The Deadspin 2020 NFL Previews, AFC North: Young Guns and Scumbag Ben

Illustration for article titled The Deadspin 2020 NFL Previews, AFC North: Young Guns and Scumbag Ben
Graphic: Eric Barrow (Getty Images)

This is yet another division that seems to be perennially up for grabs between a couple of teams, at least on paper, but unlike the NFC North, this division is fresh and exciting. A rookie quarterback! An MVP quarterback that Bill Polian wanted to convert to wide receiver! An annual dogfight to the top! And ... the Bengals! Okay, maybe not the Bengals. But there are at least two, possibly three, teams that could conceivably battle their way to the top of the division.

The three biggest questions in the division all revolve around quarterbacks. Will Lamar Jackson be able to avoid a MVP hangover and build on last season’s monster output, despite a humbling loss to the Titans in the playoffs? Will a 38-year-old Ben Roethlisberger, coming off an elbow injury, be able to make one last run at a Super Bowl? And can Baker Mayfield bounce back from a disappointing 2019 to find something special with WRs Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry?

Let’s take a run through the AFC North.

Former sports-talking / law-talking chick. Push out the jive, bring in the love.

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Cleveland Browns

Cleveland Browns

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Odell Beckham, Jr.
Photo: Getty

Covid Response: The lines on both sides of the ball took a hit, as five total players opted out of the season due to COVID-19; four offensive and one defensive linemen. The biggest name to withdraw from the season is nose tackle Andrew Billings. The hope for more protection for Baker Mayfield also looks dubious, even if only from a depth standpoint. O-linemen Drew Forbes, Colby Gossett, Drake Dorbeck, and Malcolm Pridgeon all decided to sit 2020 out.

Outside The Lines: Things were pretty quiet off the field for the Browns, which is great news for a team that employs Kareem Hunt. The most objectionable thing about the Browns’ offseason was probably those At Home With Baker Mayfield commercials, where Mayfield and his wife live at FirstEnergy Stadium, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear. We get to see Mayfield wandering an empty stadium, doing things like trying to fix a malfunctioning toilet and cleaning the stands after a game, begging the question: Where are the people who had these jobs before? Did Mayfield fire them all in the midst of a global pandemic? Not cool.

Oh, he’s here now?: Getting Mayfield better protection up front was a key goal for the Browns this offseason, and the addition of O-linemen Jack Conklin and rookie first-round draft pick Jedrick Willis should help tremendously. Cleveland also added fullback Andy Janovich, and the highly-coveted (at least by Bears fans) TE Austin Hooper. On the defensive side, Adrian Clayborn joins an already extremely adept defensive line.

Where’d he go?: Unlike almost every other team in the league, Cleveland managed to keep its key players on-board for 2020, though they did let linebackers Chris Kirksey (Packers) and Joe Schobert (Jaguars) test free agency and ultimately sign elsewhere.

Fans in the stands: Where to start with this one? Though it has yet to be approved by Governor Mike DeWine, Cleveland is moving ahead with plans to have fans in the seats for the home opener against the Bengals on September 17. The tickets will be sold in “pods” — groups of one to ten fans who know and can sit next to each other. What could go wrong?

What to expect: You know that Browns team you thought was going to shake things up in 2019? Expect to see that team this season. Though a lot of the issues Cleveland had on offense can be traced back to Mayfield’s lack of accuracy, a much-improved offensive line should give him the security he needs. The offense will be formidable with playmakers like OBJ, Nick Chubb, Landry, Austin Hooper, David Njoku and Hunt providing Mayfield, and new head coach Kevin Stefanski, with plenty of weapons.

On defense, Myles Garrett and the rest of the defensive line is one of the best around, and defensive coordinator Joe Woods has been making improvements to the secondary, bringing in strong safeties Karl Joseph and Andrew Sendejo. A lot of things that went wrong for Cleveland in 2019 have to go right in 2020, but they have an easier schedule and a reason to be optimistic.

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Baltimore Ravens

Baltimore Ravens

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Lamar Jackson
Photo: Getty

Covid Response: Only two players wound up opting out for the Ravens, offensive tackle Andre Smith and returner De’Anthony Thomas. Probably because everyone else wants to see what Lamar will do this season.

Outside The Lines: The Earl Thomas mess seems like it was a lifetime ago in the hellscape that is 202o, but turns out it was only in May. Of course, I’m talking about the first Earl Thomas mess that we knew about, meaning the one that involved a gun and him being found in bed with his brother and at least two women, neither of whom was his wife (no kink-shaming!). After an on-field altercation in training camp, the Ravens cut ties with the Pro Bowl safety for good. Thomas is still a free agent. Imagine how much of a jerk you’d have to be to be a Pro Bowler and have your team cut ties with you and then not even the Cowboys pick you up.

Oh, he’s here now?: If there was one weakness in Baltimore last season, it was the inside pass rush. Enter D-lineman Calais Campbell and Derek Wolfe. The Ravens also had an exemplary draft, adding rookie J.K. Dobbins to the running game on the offensive side of the ball. They also added veteran offensive lineman D.J. Fluker to help shore up their front.

Where’d he go?: Uh, obviously Thomas is ... not here any longer ... for the reasons outlined above. Leaving a big hole on the offensive line is Pro Bowler Marshall Yanda, who retired after 13 seasons with the team.

Fans in the stands: Though the Ravens initially wanted to allow 14,000 fans into M&T Bank Stadium for the home opener, they’ve shelved the plan for now and will not host fans for “at least the initial part” of the 2020 season.

