AFC North Player Analysis: Every Team, Every Unit, Every Player
QUARTERBACKS: Starter -- Joe Flacco. Backups -- Lamar Jackson, Robert Griffin III.
Flacco, 32, overcame an early back injury and threw for 3,141 yards with 18 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. There is some speculation this could be his last season in Baltimore because of his hefty contract. The Ravens drafted Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson with the 32nd overall pick as a potential future starter. However, Robert Griffin III could be No. 2 on the depth chart. The Ravens are carrying three quarterbacks on the 53-man roster for the first time since 2009.
RUNNING BACKS: Starter -- Alex Collins. Backups -- Javorius Allen, Kenneth Dixon, FB Patrick Ricard.
Collins had a breakout season after being promoted from the practice squad, finishing with 973 yards on 212 carries with six touchdowns. He also ranked ninth in the league with 4.6 yards per carry. Allen, a fourth-round pick in 2015, was productive in a backup role and could be a force if he continues to progress. Dixon is back from a knee injury and suspension. He needs to prove he can be a dependable player. Ricard will serve as the fullback.
TIGHT ENDS: Starters -- Hayden Hurst. Backups -- Mark Andrews, Nick Boyle, Maxx Williams.
The Ravens selected Hurst with the 25th overall pick from South Carolina. He is expected to earn a starting role immediately with fellow rookie Andrews also pushing for playing time. Boyle is this unit's best blocker and will also see time. Williams has battled injuries throughout his career and must prove he can stay healthy.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters -- Michael Crabtree, John Brown. Backups -- Willie Snead IV, Chris Moore, Jordan Lasley, Janarion Grant.
The Ravens signed Brown, Crabtree and Snead as free agents to help boost a passing attack that finished 29th in the NFL last season. Baltimore also grabbed New Mexico's Scott in the fourth round of this year's draft and he will provide Flacco with a big target downfield or in the end zone.
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LT Ronnie Stanley, LG Alex Lewis, C Matt Skura, RG Marshal Yanda, RT James Hurst. Backups -- RT Orlando Brown Jr., RG Jermaine Eluemunor, C Bradley Bozeman.
Yanda and Lewis will be back in the lineup after suffering season-ending injuries in 2017. The Ravens also added Brown in the third round of the draft. He will push Hurst for the starting role at right tackle. Skura is the favorite to take over the starting role for Ryan Jensen, who signed with Tampa Bay via free agency, but Lewis could also move to that spot.
DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- NT Michael Pierce, DT Brandon Williams, DE Brent Urban. Backups -- NT Chris Wormley, NT Patrick Ricard, DE Willie Henry, DE Zach Sieler.
Williams has established himself as one of the top run stoppers in the league and the team struggled when he missed four games with a foot injury last season. Pierce, Henry and Wormley have continued to evolve as key playmakers. The Ravens finished the season ranked 15th against the run last season and the goal is to be among the top 10 this year. Baltimore is hoping both Urban and Kaufusi can make a bigger impact.
LINEBACKERS: Starters -- ILB C.J. Mosley, ILB Patrick Onwuasor, OLB Terrell Suggs, OLB Matt Judon. Backups -- ILB Za'Darius Smith, ILB Tim Williams, ILB Chris Board, OLB Tyus Bowser, ILB Kenny Young.
Suggs led the team with 11 sacks last season, but he is 35 years old. Both Bowser and Williams need to play bigger roles in their second season because neither made much of an impact as rookies. Mosley led the team with 132 tackles and made the Pro Bowl for the fourth time in five seasons. He is currently scheduled to become a free agent after the 2018 season and the Ravens will likely try to extend his contact.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- CB Jimmy Smith, CB Marlon Humphrey, SS Tony Jefferson, FS Eric Weddle. Backups -- CB Brandon Carr, CB Tavon Young, CB Maurice Canady, CB Anthony Averett, CB Darious Williams, SS Anthony Levine, FS Chuck Clark.
