2016 NFL Preview: AFC North

The AFC North has had three tough teams, plus the Browns, for years. The Browns haven’t made the playoffs since 2002. They’ve been mired in last place since 2011.Will this be the year they break the streak? I don’t think so.

 

 

AFC North:
Pittsburgh Steelers 10-6
Cincinnati Bengals 10-6
Baltimore Ravens 7-9
Cleveland Browns 4-12

 
Baltimore Ravens
Talent Wins: 7.72
Expected Wins: 8.3
DVOA Wins: 9.1
Last Year: 5-11 (6.0 Pythagorean Wins)
The DVOA projections have a lot of faith in the Ravens. Where is it coming from? I’m not entirely sure. Despite going 5-11, the Ravens were just a bit below-average last season. However, they face a tough schedule this year. Producing a winning record is not going to be easy.
Joe Flacco is returning from a torn ACL and MCL. That alone should give us pause. Flacco bounced back from a terrible 2013 season (-18.1% DVOA, -296 DYAR), with an elite 2014 campaign (15.5% DVOA, 987 DYAR). He couldn’t keep it going in 2015 (-10.5% DVOA, 17 DYAR) before getting hurt in the tenth game. What can we expect from him this year? Frankly, I’d suggest we shouldn’t expect much. The odds of him being 100% are slim. The talent around him is questionable. I can’t say with confidence that I expect Flacco to be better than… ok, I was about to say “his backup Ryan Mallett,” but Mallett is terrible. I’m still not confident in Flacco, though.
The Ravens’ receiving corps depth chart is a mess right now. #1WR Kamar Aiken showed tremendous potential in limited usage in 2014 (24 receptions, 29.7% DVOA, 106 DYAR).When given the starting job, he returned to Earth (75 receptions, -2.7% DVOA, 101 DYAR). He’s a solid contributor, but not the guy you want leading the unit. Mike Wallace followed up a strong 2014 season in Miami (11.8% DVOA, 221 DYAR) with a lousy one in Minnesota (-6.4% DVOA, 36 DYAR). He’s 30 and it appears he’s lost a step. Desirable wide receivers rarely play for three teams in three years. 2015 first-round pick Breshad Perriman is still unable to practice after missing the entire 2015 season.
2014 seventh-round pick Michael Campanaro has somehow risen to the slot role on the depth chart. His career stat line: 12 receptions for 137 yards and one touchdown. Super Bowl standout Chris Matthews failed to impress last season in Seattle. They cut him after he only managed four receptions in nine games. He managed nine receptions in four games for the Ravens last season. Rookie fourth-round pick Chris Moore is a raw deep threat. He doesn’t have the skills to run a full route tree at this point. I didn’t like the pick, but I can’t fault the Ravens for recognizing a need at receiver. Their best receiver last season was Steve Smith (9.4% DVOA, 125 DYAR). However, he only managed to play in seven games due to an Achilles tear. He just came off the PUP list, he’s 37 years-old and we’ll see how much he still has left in the tank.
Things aren’t much better for the tight ends. 2015 second-round pick Maxx Williams had a rough rookie season (-14.6% DVOA, -23 DYAR). He’s currently fourth on the depth chart. Sitting atop the depth chart is the 36-year-old Benjamin Watson. He’s a competent veteran, but let’s be clear. His average DVOA over the past three seasons in New Orleans is -0.3%. Backup Dennis Pitta is sidelined with a hip injury. 2014 third-round pick Crockett Gillmore has played very well in limited usage (19.7% DVOA, 115 DYAR). Injuries have limited his playing time. He had shoulder surgery on both shoulders this offseason. Recently, he’s been sidelined by a hamstring injury. The Ravens have made a clear effort to address both the wide receiver corps and the tight ends via the draft and free agency. Injuries have rendered much of their efforts moot, and overall, this is not an area of strength.
The Ravens’ running back platoon is solid, but a bit odd. Starter Justin Forsett has been just fine carrying the ball (7.8% DVOA, 273 DYAR over the past three seasons), but an utter disaster as a receiver (-135 DYAR over the past three seasons). At some point, I’d expect the Ravens to realize the limitations in his skill set. 2015 fourth-round pick Javorius “Buck” Allen had a decent rookie season (-4.1% combined DVOA, 58 combined DYAR). Rookie fourth-round pick Kenneth Dixon was a nice value. He’s a capable receiver and may work his way up the depth chart quickly. Technically, he’s fourth on the depth chart behind Terrance West, but West is awful and I suspect the Ravens are just doing this to motivate Dixon.
After cutting Eugene Monroe, the Ravens were in need of a new left tackle. In a vacuum, I would have been happy with the addition of Ronnie Stanley. The problem is, despite the mask, we aren’t actually in a vacuum. This is what I wrote about Stanley before the draft:
“Ronnie Stanley: I like him. He’s worthy of a top-ten pick. There are some scouts who’ve tried to attach a “soft” label to him. He’s a prototypical left tackle, and should start for many years in the NFL. He isn’t Tunsil, though.”
That’s the rub. The Ravens took a good player at the expense of a great one. He’ll be the week one starter at left tackle. Left guard John Urschel was decent at guard and center for the Ravens last year. Now healthy, Jeremy Zuttah is back as the starting center. He was a bit below-average last season, but he has a solid track record. Right guard Marshal Yanda and right tackle Ricky Wagner were the stars of the line. Both finished second for their respective positions in my rankings. If Stanley can adjust to the NFL, this should be a strong line this season.
