PFW roundtable: 5 key offseason questions, AFC North edition

Mayfield top rookie? Steelers still class of division? Can Browns replace Joe Thomas?

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PFW editors Bob LeGere, Eric Edholm, Greg Gabriel and Arthur Arkush answer five key AFC North questions.

1) Who will be the biggest impact rookie?

Bob LeGere: How can it not be Baker Mayfield? It’s possible veteran Tyrod Taylor could hold off the No. 1 overall pick for a while, because of his efficient, game-managing style. But, after one victory in two seasons, the Browns have nothing to sell but the future, and that is Mayfield. Taylor knows he’s just a placeholder, and his skill set also makes him an ideal backup for Mayfield, who could easily impress early and earn the starting job by opening day.

Eric Edholm: Every AFC North club drafted a quarterback this offseason, and yet none come with the expectations or the pressure that Baker Mayfield does. The Browns are in good shape now with Tyrod Taylor as the presumed starter, with Mayfield pushing him and with Drew Stanton as the last layer of security. But we still think Mayfield has a great chance to break in this season — and perhaps even before Cleveland’s Week 11 bye. We strongly considered Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson, figuring he has a chance to see the field early in a changeup role, but we think taking over the starting job for Joe Flacco is a longer road.

Greg Gabriel: Any time a player is the first pick in the draft, like Baker Mayfield, he has to be the biggest impact rookie — not only on the roster of the team that drafts him, but any team in that division.

Arthur Arkush: How can Mayfield make the biggest impact if he doesn't play early? The Bengals finally went all in on an O-line fix, and the centerpiece of the rebuild, Billy Price, will infuse plenty of nasty into the worst ground game in franchise history. I’m not worried about Price’s torn pec at the combine; he should be ready to go, and maul, come Week 1, when Joe Mixon’s Year 2 breakout begins. Price is undoubtedly right (sorry) for steadying the maligned Andy Dalton, whose play is dependent on stability around him.

Hub Arkush: I expect James Washington to have a very similar impact for the Steelers to what JuJu Smith-Schuster gave them last year as opponents try and freeze out Pittsburgh's Ju-Ju knowing they can't stop Antonio Brown. Baker Mayfield won't see the field much for a while, and I thought Denzel Ward was a terrible reach. I really like Hayden Hurst and Mark Andrews in Baltimore, but they'll have to share the football. I like Billy Price, Malik Jefferson, Andrew Brown and Auden Tate in Cincinnati — all of them — but there isn't much sex appeal to any of them

2) Best under-the-radar addition?

BL: The Ravens had arguably the worst passing offense in the NFL in 2017, and they decided to do something about it. Veteran WR Michael Crabtree was the more notable addition, while restricted free agent slot WR Willie Snead accepted a $10.4-million, two-year offer sheet, which the Saints declined to match. Snead served a three-game suspension last year and missed several games with a nagging hamstring injury, finishing with just eight catches. But in the two previous seasons, he caught 141 passes for 1,879 yards.

EE: It feels a bit strange to call S Morgan Burnett, one of the biggest free-agent splashes at a pretty dormant position this offseason, an “under the radar” addition — especially after they drafted another safety, Terrell Edmunds, in Round 1. But Burnett’s versatility will be highly valued on a defense that is coming together but still has some holes. The Steelers face a lot of good tight ends this season and were just not consistent enough vs. the run last year. Burnett can help in those areas, cover the slot, play either deep-halves position and even play linebacker to partially fill the Ryan Shazier void. This is a signing that didn’t get a lot of national buzz but could help jell this defense.

GG: The Bengals have not gotten as good of offensive line play as they would like the last few seasons. LT Cordy Glenn, when healthy, was a very consistent performer in Buffalo. He should help solidify both the run and pass game for Cincinnati and give the Bengals the best left tackle play they have had in years.

AA: Heady Morgan Burnett has long been underappreciated, making (one of) the Steelers’ many new strong safeties a natural choice here. Burnett should push Sean Davis into a centerfield role, and the hope is that asking Davis to do less means more for the former second-rounder. Burnett will be the quarterback of the ‘D,’ a role previously held by Ryan Shazier, whom the Steelers desperately missed last season — not only as a leader and playmaker, but run supporter, where Burnett thrives.

HA: The Bengals added free agent LB Preston Brown from Buffalo — and nobody seems to realize who or what he is. Drafted in the third round out of Louisville by the Bills in 2014, he won the starting "Will" spot as a rookie, after Pro Bowler Kiko Alonso tore his ACL in training camp. At 6-1 ½ and 255 pounds, Brown is a more natural fit inside, where the Bils moved him in 2015, and last season, he actually led the NFL in tackles (144, including 84 solos and seven tackles for loss). In spite of that, the Bengals stole him on a one-year, $4 million deal, thanks to his desire to come home, as Brown played his high school ball in Cincy. He should be lights-out in front of the home folks.

3) Biggest offseason defection?

BL: Just when it was beginning to look like the Browns’ stockpile of high draft picks would finally, at long last, show significant improvement in 2018, the team lost the ultimate building block. Iron man OLT Joe Thomas announced his retirement after a brilliant 11-year career, in which he played 10,363 consecutive snaps, until a triceps injury ended his streak last October. Without Thomas, Cleveland loses so much more than a 10-time Pro Bowl player – he epitomized what it means to be a pro, something from which a gaggle of young players could learn.