This unit led the NFL with 22 interceptions and should be even better this season with every starter returning. The Ravens are deep at cornerback and Humphrey already showed he can be a key playmaker last season as a rookie. Young is healthy after suffering a season-ending knee injury in training camp last year. Weddle and Jefferson are one of top tandems at safety in the league.
SPECIAL TEAMS: K Justin Tucker, P Sam Koch, LS Morgan Cox, PR Janarion Grant, KS Chris Moore/Janarion Grant.
Tucker is one of the most accurate kickers in NFL history and he is signed through the 2019 season. Koch has also established himself as one of the top punters, averaging 44.8 yards per kick. Cox meshes perfectly with this group. Ravens special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg continuously produces one of the top units in the NFL.
QUARTERBACKS: Starter -- Andy Dalton. Backup -- Jeff Driskel.
Dalton enters his seventh season and has been very durable missing only three games. Dalton is hoping to lead the Bengals to a significantly more productive season while playing behind a reformed offensive line, which was among the league's worst units in the last two seasons.
RUNNING BACKS: Starter - Joe Mixon. Backups - Giovani Bernard, Mark Walton, Tra Carson.
Cincinnati's run game ranked 31st with 2,046 yards and 28th with 13 touchdowns. Mixon led the Bengals with 626 rushing yards while starting seven games and he's the main option after Jeremy Hill joined the New England Patriots. A healthy Bernard would help as well. Bernard played in every game last season after suffering an ACL injury late in 2016. Bernard did not appear 100 percent and recorded 458 yards but enters Week 1 fully healthy.
TIGHT ENDS: Starter -- Tyler Eifert. Backups -- Tyler Kroft, Mason Schreck, C.J. Uzomah.
Eifert was a Pro Bowler in 2015 after scoring 13 touchdowns, but injuries limited him to 10 games in the last two seasons and he has missed 40 games in his career. Cincinnati brought him back on a one-year deal, but Eifert is less than 100 percent while coping with a balky back. The good news for the Bengals is Kroft did not disappoint last season by totaling 42 receptions for 404 yards and seven touchdowns. The seven TDs were sixth among tight ends and his 42 catches ranked him 21st at the position.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters - A.J. Green, Tyler Boyd. Backups - John Ross, Cody Core, Alex Erickson, Josh Malone, Tate Auden.
Green remains effective after totaling over 1,000 yards for the sixth time in seven seasons. He turned 30 during training camp and while others get big contracts, he is focused on rebounding from an inconsistent season. There were uncharacteristic drops, the fight with Jacksonville's Jalen Ramsey, who also recently criticized Green. It is up to new receivers coach Bob Bicknell to bring him back to normal and possibly get him to be an All-Pro for the first time in his career. The numbers don't lie concerning Dalton's long passes. Green tied for the fewest receptions of at least 25 yards in his career by hauling in only six. The Bengals hope former ninth overall pick John Ross is more productive after failing to record a catch last season and especially after cutting Brandon LaFell early in training camp.
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters - LT Cordy Glenn, LG Clint Boling, C Billy Price, RG Trey Hopkins, RT Bobby Hart. Backups - T Jake Fisher, T Cedric Ogbuehi, C/G Alex Redmond, G Christian Westerman.
This unit is among the reasons for Cincinnati's stark decrease offensively. The group has allowed 80 sacks in the last two seasons, resulting in bottom-10 finishes in various major offensive categories. The Bengals hope those things can be remedied by acquiring Glenn from Buffalo and using their first-round pick on Price, who struggled with snap counts early in training camp.
DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters - DE Carlos Dunlap, NT Andrew Billings, DT Geno Atkins, DE Jordan Willis. Backups - DE Sam Hubbard, DE Carl Lawson, DT Ryan Glasgow, DT Josh Tupou, DE Michael Johnson.
Dunlap and Atkins are among the best at their positions and enter the season after getting contractual situations resolved Atkins has recorded 29 of his 61 career sacks in the last three seasons. Dunlap recorded a career-high 13.5 sacks in 2015 but finished with 7.5 last season.
