IAOFM 2014 AFC North and West Preview

Happy Saturday, friends. Today, we’ll finish up the IAOFM preview with the AFC North and the AFC West.

I’ve spilled a lot of digital ink this week, and it’s time to bring it on home. Will there be any shockers? It depends on how easily you’re shocked, I suppose.

I’ve got nothing clever to say about the jump today, so how about just get there, okay?

AFC North

The Best Team – Cincinnati Bengals

Yes, I do think that the same four teams will win the four AFC divisions again. I know that’s not very risky, and that it’s statistically uncommon for things to actually stay the same, since any number of things can happen to upset. The fact is, however, that if Indianapolis had won one more game in 2012 and Cincinnati won the tiebreaker over Baltimore at 10-6, we’d have the same four teams contending to win the divisions for a third year in a row.

As for the Bengals, the only thing that gives me pause is the QB, but I think that Andy Dalton is going to improve some this year. He’s the third most talented QB in the division (maybe actually fourth, behind Johnny Manziel) but I think things bode well for him to play the best of that group.

The Bengals have a good offensive line, and they got better at RB with the drafting of Jeremy Hill. He’s talented, and he’s fairly low mileage after playing in a committee for two years at LSU. Outside, A.J. Green is a superstar, and I really like the concept of Tyler Eifert and Jermaine Gresham both working the seams in 12 personnel groupings. I think that Eifert is going to make a good jump in 2014.

On defense, the Bengals portend to be strong again, particularly if DT Geno Atkins makes a full recovery to his formerly dominant self. Another key will be whether DE Margus Hunt is ready to make some plays in the passing game where the departed Michael Johnson used to work.

In the secondary, the Bengals have a lot of interesting names at CB, and I’m a little surprised that Terence Newman continues to hold off Adam (formerly Pac-Man) Jones, and recent first-rounders Dre Kirkpatrick and Darqueze Dennard. All five of the CBs on their roster (inclusive of Leon Hall) were picked in the first round. There are better safety tandems than George Iloka and Reggie Nelson, but both guys are good enough.

Cincinnati lost both coordinators, with Jay Gruden moving on to be head coach in Washington, and Mike Zimmer heading to Minnesota. I actually think they’ll be better coached on offense by Hue Jackson, and they shouldn’t miss Zimmer that much, considering that Marvin Lewis is a defense guy, and that they promoted Paul Guenther from within.

The Worst Team – Pittsburgh Steelers

I just have a feeling about this. The Steelers rallied late last year against an easy schedule to appear to be a league-average team by the numbers, but I think the arrow is pointing down for them. They’ve finished 8-8 each of the last two years, and overachieved to do so. I’ve seen analysts picking them for the Super Bowl, and that’s just absurd to me.

My main problem is the Steelers’ defense. They have this great reputation, and Blitzburgh, and all the rest, but the fact is, they’ve gotten to be old and slow. The drafting of LB Ryan Shazier (who I like a lot) was meant to address that, but he’s just one guy. I suppose the Steelers get faster with Mike Mitchell at FS instead of Ryan Clark too, but they don’t get better.

The corners for the Steelers are slow and lousy, and the defensive line is thoroughly average. If second-year OLB Jarvis Jones (who may) and rookie DE Stephon Tuitt really play well, then the Pittsburgh defense may be better than I am imagining, but right now, I see them being around 20th-25th in the league.

The offense is counting on Markus Wheaton to replace Emmanuel Sanders as a starting WR, and I don’t foresee that one working out so well. They’re also counting on Kelvin Beachum at LT, as part of what otherwise isn’t a bad offensive line (finally).

I do like Lance Moore as an addition in the slot, but the combination of LeVeon Bell and LeGarrette Blount (a matched set of big plodders) doesn’t move me, and Heath Miller is getting old. Add to that the cumulative effect of all the hits that Ben Roethlisberger has taken over the course of 10 seasons, and I just don’t see how anybody can see an ascendant offense here.

The Steelers have a proud and consistent program, and I may be wrong here, but I just don’t see the talent you need to win big in the NFL.

The Flawed Team – Baltimore Ravens

Our old friend Gary Kubiak is a scheme guy, for better or worse, and he’s come to the Ravens with a scheme that doesn’t fit its personnel. The starting offensive line is a little bit bigger than Kubiak’s lines have been (especially RG Keleche Osemele at 330 pounds) and nobody other than second-year RT Rick Wagner (who did it in college) has done much zone blocking.

It’s also not simple for RBs Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce to change their stripes. They’ve been coached to do their thing one way for years, and now they have to completely change their mental rules. As much as I like Kubiak, I just thought his hiring was weird for Baltimore.

The Ravens should throw the ball better with the return of Dennis Pitta and the acquisition of Steve Smith in free agency. I think that Smith still has some more in the tank.

The Ravens defense might get back to its previous standards of excellence. They are an interesting mix of established veterans like Terrell Suggs, Haloti Ngata, Elvis Dumervil, Chris Canty, Daryl Smith, and Lardarius Webb, and young guys like C.J. Mosley, Arthur Brown, Timmy Jernigan, and Matt Elam. If some of those young guys can play well, and most of the old guys don’t fall off, this will be a top-five defense.

The Improving Team – Cleveland Browns

The Browns will be a third-place team at best, but the arrow is pointing up for them. It’s funny, because they’re implementing basically the same offense as the Ravens, but I think they have a better setup for it. For one thing, Ben Tate is used to that style, and thrives in it. For another, most of the offensive linemen for the Browns have done some zone blocking. (The longtime guys like Joe Thomas and Alex Mack have done a bit of everything, as often as Cleveland has turned over coaches.)

