We are almost there. In less than a week, 32 NFL teams begin their quest for Superbowl glory. After an offseason to remember, the cuts have been made, the rosters have been selected, and now the only thing left to do is put it out on the field.
The AFC North Round Ups are back for a second season after very positive feedback surrounding my series last year, thanks again to the many comments and contributions many made. This year I am no longer at University, so I have all the more time to devote to getting one of these out each and every week, unlike last year where I only managed half of the season.
The AFC North is kitted up for a big year. The Steelers are coming off a Superbowl appearance, the Ravens are again looking to go one further in the playoffs, the Browns are out seeking a .500 or better season, and the Bengals will be out to prove that they are better than their horror of an offseason has led many to believe.
Part One looks at the state of Ohio, lets break down how their seasons look:
The Bengals promised much this time last year, only to stumble horribly out of the gates and never recover. After a playoff berth in the 2009 season, the Bengals slumped to 4-12 in 2010, going away from everything that worked the year previous. Carson Palmer did not look like the elite quarterback he was touted as being, the offensive line opened up less holes for Cedric Benson, and the Defense worsened from 4th overall in 2009 down to 15th in 2010. Quite simply, the Bengals were who we thought the were.
Out with the Old: (Key losses or notable cuts from the team)
Carson Palmer is not returning for the Bengals, after seeking a trade which Mike Brown would not grant, he is left backing up his words and retiring, at least for now.
Terrell Owens, who posted a solid year for the Bengals with 72 grabs for 983 yards and 9 touchdowns, has also not been retained due to offseason surgery, not to mention a youth movement. Likewise, his partner in crime if you will, Chad Ochocinco was also packed up and shipped off to the New England Patriots, completing the revamp on offense.
In with the New: (Who is new to the team, looking to make an impact)
Andy Dalton, the 35th overall pick in the draft, now is the man for the job in Cincinnati. Not that there was a lot of competition. After an up and down (mostly down) preseason, Andy is being thrown to the wolves this season in hoping he can somehow inspire a now very young and very inexperienced Bengals offense. Dalton completed 60% of his passes in the preseason, not bad, but only threw 1 touchdown and looked pretty dreadful at times.
A.J. Green joins the Bengals as the 4th overall pick, and looks to have all the tools to be an outstanding receiver for years to come provided that Dalton can prove himself capable of getting him the ball. Green flashed moments of brilliance in the preseason, and now it is up to him to carry that over into a 60 minute game against starters.
Nate Clements was an interesting addition to the Bengals. After Johnathan Joseph escaped the Jungle, Clements came over from San Francisco to fill the void. The full extent of what Clements can offer the Bengals is likely to be less than that of Joseph, but Clements is a former Pro Bowler who is great in coverage and usually finds himself around the ball. The only question now is how much does he have left in the tank.
All eyes on me: (This section looks at players coming of strong seasons, now demanding attention)
Outside of the first two Cincinnati rookies chosen in the draft, one player who will look to have a big impact this season is Jerome Simpson. After T.O and Ochocinco were out of the lineup late last season, Simpson had a chance to stand up and stand up he did. After being on the fringes his first couple seasons, Simpson came out of nowhere to post 18 catches for 247 yards in the final two games of the season.
Likewise, Jordan Shipley was possibly the most underrated rookie last season, the slot receiver hauled in 52 grabs for 600 yards, looking far more polished than many of the Cincinnati veterans. Jermaine Gresham also looked the part, the rookie Tight End grabbed 52 catches and 4 touchdowns.
The youth movement continues on defense, with the spotlight player to watch being Carlos Dunlap. Dunlap only played 11 games with considerable snaps, and made the most of them, racking up 9.5 sacks as a rookie. Very impressive indeed. He has been hampered by a knee injury this offseason which may affect his production, but if he is healthy, he could be the most productive player on an otherwise unflattering Bengal defense.
Sink or Swim: (This section looks at a player under the spotlight, with consequences)
Leon Hall is now the number one guy in the Cincinnati secondary. Johnathan Joseph left because the Bengals didnt front up with #1 cornerback money like he deserved, and then a few weeks later they cough up #1 cornerback money to his former team mate. Again, another strange way of business from Bengals management.
Regardless, Leon Hall is a talented player with a knack of intercepting passes. He was an excellent compliment to Joseph, but now he must prove that he can stay afloat on his own. Hall now looks to cover teams #1 Wide Receiver option, and you could say a big part of the Bengals success now depends on his ability to be that cover man and make the position his own, otherwise, it could be a long season for the Bengal defense.
Growing pains. Struggles, but a few highlights that keep excitement for future seasons. Time will tell if Dalton is the guy, but the Bengals have a lot of solid young talent around him, and it is rather impressive. The problem as always will be can they put it all together into a team effort. Who knows.
