2015 AFC North Preview

The AFC North remains a three way race, with poor Cleveland still locked in the kennel:

Baltimore Ravens 10-6

Pittsburgh Steelers 9-7

Cincinnati Bengals 8-8

Cleveland Browns 5-11

Baltimore Ravens

Expected Wins: 9.06

Scouting Wins: 9.16

DVOA Wins: 8.6

2014 Record: (10-6, 10.9 Pythagorean)

Heading into last season, the Ravens were dealing with the Ray Rice video fallout. The scandal ended up damaging owner Steve Biscotti’s reputation, as well as that of his employee Roger Goodell. The loss of Rice didn’t necessarily hurt the Ravens on the field, as replacement Justin Forsett exceeded expectations. In the end, Baltimore came very close to facing Indianapolis in the AFC Championship Game, but a Patriots rally (aided by some clever applications of eligibility rules) sent them home. This offseason wasn’t as tumultuous, but it may prove to be more damaging, at least in the short term. The losses of Torrey Smith, Haloti Ngata, and especially Pernell McPhee will be significant obstacles for the Ravens to overcome. There is also the issue of the shift at offensive coordinator, as Marc Trestman is taking over from Gary Kubiak. That’s not necessarily a downgrade, but it will require some adjustments.

At this point I consider the “Is he elite” debate with Joe Flacco settled. He is pretty much the quarterback equivalent of Sex Panther:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pjvQFtlNQ-M

He’s somewhat more inconsistent than one might prefer, but his great days are truly great indeed. Last season he improved his consistency and finished with a 15.5% DVOA and 976 DYAR. That was good enough for 7th and 8th best in the NFL in those respective categories. He was excellent in the playoffs as well, but he may struggle this season trying to make due with the talent around him. The Ravens recognized their receiving corps was lacking and upgraded it in the draft. However, the loss of Torrey Smith is bigger than it appears. If you found yourself rooting against the Ravens in the past, you may have noticed an abundance of DPI flags. Torrey Smith drew eleven by himself (next most credited to a WR is six). Part of that is due to just how much Flacco’s arm stretches defenses, but part of it was also due to Smith’s ability to create contact. Life comes at you fast, especially in the NFL, so let’s look at the receivers Flacco will be working with.

Steve Smith remains, but it isn’t clear to me that his presence helps the Ravens. He’s 36 years old and is coming off of a terrible year (+/- -3.7, -5.4% DVOA). That make it two years in a row he’s been negative in both categories. On the plus side, he has been able to shoulder a solid load (79 receptions for 1,065 yards), but he’s going to become increasingly ineffective. He’s on record as saying he is going to retire at the end of the coming season. That is one of the reasons why the Ravens reached for Breshad Perriman in the first round. I did not give him a first round grade, but I understand what the Ravens saw in him. Perriman provides a good mix of size and speed, with an exceptional catch range. However, while he can make some tremendously difficult catches, his overall catch rate isn’t impressive. He doesn’t have hands of stone, but it is a concern. He also has issues with press coverage, as he’s slow to react to it. Finally, he isn’t very polished and will be a fairly easy cover for experienced defenders until he develops. Kamar Aiken was highly effective in limited usage last season (24 receptions, 29.7% DVOA). The 2011 undrafted free agent played briefly for the Patriots in 2012, and was picked up in free agency to bolster the Ravens’ special teams. The Ravens have to be somewhat skeptical about Aiken’s ability to handle an increased workload. Aiken is battling 2013 undrafted free agent Marlon Brown for the 3WR spot on the Ravens’ depth chart. He was fairly effective in 2013 (49 receptions, 4.9% DVOA), but Kubiak didn’t have much need for his skill-set and he ended up with 24 receptions in 2014 (13.9% DVOA).Aiken is a little bigger, Brown is a little taller and younger. Trestman will probably go with whoever looks better in practice, but if I had to guess I’d say Brown has more upside. Rookie sixth-round pick Darren Waller is a 6-6 prototype red zone threat, in theory anyway. He was an underachiever at Georgia Tech, with some off field issues.

Things aren’t any more settled at tight end. Rookie second-round pick Maxx Williams came out early to take advantage of a weak draft for tight ends. He hasn’t impressed me as a blocker or receiver. Dennis Pitta has only appeared in seven games over the past two seasons. He may start this season on the PUP list. He hasn’t been effective since 2012, but there are rumors that he looks good in practice. 2014 third-round pick Crockett Gillmore didn’t see much usage last season (10 receptions, 11.2% DVOA). Crockett and Williams didn’t satisfy the Ravens, as they picked up Nick Boyle in the fifth round. Boyle is likely destined to spend most of playing time blocking while the rest of the depth chart fights for glory. Marc Trestman has historically been comfortable making tight ends a sizable focus of the offense, but he may have to adapt to the realities of his personnel.