One area of the Ravens not decimated by injuries was the defensive line. 2014 second-round pick Timmy Jernigan showed the talent that led to his selection. He was stout against the run and managed four sacks with 21 hits+hurries. Lawrence Guy was roughly as good against the run. He picked up 4.5 sacks and 12 hits+hurries. 2013 third-round pick nose tackle Brandon Williams was excellent last season. If I were to nitpick this unit, I’d point to Jernigan’s immaturity, as he’s prone to pick up penalties. There is talented depth along the line. 2014 fourth-round pick Brent Urban played well in limited usage. 2015 third-round pick Carl Davis was given playing time as a rookie, but played his way onto the bench. The talent is there for him to contribute more this season. Rookie third-round pick Bronson Kaufusi is currently sidelined with an injured ankle and is doubtful for the start of the season. He’s a SackSEER favorite and will be expected to contribute as soon as he’s able. Rookie fourth-round pick Willie Henry plays like a bowling ball with legs. Seriously, watch him. He excels at keeping his center of gravity low and driving blockers back. However, like Metal Man in Mega Man 2, his strength is also his weakness. He’s not good at maintaining his position and teams have had success running at him.
Elvis Dumervil saw his sack total fall from seventeen in 2014 to six last season. However, he was still a disruptive force, picking up 44.5 hits+hurries. Currently, he is on the PUP list with an injured foot. He is expected to be ready to start the season. If he is slowed, the Ravens will be in some trouble. Terrell Suggs is back after missing last season with a torn Achilles. He only began practicing August 15th and might not be 100% to start the season. If both Suggs and Dumervil are sidelined, Za’Darius Smith and Albert McClellan will have to pick up the slack. Both Smith and McClellan can play on the inside, but right now the pressing need is for pass rushers. Smith was impressive last season (5.5 sacks, 10 hits+hurries) in roughly half a season’s worth of snaps. Rookie second-round pick Kamalei Correa was a polarizing prospect. Some teams liked his speed and pass rush potential. Others felt he didn’t have the strength to play end or outside linebacker. SackSEER wasn’t a fan of him, but it didn’t hurt his draft stock. Personally, I wouldn’t have taken him quite this high. Still, the Ravens recognized a need for pass-rush help and he does fill that need.
2014 first-round pick C.J. Mosley has become a very good player. He’ll play alongside Zach Orr to man the middle of the defense. Orr played poorly last season. There has been talk of him losing his job to Correa. That would solve the problem of Correa’s weakness taking on blockers. Correa has shown decent pass coverage skills in college. If the Ravens plan on using Correa in multiple roles, it would justify how high they picked him.
While I understand part of the secondary’s problems have to be blamed on the pass rush, this is a weak unit. #1CB Jimmy Smith is a shadow of the player he was before his Lisfranc injury in 2014. The injury has haunted him and he had surgery on the same foot earlier this year. #2CB Shareece Wright is roughly replacement level. Free agent pickup Jerraud Powers will compete with Kyle Arrington for the nickel job. As Arrington isn’t very good, it will be a bad sign if Powers loses the competition. Rookie fourth-round pick (the Ravens had five fourth-round picks) Tavon Young doesn’t project to have the skills to play on the outside. He might eventually work his way up to the nickel job. I thought he was a reach. Lardarius Webb is making the transition from cornerback to free safety. Many players have successfully made this transition and he should be able to handle the new role. Free agent pickup Eric Weddle will provide the power Webb lacks. Weddle had a very public departure from San Diego. He’s a fading star who still provides quality play at the position.
The Ravens have the best special teams in the NFL. It’s where head coach John Harbaugh made his bones. Punter Sam Koch is one of the best in the league. He has mastered working with his coverage team. Together they were worth roughly 1 point per game for each of the past two seasons. That’s incredible. Kicker Justin Tucker was excellent, although not as dominant as Koch. The return units are solid as well. As far as the Ravens are concerned, it’s a shame that special teams aren’t a bigger part of the game. One note: the new kickoff rules may hurt the Ravens, as strong kickoffs and quality return units have both been slightly devalued.
The Ravens are expected to bounce back after an injury-plagued 2015 campaign. I’m not seeing it. The offense is going to ask Joe Flacco to make chicken salad out of substandard chicken parts. The pass rush is banking on injured men on the wrong side of thirty. The secondary lacks solid cornerbacks. The schedule is rough. The coaching and special teams are solid. Rookie left tackle Ronnie Stanley is a wild card, as we can never be sure about college players making the jump. Flacco has made both doubters and backers look foolish before. I’m trusting my skepticism. 7-9.

