AFC North Preview
Personnel changes – coaching:
Kevin Stefanski (HC), Joe Woods (DC), Alex Van Pelt (OC), Bill Callahan (OL)
Players added – vets:
Case Keenum (QB), Andy Janovich (FB), Austin Hooper (TE), Jack Conklin (OT), Adrian Clayborn (DE), Andrew Billings (DT), B.J. Goodson (LB), Kevin Johnson (CB), Karl Joseph (S), Andrew Sendejo (S)
Players added – rookies:
Jedrick Wills (OT), Grant Delpit (S), Jordan Elliott (DT), Jacob Phillips (LB), Harrison Bryant (TE)
Greg Robinson (OT), Joe Schobert (LB), J.J. Carrie (CB), Damarius Randall (S), Morgan Burnett (S)
Baker Mayfield and the offense
All bar some cynical Browns fans who have witnessed this too many times before were left feeling let down by Mayfield’s sophomore year after what was one of the best rookie seasons of the decade. A lot went wrong in Cleveland last year, and I’m of the opinion that Baker was thrown to wolves to a certain extent by those around him, but he was by no means blameless himself. His passer rating from a clean pocket (more stable year-to-year than under-pressure) dropped from 100.2 to 85.0, per PFF his percentage of accurate throws dropped from 66.5% (which was fourth in the league in 2018) to 55.4% (30th of 33 in the sample) and his completion percentage above expectation, a metric you can find on Next Gen Stats that looks at the probability a throw will be completed, had him ranked 33rd of 39 qualifying quarterbacks. One of the biggest issues we saw with Mayfield last year was his negative play rate – sacks, fumbles or interceptions were produced on 10.8% of his snaps, which ranked 26th out of 32 qualifying QBs. He did have some brutal luck with interceptions but he also got away with his fair share according to Football Outsiders adjusted interception rate that measures how often a QB’s throws should be picked off which had him ranked 31st of 34 quarterbacks at 4.3%.
I’ve painted a bit of a grim picture of last year for Mayfield but Browns fans can take solace in the fact that 2019 is currently an outlier when you look at his five years of college and NFL play. The reason I felt that he was thrown to the wolves was the scheme Freddie Kitchens designed around him, if you can even call it that. The reason Kitchens was able to get more out of Mayfield than his predecessor Hue Jackson was because he designed more short routes that allowed the QB to get the ball out of his hands quicker. After signing Odell Beckham Jr last offseason, though, Freddie got caught up in the hype and tried to go back to a more flashy offense with long routes that took time to develop and forced his QB to hold the ball for longer and gave him no short, underneath options with edge rushers bearing down on him. I couldn’t help but notice on more than one occasion multiple receivers were running to the same zones on the field, see the 49ers game for an example. Then there was the comical draw play on 4th and 9, down four with nine minutes to play against the Rams.
It’s been said almost every year for god knows how long now but Cleveland should benefit for the change in staff, and I think Mayfield in particular will be happy about the hire of legendary offensive line coach Bill Callahan. The offensive line troubles were well documented last year, the interior was actually solid but the tackles really struggled and this is an even bigger problem for Mayfield because of how deep he gets in the pocket when taking his drop. The signing of Jack Conklin at right tackle and drafting arguably the best lineman in the draft in Jedrick Wills for left tackle means this will be a completely different unit in 2020. We can also expect Stefanski to have Cleveland lining up in heavy sets much more often. The 2019 Browns lined up in 11 personnel on 56% of snaps, 12 personnel 23% of snaps and 21 personnel on just 5% of snaps. Contrast that with the 2019 Vikings who were lined up in 11 personnel just 21% of the time, 12 personnel 35% of snaps and 21 personnel 22% of the time also sprinkling in 22 and 13 personnel on occasion too. Given how top heavy the Cleveland wide receiver room is – Rashard Higgins may be the 3 receiver – it’s fair to assume the 2020 Browns might look more similar to last year’s Vikings, especially with the additions of Austin Hooper at tight end and Andy Janovich at full back. An interesting study done last year by PFF found teams actually averaged almost a full yard more per pass play (6.95 yards) out of heavy set formations than those with three or more wide receivers on the field (6.05 yards) in 2018.
