AFC North preview: Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh Steelers
By Thomas Brooks
Last Updated: 03/09/19 3:51pm
The wait is nearly over and the new NFL season is almost upon us!
The league's 100th year begins on Thursday, September 5 when the Chicago Bears host the Green Bay Packers, live on Sky Sports.
Before then, it's time to assess 2019's contenders.
We are previewing all eight divisions, and here you can find our views on the AFC North and cast your vote on who you think will win below...
Head coach: Mike Tomlin
Key man: Since he was drafted in 2004, Ben Roethlisberger has been the heart and soul of this franchise. Despite getting on in age and throwing the most interceptions in the NFL last season (16), the 37-year-old is still one of the best quarterbacks in the league.
Roethlisberger has lost his favourite target for the last six seasons - Antonio Brown - but the emergence of JuJu Smith-Schuster will help him massively. Their partnership could become one of the most dangerous in the league.
Major additions: The marquee moves this offseason in Pittsburgh were departures. Top wideout Brown was traded to Oakland, while Le'Veon Bell signed for the New York Jets after sitting out the 2018 season.
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However, the Steelers drafted incredibly well this year. They selected linebacker Devin Bush 10th overall, who is immediately one of the favourites to win Defensive Rookie of the Year. On offense, speedy wide receiver Diontae Johnson and running back Benny Snell will contribute.
Last season: They missed the playoffs for the first time since 2013, finishing 9-6-1.
The Steelers won seven of their first 10 games to get to 7-2-1, but playoff hopes were dashed when they lost four of their next five. Their fate was sealed in Week 17 when Baltimore won, eliminating the Steelers from contention.
Prospects: Roethlisberger and Smith-Schuster could take their relationship to a whole new level this season, while the offensive line is one of the best in the league and will allow James Conner to thrive in the running and passing game.
Defensively, the Steelers are sound and look to have improved this offseason with the acquisition of Bush in the draft. They'll be hoping for a swift return to the postseason.
Prediction: 1st (11-5)
Head coach: John Harbaugh
Key man: The Ravens went 6-1 last season when Lamar Jackson started. But the 22-year-old must improve in the passing game if he wants to return to the postseason as teams now know what to expect when coming up against him. He only threw for 1,201 yards and six touchdowns last season, yet rushed for 695 yards and five touchdowns.
If Jackson can find the perfect blend between both forms of attack, this offense can be lethal. However, with the number of hits he takes as a rusher, Jackson must learn to protect himself.
Major additions: Running back Mark Ingram was brought in on a three-year, $15m deal and is essentially a bigger and better version of Alex Collins. Keep an eye on fourth-round runner Justice Hill behind him, who impressed in preseason. On defense, six-time Pro Bowler Earl Thomas was the big addition when he signed a $55m contract in free agency.
The Ravens lacked wide receiver production last season but that doesn't look to be the case anymore… Rookies Marquise Brown and Miles Boykin will both provide some much-needed speed outside.
Last season: The benching of long-time starting quarterback Joe Flacco after a Week Nine loss ended up being a blessing. They went from an abysmal 4-5 record to ending the season 10-6 and making the playoffs thanks to Jackson taking the league by storm.
Unfortunately, their playoff experience didn't last long as they were beaten in the Wild Card round by the Los Angeles Chargers.
Prospects: Although the Ravens aren't one of the big AFC powerhouses, they're certainly on the cusp. If Jackson is able to generate more through the air, then they have a genuine chance of winning the division again. The additions of more offensive weapons will only improve the young QB.
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The defense will be strong yet again and with the addition of hard-hitting Thomas, the secondary should return to their turnover potential from 2018, when they led the league in takeaways.
Prediction: 2nd (9-7)
Head coach: Freddie Kitchens
Key man: Despite being pipped to the Rookie of the Year Award last season by Saquon Barkley, Baker Mayfield is one of the most highly-regarded young quarterbacks in the NFL. The 24-year-old broke the record for most touchdown passes thrown by a rookie (27).
His offense is stacked with weapons - including Odell Beckham Jr, Jarvis Landry and Nick Chubb - so if he's not able to improve on his stats as a rookie, a lot of questions will be asked.
Major additions: In arguably the biggest move of the summer, the Browns acquired Beckham Jr in a blockbuster trade with the New York Giants. Olivier Vernon also made the same trip in a separate deal.
2017 Pro Bowl running back Kareem Hunt was also added to the roster after his release from the Kansas City Chiefs. However, the 24-year-old is suspended for the first eight games of the season due to violating the NFL's personal conduct policy.
Last season: In the two previous seasons, the Browns had an abysmal 1-31 record. By Week Five of last year, they'd already won two games. However, a string of four losses in a row saw Hue Jackson fired and Gregg Williams put in charge for the remainder of the season.
Williams came close to guiding the Browns to their first .500 season since 2007, but they fell just short at 7-8-1.
Prospects: There's been a lot of hype around the Browns due to the number of big names they've brought in on offense, but the team may take time to gel.
The attack is full of stars and the signing of Hunt could help massively down the stretch when he returns from suspension. Myles Garrett and Denzel Ward are defensive studs, but the rest of the unit needs work.
In a tough division, Mayfield and co need to hit the ground running to reach the playoffs for the first time in 17 years.
Prediction: 3rd (9-7)
Head coach: Zac Taylor
Key man: Despite most teams relying on their quarterback, the Bengals rely heavily on their running back. Joe Mixon is one of the few bright sparks on this team.
The 23-year-old had 1,464 all-purpose yards and nine touchdowns last season but was somehow not named to the Pro Bowl, despite leading the AFC in rushing yards.
Mixon is in line for another busy season as the Bengals are lacking quality at receiver, especially due to A.J. Green's injury. Without Mixon, this team could be the worst in the NFL.
Major additions: The Bengals chose not to bolster their ranks with stars during free agency. Guard John Miller could be the only notable veteran addition.
The 2019 NFL Draft wasn't much better as Cincy's first-round pick Jonah Williams has been ruled out for the season due to a torn labrum in his left shoulder. However, they could have drafted their future quarterback in fourth-round Ryan Finley. He's looked sharp in preseason, but won't be dethroning Andy Dalton any time soon.
Last season: The Bengals got off to a hot start, winning four of their first five games. Throughout the rest of the season, they only mustered up two more victories, leaving them with an underwhelming 6-10 record.
Injuries then played a massive part in their downfall, as throughout the season, 26 players were placed on Injured Reserve - including star wide receiver Green.
Prospects: With a depleted roster and new head coach, the Bengals are expected to struggle. They have an ageing quarterback who hasn't led them to the playoffs since 2015 and they not much depth on offense, so Mixon will be the go-to option.
The defense isn't much better, either and has also been riddled with injuries. It might be another ugly season for the Bengals.
Prediction: 4th (4-12)
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