 
Cincinnati Bengals
Talent Wins: 9.58
Expected Wins: 9.22
DVOA Wins: 8.5
Last Year: 12-4 (11.7 Pythagorean Wins)
But for quarterback injuries against the Steelers, how many Super Bowls would the Bengals have won? We’ll never know. What we do know is the Bengals have fallen back to Earth. Even with the return of Andy Dalton, the Bengals are significantly worse than they were last season. Part of the problem is free agent defections. Part of the problem is injuries, particularly to tight end Tyler Eifert. It is going to be very hard to the Bengals to win the division again this season.
Andy Dalton was a legitimate star last season (31.7% DVOA, 1,135 DYAR). Yes, a lot of the value came from a great supporting cast. The offensive line performed admirably, as did much of the receiving corps. Even so, Dalton was clearly adding value and his loss doomed the Bengals. The question this year is how much of Dalton’s improvement is sustainable. He wasn’t special in 2014 (-3.7% DVOA, 238 DYAR), and last year was a major surprise. My read is that he’s competent. If his offense is prepared to dominate, he won’t hold them back. If they have issues, so will he. Last year he had three strong targets: A.J. Green, Marvin Jones, and Tyler Eifert. This year he may be down to only one, depending on Green’s health.
A.J. Green has always been good. Last year’s stat line was on another level: +/- +13.2, 26.5% DVOA, 414 DYAR. He saw his targets-per-game drop from 11.1 in 2013, to 8.9 in 2014, to 8.3 in 2015. As his supporting cast picked up the slack, Green’s efficiency increased. Unfortunately, we may see that trend reversed this year. The loss of Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu in free agency led the Bengals to sign Brandon LaFell. Let’s compare:
Marvin Jones 2015 statline: 7.6% DVOA, 171 DYAR, $20M guaranteed.
Mohamed Sanu 2015 statline: -8.3% DVOA, 16 DYAR, $14M guaranteed.
Brandon LaFell 2015 statline (with the Patriots): -20.1% DVOA, -43 DYAR, $1M guaranteed.
LeFell has always struggled with drops, which makes his hand injury (ligament damage) a particular concern. I can’t see LaFell being a replacement for Sanu, let alone Jones. Brandon Tate has 57 receptions in his seven year career. That leaves rookie second-round pick Tyler Boyd with an opportunity to break into the starting lineup. This is what I wrote about Boyd before the draft:
“Tyler Boyd: It’s a cliché, but Boyd’s a football player. He’s the best route-runner in the class, with great hands. He doesn’t blow you away with his speed (4.56 40-time). I’d love to see the Jets pick him up in the second round. He’ll make his mark on special teams, and will eventually be a solid #2 receiver.”
If you haven’t already realized, “I’d love to see the Jets pick him up” is the highest praise I can give a player. I loved this pick for Cincinnati. If Boyd can adjust to the NFL quickly, Cincinnati has a shot to repeat their offensive success from last year.
That success will depend on the health of 2013 first-round pick Tyler Eifert. He was dominant last season (42.0% DVOA, 247 DYAR). He’s currently on the PUP list due to ankle surgery resulting from an injury that occurred in the Pro Bowl. Seriously. Fake football is a travesty. Eifert is expected back early in the season, but at what level of performance? 2015 third-round pick Tyler Kroft is also injured (sprained knee). Ryan Hewitt is a fullback/h-back/tight end hybrid. He’s mostly a blocker, with 18 career receptions. 2015 fifth-round pick C.J. Uzomah is a blocker first and a receiver second. If he has to play a significant number of snaps, the passing game will suffer.
The offensive line returns almost completely intact. Left tackle Andrew Whitworth was fifth-best in the league, according to my metrics. Left guard was solid as well, coming in at sixth-overall for his position. Center Russell Bodine was a hair below average. Right guard Kevin Zeitler was excellent, coming in third for his position. The only change along the line is at right tackle. The Bengals have jettisoned Andre Smith in favor of 2015 first-round pick Cedric Ogbuehi. Before the 2015 draft I wrote that Cedric Ogbuehi should a solid pro. He may eventually take over at left tackle. For now, he should be prepared to handle the right side. Overall, this is a strong offensive line.
The Bengals’ defensive line is coming off of an excellent season. Defensive end Carlos Dunlap had a monster season with 13.5 sacks and 57.5 hits+hurries. On the other side, Michael Johnson put up five sacks and 27.5 hits+hurries. Decent numbers, but somewhat disappointing given the talent around him. On the inside, Geno Atkins returned to his elite form. Not only did he pick up 11 sacks and 38.5 hits+hurries, he was arguably the most dominant run defender in the NFL. Domata Peko rounded out the line. He was solid, but the Bengals know his time is coming to an end. They picked up one of the steals of the draft, nabbing Andrew Billings in the fourth round. I graded Billings as a first-round talent. This is what I wrote about him before the draft:
Andrew Billings: Second-best 3-4 NT in the draft. Excellent run stuffer. Some concerns that he takes plays off and will need to build up his stamina.
Billings is currently sidelined with a torn mensicus. He recently had surgery to repair it and might miss the entire season. That’s particularly unfortunate for the Bengals, as fellow defensive tackle Brandon Thompson is going to start the season on the PUP list recovering from a torn ACL. That leaves the Bengals relying on journeyman Pat Sims and 2015 fourth-round pick Marcus Hardison to provide depth inside. The depth on the outside took a hit with the departure of Wallace Gilberry. Gilberry had lost a step, and will be replaced by 2013 second-round pick Margus Hunt and 2014 third-round pick Will Clarke.
The Bengals’ linebacker corps will have some new faces on the field in week one. Veteran Karlos Dansby has immigrated from Cleveland. He’s an aged veteran who knows how to do his job. Starting week four, he’ll play across from Vontaze Burfict. Burfict has been suspended the first three weeks for headhunting.

