AFC North Primer

While we look at the AFC North and how it will shape up this season, there is no doubt there is a clear shift with regards to the powers that be from years past. No longer are the Steelers the clear cut  1A or 1B team, typically there to dethrone the Ravens or the Ravens to dethrone the Steelers. With both teams dealing with mass exodus’ this offseason, the time could be ripe for the Bengals to pounce on the decade long hegemons of the AFC North.

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The Cleveland Browns are embarking yet again on another new owner, new regime and change in direction on the general manager side, with Michael Lombardi who brings a whale of experience as an ex-personnel man with the Browns and Raiders. Of course with that, also comes a change on the sidelines as well. When talking about a lack of continuity, the Browns lead the league with the Raiders as Rob Chudzinski will be their 6th head coach in the past decade.

At least this time, they got it right, both from a general manager and coaching perspective

Coach “Chud”, was offensive coordinator when he turned Derek Anderson and Braylon Edwards into Pro bowlers in 2007 and helped lead the Browns to their one and only double digit win total (10) since their re-incarnation in 1999. Chudzinski, brings with him a wealth of experience in Norv Turner who has been one of the best play callers and developers of quarterbacks as a head coach and offensive coordinator. On the defensive side of the ball, Ray Horton will bring his pressure 3-4 scheme to a team that is already accustomed to running a 3-man front.

The additions of Chudzinski and Turner will be terrific for the development of Brandon Weeden and the type of skill set he possesses. Weeden has a big arm which is perfectly suited for Norv Turner’s play-action, deep passing game. Last season with Pat Shurmur at the helm, the Browns ran a west coast offense, which was not in the strength of Weeden, who has been a gun slinger quarterback since his days in Oklahoma State. Last season, under Shurmur, Weeden was asked to scan the field, make 3 step drops, while going through his progressions and throw pin-point accurate passes. That is not his game.

With speedsters in Josh Gordon and Travis Benjamin on the outside, Weeden will have the chance to air it out at a solid clip.

Weeden is not a young quarterback and he will turn 30 years old in October. He must improve on his accuracy and decision making, as all rookie quarterbacks must do. However, when you are in your second year in the league, yet the same age as the likes of Alex Smith and Aaron Rodgers, your margin for error is very minimal. This is a make or break year for Weeden.

As mentioned, they have a plethora of speed at the wide receiver position. Josh Gordon has talent to be a 1200-yard player, yet he has dealt with issues of commitment and overall dedication to the game, so much so that the Browns may be starting to regret his draft position. The talent is there and now is the time for him to make his mark in an offense tailor made for his talents. The same inconsistencies that plague Gordon are quite apparent when it comes to Greg Little. The former Tar Heel could be a dominant player, but he struggles with his route running and has stone hands. He has been given countless chances and with a new regime at the helm, his tenure with the Browns is in no way guaranteed if he has another season that falls shy of expectations.

The tight end has always been a major focal point in offenses coordinated by Chudzinski, himself a former tight end at the University of Miami. That 2007 Browns offensive juggernaut featured a banner year for Kellen Winslow who tallied 82 catches and over 1200 yards and 5 touchdowns that season.

Afterwards, he was a tight end and assistant head coach at San Diego, where Antonio Gates had two great seasons in 2009 (1,157 yards, 8 touchdowns) and 2010 (782 yards, 10 touchdowns). As offensive coordinator for the Panthers in 2011 and 2012, Greg Olsen had a career high in catches (69) and yards (843) for the Panthers in 2012.

Who will be the benefactor of Chudzinski’s propensity to involve the tight end for the Browns? Jordan Cameron will try to fill the void of Benjamin Watson who left for the New Orleans Saints. Cameron has a lot of athletic ability and is in the breed of the new age tight end that can line up at the split end, flanker and beside the tackle to help as an in-line blocker or seam buster. Expect Cameron to have at least 60 catches.