I don’t expect Stefanski to make Cleveland a carbon copy of the Vikings but I think we will see him make more use of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. The Browns were a good rushing offence in 2019 (apart from in the red zone) ranking 8th in Football Outsiders efficiency metric. Chubb was one of the NFL’s most elusive running backs in 2019, ranking second in the league for avoided tackles rushing whilst also being incredibly hard to bring down, ranking third in the league for yards after contact per attempt.
New defensive coordinator Joe Woods is going to stick with a broadly similar approach to last year, utilising four linemen in a mostly nickel package that operates with two linebackers on the field and more defensive backs. Nickel/dime packages are generally geared more to stopping pass plays thus have become more and more prevalent in the NFL. What this led to last year was a defence that ranked 30th against the rush, not good in a division containing the Ravens. This is one of the reasons Cleveland saw fit to give 2016 first round pick Karl Joseph a chance after disappointing in Oakland. Joseph was often hurt in his four years in the league so far and has been suspect in coverage, but he plays decent against the rush being a solid tackler. They picked up another safety in Andrew Sandejo who didn’t play much snaps against the run whilst at the Vikings, earning an awful 56.4 PFF grade in the snaps he did play. They will be hoping that second round pick Grant Delpit can contribute right away. The linebacker core is very underwhelming, Mack Wilson ranked 83rd of 89 linebackers graded by PFF in 2019 with new addition B.J Goodson ranking 52nd but third round pick Jacob Phillips showed potential as a run defender in college. There’s potential in the young corners Denzel Ward and Greedy Williams but Williams will have to make a leap in his second year in the league. Williams has 4.3 speed but his mental processing has yet to catch up with his physicality, he was often slow to react when playing off-man in zone coverages which is something he struggled with in college. I loved Denzel Ward’s rookie season and was a little disappointed with his 2019 but it was an injury affected year, he was getting back on track towards the end of the year and he ended the year as one of the top 10 corners for passer rating allowed.
Based on the Vegas 2020 win totals Cleveland have the third easiest schedule in 2020, they also face the third easiest schedule of offenses per Sharp Football Stats. This is another factor that could help Baker Mayfield to bounce back, in 2019 they often started slow and got behind, I’d expect to see them play from ahead much more this year, taking pressure off Baker and allowing them to utilize the run game more. I like a lot of what Cleveland has done this offseason but how many times have we said that? The AFC North is one of the most interesting divisions in the league in 2020 for my money as I can see Joe Burrow lifting the Bengals right away with the cast he has around him, whilst Ben Roethlisberger returns to a Steelers side that has a monstrous defence and the Ravens are likely going to top the division again. Divisional games will decide whether they make the playoffs or not.
Players added – vets
Xavier Su’a-Filo (G), D.J Reader (DT), Trae Waynes (CB), Mackensie Alexander (CB), Vonn Bell (S)
Players added – rookies
Joe Burrow (QB), Tee Higgins (WR), Logan Wilson (LB), Akeem Davis-Gaither (LB), Khaleed Karim (DE), Hakeem Adenji (G), Markus Bailey (LB)
Andy Dalton (QB), Tyler Eifert (TE), Cordy Glenn (OT), Andrew Billings (DT), Nick Vigil (LB), Dre Kirkpatrick (CB)
A change of culture in Cinci?
The 2020 offseason seems to have finally brought about a shift in thinking for the Bengals, the release of perennially average Andy Dalton typifies that. For years owner Mike Brown seemed willing to accept mediocrity whilst keeping the purse strings tight – only the Browns have won less games than the Bengals in the past four years. Resisting temptation to trade out of the 1 spot, taking the best QB prospect we’ve seen for a while and being aggressive (by their standards) in free agency in trying to sort the defence out represents a clear shift in attitude.
The one thing that can be guaranteed is this will be a much better team in 2020 thanks to Joe Burrow… and the fact they only won two games last year. I’ll get to the offensive line in a minute, but even that won’t affect Burrow the way it would a less mobile QB given how sensational he was off-platform last year in college – when pressured he had a college-best passing grade of 80.5 in 2019 per PFF, of those throws that went 20+ yards he produced 11 big-time throws and no turnovers. You never want a rookie QB sitting behind a sieve of an offensive line where he is constantly getting hit, it tends to lead to developing bad habits that are hard to shake, but I don’t think there’s a QB who’s entered the league in the past 5 years who is better equipped to handle such a scenario. Burrow’s 94.1 overall passing grade is the best grade PFF have handed out to a QB since they started tracking college football in 2014. Per Sports Info Solutions 87.3% of Burrow’s throws were on target last year.