LINEBACKERS: Starters - OLB Nick Vigil, MLB Preston Brown, OLB Vontaze Burfict (SUS). Backups - OLB Jordan Evans, OLB Malik Jefferson, MLB Hardy Nickerson, OLB Vincent Rey.
The Bengals will commence the season without Burfict, who will serve a four-game suspension for violating the league's performance enhancing drug policy. Cincinnati has done decently without him at times by going 16-12 in the games he's missed. The Bengals are hoping starters Vigil and Brown can compensate with effective run-stopping on a unit that was among the worst in this area last season.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters - CB Dre Kirkpatrick, CB William Jackson III, S Shawn Williams, S Jessie Bates. Backups - CB Darqueze Dennard, S Clayton Fejedelem, CB Tony McRae, S Brandon Wilson, CB Darius Phillips, CB Davontae Harris (IR/could return later in season).
Jackson's star is on the rise and increased focus in opponents' pregame preparation. Of course, as his reputation grows for being a shutdown corner, so does the reluctance of opposing quarterbacks to throw his way. That places the onus on Kirkpatrick and safeties Williams and Bates, who emerged as a starter by playing effectively in preseason. Improved play also includes improving their ability to generate turnovers, something they struggled immensely with and has been a focus in offseason workouts.
SPECIAL TEAMS: K Randy Bullock, P Kevin Huber, LS Clark Harris, PR/KR Alex Erickson.
Statistically, Bullock was productive, finishing 18-of-20 on field-goal attempts and 31-of-33 on extra points. Only five of those kicks were from beyond 40 yards and the Bengals are not getting complacent in the kicking game. He beat out Jonathan Brown to win the job, which was expected at the outset of training camp.
QUARTERBACKS: Starter - Tyrod Taylor. Backups - Baker Mayfield, Drew Stanton.
Taylor was knighted the starting quarterback on March 14 when he was acquired in a trade with the Buffalo Bills. He is careful with the ball, and that makes him invaluable to head coach Hue Jackson after what the Browns went through last year. He can run, but not as a first option. Mayfield is eager for the opportunity, but content to watch and learn. He has a strong arm and keeps his eyes downfield when protection breaks down. Quarterbacks coach Ken Zampeze says Stanton, in his 12th year, is "the secret sauce" in the quarterback room.
RUNNING BACKS: Starter - Carlos Hyde. Backups - Nick Chubb, Duke Johnson Jr.
Hyde and Chubb give the Browns a strong one-two punch. Hyde will get most of his yards between the tackles. Chubb, the rookie from Georgia, is patient waiting for his blocking to develop and can accelerate running outside. Johnson has excellent hands and can make tacklers miss when he catches the ball in space. He will line up in the slot in some formations.
TIGHT ENDS: Starter - David Njoku. Backups - Seth DeValve, Darren Fells, Orson Charles.
Njoku last year made some spectacular catches and dropped some passes he should have caught easily. He was steadier in training camp and preseason and will be a favorite target of Taylor as he looks to build on his 32 catches from last season. DeValve missed the entire season with a quadriceps injury, so he and Taylor will have to develop their chemistry gearing up for the Steelers. Fells has a well-earned reputation as a blocker on running plays. That will be his primary role with the Browns, but don't be surprised if he also gets involved as more than a spot player in the passing game.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters - Jarvis Landry, Antonio Callaway, Rashard Higgins. Backups - Josh Gordon, Damian Ratley, Derrick Willies.
Gordon will eventually replace Higgins as a starter, but not right away because Gordon is still shaking off the rust from missing the entire preseason. Landry is a ball magnet as his 112 catches from a year ago attest, but this is a very thin, inexperienced position for the Browns except for Landry and Gordon. Callaway is fast, but he's a rookie. So is Ratley and Willies. Higgins has speed and, now in his third year, has reliable hands. Taylor is developing trust in him. The Browns met with Dez Bryant during training camp, but the two sides didn't come to an agreement. The Browns might want to revisit that situation.
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters - LT Joel Bitonio, LG Austin Corbett, C JC Tretter, RG Kevin Zeitler, RT Chris Hubbard. Backups - T Gregg Robinson, T Desmond Harrison, G Earl Watford.
