2019 NFL Preview: AFC North

(Note: Squid refers to targets plus carries.)

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AFC North:

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Cleveland Browns: 9-7

Pittsburgh Steelers: 9-7

Baltimore Ravens: 9-7

Cincinnati Bengals: 6-10

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Baltimore Ravens

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Last Year: 10-6 (10.8 Pythagorean wins)

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Projections:

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Scouting Wins: 5.03

DVOA Wins: 8.5

FPI Wins: 8.5

Market Expected Wins: 8.42

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Implied Pythag: 52.72%

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One of those projections is not like the others. It’s not that the scouts don’t like quarterback Lamar Jackson. It’s that they think he’s not a quarterback at all. Here are Jackson’s numbers from last year, pro-rated to 16 starts:

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2018: 2,258 yards, 11 TD, 6 INT, 6.0 NY/P, -9.2% DVOA, 45 DYAR

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Those numbers look like they’re from 1974. He’d also have 276 carries for 1,307 yards. I might be forgetting someone, but I can’t recall a quarterback running the ball that much. Michael Vick has the record of 1,039 yards in a season. Jackson will smash that if he doesn’t change his style of play. The Ravens spent this offseason rebuilding the offense around Jackson’s strengths. Rookie first-round pick Marquise Brown should help Jackson look more like a traditional quarterback:

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Marquise “Hollywood” Brown: Absolutely dominant at Oklahoma. We don’t have a 40-time for Brown, as he was injured during the combine and his pro day. Judging from the film, he has elite speed.

Brown has a few red flags:

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1. His size: 5-9, 166. He played even lighter at Oklahoma. How much of his explosiveness will he lose if he has to play at a higher weight to survive NFL hits? Also, will he survive NFL hits? I wouldn’t, and he played college ball even lighter than I am.

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2. How much do we need to discount his stats due to quarterback play? If Murray goes first overall, Brown will have been targeted by a pair of #1 overall picks. That’s playing on easy mode.

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I’ve mellowed on my concerns about Big 12 defenses, but that’s an additional factor to consider. Brown has shown elite speed, agility, and hands. His production has been impeccable. I favor (D.K.) Metcalf due to his size, but I’d understand going with Brown and his elite production over Metcalf’s potential.

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Brown gives Jackson another target who can get open short-to-midrange. Defenses are not impressed with Jackson’s deep ball or hard sideline routes, so look at them to sit short until Jackson proves he can make them pay. Look for Brown to play across from slot receiver Willie Snead.

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Snead has had an odd run. He had a great year in New Orleans in 2016 (12.5% DVOA, 206 DYAR). He followed that up with a stinkbomb (-31.0% DVOA, -23 DYAR). His usage dropped 85% in 2017, so clearly the Saints weren’t expecting much from him. That was his last year in New Orelans. He bounced back a bit in Baltimore (-9.8% DVOA, 21 DYAR). At best he’s an acceptable slot receiver. The Ravens have another with backup Seth Roberts.

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What I’m not sure about is who the second flanker will be. The options are 2016 fourth-round pick Chris Moore, 2018 fourth-round pick Jaleel Scott, and rookie third-round pick Miles Boykin. Moore is mostly a special teams player. Scott has size (6-6), but lacks speed. He’ll need to bond quickly with Jackson to win the #2WR job. That leaves Boykin. Boykin had a monster combine. That was enough to convince the Ravens to trade up in the draft to snag him. He didn’t look like a special athlete on film at Notre Dame. The Ravens likely have a plan for him. We may see Jackson work with a rookie pair of starting receivers. That would be something unusual.

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2018 third-round pick tight end Mark Andrews had an excellent rookie season:

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2018: 34 receptions, 552 yards, +4.3 +/-, 36.2% DVOA, 159 DYAR

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Jackson liked working with Andrews through the deep middle of the field. I expect opponents to be ready for that this season.

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2015 third-round pick Nick Boyle is an excellent blocker who is legally allowed to catch passes. That doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to throw to him (-82 DYAR over the past three seasons). He’s the target of last resort.

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I was a little surprised the Ravens targeted running back Mark Ingram so aggressively in free agency. He looked a step slow in New Orleans last season. He’s seen his efficiency drop each of the past three seasons:

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2016: 263 squid, 1,362 yards, 11.1% DVOA, 256 DYAR

2017: 301 squid, 1,570 yards, 6.0% DVOA, 206 DYAR

2018: 165 squid, 815 yards, -0.7% DVOA, 64 DYAR

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Ingram has decent hands, which gives him a leg up on incumbent Gus Edwards:

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2018: 139 squid, 738 DYAR, 14.7% DVOA, 140 DYAR

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Edwards had two targets last season. Both were successful plays. The element of surprise, I suppose.

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The Ravens have the best pair of young offensive tackles in the league. Both left tackle 2016 first-round pick Ronnie Stanley and right tackle 2018 third-round pick Orlando Brown finished fourth in my positional rankings. Some of you might remember Orlando Brown as the guy who had one of the worst combines of all time. It hurt his draft stock, but he played like the elite player he looked like on film.

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Right guard Marshal Yanda finished on top of my positional rankings. He’ll turn 35 in September and this might be his swan song.