The offensive line is as good as it gets in the league. Joe Thomas has been a Pro Bowler in every year (6) he has been in the league since his rookie year, joining a list that includes Barry Sanders, Emmitt Smith and Jim Brown. His career path, if it continues this way, will very likely lead him to a bust in Canton as one of the best offensive tackle’s the game has ever seen. Alex Mack is one of the best center’s in the league  and the rest of the line is solid with the likes of John Greco at left guard, Shawn Lauvao at right guard and Mitchell Schwartz at the right tackle position.

At the running back position, Trent Richardson showed, when healthy, the type of running back he will become. He has a rare combination of incredible size and power, yet possesses terrific hands as a receiver out of the backfield and the ability to break a long runs at any moment. His 51 catches were a underrated part of his game that came out last season, which will surely be featured again this season.

His durability was an issue and he seemed to slow down with nagging abdonimal injuries which cut his season a little shorter than he would have thought. Already in training camp this season, he is dealing with a shin injury that caused him to miss the first pre-season game. As long as Richardson is healthy, look for him to easily best his carries (267) and yards (950) from last season.

Defensively, some key starters are gone such as linebacker Kaluka Maiava and Juqua Parker. With new defensive coordinator Ray Horton taking over, the Browns will stay re-acclimated with the 3-4 defense, however Horton’s version will be much more attacking and pressure oriented. As such, Paul Kruger was signed away from Baltimore to anchor their pass rush. Kruger and his 9 sacks from last season will need to show that he was not a one-year wonder as he played primarily in passing downs and was more of a situational pass rusher with Baltimore. I personally believe that the $20 million in guaranteed money he got was far too rich for the Browns’ blood but the jury is still out.

The Browns then selected, with their 6th overall pick, Barkevious Mingo to eventually be their primary pass rusher. His athleticism will allow him to be a player who can play in space when needed. He is still slender and will need to add weight and fill his frame, however the potential is there. He looked real good and made some impactful plays in the preseason opener against the Rams. For now, look for Mingo to come in primarily as a 3rd down rush linebacker and in some situations, have his hand in the dirt as a defensive end, while Jabaal Sheard, who has been a serviceable pass rusher and can also set the edge and be a solid run defender for the Browns, gets the initial snaps in games. Craig Robertson and D’Qwell Jackson are tackling machines who should once again reach the 100 tackles plateau. They are supported by a very good defensive line led by the imposing Ahtyba Rubin and Phil Taylor. Together, they should be able to plug all sorts of gap and force penetration as they please. The addition of Desmond Bryant was a solid move as he can play the 5-technique in a 3-4 scheme in a run stopping role, yet also play the defensive end position as a 7-technique in a 4-3 base set.

The secondary needs to be better and cannot rely solely on Joe Haden. The former Gators conerback has established himself as one of the best corners in the league but he needs someone on the opposite side of the field to step up. Buster Skrine had a great season last year from a tackling standpoint but he must improve his coverage skills. Chris Owens is also pegged to see a lot of action as the second corner.

At the safety position, T.J. Ward is one of the most intimidating players in the league. He plays a physical brand of football and is typically around the line of scrimmage helping out in the run game. As is the case with many safeties of his skill set, he must be supported by a free safety that has the necessary range to play the ass. Tashaun Gipson is slated to be the starter opposite Ward and he seems to have a beeline on the position.

On special teams, Josh Cribbs was jettisoned to Oakland and Phil Dawson went out west to San Francisco. Shayne Graham has been a serviceable kicker in the league for Houston and Cincinnati will fill in for Dawson. Travis Benjamin has enough speed and quickness to fill the void, albeit a large one, that Cribbs will leave.

This is yet another rebuilding year for the Browns, as they should not be expected to win any more than 7 games. However, they finally, after a decade, have the right regime in place. This is a work in progress, that may take 2-3 years to truly come to fruition but there are some very nice pieces to work with.

The Pittsburgh Steelers finally showed signs of a battered and bruised team that is no longer able to withstand the test of time. Mike Tomlin, who enters his 7th season as Steelers head coach, will be re-emphasizing the tough and physical brand of football this season. Of course, the team will desperate need to stay healthy to achieve this.

