Connect with us

NFL

AFC North burning questions for 2024 NFL season: Is this Bengals’ year? Russell Wilson Steelers’ answer?

USATSI

It’s hard to argue against the AFC North being pro football’s hardest division. Each of the division’s four teams had a winning record in 2023, with the Steelers, Browns and Ravens qualifying for the playoffs. The Bengals managed to carve out a 9-8 record despite Joe Burrow missing the final seven games with a wrist injury. 

The AFC North should be even better this year with the return of Burrow and Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson, the Steelers’ improved (?) quarterback play and the Ravens’ offseason acquisition of former NFL Offensive Player of the Year Derrick Henry. There’s a good chance that the winner of this division will threaten the Chiefs‘ two-year reign as the conference’s Super Bowl representative. 

With training camp just around the corner, here’s one burning question each AFC North squad currently faces, starting with the team that has won two of the last three division crowns. 

Bengals: Is this finally Cincinnati’s year? 

There’s been an undeniable pattern for Burrow and the Bengals. They went to a Super Bowl and back-to-back AFC Championship games the two seasons that Burrow’s been healthy. Conversely, they missed the playoffs the two times Burrow has suffered season-ending injuries. 

If Burrow is healthy (he’s been a full-go at OTAs after undergoing wrist surgery in November), the Bengals should once again be back in the thick of things. To better protect Burrow, the Bengals spent a first-round pick on tackle Amarius Mims, who joins a line that also includes multiple Pro Bowl tackle Orlando Brown Jr. and fellow Super Bowl winners Ted Karras and Alex Cappa

Joe Mixon is gone, but the Bengals are planning to feature a two-headed backfield consisting of speedy second-year back Chase Brown and former Colt Zack Moss. The Bengals also gave Burrow a new tight end in Mike Gesicki, who put up solid numbers in Miami while catching passes from Tua Tagovailoa

Cincinnati has replaced veteran wideout Tyler Boyd with rookie Jermaine Burton, who has developed a quick rapport with Burrow at OTAs. The Bengals are also expecting big things from second-year wideout/returner Charlie Jones. Jones and Burton round out a receiving corps that is led by arguably the NFL’s best duo in Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins, who is still in Cincinnati despite his offseason trade requests. 

The Bengals have tried to shore up a pass defense that finished 28th in the league in passing yards allowed in 2023 by signing veteran safeties Vonn Bell and Geno Stone. The defense still features emerging cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt, middle linebackers Logan Wilson and Germaine Pratt, and defensive ends Trey Hendrickson and Sam Hubbard

Yes, they have their work cut out for them, but if they stay healthy, the Bengals are talented enough to win the North for a third time in four years while possibly unseating the Chiefs as the AFC’s Super Bowl representative. Health is likely the biggest obstacle standing in Cincinnati’s way.

Steelers: Is Russell Wilson the answer at QB? 

The short answer to this question is yes, Wilson is good enough to lead the Steelers in 2024. Wisely, the Steelers are building an offense that will complement the things Wilson does well while not asking him to shoulder too much of the burden. 

Wilson is four years removed from a 2020 season that saw him earn MVP consideration after throwing 40 touchdowns and completing nearly 69% of his passes. While Tyler Lockett and DK Metcalf both went over 1,000 yards that season, Wilson had a lot of success that season throwing to running back Chris Carson and his trio of tight ends. Carson, Jacob Hollister, Will Dissly and Greg Olsen caught a combined 110 passes for 986 yards and 10 touchdowns. Wilson’s success that season throwing the ball to Carson and his tight ends was especially beneficial in the red zone. 

The Steelers and first-year offensive coordinator Arthur Smith are creating an offense that can mimic that and even more in 2024. The Steelers have several capable tight ends, led by Pat Freiermuth and Connor Heyward. Pittsburgh doesn’t have the talent at wideout that Seattle had, but it makes up for it with a better rushing attack featuring Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren, who will run behind a line that now includes rookies Troy Fautanu and Zach Frazier. Rest assured that the Steelers offense will be predicated on the run, which was the case the past two years. 

Pittsburgh’s offense is largely set up for Wilson to have success, but it’s impossible to ignore the team’s lack of depth at wideout. The Steelers, at this point, are banking on rookie Roman Wilson and third-year wideout Calvin Austin III to be significant contributors while giving George Pickens enough room to do his thing. But until they prove that they can do that, defenses playing up and forcing Wilson to take deep shots is a significant fear if you’re a Steelers fan. 