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2017 fifth-round pick Jermaine Eluemunor is competing with rookie fourth-round pick Ben Powers for the left guard job. I figure Powers will get the job once he adjusts to the NFL. One concern: he looked a lot better at Oklahoma than he did at the Senior Bowl. There are some concerns that he looked good against weaker opponents, but once he was facing stronger players, he folded.

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Center Matt Skura was a tad better than average. Left guard was the weak link for the Ravens last year. We’ll see if it remains so this season.

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Last season, the Ravens went on a run after switching to Lamar Jackson. That run was driven by defense, but it’s a bit more complicated than that. The offense switched to a “run-first” plan. Did that keep the defense fresh? I’m skeptical, but I can’t dismiss the idea outright. Games with Jackson at quarterback should contain fewer overall snaps. It’s possible that the Ravens experienced a trade-off that isn’t directly related. It’s factually true that the defense was substantially better after the switch from Flacco to Jackson. It’s less clear that Jackson deserves any credit.

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The Ravens’ defense is replacing most of their front-seven. Gone are defensive end Brent Urban, outside linebackers Terrell Suggs and Za’Darius Smith, and inside linebacker C.J. Mosley. That’s a lot of talent. Mosley was one of the best inside linebackers in the NFL. Suggs and Smith combined for 15.5 sacks. Urban wasn’t quite as good as the other three, but he was a quality performer. This is a collectively quite a talent drain. We can’t worry about the players who are gone, though. It’s a “Next man up” league.

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Brandon Williams, Michael Pierce, and 2017 third-round pick Chris Wormley return along the defensive line. Wormley will be asked to move from DT to DE, which is less of an issue than one might think in a 3-4 defense. I don’t really mind the loss of Urban so long as 2016 fourth-round pick Willie Henry and rookie fifth-round pick Daylon Mack are ready to provide depth.

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Replacing Suggs and Smith is trickier. Matt Judon (seven sacks, 43 hits+hurries) is returning. He’ll be joined by newcomers Pernell McPhee and Shane Ray. McPhee and Ray combined for one sack last season. The Ravens’ scheme creates pressure via an unusual amount of blitzing. Their hope is that Smith and Suggs were complementary parts. One problem: Smith and Suggs were very good at beating their blocking last season. Ray and McPhee weren’t. Can the coaches solve that problem? I’m skeptical…

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2017 second-round pick Tyus Bowser, 2017 third-round pick Tim Williams and rookie third-round pick Jaylon Ferguson will also be joining the outside linebacker rotation:

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Jaylon Ferguson: He absolutely pantsed Conference USA offensive linemen. I have concerns about the level of difficulty, but I could not ask for better film. His pro day results will give teams cause for concern. Did he not prepare for the 3 cone drill? Better to pass on doing the drill than to drop an 8.08. My gut instinct is to trust the film and give him a mulligan on the pro day. Ferguson can play. I’d grab him around the middle of day two.

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The Ravens’ coaching staff is excellent. They have a challenging job ahead of them. Ferguson is the all-time D1 sacks leader. Williams is a known unknown. Bowser has been a disappointment. We’ll see what the coaching staff can get out of them.

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Replacing Mosley is going to be tricky. Chris Board, Patrick Onwuasor, and 2018 fourth-round pick Kenny Young will have to each chip in. Young and Onwuasor have both shown flashes, but that’s different than the sustained excellence we’ve seen from Mosley.

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The secondary is another matter. The addition of free safety Earl Thomas is potentially enormous. If Thomas is healthy and returns to the form he showed in Seattle, the Ravens’ pass defense will go from strong to transcendent. That’s a pretty big if, though, given that Thomas has now fractured his tibia twice. He turned 30 in May, so some decline would be normal.

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Thomas will be paired with strong safety Tony Jefferson. The Ravens’ secondary had strong numbers across the board last season and Jefferson was no exception. Anthony Levine and rookie fourth-round pick Iman Lewis-Marshall provide quality safety depth.

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2017 first-round pick #1CB Marlon Humphrey dominated last season. He’ll be paired with Jimmy Smith. Smith has some difficulties staying on the field. When healthy, he’s an excellent contributor.

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Brandon Carr is an above-average #3CB. 2016 fourth-round pick Tavon Young and 2018 fourth-round pick Anthony Everett are competing for the #4CB job. I expect Young to win the competition. This is one of the deepest units in the NFL.

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Kicker Justin Tucker has declined by roughly a touchdown each of the past two seasons. He was so far and away the best that he’s still among the elites, but no longer in a class by himself. Continued decline would be very disconcerting. Punter Sam Koch also declined. He wasn’t elite to begin with and is now mediocre. So was his coverage unit last season. The Ravens made an explicit effort to beef it up this year. The kick return game was excellent in 2017, but fell back to earth last season. The punt return unit was excellent and has been consistently strong the past two seasons. Overall, this remains one of the best special teams units in the NFL.

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It’s not really fair to say the Ravens’ season comes down to Lamar Jackson. The defense looks strong, even if it will likely regress a bit due to the exodus of talent. The special teams are solid. Jackson could lead the Ravens to an 8-8 or 9-7 season without showing much progress. The Ravens are looking for more than that, though. Jackson took great strides in college. I expect he’ll do the same in the NFL. It’ll take some time, though. 9-7.