Ben Roethlistberger had another great season statistically but, yet again, was not able to play in all 16 games. Ditto for All-Pro Troy Polamalu. Typically, the Steelers are somewhat able to cope with the losses of their two best players on the offensive and defensive side of the ball but this time, their absenses where longer than the norm and the Steelers were simply not able to recover. Aside from Troy P and Big Ben, Woodley missed time, as did the likes of James Harrison, Ike Taylor, Rashard Mendenhall, Jonathan Dwyer, Antonio Brown and of course, Ryan Clark missed his obligatory road game in Denver due to his splenal infarction condition in which he cannot play in the rarefied air of Denver’s Mile High Stadium.

All this to say that the Steelers lost a plethora of man games last season and another repeat of the same injuries will mean the team will miss the post season for a second straight season.

Offensively, Todd Haley returns for a second season in his quick strike offense. I feel this offense may not have been ideal for Big Ben when he had Mike Wallace at wide receiver, as Wallace is best suited for the deep passing game that rendered a lot of success when Bruce Arians was running the show.

Ben and Haley had their struggles and disagreements, but after 13 games, Roethlisberger was right there with the upper echelon quarterbacks. With a completion percentage close to 64%, over 3200 passing yards with 26 touchdowns and only 8 interceptions, Big Ben was having one of his most efficient season’s. Once he went down with an injury, the Steelers had no chance to make a playoff push.  When Ben is healthy and upright, he is one of the best leaders in the game and best players. His ability to avoid the rush, break tackles in the pocket and fend off defenders, while still keeping his eyes downfield is the stuff of legends.

And while that aspect of Big Ben’s game is what separates him from the 2nd tier quarterbacks (and yes Big Ben is a top tier quarterback), he and the Steelers know that his type of play, which consists of holding onto the ball longer than the norm and avoiding would-be tacklers, is not sustainable for a quarterback in his 30’s.Make no mistake about the 30 sacks that Big Ben endured last season. Any other quarterback would have been dropped 50 or 60 times, but Ben is able to fend off so many defenders.

As such, the Steelers offensive line must finally prove to be able to withstand the rushes and protect Big Ben adequately.

David DeCastro at right guard is a former first round pick who has a lot of talent. He needs to have a big season after an inconsistent 2012 rookie season. Mike Adams who will be replacing the veteran Max Starks who left to San Diego, ill also need a big year replacing a locker room favorite and reliable player in Starks.

Marcus Gilbert will need to have a solid solid season and he looked good anchoring runs to the right side for LaRod Stephens-Howling in Saturday’s game against the Giants. Maurkice Pouncey is the mainstay on the line who has made 3 Pro Bowls in his first 3 years in the league. This line has the talent and the size to  be dominant, not only in pass protection but as well in the run game to bring back the smash mouth style of Steelers football from the 90’s and early 2000’s.

The receiving core gets Antonio Brown back completely healthy. While he does not blow the top off like Mike Wallace does, he is a more versatile player who can play out wide or in the slot. He has better hands and can be used in bubble screens and quick drag routes. Expect Brown to have a big season in an offense that suits his skillset better than the previous one.

Emmanuel Sanders and Markus Wheaton will be the 2nd and 3rd receivers. Sanders has the speed to be a deep threat and was a big time player at SMU. He will need to step up for the loss of Mike Wallace. Wallace was able to have coverages rolled to his side because of his deep play threat.  Wheaton was one of my favorite players to watch in college. He has a great combination of speed and skill as a route runner. Like Brown, you can line him up in different spots in the offense, however he can burn you deep with his 4.4 speed. With Plaxico Burress out for the season with a shoulder injury, look for him to easily beat out Jerricho Cotchery for the 3rd receiver spot.

