Our Roster Reset series takes a division-by-division look at where things stand across the league heading into the 2019 NFL Draft. Tom Blair examines the current makeup of the AFC North below.
In the space of a few days, a shift that had been in progress for roughly the past year was accelerated. In 2018, the Brownsfinally showed signs of reversing years of organizational futility, winning five of their last seven games behind sizzling rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield. Trading for Beckham only further cemented their status as certain 2019 season-preview darlings. The Steelers, meanwhile, seemed to slip further into an abyss of uncertainty after missing the playoffs for the first time since 2013.
In football, as in life, nothing is guaranteed. The Browns could be derailed by injuries and some combination of the other weird, unforeseen complications that tend to color NFL campaigns. Pittsburgh still has a likely Hall of Famer in Ben Roethlisberger driving its offense and hasn't recorded a losing season since 2003. And, you know, the team that actually won the division in 2018 has its own thrilling, young quarterback. Upon replacing veteran pocket-passerJoe Flacco last season, Lamar Jackson lit the Ravens on fire, losing just one of his seven regular-season starts and powering them to their fifth AFC North title.
The Bengals have been much quieter on the personnel-movement front, but the offseason has been nonetheless momentous for the franchise. Cincinnati slipped into fourth place in 2018 after losing quarterback Andy Dalton for five games and receiver A.J. Green for seven, and the team turned the page on the Marvin Lewis era. New coach Zac Taylor has plenty of challenges in front of him, including reviving a defense that ranked 32nd in yards, its worst finish in franchise history. That said, there is still talent on this roster.
Whatever happens, the AFC North promises to be one of the more compelling divisions in the NFL.
FREE AGENCY NOTABLES
The impact of any one person -- a non-quarterback, no less -- in football is supposed to be limited by the nature of the game, where countless interactions between dozens of players come together to shape the outcome of each contest. Beckham still is just one man. He's also one of the best receivers in the game. This offense already looked like a potential world-beating unit coming off last season. Mayfield set a record for passing touchdowns by a rookie, and the team posted the best yards-per-offensive-play figure in the NFL (6.6) in the eight games for which current coach Freddie Kitchens was offensive coordinator. Then general manager John Dorsey pulled off a trade that, honestly, still seems more like a Twitter-bound fever-dream fantasy than something you'd see in real life. With Beckham in the mix, suddenly it becomes downright reasonable to imagine the Browns playing in the Super Bowl.
If the hype is a bit much for you, consider this stat as a way to put the move in context: In his five pro seasons, Beckham has topped 1,000 receiving yards four times, or just six times fewer than all Browns players combined over the past 40 years. Even if the plan goes awry -- as plans are known to do in the NFL! -- it's hard to overstate the magnitude of Cleveland having an honest-to-god talent advantage. Nothing captures this transformation better than the acquisition of a proven star like Beckham.
While losing running back Le'Veon Bell hurts, at least everyone saw that coming after he sat out the 2018 season. Until relatively recently, it seemed like you could count on one of the most accomplished receivers of his generation spending next season where he'd spent the entirety of his career: in Pittsburgh. That situation quickly turned sour, and now Brown is in Oakland and the Steelers are suddenly facing an uphill battle just to stay competitive in the division. It's true that Pittsburgh has managed to transition successfully following the departures of previous top receivers like Mike Wallace and Hines Ward, but neither player was operating at Brown's level -- and QB Ben Roethlisberger was much farther away from turning 40 at the time. JuJu Smith-Schuster is promising but untested as a No. 1 receiver, and the depth chart behind him -- James Washington, Donte Moncrief, Eli Rogers -- is full of what could charitably be called question marks.
With the headlining move of the offseason setting the divisional bar extraordinarily high for notable additions, a number of players could slot in here, including new Browns defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson and new Ravens safety Earl Thomas. Let's focus on a potential difference maker who might be flying somewhat under the radar in part because he is not named Le'Veon Bell.
