1. Pittsburgh Steelers Projected Record: 11-5
The Pittsburgh Steelers remain the class of the AFC North as they look for their third division title in four years. Lead by All-Pros Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown, this offense should once again be a dynamic force. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has shown serious signs of decline, but has been buoyed by the brilliance of the skill position players around him. His decision making and accuracy are sorely lacking, and the years of Roethlisberger as an elite QB may be over. Regardless, the Steelers still have one of the league’s best infrastructures, and their offense should survive as they pursue another championship. In the same vein, the absence of Le’Veon Bell may not be as crippling as one might think. It is unclear at the current juncture how long Bell plans on sitting out, but in his place rookie James Conner can fill in admirably. He will obviously not match Bell’s production, but if he were to contribute 80% of what Bell does the Steelers could more or less run the same offense they would if Bell were there. On the defensive side of the ball, Pittsburgh has serious question marks all over the field. The defensive line remains anchored by Cameron Heyward, but the linebackers corp has a serious hole to fill with the injury to middle linebacker Ryan Shazier. The Steelers are relying on steady production from cornerback Joe Haden, who is slotted to be Pittsburgh’s number one corner to start the season. Haden was solid in his first season with the black and yellow, but will need to return to his once dominant form for this Steeler defense to reach its full potential. This is far from Mike Tomlin’s most talented team in his tenure with the Steelers, but it should be enough to carry Pittsburgh to another division title and a shot at another Lombardi trophy.
2. Baltimore Ravens Projected Record: 8-8
The Baltimore Ravens remain one of the league’s most frustrating franchises as they posses a dominant defense capable of swinging games but also, Joe Flacco. This team has the talent to make a playoff run in the weak AFC, but has a cap on their overall ability thanks to the talents, or lack thereof, of their strong armed quarterback. To further compound the problem, the Ravens front office has failed to surround Flacco with any sort of weapons. John Brown is their most talented receiver, which in itself speaks volumes, and Alex Collins is a league average back at best. Baltimore’s best chance at success this season is keeping the score low and relying on the power of their defense. Baltimore’s defense is one of the most well-rounded in the league, with difference makers littered all across the unit. Jimmy Smith is one of the league’s most underrated talent at the cornerback position in the league, while Eric Weddle and Tony Jefferson form a fearsome safety pairing. CJ Mosely remains one of the top linebackers in the league as he captains this Ravens defense, while Michael Pierce wreaks havoc in the middle of the defensive line. This Baltimore team has loads of talent, it just all happens to reside on the defensive side of the ball. If their offense can get out of their own way, look for the Ravens to be in the wild card hunt come playoff time.
3. Cleveland Browns Projected Record: 5-11
For most teams, a five win season and a third place finish in the division would be a massive disappointment. But, for a Cleveland Browns organization that has won one game over the last two seasons, those results would practically trigger a parade down the streets of Cleveland. A sense of optimism has swept Cleveland as they have brought in an exciting collection of talent. Tyrod Taylor, the Browns new starting quarterback, spent last season dragging a hapless Buffalo Bills squad to the playoffs only to be kicked to the curb. Jarvis Landry is one of the league’s preeminent pass catchers, and was acquired for the bargain price of a fourth round pick. Finally, the team’s most exciting offseason acquisition was number one overall pick Baker Mayfield. Their quarterback of the future impressed in limited snaps this preseason, and will likely see the field at some point this season. Cleveland has placed a higher priority on surrounding whoever’s under center with plenty of weapons, and now boast an enticing roster including Landry, tight end David Njoku, and running back Carlos Hyde to name a few. Defensively, there is still work to be done but the pieces are slowly coming together. Pass rusher Myles Garrett looked absolutely dominant in his shortened rookie season, and he should pick up right where he left off in his second year. EJ Gaines and Damarious Randall are two intriguing defensive backs who should take big steps forward in 2018, while linebackers Christian Kirksey and Jamie Collins Sr. need to prove they can stick in this league. While there are still a multitude of questions surrounding the Browns, this year should be a big step in their rebuilding process.
4. Cincinnati Bengals Projected Record: 4-12
The most awe-inspiring fact about the NFL in 2018 is that Marvin Lewis is still the head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals. After years and years of heartbreak and playoff buffoonery, you would’ve thought it was time for the Bengals to find a new head coach. But no, Cincinnati instead chose to once again place their faith in the man with the 0-7 career postseason record. Lewis will look to command a team lacking in talent on both sides of the ball. The wide receiving corps of AJ Green, John Ross and Tyler Boyd is teeming with talent, but the Bengals lack the quarterback to fully unlock all of their skills. Running back Joe Mixon also impressed in his rookie season, but faces a difficult road ahead behind one of the league’s worst offensive lines. The additions of left tackle Cordy Glenn and rookie center Billy Price should provide some legitimacy, but they won’t be enough to transform the troublesome unit. The defense has typically been strong under Lewis, but this year may prove to be the exception. Besides defensive tackle Geno Atkins, the Bengals defense lacks proven difference makers and instead includes a bevy of unproven commodities. Jessie Bates III is slotted to be the teams starting free safety as a rookie, while Preston Brown is poised for another strong year after departing from Buffalo. All in all this team has more questions than answers, and should be primed for a disappointing season.