At the tight end spot, when healthy, Heath Miller is as good a pure tight end in the league as you will find. An absolutely terrific in-line blocker and above average receiver, he fits the mold of the traditional tight end. He suffered an ACL injury late last season and consequently, he may start the season on the PUP list, which would make him a candidate to miss the first 6 games of the season. An unfortunate injury, Miller was having a career year with 71 catches, 818 yards and 8 touchdowns. What is even worse, is that now his primary backup, Max Spaeth, is questionable to start the season with a foot injury. Next in line would be little known David Paulson.

Defensively, the Steelers, were still as stout as ever finishing as the top team in passing yards allowed and 2nd ranked in rusher yards surrendered. All with Troy Polaumalu playing only 7 games and James Harrison a shell of his former self.

Their defensive line remains one of the better units from a 3-4 perspective, despite the release of long time nose tackle Casey Hampton, who will be missed from a gap controlling and run stopping perspective. Ziggy Hood and Brett Keisel do as good a job as setting the edge, containing runs to the outside and allowing the outside linebackers to run free. Steve McClendon and Hebron Fangupo will have a lot of pressure trying to replace Hampton’s production. The linebackers are still productive, however what is typically a staple of Pittsburgh and Dick Lebeau defenses, the ability to hit the quarterback,  wavered last season as the Steelers ranked 14th in sacks. From 2008 to 2010, they were consistently a top 3 team in sacks.

Lamar Woodley needs to get back to his production from 2-3 seasons ago where during that 2008 to 2010 time frame, he had seasons of 11.5, 13 and 10 sacks. In 2011, he had 10 sacks in 10 games but last year 4 in 13 is unacceptable for a player of his calibre, benefiting from a blitz-happy scheme.

On the right side, Jason Worilds and 2013 1st round pick Jarvis Jones will be fighting for the starting gig. Worilds as well is a former first rounder out of Virginia Tech. He is an imposing player at 6-2, 262 lbs, although he has not put it all together. In the preseason opener, he made some nice players but also committed two terrible personal foul penalties that extended drives for the Giants after 3rd down stops.

Jarvis Jones was the SEC defensive player of the year in 2012, with 14.5 sacks and 7 forced fumbles. He dropped because of a 4.9 forty-yard dash. Looking outside of that, he has natural pass rush skills and instincts and fits the mold of the type of player the Steelers typically covet. Look for both Worilds and Jones to play major factors, with Jones separating himself by mid-season.

At inside linebacker, Larry Foote is 33 years old, yet still a highly productive player and Lawrence Timmons is in his prime as a middle linebacker. One of the better and most complete interior linebackers, Timmons does not get enough credit for his ability to chip in as a blitzer, while providing terrific run support and being able to hold his own in coverage.

There are not many times whose front and back-end rely on each other more than the Steelers. Dick Lebeau, himself being a former defensive back, has always wanted his secondary to play a physical brand of defense. Ike Taylor will never be a perennial Pro Bowler but he is as solid as they come as a cornerback. There is solid depth behind him with the likes of William Gay, who was signed from Arizona and Cortez Allen who had a very solid 2nd year for the Steelers. Look for Demarcus Van Dyke and Josh Victorian, who are waiting in the wings, to play big roles as nickle and Dime corners. They have talent.

At safety, Ryan Clark is as steady as they come. He has not slowed down and is one of the best combination of range safeties who can help stop the run. Speaking of which, Troy Polamalu, appears to be taking a step back with his myriad of injuries. When is on the field, there are still only a handful of players that can make as much a difference in the league as he can. He makes so many ad-lib plays out of the blue that only the great ones can make. He anticipates the snap count and blitzes at the right moment and his pass coverage for a strong safety is second to none. If Troy P can give you 13-16 games, your defense will still be in the upper echelon of the league

On special teams Shawn Suisham had a great year connecting on 28 of 31 kicks. The key will be for the Steelers to improve on the 9th lowest total in red zone attempts per game. Their return game could be electric and they can trot out the likes of Antonio Brown, Larod Stephens-Howling, Markus Wheaton and Emmanuel Sanders. This unit should be one of the best in the league.

The Steelers desperately need a full season from Big Ben, which has only happened once in his ten years in the league. If they can get that and some key players return to their typical form, the Steelers will make lives very difficult for the rest of the AFC.

