1. Cleveland Browns
After going 11-5 last season under Kevin Stefanski, Cleveland is entering its second year in Stefanski’s system and will be a much more formidable force this season. The Browns are legit contenders for the AFC. At this point in the offseason, the Browns should be looked at as one of the top threats to Kansas City. As weird as that sounds, this team has continuity, a revamped defense, and one of the most complete rosters in the league.
Stefanski’s offensive system revolves around the running attack of Chubb and Hunt. The combination of Chubb and Hunt opens up so much for the offense in the passing game. The AFC North will continue to fear this backfield as Chubb signed a three-year, $36.6 million extension on July 31. The deal includes $20 million guaranteed. Despite playing in only 12 games last season, Chubb managed 1,067 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground. Hunt was also productive last season with 841 rushing yards and six touchdowns on the ground, while adding 304 receiving yards and five more touchdowns through the air.
Cleveland had 2,000 rushing yards in the backfield last season. Chubb and Hunt together give defenses a headache. Each running back can provide rest for the other, keeping each running back fresh for longer stretches. In the first half of games it would be Chubb putting on a show, while in the second half in multiple games Hunt would step in and dominate with fresh legs. These two form the best running back tandem in the league, and this trend should continue into this season.
The main beneficiary of the prolific rushing attack is quarterback Baker Mayfield. The 26-year-old quarterback was finally coached to his strengths last season under Stefanski. The first-year head coach utilized the run game as a gateway to the play-action pass, which is Mayfield’s notable strong suit. The former first overall pick excels throwing with a clean pocket, and the play-action pass allows him to survey the field and fire the ball into tight windows. Last season, Mayfield completed 62.8% of his passes, while throwing 26 touchdowns and a career low eight interceptions.
The Browns’ offensive scheme allows Mayfield to play to his strengths, while taking the load off of him. This offense is built around the running game and that threat gives Mayfield opportunities to exploit defenses who commit to the run. As long as Mayfield continues to take care of the football and run the offense smoothly, this team will be a legitimate threat in the AFC.
One aspect of this team that many had questions about entering this offseason was how effective the defense could be in 2021. Cleveland’s defensive personnel was underwhelming last season, but this offseason, the Browns made sure to address that side of the ball. In free agency, Cleveland signed safety John Johnson, defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, cornerback Troy Hill, and a few other names who could make contributions at some point.
The Browns also nailed the draft process and had a couple of names that fell to them that were viewed as high-end prospects. The two names that Cleveland should especially be excited about are former Northwestern cornerback Greg Newsome and hyper-athletic linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah. The former Notre Dame linebacker can fly all over the field and should help the Browns in coverage in addition to closing gaps and stopping the run. Newsome was a shutdown corner at Northwestern and was viewed as a great addition for this Browns’ defense.
Myles Garrett and Clowney will form one of the best defensive end duos in the league. Clowney has been disappointing the last few years, but the former first overall pick should have a lot of opportunities to get to the quarterback with defenses focused on Garrett. The talent that Cleveland has accumulated on the defensive side of the ball will give the Browns a much needed boost.
Record Prediction: 12-5
2. Baltimore Ravens
It is tough to imagine the Baltimore Ravens struggling to win games this season after going 11-5 a season ago. However, the team had a number of stars depart in the offseason, especially on the defensive side of the ball. Matt Judon signed with the Patriots and Yannick Ngakoue signed with Las Vegas.
The Ravens did find a replacement for Judon when the team drafted pass rusher Jayson Oweh out of Penn State. Oweh is a raw talent, so it could take some time for him to find his footing in the NFL. Orlando Brown Jr. was a player that the Ravens felt they could trade because of Ronnie Stanley’s presence at left tackle. However, Brown Jr. will still be a major loss on the offensive line. The Ravens also suffered huge losses when both J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards had season ending knee injuries. Now it looks like a combination of Ty’son Williams and Le’Veon Bell will be in the backfield.
Offensively, Baltimore has been dealing with below-average wide receiver play for the last couple of seasons. Willie Snead was average at best for the Ravens, and Marquise Brown has yet to develop into the star wide receiver the team hoped he would become. This offseason, the Ravens gave Lamar Jackson an abundance of weapons at his disposal. Baltimore signed Sammy Watkins in free agency and drafted Rashod Bateman and Tylan Wallace. Bateman was placed on injured reserve, sidelining him for the first three weeks of the season. When Bateman returns from injury he should be an excellent weapon for Jackson in the short to intermediate passing game. Wallace provides speed down the field, and excels at making jump ball catches. These weapons will be alongside Mark Andrews, Brown and the backs.