What to expect: For a team starting a wide receiver at quarterback, ahem, the Ravens did pretty well in 2019 (perhaps someday I will let that go, Bill Polian, but today is not that day). Look, it’s going to be really tough for Jackson to do what he did in 2019, namely rushing for over 1,200 yards and surprising the hell out of everyone. There’s also the fear that, now that the Titans showed everyone else how to beat Baltimore, every other team in the league will use the same playbook to neutralize Jackson. Yes, everyone is going to see Jackson coming this year. Everyone is going to be gunning for him. But, based on what we saw last year, Jackson is smart enough and talented enough to keep defenses on their toes.

And don’t forget, stopping Jackson is one thing. Scoring on the Ravens is something else entirely. Heading into the season, The Athletic’s Sheil Kapadia has Baltimore’s defense ranked No. 1 in the NFL. With stars like lineman Calais Campbell and linebacker Matt Judon, and emerging playmakers like cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Marlon Humphrey, the Ravens have one of the deepest defenses in the NFL, even without Thomas. Look for the Ravens to be playing deep into January of 2021 at the very least.

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Pittsburgh Steelers

Pittsburgh Steelers

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Human-Shaped Puddle of Ooze
Photo: Getty

Covid Response: The Steelers were one of only three teams in the NFL to have zero players opt-out due to COVID concerns, along with the Falcons and Chargers.

Outside The Lines: Ben Roethlisberger would like you to forget that multiple women accused him of sexual assault. For the most part, everyone has. But, like a dog chasing its tail, Roethlisberger keeps giving us reasons to bring it up, and this offseason was no exception. This summer, Roethlisberger took part in a virtual conference called “ManUp” (oh, indeed?), in which Big Ben confessed to his “sins,” including addictions to alcohol and porn. Roethlisberger also confessed to being “human” and not being “the best Christian I can be.” I feel like you’re leaving a lot out there, Ben. Maybe we’ll try again next summer.

Oh, he’s here now?: One the offensive side of the ball, the Steelers signed tight end Eric Ebron to a two-year deal in March and drafted wide receiver Chase Claypool, who has been getting rave reviews in training camp, in the second round of the draft. They also picked up running back Anthony McFarland Jr. in the fourth round and signed veteran Stefan Wisniewski to shore up the O-line.

Where’d he go?: The Steelers bid a fond farewell to O-lineman Ramon “The Big Ragu” Foster, who retired after 11 seasons with the team, and lost defensive tackle Javon Hargrave (Eagles) to free agency.

Fans in the stands: Not for the first two home games against the Broncos and Texans, respectively. The team hasn’t released any plans beyond those two dates.

What to expect: If there’s one team that has a chance at dethroning the Ravens in the division, it’s the Steelers. Roethlisberger has recovered from his elbow injury (did you miss the video of him getting his stitches out?) and seems hell-bent on making one last run at it. A friendly reminder that this Steelers team finished 8-8 in 2019 without Roethelisberger for most of the season. Adding the likes of TE Eric Ebron to an offense already boasting the likes of wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and running back James Conner can’t be a pleasant thought for the other defenses of the AFC North.

Speaking of defenses, the Steelers have one of the best in the league, led by linebacker T.J. Watt and safety Minkah Fitzpatrick. Whether Pittsburgh can hang with Baltimore remains to be seen, but given that they damn near snuck into the playoffs in 2019, there’s plenty of reason to believe the Steelers will make a serious run at a postseason berth.

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Cincinnati Bengals

Cincinnati Bengals

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Joe Burrow
Photo: Getty

Covid Response: The Bengals only lost two players to the COVID opt-out list: offensive tackle Isaiah Prince and defensive tackle Josh Tupou.

Outside The Lines: In a tale as old as time, overall No. 1 pick Joe Burrow had a bunch of old, racist tweets pop up ahead of the NFL draft. And while there is nothing entertaining about Burrow’s racist (at least at one point) views, I was amused by his repeated attempts to spell “foreigners” correctly and by calling Commissioner Roger Goodell “a joke.”

Oh, he’s here now?: The Bengals spent $130 million in free agency this past offseason, signaling a significant rebuild under head coach Zac Taylor. They added guard Xavier Su’a-Filo to the mix on offense, where he’s got a shot at starting, in addition to slapping the franchise tag on veteran receiver A.J. Green. But most of the impact signings took place on defense, where the team made significant upgrades, adding defensive tackles D.J. Reader and Mike Daniels, cornerbacks Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander, linebacker Josh Bynes, and safety Vonn Bell.

Where’d he go?: In seeking to fix their problems on defense, Cincinnati parted ways with two cornerbacks who weren’t getting it done, letting Darqueze Dennard (Falcons) walk in free agency and releasing starter Dre Kirkpatrick (Cardinals).

Fans in the stands: In late August, the Bengals stated fans will not be allowed in the stadium indefinitely, despite being in the same state as Cleveland.

What to expect: Cincinnati’s defense was bad in 2019. Like, 2-14 bad. But adding six starters in free agency (Trae Waynes is expected to miss much of the season with a torn pectoral muscle) can turn a defense around quickly. The real question as the Bengals embark on their rebuilding program is if Burrow will be as good as advertised. Not only will the rookie quarterback have to handle the pressure of his first year in the NFL, he’ll have to do it without a preseason. So far, Burrow has gotten glowing reviews from teammates, and surrounded by the likes of tight end C.J. Uzomah, Green and rookie wide receiver Tee Higgins, and newly-extended running back Joe Mixon, it’s hoped that Burrow will have enough weapons to find his footing and quickly move Cincy to the next level.

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Elsewhere

Elsewhere

Check out the rest of our NFL previews for this strangest of seasons:

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Former sports-talking / law-talking chick. Push out the jive, bring in the love.