I mentioned a few months ago on the blog that the Cincinnati Bengals absolutely had what it takes to finally take the reigns of the division from Pittsburgh and Baltimore. Five months later and training camp is in full swing, I have no wavered on that thought process one iota. While they will need the necessary regression from the Steelers and Ravens, the Bengals have enough talent to control their fate as the new hegemon of the AFC North.

Andy Dalton must take the leap from being solid to being a top 10 quarterback. While he does not have the inherent talent to achieve that on his own, improving his deep ball accuracy and overall playoff performance will help. Obviously, beating the Steelers and Ravens will be absolutely paramount in finally getting a first round playoff game, that they have not had since 2005. As mentioned previously, Dalton in his short career against the Steelers and Ravens, he is is 2-6 with an average QB rating of 68.47. Simply put, it is time to take the training wheels off and ride with the big dogs of the division.

Dalton is privy to have one of the best receivers in the league in AJ Green who has produced back-to-back 1000 yard receiving seasons. Green can beat you in any fashion and has a pension for making spectacular catches. A talent like his does not come a long very often.

Mohammed Sanu has the size and skill to be a solid number two receiver for the Bengals. He showed more familiarity with the offense and with Dalton towards the end of the season and many have him pegged for a breakout season. Andrew Hawkins could be a slot demon with his supreme quickness. Second year receiver out of California, Marvin Jones could be a player to watch at that position as well. Don’t sleep on that receiving corps, as much as AJ Green gets all the notoriety.

I loved the addition of Tyler Eifert to pair with Jermaine Gresham. Eifert is the type of tight end, in the mold of a Jimmy Graham, who you can play at wide or in the slot and cause matchup nightmares for opposing defensive coordinators. Gresham figures to line up predominantly next to the offensive tackle, where he makes his money in the seams. Together, they form the potential to be one of the best tight end combinations in a league where teams are emulating the Patriots, prior to the arrest of Aaron Hernandez.

The offensive line will need to pass block better and at least they will attempt to do so with Andre Smith back for another 5 years. The former Alabama Crimson Tide standout has formed with Andrew Whitworth, a unit that can be dominant in the trenches at the point of attack when run blocking.

In the backfield, when Benjarvus Green-Ellis was signed last season, it felt like a stop-gap move at running back. During the draft, they picked Giovanni Bernard out of North Carolina who will play a major role as a change of pace and third down back. He has a very similar build and skillset to Doug Martin who dazzled the NFL last season with a tremendous rookie year. Eventually, he will be the starter, but Green-Ellis still has a place on this team. He is the better pass protector and has a knack for the end zone. He is however limited in his big play ability and is seen more as a guy who moves the chains 3 to 4 yards at a time, as opposed to Bernard who can break a long run or catch a pass in the flat and turn it into a 50 yard gain. Regardless of who ends up getting the bulk of the carries, the Bengals finally have not just one viable runner but they boast depth at a position that has been lacking it for quite some time.

Defensively it begins with Geno Atkins, who has finally receiving the recognition he deserves not only from his peers (voted the 36th best player in the NFL in 2013) but also from the media who name him an All-Pro in 2011 and 2012. The 3-technique (defensive tackle position in a base 4-3) was made famous by Warren Sapp in the 90’s but I truly believe Atkins could re-invent the position. His ability as a gap controller to stop the run, yet also provide 8-11 sacks per season is unheard of.  Domata Peko is an underrated run stuffer who paired with Atkins, forms the best duo of 3-technique’s in the league. The defensive ends are big and athletic with Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap standing in at 6-7 and 6-6 respectively. And now factor in Margus Hunt who is 6-8, 280 lbs linemane who runs a 4.7 40-yard dash, with a massive frame and strength to come in a blow guys up right away. He was a former track athlete in the discus and shot-put. He has only been playing football for 3 years, so once he learns the game, he could be a terror. Let us not forget Robert Geathers (a former double digit sack guy) and Wallace Gilberry who can both easily record 7-10 sacks as situational players. The Bengals defensive line does not get enough credit but they were integral in that defensive unit vaulting into a top 10 ranking not only in points surrendered but sacks as well.  Considering how their secondary is middle of the pack, when Mike Zimmer can routinely send out four guys as your main source of a pass rush, it allows for more players to deployed to stop the pass.

