the best slot cornerbacks in the NFL receiving the 27th highest overall cornerback grade and 27th best coverage grade out of all the cornerbacks in the NFL. Eli Apple is the only concern, and hopefully after the internet’s reaction to his awful Super Bowl performance he will be better. 

Pittsburgh Steelers

Steelers fans all across the nation this season it is going to be an awkward transition no longer having Big Ben Roethlisberger commanding the offense. I think everyone can agree it was time for Roethlisberger to hang up the cleats and call it a career. The Steelers gave themselves options this season, bringing in Mitchell Trubisky in free agency, and drafting Kenny Pickett with the 20th overall pick in the draft. In free agency the Steelers aimed to open holes for Najee Harris and protect whoever is the starting quarterback for Pittsburgh, James Daniels and Mason Cole brought in on three-year deals, and bringing back Chukwuma Okorafor at right tackle. On defense the Steelers added Myles Jack, Levi Wallace, and brought back both Ahkello Witherspoon and Terrell Edmunds. Kenny Pickett wasn’t the only Steelers pick worth noting, George Pickens has been terrorizing his own teams’ defense in training camp and opposing corners shoving them to the ground with ease. The rest of the Steelers draft class will primarily serve as backups, Calvin Austin III appearing to get the most play time outside of Pickett and Pickens. 

Strengths: Let us start on offense, Najee Harris should be a franchise running back for Pittsburgh, so long as there is not another Le’Veon Bell situation that occurs. The wide receiver room is looking like a strong suit for this team, Diontae Johnson has proven several seasons now that he is a very reliable wide receiver and is a true wide receiver one in Pittsburgh. Chase Claypool hit a slight sophomore slump, but according to Claypool he is a top three receiver in the league so he should produce better numbers in 2022. George Pickens has had all kinds of crazy comparisons in training camp and has proven himself in preseason to be the menace to society we all thought he was. On defense Pittsburgh has a nice handful of players that will stand out; Cameron Heyward, Myles Jack, Terrell Edmunds, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Ahkello Witherspoon, and oh just reigning defensive player of the year T.J. Watt. 

Weaknesses: Let us continue talking about the defense and pick on Devin Bush. Naturally, you would think being the number 10 pick in the 2019 NFL draft that Bush would be a standout linebacker, but he in fact has not been that. In 34 career starts Bush has just four sacks and 205 tackles (that is six tackles a game, which averages to about 102 in a 17-game season… just inside the top 45 tacklers in 2021). Offensive line is absolutely awful in Pittsburgh, despite the “upgrades” made in free agency. Pro Football Focus (PFF) has the Steelers ranked as the third worst offensive line in the NFL going into the 2022-23 season. 

Cleveland Browns

Dawg pound! This offseason has been a rollercoaster for Browns fans, but all the commotion has finally come to an end. As we all know the Cleveland Browns made a huge move this offseason to acquire Deshaun Watson, not only did the Browns give up a ton of draft capital to get Watson, but they fully guaranteed his contract. Along with all of that they took Watson in knowing a suspension was inevitable, finally being settled at 11 games. In free agency the Browns spent no more than 10 million dollars on a player’s contract. Jacoby Brissett was added during free agency with the expectations he would be the starter while Deshaun Watson is suspended. All other free agency moves by the Browns were just backup additions, Jadeveon Clowney being the only player that hit free agency for Cleveland and was brought back. The Browns did not have a draft pick till the third round this year as the Houston Texans held those picks via the Deshaun Watson trade. The Browns had three third round picks, wide receiver from Purdue David Bell is currently the only one of those three with a starting role. Kicker Cade York is the only other projected rookie to start for the Cleveland Browns this season. 