The Ravens intend to use Justin Forsett in the passing game. While he was an efficient runner last season (149 DYAR, 6.7% DVOA), he was a staggering failure as a receiver (-64 DYAR, -33.5% DVOA). His DVOALOS was -1.5%, so I’d be careful trying to expand his role, which is something Trestman has hinted at. 2014 fourth-round pick Lorenzo Taliaferro had a DVOALOS of 1.6%, but most of that value came from his eight receptions, so I wouldn’t jump on the Taliaferro train just yet. He had issues with a foot injury last season, and he may find his role squeezed out by 2015 fourth-round pick Javorius “Buck” Allen. Allen is a versatile back who is comfortable as a runner or receiver. His biggest problem is that he doesn’t have the power or technique to be an effective blocker in blitz pickup so teams will attack him in pass protection. If he can fix those flaws he’ll prove to be a great value pickup for the Ravens.

The Ravens were pleasantly surprised by how effective their offensive line was last season. Interestingly, their strengths weren’t necessarily where they would have predicted. I graded left tackle Eugene Monroe as a bit below average last season. He missed some time with injuries, and his backup James Hurst was absolutely demolished. Monroe was affected by knee issues, and his health will be key for the Ravens. Left guard Kelechi Osemele was pretty much average last season, which is fine as he was clearly a difference-maker in the running game. Center Jeremy Zuttah was a bit better than average in 2014. Right guard Marshall Yanda had a good year, cracking the top 10 for RG’s in my rankings at tenth. He was also one of the most dominant run-blocking linemen in the NFL last season. Right tackle Ricky Wagner finished atop my RT rankings. He’s coming off a foot injury, but is expected to be healthy for this season. He and Yanda formed one of the best tandems in the NFL last season, so a return to form is key.

While the Ravens have recently invested some early round picks on offensive skill talent, it will likely take some time for those investments to pay off. For now, the strengths of their offense is Flacco and a solid offensive line. If Monroe returns to form, Flacco should be able to make a somewhat awkward talent pool around him look better than it is. This was the ninth-best offense in the NFL last season (according to DVOA), so even with the loss of Torrey Smith, expectations will be high.

The Ravens front-seven has to adapt to two major losses. Haloti Ngata is the bigger name, but Pernell McPhee is the bigger loss. 2014 second-round pick Timmy Jernigan is well prepared to step into the starting role left by Ngata. He’ll play across from Chris Canty. DeAngelo Tyson will likely see more playing time in the rotation this season, as he exceeded expectations last year. The new piece of the rotation is rookie third-round pick Carl Davis. Before the draft I had him valued as a late first-round prospect. Not only was he a great value pick, but his skill-set fits the Ravens’ defense quite well. Next year I expect to see Davis starting across from Jernigan. Nose tackle Brandon Williams is one of the strongest players in the NFL (he bench presses > 500 lbs). He is coming off of a solid season. Even without Ngata, this is an above-average defensive line.

It’s hard to be concerned about a linebacker corps bookended with a pair of double-digit sack artists. Elvis Dumervil led the Ravens with 17 sacks, while Terrell Suggs picked up another 12. They also combined for 43 hits+hurries in 1,453 snaps. Pernell McPhee picked up 7.5 sacks and 41.5 hits+hurries in 515 snaps. That is going to be very difficult to replace. 2012 second-round pick Courtney Upshaw is going to be asked to increase his role, but he simply isn’t the pass-rusher McPhee was. That is one of the reasons the Ravens grabbed Za’Darius Smith in the fourth round. I see Smith as a useful piece of the rotation, but more useful controlling the line of scrimmage than busting through it. 2014 first-round pick C.J. Mosley and Daryl Smith will retain their roles inside. Smith was so good against the pass last season that teams adapted and worked towards Mosley instead. Mosley is still developing and is dealing with a wrist injury. He should be 100% by the time the season starts and the Ravens are expecting great things from him. Overall this is still an excellent linebacker corps, but it was downright otherworldly last season. That was one of the reasons they went so far despite having a secondary that looked like charcoal at the end of the season.

