By Cameron Hogwood
Last Updated: 29/08/20 11:12am
The wait is nearly over and the new NFL season is almost upon us!
The action begins on Thursday, September 10 when the Kansas City Chiefs host the Houston Texans, live on Sky Sports.
Before then, it is time to assess 2020’s contenders.
We are previewing all eight divisions, and here you can find our views on the AFC North…
Head Coach: John Harbaugh
Key Man: Who else but Lamar Jackson? The second unanimous MVP after Tom Brady. The man that recorded the most rushing yards ever by a quarterback in a season in NFL history with 1,206. The man that led the league with 36 touchdown passes.
Even when defenses knew what Jackson was bringing to the table, he was too good to thwart. He has the speed and vision to escape pressure with ease and last season helped Greg Roman’s offense become one of the most explosive in the NFL. He also took significant strides as a passer from his rookie year, displaying more patience in the pocket and making notable improvements to his accuracy.
He will be the star again, this time with a view to winning his first career playoff game following last season’s defeat to a Derrick Henry-inspired Tennessee Titans. It is a monkey Jackson will be keen to get off his back sooner rather than later.
Major Additions: The Ravens acquired both valuable experience and welcome pass rush support for Matthew Judon this off-season as they traded a 2020 fifth-round pick to the Jacksonville Jaguars in exchange for Calais Campbell.
They also nabbed running back J.K. Dobbins in the second round of the draft after he finished third in the nation with 1,829 rushing yards for 20 touchdowns at Ohio State last season. The intrigue with adding Dobbins to the backfield is not only his own rushing talent, but the decoy potential he brings alongside Jackson. In using their first-round pick on LSU linebacker Patrick Queen the Ravens, meanwhile, addressed a primary need on defense.
Last Season: Baltimore finished 14-2 last season as runaway division winners having won 12 straight games to see out the regular season. Harbaugh’s men ranked No 2 overall in total offense having been No 1 in both scoring and rushing. Cornerback Marcus Peters and Judon starred on a No 4 ranked defense that seemed to progress throughout the season. For a long time, the Ravens looked impossible to contain, until they came up against the Titans in the post-season, that is.
Prospects: As he did in his rookie year, Jackson will have learned a lot about himself and the NFL last season. If he continues to develop as a passer as he has done, the Ravens are undisputed favourites to win the division again. It is worth remembering we are yet to see the best of second-year receiver Marquise Brown as a target for Jackson.
Prediction: 1st (13-3)
Head Coach: Zac Taylor
Key Man: It is hard to look beyond rookie quarterback Joe Burrow. The No 1 overall pick appears set to be the Week One starter in Cincinnati following the departure of Andy Dalton to the Dallas Cowboys.
Burrow arrives with the weight of expectation after putting together one of the most impressive college football seasons in recent memory, leading LSU to the National Championship title and winning the Heisman Trophy by a landslide. He is the new face of the franchise and the man the Bengals will be hoping to kick-start a new era for the organisation following a four-season absence from the playoffs.
He is an incredibly cool customer in the pocket, with widely-praised touch and precision and a real knack for putting the ball where defenders cannot get it. While Burrow will be the leader of this offense, it should not be understated how valuable veteran receiver A.J. Green will be for his first-year play-caller after missing the entire 2019 season through injury. Running back Joe Mixon will similarly be vital in shouldering some of the responsibility.
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Major Additions: The Bengals wasted no time in finding Burrow a new weapon as they drafted Clemson wide receiver Tee Higgins in the second round. He recorded 1,167 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns last season and promises to be a key addition across from Green.
Cincinnati had the fifth fewest takeaways in the NFL last season, and looked to remedy their secondary in free agency by signing former New Orleans Saints safety Vonn Bell on a three-year, $18m deal, along with former Minnesota Vikings cornerback Trae Waynes on a three-year, $42m contract. The addition of ex-Houston Texans defensive tackle D.J. Reader on a four-year, $53m deal provides help for Geno Atkins on the interior.
Last Season: The Bengals finished a league-worst 2-14, 29th overall on defense and 26th on offense. Green proved a huge miss and the quarterback situation was up in the air, although Bengals fans did come away feeling positive about what head coach Zac Taylor had to offer moving forward.
Prospects: The talent elsewhere in the division does them no favours, with the other three teams all playoff contenders. Positives would include a smooth transition for Burrow and sign of life on a stronger looking offense.