Despite all of these acquisitions, I still have little faith in Baltimore’s passing attack. I believe the added weapons are more than sufficient, but Jackson can struggle at points with his accuracy. The front office made it a priority to give Jackson these weapons so that he could take the next step in his game. As much as Baltimore wants to incorporate the passing game into its offense, this team will be more dangerous on the ground. Jackson has shown that he is more dangerous as a runner than he is a passer. It is possible that Jackson improves his passing skills, but for now, I do not buy that this will happen. Jackson can hit receivers inside the numbers, but my worry is that he does not have the arm strength to complete passes near the sideline.
The combination of the defense potentially taking a step back, and doubts I have about the passing game is the reason I have the Ravens finishing second in the division. In addition, the Browns finished last season with the same record as the Ravens, and they have vastly improved their roster from a season ago. Baltimore will still be a strong team, but will finish second fiddle to the Browns in the AFC North.
Record Prediction: 11-6
3. Pittsburgh Steelers
If the end of last season told you anything, it would be that the first 11 games for the Steelers was a fluke. After starting out the season at 11-0, the Steelers would drop four of their last five games to close out last season. Pittsburgh would then lose to Cleveland in the Wild Card round.
Pittsburgh’s undefeated run revolved around the play of the defense. The Steelers defense recorded 56 sacks and 18 interceptions, leading the league in both categories, and may be leaned again in 2021 on as much as it was last season.
Ben Roethlisberger is entering the season at 39 years old, and it is clear he’s at the end of his career. Roethlisberger was a game-managing quarterback who rarely threw the ball 20-plus yards down the field. There is a reason JuJu Smith-Schuster had 97 catches for only 831 yards. The 18-year veteran was a checkdown, passive quarterback and averaged only 6.3 yards per attempt in 2020. Pittsburgh is one of those teams that will be looked at as a good team because of their rich history, but this team is not a threat.
Another reason the Steelers should prepare for a disappointing season is their offensive line. Pittsburgh’s front line will be without Maurkice Pouncey (retirement) and Alejandro Villanueva, who was traded to Baltimore. Instead of addressing the offensive line in the first round of the draft, the Steelers opted to take running back Najee Harris. Harris was the top running back in this draft class, but it could prove to be useless if the former Alabama running back has no room to operate. We have seen star running backs struggle in the past because of poor offensive line play. This will be a line that will have a hard time protecting a mostly non-mobile quarterback in Roethlisberger and providing running lanes for Harris.
The last eight weeks of the season are brutal. In that span, in order, the Steelers face Los Angeles (A), Cincinnati, Baltimore, Minnesota, Tennessee, Kansas City, Cleveland, and Baltimore. I see Pittsburgh winning two games during this stretch.
Record Prediction: 7-10
4. Cincinnati Bengals
The good news for the Bengals is that Joe Burrow is expected to be 100% when the season begins in September. The bad news is that he is coming off a torn ACL and MCL in his left knee.
What is even more troubling is how the Bengals addressed the offensive line problem. Yes, the team signed former Vikings’ tackle Riley Reiff to a one-year deal worth seven million dollars and drafted Jackson Carman out of Clemson. However, the Bengals missed an extraordinary opportunity to grab a generational offensive lineman in Penei Sewell. Sewell would have been a great fit at left tackle for Cincinnati. Instead, the Bengals opted to select wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase, former teammate of Joe Burrow at LSU. The college connection is the main reason the organization made this selection. It’s a head-scratching decision, based on the fact that your quarterback is coming off a catastrophic knee injury because of incompetent offensive line play.
Chase has been underwhelming to say the least in preseason and training camp. Through two games of the preseason, the former LSU receiver has struggled with separation, leading to a single catch for 16 yards on five targets. The other three targets were drops and all those drops were because the cornerback was all over Chase. Not saying that Chase is or will be a bust, but it could be an up-and-down season for the rookie receiver.
Another reason why Sewell should have been the pick is because of how loaded the defenses are in the AFC North. Pittsburgh possessed a top-three defense last season, and there is no reason to believe that they will have a significant drop off this season. Baltimore will also have an above-average defense, and the Browns had an incredible offseason in the defensive department. Burrow may be a bit rusty and hesitant coming out of the gates, so offensive line play will be monumental if the Bengals want to take a step forward this season.
In addition to the struggles of the offensive line, Cincinnati’s defense is another question mark for this team. Rookie defensive end Joseph Ossai was supposed to be a key piece to the defense this season, but suffered a season-ending knee injury. Cincinnati’s 26th-ranked defense will continue to be a liability this upcoming season.
Cincinnati will be an entertaining team to watch on Sundays because the team will have to win in shootouts. However, the Bengals may struggle to start the season and the defense will be no help to this team’s outlook. It would be very surprising to see the Bengals fighting for a playoff spot.
Record Prediction: 6-11