The summer is beginning to draw to a close, and soon, temperatures and leaves will begin to fall. The NFL preseason is currently underway, and true NFL football is nearly here. Welcome to M-FANS 2018 Season Preview, where our staff of talented University of Michigan student writers will share their insight into the NFL’s 32 teams and top players as we get ready for the kickoff of the regular season. Today, we take a look at the AFC North. Enjoy!

By Josh Goldstein, Sahil Shah, Zane Harding, and AJ Janetzke

Pittsburgh Steelers

By Josh Goldstein

2017 Record: 13-3 (1st in AFC North)

Projected 2018 Roster

Coaching Staff
HC – Mike Tomlin
OC – Randy Fichtner
DC – Keith Butler

Projected Offensive Starters
QB – Ben Roethlisberger
RB – Le’Veon Bell
WR – Antonio Brown
WR – JuJu Smith-Schuster
WR – Darrius Heyward-Bay
TE – Jesse James
LT – Alejandro Villanueva
LG – Ramon Foster
C – Maurkice Pouncey
RG – David DeCastro
RT – Marcus Gilbert

Projected Defensive Starters
LDE – Cameron Heyward
RDE – Stephon Tuitt
NT – Javon Hargrave
LOLB – Bud Dupree
LILB – Tyler Matakevich
RILB – Vince Williams
ROLB – TJ Watt
CB – Joe Haden
CB – Artie Burns
FS – Morgan Burnett
SS – Sean Davis

Projected Special Teams Starters
K – Jordan Berry
P – Chris Boswell
KR – JuJu Smith-Schuster
PR – Antonio Brown
LS – Kameron Canaday

Other Notable Players
S – Terrell Edmunds (First Round Pick)
QB – Mason Rudolph (Third Round Pick)

Season Preview

The offseason began after a disappointing loss to the Jaguars, following a 13-3 season. After that, the Steelers lost defensive backs Mike Mitchell, Robert Golden, and William Gay, and right tackle Chris Hubbard. The Steelers also traded away receiver Martavis Bryant, who was expendable in their talented receiver room. The Steelers main losses were at defensive back, but they addressed this in the rest of the offseason. Outside of players, the Steelers offensive coordinator, Todd Haley, left the Steelers to join the division rival Browns.

The Steelers did not make a splash in free agency with any big moves, but they did sign safety Morgan Burnett and cornerback Jon Bostic to fill in holes from free agency on the defensive side. The biggest story of the offseason was that the Steelers retained Le’Veon Bell with a franchise tag. Bell was unhappy with this move and is hinting that this season could possibly be his last in Pittsburgh. The Steelers did not fill all their holes in free agency alone, but that is what the draft is for.

The draft served the Steelers as a way to bring in talent at positions they lost in free agency. After losing a couple of defensive backs, the Steelers used their first-round pick on safety Terrell Edmunds out of Virginia Tech. Also following the trade of receiver Martavis Bryant, the Steelers drafted wide receiver James Washington from Oklahoma State. The biggest story of the Steelers draft, however, was when they took Oklahoma State quarterback Mason Rudolph in the third round to be their eventual successor to Ben Roethlisberger.

The Steelers offense should continue to dominate this season. With two of the best players in the league on offense in Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown, the Steelers will continue to be a nightmare for opposing defenses. Not to mention the threat of JuJu Smith-Schuster and Ben Roethlisberger, who keep the offense dynamic. The wide receiver core is one of the best in the game and it is paired with arguably the most gifted running back, and a future Hall of Famer under center. Even with all of this fire power, the Steelers offense seemed to struggle in the red zone last season. They were ranked 18th in the league in red zone percentage. All that being said, the Steelers now have a new offensive coordinator for the first time in 7 years. Randy Fichtner, the former quarterback coach for Roethlisberger and the Steelers will take the reigns and become the new play caller.

Although the Steelers are known for their high-powered offense, the defense still plays an important role in the team’s success. The heart of that defense is the pass rush. As a team, they had the most sacks in the NFL last season, led by Cameron Heyward with 12. Last season the defense ranked 29th in deep passing yards allowed, according to Pro Football Focus. The addition of safety, Morgan Burnett should help remedy that issue. Although there are still some question marks about inside linebacker, the Steelers defense still has enough playmakers to make the team a Super Bowl contender for this upcoming season.