Strengths: The back bone of the offense for the first 11 weeks of the season will undoubtedly be Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. Chubb and Hunt are already a huge piece to the Browns offense but with no Deshaun Watson it should be obvious that Chubb & Hunt will see an increase in volume. The Browns offensive line will help with that running attack as well so long as everyone can stay healthy. Joel Bitonio and Wyatt Teller were the only starters to play a full 17 game season in 2021-22, Jedrick Wills and Jack Conklin both missed time, as well as newly acquired center Ethan Pocic. On defense it is hard to look away from this tremendous cornerback group; Denzel Ward, Greg Newsome II, and Greedy Williams. The safeties complete the secondary having John Johnson III and Grant Delpit preventing anything from getting put over the top. Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah was excellent in his rookie season, along with middle linebacker Anthony Walker Jr. Sione Takitaki has proven he can make a play, but Owusu-Koramoah and Walker Jr. will be responsible for patrolling the middle of the field. Lastly is Myles Garrett, there isn’t much to say that everyone doesn’t know already, he is a freak athlete and will continue to be a contender for the defensive player of the year award. 

Weaknesses: There is not much to dislike with the Browns roster, let alone call it a weakness. The only position I would consider as a weak point in Cleveland is the wide receivers. Bringing in Amari Cooper was a great move, especially considering how cheap the Browns were able to trade for him, but there is a lack of talent around him. David Bell could emerge as a rookie, and Donovan Peoples-Jones has shown he is capable of being a big time play maker, but not consistent enough to be a strong wide receiver two. The Browns had a terrible time last season creating pressure on the interior offensive line, Jordan Elliott ranked 101st among PFF graded interior defenders (PFF only has grades for 108 interior defenders). Taven Bryan had been in Jacksonville the last four NFL seasons, playing in 63 games but just starting 17, zero games started during the 2021-22 season. If Deshaun Watson was not suspended for his alleged heinous acts the Cleveland Browns would be a serious contender for the Super Bowl. 

Baltimore Ravens

Big Truss, woo, woo! Ravens flock, it is time to prove everybody wrong in 2022 and bounce back as AFC North champs. 2019 was the last time the Ravens won the AFC North and for the way that this team operates they are in great position to compete and potentially win the division. The Ravens had a very bad fall off in the 2021-22 NFL season, losing their last six games, yet still almost making the playoffs. The Ravens will be playing a last place schedule this season and with a fully healthy team it is destined for the Ravens to return to greatness. In free agency the Ravens added Marcus Williams, and Kyler Fuller to the defense while bringing back Calais Campbell and Justin Houston. On offense the Ravens stole Morgan Moses back from the Jets, kept the big man at fullback Patrick Ricard, and have added plenty of depth at the running back position. Every year it happens, somehow every draft the Ravens absolutely kill it; Kyle Hamilton, Tyler Linderbaum, David Ojabo, Travis Jones, Daniel Faalele, Jalyn Armour-Davis, Charlie Kolar, Jordan Stout, Isaiah Likely, Damarion Williams. Give them an A+++ because the Ravens got steal after steal after steal in this draft and every guy will be able to carve a role out for themselves this season, and if not this season very near in the future.

Strengths: From top to bottom this Ravens team looks amazing. Fully healthy Lamar Jackson throwing the ball to his favorite target Mark Andrews. The offensive line should take care of business and has the depth now to account for any injuries. On defense the secondary is absurd, the talent here could easily produce the best secondary in football. Linebackers Patrick Queen and Odafe Oweh are incredibly talented, despite Queen having an awful 2021-22 season I expect a comeback performance in 2022-23. The defensive line will continue to get pressure with Justin Madubuike, Michael Pierce, and Calais Campbell. Also when the Baltimore Ravens are mentioned you cannot forget to mention future hall of fame kicker Justin Tucker. Tucker set the NFL record for longest field goal in NFL history last season and earned himself a contract extension this off season for four years worth 24 million dollars. 

Weaknesses: There is only one position I would say is a weak point for Baltimore, similar to Cleveland it is the wide receivers. Outside of Rashod Bateman the Ravens wide receiver room has very little talent, but lucky for the team there is a run heavy scheme set in place. A fully healthy Baltimore Ravens team is going to give the reigning AFC North champion Cincinnati Bengals a run for their money. 

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