The linebackers include Rey Maualuga and Vontaze Burfict, who the Bengals took a chance on despite initial issues with his character and work ethic. He paid dividends right away with a tremendous rookie season. Both fit perfectly Zimmer’s 4-3 defense considering how strong their defensive line play is. They are great against the run and play a physical style, although they are not blessed with great speed. With the addition of James Harrison, who will surely be on a pitch count and play mostly in passing situations, you have a talented and physical unit. Look for Emmanuel Lamur to play in big role when Harrison is not on the field as he possesses better acumen as a pass defender.

The secondary, on paper, will not get the publicity that other units will but the Bengals have proved with shrewd personnel moves and good coaching, they have built this into a more than respectable unit .

Reggie Nelson has revived his career after a disappointing start in Jacksonville. Nelson had his best career as a pro with 84 tackles and a team leading 3 interceptions. He should not be confused for being a standout coverage safety but he can more than hold his own in that area. The strong safety position remains untested however. Taylor Mays has the potential to be an impact player similar to a Laron Landry, yet he has simply not put it all together as a pro. George Iloka and Shawn Williams are also within the mix for that starting gig opposite Nelson. the former, has established himself as the likely front-runner with a terrific training camp so far.

At corner, Terrance Newman will begin his second season with the Bengals. Pro Football Focus rated him as a top 20 corner back last season and he had a stellar season with 75 tackles, ten pass breakups and 2 interceptions. Newman would still be best served as a nickle corner at his advanced age and surely his once dashing 4.3 speed is no longer but he is still a more than capable cornerback. Look for Dre Kirkpatrick, who was a first rounder out of Alabama last season, to eventually creep into that starting role sooner than later. He is a big corner who had great coverage skills in college, playing in a press-man scheme that Nick Saban runs.

The opposite side features Leon Hall, who is as solid as they come at the position. In fact, last season, Pro Football Focus noted Hall is having the second lowest percentage of players that resulted in either a touchdown or a first down by a corner (3.75). Hall could very well be a top 10 quarterback and virtually no one in the league knows about it. Adam Jones will support Newman and Hall, especially in the slot where he figures to be able to produce well in that specific role.

Special teams features Mike Nugent and Ken Huber who can control the kicking game well. Nugent is an accurate kicker who can make the long range kicks when need be, although not as consistently as the elite kickers. The return game features a plethora of speedsters that the Bengals can deploy including rookie Gio Bernard, Adam Jones, Bernard Scott ad Brandon Tate.

This mostly falls on Dalton. There is too much talent on defense for this team to falter on that side of the football. If Dalton has a banner year, the Bengals could have some Super Bowl hype around them.

The Baltimore Ravens received much disapproval after winning the Super Bowl and dispatching players such as Dannell Ellerbe, Paul Kruger, Ed Reed, Anquan Boldin and others.  John Harbaugh enters his 6th season as head man of the Ravens and despite these omissions, he will definitely have this team ready to defend their crown.

In my opinion, they improved their roster at certain positions, to the point that they may be better positioned for now and the future. What is clear though, is that this team’s identity is no longer strictly based on the defense. Their offense is what will carry them and now has the new face of the franchise.

Joe Flacco is as steady as they come. He will not give you 4,500 yard seasons with 35 touchdowns and a 105 passer rating. He has a big arm to make enough plays down the field to put pressure on a defense but asking Flacco to scan the field, throw 10 straight completions and surgically dissect a defense is out of his realm of talent. Regardless, last season’s Super Bowl MVP corralled a Ravens team to the Vince Lombardi trophy based off a clutch performance and key plays in critical situations. Expect him to have another solid, yet unspectacular year.