Predicted Record: 11-5

Players to Watch

Le’Veon Bell

The #3 Total Offense in the NFL last season was led by Le’Veon Bell. Over the last 2 seasons,  Bell has 2559 yards rushing, 1271 yards receiving, and 20 touchdowns, all while missing 5 games over that time period. The man who is consistently a top 5 pick in fantasy drafts is poised to be the team’s star player and lead them to be a top total offense, once again. The addition of contract drama is another thing to keep an eye on.

T.J. Watt

As a team, the Steelers had the most sacks in the NFL this past season. Watt finished the season with 7 of those sacks, which gave him the second most sacks of any rookie (only trailing the Bengals Carl Lawson) and third most of any Steeler. With a year of experience under his belt, Watt should look forward to improving even more in his sophomore campaign and become an elite rusher for a great Steeler front.

Mason Rudolph

Over the last 3 years, there have been 8 games that Ben Roethlisberger has not started. If this trend continues, Rudolph will get his chance to see some real game action his rookie season. It is always hard to tell how good a rookie quarterback will be, but Rudolph has a great opportunity in an explosive offense and with the chance to learn as an understudy to a future Hall of Famer.

Baltimore Ravens

By Sahil Shah

2017 Record:

Projected 2018 Roster

Coaching Staff
HC – John Harbaugh
OC – Marty Morhinweg
DC – Don “Wink” Martindale

Projected Offensive Starters
QB – Joe Flacco
RB – Alex Collins
FB – Patrick Ricard
WR – Michael Crabtree
WR – John Brown
WR – Willie Snead
TE – Hayden Hurst
LT – Ronnie Stanley
LG – Alex Lewis
C – Matt Skura
RG – Marshal Yanda
RT – James Hurst

Projected Defensive Starters
DE – Brent Urban
DT – Brandon Williams
NT – Michael Pierce
OLB – Terrell Suggs
MLB – CJ Mosley
MLB – Patrick Onwaunsor
CB – Jimmy Smith
CB – Brandon Carr
CB – Marlon Humphrey/Tavon Young
FS – Eric Weddle
SS – Tony Jefferson

Projected Special Teams Starters
K – Justin Tucker
P – Sam Koch
KR/PR – Tim White
LS – Morgan Cox

Other Notable Players
QB – Lamar Jackson (1st round pick)
RT – Orlando Brown Jr. (3rd round pick)
TE – Mark Andrews (3rd round pick)

Season Preview

After missing the playoffs in three consecutive seasons for the first time since 1996-1998, the Baltimore Ravens decided it was time to make some major changes to a team that fell flat in 2017. The well-documented struggles of longtime starting quarterback Joe Flacco and the offense have long been a source of frustration for Ravens fans, with many clamoring for the team to inject some new electric talent into the offense. Ozzie Newsome did not disappoint. After jettisoning disappointing wide receiver Jeremy Maclin and letting Mike Wallace leave in free agency, the Ravens quickly replaced them by signing Michael Crabtree, John Brown, and Willie Snead. Newsome followed up an active free agency period by orchestrating a magnificent final draft to wrap up his career as a general manager, drafting top tight end prospects Hayden Hurst and Mark Andrews, as well as surprisingly trading back in the first round to select quarterback Lamar Jackson.

Although Jackson will most likely spend the entire season backing up Flacco, Ravens fans have to be excited about the state of the 2018 offense. Unlike last season, when a Flacco back injury cast a gray cloud over training camp, reviews of the new-look Ravens offense have so far been overwhelmingly positive. Flacco has had his best training camp in years, finally fully healthy and quickly developing chemistry with his new receivers. Electric running back Alex Collins has seemingly picked up right where he left off in 2017, and he will look to crack the 1000 yard mark and end the revolving door at running back for the Ravens. Future Hall of Fame guard Marshal Yanda is returning after playing two games last season due to a season-ending injury, to anchor a young offensive line filled with lots of untapped potential.