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Cincinnati Bengals

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Last Year: 6-10 (5.9 Pythagorean wins)

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Projections:

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Scouting Wins: 8.36

DVOA Wins: 6.9

FPI Wins: 6.0

Market Expected Wins: 5.59

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Implied Pythag: 35.23%

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Here we have the opposite case from the Ravens. The scouts think the Bengals have done a decent job of roster construction and that they face a fairly soft schedule. I’m not so sure about either conclusion. New head coach Zac Taylor has his work cut out for him.

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Andy Dalton saw his play improve last season:

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2015: 3,250 yards, 25 TD, 7 INT, 7.7 NY/P, 31.7% DVOA, 1,144 DYAR (in 13 games)

2016: 4,206 yards, 18 TD, 8 INT, 6.6 NY/P, 7.6% DVOA, 798 DYAR

2017: 3,320 yards, 25 TD, 12 INT, 5.8 NY/P, -8.6% DVOA, 111 DYAR

2018: 2,566 yards, 21 TD, 11 INT, 6.3 NY/P, 5.2% DVOA, 418 DYAR (11 games)

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Dalton hasn’t been elite since 2015, and it stands to reason that we’ve seen the best of him. He’ll turn 32 in October. If this is who he is now, the Bengals will need elite skill talent to compete for a playoff spot.

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#1WR A.J. Green

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2015: 86 receptions, 1,297 yards, +13.2 +/-, 26.5% DVOA, 414 DYAR

2016: 66 receptions, 964 yards, +6.8 +/-, 19.1% DVOA, 250 DYAR (in ten games)

2017: 75 receptions, 1,078 yards, -1.3 +/-, -6.4% DVOA, 73 DYAR

2018: 46 receptions, 694 yards, -1.2 +/-, 12.4% DVOA, 155 DYAR (in nine games)

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Green was on a 276 DYAR pace, which would have put him at 13th overall. He’s missed 13 games in the past three seasons. He turned 31 in July and I’m concerned wear and tear are beginning to take their toll on the veteran receiver.

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#2WR 2017 first-round pick John Ross should be thankful for the regime change:

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2018: 21 receptions, 210 yards, -13.3 +/-, -33.3% DVOA, -96 DYAR (13 games)

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That followed up a rookie season where he caught zero passes in 3 games (-105.6% DVOA). Ross isn’t a technically complete player. He can be a legitimate deep threat if he’s not asked to do the things he clearly cannot do. He could potentially rebound in a new system.

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Slot receiver 2016 second-round pick Tyler Boyd has found his niche:

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2016: 54 receptions, 603 yards, +3.4 +/-, 2.4% DVOA, 96 DYAR

2017: 22 receptions, 225 yards, +1.2 +/-, 19.5% DVOA, 76 DYAR

2018: 76 receptions, 1,028 yards, +7.4 +/-, 24.1% DVOA, 305 DYAR (14 games)

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That’s a sterling level of production. The Bengals rewarded him with a new contract. If Ross rebounds, we could be looking at a very dangerous trio. 2017 fourth-round pick Josh Malone has seven career receptions. He’s had trouble cracking the starting lineup. Perhaps a new coach will mean new opportunities for the young receiver.

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#1TE Tyler Eifert has had difficulty staying on the field:

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2016-18: 48 receptions, 619 yards, +7.4 +/-, 12.8% DVOA, 99 DYAR (14 games)

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Yes, Eifert has played in 14 games over the past three seasons. 2015 fifth-round pick C.J. Uzomah was not able to pick up the slack (-11.3% DVOA, -18 DYAR). Rookie second-round pick Drew Sample is mostly a blocker. I was very surprised to hear his name called so early. He’s a #2TE at best. Either Eifert miraculously stays healthy, or the Bengals will be without a tight end receiving threat.

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2017 second-round pick running back Joe Mixon is a constant reminder that anything the NFL says about caring about domestic violence is pure bullshit:

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2018: 292 squid, 1,464 yards, 2.3% DVOA, 149 DYAR (14 games)

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If you can produce, all else is forgiven. Mixon can, although the jury is still out on what he’s capable of as a receiver in a more creative offense. We’ll see what new head coach Zac Taylor does with Mixon.

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The Bengals knew they needed to upgrade their offensive line. They drafted Jonah Williams in the first round in the hopes he would start from day one:

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Jonah Williams: I have him listed as a tackle, but there are whispers he’s going to be a guard in the NFL. If you are spending a premium pick on an offensive lineman, you are looking either for a left tackle or a truly dominant guard. I’m not sure Williams is either. He’s an excellent tactician who lacks ideal length. There are concerns about how well he can handle speed rushers. If he moves inside, that problem is alleviated, but then we have concerns about his base strength. Williams plays quite well, but I’m concerned he doesn’t have a natural position in the NFL. As such, I’d be very concerned about taking him in the top 15. He might end up being kicked over to center, where his weaknesses would be mitigated.

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We’ll have to wait and see with Williams, as he’s lost for the season with a shoulder injury.

