NFL Predictions 2021: AFC North Preseason Predictions
BY KEVIN HANSON (@EDSFootball)
Updated: Tuesday, August 24th
With training camps and the preseason now underway, we are this close to the start of the 2021 NFL regular season.
Before the start of the NFL season, we will post predictions for each division as well as make our playoff and Super Bowl 56 predictions. For other divisions, visit our home for our NFL Predictions 2021.
With that said, here are our early AFC North projections for each team including their win total:
[Note: We assign a win probability to each team in all 272 regular-season games. Of course, no team will win fractional games.]
1. Baltimore Ravens - Projected Wins: 10.2
Since drafting Lamar Jackson with the last pick of Round 1 in the 2018 NFL Draft, the Ravens have won double-digit games and made the playoffs in all three seasons. During that span, no AFC North team has won more games than the Ravens (35) -- Steelers (29), Browns (24) and Bengals (12).
In his first full season as a starter (2019), Jackson was named league MVP. While he regressed from his unsustainable 9.0 TD% in his MVP season, Jackson once again rushed for more than 1,000 yards. The Ravens' dominant rushing attack led the NFL, but the passing offense ranked dead last. The trio of Jackson, second-year back J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards gives Baltimore a top-three rushing attack (or better), but the team invested in more weapons for Jackson to continue to develop as a passer. That said, the team's top receivers are either dealing with an injury -- Marquise Brown (hamstring) and Rashod Bateman (groin) -- or have struggled with durability -- Sammy Watkins (multiple missed games in five of past six seasons).
Meanwhile, their defense has been one of the league's best as well. The defense has ranked top-three in scoring defense for three consecutive seasons and no worse than seventh in total defense during that span. In addition, they were one of four teams to rank top eight against both the run (eighth) and pass (sixth) in 2020. Their offensive-defensive balance has helped them rank first in yardage differential (2018), scoring differential (2020) or both (2019) in the past three seasons.
If Jackson and the passing offense are able to improve upon last year's numbers, the Ravens will be as dangerous as any team in the league. If not, it may be difficult for them to keep up with the extremely potent Buffalo and Kansas City offenses in the playoffs.
2. Cleveland Browns - Projected Wins: 10.1
Which team is the most complete? If you ask NFL.com's Marc Ross, it's the Browns.
The Browns have one of the league's best rushing attacks, powered by the tandem of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. Only three teams ran the ball more often than the Browns (47.78%), which allowed Baker Mayfield to keep the football out of harm's way. While Mayfield was only one TD shy of his career high, he cut his INT% in half in 2020 (1.6%) compared to his first two seasons in the league (3.4%, 2018-19). Injuries have led to an underwhelming first two seasons in Cleveland for Odell Beckham Jr. (torn ACL), but he is healthy and has the skill set to be much more productive than he's been so far in Cleveland.
The defense has all-world talent Myles Garrett, who has 42.5 sacks through his first four NFL seasons, but the defense got a shot in the arm this offseason. Not only did they draft Greg Newsome and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah with their first two picks, but they added safety John Johnson, corner Troy Hill and edge rusher Jadeveon Clowney, among others this spring.
After ending a 17-season playoff drought last year, it's possible that the Browns take another step forward.
3. Pittsburgh Steelers - Projected Wins: 8.7
After starting 11-0 last season, the Steelers closed the year with a 1-5 record counting their playoff loss to the Browns. Even so, it feels that many (including myself) could be underestimating the Steelers heading into 2021.
Pittsburgh threw it a league-high 656 times, but only the Jets and Eagles averaged a lower Y/A than the Steelers (6.3). Now another year removed from elbow surgery on his throwing arm, Ben Roethlisberger may be more effective this year than last, especially when it comes to placement on deeper throws. In addition to some challenges with the vertical passing game, the Steelers ranked dead last in rushing last season. Adding a talented back like Najee Harris, the all-time career rushing leader in Alabama history, should help, but much will depend on how quickly a completely rebuilt offensive line will develop cohesion.
In terms of weapons outside of a potential workhorse back in Harris, the Steelers have one of the league's best wide receiver trios with Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool and JuJu Smith-Schuster. In addition, Pat Freiermuth could be a second-round steal as he joins Eric Ebron in the tight end room.
The Steelers ranked top three in both total defense and scoring defense in 2020. Perhaps more impressively, they led the NFL in sacks (56) and interceptions (18). Provided his health cooperates, Melvin Ingram, who has missed 12 games over the past two seasons, could turn out to be an upgrade over Bud Dupree opposite T.J. Watt at a much lower cost.
4. Cincinnati Bengals - Projected Wins: 6.7
Recovering from a torn ACL last season, Joe Burrow, the No. 1 overall pick in 2020, will be reunited with former LSU teammate Ja'Marr Chase, the 2019 Fred Biletnikoff Award recipient. Along with Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd, the trio gives their young quarterback a talented group of pass catchers and Joe Mixon can be relied as a bellcow back (when healthy).
While he hasn't been a model of durability, Mixon just turned 25 (in July) and is one of the most talented running backs in the league (when healthy). On offense, it's Cincinnati's offensive line that is its weakness. On defense, the front seven is weaker than the team's solid secondary.
The Bengals have made moves to improve their roster this offseason, but there is still a significant gap between them and the rest of the division.
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