Ray Rice routinely comes in as a top 5 running back. There is not much else to say regarding him. He is as tough a runner as you will find, he is terrific in pass protection and as evidenced by his 4th and 29 catch and run against the Chargers, he can make plays in the open field. Watch out for Bernard Pierce though, who will surely be a fixture in the offense. This situation reminds me of the 2007 Chargers, who had LaDainian Tomlinson in his prime and a young Michael Turner waiting in the wings. Turner supplanted Tomlinson when he could and showed he can be a starter for any team in the league. Pierce figures to have that similar type of impact as a big back with 4.49 speed. Expect the Ravens, to utilize Pierce in a similar fashion to how The Texans used Arian Foster and Ben Tate in 2011, which ultimately led to Foster having a great season (and Tate rushing for over 900 yards), and a reduced workload, which ultimately extends the runner’s career and alleviates physical strain. With the Ravens being devoid of NFL starting calibre receivers, do not be surprised if the deploy Pierce and Rice at the same time in key situations.

The receiving corps loses the toughness and clutch play of Anquan Boldin. The window that was needed to get Anquan the ball was as short as it comes. He needed very little separation to snatch balls from cornerbacks. That void would have likely been filled by Dennis Pitta, however he will more than likely miss the entire season with hip surgery. Ed Dickson and the newly signed Dallas Clark will need to fill in for the production that Boldin provided.

Torrey Smith had somewhat of a disappointing regular season in 2012, although he did show signs of becoming less and less of a one trick pony as solely a deep-ball threat. Part of that, was due to the early season struggles Joe Flacco had with completing deep passes to Smith. The loss of Boldin, as tough as it is, will force Smith to have to be the dependable man in the intermediate portion of the field as well as with catches across the middle. Having said that, we saw how badly he torched Champ Bailey in the playoffs and that speed and ability to create separation downfield is available whenever the Ravens want.

Jacoby Jones will be asked to fill a big void. The last time he was relied upon to be a dependable number two receiver was during his time with the Texans. I would have given him a failing grade as he never amounted more than 562 yards in his 5 seasons in Houston. Jones will need to show defenders and his teammates that he can run anything other than a 9-route.

The rest of the receivers features rookies and second year players in Tandon Doss, Tommy Streater and LaQuan Williams who will all by vying for the third receiver spot.

The offensive line is one of the best at run blocking in the league. Bryant McKinnie had a stellar year and played his best football as a pro. Of course, it was during the dreaded contract year for player personnel evaluators but Ozzie Newsome and his staff must be trusted for making the right decision on a player who was crucial to their 2012 success. He is flanked on the other side of the line by Michael Oher, who has improved every year in the league and especially since his move from left to right tackle. As well as Marshall Yanda who was an All-Pro at right guard. You could not name 2 better guards in the league right name than him. Yanda’s ommission from NFL’s top 100 players of 2013 was a catastrophic error .

Gino Gradkowski or Q.A. Shipley will have the enviable task of replacing veteran Matt Birk who retired in the offseason. Birk’s contributions and importance to the team cannot be taken for granted. He made all the offensive line calls at the line of scrimmage and additionally, he ensured the correct protection assignments, so Joe Flacco only had to focus on coverages. This loss could potentially be drastic if not filled adequately by the above mentioned players.

Defensively, the Ravens were 19th and 20th respectively against the run and the pass, which is well below their usual top 10 rankings in both categories. The losses of Ladairius Webb and for half of the season without Ray Lewis surely had an impact. Dean Peas is one of the best defensive coordinators in the league and the Ravens are synonymous with the 3-4 defense. The personnel they acquired this offseason, may very well vault this team back into the top 10 portion of the league.

The defensive line is led by Haloti Ngata, the unquestioned best player on this unit for the past two seasons. Ngata has no equal when it comes to nose tackles in the league, as his skillset allows him to do virtually anything he wants to opposing offensive lineman. The additions of Chris Canty and Marcus Spears, are perfect for this unit. They will be 5-techniques in 3-4 alignments and on the rare occasion that the Ravens move to a 4-3 on certain downs, they can man the 7 technique position. Canty and Spears are terrific run stoppers and will allow this team to regain their dominance at the line of scrimmage.

