AFC North burning questions for 2023 season: Can Steelers take the next step? Can Lamar Jackson stay healthy?
Of the NFL’s eight divisions, the AFC North may be the most compelling. It also has the most questions to answer with just over 100 days before the start of the 2023 regular season.
Winners of the last two AFC North crowns, the Cincinnati Bengals are once again the favorite to finish ahead of Baltimore, Cleveland and Pittsburgh in the standings. But the Bengals’ pursuit of a third straight division title won’t be easy, as they have several personnel questions and the challenge of a first-place schedule.
Cincinnati also has to contend with a division that should be one of the NFL’s best. The Ravens — who nearly upset Cincinnati in January’s AFC wild card showdown — breathed a sigh of relief after they finally came to terms on a longterm deal for Lamar Jackson. The Steelers, a 9-win team the last two years, are hoping to have a breakthrough season following a successful offseason. The Browns, who finished last in the North for a second straight year in 2022, are hoping that Deshaun Watson can lead them back to he playoffs for the first time since 2020 and for only the third time since the franchise returned to the league back in 1999.
With OTAs underway, we decided to take a look at each AFC North’s burning question. Let’s start with the team that has won more playoff games than any other NFL team over the past two seasons.
Bengals: Can Cincinnati’s revamped secondary hold down the fort?
Aside from a few positions, Cincinnati basically ran back its roster in 2022 that had won an AFC title the previous season. While most of the Bengals’ starting lineup is still intact, they will have a revamped secondary after losing starting safeties Jessie Bates III and Vonn Bell in free agency and electing not to re-sign starting cornerback Eli Apple.
To be clear, the Bengals’ secondary wasn’t gangbusters last season. The unit ranked 23rd in the league in passing yards allowed during the regular season and got picked apart by Patrick Mahomes during January’s three-point loss in the AFC Championship Game. The unit still had its moments, however, and losing a player of Bates’ caliber won’t be easy.
The Bengals, anticipating Bates’ departure, spent last year’s first-round pick on former Michigan safety Daxton Hill. They also used a fourth-round pick to select cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt, who played admirably as a rookie when asked to replaced injured starter Chidobe Awuzie. The team signed former Rams safety Nick Scott in free agency to fill Bell’s shoes.
Cincinnati added more players to its secondary during this April’s draft. They selected former Michigan corner DJ Turner (thus reuniting him with Hill) with the 60th pick and former Alabama safety Jordan Battle with the 95th pick. Both players will provide much-needed depth in 2023 while helping make for the team’s free agent losses.
The Bengals’ approach towards their secondary makes a lot of sense. Instead of re-signing Bates, Bell and Apple, the team opted to replace them with younger players while saving money that they will try to use to keep quarterback Joe Burrow and wideouts Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins. It’s an approach that will probably pay dividends down the road, but what about in 2023? Will Hill and Scott rise to the challenge, or will the Bengals’ secondary be what keeps Cincinnati from reaching a third straight AFC title game? Only time will tell.
Browns: Will Cleveland’s offensive gamble play off?
There were rumblings that Browns owner Jimmy Haslam wanted to go from a run-first offense to an aerial attack during Watson’s first full season in Cleveland. Based on their personnel moves, it appears that Haslam will get his wish.
The Browns still have Nick Chubb, a perennial Pro Bowler and one of the NFL’s best running backs. But they parted ways with D’Ernest Johnson and Kareem Hunt, who combined rushed for over 900 yards and eight touchdowns last season. Chubb’s new backups, Jerome Ford and Demetric Felton, have eight career carries between them.
What they may lack in backfield depth, the Browns make up for it at receiver. Cleveland’s receiving corps features former Pro Bowler Amari Cooper, former Jets second-round pick Elijah Moore, veterans Donovan Peoples-Jones and Marquise Goodwin, second year wideout David Bell and rookie third-round pick Cedric Tillman. The Browns also still have tight end David Njoku, a former first-round pick who caught 94 passes and eight touchdowns over the past two years.