I am being a bit harsh, but injuries destroyed the Ravens’ secondary last season. Lardarius Webb struggled through a back injury last season, which may explain why his numbers were so poor. Hopefully he can return to form with better health this season. Jimmy Smith was solid last season, but I was surprised at the contract Drew Rosenhaus got for him (4 years, $21M guaranteed). I suppose the Ravens knew where they were vulnerable and were willing to pay what they had to in order to keep a quality starter. He is coming off of a Lisfranc injury and while he should be healthy by the start of the season, it is something to keep an eye on. The Ravens also picked up Kyle Arrington in free agency to take over the nickel role. The next man up is Asa Jackson, an oft-injured gentleman who has provided most of his value on special teams. Depth is a serious issue here, so look for opposing teams to run 3WR or 4WR sets and attack the weak links. Of course, that does provide opportunities for Suggs and Dumervil. Things aren’t much better at safety, where Kendrick Lewis and Will Hill maintain the free and strong roles, respectively. Hill is coming off of a substance abuse suspension and is taking over from 2013 first-round pick Matt Elam. Elam was going to battle Hill for the job in training camp, but a biceps tear has ended his season. The next man up on the depth chart is Terrance Brooks, but he looks like he’ll be starting the season on the PUP list with a knee injury. Rookie fourth-round pick Tray Walker is going to need some time to make the adjustment to the NFL after playing at Texas Southern.

The Ravens’ special teams have ranked 1st, 3rd, and 2nd in DVOA over the past three seasons. That’s very hard to do. They retain excellent kicking specialists with punter Sam Koch and kicker Justin Tucker. Their coverage and blocking units are solid as well. The only question this season is who takes over from Jacoby Jones in the return game. Right now it appears Michael Campanaro has the inside track for the job. Regardless of who gets the job I expect the Ravens’ special teams to be among the best in the NFL.

This is a well-coached team with some great strengths and some major weaknesses. Their front-seven is strong. Flacco is going to have to make chicken salad with some non-premium parts, but the offensive line should give him the time to do so. Frankly, if Maxx Williams and Breshad Perriman adjust to the NFL quicker than I’m anticipating, this could be a very dangerous offense. After looking over their schedule, I’m bullish on the Ravens returning to the playoffs. 10-6.

Cincinnati Bengals

Expected Wins: 8.20

Scouting Wins: 8.07

DVOA Wins: 8.6

2014 Record: (10-5-1, 8.6 Pythagorean)

Thought experiment: What would happen if we switched Andy Dalton with Joe Flacco? The Bengals would become one of the scariest teams in the AFC, while the Ravens would… struggle. It’s a fluke that the Bengals have gone to the playoffs four straight seasons without picking up a single win, but hitching themselves to Dalton is a mistake. Over the past three seasons his DVOA has been -2.2%. He was OK in 2013, and poor in 2012 and 2014. While it’s true that improving upon Dalton will not be easy, he limits them to mediocrity. It’s an unfortunate situation.

It’s surprisingly easy to fool yourself into believing you can win with Dalton. Over the past three seasons he’s thrown for over 11,000 yards and 79 touchdowns. He’s reliable and hasn’t missed a game. The Bengals have done a great job of surrounding him with talent, but here’s the rub: We’ve seen what Dalton can do. There are three potentially elite quarterbacks at the top of the 2016 mock drafts (Cardale Jones, Connor Cook, and Christian Hackenburg). Oddly, all are in the Big 10, but I digress. Andy Dalton is going to ensure the Bengals win enough games to avoid having access to any of the players listed above. Backup A.J. McCarron is not a long term answer. This is the NFL equivalent of purgatory. Not even I was suggesting the Bengals look at Teddy Bridgewater last season, but at this point I don’t see a path forward with Dalton. The tragedy is that the Bengals have done such a good job drafting and building up a talented roster. In the 1970’s, a team with this type of construction could win a Super Bowl. These days, the passing game is simply too important.

2014 Second-round pick Jeremy Hill had a great rookie season, finishing with 1,124 yards (204 DYAR, 12.6% DVOA). This season he’ll be the starter from week 1, while 2013 second-round pick Giovani Bernard backs him up. Bernard regressed badly last season, seeing his DYARLOS drop from 195 to 51 (DVOALOS tells the same tale, dropping from 5.5% to -5.8%). He’ll need to return to form if he wants to keep his job. Rex Burkhead shined against the Colts last season, but produced -4 DYAR in 19 plays last season.

