It’s Joe Burrow’s world, we’re just living in it. Usually, a young quarterback will come up against an obstacle that blocks their path. In two years in the NFL, he’s made the regular season look easy. He’s thrown 30 touchdown passes against AFC North teams, beating them all at least once. His air of serenity has not only taken his team to the playoffs in both of his previous two seasons but has seen them win five playoff games under his stewardship. What does the future hold for the AFC North? With the strength of schedule they face the 2023 AFC North could replicate the 2022 NFC East.
History Repeats Itself In Way Too Early AFC North Preview
Your Three-peat Champions – Bengals
A burst appendix couldn’t stop Joe Burrow in 2022 (although it tried). Even Ja’Marr Chase’s battle with a fractured hip couldn’t stop the team formerly known as the Bungles from winning the division.
Chase recorded 1,046 receiving yards, the 17th-highest number in the league, and caught nine touchdowns in 2022. Only three receivers caught more scoring passes. But in his rookie year, Chase managed 1,455 yards and 13 touchdowns. Tee Higgins also went over 1,000 yards in 2022, hauling in seven touchdowns. Nine different players in total caught scoring passes from Burrow last season and six of them are still in Cincinnati.
Burrow To Chase 🥶🥶🥶
— LSU Football (@LSUfootball) January 30, 2022
Samaje Perine has left though, and he had 133 touches last season (16% of the team total). There could be some off-field trouble ahead for Joe Mixon too so the 2023 run game might look a little different. Cincinnati has seven picks in the draft so they may decide to use one of them on a back. They don’t need a feature back either, just one to join the committee alongside Chris Evans and Trayveon Williams.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Bengals have lost two veterans in the shape of Jessie Bates III and Vonn Bell. They both started 16 games in the 2022 regular season, combining for a total of 148 tackles. Cincinnati drafted Dax Hill in 2022 though, he played 131 defensive snaps last season (plus 167 on special teams) only missing one tackle. The Bengals also used the 166th pick of the 2022 draft to select Tycen Anderson but he missed the entire season with a hamstring injury.
They may be happy to go with a young backfield, but the Bengals are $14.1 million under to the salary cap. If they want to add some depth there are 33 safeties available on the free agent market. 33-year-old Michael Thomas is still on their roster, but he’s really a special teamer in Cincinnati. He only played 25 snaps on defense last season.
The AFC North’s Perennial Challengers – Steelers
The Rooney’s have been busy in the early stages of free agency, signing 10 players. Four of those, Larry Ogunjobi, Damontae Kazee, James Pierre, and Zach Gentry were Steelers last season.
Pittsburgh bolstered their offensive line with two new guards and right tackle La’Raven Clark. They’ve also made some big signings of defense. Elandon Roberts arrives from Miami, he made 107 tackles and 4.5 sacks in 2022. Eight-time Pro-bowler Patrick Peterson joins from Minnesota and another linebacker, former Commander Cole Holcomb signed a three-year deal with the black and gold. Holcomb only played seven games last season after foot surgery but recorded 142 tackles and two interceptions in his last full season.
The Steelers lost defensive backs Terrell Edmunds, Cameron Sutton, and linebackers Devin Bush and Malik Reed. Those four made 273 tackles between them in 2022, so the new signings should provide extra productivity (bearing in mind Holcomb made more than half that number himself in a 16-game season).
The only notable departures on the offensive side of the ball are guard Trenton Scott and wide receiver Steven Sims Jr. Scott only managed to play eight games last season though, starting just once. Sims Jr. caught just 14 passes in 2022 as the Steelers offense spluttered. The one thing that seemed to hold back Pittsburgh last season was the play calling and Matt Canada is back to do what it is he does best, frustrate Steeler Nation.
A healthy Najee Harris and more faith in Jaylen Warren should allow Kenny Pickett to progress and win nine games. Alongside Harris and Warren, Pickens, Freiermuth and Anthony Miller (who missed 2022 injured) will provide Pickett with plenty of options.