The Bengals coaching staff are prepared to rely on the current crop of O-linemen developing and the return of 2019 first round pick Jonah Williams, who missed the entirety of his rookie year through injury, should help shore up the left side. They also picked up Michael Jordan in the fourth round of the 2019 draft but he gave up six sacks last year (second-most among guards) whilst earning a PFF grade of 43.7, that ranked him 79th among 82 guards in the sample. Career back-up guard Xavier Su’a-Filo was brought in from Dallas, he was OK in limited pass blocking snaps in 2019 but it’s hard to have as much confidence in this group as Brian Callahan (OC) has “to sit here and say I am concerned about the quarterback getting hit, I’m really not”. There’s confidence among some that Fred Johnson could take the right tackle spot in training camp, he was claimed off waivers after a spell with Pittsburgh but he’s another developmental project who is very raw, he got game time in weeks 16 and 17 last year and did well, especially in pass blocking.
Where it gets exciting for Joe Burrow is the weapons he will have around him from the first snap he plays, something that few rookie QBs walk into. At the age of 32 and having played just 9 games in the last two years you wouldn’t be expecting A.J Green to come back to his best but he has consistently averaged 14+ yards per reception, per Pro Football Reference, throughout his career – opposing defences will have to respect him when on the field. Tyler Boyd has surpassed 1,000 yards in the past two years (not without a few drops) and the feeling is he can excel in the slot with Burrow this year. In terms of rotational receivers they also have speed merchant John Ross who averaged 1.95 yards per route run in 2019 which equaled Tyler Lockett and was better than the likes of Julian Edelman, OBJ and Robert Woods, though he is another player who has struggled for consistency particularly because of injuries. There’s also Auden Tate who has flashed here and there in his two years in the league whilst they drafted Tee Higgins in the second round in 2020 who projects as more of an athletic jump ball type in the NFL. The tight end group isn’t strong after the loss of Tyler Eifert but coach Zac Taylor ran 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE) on 75% of snaps last year, though it’s hard to take much from that given how limited they were last year.
Joe Mixon is one of the best running backs in the league – despite having a hard time of it last year he still racked up 1,137 yards. The Bengals offensive line ranked 26th in the league for adjusted line yards in 2019 meaning Mixon had to do a lot of the work himself, he was sixth in the league for yards after contact with 877. You just have to watch Mixon to really appreciate how good he is.
A new defence
Teams could pretty much do what they wanted against the Bengals defence in 2019 so moves have been made to address the issue in an uncharacteristically aggressive free agency. To sort out the run game D.J Reader has been brought in from Houston after the best year of his career in which his 85.1 PFF run defense grade was fifth among all interior defensive linemen whilst he also racked up 35 total QB pressures. Paired with Geno Atkins, who himself had 53 pressures and 43 tackles and assists, the Bengals have a nice look to the defensive line with Carlos Dunlap on the edge. Linebacker is another position, like the offensive line, that has gave the Bengals headaches for a while but I really like the two linebackers they drafted this year. Logan Wilson has the size at 6-foot-2 and 250 pounds to play the Mike linebacker position, he was one of the better tacklers in the draft and he has the athleticism to cover but the feeling is he may need a bit of development in that area. I loved Akeem Davis-Gaither in the fourth round, I was actually hoping the Broncos would target him in the third but alas, here he is. He is absolutely relentless and though he lacks size he makes up for it with his motor and his athleticism, cover linebackers are becoming ever more important in today’s NFL and he fits the bill lovely, I think the Bengals have done a phenomenal job at the linebacker position this offseason and it was necessary with how the Ravens offense has been rebuilt. The pass coverage in 2019 was just as bad as the run defence and the Bengals have also spent big in an attempt to fix this, bringing in Vonn Bell at safety as well as Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander at corner. They probably overpaid for three players who are about middle of the road at their positions but even that is an upgrade on last year and each have room to improve.