On the defensive side of the ball, the Ravens return all 11 starters to a unit that posted a very solid season headlined by three shutouts. While this unit was a bit inconsistent at times in 2017, there is plenty to be optimistic about. After years of scraping by at cornerback, the Ravens now possess one of the deepest secondaries in the league led by standouts Jimmy Smith and Eric Weddle. The linebacker group boasts similarly impressive talent, as ageless wonder Terrell Suggs, veteran CJ Mosley, and last year’s breakout star Matt Judon return to anchor a solid unit. The Ravens hope recent draftees Tyus Bowser, Tim Williams, and Kamalei Correa can put it all together to improve the pass rush and keep Suggs fresh. Meanwhile, the Ravens have continued to build up depth in the defensive line and are excited about the young group of players they have put together headlined by elite run-stuffer Brandon Williams. Putting an end to Williams’ injury woes will be one of the big keys to the Ravens defense, as they let opposing running backs run all over them when Williams missed several games last season.

Overall, the Ravens appear to be one of the more interesting teams entering the 2018 season. The Ravens were one defensive stop from clinching a playoff berth in 2017, and have made some serious upgrades over the offseason. Even with Lamar Jackson probably spending the year on the bench, this looks to be one of the most exciting Ravens teams in recent history. While the team may have fallen off the map nationally, they are exactly where they want to be. Underrated, hungry, and ready to prove a lot of people wrong.

Predicted Record: 11-5

Players to Watch

Lamar Jackson

Are you really surprised?

After trading up to get Lamar Jackson on draft day, he is set to be the Ravens quarterback of the future. Already in the first two preseason games, he has flashed his impressive skill set, including a touchdown pass to fellow rookie Hayden Hurst against the Bears and a thrilling touchdown run against the Rams. He has been compared to some of the most exciting quarterbacks in NFL history, including Michael Vick and Randall Cunningham. However, he is still very much a work in progress, especially in the passing game. His electric talent will get him on the field sooner rather than later. After all, the Ravens have already been drawing up packages for both Jackson and Flacco to share the field together. It remains to be seen whether or not Jackson gets an opportunity to take over the starting quarterback job in 2018, but if Joe Flacco struggles out of the gate… well, you never know.

Kenny Young

Ever since Zach Orr’s career-ending injury, the Ravens have been looking for someone to replace him next to CJ Mosley at inside linebacker. While Patrick Onwaunsor did an adequate job filling that role last year, the Ravens have high expectations for Young. Onwaunsor and the Ravens particularly struggled to cover opposing tight ends in 2017, which happens to be one of the strong suits for the former UCLA linebacker. If Young can show that he is ready to handle NFL offenses, he could be the Ravens’ latest late-round success story.

Zach Sieler

Zach Sieler is a seventh-round pick out of Ferris State that is expected to be a reserve defensive lineman for the Ravens this season. So why is he a player to watch? Because he was the last pick of Ozzie Newsome’s illustrious career as a general manager. Newsome was the mastermind behind arguably the greatest draft haul in NFL history when he picked Hall of Famers Jonathan Ogden and Ray Lewis with the first two picks in Ravens history. While it is unlikely that Sieler will turn into the next Ogden or Lewis, it will be interesting to track Sieler’s career to see if Ozzie was able to unearth one last gem before his well-deserved retirement.

Cincinnati Bengals

By Zane Harding

2017 Record: 7-9 (3rd in AFC North)

Projected 2018 Roster

Coaching Staff
HC – Marvin Lewis
OC – Bill Lazor
DC – Teryl Austin

Projected Offensive Starters
QB – Andy Dalton
RB – Joe Mixon
RB – Giovani Bernard
WR1 – A.J. Green
WR2 – John Ross
WR3 – Tyler Boyd
TE – Tyler Eifert
LT – Cordy Glenn
LG – Clint Boling
C – Billy Price
RG – Trey Hopkins
RT – Bobby Hart/Jake Fisher

Projected Defensive Starters
LDE – Carlos Dunlap
NT – Andrew Billings
DT – Geno Atkins
RDE – Michael Johnson
SLB – Nick Virgil/Carl Lawson
MLB – Preston Brown
WLB – Vontaze Burfict
CB1 – Dre Kirkpatrick
CB2 – William Jackson
CB3 – Darqueze Dennard
SS – Shawn Williams
FS – George Iloka

Projected Special Teams Starters
K – Randy Bullock
P – Kevin Huber
KR/PR – Alex Erickson
LS – Clark Harris

Season Preview

Welcome back to Marvin Lewis’s Wild Ride! If you don’t remember from the end of last season, reports came out that Marvin Lewis would be fired. But then, the Bengals signed him to a two-year extension. That’s right: we’re entering years 16 and 17 of the Marvin Lewis era in Cincinnati. Sure, he has a career regular season record 125-112-3 record as a head coach, and not many coaches can stay above .500 over 15 years in the NFL. At the same time, however, let me put it this way. The Bengals (known to some as “football cats”) are doing the same as what the Detroit Tigers (known to some as “beisbol cats”) did in 2015: reports came out that they were going to fire their middling leader (Marvin Lewis/Brad Ausmus), but then they didn’t. The Tigers regretted their decision, but will the Bengals regret theirs?