A.J. Green’s absence rendered the Bengals’ offense ineffective against the Colts in the playoffs. He struggled with injuries last season, but still managed to finish with a respectable 4.1% DVOA and 158 DYAR. If those numbers seem low to you, remember who his quarterback is. Marvin Jones excelled in 2013 (279 DYAR, 32.4% DVOA), but missed all of 2014 with a foot injury. If he can return at 100%, that will take the pressure off Sanu and put most defenses in an untenable situation. Sanu clearly wilted last season, as his catch rate dropped and he finished with -6.7 +/- (99 DYAR, 0.1% DVOA). He’s shown he can be better than that, and as a third option behind Green and Jones he’d be useful. There is a lot of pressure on 2013 first-round pick Tyler Eifert. He was awful in 2013 (-14.0% DVOA, -27 DYAR), and got injured on his third catch of the season last year. He’s coming back from elbow and shoulder issues so we’ll see what he’s still capable of. The Bengals hedged their bets, drafting Tyler Kroft in the third round. Kroft is a poor man’s Mark Bavaro, but he’ll give you what he can. Last season the Bengals’ tight ends combined for -90 DYAR. That’s… bad.

Andre Whitworth was the best left tackle in the AFC last season, and it’s a dead heat between Whitworth and Riley Reiff as to who was best overall last season. Left guard Clint Boling was a bit above average. 2014 fourth-round pick Russell Bodine struggled at center, finishing the season grading out a bit below average. That’s a pretty good result for a rookie, and the Bengals have to be happy with his development. Right guard Kevin Zietler was among the best in the NFL (as was his temporary replacement Mike Pollak). The major trouble spot was right tackle, where Andre Smith was both injured and ineffective. The Bengals double dipped, grabbing a pair of tackles with their first two picks in the draft. Second-round pick Jake Fisher was actually graded higher on most draft boards, but first-round pick Cedric Ogbuehi looks like the better pro prospect. Fisher had a great combine, but this is what I wrote about him before the draft:

Jake Fisher: I expect him to get destroyed in the pros. Just not enough raw power and I don’t know how much he can add to his frame.

I haven’t changed my opinion on him, but perhaps the Bengals will find the right position to take advantage of his skill-set. As for Ogbuehi:

Short notes: I like Laken Tomlinson and Cedric Ogbuehi anywhere after the top 40. Both should be solid pros.

I was wrong as to when they would be drafted, but apparently the Lions and Bengals saw the same things I saw in them. Ogbuehi is coming off of a knee injury that was supposedly going to hurt his draft status. I don’t expect either rookie to contribute to the Bengals this season, but the added depth may prove useful. Overall, this is a very good offensive line.

Defensive end Carlos Dunlap had a very good year, picking up eight sacks and 45 hits+hurries. Unfortunately, he was the only Cincinnati defender with a knack for getting to the quarterback. Wallace Gilberry and Robert Gaethers combined for 2.5 sacks. That may explain why Michael Johnson is returning to Cincinnati after a brief stop in Tampa Bay. BTW, congrats to Johnson, who completed his degree and graduated from Georgia Tech in the offseason. He was more effective against the run than against the pass last season, but perhaps playing across from Dunlap will open up some opportunities. 2013 third-round pick Margus Hunt is battling 2014 second-round pick Will Clarke for a spot in the rotation. Hunt’s career has been derailed by injuries, while Clarke has had to bulk up and add 20 pounds to his frame to compete. Right now, neither one is an option that can be trusted, although at this point I have more faith in Clarke. Inside, Geno Atkins was simply not the same player after returning from an ACL tear. That’s not to say he was bad, as he still stuffed opposing rushing attacks. However, after picking up 12.5 sacks in 2012, and six in nine games in 2013, he managed a measly three last season. He’s looked very good this preseason and there is hope that he’ll return to his dominant form of 2012. Domata Peko hasn’t missed a start in five years, but his level of play is slowly fading. This might be the year 2012 third-round pick Brandon Thompson takes Peko’s job. The Bengals added some depth here, drafting Marcus Hardison in the fourth round and picking up Pat Sims in free agency. Hardison was a pretty good value at that point, and Sims may still have something left in the tank. If Atkins returns to form, this should be a very good defensive line. If he fades or gets hurt, it’ll struggle like it did last season.

I wish I could say the defensive line is backed up by a great linebacker corps, but… the word that comes to mind is hodgepodge. Last season, defensive coordinator Paul Guenther made all the linebackers practice at each of the three positions to make sure they could handle a switch. He did that partly to help newcomer A.J. Hawk, and partly due to the fact that injuries decimated the unit and he had to throw guys into positions they weren’t prepared for. Right now, Hawk is penciled in as Rey Maualuga’s backup at inside linebacker. Malauaga was Cincinnati’s best linebacker last season, but he only appeared in twelve games. Vontaze Burfict only appeared in five games, and was a shell of himself due to an injured knee. He may start this season on the PUP list. Emmanuel Lamur was decent in coverage, but weak against the run and provided little-to-no pass rush. If Burfict can’t go, look for Vincent Rey to be the third starter. Rey had similar results to Lamur, except not as good in coverage. Rookie third-round pick Paul (P.J.) Dawson was an excellent value pick. He had a terrible combine, but his on-field production was stellar at TCU. If the Bengals are looking for a long term replacement for Burfict, he’s the right choice.

