AFC North Questions, Concerns and Odds Entering Camp

The Pittsburgh Steelers have won the AFC North in three of the last four years but could it be that another team is emerging to seize the division crown? Let’s take a look at the four teams and see what the oddsmakers are dealing on each one.

Pittsburgh Steelers (2017 record: 13-3)

The Steelers went 13-3 last season, nabbed a postseason bye, and waited for their quarry in the divisional round. But the hunter became the hunted as the Jaguars proved to be much more than a stepping stone to what most believed would be Pittsburgh’s inevitable AFC title tilt with the Patriots. Big Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers felt the bitter sting of a 45-42 defeat to Jacksonville, and to add insult to injury it happened on their home turf and in front of their rabid fans. But that was then and this is now.

The Steelers are in fine form in terms of their offense as Roethlisberger will be back at the helm with the finest receiver in the game, Antonio Brown, catching passes and a premier runner in the backfield, Le’Veon Bell, busting through holes and operating as another option in the passing game. Martavis Bryant was shipped to Oakland as he was deemed expendable with the emergence of rookie sensation JuJu Smith-Schuster. Pittsburgh has their entire offensive line returning with three of the five sent to the Pro Bowl last season. The Pittsburgh offense may actually be better this year under new offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner, who should work more harmoniously with Roethlisberger than did the previous OC Todd Haley.

However, the loss of Ryan Shazier at linebacker is a hole that remains to be filled as the Steelers declined to draft a linebacker this past April and added only a journeyman linebacker, Joe Bostic, in free agency. They did, however, pick up a young talent in the defensive backfield with the selection of Virginia Tech safety Terrell Edmunds. The Steelers also tapped QB Mason Rudolph in the third round as someone who could be an heir-apparent to Roethlisberger. Not surprisingly, we find over at Sportsbook Review that the best online sportsbooks on the planet are dealing the Steelers as favorites to win the North again with odds at -240 to win the division, +410 to win the AFC, and +1100 to win the Super Bowl trailing only the Patriots and Eagles.

Baltimore Ravens (2017 record: 9-7)

Joe Flacco finally has some competition with the arrival of Louisville’s Lamar Jackson, the 32nd pick in the draft, and if Jackson doesn’t unseat Flacco this season he is certainly being groomed as the future under center in Baltimore. In addition, the Ravens beefed up their wide receiving corps by signing free agents Michael Crabtree, Willie Snead and John Brown. They also added a pass-catching tight end when they drafted Hayden Hurst of South Carolina as the 25th overall pick in the draft. The offensive line will see most likely Matt Skura replacing the departed Ryan Jensen at center but the rest of Flacco’s protectors did a decent job keeping Joltin’ Joe off the mat last season and now have more company in the form of third-round pick Orlando Brown out of Oklahoma.

Don Martindale filled the void when last season’s defensive coordinator Dean Pees stepped aside and the new DC has committed to a more swarming pass rush and more blitz packages. The oddsmakers are offering Baltimore as the second favorite in the North at +450 and +1700 to win the conference while dealing the Ravens as a middle-of-the-pack choice at +5500 to win the Super Bowl.

Cincinnati Bengals (2017 record: 7-9)

The Bengals understood that a rebuild would start from the trenches up, which is why they selected Ohio State center Billy Price as the 21st pick in the draft. Cincinnati also wooed former Cowboys offensive line coach Frank Pollack from Dallas to assume the reins in Cincinnati to piece together a blanket of protection for Andy Dalton, which is a good start to revamping an offense that was among the weakest in the NFL. Cincinnati also traded for Buffalo left tackle Cordy Glenn who played only six games last season with foot and ankle injuries. Nevertheless, the Bengals’ offensive front should be a huge upgrade over the 2017 edition.

Defensively, Cincinnati attempted to elevate as well, spending their second-round pick on ball-hawk safety Jessie Bates of Wake Forest and two third-round selections on Ohio State’s defensive end Sam Hubbard and Texas’ outside linebacker Malik Jefferson. Other than that, the core of the group is the same except for a new defensive coordinator in Teryl Austin who replaces the Oakland-bound Paul Guenther. It’s pretty much business as usual with Dalton under center and Marvin Lewis roaming the sidelines for the 16th consecutive season.

A quick click over to Sportsbook Review tells us that the oddsmakers at the most trusted sportsbooks on the planet are not convinced that Cincinnati’s strategy of keeping pat will render better results as evidenced by their longshot status to win the division (+950), the conference (+3000), and dare Bengals’ fans dream … the Super Bowl at +10000.

Cleveland Browns (2017 record: 0-16)

Look at the bright side Cleveland fans: There’s no place to go but up after a winless 2017 campaign. The Brownies surprised just a bit when they tabbed Baker Mayfield as the top pick in the draft to ultimately lead their moribund franchise out of the abyss and into something resembling at least a .500 season. Tyrod Taylor is now a Brown after the Bills obtained a third-round pick for his services and he will keep the seat warm until Mayfield is deemed ready to ascend. Cleveland also got Pro Bowl receiver Jarvis Landry on the cheap from the Dolphins and, teamed with Josh Gordon on the other wing could be a dynamic duo that bears fruit for a listless offense.

On defense, the Browns did what they should have done and retooled the defensive backfield signing three veteran DBs and then grabbed Ohio State cornerback Denzel Ward with the fourth overall pick to shore up their depleted defensive backfield. In the second round, they went back to the offense and tabbed Austin Corbett to help fill the void left by Joe Thomas and then chose the running back out of Georgia, Nick Chubb, to contribute to an already crowded backfield. Look, the bottom line is that this team can’t get any worse after finishing 0-16 and owning the lowest scoring offense along with a defense that ranked 31st of 32 in points allowed.

The moves the Browns have made have to add at least two or three wins to their season and maybe that’s the makings of something … less embarrassing. The oddsmakers remain unconvinced for now as they are dealing the Browns at +1350 to win the North, +3000 to win the AFC (above the Bills, Dolphins and Jets believe it or not!), and if the apocalypse is upon us, the Super Bowl at +10000.

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