The success of the Browns’ new-look offense will very much come down to Watson, who was mediocre at best during his six starts in 2022. Of last year’s struggles, Watson said that it was at least partly due to his receivers learning how to play with him. While several of Watson’s wideouts will have experience with him this season, several of them haven’t, so the challenge of building a rapport with at least a portion of his receiving corps still remains.
It’s been four years since Watson led Houston to a 24-0 lead over Kansas City in the divisional round before suffering an epic collapse. It’s been three years since Watson’s last Pro Bowl campaign that also happened to be the year where he led the NFL in passing yards. That was also Watson’s worst season as far as his record as a starter (4-12). We’re rehashing this to emphasize the fact that it’s been a while since Watson was a Pro Bowler-caliber quarterback and even longer since he was a Pro Bowl caliber quarterback for a playoff team.
Can Watson return to that level? He’s still just 27 years old, so he has youth going for him. But like Jackson (more on this later), teams that play Watson often have learned how to limit his effectiveness as a runner (Watson had his least effective rushing season in 2023). He also has to learn to trust his teammates more while depending less on his athleticism to put points on the board.
The Browns are
desperate hoping that the answer is yes, that Watson will return to his Pro Bowl level while leading the Browns to the promised land. Watson, after all, is a rare talent who has a laser for a right arm and maneuverability that would make Fran Tarkenton jealous. And if he struggles along the way, he’ll still have Chubb behind him and one of the NFL’s better offensive lines in front of him.
Ravens: Can Lamar Jackson stay healthy?
We know this much about Jackson and the Ravens: When Jackson plays, the Ravens usually win, as least in the regular season. Baltimore is 45-16 in the regular season with Jackson in the starting lineup. They were 15-9 with Jackson in the lineup the last two years.
It’s a different story, however, when Jackson is unable to play. The Ravens missed the playoffs in 2021 after going 1-4 without Jackson, who missed the season’s final month with an injury. Baltimore started the 2022 season with an 8-4 record with Jackson but had to settle for a 10-7 record when Jackson missed the season’s final give games with a knee injury. The Ravens, with Tyler Huntley under center, fought but ultimately fell to Cincinnati in the wild card round.
In same ways, Jackson’s immense talent is both a blessing and a curse. His peerless athletic ability has made him the greatest running quarterback in NFL history (yes, better than Michael Vick). No one plays the quarterback position the way Jackson does. He’s truly in a class by himself as far as his ability to impact a game. That’s why the Ravens paid him the big bucks this summer.
Jackson’s unique talent, however, has also contributed to his injuries. Sure, you could say that Jackson’s injuries were freak incidents that happens when you play football. But you could also argue, with conviction, that those injuries were at least partly the result of cumulative wear and tear on Jackson’s body as the result of taking too many shots when asked to run one too many times through the teeth of a defense. Make no mistake about it, the Ravens have tried to squeeze every last ounce out of Jackson’s talent. And while the results have at times been good, it’s also contributed to Jackson watching the end of Baltimore’s last two seasons from home.
The narrative that the Ravens had to use Jackson the way they’ve used him is rubbish. Jackson has a career passing percentage of 63.7%. He led the NFL in touchdown passes during his MVP season. Sure, he may not have Patrick Mahomes-like accuracy on deep passes, but Jackson has the ability to stretch defenses out with his arm. It’s also not like the Ravens did him many favors as far as his receiving corps in the past. That won’t be the case this year, however, as the Ravens acquired three-time Pro Bowl wideout Odell Beckham Jr. and first-round pick Zay Flowers.
Like Cleveland, it appears that Baltimore has rebuilt their offense in order to have more success as far as passing is concerned. That doesn’t mean, however, that the Ravens are going to abandon what has been arguably the NFL’s best rushing attack when Jackson and starting running back J.K. Dobbins are healthy. It should mean that Jackson will be asked to run less, something that new Ravens offensive coordinator Todd Monken alluded to earlier this month.
