The 2016 NFL season was an interesting year for all of the teams in the AFC North. We saw the Pittsburgh Steelers edge out the Baltimore Ravens for the AFC North Crown in a highly competitive battle while the Cincinnati Bengals failed to make the playoffs under the lead of Andy Dalton and went 6-9-1. Finally, the Cleveland Browns had one of the worst seasons in NFL history, finishing at an abysmal 1-15. But 2016 is now in the books and all these teams have made big changes. Here at VAVEL USA, some of our NFL writers got together and shared our opinions for the upcoming 2017 season.
Which rookie in the AFC North will have the biggest impact?
Kudzi Musarurwa: John Ross. The former Washington Huskies WR had a big year in his final season, finishing with 81 catches, 17 touchdowns and a total of 1,150 receiving yards. At just 5'11", his size may bring up question marks about his ability to handle the physicality in the NFL. But, as someone like Antonio Brown has already shown, size isn't everything. He has the speed to make a difference down the field and if he picks up his route running quickly, that same speed can be used to play an important role in the slot as well. Also, he will be going up against one of the toughest defenses in the league every week, giving him ample preparation for how strong he'll have to be once the season starts.
Richard Sena: In a division with the first overall pick and a transcendental talent in Myles Garrett, it’s hard to argue against him being the most impactful rookie. Still, the addition of John Ross to an already loaded offensive roster may have grander implications for the division, as a whole, with the Bengals inching closer to the Steelers. Ross, who broke Chris Johnson’s long-standing 40-yard dash time in the 2017 NFL combine, will have plenty of room to work given a full stable of talented receivers including A.J. Green and Tyler Eifert.
Norman Tall: While he may not make his team into a contender immediately, Myles Garrett will have the biggest impact of all the rookies in the AFC North. Garrett has the size, speed, and ability to be an immediate impact player. Playing in a division filled with great quarterbacks in Ben Roethlisberger, Joe Flacco, and Andy Dalton, the Browns need someone to get to the quarterback and Myles Garrett will be that guy. In three years at Texas A&M, Garrett compiled 31 sacks and has been viewed as one of the best defensive prospects in years. Now, joining a young Browns D-line that includes Danny Shelton and Emmanuel Ogbah, Garrett should fit right in and have an immediate impact.
Aidan Thomas: Running back Joe Mixon of the Cincinnati Bengals has the biggest upside of any rookie in this division, but his off-field issues may be the biggest problem for him. If he keeps his act together on and off the field, Mixon flashes jaw-dropping talent that could see him slotted as the Bengals' #1 running back. While the Bengals may not be the best team in the division, they may have the best rookie in Mixon, the Oklahoma alum.
Which new addition will have the biggest impact in this division?
Kudzi Musarurwa: Danny Woodhead will be the free agent signing with the greatest impact. Woodhead has become a known name around the league and has perfected the way a team can use a smaller RB on their roster. He had a few injuries in his last season with the San Diego Chargers but if he stays healthy, the Ravens have a different option in their running game that will give many teams cause for concern.
Richard Sena: Coming as a late term free agency period signing, Jeremy Maclin heading to Baltimore may have quelled the fan base's fears of heading into the 2017 season without any notable upgrades at receiver. While not a blue-chip number one fans clamored for, Maclin helps deepen a receiving corps anchored by he and fellow veteran Mike Wallace.
Norman Tall: The best free agent signing in the division was by the Browns. The Browns added to their stellar offseason by adding ex-Bengal Kevin Zeitler. Zeitler is one of the premier right guards in football behind players like Zack Martin and Marshal Yanda. At just 27-years old, Zeitler will be an elite player for the long haul and will have a major impact in protecting the quarterback that trots out there to lead the Browns in week 1.
Aidan Thomas: The man I'm going with for this one isn't actually a newcomer to the division , but he's joining a new team in the Cleveland Browns. Zeitler, formerly of the Bengals, joins a Cleveland offensive line that is growing steadily stronger, tasked with the job of protecting whomever the Browns will have under center. The uncertainty regarding Cleveland's quarterback position kept me from picking another Cleveland player in Kenny Britt, a wide receiver, for this question. Britt could have a tremendous impact, but Cleveland needs a quarterback to make Britt a factor. To do that, they will need Zeitler to be on top of his game.
Who will be the MVP of this division?
Kudzi Musarurwa: This division's MVP will be Le'Veon Bell.
Bell has seemingly put his off field issues aside recently and has signed a franchise-tag contract with the Steelers. His production is one of the best at his position in the league and if he stays healthy, the Steelers will have a very tough offense to defend against once again. Not only is Bell great coming from the back field but he also has good hands which can be utilized in the passing game as well. When you add his talent with that of Brown and Roethlisbeger, the Steelers have probably the best offense in the AFC North.
Richard Sena: While it’s near impossible to predict Bell staying healthy for 16 games (and there’s still time for him to make a dumb mistake before training camp), it appears Bell will have his clearest path to playing in a full season in 2017 since 2014. If Bell can put together a full year, I’d expect his numbers to swell to league MVP caliber heights as he plays for the elusive long-term, big money, running back contract.