Head coach Hue Jackson admits he is concerned about the left side of the line because Bitonio is new at tackle and Corbett is a rookie. It has to be disconcerting that he is contemplating making Harrison the starting left tackle, which would mean moving Bitonio back to guard, the week before the season starts, but that is where the Browns are. Watford could also replace Corbett, which would leave Bitonio at tackle. Except for Watford (or Corbett if he ends up being the backup guard) the Browns are thin behind the starters.
DEFENSIVE LINE: Starters - DLE Emmanuel Ogbah, DRE Myles Garrett, DT Devon Coley, DT Larry Ogunjobi. Backups -- DE Chris Smith, DE Chad Thomas, DT Devaroe Lawrence, DT Carl Davis, DE Ifeadi Odenigbo, DE Anthony Zettel.
A major goal of the defense this season is to put more pressure on the quarterback, and that starts up from with Garrett and Ogbah. Garrett is healthy after playing all last season on a tender ankle that forced him to miss four games. Ogunjobi has gotten stronger against the run and Coley is good at clogging the middle. Coordinator Gregg Williams is a firm believer in rotating his linemen to keep the starters fresh in the fourth quarter. Davis, Odenigbo and Smith will fill those roles. The Browns waived third-year defensive end Carl Nassib to make a roster spot for Odenigbo, a 2017 seventh-round draft pick who had 10 sacks at Northwestern in 2016.
LINEBACKERS: Starters - WLB Christian Kirksey, SLB Jamie Collins, MLB Joe Schobert. Backups - WLB Genard Avery, LB Tanner Vallejo, MLB James Burgess.
Collins has instincts that cannot be caught, says coordinator Gregg Williams. Collins will be part of the pass rush. Opponents will pay the price if the price for forgetting him is they pay too much attention to Garrett and Ogbah. Schobert and Kirksey will battle all season for the team lead in tackles. The improved defensive line should allow them to make more stops near the line of scrimmage. Williams says Schobert is one of the smartest players he has ever been around. Avery, a fourth-round draft choice, is going to be a player to watch as the season progresses. He has a hip injury now, but is quick to the quarterback when healthy. Burgess can play all three linebacker possessions.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters - LCB Denzel Ward, RCB Terrance Mitchell, SS Jabrill Peppers, FS Damarious Randall. Backups - LCB E.J. Gaines, RCB T.J. Carrie, FS Briean Boddy-Calhoun, S Derrick Kindred, CB Denzel Rice, CB Tavierre Thomas.
Seven of the 10 players in the secondary are new to the Browns, which is all that needs to be said about the defense a year ago. This group is faster, which will allow Williams to play more man-to-man defense and give the pass rushers more time to get to the quarterback. Peppers will line up closer to the line of scrimmage than he did last year, which should help in run support. Ward and Mitchell can both get their hands on the ball. The Browns intercepted only seven passes last season and are determined to increase that total. Boddy-Calhoun is one of the most versatile players on defense. He can play nickel or free safety. Randall had a minor knee injury in preseason but should be fine for the opener.
SPECIAL TEAMS: K Zane Gonzalez, P Britton Colquitt, LS Charley Hughlett, KR Jabrill Peppers, PR Antonio Callaway.
Gonzalez is back for his second season as the kicker. He has a strong leg and is capable of routinely hitting from 50 yards. He has worked on kicking off higher and deeper. Colquitt won a tight battle with Justin Vogel in the preseason. Colquitt's ability to nestle the ball inside the 20 was a clincher. Peppers is bold as a kickoff returner and elusive once he gets a head of steam going. Callaway doesn't like to signal for a fair catch. Hughlett has been a machine since he became the Browns' long snapper in 2015.
QUARTERBACKS: Starter - Ben Roethlisberger. Backups - Josh Dobbs, Mason Rudolph.