If the Ravens are more selective with Jackson’s running, it should lead to a healthier Jackson and more wins for the franchise. It appears that this is the direction the Ravens are heading in, but we won’t know for sure until the ball is kicked off in September.
Steelers: Is Pittsburgh ready to make a leap?
Mike Tomlin’s “The Standard is the Standard” quote has become synonymous with Steelers football. Regardless of the circumstance or situation, Tomlin wants his team to relentlessly pursue victory while upholding the Steelers’ rich history of championship-caliber football.
Tomlin’s philosophy has been a big reason why the Steelers are one more 9-plus wins season away from making it 20 consecutive seasons without having a losing record. Of the previous 19 seasons, 16 of those have come under Tomlin, who holds the record for the most non-losing seasons to start a head coaching career. That streak will undoubtedly be highlight when Tomlin’s Hall of Fame case is made years from now.
As impressive as the streak is, there’s another streak in Pittsburgh that the Steelers would certainly like to see come to an end. It’s been seven years since the Steelers won a playoff game, making them the AFC North team with the longest drought since a playoff win. Starting with the 2016 AFC Championship Game loss to the Patriots, the Steelers have lost their last four playoff games. Pittsburgh missed the playoffs altogether in 2018, 2019, and 2022.
While the playoff drought is discouraging, the Steelers have largely been looked at as overachievers the last two seasons. Pittsburgh went 9-7-1 in 2021 with a subpar offensive line protecting 39-year-old Ben Roethlisberger and a new offensive coordinator that before Pittsburgh had never worked in the NFL. Last year, the Steelers salvaged what was a lost season by going 7-2 down the stretch after a 2-6 start. The Steelers did so despite playing with a rookie quarterback and without reigning Defensive Player of the Year T.J. Watt for seven games.
Unlike the last two seasons, a 9-win campaign for the 2023 Steelers won’t be looked at as an overachievement. Double-digit wins might be the floor for the ’23 Steelers following an offseason that has received praise from just about every corner.
In his first full offseason as GM, Omar Khan made several notable moves that included trading up three spots in the draft to select former Georgia left tackle Broderick Jones. The Steelers later regained the fourth-round pick they gave to New England in order to trade up by moving back 13 picks in the third round in a deal with the Panthers.
Despite trading back, the Steelers were still able to select their top-remaining player on the board, tight end and fellow former Bulldog Darnel Washington. Pittsburgh then used its fourth-round pick that was acquired in the trade with Carolina to select Nick Herbig, the former Wisconsin outside linebacker and the younger brother of new Steelers lineman Nate Herbig.
That sequence of events during the draft in many ways symbolized the Steelers’ offseason. Joey Porter Jr. fell into their lap at the start of the second round of the draft. In free agency, the Steelers were able to sign several notable players that includes former Eagles starting guard Isaac Seumalo and eight-time Pro Bowl cornerback Patrick Peterson.
Along with their newcomers, the Steelers have some pretty good players coming back. They have arguably the NFL’s best safety in Minkah Fitzpatrick, the league’s best outside linebacker in Watt, a perennial Pro Bowl defensive lineman in Cam Heyward, and an offense that features former Pro Bowl wideouts Diontae Johnson and Allen Robinson II, fellow receiver George Pickens, tight end Pat Freiermuth and former Pro Bowl running back Najee Harris.
Pittsburgh’s offense is led by Kenny Pickett, who went 7-5 last season after becoming the starter in Week 4. All signs would suggest that Pickett is poised for a big year. Instead of getting third-team reps, Pickett is getting first-team reps in practice after getting bits and pieces of first team work last offseason. He said this week that he has added 15 pounds of muscle onto his 6-foot-3 frame after barely taking any time off from his training following the ’22 season. Along with having better offensive teammates, Pickett also has the luxury of having a dozen NFL starts under his belt.
Pickett isn’t Burrow, who barring injury will be in the league’s MVP conversation this season. Pickett is good enough, however, to help get the Steelers back to being among the AFC’s upper echelon. And if things go their way like they did this offseason, it could be enough to make serious noise when the playoffs begin in January.