Photo: Dustin Bradford/Icon Sportswire

Our first division preview (AFC East) highlighted three potential conference winners. The AFC North probably can’t claim that, but they had four winning teams in 2023 and the worst of those was missing its starting quarterback (the Bengals and Joe Burrow). This year, the SIS NFL betting model projects a couple of near-misses in terms of getting above .500, but the whole division is projected to be in the 8-to-11-win range.

To talk through the key storylines for each team, we had high school coach and Bengals enthusiast Nate James on the Off the Charts podcast.

Is the Bengals’ defense championship-caliber?

 It hasn’t been that long, but there’s been quite a bit of change on the Cincinnati defense since defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo put himself on the map a couple postseasons ago.

In the last two offseasons the defense has lost much of its punch-you-in-the-mouth aesthetic. Two solid but relatively unheralded back-end pieces in safety Jesse Bates (Falcons) and corner Chidobe Awuzie (Titans) have left the fold in consecutive offseasons, and they’ve leaned into smaller athletes with compelling speed (e.g. Dax Hill).

To some extent as a result of that, their biggest liability is likely to be in the run game. The loss of defensive tackle D.J. Reader (Lions) might break the camel’s back of a defense that was 26th in Run Defense Total Points per play last year.

“You look at the fits; they corrected some of the issues theoretically, but they replaced Reader, one of the best nose tackles in the game, with Sheldon Rankins, very much not a nose tackle. They drafted Kris Jenkins, who I like a lot, but not a nose tackle. He has the potential to be an elite run defender, but frame-wise, that’s not what he is.

“You look at the games they did win in the playoffs, you see that Reader just dominated that Tennessee game. It all started with them being able to keep people off schedule, and then Lou could cook when they got to long yardage situations.”

– Nate James

 Ravens: In a division with tough defenders up front, can an overhauled offensive line hold up?

 The Ravens were in the top 10 in blocking Total Points per play last year, but the loss of three starters (Morgan Moses, John Simpson, and Kevin Zeitler) leaves more questions than answers. The unique run scheme that Baltimore has been able to execute with Lamar Jackson at the helm has raised their floor as an offense when the skill position players haven’t been there on the outside. With minimal continuity up front—not to mention a new backfield with Derrick Henry in the fold—there isn’t the same bankability.

“I’m not a huge Roger Rosengarten guy. I know he’s got some length and he can move, but I can’t get the image of him getting bull rushed onto the back of his head in the National Championship Game out of my head….And it’s not like Van Cleveland’s some bum, they’ve got guys that have played in the league some. It’s just an issue of continuity and how they’ll gel together for a team that most people would expect to be in the playoffs.”

– Nate James

“Morgan Moses is not necessarily a name that rings bells across the league, but if Morgan Moses is your OL4 among your starting five you’re pretty happy about that.”

“I also have some concerns about Ronnie Stanley. He’s been through quite a bit in his career, and when I watch, he’s not the same player he was two, three years ago.”

– Bryce Rossler

To put it differently from a numbers perspective, in 2023 SIS’s Sonar depth chart had four of the five Ravens’ starters in the top third at their position by Total Points per game. This year, only center Tyler Linderbaum qualifies.

How much does the Browns’ roster continuity make up for their lack of solid quarterback play?

Obviously the Browns showed in 2023 that they could make the playoffs with chaos at the most important position. But that was with a Defensive Player of the Year campaign from Myles Garrett and an overall defense that was top two in run defense and pass rush by Total Points per play. Defensive performance is famously difficult to project from season to season, and they haven’t made splashy moves in the offseason, but they’re at least bringing continuity to the table.

 “The Browns are tailor made to beat the Bengals. They have so much pass rush juice, they’ve got the corners to at least credibly challenge those guys on a down to down basis. They’re really good at corner, pass rush, they can run you over, but are they good enough at quarterback and on the margins to beat really good teams outside of that? There’s not a lot of transactions to talk about, because they haven’t had draft picks and they’ve been able to maintain most of their own guys. It’s hard to look at their roster and not wonder why they’re not a bigger factor.”

– Nate James

 The trouble is that Deshaun Watson being healthy doesn’t necessarily mean an improvement at quarterback. Whether it’s injury or time off or psychological baggage, he has not been the same since his MVP-caliber 2020 season.

 “I think people would probably point to the quarterback situation last year and be like, ‘Well, there’s no reason we can’t do it again,’ but Deshaun Watson is not good right now. We have him 26th out of 41 quarterbacks since 2022 in Total Points per play. I think he’s sandwiched between Baker Mayfield and Aiden O’Connell, which is not good company.”

 – Bryce Rossler

 “I think the time away has hurt for sure. The last time he was good was, what, 2020, and that’s too long ago. It’s possible that he could turn around, but it’s legitimately hard not to think of some karmic debt having an impact on his and their success right now.”

– Nate James

Can either new Steelers quarterback make music with new offensive coordinator Arthur Smith?

After a winning season with Kenny Pickett, Mitch Trubisky, and Mason Rudolph rotating through at quarterback, the Steelers cleaned house and added more notable names in Russell Wilson and Justin Fields. That said, it’s not clear that more notable production will come from the changes.

“I think it’s fair to say that you trust Russell Wilson a little bit more. Even though he is not necessarily a consistent player, stylistically he is consistent. You know what you’re going to get out of him every game at this point, for better or worse. But he’s never really shown, even when he was good, the ability to consistently do the things that Arthur Smith is going to ask him to do, like turning his back under center, running play action, throwing over the middle.”

– Bryce Rossler

 “All stuff he has been documented to not do for a prolonged period of time. You look at the last time Smith ran an offense that was good would have been in Tennessee. Is the archetype for an Arthur Smith quarterback, Ryan Tannehill? We’re talking about two very un-Tannehill-like guys, in terms of being big, standing in, getting punched in the face, pushing the ball downfield, it’s just not what they have.”

– Nate James

In terms of total production, Wilson and Fields were effectively tied, ranking 21st and 22nd (respectively) in Total Points in 2023. The combination of Pickett, Trubisky, and Rudolph would have placed comfortably below that. So there’s room for optimism on an otherwise winning roster, but plenty of uncertainty.