There is a surprisingly frisky training camp battle for the starting cornerback slots. The incumbents are Leon Hall and Adam Jones. Both played well last year, Jones in particular. 2012 first-round pick Dre Kirkpatrick put up impressive numbers in limited usage, and may take one of the starting jobs. 2014 first-round pick Darqueze Dennard would like to make the move from special teams to starting cornerback, although he may have to settle for the nickel job given the talent in from of him. This is a deep and talented crew. Strong safety George Iloka is no slouch himself, putting up dominant numbers against the pass last season. He’s entering a contract year, so I expect him to go all-out to repeat that performance. Free safety Reggie Nelson would be considered one of the strengths in a weaker secondary. As-is, he’s a quality performer in a very strong unit. There’s good depth here with special teams ace Shawn Williams fighting for playing time. The Bengals also added rookie fourth-round pick Josh Shaw to the depth chart, although like Williams he’ll likely make his initial mark on special teams. Overall, this is a great secondary and the strength of the Bengals’ defense.

Last season, kicker Mike Nugent was mediocre on both kickoffs and field goals. Punter Kevin Huber had a very good season, and the coverage units were top notch. The Bengals’ return game was solid as well. Overall, I expect the Bengals’ special teams to be solid this season.

I look at this roster with deep skepticism. I like the defensive backfield and the offensive line, as well as the wide receivers. However, I don’t like the front-seven, and I can’t trust the quarterback. They play in a tough division. It’s kind of mind-blowing that the Bengals have averaged ten wins over the past four seasons. They’ve been a good team in the regular season, but I see the run coming to an end. 8-8.

Cleveland Browns

Expected Wins: 6.09

Scouting Wins: 5.43

DVOA Wins: 6.4

2014 Record: (7-9, 6.9 Pythagorean)

I feel such a sense of sadness when I look at the Browns’ roster. The Bengals may be trapped in purgatory, but at least they have a sense of hope. Maybe this is the year Lucy doesn’t pull the football away and Cleveland wins a playoff game. The Browns have been terrible for years, and don’t yet see the light at the end of the tunnel. Unless…

It isn’t my place to speculate about drug addiction. We’ve seen quarterbacks destroyed by their demons:

http://deadspin.com/ryan-leaf-is-out-of-prison-and-he-looks-terrible-1666817956

and we’ve seen quarterbacks rise above them:

http://celebritydownandout.com/brett-favre-drug-addiction/

I don’t know if Johnny Manziel will be able to resist the vices that have hurt his career thus far. The fact is he has the talent to succeed in the NFL despite his size. His best-case scenario is that of a mobile Drew Brees. To break into the starting lineup he’ll need to beat out Josh McCown. McCown followed up the best season of his career with this stinkbomb: 11 touchdowns, 14 interceptions, -41.9% DVOA, -665 DYAR. Oof. McCown has shown himself to be a terrible quarterback over a large sample size. However, Manziel still needs time to develop the skills that will enable him to beat NFL defenses. For one thing, he needs to learn how to beat a defense with his reads and his arm, without relying upon his legs to get and keep him away from defenders. Rookie quarterbacks usually struggle, and while Manziel isn’t technically a rookie, we should expect his development to take a little longer given the issues he has faced. His DVOA last season was -73.2%. To reiterate what I said earlier: He’s going to need some time.

There is drama in the Browns’ running game as well. Running backs coach Wilbert Montgomery has complained “How can you play and not want to be the starter” and “Nobody wants the role”. He was likely referring to 2014 undrafted free agent Isaiah Crowell, who has not looked good in practice. He’s coming off of a decent season (607 yards, -4.1% DVOA, 30 DYAR), but doesn’t appear ready to be the full-time starter. Backup 2014 third-round pick Terrance West has been slowed by a strained calf this preseason. He is coming off of a slightly worse season than Crowell (673 yards, -5.7% DVOA, 21 DYAR). He’s fallen behind Crowell on the depth chart due to a lack of explosiveness. Rookie third-round pick Duke Johnson is recovering from an injured hamstring. Johnson should be a welcome addition when healthy, as he has the rushing and receiving skills to be a full-time back. His major weakness is pass protection, which is something that he’ll need to work on if he wants to grab the starting job.

