As we hurtle toward the regular season, check out our division-by-division primers highlighting players and storylines to watch in 2017. Marc Sessler tackles the AFC North below.
Most significant changes from 2016
For all its tweaks this offseason, the AFC North’s most pressing question remains unchanged: When will the Pittsburgh Steelers reach their full potential? Stocked with more talent on offense than any team in the conference west of Foxborough, Mike Tomlin’s bunch again looms as the primary challenger to the world-champion Patriots. Ben Roethlisberger toyed, at least superficially, with the idea of retirement, but Pittsburgh’s massive-bodied quarterback was never about to walk away from an attack glittering with All-Pro wideout Antonio Brown, back-from-suspension red-zone monster Martavis Bryant and the league’s most versatile ground/air workhorse, running back Le’Veon Bell. One January after the next, the Steelers venture to the threshold, only to tumble short. If they can’t reach the Promised Land with this year’s cast, it’s fair to wonder if it will ever happen again with Big Ben, who could be playing his final season in the NFL.
First, Pittsburgh must take care of business in a division featuring a flood of new faces. Coming off a lackluster campaign, the Bengals reloaded on offense by nabbing lightning-quick wideout John Ross — who showed off his speed in last week’s preseason debut — at No. 9 overall and, one round later, arguably the draft’s top running back in Joe Mixon. A formidable and powerful runner with elusive, tackle-shedding moves as a pass catcher, Mixon has the talent to carry this offense for years. The question in Cincy is whether tackles Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher can do their part to keep Andy Dalton upright.
Is it Y2K all over again? The Ravens have put together a defense brimming with young talent and a fascinating secondary that added veteran safety Tony Jefferson, ex-Cowboys cornerback Brandon Carr and first-round cover man Marlon Humphrey. With Terrell Suggs nearing the end, Baltimore still needs a young pass rusher to step up. Tyus Bowser and Matt Judon are names to watch in a front seven anchored by behemoth interior lineman Brandon Williams.
In Cleveland, the Browns have stocked their cap-friendly roster with a bevy of draft picks, new faces and yet another starting quarterback. Second-rounder DeShone Kizer earned the job after outplaying Cody Kessler and the traded-for Brock Osweiler. A work-in-progress bound to take his lumps, Kizer finally gives the team a signal caller with the strong arm and size you want to see in the AFC North. The story of this team, though, could be a defense led by veteran linebacker Jamie Collins and fascinating top overall pick Myles Garrett.
One player to watch on each team
BALTIMORE RAVENS: Justin Tucker, kicker. Joe Flacco’s back would qualify for “One body part to watch from each team,” but the Ravens quarterback is on schedule to start Week 1. Even so, this is a club that feels destined to win a rash of games 15-13, making Tucker arguably the most critical special teams player league-wide.
CINCINNATI BENGALS: Joe Mixon, running back. Jeremy Hill ran well in the preseason, but a healthy Mixon will steal starts right away. While his numbers weren’t outrageous in the preseason, the rookie put together a reel of dominating game tape — especially catching the ball in space. Sharing traits with ex-Bengals star Corey Dillon, Mixon looms as Offensive Rookie of the Year material on an intriguing Cincinnati offense.
CLEVELAND BROWNS: Myles Garrett, pass rusher. The list of first-round draft busts in Cleveland is dense, thorny and inglorious. Everything we’ve gleaned from Garrett suggests otherwise during a camp and preseason that saw him match wits with stalwart left tackle Joe Thomas in practice and flash moments of brilliance in games. He looks like a keeper for the ages.
PITTSBURGH STEELERS: Martavis Bryant, wide receiver. The last time we saw Bryant in meaningful action, he posted 154 yards off nine catches with 40 yards on the ground in a January 2016 playoff loss to the Broncos. Exiled to suspension last season, the freaky wideout is the missing ingredient inside a loaded Steelers arsenal that will give defensive coordinators night terrors from wire to wire.
What we’ll be talking about at season’s end
Farewell, Big Ben: Whether or not the Steelers finally knock off New England and get back to the Super Bowl, I can’t shake the feeling that we’re staring at the final year of this fine quarterback’s run in Pittsburgh. He’s hinted at it too many times, which stands in quizzical contrast to the gaggle of aging arms saying they plan to play until age 45. Just a hunch.
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