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Left tackle Cordy Glenn was a bright spot (fifth in my positional rankings). He was moved over to left guard after the Bengals drafted Williams, but has since been moved back to left tackle. He missed three games last season due to injuries and is currently dealing with a concussion. He’s a capable starter if healthy. Like so many players on this offense, availability is a question.

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Left guard Clint Boling retired in July. That left the Bengals in a tough spot. They signed John Jerry as a stopgap while they wait for rookie fourth-round pick Michael Jordan to develop:

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Michael Jordan: Weird tape. Last year, he looked like a second-round guard. This year, he looked like a fourth-round center. Is he just a better natural fit at guard? Or are there a few flaws in his game that proper coaching would correct? I’m happy enough to move him back to guard. If he can play center too, great! If not, I think he can do a fine job for me elsewhere in the interior. Solid day two pick.

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Jordan was a good value who may find himself on the field rather swiftly.

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2018 first-round pick center Billy Price got destroyed last season, when he was arguably the worst center in the NFL. He injured his foot week two and missed six games. Perhaps he wasn’t healthy when he came back. This year will be his chance to prove last year was a fluke.

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The Bengals upgraded at right guard with the signing of John Miller. He was ninth in my positional rankings last season.

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Right tackle Bobby Hart got obliterated last season. Somehow the Bengals thought that was worthy of a major contract extension. It was… surreal. Bad teams stay bad because ownership and the resulting front office is bad. I don’t know what else to tell you.

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The Bengals have a strong interior defensive core. Defensive tackle Geno Atkins (ten sacks, 42 hits+hurries) is one of the best at his position. He’ll play alongside 2016 fourth-round pick Andrew Billings. Billings is a solid performer who put up good numbers against the run while providing decent pressure (2.5 sacks, 19 hits+hurries).

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Josh Tupou, 2017 fourth-round pick Ryan Glasgow, and 2019 fourth-round pick Renell Wren will provide depth. Glasgow is coming back from an ACL tear. Tupou is coming back from a pectoral tear. Tupou looked solid in limited usage last season.

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Carlos Dunlap and 2018 third-round pick Sam Hubbard will start at defensive end. Dunlap is coming off of a solid season (eight sacks, 49 hits+hurries). Hubbard had some decent results (six sacks), but couldn’t get sustained pressure (14 hits+hurries). He was also a notable liability against the run. I have some trouble squaring his numbers with his film. He was quite effective winning one-on-one matchups, so I’m not sure why he didn’t have better overall results. Perhaps just rookie inexperience.

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2017 third-round pick Jordan Willis and 2017 fourth-round pick Carl Lawson will provide depth. They combined for two sacks last season. Lawson has an excuse, as he missed half the season with an ACL tear. He had 8.5 sacks his rookie season. Willis needs to show he’s capable of more production. Free-agent pickup Kerry Wynn (1.5 sacks, 14 hits+hurries in limited usage) will also join the rotation.

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The linebacker corps is a disaster. 2016 third-round pick Nick Vigil has been a disappointment. Injuries have limited him. At this point, he’s replacement level fodder. Preston Brown is a known mediocrity. Jordan Evans shined in comparison to his teammates. In a normal linebacker corps he’d be the weak link, or preferably added depth. Rookie third-round pick Germaine Pratt should earn some playing time:

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Germaine Pratt: Is he an athletic linebacker? Or a bulked up safety? He’s shown some nice pass-rush skills. He’s capable of covering tight ends. He doesn’t have much starting experience (at either position), so his learning curve is going to be a bit steeper than most. Late day-two, early day-three pick for me.

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The linebacker corps in a 4-3 defense may be the least important unit, but the Bengals are pushing it. Hardy Nickerson will provide depth inside. He, too, got demolished when he played last season.

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#1CB 2016 first-round pick William Jackson struggled early last season. His play bounced back and he finished with reasonable numbers.

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#2CB Dre Kirkpatrick is a tough man to grade. On one hand, his coverage numbers are solid. The trade-off is that he’s rather physical and he’ll draw more than his fair share of penalties. Overall, I’d say Kirkpatrick is getting the better end of the deal. I’d be more confident in that conclusion if he had intercepted more than one pass over the past two seasons.

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Darqueze Dennard is on the PUP list. His timetable to return is unknown. B.W. Webb and Darius Phillips will provide depth in Dennard’s absence. Look for Webb to start in the nickel slot. He put up good results there last year.

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2018 second-round pick Jesse Bates had mixed results at free safety last season. He started all 16 games and snagged three interceptions. His overall numbers weren’t great, though. Hopefully, he’ll come back as an improved player this season.

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Strong safety Shawn Williams was an even more extreme case. His coverage numbers were bollocks. He had 108 tackles when he should have had 120+. He redeemed himself somewhat with five interceptions. My concern is that the coverage numbers and the poor tackling are more predictive of his future results. Apart from possibly Pratt, there isn’t much depth here.

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Kicker Randy Bullock was solid last season. The Bengals brought in Tristan Vizcaino, possibly for kickoffs. This is probably just an attempt at keeping Bullock on his toes. Punter Kevin Huber is fine. So are his coverage units. The Bengals did a decent job returning punts. Where they excelled was returning kickoffs. Alex Erickson handled both return jobs last season. He’ll be handling both again this year. Overall, the Bengals’ special teams are a bright spot on an otherwise questionable roster.