Dwayne Bowe’s advanced metrics were eerily steady in Kansas City.

2012: -4.1% DVOA, 60 DYAR

2013: -4.4% DVOA, 71 DYAR

2014: -4.4% DVOA, 62 DYAR

Now he is coming over to be the 1WR in a very weak Browns offense. Let’s just say consistency would be an impressive virtue. Andrew Hawkins and Brian Hartline will compete for the starting job across from Bowe. Hawkins caught 63 passes for 824 yards last season, but his -5.2 +/- and -11.4% DVOA tell the full story. I assure you, part of it was lousy quarterback play, but that’s likely to continue this season. Hartline is coming off of a respectable year in Miami (2.6% DVOA, 77 DYAR), but he’s not a guy who threatens defenses. The fourth option is Tyler Gabriel. His numbers (-5.4 +/-, -9.0% DVOA) are partly due to his limitations, and partly due to the fact he plays for the Browns. Even with a good quarterback, this would be a discouraging receiver corps. Rob Housler and Gary Barnidge are competing for the starting tight end job. Housler has the inside track, but neither one is a serious offensive weapon.

People are talking about left tackle Joe Thomas building on his Hall of Fame resume, but I didn’t see that last season. I graded him a bit above-average (15th-best in the NFL). Maybe last season was simply a bad year for Thomas. Left guard Joel Bitonio is coming off of a very good season where he graded out 4th overall at his position. Center Alex Mack was dominating opponents before he went down with a broken leg. He should be 100% this season, which is good for him as it is a contract year. The Browns drafted his replacement with the second of their two first-round picks, grabbing Cameron Erving 19th overall. I loved Erving’s play at FSU and I think he’ll be a great asset for the Browns. He’s taking over at right guard from John Greco. Greco had a slightly below-average season, so there is some room for improvement. Right tackle Mitchell Schwartz was also slightly below-average, but he may be kicked inside to right guard if Erving shows an ability to handle the right tackle position this preseason. Versatility was Erving’s calling card, but I think long-term his best fit is at center, where he can dominate. Overall, this is a solid offensive line.

I have to say the Browns did a good job of recognizing a weakness and attempting to solve it. Last year the Browns’ defense finished 11th in DVOA, but 31st against the run. Run-stopping defensive linemen over the age of 30 aren’t all that expensive, so the Browns signed Randy Starks in free agency for a reasonable price (2 years, $6.5M overall, $3M guaranteed). In addition, they drafted nose tackle Danny Shelton with the 12th overall pick. Shelton wasn’t my favorite option, but he is a perfect fit for the Browns’ needs. The Browns will be much tougher to run on this season. Moving everyone else a step down on the depth chart gives the Browns a much better rotation. In general, a player who struggles over the course of 600 snaps usually performs much better when he only has to play in 300, in situations that best suit his skill-set. Desmond Bryant is the only returning starter. He deserves to keep his job, as he provided a decent pass rush last season (five sacks, 15.5 hits+hurries). Overall, this should be a pretty good defensive line.

Paul Kruger put up solid numbers in 2014, with 10.5 sacks and 29 hits+hurries. Unfortunately, the Browns had no one remotely comparable to pair with him. The plan was (and still is) to put Barkevious Mingo across from Kruger, but the oft-injured Mingo is dealing with knee issues. Mingo is going to be coming back from arthroscopic knee surgery, and may lose his job to Scott Solomon. Armonty Bryant or rookie second-round pick Nate Orchard will also see some playing time. Orchard isn’t the athlete Mingo is, but scouts loved his effort and production. Inside, Karlos Dansby, Craig Robertson, and 2014 third-round pick Christian Kirksey are fighting for the two starting jobs. Dansby is a fading star, but his smarts should allow him to hold the job for one more year. Robertson currently has the edge on Kirksey, but as Kirksey develops he’ll eventually force his way into the lineup. If Mingo could stay healthy, this would be a scary front-seven. As is, it’s still a strength for the Browns.

Joe Haden and Tramon Williams form an excellent starting cornerback tandem. Haden is an established star and Williams was a very good free agent pickup. The only odd point is that the Browns needed to grab another cornerback. That’s a sign they are skeptical that 2014 first-round pick Justin Gilbert is going to be ready to earn a starting job this season. Gilbert described his play in a recent preseason game as flawless (one missed coverage excepted). He was wrong, though. Gilbert is still getting beaten on a regular basis, which is why he has slipped down the depth chart. 2014 fourth-round pick Pierre Desir has shown some signs he is adapting to the NFL, and may grab one of the outside receivers while Williams covers the slot. Strong safety Donte Whitner and free safety Tashaun Gipson both went to the Pro Bowl (as did Haden). This is one of the best defensive backfields in the NFL. If the front seven can find it in their hearts to generate a pass rush, look for the Browns to repeat as one of the best defenses against the pass (they were second in pass defense in DVOA last season.

