Quite possibly the most competitive division in football, the AFC North is set to impress in 2023. Despite the fact that the Cincinnati Bengals are vying for their third consecutive division title, there is a legitimate route for all four teams to take the crown.
The division is ridiculously competitive and brutal. From the outside looking in, the AFC North is a division not to be trifled with. However, there are a few storylines to keep an eye on as the season gets underway.
A Competent Offensive Line in Cincinnati
Thus far in Joe Burrow’s Bengals career, he’s had to play behind criminally awful offensive lines. As a rookie, he only lasted until his 10th game until his knee was obliterated. In 2021, he was able to overcome the league’s worst line en route to a Super Bowl appearance. That run even included a nine-sack effort. Last year, the unit was better but everything fell apart down the stretch with injuries.
This year’s edition of the offensive line will have four returning starters and they added Orlando Brown Jr. to anchor the left tackle spot. If that starting five of Brown, Cordell Volson, Alex Cappa, Ted Karras, and Jonah Williams (now the right tackle), the Bengals might be okay. However, expecting the five starters to go every single game and every single snap may be too optimistic in today’s NFL.
The one thing the Bengals have to improve upon is depth. They have to raise the floor of the unit if they are serious about competing and getting back to the Super Bowl. Had they been at full strength in the AFC Championship, perhaps they manage a win over the Chiefs. However, if ifs and buts were candies and nuts, we’d all have a Merry Christmas.
Guys like La’el Collins (when he gets healthy), D’Ante Smith, Trey Hill, Max Scharping, and even Jackson Carman will have to pick up the slack when called upon. If they can improve just a bit, those best NFL odds to win the division will be well worth it.
Payday Incoming for Quarterback Joe Burrow
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Keeping with the Bengals, the biggest storyline surrounding Cincinnati is the size of the check cut for guys like Burrow, Tee Higgins, and so forth.
Burrow is eligible for an extension this year and is set to reset the market. Andre Perrotta, a Cincinnati-based attorney, has a track record of predicting player’s contracts around the Bengals. During the free agency period, he predicted a six-year, $330M contract with over $282M guaranteed for the now perennial MVP candidate Joe Burrow.
The same could be said about Tee Higgins. Unlike with the Burrow situation, Higgins has other receivers who need paid. Despite the fact that he could be the WR1 on most NFL teams, Higgins is working with the Bengals to get an extension going. Cincinnati will have to structure his and Burrow’s contracts (assuming they both get done) in a way that allows them to extend Ja’Marr Chase next year.
Outside of those two big-name options, there are a few others who could have played their way to an extension. They extended Logan Wilson and Trey Hendrickson already but there are a few other defenders worth extending. Both D.J. Reader and Chidobe Awuzie could earn another year or two tacked on as they did with Hendrickson.
Tyler Boyd may be heading to free agency, however. He’s on his final year of his contract and the Bengals may have drafted his replacement. However, if Boyd wants to stay in house and chase a ring, the Bengals could find a little cash for the vet receiver.
Finally, Jonah Williams could be due for an extension. However, the two failed to come to terms prior to this year and Williams evidently requested a trade when the club went behind his back and signed Brown to supplant him at left tackle.
Which Deshaun Watson Shows Up
Off-the-field issues aside, Deshaun Watson has the ability and opportunity to take the Browns to new heights. However, his time in Cleveland have not been worth his fully-guaranteed five-year, $230M contract.
In just six games in 2022, Watson passed for 1,102 yards and seven touchdowns with five interceptions. To say he had some rust after sitting out all of 2021 and then being suspended 11 games would be an understatement. Add that in with the fact that he has not looked fantastic this summer, questions remain.
However, people forget that Watson was among the league’s elite in Houston of all places. He looked like the real deal in his injury-shortened rookie year and only got better. In his final season with the Texans, Watson led the league with 4,823 yards and 33 touchdowns while completing 70.2% of his passes.
While he had prime DeAndre Hopkins to through to in Houston, he has a much stronger supporting cast in Cleveland. His offensive line continues to be among the best, he shares a backfield with arguably the best running back in the game, and has Amari Cooper out wide.
Despite the fact that 2023 is just year two, this year will show whether or not that ridiculous contract was worth it.
Does Lamar Jackson Stay Healthy and Thrive
The number-one question facing Baltimore is surrounding Lamar Jackson’s health. Over the last four years, Jackson has missed at least one game. He’s only appeared in 12 games in each of the last two years with a few questions last year on whether or not he was hurt vs sitting out. Regardless, Jackson is one of the most dynamic quarterbacks when healthy.
Even if Baltimore has been where wide receivers go to die, he may have some weapons this year. Odell Beckham, Jr. signed with the Ravens but he is coming off of an ACL tear and missing all of 2022 rehabbing. Rashod Bateman was a highly-touted receiver out of college and showed flashes last year. Zay Flowers is about the same but he’s obviously unproven.
The Ravens have had a run-first offense for some time now and that will likely change a bit in 2023. Todd Monken returns to the NFL after winning back-to-back CFP National Championships as the offensive coordinator at Georgia. In 2018 with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, his offense led the league in passing yards. The following year with the Browns, Monken’s offense was fourth in yards per attempt despite being 22nd in the league in attempts.
Monken’s offense is going to be fun for Baltimore and Jackson. While he has not played up to the level of his unanimous MVP campaign, Jackson is an uber-athletic weapon who will be incredibly difficult to figure out.
Second-Year Breakout Coming for Pittsburgh Steelers
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If there is one thing that the Pittsburgh Steelers legitimately excel at it’s drafting star receivers. They took a flyer on a troubled wide receiver out of a MAC school and developed him into a potentially generational talent. Now, they have Deontae Johnson (also from the MAC) as WR1 and a promising WR2 on his way up. That receiver is none other than George Pickens.
The hype around the undervalued George Pickens has been off the charts. He’s a matchup nightmare and has been proficient at winning 50/50 balls in every situation. Despite dealing with rookie bumps, Pickens was still able to turn in an effort of 52 receptions for 802 yards and four touchdowns. He’s coming into his own heading into year two.
According to ESPN, Pickens had the lowest expected catch rate last year as his fellow rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett was getting his feet wet after taking the job from Mitchell Trubisky.
He’s a big-play machine and has the ability to take off for a score on any and every play. The reason for pause for many is his perceived inability to create separation. When you’re a physical specimen as Pickens is, who needs separation? Either way, if Pickens can take any kind of step forward, watch out. Another year of rapport with Pickens will lead to a better expected catch rate and thus more opportunities to ball out.