Prediction: 4th (4-12)
Head Coach: Kevin Stefanski
Key Man: There are a few to pick from on the Browns’ star-studded roster, but I am going with running back Nick Chubb. You need only look at the impact Dalvin Cook had for the Minnesota Vikings last season under offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski to realise Chubb’s potential under the new Browns head coach. Do not be surprised to see him play an even more prominent role.
He was second only to the Titans’ Henry in rushing yards last year with 1,494, racking up a team-high eight touchdowns in the process. Chubb’s production is crucial in aiding Baker Mayfield and will look even better should his quarterback find his form.
Major Additions: Mayfield will have been a happy man this off-season as he saw the Browns put another big body in front of him by drafting Alabama offensive tackle Jedrick Wills with the 10th overall pick. He was not the only reinforcement to the offensive line, with former Tennessee Titans tackle Jack Conklin signing on a three-year, $42m deal in free agency.
Former Atlanta Falcons tight end Austin Hooper also landed in Cleveland on a four-year, $44m deal as intriguing competition for David Njoku. While the money raised eyebrows, it was a pick-up that made sense after Stefanski fielded at least two tight ends for 43 per cent of the Vikings’ plays last season.
Last Season: The 2019 off-season hype was premature. Cleveland boasted some of the NFL’s most gifted individuals, but individuals is all they were as they struggled to strike up the on-field relationships the organisation had perhaps envisioned. They lacked consistency, missed Myles Garrett throughout his suspension, fell out with head coach Freddie Kitchens and limped home to a 6-10 finish, becoming the only team not to have a winning record over the 2010s decade.
Prospects: This is a team with the players to challenge for the playoffs, no question. There is always an ‘if’ to this Browns team, though. Post-season football is heavily reliant on Mayfield taking a step up, Odell Beckham Jr and Jarvis Landry dominating defenses and Garrett comfortably hitting double figures in sacks, not to mention pounding the ball through Chubb and ensuring adequate pass protection.
Prediction: 3rd (9-7)
Head Coach: Mike Tomlin
Key Man: The Steelers’ offense continues to run through quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who is among those primed to challenge for the Comeback Player of the Year award. Roethlisberger suffered an elbow injury against the Seattle Seahawks in Week 2 before undergoing season-ending surgery. It followed on from a 2018 campaign in which he led the league with 5,129 passing yards for a fifth-most 34 touchdowns. His return will also be music to the ears of wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, who endured a quiet 2019 in comparison to his first two seasons in the league.
Major Additions: The signing of tight end Eric Ebron on a two-year, $12m deal makes for an interesting combination with Vance McDonald. Ebron flourished with the Indianapolis Colts in 2018 as he made the Pro Bowl after putting up career-highs with 66 receptions for 750 yards and 13 touchdowns as a prime red-zone threat. Injuries and the absence of Andrew Luck hindered him in 2019 though, the 2014 first-round pick managing just 31 catches for 375 yards and three touchdowns.
Second-round wide receiver Chase Claypool has already earned rave reviews in the Steelers’ training camp, arriving on the back of 66 catches for 1,037 yards and 13 touchdowns as Notre Dame’s lead receiver in 2019. He comes in as help for a position group that lacked a 1,000-yard receiver last year.
Pittsburgh injected more veteran experience to their offensive line with two-time Super Bowl-winning guard Stefen Wisniewski, while introducing more power in the backfield with full-back Derek Watt, who had helped create running lanes for Melvin Gordon and Austin Ekeler with the Los Angeles Chargers.
Last Season: Having ranked fourth on offense in 2018, the Steelers endured a contrasting 2019 as they finished 30th overall after seeing Mason Rudolph and Devlin ‘Duck’ Hodges share the workload in Roethlisberger’s absence. It was on defense where they excelled, ranking fifth overall, third against the pass and 14th against the run. The Steelers won six of their 10 games after the bye week to finish 8-8 and second in the division.
Prospects: With Roethlisberger back, the playoffs have to be the goal. Running back James Conner is poised for a better year after missing six games in 2019, while the Steelers have a deep and capable receiver corps in Smith-Schuster, Claypool, James Washington and Diontae Johnson. Between T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree and Cameron Heyward, they also have sacks in abundance.
Prediction: 2nd (9-7)