The Browns’ special teams have been rebuilt this season. Right now, Carey Spear is beating out Travis Coons for the kicker job. Punter Andy Lee has no such concerns, having been signed away from San Francisco in free agency. Justin Gilbert appears at #2 on the depth chart at kick returner, behind Travis Benjamin. If he ends up winning that job, it will be a sign the Browns are losing faith in his abilities at cornerback. The scouts ended up grading the Browns’ special teams as the worst in the NFL, but my expectation is that they’ll be a lot closer to average.

It’s kind of sad. I like the Browns’ defense and their offensive line. Despite that, six wins would be a good result for the Browns with their (lack of) quarterback play. The Browns get the easiest part of their schedule to start the season (@ NYJ, Tenn, Oak), but things get much tougher the rest of the way. 5-11.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Expected Wins: 8.49

Scouting Wins: 9.5

DVOA Wins: 8.1

2014 Record: (11-5, 9.7 Pythagorean)

It was an injured Steelers squad that fell at home against the Ravens in the playoffs. However, the Ravens were the better overall team and deserved to advance. The Steelers had one of the best offenses in the NFL last season (second in DVOA), but the 30th-best defense (in DVOA). With Le’Veon Bell injured, the Ravens teed off on Roethlisberger. Injuries are a part of the game, but if the Steelers want to win the AFC North again this season, they’ll need to improve their defense. In fact, while I normally go over the offense first, let’s switch it up here.

Defensive end Cameron Heyward had an excellent season, picking up 7 sacks and 24.5 hits+hurries. Unfortunately, Cam Thomas, Brett Keisel, and 2014 second-round pick Stephon Tuitt combined for 2.5 sacks across from him. Tuitt looks to have a solid hold on the starting job this season, and should improve heading into his sophomore season. The depth at end is pretty thin, so a lack of progress here would be unfortunate. Nose tackle Steve McLendon is a bit of a new breed, relying more on quickness than power. Don’t get the wrong idea though, he weighs in at 320 pounds. He has averaged around 20 snaps a game as the Steelers have utilized a lot of 2-lineman sets. Their success rate with them was low, but that may have been due more to personnel than scheme.

The Steelers were shocked when premier free agent Jason Worilds retired. He’s only 27, but wanted to spend more time practicing his faith as a Jehovah’s Witness. That’s 7.5 sacks and 39.5 hits+hurries just waiting to show up at your door. His loss stretches a thin linebacker corps. James Harrison is still playing at a high level, but he is 37 and a decline is to be expected. Arthur Moats will start across from Harrison. Moats was ineffective against the run, but a reasonably potent pass-rusher. With Worilds gone, there is going to be a lot of pressure on backups Jarvis Jones and Bud Dupree. They were first-round picks in 2013 and 2015, respectively. Jones is coming back from a wrist injury that kept him off the field last season. Dupree is a SackSEER favorite, and a reasonable value for the Steelers with the 22nd pick overall. However, while he had a great combine, his play on the field didn’t reflect his athleticism. Offenses found it very easy to get a body in front of him, so it will behoove the Steelers’ coaching staff to improve his technique. Inside, Lawrence Timmons and Ryan Shazier are expected to start. Shazier is an excellent athlete, but offenses destroyed him with misdirection last season. I’m expecting him to play with a lot more control this season. Sean Spence will be part of the rotation as well. Timmons made his first Pro Bowl last season, but it is Shazier who has the most potential to help the Steelers right now.

As I gaze upon the Steelers secondary, I understand why they used their second- and fourth-round draft picks on cornerbacks Senquez Golson and Doran Grant, respectively. Cortez Allen and William Gay are as underwhelming as any tandem in the NFL. Allen is downright terrible, while Gay is merely a liability. Picking up Grant in the fourth round was a pretty good move. They may have reached a bit on Golson, but building their secondary of the future was important. Golson has earned a reputation as a ballhawk, but he’s going to start the season on the PUP list and may be gone for the season with a shoulder injury. Free safety Mike Mitchell got demolished last season. The rumor is that he was playing through a groin injury. Hopefully, better health will lead to better play. Shamarko Thomas is taking over at strong safety. He hasn’t impressed so far in his career. If Thomas fails, Will Allen is an acceptable replacement. It’s hard to be optimistic about a secondary that got destroyed last season, but hopefully better days are ahead for the Steelers.

