NFL NationESPN7 minutes of reading
That The Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers all enter the 2023 season with legitimate playoff hopes. Therefore, the AFC North could prove to be the NFL’s deepest and best overall division.
Cincinnati (+125) has the best odds to win the division according to Caesar’s Sportsbook, followed by Baltimore (+275), Cleveland (+380) and then Pittsburgh (+500). The Bengals clinched last season’s second straight North title with their second straight trip to the AFC title game. But they will face a renewed challenge from their divisional challengers.
The Ravens bolstered their offense with a number of additions, including wideouts Odell Beckham Jr., Nelson Agholor and new coordinator Todd Monken. But their biggest move was bringing back quarterback Lamar Jackson, who was given the non-exclusive franchise tag in March before re-signing a five-year, $260 million deal that includes $185 million in guaranteed money.
The Browns had a busy offseason, acquiring former New York Jets wideout Elijah Moore and former Pro Bowl pass rusher Za’Darius Smith via trade, while adding defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson, safety Juan Thornhill and defensive end Ogbonnia Okoronkwo as key free agents. The Browns also brought in former Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz to run their underperforming — but talented — defense.
The Steelers added and brought back some veteran names — DT Larry Ogunjobi, CB Patrick Peterson and OG Isaac Seumalo — to surround a young and promising core that finished third in the division at 9-8 last season. .
With less than a month to go until the start of training camps, ESPN’s AFC North reporters break down where things stand in a division that appears to be loaded from top to bottom.
Who is the biggest newcomer?
Jamison Hensley (ESPN Ravens reporter): Orlando Brown Jr. The former Baltimore Raven isn’t a top-10 tackle in the league, but he represents a significant upgrade when it comes to protecting Joe Burrows’ blind side. Brown’s pass block win rate of 91.8% last year was remarkably better than Jonah Williams (83.5%), who was the Bengals’ left tackle last season. How important is this? Burrow is 17-3 (.850) in his career with fewer than three sacks.
Ben Baby (ESPN Bengals reporter): The Browns adding Smith to their group of pass rushers that already has Myles Garrett is my pick. Smith was productive in his only season with the Vikings last year after missing all but one game with a back injury the season before. While his pass rush win rate was 58th among edge rushers, Smith recorded 10 sacks, good for 19th in the league and his third career Pro Bowl selection.
Jake Trotter (ESPN Browns reporter): It could be a pair of new assistant coaches in Monken and Schwartz. Both are tasked with turning around units that underperformed last season. Schwartz won a Super Bowl in Philly, while Monken is coming off a championship-filled stint at the University of Georgia. The Browns’ defense and Ravens’ offense have the talent to be among the best in the NFL — if the coordinators can get them to play up to their potential.
Brooke Pryor (ESPN Steelers reporter): How about a two-fer: wide receivers Beckham and Zay Flowers. Yes, the Ravens still have big questions on offense with the addition of Monk, but Lamar Jackson having explosive receivers at his disposal will have a massive impact on the landscape of the division — especially after a season in which no Ravens wide receiver had more than 460 receiving yards, and the position group accounted for less than half of the team’s total receiving yards.
What is the division’s biggest lingering question?
Hensley: How good will Deshaun Watson be this season? Watson is the biggest X factor in the division. Last season, after serving an 11-game suspension for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy by committing sexual assault as defined by the league, Watson, who also sat out the entire 2021 season, looked like a quarterback who hadn’t played a struggle for almost two years. In the final six weeks of the regular season, he ranked 27th in Total QBR (38.3) and threw seven touchdowns and five interceptions. If he can bounce back and look like the same player who made the Pro Bowl from 2018 to 2020, Cleveland will contend for its first AFC North title. If Watson is anything like the player he was last year, the Browns will likely finish last in the division for the second straight season.
Baby: What will Baltimore’s revamped offense look like? Not only did the Ravens bring in Monken, but the addition of Beckham and Flowers signals that Baltimore is finally investing in Jackson as a fit.
Trot: Watson is the reason why the Browns might have the biggest variety of results for the 2023 season. If Watson plays like he did in 2020, when he led the league in passing yards, Cleveland can win the North and become a Super Bowl contender. If he struggles like he did in 2022, the Browns will likely finish with a losing record for the third year in a row.
Pryor: Will Year 3 of Matt Canada’s offense make the Steelers legitimate contenders in the division? The Steelers are technically a contender every year because of head coach Mike Tomlin, but they’ve lagged behind the rest of the division offensively in Canada’s first two seasons — highlighted by the league’s 12 worst receiving touchdowns in 2022. But with quarterback Kenny Pickett entering. In Year 2, Canada has the consistency at the position, the revamped offensive line and the playmakers to make noise in a division — and conference — dominated by high-flying offenses.
Who is the biggest threat to Cincy in the division?
Hensley: The ravens. Since becoming Baltimore’s starter midway through the 2018 season, Jackson has posted an impressive 45-16 (.738). The only current quarterback with a better record over that span is Patrick Mahomes (.797). The key is to keep Jackson healthy. Jackson has been unable to finish the past two seasons due to injuries, and the Bengals have been the AFC North champions in each of those years. With Jackson getting a new contract as well as an upgraded group of wide receivers, Baltimore is in its best position to make a championship run since 2019.
Baby: Give me the Browns. Much of this depends on whether Watson regains the form he had in Houston, but rookie receiver Moore showed great potential with the Jets. Cleveland’s rushing attack; wide receiver group consisting of Moore, Amari Cooper and Bengals nemesis Donovan Peoples-Jones; and strengthened defense puts the team in contention.
Trot: I think it’s Baltimore, assuming the Ravens can finally stay healthy. It’s clearly a giant if you consider the way the last two seasons have gone. But at full strength, Baltimore boasted a top-five defense to go along with a former MVP in Jackson, who has the new deal and the best collection of playmakers he’s played with in his six years in the league.
Pryor: I hate to make it a Steelers hat trick with my answers here, but I think Pittsburgh has a legitimate case to threaten the Bengals this season – especially if the addition of Brown doesn’t solve all of the Bengals’ problems on the offensive line and Jackson is having his third straight injury-plagued season. The Steelers’ defense added and retained starter-capable talent at nearly every position, including cornerbacks Peterson and Joey Porter Jr. and defensive lineman Ogunjobi. If the offense can continue its momentum from the end of the 2022 season and the defense builds on last year’s league-leading 20 interceptions, the Steelers are a sneaky pick to trouble the Bengals.