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I have a habit of overrating the Bengals. I’m not sure why. Dalton is a game manager. The receiver corps looks fine until someone, most likely Eifert, goes down. The offensive line still has a huge hole named Bobby Hart. The linebacker corps is dreadful. But… there’s a lot of room for improvement too. The offensive line could easily be a lot better than it was last year. Wide receiver John Ross can learn how to play football. Carl Lawson could stay healthy and return to his rookie year form. Finally, new coach Zac Taylor could give his team a schematic edge. That would be something new in Cincinnati. Maybe mediocrity is in reach… but I know they’ll find a way to screw it up. 6-10.

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Cleveland Browns

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Last Year: 7-8-1 (7.1 Pythagorean wins)

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Projections:

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Scouting Wins: 9.55

DVOA Wins: 8.0

FPI Wins: 8.8

Market Expected Wins: 8.74

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Implied Pythag: 52.91%

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When you miss on a first-round quarterback, you set your franchise back, possibly for years. That can lead to a GM getting fired. Fear of failure is a powerful motivator. The Arizona Cardinals refused to let that happen to them. They jettisoned one first round pick and gave themselves a second shot with Kyler Murray. Did the Browns’ success with Baker Mayfield inspire them? Mayfield showed a short (6-1) QB could succeed in the NFL. I guess we’ll never know how Arizona’s decision went down. What we do know is that Mayfield has given the Browns new life:

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2018: 3,725 yards, 27 TD, 14 INT, 7.0 NY/P, 8.1% DVOA, 608 DYAR (14 games)

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Baker improved as the season went on. Actually, he improved quite a bit after the Browns fired Hue Jackson. At this point the expectation is that Baker will be one of the top ten quarterbacks in the NFL no later than next season. The Browns helped his development by giving him a premier weapon.

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Odell Beckham Jr. is coming off of a down year in NY (2.5% DVOA, 151 DYAR in 12 games). It’s been years since he’s worked with a quarterback with a live arm. OBJ is going to have a chance to return to the glory days of 2014-2015, when he put up 700 DYAR in two seasons. He’ll also open up the defense and create space for other Browns receivers.

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Somehow, Travis Landry failed to take advantage of Mayfield’s debut:

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2016: 94 receptions, 1,136 yards, +6.2 +/-, 4.8% DVOA, 174 DYAR

2017: 112 receptions, 987 yards, +1.8 +/-, -4.9% DVOA, 98 DYAR

2018: 81 receptions, 976 yards, -7.9 +/-, -22.2% DVOA, -111 DYAR

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Holy excrement! He put up decent numbers in Miami. He came over to Cleveland in 2018 and was an utter disaster. It wasn’t just Landry either. #1TE 2017 first-round pick David Njoku cratered:

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2018: 56 receptions, 639 yards, -2.9 +/-, -18.1% DVOA, -63 DYAR

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Choo made a very good point:

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https://twitter.com/hagrinNFL/status/1163903825733963776

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Njoku:

Pre: 51 targets, 31 receptions, 297 yards

Post: 37 targets, 25 receptions, 342 yards

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Landry:

Pre: 94 targets, 49 receptions, 528 yards

Post: 55 targets, 32 receptions, 448 yards

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That’s a combined net difference of 2.9 yards-per-target, jumping for 5.7 to 8.6. I have to think both Njoku and Landry end up in the black in terms of DYAR this season.

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#3WR Rashard Higgins blossomed with Mayfield. 2016 fifth-round pick Higgins put up -55 DYAR in his first two seasons. Last year was different:

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2018: 39 receptions, 572 yards, +7.6 +/-, 22.3 DVOA, 143 DYAR (13 games)

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He’s mostly an outside deep threat. We’ll see if he can steal some targets from Landry. That +7.6 suggests he should be seeing far more playing time than he has been.

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Jaelen Strong has been brought in as the #4WR. He missed 2018 recovering from an ACL tear. It’s unclear what the 2015 third-round pick brings to the table at this point.

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Antonio Callaway will join the season in progress, as he’s been suspended four games for substance abuse. 2018 fourth-round pick Callaway came into the NFL with numerous red flags and has lived up to that scouting report. As for his play:

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2018: 43 receptions, 586 yards, -5.0 +/-, -6.3% DVOA, 40 DYAR

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Mayfield has more trustworthy targets. Callaway has his work cut out for him to play his way back up the depth chart.

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It’s a little tricky knowing what the distribution breakdown will look like in Cleveland this year. We know that OBJ is the clear #1WR. After that, we’ll see how the offense looks.

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2018 second-round pick running back Nick Chubb had an impressive rookie season:

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2018: 221 squid, 1,145 yards, 0.4% DVOA, 94 DYAR

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He’ll be the #1RB until Kareem Hunt finishes his eight-game suspension. Hunt has 656 DYAR in his last 27 games. We’ll see how much of that was his talent and how much was from being a cog in the powerful Kansas City offense.