 

 

Vincent Rey was expected to start in Burfict’s absence, but 2015 third-round pick P.J. Dawson is making a push for the job. Rey is a solid contributor, so it would be impressive if Dawson were to nab the promotion. The only starter returning in week one is middle linebacker Rey Maualuga. Maualaga is known for being tough against the run, and has improved his coverage skills. The return of Burfict will strengthen a solid unit.
Given the quality of the pass rush, the Bengals’ secondary underperformed in 2015. Opponents felt comfortable attacking 2012 first-round pick Dre Kirkpatrick. He was solid in coverage, but had Deion Sanders-level tackling skills. Given how physical Cincinnati’s defense is, it stood out. Adam “Pacman” Jones put up excellent results last season. At this point, his talent is paired with maturity. Unfortunately, he’s reached the age where his skills will begin to decline. 2014 first-round pick Darqueze Denard is expected to start at nickel. He’s fully recovered from the separated shoulder that ended his 2015 season. Rookie first-round pick William Jackson III is sidelined with a pectoral injury.
I have no idea why I didn’t write any notes on him before the draft. He has good size and speed, and is comfortable in both press and off coverage. I had him graded as a second-round talent, so I can’t say I like the value of the pick. He should be comfortable starting in 2017 or 2018.
Greg Iloka and 2013 third-round pick Shawn Williams look to start at safety. 2015 sixth-round pick Derron Smith is making a push for Williams’s job. Iloka has become a premium player and recently signed an extension with the Bengals. Overall, this secondary is deep and talented. They should play better than they did last season, even if the pass rush declines a bit.
Specialists Kevin Huber (punter) and Mike Nugent (kicker) are both solid at their jobs. Solid coverage units accentuate that strength. The return units aren’t quite as good, as Brandon Tate saw his numbers decline. Tate’s issue was mostly with the punt-return game, as he saw his average drop from 9.7 yards-per-return to 6.3. While the return game could be more dynamic, overall the special teams are a slight strength for the Bengals.
It’s tough to come so close and then fall short. The Bengals were the best team in the AFC for part of last season. Once Andy Dalton went down, the dream was over. Injuries are threatening to derail the offense again this year. I am placing my faith in rookie Tyler Boyd. If he can step up, the passing game has a shot of maintaining its momentum from last season. What gives me pause is the injury to Tyler Eifert. He has become as valuable to Cincinnati as Rob Gronkowski is to the Patriots. If he is slowed this season, the Bengals are going to struggle. Defensively, they are still solid. I have the Bengals right around 9.5 wins. Predicting a tie as an exercise in absurdity, so I will show a little faith. 10-6.

 
Cleveland Browns
Talent Wins: 4.83
Expected Wins: 4.71
DVOA Wins: 5.2
Last Year: 3-13 (4.0 Pythagorean Wins)
The good news in Cleveland:
1. LeBron James finally brought home that elusive Championship.