The AFC’s “Meh” Team – Browns
Quarterback trades usually provide a short-term solution. Trading for a quarterback who’s suspended for 11 games provides an even shorter-term fix. In 2022 the Browns won one game fewer than they had in the previous season. It’s safe to say the Deshaun Watson trade has not been a roaring success so far. The reason trading for quarterbacks is a serious gamble is that it usually involves giving away first-round draft picks. In this particular scenario, the Texans have the Browns first-round pick and their first third-round pick this year. The contract they offered their shiny new quarterback also gives them a $19 million cap hit this year. That’s a lot of money for someone who only completed 58.2% of their passes in 2022 and threw five interceptions in six games last season.
Nick Chubb is the savior of Cleveland. Chubb scored 33% of the Browns total touchdowns in 2022! He touched the ball on 29% of their offensive snaps (329 times). The chances of him being able to do that twice in two seasons seem slim. The last time Chubb had more than 249 touches in a season was back in 2019 when he had 334. The following season he only played in 12 games and only touched the ball 204 times. If they don’t start using him more intelligently, he’ll be missing more games than he plays.
Nick Chubb is already getting ready for the season 👀👀👀 pic.twitter.com/OzbMWOt337
— ESPN Cleveland (@ESPNCleveland) April 2, 2023
D’Ernest Johnson signed with the Jaguars and Kareem Hunt is still a free agent. The Browns have four other running backs signed to their roster though. However, in 2022 Demetric Felton and Jerome Ford only ran the ball nine times between them and John Kelly only appeared on special teams. Nate McCrary is the fifth back on their roster, and he was cut by the Ravens on the 30th of August. McCrary remained unsigned until the Panthers added him to their practice squad on the 1st of November. His lone career touch in the NFL went for –1 yard, so it seems unlikely he’ll be Chubb’s backup next season.
The Browns approach to free agency can best be described as “scattergun”. They’ve signed nine new players, six of whom are defensive players. Only four of 2022’s defense left while six of last season’s defense are still available on the free agent market.
For a team that relied so heavily on their running back last season and ran the ball 48% of the time they’ve assembled quite an odd roster so far this offseason. They currently have 11 wide receivers and four tight ends. Obviously, they won’t all still be there in September, but the recruitment process looks a bit “quantity over quality”.
The AFC North’s What Is Actually Going on Team – Ravens
Low-balling Lamar Jackson during contract negotiations has come back to bite the Ravens front office. Combined with the seemingly small trade market for the 2019 MVP it’s hamstringing their ability to make future plans with confidence. As it stands at the moment the Ravens could have a starting quarterback who really doesn’t want to be there. Lamar may choose to hold out for the entire season but with a strong quarterback draft class in 2024 that may not help him in the long run.
The Ravens are currently precariously close to the salary cap too. They have $3.6 million to spend, but at the moment they only have one quarterback. Their first-round pick should be the 22nd selection and according to this year’s rookie pay scale that will cost them $2.68 million, they haven’t got much wriggle room. They have franchise-tagged Lamar, but he doesn’t have to sign the tag until the summer.
Even if, in some miraculous turnaround Lamar stays and plays in Baltimore other veteran players have already left. Calais Campbell was released and signed with the Falcons and Chuck Clark was traded to the Jets. Three other players also left in free agency, center Trystan Colon, guard Ben Powers, and tight end Josh Oliver all found new teams. Baltimore signed Nelson Agholor who was previously a Patriot but 12 of the Ravens’ 2022 roster are still on the free agent market.
Given how tight they are for cash it’s difficult to evaluate the Ravens roster. If there’s no Lamar news they may have to cut more players. Trading Lamar would free up $32 million but if nobody is willing to give up two first round picks for an often-injured quarterback, they’re a bit stuck. The cheapest way to replenish their stocks of linemen is through the draft but they only have five picks. They could use some extra interior offensive linemen (they only have one centre and three guards) and they currently only have six defensive linemen.
However the offseason plays out it looks like the Ravens will be a bit of a mishmash in 2023.
Main Photo: Tommy Gilligan – USA Today Sports