Based on the Vegas season win totals the Bengals play the 10th hardest strength of schedule however if we judge it by defensive efficiency from 2019 they have the 9th easiest schedule and if we judge it by offensive efficiency from 2019 they have the 7th easiest schedule, per Sharp Football Stats. Something that’s always worth looking at due to volatility year-to-year is the record of teams in one score games – the Bengals were 0-8 in such games, only the third time that’s happened in the past 50 years. The Bengals win total sits at 5.5 and I think that’s an over all day, in the last 20 years there have been 25 instances of a team winning two or less games and on average those teams improved by four games the next year. It would be a shock if they made a Colts/Andrew Luck sized jump to 11 wins but improvement is on the cards. Like I said for the Browns, this is an extremely interesting division in 2020 but for the Bengals they’re probably looking at 2021 before they make a concerted push for the play-offs, nevertheless I wouldn’t be shocked if they’re in contention with three or four games to go such is the value of a good quarterback in the NFL.
Players added – vets
Eric Ebron (TE), Stefen Wisniewski (G), Chris Wormley (DT), Derek Watt (FB)
Players added – rookies
Chase Claypool (WR), Alex Highsmith (DE), Anthony McFarland (RB), Kevin Dotson (G), Antoine Brooks (S), Carlos Davis (DT)
Javon Hargrave (DT), Mark Barron (LB), Nick Vannett (TE), Ramon Foster (G), B.J Finney (CB)
Big Ben is back
Just one-and-a-half games into the 2019 season the Steelers offense went from putting big points up on the board to please don’t score points for the opposition when Ben Roethlisberger went down injured and was ruled out for the year. The drop off was huge. By almost any metric you look at the Steelers were a bottom 5 offense last year, passing and rushing. The one area that they had success was passing to running backs, despite these passes totaling -112 air yards on 91 completions they gained 13.1 EPA (Expected Points Added) which ranked ninth in the league. For comparison when they targeted wide receivers they totaled -20.6 EPA. Overall they were 30th in both passing and rushing efficiency. There’s no point even talking about the two quarterbacks who were used in Ben’s absence because I highly doubt you’ll ever see them play another game in the NFL, unless of course Ben goes down again because the Steelers have done absolutely nothing to address their backup QB situation. This puts a spotlight on the offensive line which has been one of the best in the league for many seasons now. With Mike Munchak moving to Denver last year there were some signs of an ageing line starting to show a decline in performance – Football Outsiders actually had them ranked 30th for adjusted line yards but that wasn’t all on the line, they also ranked 12th for adjusted sack rate. PFF had them ranked fifth for pass blocking whilst ESPN’s pass block win rate metric had them ranked seventh in the league. They will be weaker this year after the retirement of left guard Ramon Foster.
The wide receiver group is among the most exciting in the league. JuJu Smith-Schuster had a down year in 2019 in what was his first year as the main man, averaging 1.53 yards per route run which ranked 60th among wide receivers but I’m basically disregarding the bad and looking for the good last year with the QB play they all had to put up with. Comparing Juju’s 2018 and 2019 stats make for grim reading, he went from 1,426 yards in 2018 to 552 yards in 2019, he missed four games last year but his targets dropped from 166 to 70, a product of the Steelers going from the most pass heavy team in 2018 to 22nd in the league in 2019. It’s a contract year for Juju so the return of Roethlisberger will be most appreciated. The Diontae Johnson hype train is at full speed this year after a good rookie season in which he caught the most passes of any rookie receiver for 680 yards. DJ led all wide receivers in average separation at 3.6 yards and was also top 15 for expected yards after catch per reception per Next Gen Stats, the hype is legit here, both he and JuJu project as intriguing fantasy options. Then they have James Washington who led the team in yards last year with 735 and he emerged as a potent downfield threat averaging 16.7 yards per reception. They also drafted Chase Claypool in the second round this year, there has been talk of moving him to tight end due to his size (6-4 and 240lbs) but he has surprising speed (4.42 40) and the Steelers are masters of drafting wide receivers, very intriguing upside. The TE room is solid with the signing of Eric Ebron, who averaged 1.91 yards per route run (ninth among TEs in 2019) to go along with Vance McDonald giving big Ben plenty of weapons.