2. The GOP convention has come and gone without incident.

3. GM Paul DePodesta understands the value of trading down in the draft. Here is the

Browns’ 2016 haul:
15. Corey Coleman, WR

32. Emmanuel Ogbah, DE

65. Carl Nassib, DE

76. Shon Coleman. OT

93. Cody Kessler, QB

99. Joe Schobert, OLB

114. Ricardo Louis, WR

129. Derrick Kindred, FS

138. Seth DeValve, TE

154. Jordan Payton, WR

168. Spencer Drango, OG

172. Rashard Higgins, WR

173. Trey Caldwell, CB

250. Scooby Wright III, ILB
That’s the equivalent of two teams’ worth of drafts. They’re well prepared to continue rebuilding in 2017 with Philadephia’s first-round pick, Tennessee’s second-round pick, and Indianapolis’s seventh-round pick. The Browns needed an infusion of talent, and they got one. However, there is still one major problem. At some point you need to find a quarterback of the future, and I don’t think the Browns have one.
Over the past three seasons, Robert Griffin III has accumulated -413 DYAR. That number would be worse if not for the fact he spent last season on the bench. I’ve thought he’s had a fork in his back ever since Shanahan ruined him in the playoff game against the Seahawks. Since then, RG3 has been awful. I cannot imagine DePodesta thinks RG3 can lead Cleveland to victory. My theory is that he realizes winning now is counterproductive and brought in RG3 to implicitly tank. The fact that he managed to do so while exciting the fanbase shows style that Hinkie never managed in Philadelphia. It’s not like the move was necessary. Backup Josh McCown is 2-17 over the past two seasons. The man knows how to lose a football game. However, at age 37 he can’t be trusted to stay on the field, so perhaps it is good that the Browns have two terrible quarterbacks. That brings us to Cody Kessler. It was a surprising pick. Kessler would have been rated higher if not for his height (6-1). The interesting thing about this choice is that if the Browns were comfortable with a shorter quarterback, why not draft Dak Prescott? Prescott is the more athletic of the two, with better college numbers. Kessler has an accurate arm, but there are concerns about his deep ball as well as general arm strength. I think his best-case scenario is to be a long term backup to whomever the Browns draft next season.
There is no point in rehashing the Browns’ receiving statistics. The wide receivers struggled (-123 DYAR between them), as the quarterback play was awful. #1WR Andrew Hawkins has seen his skills decline. He’s made a living off of his speed (he’s 5-7), but with it fading his career is nearing its end. He’s currently slowed by a hamstring injury. So is rookie first-round pick Corey Coleman. Here is what I wrote about him before the draft:
Corey Coleman: Baylor wide receivers have acquired a sour reputation in the NFL. The Baylor offense requires them to run straightforward route trees, and doesn’t ask much more of them. Coleman isn’t nearly as well-rounded as Treadwell, but with a 4.38 40-time, he doesn’t have to be. He’s a bit undersized. I expect he’ll work both inside and outside in the pros. As with Treadwell, I expect him to be a good value, although he might take a bit longer to reach his full potential.
I didn’t expect Coleman to go 15th overall. He’s both a legitimate deep threat and an efficient possession receiver. He’s also 5-10. That wasn’t a problem at Baylor, but it might be an issue in the NFL. If he can achieve separation in the pros, he’ll be a building block of the next great Browns team. For the record, his playmaker score dwarfs the field, but it’s possible that the Baylor system is the reason.
Like Hawkins, Coleman is also dealing with an injured hamstring. Josh Gordon is suspended for the first four games. He was excellent in 2013 (336 DYAR), but followed up with an awful (and short) season in 2014 (-36 DYAR). 2015 went up in smoke, and here we are. It’s hard to expect him to recapture his form from three years ago. Terrelle Pryor is still working on his conversion from QB to WR. I’ll let you know when it is considered a success. Apart from Coleman, none of the other four rookie receivers have climbed up the depth chart. As Taylor Gabriel and Marlon Moore are graded at below replacement level, hopefully one of the rookies other from Coleman will eventually find their way onto the field this season. Ricardo Louis is a potential deep threat, but my guess is Higgins is the one who sees playing time. I had Higgins as the best value due to his excellent productivity in college. He plays faster than his 4.64 40-time.
Amazingly, tight end Gary Barnidge had the year of his life in 2016. That was good enough for a 19.7% DVOA and 218 DYAR. It came out of nowhere and I wonder if defenses will adjust and key on him this year. Seth DeValve has been slowed by a hamstring injury (is there something wrong with the Browns’ practice facility?). 2015 sixth-round pick Randall Telfer is listed as the #2TE. He missed 2015 with a foot injury and I have no idea what to expect from him. Despite the major efforts to improve the talent, the Browns’ receiving corps still looks weak.
Isaiah Crowell has proven to be an undrafted free agent success story. Last season, he gained 788 yards-from-scrimmage (-1.7% DVOA, 73 DYAR). That’s a nice result for a guy who came out of nowhere. 2015 first-round pick Duke Johnson battled injuries, but still managed to gain 913 yards from scrimmage (-0.1% DVOA, 98 DYAR). It’s tough to be productive in this offense. The coaching staff isn’t sold that Johnson can be an every-down back. He gained more yards receiving than running last year. I’d expect this platoon to eventually flip roles if Johnson can stay healthy this season.
