2023 Season Outlook: AFC North

Read the Other Season Outlooks Here!

Published August 23, 2023

2023 Season Outlook: AFC North

Written by Alex C.

There’s nothing like a good sports rivalry rooted in years of competitive division play and hostile fanbase interactions. In the case of the AFC North, these factors make up the foundation that stabilizes the four corners of the division. The AFC North has seen years of promise, and while the success flowing out of the division has felt lop-sided at times, this year is met with an interesting situation for all four participants.

The predicted winner may seem unanimous due to the recent climate of the league but for the first time, each team wields an equal opportunity to emerge as the new division winner. I know it’s hard to grasp that a division with the Cleveland Browns can be met with a four-way tie – but each organization is going into this upcoming season with high expectations and loads of talent in each skill position.

The AFC North looks to be one of the most exciting divisions this year, so let’s dive into what makes this season more special than previous terms.

Cincinatti Bengals

To everyone’s surprise, the Bengals have quickly emerged as a powerhouse in the AFC over the past few years. The past two or three seasons for the Bengals have been very promising as the team has climbed from four-win seasons to consecutive conference championship appearances. Though they wield a star-studded roster with phenomenal quarterback play, an electric receiving room and a solid defense unit, the Bengals are reaching a point where it’s going to be near-impossible to bring the band back together each year. The offseason losses are a perfect reflection of such a notion, but the team was able to balance out the losses with some solid additions – including the acquisition of Super Bowl winning offensive tackle Orlando Brown Jr – to help anchor the o-line.

The two most notable losses from Cincinatti both came out of the safety room as Jessie Bates and Vonn Bell – two key pieces in the Bengals’ secondary – both signed with different teams. The two helped lead an electric secondary unit, a key factor in what made the Bengals a championship caliber squad. The team attempted to fill the void with the signings of safety Nick Scott and cornerback Sidney Jones, as well as through drafting defensive backs DJ Turner and Jordan Battle in the second and third rounds of the 2023 NFL Draft, respectively.

The secondary may look completely different compared to previous years, but the rest of the defense looks to be way stronger come this season. Linebacker Germaine Pratt and edge-rusher Tarell Basham were brought in to serve some depth to the defense. Cincinatti also took edge rusher Myles Murphy in the first round of the draft and the Clemson product looks to be a playmaking spark on a stable Bengals defense.

It’s been a hectic offseason for Cincinnati as the team looks to finally get over the hump of recovering from a devastating Super Bowl loss and a bitter ending to the most recent AFC Championship game. The wide array of young talent on the roster is the main reason for the team’s success, but the longer time passes, the more difficult it will be to preserve the core squad. As mentioned, Joe Burrow is entering a crucial year in which the Bengals are going to have to back up the brinks truck in order to preserve him. Burrow isn’t the only one entering a contract year as the majority of his receiving core – mainly Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd – will have to simultaneously engage in business discussions with the team. We haven’t even gotten to the amount that star receiver Ja’Marr Chase will request when the team reaches his negotiations.

It’s going to be a rough couple of years for the Bengals front office, so the team has to put together a Super Bowl campaign this year in order to get the most out of their talented roster. With the Chiefs taking a major hit in free agency and the Bills at a low morale point, the door is wide open for Burrow and company to make a run at the Super Bowl this season.

Season Outlook GradeA-

Baltimore Ravens

To say the Ravens were the center of attention for all offseason discussions is an understatement. The talks surrounding Lamar Jackson’s contract situation had been bubbling throughout the 2022 season and reached their apex as soon as offseason begun. Fortunately, Lamar and the Ravens were able to settle on a number that made Jackson the highest-paid quarterback in the NFL – well for a month, at least. But the demands Lamar made throughout negotiations led the Ravens to having one of the best offseasons in the league.

For starters, the Ravens were able to maintain their roster as they faced very minimal losses, the most impactful cut being cornerback Marcus Peters. As a result, cornerbacks Rock Ya-Sin and Trayvon Mullen were picked up, looking to add on to an already stacked secondary unit. The Ravens also made the effort to sign superstar receiver Odell Beckham Jr., giving Lamar a reliable target to compliment his new deal.

The Ravens surprisingly had a very active draft despite only wielding six picks. The tone was set immediately when they decided to go with Boston College wideout Zay Flowers, who looks to be another reliable target for Lamar to improve the pass game. The Ravens were unable to select in the second round due to the midseason trade for Roquan Smith (which paid off immediately) – but everything worked out for the better as Baltimore was able to acquire Clemson linebacker Trent Simpson, who miraculously fell to the team in the third round.

With key additions to both offense and defense, the Ravens had an amazing offseason with an eventful draft to match. On paper, this Ravens squad looks to be a serious Super Bowl contender, but there’s still a big red flag hovering over this roster. The long-term durability of this team looks to be very questionable with both Lamar and OBJ missing significant time last season due to injury – the latter didn’t even play at all. Obviously, this hurts the team’s chances of championship success if the stars are unable to perform throughout the year.