You might ask “If the defense was so bad last season, how did they win 11 games?” Well, it comes down to the fact that offense is more important than defense in the NFL. A great offense will generate a lot more value for you than a great defense will. A great offense can also more than compensate for a terrible defense. Further, offense is more consistent year-to-year than defense, so in general it’s better to work to build a great offense than a great defense. However, the key to a great offense is a strong passing game, and the key to that is a quality quarterback. Those can be a bitch to acquire. For a variety of reasons, neither the union or the league wants elite quarterbacks to become free agents (Brees was an outlier due to injuries, as was Manning). The Steelers have one, so their offense can overcome the flaws of their defense.

Ben Roethlisberger is coming off of a season where he ranked third in DVOA (26.8%), and first in DYAR (1,572). A lot of the credit is being given to offensive coordinator Todd Haley. This is the same Todd Haley that got run out of Kansas City, although it is possible he’s a great coordinator. He did spectacular work in Arizona. Roethlisberger’s physical gifts are fading, although that was masked by great teammates and Haley’s play-calling. Even so, he’s still one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL and his maturation makes the Steelers a dark-horse title candidate even with a questionable defense.

Antonio Brown followed up an excellent 2013 season (+10.1 +/-, 15.0% DVOA, 361 DYAR) with an otherworldly one (+16.5 +/-, 25.7% DVOA, 554 DYAR). Those are absurd numbers. Even the traditional stats tell the tale with a 71% catch rate with 181 balls sent his way. Players are supposed to struggle when they get that much attention, but Brown adapted. He’ll play across from 2014 fourth-round pick Martavis Bryant. Bryant was boom or bust in limited usage last season and continued development would make the Steelers’ offense that much more dangerous. Markus Wheaton should also see significant playing time outside and in the slot. Rookie third-round pick Sammie Coates was a nice value pick who has worked his way up to fourth on the depth chart. The pick has already affected Dri Archer’s status, as he is now being looked at as a third down running back. Tight end Heath Miller has been a trustworthy part of the offense for years. He’s slowing down a bit, but Roethlisberger knows where he is going to be and that he’ll catch a high percentage of the balls sent his way. Overall. this is a very good receiving corps.

It’s currently unclear how many games Le’Veon Bell will play this season, as he’s currently appealing a three-game suspension for marijuana possession and a DUI. Last season, his DVOALOS and DYARLOS were 16.5% and 521, respectively. He’s a great blocker too, so the Steelers are certainly lobbying to get his suspension reduced. I suppose you don’t want to overpay when you sign a guy you expect to start for three games, but DeAngelo Williams is well past his prime and I’d look for the Steelers to avoid putting too much of their offense in his hands. The aforementioned Dri Archer should also see a boost in playing time in Bell’s absence.

The interior of Pittsburgh’s line excelled last year, with all three members charting in my top 10 for their position. In fact, both guards charted in the top three. Left guard Ramon Foster excelled in a somewhat simplified roll, while right guard David DeCastro was a dominant player. Center Maurkice Pouncey put together another strong season. Left tackle Kelvin Beachum graded out a little below-average. He did a great job in the running game, which is something my numbers can miss. Right tackle Marcus Gilbert also graded out slightly below-average, but like Beachum he provided real value in the running game. Overall, this is an excellent offensive line and one of the keys to Roethlisberger’s resurgence.

There are positional battles aplenty among the Steelers’ special teams. Dri Archer is attempting to take over both return roles. That would remove Antonio Brown from returning punts. On one hand, Brown is a pretty good punt returner. On the other hand, letting gunners take occasional free shots at one of your key stars is quite risky. I’d prefer to see Archer or Markus Wheaton get the job. Wheaton is also trying to steal Archer’s job returning kicks. Punter Brad Wing struggled last season, so he is trying to fend off Jordan Berry. My guess is he’ll succeed. The one job not up for review belongs to kicker Shaun Suisham. Weak on kickoffs, accurate on field goals is a tough way to make a living, as accuracy has been known to vary suddenly and unpredictably. Strength (or lack thereof) on kickoffs is rather consistent. I’m not sure I’d be as loyal to Suisham as the Steelers are. Overall, these special teams units are a tad above-average, mostly due to strong coverage units.

This is a very good team, albeit a bit unbalanced. The difficulty of the schedule hinges a great deal on the results of Tom Brady’s appeal. The Steelers’ fortunes also depend on Le’Veon Bell’s appeal. For now, I’m going to assume the Steelers are going to win nine games, but I’ll revisit that if the situation changes. 9-7.

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