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Remember Greg Robinson? Former #2 overall pick of the Rams. Also, one of my highest rated players in that draft. Failed miserably. Signed a veteran minimum deal to be a backup in Cleveland. Watched Desmond Harrison get his ass kicked at left tackle. Came in to replace him and didn’t give up a sack in the second half of the season. That guy? Earned a new $7M deal. Robinson looked great on film. He had a bit of a problem with flags, but was otherwise dominant. If he’s finally ready to live up to his potential, Cleveland will have found their left tackle for a remarkably cheap price.

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Left guard Joel Bitonio and center J.C. Tretter were both excellent last season, finishing fourth and third, respectively, in my positional rankings.

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Eric Kush was a slightly above-average left guard in Chicago last season. He’ll be switching over to right guard in Cleveland. He’ll be taking over for the departed Kevin Zeitler.

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Chris Hubbard looks like he’s holding off free-agent pickup Kendall Lamm for the right tackle job. I thought Lamm was slightly better last season, although both were solid. Hubbard is considered the stronger run-blocker, which is something I have difficulty grading. The good thing is the Browns have solid tackle depth regardless of who wins the job.

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The Browns’ defense will look different this year. Coach Gregg Williams is out. Defensive coordinator Steve Wilks is in. That means less blitzing. Defensive ends Myles Garrett (13.5 sacks, 50 hits+hurries) and Olivier Vernon (seven sacks, 46 hits+hurries) will have to get it done with less help from the linebackers and DBs. Vernon came over from the Giants in the Kevin Zeitler trade. I think the Browns got the best of that deal. Anthony Zettel, Chris Smith, and 2018 third-round pick Chad Thomas will provide depth.

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2017 third-round pick Larry Ogunjobi (5.5 sacks, 25 hits+hurries) will pair with free-agent pickup Sheldon Richardon (4.5 sacks, 34 hits+hurries) inside. This is a very strong defensive line. Carl Davis and Trevon Coley will provide depth. The defensive line depth here is poor, so keeping the starters healthy and on the field will be key.

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The tricky part in judging the Browns’ linebacker corps is that they’ll have different jobs this season. 2018 fifth-round pick Genard Avery had 4.5 sacks and 37 hits+hurries last season. Can he come close to repeating that? Will he spend more time in coverage? He looked good in coverage in a very small sample last season. He was also an excellent tackler. Frankly, he had a stunningly good rookie season. If he gets better, he’ll be one of the best linebackers in the NFL.

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Middle linebacker 2016 fourth-round pick Joe Schobert is another question. He was solid in coverage. He’s a poor tackler, though. That seems like a bad trait for the man in the middle. The Browns grabbed backup Sione Takitaki in the third round. I thought he was a bit of a reach. He has the same tackling problems Schobert has.

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Weakside linebacker Christian Kirksey is returning from a hamstring injury that limited him to seven games. Kirksey spent most of last season getting his ass kicked. He grabbed two interceptions, which mitigated the damage he did with his poor play. Rookie fifth-round pick Mack Wilson slid in the draft. He was my #3 inside linebacker:

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Mack Wilson: Maybe it’s because he was surrounded by so much elite talent, but Wilson looked like “just a guy” to me. He did his job, but rarely impressed. I guess his hands might be exceptional, but it’s hard to read too much into a sample size of six interceptions. I guess not everyone can be a star, and defenses need eleven guys out there who do can their jobs. Wilson can do his job, so he’s a middle of day two pick for me.

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He had a lousy junior season. He was much better in his freshman and sophomore seasons. He’s looked good in training camp. I’d love to see Wilson start ahead of Kirksey or Schobert.

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The Browns have worked on building a strong secondary. 2018 first-round pick Denzel Ward had a monster season. He missed three games due to concussions. That’ll be an ongoing concern. When healthy, he’s already one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL.

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Terrance Mitchell did a good job in the eight games he played last season. Rookie second-round pick Greedy Williams is trying to take his job:

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Greedy Williams: It’s very hard not to fall in love with his measurables. He’s 6-2, 185, with a 4.37-40. His film backed that up. You could argue he should add more muscle to his frame so that he can be more physical in coverage. I’m sure whoever drafts will bulk him up to his optimal playing weight.

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His vision is questionable. He should have made more plays on the ball than he did. He’s also prone to swipe at a receiver’s hands instead of at the ball, which can lead to some bad penalties if his timing is off. Williams has the highest ceiling of any cornerback in the draft, so it’s just a question of who wants to gamble on his potential the earliest.

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Mitchell is not giving up his starting job without a fight. He’s currently ahead of Williams on the depth chart. My guess is it will take a while for Williams to learn to adjust from playing man to playing zone. Either way, the Browns will have quality depth.

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T.J. Carrie has locked down the slot job. He was excellent last season.

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Morgan Burnett was brought in to take over at strong safety. He’s a canny veteran whose knowledge of how to play more than makes up for any lost steps. That won’t last forever, though

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Free safety Damarious Randall had a mixed season. The good news is he had four interceptions. The bad news is his coverage numbers weren’t great. Overall, he was a solid contributor, especially compared to his predecessors

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Rookie fourth-round pick Sheldrick Redwine is a converted cornerback. He may be Randall’s eventual replacement.