The Browns’ offensive line highlights a hole in my offensive line metrics. I’m good at catching mistakes, but not so good at finding missed opportunities. In particular, I don’t have a good way of grading run blocking beyond missed blocks and short-yardage failures. There were some good grades and some bad grades for the individual linemen, but the run blocking was collectively awful. Regardless, I had Joe Thomas as the #1 left tackle in the NFL last season. Left guard 2014 second-round pick Joel Bitonio was fifth-worst by my grading. That was better than center 2015 first-round pick Cameron Erving. Erving was the second-worst center in the NFL last season, bettering only the failure that was Chris Watt in San Diego. Right guard John Greco was solid, finishing seventh in my rankings. The Browns planned on starting rookie third-round pick Shon Coleman at right tackle. He’s still not fully recovered from January knee surgery. Rookie fifth-round pick Spencer Drango looks like he is currently winning the job. Backup Austin Pasztor wasn’t bad in spot duty last year. It’s hard to like an offensive line that was a collective failure last season. Erving is going to have to improve if he wants to keep his job in the long run. Backup Garth Gerhart is tough, but lacks the talent to start in the NFL. The Browns will be in a tough spot if Erving is as bad as he looked last season. Overall, I have to consider this line a negative even with all the effort the Browns have made to improve it.
Good lord, the Browns’ defense was actually slightly worse than their offense last year. Want some more bad news? Their sack leader (Desmond Bryant) is out with a torn pectoral. Their runner-up in sacks (Armonty Bryant with 5.5) is suspended the first four games of the season. His suspension may be lengthened due to a drug-related arrest. That leaves the Browns with a starting defensive line of 2015 third-round pick Xavier Cooper, 2015 first-round pick Danny Shelton, and John Hughes. That line is as unintimidating as they come. Shelton and Cooper failed to impress as rookies, while Hughes has picked up 5.5 sacks in four years. Rookie third-round pick Carl Nassib went from being a walk-on at Penn State to a Lombardi Award finalist. He should be a useful part of the rotation. Jamie Meder is a solid backup to Shelton.
Want a tale of two pass-rushers? Paul Kruger was disruptive (33.5 hits+hurries), but failed to close the deal (2.5 sacks). Nate Orchard managed three sacks and three hits+hurries. They’ll start across from either other at outside linebacker. After picking up zero sacks last season, 2013 first-round pick Barkevious Mingo has given up rushing the quarterback. The Browns had him pack on twenty pounds this offseason and will use him as a short yardage specialist. (Update: Mingo is out, Kruger is out. Browns are going young and cheap. Project tank is a go. I repeat, project tank is a go). Rookie second-round pick Emmanuel Ogbah will be the fourth man in the rotation. Here is what I wrote about Ogbah before the draft:
Emmanuel Ogbah: The film loved Ogbah. He’s another player who probably shouldn’t fall too far into the second round. He has become a polarizing prospect due to concerns about his passion for the game. That smells like BS to me and I think he’ll have a solid NFL career.
Ogbah has the skills to produce at the NFL level. It might take a while, but DePodesta is going to rebuild this roster.
2014 third-round pick Chris Kirksey will pair with free-agent pickup Demario Davis to man the middle. Davis is coming off of a very good season. Kirksey has shown flashes of talent and looks like he will be a quality starter. There isn’t much depth here.
The secondary is hoping to bounce back after an awful year, but there are some problems. #1CB Joe Haden had ankle surgery in March. He’s also had issues with concussions. The Browns aren’t expecting him to be the elite cover corner he was in 2014, and neither am I. Opponents attacked #2CB Tramon Williams mercilessly last season. He’s 33 and on the decline. 2014 first-round pick Justin Gilbert helped get the previous front office fired. He’s been a total disaster with almost no production whatsoever. Nickel cornerback K’Waun Williams has been effective when on the field, but has been hampered by injuries. One bright spot for the Browns is that 2015 fourth-round pick Ibraheim Campbell appears to be beating out free-agent pickup Rahim Moore for the strong safety job. I’m assuming it’s because of improvement from Campbell and not poor performance from Moore. Jordan Poyer has the free safety job locked down. Rookie fourth-round pick Derrick Kindred provides depth after Moore. Overall, this secondary looks weak, which is a problem given the lack of a pass rush. It looks like another long year in Cleveland.
The Browns are one of the bigger beneficiaries of the new touchback rule. Kicker Travis Koons was weak on kickoffs, which will be a smaller disadvantage this season. He also had four kicks blocked because of a low trajectory. That’s unusual and I wonder if it is something he can easily fix. Punter Andy Lee was solid. Corey Coleman looks like he is going to be given the punt return job. I think it’s a little nuts to risk a first-round pick doing a job that can be handled by a third-stringer, but no one asks me. Raheem Mostert is slated to return kicks. If he goes down, Justin Gilbert is the next man up. Unlike Coleman, both are expendable. Overall, the Browns’ special teams look about average.
This is going to be another long year in Cleveland. I’m not buying the Hue Jackson “hype.” His success in Cincinnati last year hasn’t made me forget his idiocy in Oakland. Bringing in RG3 isn’t a move that will improve things. The receiving corps and offensive line both look flawed. The defense looks awful. Having no pass rush is no way to win games in the NFL. The one thing going for Cleveland is that their schedule isn’t as tough as it was last year. Even so, I have to expect only slight improvement. 4-12.