On the rushing side of things there isn’t much to get excited about. James Conner was the leading rusher in 2018 but has had trouble staying on the field since the end of that year. In his absence Benny Snell took up the mantle last year and didn’t do much. The Steelers ranked dead last in EPA for rushing in 2019, 29th in success rate (43%) and 29th in yards per play (3.7 yards) per Sharp Football Stats. They will be hoping rookie Anthony McFarland can make an impact, he has flashed real talent in college but there are durability concerns there.
A dominant defence
One of the reason the Steelers managed to win eight games last year was the emergence of a dominant defence, there wasn’t a defence in the league that bailed its offence out more in 2019. Up front they lost Javon Hargrave to the Eagles but they still have one of the league’s best defensive lines with Cameron Heyward who had the most tackles and second-most sacks in the league last year amongst all defensive linemen. They will be hoping Stephon Tuitt can play more than six games in 2020, in those six games in 2019 he had four sacks and 18 total pressures and earned a PFF grade of 89.1 which ranked sixth among all defensive linemen. On the edge TJ Watt put himself in the conversation for best edge rusher in the league, he was second in ESPN’s pass rush win rate metric and was second in pressure rate, notching 18 sacks whilst PFF ranked him first among all edge defenders. Pittsburgh franchise tagged Bud Dupree this year after he had his breakout season in 2019 too, accumulating 13 sacks, 51 total pressures, 52 tackles/assists and four forced fumbles. Third round rookie Alex Highsmith can be eased in with that type of quality ahead of him.
The linebacker core wouldn’t be particularly strong, made even weaker by the loss of Mark Barron who played nearly 70% of snaps last year. Devin Bush has elite potential after a good rookie season in which he racked up over 100 tackles/assists and nabbed two interceptions to go along with a forced fumble. He has elite athleticism and if Bush makes the expected leap in his second year the Steelers won’t have taken long to replace Ryan Shazier. Next up on the depth chart is probably Vince Williams but he’s been in the league seven years now and never been anything more than a rotational option.
The Steelers played nickel on 51% of snaps in 2019, which was 19th league wide so we can probably expect to see them make even more use of these types of sub-packages. They certainly have the backfield for it. The trade for Minkah Fitzpatrick last year isn’t looking like too bad of a move at the minute, he came up with five interceptions in 2019 which was second-most among all safeties and led to him being selected to the Pro Bowl. He requested a trade from Miami apparently due to being moved around too much but he has back tracked on that stance recently, claiming “if the coaches want me to move around I’ll move around. If they don’t then I don’t need to.” I imagine we’ll see him moved around a bit in different packages in 2020. Alongside him they have 2018 first round pick Terrell Edmunds, who hasn’t really lived up to his draft position thus far but how much of that can be put on him is up for debate, he was clearly over drafted as many thought at the time he was more of a developmental project. He struggles in coverage which is never good for a safety and going into his third year in the league Pittsburgh will need him to start improving that side of his game or they will be moving on. Joe Haden and Steven Nelson were one of the better corner duos in the league last year. Nelson was PFF’s sixth-highest graded corner in coverage whilst Joe Haden was 20th with 10 pass break-ups, both had sub -1.0 adjusted yards per coverage snap per Sharp Football Stats. Mike Hilton is primarily a slot corner, he was 25th among all corners for coverage grade and behind him Cameron Sutton showed potential last year in limited snaps. There’s also a few developmental types on the depth chart such as Justin Layne, a 2019 third round pick who has great length, and 2020 sixth round pick Antoine Brooks.
Based on the Vegas season win totals Pittsburgh has the seventh easiest schedule in the league in 2020, whilst they are projected to play the second easiest schedule of opposing pass defences, playing just three games against top-15 pass defences, something that’s worth bearing in mind when you’re drafting your fantasy teams this year. The reasons this team managed to win eight games last year was a wild amount of turnover luck and a great defence. In the five games they didn’t win the turnover battle they went 0-5, in the five games they didn’t win the sack battle they were 0-5. They also recovered 5.6 fumbles over expectation per Sharp Football Stats. This is usually the type of profile that makes a team an auto-fade the following year but the return of Ben Roethlisberger negates that, what it does show, though, is the range of outcomes for the Steelers this year is as big as anyone’s. If Ben goes down the season is over, unless they get a huge amount of luck for the second year in a row. If Ben stays healthy this is a team capable of winning the Super Bowl. Their win total is at 9 and that looks about right to me given the improvement I’m forecasting in the division for 2020, which they are around 4/1 to win but you won’t see me fading the Ravens this year. It can be said of most teams but injury luck will play a huge part this year for the Steelers as they lack depth behind some of the star names they have and as such I wouldn’t want to be playing any season long bets on them at this stage.