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I don’t know how the Browns have managed to be consistently terrible on special teams. Punter Britton Colquitt was as bad as his coverage unit. He’s facing a training camp battle from Jamie Gillan. Conquitt was decent in 2017. The coverage units have been awful for years. Kicker Greg Joseph is up against rookie fifth-round pick Austin Seibert. Kicking was an issue for the Browns last season. The kick return game was poor as well. The punt return unit was the only bright spot. Funny story: the kick return unit is made up of the same players as the punt return unit. ¯\_()_/¯

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The Browns have finally brought hope to Cleveland. Will they make good on their potential? The Browns have done a lot to improve their roster. Their starting defensive line is a monster. The secondary is deep and talented. Mayfield should continue to improve. OBJ gives the offense an elite weapon. The special teams are a concern. Special teams performance is notoriously volatile. Perhaps the Browns will catch the good end of variance this time. My real worry is the lack of depth. This is a good team. It’s not yet a great one. 9-7.

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Pittsburgh Steelers

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Last Year: 9-6-1 (9.7 Pythagorean wins)

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Projections:

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Scouting Wins: 8.73

DVOA Wins: 9.4

FPI Wins: 8.5

Market Expected Wins: 9.30

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Implied Pythag: 56.92%

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It feels like the end of an era in Pittsburgh. Sure, they still have Ben Roethlisberger. They’re still a contender to win the AFC North. What’s changed is that they aren’t considered one of the AFC elites. They aren’t viewed as potential equals to the Patriots or Chiefs. Time has taken its toll on what had been a dominant offense. Losing Le’Veon Bell might not be a big deal. Losing Antonio Brown leaves a #1WR-sized hole in the Steelers’ offense. That could create a negative cascade effect. I’ll get to that shortly. First let’s look at the last remaining key piece, Roethlisberger:

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2017: 4,251 yards, 28 TD, 14 INT, 7.4 NY/P, 21.8% DVOA, 1,276 DYAR (in 15 games)

2018: 5,129 yards, 34 TD, 16 INT, 7.1 NY/P, 14.5% DVOA, 1,266 DYAR

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Roethlisberger threw the ball a ton last year, attempting 675 passes. For reference, Matt Ryan hasn’t missed a game in the last three seasons. Over that time he’s averaged 557 pass attempts per year. Roethlisberger was still fairly efficient. Truth be told, the Steelers were rather unlucky to miss the playoffs last season. The Steelers’ offense was effective last year because they called more efficient passing plays instead of less efficient running plays. The tricky part will be maintaining that efficiency without Antonio Brown.

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2017 second-round pick JuJu Smith-Schuster followed up an amazing rookie season with a solid campaign:

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2017: 58 receptions, 917 yards, +8.1 +/-, 37.3% DVOA, 317 DYAR (in 14 games)

2018: 111 receptions, 1,426 yards, +3.1 +/-, 4.4% DVOA, 235 DYAR

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Asking him to maintain anything close to his rookie effectiveness was unrealistic. The Steelers would take a repeat performance from him. He’ll have to do it against #1CB’s with additional safety help this season. Brown was a coverage magnet. Now Smith-Schuster will have to step up.

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Free-agent pickup Donte Moncrief is stepping into the #2WR job. Moncrief is a deep threat who hasn’t refined his game to the point where he’s a trustworthy target. Perhaps he’ll finally blossom with Roethlisberger.

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Depth chart be damned, 2018 second-round pick James Washington is under a lot of pressure to compete for the #2WR job. He’s coming off of a miserable rookie season:

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2018: 16 receptions, 217 yards, -4.7 +/-, -25.1% DVOA, -37 DYAR (14 games)

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Woof! Roethlisberger was firing away and Washington could only manage 16 receptions. Either Washington shows significant progress, or he’ll be labeled a bust and buried on the depth chart.

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2017 fourth-round pick Ryan Switzer has barely made an impact in the NFL (42 receptions, 294 yards, -8.6% DVOA, 16 DYAR). There’s a paucity of trusted receiving options in Pittsburgh, so this is his chance.

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Rookie third-round pick Diontae Johnson was a MAC standout as both a receiver and on special teams. He projects to a be a slot receiver in the NFL. I wasn’t expecting to hear his name called until the middle of day three.

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#1TE Vance McDonald is trustworthy, if not explosive:

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2018: 50 receptions, 610 yards, -0.1 +/-, 3.6% DVOA, 51 DYAR (15 games)

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It’s a bad sign for the Steelers’ receiver corps if McDonald is seeing a ton of targets.

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#1RB 2017 third-round pick James Connor filled in for Le’Veon Bell to the best of his abilities:

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2018: 286 squid, 1,470 yards, 5.5% DVOA, 211 DYAR (13 games)

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It’s hard to shake the feeling that he was taking advantage of defenses that were singularly focused on stopping Roethlisberger. I guess it doesn’t matter why he was able to be so productive. So long as he can take what the defense gives him, he’ll continue to move the chains.

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Rookie fourth-round pick Benny Snell is being treated like a short yardage specialist. I’m not convinced that’s a thing, but I’m not the one calling plays in Pittsburgh.

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The Steelers’ offensive line is excellent across the board. Left tackle Alejandro Villanueva put in another strong season, finishing ninth in my positional rankings.

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Left guard Ramon Foster was even better, finishing third.

