Move over Pittsburgh and Baltimore. Just a week into NFL Free Agency, the Cleveland Browns are poised to change the face of the AFC North with their flurry of offseason moves.
For the better part of two decades, the balance of power in the AFC North has been predictable. Since 2001, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens have been busy trading division title wins. In fact, no other team besides the Cincinnati Bengals have won a division title – just four times. After years in the basement, the Cleveland Browns are rising to the top of the division. It is an overhaul the likes of which the NFL has rarely seen. After one week of NFL free agency, here’s a look at where each team is heading.
General manager John Dorsey began wholesale changes to the franchise in 2018. He drafted quarterback Baker Mayfield and traded away troubled wide receiver Josh Gordon. Head coach Hue Jackson was fired midway through the 2018 season.
This year, Dorsey is at it again, using trades and free agency to not only change the culture of the team but propel the Browns to be the odds-on favorite to win the division. You kind of have to say that twice to fully wrap your head around it. The Cleveland Browns are the favorite to win the AFC North.
The blockbuster deal with the New York Giants that netted wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. for first and third round picks and safety Jabrill Peppers was icing on the cake for the Browns. The trade literally incited 9-1-1 calls in the city of Cleveland, that’s how desperate for change this city is.
The previous week, Dorsey dealt guard Kevin Zeitler to the Giants in exchange for edge rusher Oliver Vernon. He joins a defensive line that includes 2017 first overall pick Myles Garrett and Sheldon Richardson, whom the Browns signed in free agency The Browns have Zeitler’s replacement waiting in the wings in 2018 second round selection Austin Corbett.
The Browns are rich with talent and depth. Running back Kareem Hunt, 2017’s rushing leader signed last season after the release of a video showing him assault a woman led to his banishment from Kansas City, will return after an eight-game suspension to back up Nick Chubb. Free agent Demetrius Harris pairs nicely with dynamic tight end David Njoku.
The Browns finally have their franchise quarterback. They can boast about having one of the best wide receiver and running back corps in the game. Their new head coach and general manager seem dead set on bringing a championship to Cleveland. The AFC North has officially been turned upside down.
Let’s be honest, any cries that the sky is falling in the Steel City are premature. The Steelers always seem to figure these things out. Despite a rough start to the offseason, 2019 will be no different.
Yes, they lost RB Le’Veon Bell to free agency. His season-long holdout last year gave the team the chance to discover a gem in 2017 third round pick James Conner (don’t they always?). And yes, they traded arguably the best receiver in the game, sending Antonio Brown to the Oakland Raiders for third and fifth-round picks. But…and in Pittsburgh, there’s always a but…budding star JuJu Smith-Schuster looks ready to take the mantle as the Steelers top WR after a breakout second season. The team also signed WR Donte Moncrief to bolster a young, talented group.
The defense, still recovering from wasting a 2016 first round pick on cornerback Artie Burns, has added CB Steven Nelson in free agency. Nelson had four interceptions in Kansas City last season, which matches the 2018 total for the Steelers entire secondary. He pairs nicely with veteran CB Joe Haden.
Pittsburgh also adds former Rams LB Mark Barron, who should be a nice fit inside in their 3-4 defensive scheme. Though the Steelers didn’t dominate the headlines in free agency (they never do), they’ve done just enough so far to stay in the running for the AFC North title.
The defending AFC North Champions will look a lot different in 2019, largely because of changes in the front office. Eric DeCosta takes over for longtime General Manager Ozzie Newsome after two decades in various front office positions.
He’s wasted no time putting his stamp on the team, trading mainstay starting QB Joe Flacco to the Denver Broncos for a fourth-round draft pick, solidifying second-year man Lamar Jackson as the team’s future under center. Jackson brings a different dynamic to an offense that had grown increasingly stale under Flacco and appears ready for the challenge after starting seven games in 2018.
After several years of mediocre running back play, the team has finally invested in the position by adding two-time Pro Bowler Mark Ingram in free agency. He brings a sturdy presence to an offense led by a talented but developing QB.
Major changes are also coming to one of the league’s top-ranked defenses. Gone are linchpin linebacker Terrell Suggs, four-time Pro Bowl LB C.J. Mosley, veteran safety Eric Weddle, and pass rush specialist Za’Darius Smith. Baltimore has been slow to revamp this side of the ball, signing only safety Earl Thomas.
The team has also tendered defensive linemen Patrick Onwuasor and Michael Pierce. Those moves provide continuity in the trenches as they rebuild their linebacker group. The Ravens’ approach to team building has always been slow and methodical, and while 2019 might be a year of transition, they should soon be right back in the mix for the division crown.
Ah, Cincinnati. The more things change, the more they stay the same, at least in the Queen City. Despite finally moving on from head coach Marvin Lewis after sixteen seasons and zero playoff wins, Cincinnati’s flawed blueprint for the offseason appears to remain the same. Owner Mike Brown’s philosophy has always been to draft and sign your own, eschewing free agency as a wasted effort.
This works if you draft well (see Pittsburgh, New England Patriots, or up until this year, Green Bay Packers). When you constantly draft to replace players that are busts, lost to injury, or walk in free agency, it’s hard to build a championship roster. Yet that is exactly what Cincinnati does, year in and year out.
The big free agency news this year is the massive contract given to one of their own, right tackle Bobby Hart. Despite being ranked as the 69th-best RT in the league last season, the Bengals thought enough of Hart to make him their highest-paid offensive lineman. Fan response was not surprising.
Bobby Hart ranked 75th out of 80 qualified tackles in PFF’s 2018 grades.
He’ll be making $7M a year wearing Orange & black stripes.
I am EMBARRASSED to be a Bengals fan.
It’s amazing how you can remain a total meme after overhauling your whole coaching staff.
— Cincin (@Nati_Sports) March 11, 2019
Cincinnati also tendered restricted free agent and starting RG Trey Hopkins, meaning that the entire right side of one of the league’s worst offensive lines is likely returning.
The Bengals let starting tight end Tyler Kroft leave for Buffalo, choosing instead to re-sign serviceable but raw C.J. Uzomah. The team also re-signed oft-injured TE Tyler Eifert. But at this point in his career, the expectations on the field or to even stay healthy are tepid at best.
The team brings back run-stuffing LB Preston Brown, who started seven games on a defense that ranked last or near the bottom in every major statistical category.
There is one big change in Cincinnati this year. After ten suspensions and multiple fines, the Bengals finally released troublesome and oft-injured LB Vontaze Burfict. This is likely addition by subtraction. Burfict is not as physically dominant as he once was. Additionally, for a team needing to shed its bad-boy image, this is as good a place to start as any.
Good luck to new head coach Zac Taylor, you’re going to need it.