The Bengals offense finished 2017 dead last in total offense at 280.5 yards per game, but they should see some improvement this season. The team addressed its offensive line in the draft this year as they drafted center Billy Price out of Ohio State. They wanted Arkansas center Frank Ragnow, but much to the dismay of Bengals fans, the Lions stole him one pick early. The Bengals had one of the worst offensive lines in 2017, as they ended the season ranked 28th by Pro Football Focus, but the additions of former Bills tackle Cordy Glenn along with Price should make a noticeable impact. In terms of skill positions, the Bengals are loaded with upside as Joe Mixon and John Ross enter their sophomore campaigns looking to leave their mark on the team. A.J. Green is still an elite option at wide receiver, as well, so Andy Dalton will have plenty of weapons to work with.

The Bengals defense was elite against the passing game last year (211.2 yards per game was 8th-best in the NFL) but bottom-three against the rushing game (127.9 yards per game was 3rd-worst in the NFL). The team racked up an impressive 41 sacks, good for 11th in the NFL, but struggled with turnovers, as their -9 turnover differential was 27th in the league. The team made a big-time addition in former Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin. Austin has been interviewed numerous times in the past few years for head coaching vacancies and played a large part in the development of some of the Lions’ top defensive talents (including 2017 Pro Bowler Darius Slay). The Austin signing should help the defense in the short-term but could be a huge win in the long-term.

Overall, the Cincinnati Bengals are a good-if-not-amazing football team. They made marginal improvements from 2017 and a lot of their offensive success hinges on young players that the team has invested 1st-and-2nd-round picks into. Will these investments translate into playoff success? It’s hard to say “yes” given the playoff drought the team has faced under Lewis’s tenure and a tough schedule, but anything’s possible.

Predicted Record: 8-8

Players to Watch

Joe Mixon

Hopes are high this year for Joe Mixon entering his 22-year-old season. Mixon’s season started slow, primarily due to an inconsistent amount of carries, but he managed a 114-yard performance against the Browns and a 96-yard performance in a road win at Baltimore to end last season. Mixon will have an opportunity to be the Bengals bellcow this season, and should he live up to expectations, the offense could improve enough for a playoff appearance.

Billy Price

The Billy Price selection was considered a stretch by many fans. After the Detroit Lions snatched up Cincinnati’s primary target in Frank Ragnow, the Bengals nevertheless addressed their need on their offensive line. Price played very well in his time at Ohio State but proved better against the run than against the pass in his four collegiate seasons. This should help Joe Mixon, but will it help open up the passing game?

Geno Atkins

Geno Atkins is as solid as defensive tackles come. He has started all but one game in his past four seasons and has posted 29 sacks in his past three seasons. His most dominant season in the past three years was surely his first-team all-pro 2015 season, in which he posted 11 sacks, 31 tackles, 11 assists, and an average value (AV) of 17, but the six-time Pro Bowler will be the anchor of this defense for his eighth straight season this year.

 

Cleveland Browns

By AJ Janetzke

2017 Record: 0-16 (4th in AFC North)

Projected 2018 Roster

Coaching Staff
HC – Hue Jackson
OC – Todd Haley
DC – Gregg Williams

Projected Offensive Starters
QB – Tyrod Taylor
RB – Carlos Hyde
FB – Dan Vitale
WR – Jarvis Landry
WR – Antonio Callaway
TE – David Njoku
LT – Joel Bitonio
LG – Austin Corbett
C – JC Tretter
RG – Spencer Drango
RT – Chris Hubbard

Projected Defensive Starters
DE – Myles Garrett
DT – Trevon Coley
DT – Jamie Meder
DE – Emmanuel Ogbah
SLB – Jamie Collins
MLB – Joe Schobert
WLB – Christian Kirksey
CB – Denzel Ward
S – Jabrill Peppers
S – Damarious Randall
CB – Terrance Mitchell

Projected Special Teams Starters
P – Britton Colquitt
K – Zane Gonzalez
PR/KR – Jabrill Peppers
LS – Charley Hughlett

Other Notable Players
Reserve – Josh Gordon (WR, Did Not Report)

Ah yes, the Cleveland Browns. Coming off a franchise record-breaking season with a 0 in the win-loss column. How can it get better than that? As most people know the Browns’ 2017 record was 0-16. Led by a rookie quarterback drafted in the second round by the Browns out of Notre Dame, Deshone Kizer, we all could tell this just was not going to be a good season. But this could all change, probably not this season but in future seasons. The Browns have made tons of changes to their lineup which I will cover now.

