This article is the second installment of an eight-part series. Each part focuses on one NFL division and provides a brief synopsis of the state of each team in that division. In the first segment, I looked at the teams in the AFC East. Here, I will discuss the teams in the AFC North.
No team in the NFL suffered more injuries in 2021 than the Baltimore Ravens. Their RB and CB position groups lost major contributors even before their first game. Somehow the battle-hardened Ravens overcame these injuries to remain competitive all year.
In fact, if Lamar Jackson had not missed five games down the stretch, the Ravens very likely would have been playoff-bound. The Ravens lost their last six games yet still finished with an 8-9 record. They finished only two games back of the division-winning Cincinnati Bengals.
If they regain their health, the Ravens certainly have the team to show that last year was an aberration. Even so, the franchise may be at somewhat of a crossroads. QB Lamar Jackson is due for a massive contract extension.
Lamar Jackson Is About To Get Paid
Undoubtedly, Jackson’s next deal will make him one of the highest-paid players in the history of the NFL. Such a top-heavy contract means that the Ravens will have to shed money elsewhere to keep under the salary cap moving forward.
Lamar has had a fantastic start to his NFL career. In three of his first four seasons, he managed to stay healthy and lead his team to the playoffs. In 2019, Jackson was the NFL league MVP. Even with all his early success, some football pundits question the wisdom of paying Jackson.
Questions about Jackson’s longevity resurfaced, as Jackson missed extensive time last season. The fact that Jackson is used so heavily in the run game is a cause for concern. So too is the fact that Jackson is only mediocre as a passer at this stage in his career.
Will Lamar Jackson Suffer The Same Fate As Cam Newton?
One only needs to look at the trajectory of QB Cam Newton’s career to see the worst-case scenario. Newton and Jackson have similar run-accentuated play styles, and they both enjoyed a great deal of success in their first few years in the NFL.
In his late 20s, a time when most QBs are entering their prime years, Newton’s physical skills already began to erode, and his play suffered a precipitous decline.
As Newton aged, he was constantly battling injuries and was not able to run like he once did. And, ultimately, he was not developed enough as a passer to make up the difference. At 32 years old, his career as a starting QB appears to be all but over.
The Cincinnati Bengals were the Cinderella team in the NFL this past season. They went from worst to first in the AFC North. And they not only made some noise in the playoffs, they were also a break away from winning the Super Bowl. So, where does that leave them now?
With QB Joe Burrow and the weapons they possess on offense, this team figures to be a perennial contender moving forward. Having said that, however, they were fortunate in some ways to get as far as they did last year.
The AFC North Is The Most Competitive Division In Football
Only two games separated first from fourth place in the AFC North. The Bengals still have glaring holes along the offensive line. They certainly won’t be catching teams by surprise next year.
The key to their 2022 season will be how well their offensive line holds up. It is conceivable that the Bengals could be a better team next year, yet still fall short of where they ended last season.
Like last year, a lot will depend on the circumstances of the other teams in the division. I would also like to see how the young Bengals respond to their own success. They need to show the football world that last year was not a fluke.
The Cleveland Browns’ 2021 season was a colossal failure. After years of ineptitude, the Browns qualified for the playoffs in 2020. In fact, they were a whisker away from beating the Kansas City Chiefs and making it to the AFC Championship game. Great things were expected from them in 2021, but they failed to deliver.
Despite having one of the most talented rosters in the NFL, the Browns limped to an 8-9 record. Although there were a number of factors that played a role in their disappointing season, chief among them was the poor play of QB Baker Mayfield.
Baker Mayfield Regressed In 2021
Mayfield remains one of the most polarizing players in the NFL. In 14 games, Mayfield completed 60% of his passes for 3,010 yards with 17 TDs and 13 picks. These stats are anemic any way you look at them. However, when you also factor in the eyeball test, it seems even worse.
Although Mayfield was supported by one of the best running games in the league, he could not take advantage of stacked boxes. Mayfield displayed awful decision-making and accuracy at times.
And his mechanics seem to have severely regressed. Several of the Browns’ games came down to the final drive. But Mayfield repeatedly failed in such clutch situations.
In the 14 games Mayfield started, the Browns were 6-8. In comparison, in the three games journeyman back up QB Case Keenum started, the Browns were 2-1.
Keenum was also statistically better in these games. He completed 65% of his passes for 462 yards with three TDs and one interception.
Baker Mayfield Played Injured Last Season
The saving grace for Mayfield is that he played most of last season injured. Mayfield tore his labrum in his left, non-throwing shoulder in Week Two. It was later reported that he suffered a fractured humerus bone in the same shoulder in Week Six.
Undoubtedly, these injuries contributed to his poor play. While we can applaud Mayfield’s toughness for playing through the injuries, we have to wonder why the Browns did not turn to Keenum earlier.
Perhaps Mayfield’s contract situation played a role. With Mayfield in the final year of his rookie deal last season, the Browns simply needed to see more before investing in him long-term.
The injuries, as well as the high draft capital the Browns initially invested in him, will provide Mayfield with yet another chance to prove himself in 2022. The Browns have exercised Mayfield’s fifth-year option. This is undoubtedly a make-or-break year for him and the current coaching staff.
The Steelers finished 2021 with a 9-7-1 record and snuck into the playoffs. Although they, predictably, lost at Arrowhead, there was a lot to admire about how the Steelers performed last year.
With QB Ben Roethlisberger on his last legs and their offensive line in shambles, the Steelers overcame their deficiencies to post a winning mark. Amazingly, the Steelers have not had a losing season since 2003.
Not coincidentally, 2003 was the year before they drafted Big Ben. With Roethlisberger opting to retire, it is not hard to envision the Steelers struggling next season.
However, if the Steelers were to acquire a star QB like Aaron Rodgers or Russell Wilson, they would instantly become one of the favorites in the AFC. Their defense is already championship-worthy. And their offensive skilled positions players are more than serviceable.
All they would need is improved play from their offensive line to compete with the top teams. However, this is easier said than done. The hope is with the experience they gained in 2021, their young offensive line can take a step forward next season.
Additionally, it would also be wise for the Steelers to delve into the FA market and/or invest some draft capital to improve the talent on their offensive front.
But, if Mason Rudolph or Dwayne Haskins is the Steelers’ starting QB in 2022, it would be a moot point. Without competent QB play, the Steelers will surely suffer their first losing season in almost two decades.
Thank You For Reading – AFC North: A Snapshot View.
I really enjoyed delving into the state of these teams, and hope I was able to shed a little light. Make sure to hit me up on Twitter or Facebook with any inquiries and/or to tell me how wrong you think I was.