4-12, Last in the AFC North
The Cleveland Browns were a team in transition last year, and early on they sure looked like it. They persisted on switching between Jake Delhomme and Seneca Wallace early on before finally giving the job to Colt McCoy, and once they did, the team functioned better on offense. The Browns had a couple notable upsets over the Saints and Patriots, but ultimately in the end had a typical Browns season, finishing 5-11, narrowly avoiding last place in the AFC North.
Out with the Old:
Jake Delhomme is gone, and for many it is good riddance. The team now moves forward with Colt McCoy.
Unluckily for the Browns, they lost a couple key players for this season to the injury bug. Eric Steinbach, a pro bowl Guard for the Browns, is lost for the season due to a disk injury in his back. Also, the Browns lost former Packer Brandon Jackson to a season ending toe injury. I am no doctor but a season ending toe injury sounds rather timid. Jackson was expected to be the third down back behind starter Hillis and backup up Hardesty.
Eric Mangini also wore out his welcome with Cleveland, slumping to a second straight losing season. In the mid point of the season the Browns looked like they were on the up, however the team stalled and ended the season miserably, costing Mangini his job.
In with the New:
The Browns did not make a lot of noise in free agency, as they seldom do. However, they added some nice pieces through the draft, notably the additions of DT Phil Taylor from Baylor, and DE Jabaal Sheard from Pittsburgh to shore up a shoddy run defense that has compromised them in recent years, as well as generating extra heat with the pass rush.
The Browns also added another new young receiver to the roster with the addition of Greg Little. Little is not a small man (funny that) standing 6'3 and 220lbs. He has great measurables and should be a dynamic force for the Browns, the only question is has a year away from football hurt his gameday fitness and natural feel for the game? (Little missed his final year with an NCAA suspension)
In comes Pat Shurmur as head coach, formerly the Offensive Coordinator for the St Louis Rams. Shurmur showed great understanding of Sam Bradford as a rookie and the two were able to have good success, something that both the Browns and Shurmur hope he can translate over to Colt McCoy in his sophomore season.
All eyes on me:
Colt McCoy at times looked great last season out of the West Coast offense and other times he looked very much like the rookie he was. However, McCoy has been very impressive in the pre season, completing 60% of his passes, throwing 320 yards, 4 touchdowns, just 1 interception and posting a 101.7 QB rating (Fuck QBR). Now in his second season, with another years worth of study and preparation not to mention the new tutelage of Pat Shurmur, he will look to make strides in all areas of being a passer.
Joe Haden wowed the NFL last season with his outstanding natural instincts as a cornerback, and it wasnt long before he was the number 1 corner on the Browns roster. The 8th overall pick of 2010 was a bit of a surprise at the time as the Browns were seen to have more pressing needs, however he erased any doubt of his abilities with a great rookie season, totalling 6 interceptions. With a years more experience, he could take another big step into becoming the shutdown corner he was envisioned to be pre-draft.
Evan Moore. Who? A few of you are probably asking that. Evan Moore is the Browns now 3rd year Tight End who has proven himself ready to take on a heavier workload this season in the WC offense, not to mention he will have more chances early on as Benjamin Watson battles injuries. Last year, Moore was a somewhat secret weapon, grabbing 322 yards at 20ypc last season. Yes, that read 20 ypc for a Tight End. A great redzone target as well, Moore could be on pace for a standout year as a Brown
Sink or Swim:
Peyton Hillis. No longer are you the little known "fullback" of the Denver Broncos sent to the Browns for Brady Quinn. You are now in every household (well almost) around the United States not to mention half the world, wherever Madden 12 is sold. With great exposure, comes great expectations, and not only the Browns faithful, but the entire fandom of the NFL will be expecting to see you succeed and continue to show you can play at the intensity and production of last year.
The Browns have no clear cut runner behind you (could make a case for Hardesty) so a lot of the Browns offensive success depends on your ability to wear down opposing defenses. No pressure.
The Cleveland Browns are really an unknown commodity this season. Ignorance says "Its the Browns, they suck" but there are pieces there for the Browns to make some noise. They have a solid young core, and most importantly, they finally have some consistency in the team. They know who the #1 Quarterback is. Check. They know who the #1 Running Back is. Check. That there is a lot more than you can say for the last few seasons alone, such have been the turbulent times of the Browns. My head tells me 5 wins because of the schedule, but anything around 7-8 wins would not be a total surprise to me.
5-11, 3rd in the AFC North
Week One Match Up:
Cleveland play host to Cincinnati to kick off AFC North divisional matchups for 2011. The Bengals are still a team trying to find their new identity with a completely revamped offense, whereas the Browns have the team more consistent with last years squad. After splitting the series last year, look for the Browns to strike first with a carefully executed gameplan, and solid defensive play.
Cleveland wins: 23-17
Part Two will be up later today or tomorrow, previewing the Ravens and Steelers.