Players added – vets
D.J Fluker (G), Derek Wolfe (DE), Calais Campbell (DT)
Players added – rookies
Patrick Queen (LB), J.K Dobbins (RB), Justin Badubuike (DT), Devin Duvernay (WR), Malik Harrison (LB), Tyre Phillips (OT), Ben Bredeson (G), James Proche (WR), Geno Stone (S)
Hayden Hurst (TE), Marshall Yanda (G), Chris Wormley (DT), Michael Pierce (DT), Patrick Onwuasor (LB), Brandon Carr (CB), Tony Jefferson (S)
More passing, less running for Jackson
Tennessee did a fantastic job of executing their game plan in the Divisional Round back in January and the Ravens did a poor job, that’s what it came down to. There were missed opportunities with reads and play calling, tipped passes and dropped passes. That’s in the past and has been analyzed plenty, you can guarantee it’s been analyzed to the nth degree by the Ravens too and they won’t be making those mistakes in the playoffs next time, likely in January. Lamar Jackson is the best athlete to ever play the quarterback position and it kind of overshadowed his progress as a passer – his passer rating when kept clean improved from 86.5 in 2018 to 118.5, his on-target throw percentage as measured by PFF improved from 66.7% to 76.1% and his EPA per pass went from -0.06 to 0.33. This is the problem with teams replicating what the Titans did in January, they loaded the box with 8 men and took away throws between the numbers but if he makes the right read on those one or two occasions, and his receivers don’t drop a couple of passes that’s a completely different game and the Ravens probably win. They sold out to the run and gambled on Lamar not beating them through the air but on another day he shreds that defence, it just wasn’t his day and that’s the volatility of the NFL playoffs – not taking anything away from Tennessee they played extremely well. Lamar was 22nd in the league with 460 attempts (didn’t play week 17) it’s expected that we see slightly more throwing and slightly less running from him in 2020 as he develops as a passer and his young receivers develop. As the Titans figured out Lamar had no problems throwing between the numbers but he rarely threw outside the numbers to the sidelines. “We should have more guys open and we should have bigger plays and we should create more opportunities in the passing game” John Harbaugh claimed when discussing whether they intend to pass more this year.
The wide receiver group was the weakness of the offense last year, for yards per route run none were in the top 25 at the position but that was probably to be expected with two rookies accompanying Willie Snead and Seth Roberts on the depth chart in Hollywood Brown and Miles Boykin. Brown was only on the field for 50% of snaps last year due to various injuries, they’ll be hoping that’s not repeated this year. When he did play he had the second-best passer rating when targeted of all wide receivers in 2019 at 134.4 whilst putting up 584 yards and seven TDs. Roberts has moved on to Carolina after an ineffective year. Miles Boykin will be opposite Brown in 2020 and according to OC Greg Roman they plan on getting him much more involved “Miles Boykin, we’re really going to load his plate a lot more this year and really ask a lot of him this year. We really feel like he’s going to take a giant step.” He will need to take a big step forward after just 13 receptions on 22 targets for 198 yards and three TDs in 2019. Willie Snead will need to fight off two rookies who I thought were two really nice pickups in the draft in 2020 – Devin Duvernay and James Proche. Despite trading Hayden Hurst to the Falcons the TE room is solid after Mark Andrew had a very nice year, second among all tight ends for yards per route run at 3.17.
The running game has been analyzed plenty so I’ll try keep this short. They averaged 206 rushing yards per game – most of any team in the last 45 years – for 5.53 yards per carry. Lamar himself racked up 1,206 (6.9 ypc) Ingram was next best with 1,018 (5 ypc). They also have the Gus bus and Justice Hill whilst they added J.K Dobbins in the second round of this year’s draft to what should be a running back by committee approach again. Dobbins averaged 6.7 yards per carry whilst accumulating 2,000 yards and 21 TDs in 2019, he can also be a factor in the passing game. With very little change on the offensive line to go along with every starter returning for the rest of the offence we can expect more of the same rushing for Baltimore.
