Tim Benz: How the new AFC North might look | TribLIVE.com
Tim Benz, Columnist

Tim Benz: How the new AFC North might look

Tim Benz
Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown, right, and New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham swap jerseys following a game in Pittsburgh, Sunday, Dec. 4, 2016. One is leaving the AFC North. The other is arriving in it.

We begin our “Friday Football Footnotes” with a preemptive statement: What you are about to read is a projection, not a prediction.

What you are about to read is an initial reaction to the early days of free agency, not a declaration of who is going to win the AFC North nine months from now.

After all, the draft hasn’t even occurred, and a lot of roster movement can happen between now and the second weekend in September.

This is important to note because when everything that looks logical now is backwards by the time the Christmas lights go up, I don’t want this article tweeted back at me 50 times with the always Twitter-cheeky hashtag of #ThisDidntAgeWell.

Maybe it won’t. I’m going to allow myself to be a prisoner of the moment, though. So, at this moment, wow does the AFC North look like it is about to change.

I don’t think the hype around how Cleveland has improved is hype at all. I think the Browns have gotten significantly better.

I’m one who always has scoffed at the annual refrain of, “Looks like they might be putting it together in Cleveland. They might improve soon.”

I’ve never thought that was real. This feels like it is real, now. Heck, it started to become real last year.

I bet the Brownies are two to three wins better. And two to three wins — especially if a few of them are against AFC North foes — gets them up to nine or 10.

Last year, 10 was good enough to win the division. Which, shockingly, I think the Dawg Pound might do. Force me to make a pick right now in the AFC North? Yes, I’d choose Cleveland.

Again, prisoner-of-the-moment stuff? Maybe. Check back with me in September. But the acquisitions of Odell Beckham Jr. and Kareem Hunt (depending on a potential suspension), coupled with a full year of Baker Mayfield as the quarterback lead me to believe the Browns will live up to the frothing expectations in Northeast Ohio.

Also, consider another year of polish for Nick Chubb and David Njoku with Jarvis Landry as a No. 2 receiver, and that offense looks dynamic by Lake Erie. Not to mention Olivier Vernon complementing Myles Garrett on the defensive front.

The offensive line is a worry. We’ll see how that goes with Kevin Zeitler moving on. Maybe former Bear Eric Kush can patch over.

And even though Browns management didn’t get what it wanted out of Jabril Peppers and Jamie Collins, those are holes that need to be filled. Kansas City safety Eric Berry may be part of that mix soon, which would help.

Right now, I see the Browns a tick ahead of the Ravens atop the division.

As for those birds, they quelled some initial panic at the start of free agency by making some big moves at the end of the second day.

At first, fans of the Purple and Black were seeing the entire defensive roster disappear when four important defensive players defected to other clubs. Plus, receivers Michael Crabtree and John Brown are gone.

But general manager Eric DeCosta rebounded before the weekend hit. Even if Earl Thomas isn’t deployed exactly the same way as Eric Weddle, the safety position has been upgraded there. And Mark Ingram will bolster an already potent run game.

A full commitment to quarterback Lamar Jackson, and an entire offseason to package a game plan around him, is invaluable. If he stays healthy and lives up to the billing, the Ravens may defend their division crown after all.

Then there is Pittsburgh. I hate the losses of Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell.

However, they didn’t have Bell last year, and the run game was usually good. Mike Tomlin and offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner (i.e., Ben Roethlisberger) just didn’t use it enough. Now, maybe they’ll be forced to trust James Conner week-in and week-out moving forward — as long as he isn’t hurt. That’s been an issue for him dating back to his days at Pitt.

If former Jaguars pass-catcher Donte Moncrief becomes the updated version of Cedric Wilson or Jerricho Cotchery, that’d be fine. But if James Washington doesn’t get better, Moncrief is going to have to be more than that. Because I think the concern over JuJu Smith-Schuster being able to handle the majority of pass coverage is a problem.

Steven Nelson’s impact at cornerback is to be determined. Every time I read one good statistic about him, I see one that’s bad. If he’s better than Coty Sensabaugh or Artie Burns, that’s a start.

Furthermore, not only do I dislike who is leaving the Steelers, I hate the decisions they made to keep certain guys, too. For a team that had little interest in using cap space, I don’t know why a penny was dedicated to the likes Anthony Chickillo, Jordan Berry, Eli Rogers and Daniel McCullers. All are highly replaceable, and, in the case of McCullers, repeatedly useless.

L.J. Fort left for Philadelphia, too. I wasn’t wild about Fort, although he was better than some of the other inside linebackers they tried.

No, the Steelers weren’t going to get C.J. Mosley or Thomas, even if they should’ve. But not landing a Bradley Roby, Jordan Hicks, Tyrell Williams or Tevin Coleman is bothersome.

Behind the Steelers, there are the Bengals. Cincinnati has done as little as the Steelers have, and they were far worse last year.

I mean, B.W. Webb? Really?

They’ve kept some potential free agents (Preston Brown, Tyler Eifert, C.J. Uzomah, Bobby Hart) so more cracks in the wall wouldn’t be exposed. Not much added, though.

The team may be four years late on the “addition by subtraction” angle with Marvin Lewis.

We’ll see what Zac Taylor does as he takes over the coaching duties. But for a six-win team to do almost nothing in terms of roster addition, it doesn’t appear he’ll have the horses to make a charge.

What to make of the AFC North right now?

• Cleveland 10-6 (wins on tie breaker)

• Ravens 10-6 (wild card)

• Steelers 7-9 (may upgrade this after draft-week or the end of camp)

• Bengals 5-11

I look forward to your screen shots of mockery while ignoring the opening stanza when everything is flipped upside down by the start of the postseason.

Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tim at [email protected] or via Twitter. All tweets could be reposted. All emails are subject to publication unless specified otherwise.

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