If the Ravens can somehow manage to limit injuries while playing up to the expectations laid out, then this team could be a serious problem for opposing AFC forces.

Season Outlook GradeA

Pittsburgh Steelers

Previous Record – 9-8

Mike Tomlin did it again. Another winning season for the Pittsburgh Steelers – only this time amidst a hefty rebuild. The Steelers went into the year with a questionable offense, a grey area within the quarterback room, and a multitude of injuries on both sides of the ball. Pittsburgh would miraculously emerge from a chaotic year with a near-playoff berth and a new quarterback to confide in with Kenny Pickett, giving the black-and-gold a new sense of hope amid a doubtful season.

The Steelers made some good moves in the offseason, but it came at a cost. The team’s secondary took a hit when cornerback Cameron Sutton and safety Terrell Edmunds both walked to free agency and signed with different squads. This wasn’t a problem though, as Pittsburgh was able to land veteran corner Patrick Peterson and safety Keanu Neal to fill the gap. Pittsburgh was also able to land a somewhat reliable receiver in Allen Robinson, adding another target for Kenny Pickett on the offense. Both Peterson and Robinson are far past their primes, but their veteran status will help provide guidance to the young talent in that locker room.

The Steelers had one of the best draft sequences, picking up some great prospects with amazing value. The first round saw Pittsburgh picking up arguably the best offensive tackle in the 2023 draft class in Georgia’s Broderick Jones. Jones helped anchor a championship-winning offensive-line and looks to add some solid protection for Kenny Pickett. That wasn’t the Steelers’ only phenomenal pick, as they were fortunately able to acquire Penn State corner Joey Porter Jr. at the beginning of the second round, and Georgia tight-end Darnell Washington deep into the third round. The two showed flashes of stardom throughout their college careers and look to serve as serviceable starters come the next season. Plus, Joey Porter Jr.’s father was a linebacker for the Steelers in his prime, so who doesn’t love a full circle story?

That being said, the Steelers are looking to have an amazing season with their retooled roster, but the question remains – how well will this team be able to compete in a stacked AFC North division? Sure, Kenny Pickett showed a lot of promise throughout his rookie campaign, but how well will he be able to compete against a wildly successful Joe Burrow, a highly-explosive Lamar Jackson, and – at his peak – a very skilled Deshaun Watson? The Steelers clearly have the proper supporting squad to help land them a spot in the playoffs, but the grand majority of their success will rely on Kenny Pickett being able to take that next step. If Pickett is able to improve upon his successful foundation, then the Steelers have themselves another winner.

Season Outlook GradeB+

Cleveland Browns

Previous Record – 7-10

Stop us if you’ve heard this before, but the Cleveland Browns are showing a lot of promise this upcoming season. Despite falling to a 7-10 record in 2022, this rag-tag squad has the potential to finally flip their history of misfortune – though this hope comes at an unfortunate cost. The Browns nearly flipped the quarterback market up on its head after making a controversial move for Deshaun Watson. Though the deal thoroughly limited the team’s cap space, there’s a solid silver lining between the chaos.

On paper, this Browns squad is loaded with talent. Whether it’s Myles Garrett rallying the defense, Amari Cooper leading the receiving unit or Denzel Ward adding a much needed explosiveness to the secondary, the Browns can be special if managed properly. In an attempt to do so, they made a lot of depth signings throughout the offseason by adding some new key defensive pieces – star safety Juan Thornhill and dependable defensive end Za’Darius Smith. The two played major roles in their respective squads over the last season and look to add more reliability at defense.

The Browns had a very unorthodox approach at the draft, losing the majority of their high-end draft picks to the Deshaun Watson trade. Surprisingly enough, this wasn’t a big deal as the front office was able to pluck some absolute gems in the later rounds. Their first pick came in the third-round, settling for Tennessee wideout Cedric Tillman. Tillman didn’t see too much playing time on the field in Tennessee, but shows a lot of promise to be another serviceable target for Watson. And if Watson doesn’t end up returning to prime form, the Browns could get some use out of their new quarterback – Dorian Thompson-Robinson. The rookie won’t see a lot of playing time this season, but could serve as a reliable starter in the near future. Again, no superstars were taken due to limited picks this year, but the Browns put together a solid assortment considering the minimal value they wielded.

The quarterback situation with Watson has been referenced quite a bit in this short span of time, but the reality is this – the success of this team rallies behind whether or not Watson is able to return to prime form. He barely saw the field last season due to a suspension, but when the former star was able to return, he looked like a shell of his previous self. The explosiveness on offense just wasn’t there – unless Deshaun is able to get back on track, the Browns will just have another case of wasted potential.

Season Outlook GradeB-

Enjoy Your Read? Subscribe and Never Miss a Post!

Leave a Reply