Norman Tall: The tough choice here is picking between Brown and Bell, but ultimately I'm going to have to go with the former. While both players are elite at their positions, it is Brown who has a bigger impact. In the past Bell has dealt with suspensions and injuries while Brown has kept a clean slate and been a consistent contributor week in and week out since being drafted by the Steelers in 2010. Despite Bell's absence in those instances, Brown has put the Steelers on his back and has led them to great success. His deep threat and play-making abilities are just some of the things that make Antonio Brown the MVP of the AFC North.
Aidan Thomas: Though you could make an argument for any one of the Killer B's in Pittsburgh, I'm going with Antonio Brown, who has been an absolute stud since arriving in the Steel City. There's not much to say about Brown that hasn't been said. Known as much for his wacky touchdown celebrations as he is for his spectacular play, Brown is the #1 receiving threat for the Steelers, and one of the top threats in the league. Teams are often required to double cover to keep Brown contained, opening up other options for the Steelers. The impact and presence that Brown has in each game makes him the MVP of this division.
Which coach or player is most on the hot seat in the AFC North?
Kudzi Musarurwa: Marvin Lewis has been riding a fine line between being fired and remaining as the Bengals head coach for a long time now. The Bengals make the playoffs regularly but the issue is they can't seem to get past the "one-and-done" point in their playoff appearances. With all the talent at their disposal over the years, the Bengals have never won a playoff game. Lewis has to change that mentality within his team before the fans, and the front office, finally run out of patience with him.
Richard Sena: Apart from the Browns, the AFC North is rife with long in the tooth head coaches. While not at Jeff Fisher levels of lame-duckness, Marvin Lewis is probably already charting his path for retirement if he can’t get the team past the playoff hump.
Norman Tall: This was probably the easiest question presented due to the fact that Marvin Lewis has been on the hot seat for quite some time now. Since taking over as the Bengals coach in 2003, Lewis has made the playoffs seven times and has yet to win a game in that spot. His 0-7 playoff record is a massive failure on his part. He has a tremendous set of players around him but his inability to win in big games means Lewis's time in Cincinnati could soon be over.
Aidan Thomas: Marvin Lewis of the Bengals beats out Cleveland's Hue Jackson and Baltimore's John Harbaugh for the honors in this one. Although Harbaugh and Jackson could also be on the hot seat, Lewis does not have a playoff win and recorded just six wins with a fairly talented roster in 2016. He's got a solid quarterback in Andy Dalton, a rookie running back in Joe Mixon, and the other pieces to contend, but if they don't, Lewis may be on the way out. Jackson should have more time given the Browns' rebuilding status, but Harbaugh better get some wins as well if he wants some job security.
Who will win the division and how many teams from the AFC North will make the playoffs this season?
Kudzi Musarurwa: You can't look past the Steelers as the division winners again this season if all of their key players stay healthy. They've improved in the secondary, which was their biggest issue last year while still maintaining one of the most explosive offenses in the league.
They should be joined in the playoffs this year by the Ravens and the Bengals. The Ravens have a healthy roster once again, which prevented them from being a consistent team last season, and have added some firepower to their offense. The Bengals are still a playoff team and with Andy Dalton back to full fitness again, it will make things interesting in the AFC North again.
Richard Sena: Besides the Browns, the Bengals, Ravens, and Steelers all have playoff ready rosters with entrenched franchise quarterbacks at the helm. The Pittsburgh Steelers appear to be the early favorites, but a healthy Bengals team could very well give them a run for their money come late fall. The true strength of the AFC West (with four viable playoff teams) will determine if one or two get in from the North. From this vantage point, I’d put my money on two from each.
Norman Tall: The Pittsburgh Steelers won the AFC North last season and give me no reason to believe they can't do it again. The Browns really don't have a chance this season and I believe that after a great run with Andy Dalton at the helm, the Bengals time is up. Now, while I see the Steelers winning the division, I do feel that the Ravens have enough to make the playoffs. Last season the Ravens finished 8-8 but easily could have been better had they not faltered late in games. Last season they went through a four-game losing streak and in those games they lost them by a combined 19 points. They held a lead in all of those games. They later lost one score games to both the Patriots and the Steelers. If they can put it all together in 2017, the Ravens have the potential to join the Steelers as AFC North representatives in the 2017 playoffs.
Aidan Thomas: The Steelers will win it with ease in 2017. Their recent rivalry with the Bengals has dissipated, and the Ravens and Browns won't challenge. The Ravens could come close, but a lack of talent at wide receiver could doom them. The Bengals and Browns both look like dumpster fires...to be fair, the Browns look like a dumpster fire with a little bit of hope though. They won't contend in 2017 but 2018 isn't out of the question. Meanwhile the Steelers cruise to the title. I could easily see them cruising to 13 or 14 wins and a one or two seed in the AFC. That one seed could come down to a late season matchup against the Patriots in the Steel City.