Playing from behind is also a legitimate concern. The Steelers are build to be a front-running team, which works if you can get an early lead and build off it by playing complementary football. This is where Pittsburgh’s ability to run the ball and force turnovers on defense will loom large.

Ravens: Will Lamar Jackson exercise his playoff demons? 

I’ve always been a fan of Jackson, who in my opinion is carving out a Hall of Fame career. But I don’t feel good about his chances of getting the Ravens over the hump this year. 

Once again, the Ravens have supplied him with a receiving corps that is lacking a premier talent. Zay Flowers showed promise as a rookie, and fourth-round pick Devontez Walker will bring something to the table this year. But the group as a whole is still lacking. 

Baltimore is slated to have three new starters on its offensive line, furthering my lack of faith in the Ravens’ Super Bowl hopes. The Ravens still have Mark Andrews and made a splash this offseason with the signing of Henry. Andrews should be back at full strength after suffering a major ankle injury, and Henry is fresh off of his second straight Pro Bowl nod and fourth in the last five years. Baltimore is surely hoping that Henry, now 30, can continue to play at a high level while taking some of the pressure off of Jackson. That’s quite the ask, though, for a running back who has led the NFL in carries each of the past two years and four of the previous five. 

The Ravens were a pedestrian 14th against the run last year, and they haven’t done much to inspire a drastic improvement in 2024. Losing Pro Bowl middle linebacker Patrick Queen to rival Pittsburgh didn’t help Baltimore’s defense, either. 

Let’s quickly circle back to Jackson, who enters the 2024 season with a 2-4 playoff record. Jackson recently made headlines for the wrong reasons; he reportedly forfeited nearly $750,000 in workout bonuses as the resulting of skipping most of Baltimore’s OTAs. Yes, OTAs are voluntary. But tell that to the division’s other starting quarterbacks who have been present at their respective team’s OTAs. Jackson’s no-show is yet another reason why I’m not high on the 2024 Ravens, who own the NFL’s second-toughest strength of schedule.

Browns: Will Deshaun Watson return to Pro Bowl form? 

Watson probably won’t receive his fourth Pro Bowl nod (and first as a Brown) in 2024, but I do believe that he will play at a relatively high level at a consistent basis for the first time since coming to Cleveland. 

Watson’s play during his most recent game gives me confidence. Despite playing with a serious shoulder injury (that ultimately led to season-ending surgery), Watson completed each of his 14 pass attempts in the second half while leading the Browns to a comeback win over the Ravens in Week 10. 

Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski recently raved about the progress Watson has made in his recovery. Watson has been a regular at OTAs and appears to be motivated to return to the form that made him a perennial Pro Bowler in Houston. 

The Browns have also done their part to aid Watson. They gave up little to acquire receiver and former first-round pick Jerry Jeudy, who should do well in complementing fellow starting wideouts Amari Cooper and Elijah Moore. The Browns further added depth to their receiving corps with the selection of former Louisville wideout Jamari Thrash in the fifth round. Cleveland’s passing attack still has tight end David Njoku, who is coming off the best season of his career to date. 

Watson is also getting Nick Chubb back after the perennial Pro Bowl running back missed most of the 2023 season with a knee injury. Cleveland’s running attack will also continue to have Jerome Ford, who proved to be a capable fill-in when Chubb went down in Week 2. 

How well the Browns can protect Watson (who was sacked 17 times in six games last year) may ultimately determine how successful he is in 2024. That will likely come down to the health of an offensive line that was decimated by injuries last season, especially at tackle. Cleveland added some youth to its line with the second-round selection of former Michigan guard Zak Zinter, who has already made a positive impression on veteran starter Wyatt Teller

As noted above, there’s enough to convince me that Watson will be a solid quarterback in 2024, although I do think his best days are probably behind him. If healthy, Watson should play well enough to keep the Browns in the playoff conversation, but if Cleveland is going to be more than that, it’ll require Watson to play at the level that he did during his time with the Texans

Go to Source
Author: Bryan DeArdo
June 4, 2024 | 9:20 am

Click to comment

Leave a Reply

More in NFL