Though his numbers dipped in a suspension-shortened 2018, Ingram produced at a steady clip with the Saints, especially recently. Over the past five seasons, only LeSean McCoy, Lamar Miller, Frank Gore and Todd Gurley have more rushing yards than Ingram's 4,545. He's joining a Baltimore offense that, in 2018, posted 1,607 rushing yards from Week 11 to Week 17, the most rushing yards from a team's 10th game to its 16th in any season since the NFL expanded to 16-game slates in 1978. And that was with running backs like Gus Edwards and Alex Collins (since released following an arrest) splitting most of the carries that didn't go to Lamar Jackson. Whatever John Harbaugh and new offensive coordinator Greg Roman are cooking upfor Jackson's sophomore campaign, Ingram will likely play a key role. Ultimately, depending on how things shake out, this acquisition could help determine whether or not Baltimore is able to hold off the Browns and defend its AFC North title.
Baltimore Ravens: The Ravens are in an interesting spot. They have a young, promising quarterback who saved their 2018 season with his legs and provides the offense with plenty of upside going forward. Baltimore's offensive bread is obviously buttered on the ground, but it wouldn't hurt to upgrade the cast of pass catchers around Lamar Jackson, with Willie Snead currently topping the receiver depth chart following the departures of John Brown and Michael Crabtree. Meanwhile, the Ravens' defense -- a backbone of Baltimore's success basically since the team arrived in the city, and especially last season, when the Ravens ranked first in yards allowed and second in scoring defense -- will be forging ahead without C.J. Mosley, Terrell Suggs, Za'Darius Smith and Eric Weddle. Earl Thomas should pick up the slack for Weddle, but it would be prudent to add to the front seven, where fourth-year pro Matt Judon stands as the holdover with the highest sack total (7.0) from 2018.
Cincinnati Bengals: Every year, it seems, there remains the tantalizing possibility that Cincinnati will draft a quarterback to compete with and eventually replace Andy Dalton, but based on the presence of a strong enough core (A.J. Green, Tyler Boyd, Joe Mixon), it probably makes more sense for Zac Taylor to make the most of this group's remaining competitive window. After all, when Green first missed time with a toe injury (in Week 10), the Bengals were 5-3 and in second place in the division. It is completely plausible that Taylor could breathe new life into this attack. More pressing than adding to the offense would be boosting a defense that ranked 32nd overall, 30th in scoring, 32nd against the pass and 29th against the run. The unit's better grade by Pro Football Focus (22nd in the NFL) indicates there are some pieces to work with, however, including safety Jessie Bates, who stood out with an impressive rookie campaign (111 tackles, three picks). Linebacker would be a good spot to target, especially after Vontaze Burfict's release; PFF did not grade any Bengals linebacker higher than 19th on the team (Nick Vigil) last season.
Cleveland Browns: If everything holds, the Browns will not make their first pick of the 2019 NFL Draft until midway through Round 2 -- No. 49 overall. It'll be the lowest first pick by Cleveland in a draft since 2008, when they traded away their first three picks as part of a series of deals (that helped net them Brady Quinn in '07) and didn't draft until Round 4. Aside from '08, this franchise has picked, on average, seventh overall in the draft going back to 1999 and has owned the No. 1 overall pick four times in that span. Cleveland ranked 30th overall on defense last season, 25th against the pass and 28th against the run. Adding Olivier Vernon, Sheldon Richardson, Eric Murray and Morgan Burnett should help with that, but the secondary could use more reinforcements, with Jabrill Peppers (who earned PFF's fourth-highest defensive grade on the team) having been shipped out as part of the Beckham deal. This team appears well-stocked at multiple positions (we haven't even talked about the Kareem Hunt signing). Still, football being as capricious as it is, it would be good to bolster the roster across the board -- no team ever failed because it was too deep.
Pittsburgh Steelers: The exits of Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brownmight make the locker room calmer (eventually, anyway). They also bring Ben Roethlisberger's football mortality into sharper focus than ever before. As is true of every other quarterback in the 35-and-up age bracket, Big Ben (37) will eventually run out of time to add another ring to his finger. That said, in 2018, he did break the 5,000-yard threshold for the first time in his 15 pro seasons, leading the NFL in passing yards for the second time in his career. He clearly still has it. Will he be able to adapt to a reality in which only one pass catcher on the roster (JuJu Smith-Schuster) has ever recorded more than 64 catches in a season? It would make sense to add to that group, which also took a hit when tight end Jesse James signed with Detroit. Most of the key players from last season's 10th-ranked defense are returning, but even with the additions of LB Mark Barron and CB Steven Nelson, Pittsburgh should pay attention to linebacker and the secondary.