The AFC North has been dominated by the Bengals, Ravens and Steelers for years, but this finally could be the year of the Browns.
The division has a new look all around, as the Browns and Ravens made some big offseason signings, the Bengals added a new head coach for the first time in 17 years and the Steelers will prepare to play without their “Killer B” trio.
Here’s the outlook for the AFC North heading into training camp:
Team on the rise
The Browns had nowhere to go but up in 2018 after posting a winless record the previous season, but after going 7-8-1 in 2018 they could really take off in 2019.
One of the biggest stories this offseason was Cleveland’s acquisition of wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. from the Giants. But the Browns didn’t stop there and made a controversial decision to sign running back Kareem Hunt following his release from the Chiefs after a video surfaced in which he was kicking a woman (he’s suspended eight games to start 2019 for the incident).
Among those returning for the Browns after helping turn around the team last season are Baker Mayfield, Jarvis Landry, Antonio Callaway and Nick Chubb, making the Browns not only the most intriguing team in the AFC North but also one of the most interesting ones in the NFL as a whole.
Team on the decline
It’s a new era in Cincinnati, which means the Bengals could be looking up from the bottom of the division for a year or two as they find their footing.
The team brought in first-time head coach Zac Taylor after parting ways with longtime coach Marvin Lewis, and the 36-year-old will face the tall task of helping the team rebound from its first last-place finish in the division since 2010 after the Browns infamously held the position from 2011-17.
However, much of the team’s turnaround will depend on the recovery of its offense after the Bengals lost quarterback Andy Dalton (thumb), wide receiver A.J. Green (toe) and tight end Tyler Eifert (ankle) to injuries last season.
Rookies to watch
Devin Bush, LB, Steelers: The Steel Curtain has been far from impenetrable since the team lost Ryan Shazier to a spine injury, so Pittsburgh traded up to take the Michigan standout 10th overall and he quickly made an impression on his teammates during OTAs. Bush, who ran a 4.43-second 40-yard dash at the combine, had 172 tackles, 18.5 tackles for losses, 10 sacks and an interception in 32 games in his three seasons with the Wolverines.
Marquise Brown, WR, Ravens: The Ravens surprised many taking Brown with the No. 25 pick of the first round. The team doesn’t have the best history drafting receivers, and Lamar Jackson carried much of the offensive load last season as he ranked 30th in rushing yards, joining Cam Newton (49th) as the only quarterbacks in the top 50. Still, Brown proved to be a valuable — and speedy — weapon as Kyler Murray’s top target at Oklahoma, posting 75 catches for 1,318 and 10 touchdowns last season.
After spending the first nine seasons of his career in Seattle, Thomas is in for an adjustment in 2019 with the Ravens, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t up for the challenge.
A key member of the “Legion of Boom” secondary and Seahawks defense that was among the NFL’s stingiest for most of a decade, Thomas brings a level of intensity, determination and leadership that the Ravens defense has arguably lacked since Hall of Fame safety Ed Reed’s retirement.
Imagine what Thomas brings to a defense that ranked first in yards allowed in 2018. His fire was only fueled after he broke his leg last season, and he didn’t hide his middle-finger feelings from the Seahawks.
Expect to see that ferocity throughout this season, beginning Week 1 when he finally makes his return to the field.
James Conner, ankle: The Steelers running back broke out last season as he took on a larger role in the absence of Le’Veon Bell during his contract holdout, but an ankle injury limited Conner to just 13 games. With Bell gone, expect Conner’s duties to be expanded as he looks to build on the 973 yards rushing and 12 touchdowns be complied in 2018 — if he can stay healthy.
Andy Dalton, thumb: The Bengals quarterback went down with a thumb injury late in the season, landing on injured reserve Nov. 26, but threw for 2,566 yards and 21 touchdowns with 11 interceptions before being sidelined. Pairing his return to the field with A.J. Green’s and Tyler Eifert’s will certainly give Cincinnati the new life it needs as it rebuilds.