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Center Maurkice Pouncey finished eighth in my rankings.

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Right guard David DeCastro finished seventh.

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The surprise was backup right tackle Matt Feiler finishing first in my rankings. In ten games he allowed one sack and committed zero penalties. It was an unexpected blessing. Feiler’s performance has kept 2018 third-round pick Chukwuma Okorafor on the bench. That gives the Steelers a quality backup if a starting tackle goes down.

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The Steelers have an excellent offensive line and a veteran (age 37) star quarterback. The skill talent is going to have to prove itself. The most accomplished performers, Smith-Schuster and Conner, will have to step up just to maintain their previous level of performance. The real question is what can the other guys do. We’ll soon find out.

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The Steelers’ defense was based around a tremendous pass rush. They finished with 52 sacks and a commensurate amount of pressure. The entire defensive line chipped in. Defensive ends Cameron Haywood (eight sacks, 46 hits+hurries) and Stephon Tuitt (5.5 sacks, 39 hits+hurries) were both disruptive. Defensive tackle 2016 third-round Javon Hargrave chipped in with 6.5 sacks of his own (ten hits+hurries).

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Outside linebackers 2017 first-round pick T.J Watt (13 sacks, 44 hits+hurries), and 2015 first-round pick Bud Dupree (5.5 sacks, 34 hits+hurries) did their part. Watt was also excellent against the run. He is on his way to becoming a star.

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Inside linebacker Vince Williams snagged 4.5 sacks (14 hits+hurries). He’ll pair with rookie first-round pick Devin Bush:

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Devin Bush: I watch the film and I see an oversized safety. He’s going to be a weakside linebacker (Will) in the NFL. He has excellent range and agility, as well as above-average vision. What he lacks is size and power. Frankly, he seems well adapted to the modern NFL. He’s a clear step down from (Devin) White, but well above anyone else available in this draft at the position. He should come off the board mid-to-late round one.

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Free-agent pickup Mark Barron will provide quality depth inside.

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So, the Steelers have a solid front-seven? I’m not sure it’s that simple. Tuitt and Dupree are both viewed as disappointments. Neither has managed seven sacks in a season. Over the past four seasons they’ve combined to average 10 sacks a season. That’s not all that many given how many snaps each has taken, and their roles in the defense.

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The front-seven was good, not great, against the run. They were no better than average in short yardage. The real issue was coverage. Tight ends murdered the Steelers last season. The addition of Barron and Bush will give the Steelers significantly more speed to cover tight ends and running backs.

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Depth can be tough to measure. After Barron, there is no one outside of the Steelers’ starters that I trust. Good health will be essential.

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Given the quality of their pass rush, I was expecting more from the Steelers’ secondary. #1CB Joe Haden was solid. 2016 first-round pick Artie Burns has been a disaster. The Steelers signed Steven Nelson to take over as the #2CB. Nelson was solid in Kansas City.

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Mike Hilton returns as the nickel cornerback. Even by slot standards, Hilton seems undersized. 2017 third-round pick Cameron Sutton was supposed to have won the job by now. Sutton has been underwhelming both inside and outside.

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Rookie third-round pick Justin Layne may see time as a dime defender:

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Justin Layne: Ability to get his hands on the ball: A+. Ability to catch the ball if he gets his hands on it: D-. I see there was a reason why Michigan State’s coaching staff moved him from receiver to cornerback. He has excellent reaction speed and vision. Not particularly interested in providing assistance against the run. He’s a quality defender and should come off the board day two.

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2018 first-round pick Terrell Edmunds made 16 starts at strong safety. Hopefully, that accelerated his development. He’ll need to play smarter this season.

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2016 second-round pick Sean Davis has been a jack-of-all-trades. He’s played every secondary position save outside cornerback. He hasn’t impressed in any of those roles. This year, his main task will be free safety.

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Pittsburgh’s decline on special teams was worth roughly one win. That’s a pretty huge tumble. We’re seeing training camp battles throughout the unit. Kicker Chris Boswell is up against Matthew Wright. Punter Jordan Berry is facing Ian Berryman. Even long snapper Kameron Canaday will have to prove his worth against Trevor Wood. Fixing the awful punt coverage is key. Improving a lousy kick return game would be nice as well. I figure the Steelers’ special teams should bounce back due to sheer variance. It’s clear it’s on their radar, so that’s a start.

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Over the past eight years the Steelers have appeared in one AFC Championship game. They got their clocks cleaned by the Patriots. The Patriots have appeared in all eight, and have won the last three. The two rivals simply aren’t on the same level anymore. These days the Steelers need to focus on the Browns and Ravens. Are the Steelers still the cream of the division? They might be, but they also face a tougher schedule than the Ravens or Browns. Between Roethlisberger and the offensive line the offense should still be productive, even with a sketchy receiver corps. The defense should still pressure the quarterback, at the expense of leaving open space for tight ends and running backs. There will be a lot of pressure on Bush and Barron to improve their coverage. Overall the Steelers should be slightly worse than they were last year. The loss of Antonio Brown is going to hurt. One lucky break: Andrew Luck’s retirement turns the November 3rd battle in Pittsburgh into a snoozer. 9-7.

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