Season Preview

No longer will the Browns have to rely on Kizer to pave the way. Tyrod Taylor from the Buffalo Bills takes the driver’s seat for the Browns this season. Kizer had 11 touchdowns and 22 interceptions last season, so basically any other quarterback would be an upgrade this season. Even Kevin Hogan, the backup, had a better QBR than Kizer (Kizer-26.7, Hogan-38.7). Hogan was traded away this offseason. Taylor, on the other hand, went 8-6 with the Bills and opposite of Kizer’s trash numbers, he threw 14 touchdowns with only 4 interceptions. I would say Taylor has the power to reinvent the Browns offense this upcoming season. Another addition to the lineup is Carlos Hyde from the 49ers. He will replace Isaiah Crowell who had promise but just did not get the job done. Hyde nearly reached 1000 yards last season. With a stronger run game, Taylor should be able to be a more effective passer. One of the problems was that Kizer had no exceptional targets to throw to. Taylor will now have the luxury of being able to throw to Jarvis Landry, who leads the league in receptions for a slot receiver over the past 4 seasons. Josh Gordon was also signed but has his own problems outside of football. Hopefully, he learns from his past this time around and will contribute to the offense throughout the entire season. Currently, he is on the reserve/did not report list which means he is not currently on the active roster and can be fined for each day he does not report to training camp. He has been dealing with anxiety and mental problems as of late and just is not in a good football state. Just recently the Browns traded away Corey Coleman for just a 7th round pick. Jarvis Landry responded to the trade saying, “I don’t see it having any effect on the team.” As for the draft, the Browns had five picks in the first two rounds but traded one of them away. Of those, they had the #1 overall pick and #4. With their #1 pick, they drafted a much needed future QB Baker Mayfield out of Oklahoma. Tyrod Taylor had been given the starting role, but Mayfield could play a role this season as a potential new Browns era begins. With the #4 pick, they decided to strengthen their weak secondary with CB Denzel Ward from THE Ohio State University. As a student at the University of Michigan, I do not have any unbiased input in this pick. They do need help on their defense and this pick could become valuable in the future, but I can’t fully support a Buckeye.

Predicted Record: 4-12

Players to Watch

Jarvis Landry

Landry has proven to be a valuable asset for the Dolphins as a slot receiver. He is coming off a career-high 9 touchdown season with also a career-high 112 receptions. He has hit the 1000 yard marker twice in his four-year career so far and with a nimble Tyrod Taylor at quarterback, he could become the Browns top receiver really quick. When Taylor starts scrambling out of the pocket, look for Landry to get open and be a go-to outlet for Taylor.

Baker Mayfield

In terms of breakout players, there aren’t many to choose from, so I am going with Mayfield on this one. The Browns got rid of most of their problems to start a whole new rebuild and Baker is one of those pieces. In his final year, he threw for 4627 yards, 43 touchdowns, and only 6 interceptions. His QBR reached 198.9 which was the highest QBR in the NCAA that year. Now I am a full believer that just because a quarterback explodes in college, it does not directly correlate over to the NFL, but I can see Baker becoming a leader for the future Browns. He and the young Antonio Callaway, 4th round draft pick this year from Florida, could hook up to be a potentially deadly duo in the upcoming years, but this is all speculation.

Rashard Higgins

Rashard Higgins is entering his 3rd season. He started 4 games last season and brought in 312 yards. With Coleman gone, Higgins could be getting a large workload. He is currently the #3 receiver but has the chance to step up as a potential threat in the Browns offense. He got 2 touchdowns last season, and I expect that number to rise this season with Taylor throwing the ball.

 

Featured Image By Erik Drost – Tyrod Taylor and Hue Jackson, CC-BY 2.0