EE: The franchise had had a fruitful and exciting offseason following a franchise-worst 0-16 campaign, but the retirement of Joe Thomas was by far the biggest mar on that. The Browns don’t lack candidates to man the left side, including Shon Coleman, which was one reason they didn’t get in the Nate Solder free-agent derby. But Thomas, the longtime rock at left tackle, simply cannot be replaced to the level of excellence he had established for more than a decade.

GG: No, I’m not trying to let the Browns hog all the awards, but when a perennial All Pro retires while he still is playing very good football, it’s a huge loss for any team.

AA: I think Austin Corbett is an exciting prospect who could have a bright future, but being one of the draft’s more versatile prospects won’t make the Nevada product’s bid to replace future Hall of Famer Joe Thomas on Day 1 any easier. He'll compete with Shon Coleman, a 16-game starter at right tackle in 2017, and Donald Stephenson, a disaster on Denver’s bad O-line, so I’m not buying that they're the answers either. If there’s good news, it’s the mobility of Tyrod Taylor and Baker Mayfield and the strength of Cleveland’s other four blockers.

HA: Can it be anyone other than Cleveland OT and future first ballot Hall of Famer Joe Thomas? The one unit where the Browns have been competitive, and should have actually been good was on the O-line. Now they can still be good — even very good — at guard with Kevin Zeitler and Joel Bitonio, and JC Tretter is fine at center, but the right tackle spot had been an issue and will now be manned initially by free agent Chris Hubbard. He was a swing OT backup in Pittsburgh, and promising youngster Shon Coleman will step into Thomas's spot. At least on Day One, that will be like replacing Robin Williams with Carrot Top.

 

4) Heat check (coach most on the hot seat)

BL: After having presided over teams that were a combined 1-31 the past two seasons, Browns coach Hue Jackson enters the 2018 season with shorts that are already smoldering. Most observers were shocked when Jackson was retained after last year’s 0-16 mark, so his leash for 2018 is a short one.

EE: What hue is Hue Jackson? We’ll go with an incendiary shade of red — or maybe white is the type of heat he’s likely feeling. Another likely candidate is Cincinnati’s Marvin Lewis perhaps, but at this rate he’ll still be coaching the Bengals when all of us are on Social Security. Instead, his old friend Jackson is just too hot to ignore. That’s what a 1-31 record and a new general manager brings: major pressure to make significant improvement.

GG: Hue Jackson should have been fired last year after going 0-16. Unless the Browns show significant improvement, he could be the first head coach to lose his job in 2018. A close runner-up is Cincinnati’s Marvin Lewis. Many thought he would be gone following 2017.

AA: Let’s not overthink this one: not even Hue Jackson’s plunge into Lake Eerie next week will extinguish the flames underneath him because of 1-31 and his incomprehensible survival act this offseason. But it’s worth noting (because the Bengals just can't quit Marvin Lewis) that John Harbaugh might finally need a big season, what with the change above him from Ozzie Newsome to Eric DeCosta and the Ravens trying to avoid a fourth consecutive season ending short of the playoffs, which would equal the longest since their inception.

HA: Listen, guys: this is going to be an important season for John Harbaugh, and he is probably no longer untouchable as he has been in recent years, and Marvin Lewis clearly should have been gone two seasons ago, but Mike Brown won't pull the trigger. All of that would be serious in any other division, but in the North, Hue Jackson's butt is on fire, and it might be more surprising if he makes it to midseason than if he doesn't.

 

5) Predicted order of finish?

BL: 1. Steelers 2. Ravens 3. Browns 4. Bengals

The Steelers should win this division just by throwing their helmets on the field, although the Ravens could cause some trouble with a remade offense, if QB Joe Flacco can rebound from his worst season since he was a rookie in 2008. The Browns are at least a year away, and the Bengals have seen much better days.

EE: 1. Steelers 2. Ravens 3. Browns 4. Bengals

The last two I debated for a minute; the first two felt pretty cut and dry. I suppose the Ravens could shock everyone and surpass the Steelers, but I might be the only man in America who is moderately encouraged about Baltimore’s chances this season. And why the Browns over the Bengals? I am just not sure there’s much upward movement for Cincy after a mostly unimpressive season, while the Browns really could be fun if they can navigate a tricky schedule and a QB battle properly.

GG: 1. Steelers 2. Ravens 3. Browns 4. Bengals

The Steelers remain the class organization in the division. For the Ravens to challenge them, Joe Flacco has to play great football. I think Cleveland will surprise some people. Their roster is fairly good now, but their coaching might be the worst in football. The Bengals, talent-wise, are the worst team in the division.

AA: 1. Steelers 2. Bengals 3. Ravens 4. Browns

The two quandaries: which club should immediately follow the Steelers, again a legitimate Super Bowl threat, and did the Browns establish enough credibility and competence to climb out of their familiar cellar? Ultimately, the Bengals continuity — on offense, not in the coaching ranks — gave them the nod over Baltimore, while it was the Browns’ continuity — the coaching staff, not the personnel — resigning them, still, to a familiar fate.

HA: 1. Steelers 2. Ravens 3. Browns 4. Bengals

Steelers would be as sure a thing as the Patriots, but Baltimore could surprise. Still, the Ravens might be the division's second-best, but they'll need some really bad luck for Steelers to pass them. The Browns finishing third assumes Jackson is replaced in-season, and then some of their highly-drafted youngsters start to emerge. Regarding the Bengals, it's not that Lewis is a bad coach — this has become a really weak roster.

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