 
Pittsburgh Steelers
Talent Wins: 9.51
Expected Wins: 10.3
DVOA Wins: 10.1
Last Year: 10-6 (10.7 Pythagorean Wins)
The Steelers are have the inside track for AFC homefield advantage. The AFC North is as weak as it has been in years. The defending AFC champions lost both their starting quarterbacks and are looking at starting the Sanchize. Beyond Andrew Luck, the Colts are still a joke. The Steelers get the one legitimately good AFC team, the Patriots, at home on October 23rd. Will that be enough to get the Steelers homefield advantage and back to the Super Bowl? Read on to find out.
The Steelers’ offense the most explosive in the AFC. They have talent throughout the lineup. If I were to nitpick, I might complain about the lack of receiver depth. As with any good modern offense, it starts with the quarterback. Over the past two seasons, Ben Roethlisberger has averaged a 24.8% DVOA. In 28 games he’s been worth 2,686 DYAR. If he had been healthy in the playoffs last season, we may have crowned a different champion. He’s 34 years old, so staying healthy isn’t a given. He’s very patient in the pocket, which has its pluses. It’s hard to rattle or panic him. The downside is that he takes a few extra hits. Those add up, so we’ll see how healthy he is in January.
Le’Veon Bell only managed to appear in six games last season. He’ll miss the first three to start this one. Over the past two seasons (22 games) he’s averaged a 17.1% DVOA and accumulated 673 DYAR. If he can stay on the field, the Steelers will have a significant advantage. Backup DeAngelo Williams did a yeoman’s job in Bell’s absence (15.6% DVOA, 293 DYAR). While not as good as Bell, Williams gives the Steelers excellent depth at a position where it will come in handy. He’ll be a suitable replacement for the first three weeks.
Antonio Brown’s numbers over the past two seasons are absurd:
2014: 129 receptions, 1,698 yards, +/- +16.5, 25.7% DVOA, 554 DYAR

2015: 138 receptions, 1,834 yards. +/- +18.2, 19.7% DVOA, 517 DYAR
2015 might be the more impressive of the two given Roethlisberger’s absence for four games. Brown is only 28 and is still in his prime. The question is how much help he’ll have. #2WR Markus Wheaton is going to be asked to play a larger role. He was solid last year (44 receptions, 12.4% DVOA, 159 DYAR). If Wheaton can’t handle the increased attention, the pressure will fall on 2015 third-round pick Sammie Coates. He struggled last season, only seeing the field for 34 snaps. Multiple sources have said he’s been much better in practice this season, and we have some evidence of his improvement

 

 