The linebackers lose the face of their defense in Ray Lewis but it was time for him to move on. His skills clearly eroding, he was a shell of his former self. Dannell Ellerbe was supposed to step in and take over at the interior linebacker position, however he was offered more term and money from the Dolphins. Jameel McClain filled in admirably for Ray Lewis last season when he tore his triceps  and Daryl Smith is a veteran linebacker who has experience being the primary play caller for the defense.

I love the drafting of Arthur Brown from Kansas State. The Wildcats always prefer smaller middle linebackers and Brown stands at 6′, 235 lbs. Look for him to chip his way into more playing time as the season progresses as he is a smart, heady player.

On the edges, this is another spot which was addition by subtraction for the Ravens. Paul Kruger getting $20 million guarantee, was far richer than what Ozzie Newsome wanted to offer and I agree with him. Especially when you have last year’s first round pick out of Alabama, Courtney Upshaw waiting in the wings. Upshaw has all the tools to be an above average pass rusher, he simply needs the opportunity. He also played quite a few snaps at middle linebacker and would be to supplant at a moment’s notice if the new additions stumble off the gate. Elvis Dumervil was signed to a much friendlier deal than Kruger’s and is a much more proven commodity having average 10.6 sacks per season in his 7 years in the league. His base salary of $35 million and guaranteed money of $11 million are figures that are smaller than Kruger’s $40.5 million and $20 million guaranteed, figures that are way too high for a player who has only had relative success in one season, despite already entering his fifth season in the league.

Of course, you still have Terrell Suggs, who to me, looked leaner in camp and will have the advent of a full training camp as he is fully healthy coming off a season in which he missed half his games due to a torn achillies. Suggs’ game was never as a speed rusher but he still looked a step slow. Expect another big season from him as the new leader of the defense.

As mentioned, with Webb back, the Ravens get their best cover corner, who was terrific in 2011 and was having a great start to 2012. Cary Williams is gone, so either Jimmy Smith, Corey Graham or Chykie Brown will need to step up this season.

At free safety, Michael Huff was signed to replace Ed Reed and by replace, I mean try to do one-eighth of the job that Reed did. Make no mistake about it, you do not replace Ed Reed. You can simply try to make as many good plays as you can. His impact on the field cannot be measure as his knowledge of offenses and ability to bait quarterbacks is the stuff of Hall of Famers. Still, Huff goes back to his natural position of safety, where he should be more comfortable (I have no clue what the Raiders were trying to do, playing him at corner). He still runs extremely well and has good coverage skills, again from being adept at playing the cornerback position. Huff is also a decent tackler and that was an issue with Reed last season.

I love the selection of Matt Elam from the University of Florida. He has tremendous speed and can hit like a bullet. His downside is his size and his coverage skills are still raw. From a pure hitting and intimidation perspective, he reminds many people of Bob Sanders, who was once a defensive player of the year. For now, he and James Ihedigbo are neck and neck for the starting spot but Elam is just too talented to not be given the reigns right away, despite his inexperience.

On Special teams, the Ravens have one of the better kickers in the league in Justin Tucker, who finished 30 for 33 in kicks last season. Sam Koch had an average punting distance of over 47 yards and 28 inside the 20. Finally, Jacoby Jones showed his worth as a return man in the regular season and especially in the playoffs. Regardless of how many snaps he sees on offense, with the departure of Anquan Boldin, his ability to return kicks to the house is too hard to pass up.

The Ravens have enough talent to get back to the Super Bowl. Their additions are underrated and many of their personnel losses are blown way out of proportion. Ozzie Newsome clearly knew what he was doing by not overpaying players who shown only one year of productivity. Conversely, he was able to get more proven players or simply promote his younger players who will cost much less than the players he would have kept. This should be a 10-11 win team that can surprise again.

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