If Josh Gordon ends up not being suspended for the whole season, then the Browns will get a big boost. In the more likely event that he isn’t, they still have some players who can catch the ball in TE Jordan Cameron, and WRs Miles Austin and Andrew Hawkins.

Personally, I’d be starting Johnny Manziel at QB, because there’s no reason to think that Brian Hoyer is anything more than a stopgap/backup type. Manziel played just as well as Hoyer in the preseason, and while he didn’t look “ready” all the time, there’s reason to think that he will before too long. Letting first-round QBs sit should be passe in the NFL, because if you didn’t need the guy to develop, you wouldn’t have picked him in the first round.

Defense is where the Browns will hang their hats in 2014. They have a lot of guys who can hit the QB, especially if Barkevious Mingo takes the leap I see him taking. They also have very talented CBs in Joe Haden and Justin Gilbert to play the man coverage that Mike Pettine wants to play.

What I really like for the Browns are the acqusitions of ILB Karlos Dansby and SS Donte Whitner. They’ll probably only be there for a few transitional years, but they’re the kind of proud veterans who will help the Browns to be respectable during that transition.

AFC West

The Best Team – Denver Broncos

No kidding, right? See here and here for the reasons why. It would be shocking if the Broncos don't win this division, and really, I think the other three teams are basically waiting for the year when Peyton Manning decides that he sucks.

The Worst Team – Kansas City Chiefs

This is all about a roster getting hollowed out as the Chiefs were very conservative with their cap space this offseason. The Chiefs lost three-fifths of their offensive line, both defensive ends, and their best cornerback. Those kinds of losses hurt.

Obviously, I like Alex Smith more than many people do, but he continues to lack weapons to throw to. I watched Frankie Hammond, Jr. for four years at Florida, and he was barely a starting-caliber receiver in the SEC. Now, we’re to believe he’s a starting-caliber guy in the NFL? Only on an undermanned team.

The Chiefs’ best hope in the passing game is second-year TE Travis Kelce, who was hurt for his entire rookie year. Overall, though, this feels like the Chiefs are going to field the kind of weapons that Smith was used to during the lean years in San Francisco. Look for lots of checkdowns to Jamaal Charles, out of necessity.

The defense seems to be pinning all its hopes on the pass rush, which isn’t a bad thought. They have good ones in NT Dontari Poe, OLBs Justin Houston and Tamba Hali, and rookie first-rounder Dee Ford. If those guys don’t get home, though, I’d be worried about that secondary. Marcus Cooper has room to improve, and Sean Smith still has some good moments, but over the course of a game, those guys can be had.

SS Eric Berry is good at covering TEs man-to-man, and at playing in the box. FS Husain Abdullah is good at not very much.

Kansas City isn’t going to be terrible, but I see them falling out at around 6-10 or 7-9. They’re well-coached, and their QB plays mistake-free football, but I think this team is going to fall short on talent most weeks.

The Improving Team – Oakland Raiders

I am not kidding; I think the Raiders are on the right track (shudder). I like Derek Carr’s talent a lot, and the only reason he went in the second round is that teams held his brother David’s career against him, which is both stupid and unfair. Dennis Allen did the smart thing, starting his rookie who was clearly the best QB for the Raiders in the preseason.

What I like about the Raiders is that they quietly did a nice job of allocating a ton of cap space into a reasonably solid roster. They’re good at RB with Maurice Jones-Drew and Darren McFadden to go along with FB Marcel Reece. They’ll be credible on the offensive line after their acquisitions of LT Donald Penn and LG Gabe Jackson. James Jones is a pretty good WR to go with Rod Streater. This isn’t a top-10 offense, but they’re nowhere near the embarrassment they’ve been.

On defense, a lot is riding on the play of DEs Justin Tuck and LaMarr Woodley, and OLB Khalil Mack, who I’m pretty sure will be assigned to do the same stuff as a Sam that Allen had Von Miller doing. I’m saying they’re going to be pretty good on the edges.

I also like the acqusitions of solid pros at CB like Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown. Those guys, along with SS Tyvon Branch and FS Charles Woodson make for a solid secondary, especially if 2013 first-rounder D.J. Hayden does something when he comes off the PUP.

The Solid Team – San Diego Chargers

The Chargers played much better than I'd expected last season, and it showed the value of good coaching. Philip Rivers defied my long-held theory that he was in physical decline, like Bernie Kosar in his early 30s, and seemed to be liberated by the ability within the offensive system to audible (gasp!) and get the ball out quickly once in a while.

The player to watch for San Diego is WR Keenan Allen. Some of us thought he was the best WR in the 2013 Draft, and then saw him prove it as a third-rounder. I think he’s going to take the next step to the upper echelon of the NFL at his position.

As for the rest of the San Diego offense, I think they have an interesting mix at RB with the trio of Ryan Mathews, Donald Brown, and Danny Woodhead. All three have versatile skill-sets, and can particularly do good work as receivers.

TE Antonio Gates is getting old, but he continues to play well, and some people see a lot of talent in his backup Ladarius Green, although I’ve never been particularly struck by it. Malcom Floyd and Eddie Royal are reasonably useful receivers.

The question for the Chargers is whether their defense has improved. I personally think that they’ll be better on the back end, with the signing of Brandon Flowers and the drafting of Jason Verrett. I’m not sure, though, that Dwight Freeney has anything left in the tank as a pass rusher, or that Melvin Ingram is ready to take the next step.

I think the Chargers will probably compete for a Wild Card, along with teams like Miami, the Jets, and Baltimore.

That brings us to football season, friends. See you tomorrow night in the live blog.

1.  I’m not in the arguing business, I’m in the saying what I think business.
2.  I get my information from my eyes.

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