Darrius Heyward-Bey is a fourth option, but we know he’s little more than an inconsistent deep threat. Brown, Wheaton, and Coates will have to carry most of the receiving load. Free agent pickup Ladarius Green was brought in to play as a WR/TE hybrid. He’s currently sidelined as he recovers from ankle surgery. He’s also dealing with concussion aftereffects. The Steelers don’t have a timetable for his return and he might start the season on the PUP list. If that’s the case, 2015 fifth-round pick Jesse James would be asked to step up. He didn’t do much last season, so this would be quite the coming out party. The Steelers #3TE is something called “Xavier Grimble.” I am not seeing much tight end depth if Green is unavailable. Further injuries to the receiver corps would be major problem. Losing Brown in particular would be disastrous.
The Steelers made some tough decisions at left tackle. They let former starter Kevin Beachum go and signed Ryan Harris. They’ll let former backup Alejandro Vilanueva start. Vilanueva played most of last season. I graded him a bit below-average. I had Harris as the sixth best left tackle, so I’m not sure I would have gone with continuity over performance. As for Beachum, he was awful. If Vilanueva disappoints, expect a quick hook. Left guard Ramon Foster was slightly above-average. Cody Wallace filled in for the injured Mike Pouncey at center. He was one of the worst in the league, so Pouncey’s return should be a major upgrade. Right guard David DeCastro was the best in the league by a sizable margin. I graded right tackle Marcus Gilbert fourth overall. This should be a very good offensive line again this year.
The Steelers’ defense was better than you might have expected. Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt combined for 13.5 sacks and 49 hits+hurries. That’s excellent for a pair of 3-4 defensive ends. Ricardo Matthews and L.T. Walton will provide depth at end. 2014 sixth-round pick Dan McCullers-Sanders will take over the starting nose tackle job now that Steve McClendon has departed. Right now the battle to be the backup is between traveling man Lavon Hooks and rookie third-round pick Javon Hargrave. Hargrave is coming from the FCS (South Carolina St.), so it might take him some time to adjust to the NFL.
Historically, the Steelers’ defense has been led by the outside linebackers. Last year no Steelers OLB had more than five sacks. Instead, the corps was more of a committee. James Harrison had the most snaps (611), followed by 2015 first-round pick Bud Dupree (563), Arthur Moats (554), and 2013 first-round pick Jarvis Jones (454). They combined for 15 sacks and 72 hits+hurries. Truthfully, that’s not a great rate. I wouldn’t describe this as a weak unit, but relying on a 38 year-old Harrison to keep performing is unrealistic. Jones hasn’t lived up to expectations. Dupree was impressive for a rookie. If he continues to improve, he’ll take over the leadership mantle for the group.
Lawrence Timmons and 2014 first-round pick Ryan Shazier will return at inside linebacker. A healthy Shazier was a revelation for the defense. It’s been hard for him to stay on the field, but when he’s there he’s a difference-maker. Timmons has begun to fade a bit. The Steelers might look at drafting his replacement next year. Vince Williams provides quality depth here.
#1CB William Gay dominated by every conceivable measure. #2CB Ross Cockrell got his ass kicked by the same measures. Unfortunately for the Steelers, offenses can choose whom to target. Gay was thrown at once for every 21.7 snaps he was on the field. Cockrell was targeted once every 10.7 snaps. Sometimes a defense really is as strong as its weakest link. The Steelers have recognized this as a weakness. Last year they grabbed Senquez Golson in the second round and Dorant Grant in the fourth. However, last season a shoulder injury kept Golson off the field. This year it is a Lisfranc injury. Grant may be moved to safety or will be asked fill in as a nickel or dime cornerback. This year the Steelers made another attempt to reload at cornerback. They grabbed Artie Burns in the first round. I graded him as a third-round value. He looks the part and has the size and speed to eventually start. The problem is that his technique is raw. If the Steelers throw him into the fire, I expect him to get torched. The Steelers followed up the Burns pick with Sean Davis in the second round (another reach IMHO). Davis is a cornerback/safety hybrid. He’s a bit of a throwback with his physical style of play. However, like Burns he lacks proper coverage technique. The Steelers might be forced to turn to Donald Washington. Washington was last seen playing for the Toronto Argonauts. I can’t fault the Steelers for effort. Mike Mitchell and Robert Golden are slated to start at safety. Mitchell is a quality pro. Golden was a special teams captain who is playing a bit above his level. Backup Shamarko Thomas provides the opposite of quality depth. I’m kind of baffled as to how the Steelers put up decent numbers against the pass last season. They got destroyed in 2014 and look no better now.
On a team with a thin receiver corps, would you send your #2WR out to return kicks? Would you send your #1WR (and perhaps the best at his position in the NFL) to return punts? Truth be told, I would not, but that’s what the Steelers plan to do this season. Antonio Brown was a bit above average returning punts last year. I’d happily send Markus Wheaton out to do both jobs, but Fitzgerald Toussaint would be an even better option. Toussaint was last seen ending the Steelers’ season by fumbling at Denver. He’s listed as the backup kick returner. If you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge a ball. If you can return a kick, you can return a punt. Send him out there. If he gets hurt, your offensive game plan doesn’t change. Kicker Chris Boswell will return this season. Punter Jordan Berry might return this season. The Steelers weren’t impressed with his performance and he is currently in a training camp battle against undrafted rookie free agent Will Monday. I’d like to wish both of them the best of luck. The Steelers’ special teams have been roughly average three years running. I’d expect that trend to continue.
The Steelers’ season won’t come down to one game, but there’s one clearly marked on the calendar. The Steelers have faced Belichick and Brady eight times. They are 2-6 in those games, being outscored by an average of 7.5 points. If you just count the games where Tomlin was head coach, the Steelers are 1-3, outscored by nine points per game. On paper, the Steelers’ roster is comparable to that of the Patriots. The Steelers have the more explosive offense, while the Patriots’ defense is considered a little tougher. Right now, the Steelers are listed as 1.5 point favorites for the game. Even with the game at Pittsburgh, I see the Patriots taking it. This is a good but flawed team. 10-6.

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