A few changes on defence
The Ravens were excellent against the pass and mediocre against the run in 2019. Derrick Henry rushing for 195 yards in the playoffs stung and led to a couple of changes up front for the Baltimore defence. They were unable to come to terms with Michael Brockers who was their main run stopper last year but that only led to them upgrading with Calais Campbell who was PFF’s second highest graded run defender among all defensive linemen in 2019 with a grade of 90.6. Campbell is monster who also totaled six sacks and 71 pressures with 52 tackles/assists, all top 15 at the position. They also added Derek Wolfe who has been very solid for Denver when he could stay on the field, he’s another very good run defender who’s capable of getting after the QB.
The Ravens’ 2020 draft class was probably the best all round, they generally are, and I really like the two linebackers they added. They were probably more hopeful than expectant that Patrick Queen would fall to them at 28, but fall he did and they were able to fill one of very few positions of need on the roster. Queen has the athleticism to be an elite linebacker in the NFL and is likely to make an impact right away, it’s key that linebackers can cover in today’s NFL and he checks that box, as well as being able to rush the pass rusher and get to the edge on outside zone runs against running backs. If you could build a linebacker to combat this Ravens offense it would be Patrick Queen yet 27 other teams let the Ravens snap him up themselves. In the third round they also snagged Malik Harrison who is a bigger linebacker that is a very solid tackler and can play the run well, he wouldn’t be as athletic as Queen but he will, at the very least, be a good rotational ‘backer. The secondary which was up there with the best in the NFL remains basically untouched apart from the departure of Brandon Carr. Marlon Humphrey, Marcus Peters and Jimmy Smith is as good a corner back trio as you’re likely to find in the league, behind maybe only the Chargers trio, whilst Earl Thomas returns at safety. Another nice late round pick up in this year’s draft was final pick Geno Stone who has potential at safety and that will only be helped by learning from one of the best in Earl Thomas.
Based on the Vegas season win totals the Ravens have the fourth easiest schedule in the entire NFL in 2020, whilst if we judge it by opposing defensive efficiency from 2019 they have the third easiest schedule. It’s not hard to see why their own season win total sits at 11.5 and why they are -300 favourites to win the division. This is one of the smartest organisations, with one of the smartest coaching staffs and an absolutely loaded roster that is extremely young on the offensive side and they addressed their weaknesses in the offseason, I would be very surprised if they aren’t playing in the playoffs at the absolute minimum this year. Unfortunately there’s no 80/1 about this year for Lamar to win MVP (humble brag) and there’s no fancy prices about them winning it all but this is a team that can’t be faded in 2020.
For me this might be the most interesting division in the NFL for 2020 which is partly why I started my analysis with it. More of the same is expected from the Ravens, especially considering their schedule and I just can’t wait to see Lamar Jackson play football again. The Steelers are garnering attention as many people’s “dark horses” for the Super Bowl this year and it’s not hard to see why, the defence was lights out at the end of last year and if Roethlisberger is back to full fitness with that group of receivers the offense could be very good. I have some reservations about the Steelers offensive coaching staff, you can’t read too much into last year but they used very little play action or pre snap motion compared to the rest of the league, those are free tools that help manipulate defences and nearly every team has realised that by this point bar the Steelers. I hastily made a couple of bets on Baker Mayfield for MVP in 2020 at 50/1 as soon as the dust settled after the Super Bowl. On reflection I’m not sure it was a wise move but I expect both him and the Browns to bounce back and make a sustained run at the playoffs this year so you never know. I think they’ll push the Steelers for second place in the division. The Bengals will be well worth watching this year too, Joe Burrow coming off one of the best college years of all time with a few good weapons around him. We’ve seen it before with Andrew Luck what a quality QB can do for a team. It may be ambitious having playoff aspirations but there’s extra place available this year, you just never know. One thing I am confident in is them going over their season win total of 5.5. If I had to guess I’d say they will be in contention with 3 games to go but may just miss out. My prediction for the division is:
- Baltimore Ravens 14-2 (playoffs)
- Cleveland Browns 10-6 (playoffs)
- Pittsburgh Steelers 9-7 (playoffs)
- Cincinnati Bengals 7-9