Roethlisberger is 36 but remains one of the top quarterbacks in the league. He threw 28 touchdowns last season and showed no signs of slowing down in training camp. The Steelers cut veteran Landry Jones in favor of Dobbs and rookie Rudolph. Neither has taken a regular-season snap in the NFL, but the Steelers like Dobbs' command of the offense and were impressed with his strong showing in the preseason. He had a team-best 111.9 passer rating during the preseason.
RUNNING BACKS: Starters - RB Le'Veon Bell (DNR), FB Roosevelt Nix. Backups - James Conner, Jaylen Samuels, Stevan Ridley.
Conner is in much better shape to get more carries early in the season should Bell not report or if the Steelers determine he is not ready for a full-time workload. Conner has impressed his teammates with his work ethic and his improvement in pass protection, which was problematic for him last season. Samuels can play running back or receiver and might add some versatility to the offense. Ridley is a veteran presence who has enjoyed success elsewhere. Once Bell does report he will be playing on the franchise tag for a second consecutive season and should be motivated because he'll likely be a free agent after the season. He is an All-Pro and valued deeply by the Steelers because he can play three downs and almost never comes off the field.
TIGHT ENDS: Starter - Vance McDonald. Backups - Jesse James, Xavier Grimble.
This group was banged up in training camp. Starter Vance McDonald missed a month with a foot injury and reserve Xavier Grimble missed a few weeks after thumb surgery. James was the only tight end to stay healthy. The Steelers have won games with James as the starter in the past so they won't be fazed if McDonald isn't available early in the season. Grimble practiced Monday and said he would be ready go to for the opener in Cleveland.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters - Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster. Backups - James Washington, Justin Hunter, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Ryan Switzer.
Brown is a perennial All-Pro and coming off his third 1,500-yard season in the past four years. Smith-Schuster ascends to the No. 2 receiver in the offense with Martavis Bryant getting traded. Smith-Schuster had nearly 1,000 yards receiving as a rookie. Washington is going to be the No. 3 receiver at some point this season, but the coaches like Hunter's height and speed so they'll likely give him a lot of reps early on. Switzer was acquired in a trade just before the start of the season to be the primary kickoff and punt returner. He also might be used as a slot receiver. Heyward-Bey is on the roster for his special-teams prowess.
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters - LT Alejandro Villanueva, LG Ramon Foster, C Maurkice Pouncey, RG David DeCastro, RT Marcus Gilbert. Backups - C/G B.J. Finney, T Chuks Okorafor, T Zach Banner, C/G/T Matt Feiler.
The starting five has been together since the start of the 2016 season and has been excellent in protecting Roethlisberger in recent years. This is likely the final season for Foster, who is 32 and entering the final year of his contract. Finney and Feiler are strong interior backups, but Okorafor is a 21-year-old rookie backing up both tackle spots due to Jerald Hawkins suffering a season-ending quad injury in the spring. That could become an issue if Villanueva or Gilbert go down for a lengthy period.
DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters - DRE Cameron Heyward, NT Javon Hargrave, DLE Stephon Tuitt. Backups - DE/NT Tyson Alualu, DE/NT L.T. Walton, NT Daniel McCullers.
The Steelers have strong bookends Heyward and Tuitt. Heyward is coming off an All-Pro season and led the Steelers in sacks. Tuitt is coming off an injury-plagued season but has potential to be among the top 3-4 defensive ends in the league. Alualu is the top backup end and has the versatility to play nose tackle as well. Walton is back for his fourth season and also can play end and nose. McCullers might be used more than he was last season as the Steelers look to shore up their run defense.
LINEBACKERS: Starters - ROLB Bud Dupree, LOLB T.J. Watt, ILB Vince Williams, ILB Jon Bostic. Backups - Matthew Thomas, L.J. Fort, Tyler Matakevich, Anthony Chickillo, Ola Adeniyi (IR/could return later in season).
Bostic is the replacement for Ryan Shazier, the Pro Bowler who won't play this season due to a spinal cord injury. Bostic did not have a strong showing in the preseason and the Steelers are looking for him to improve as he grows more comfortable with the defense. Williams signed a new contract during training camp and is the linebacker with the most experience on the team. He started all 16 games last season and had eight sacks. Dupree and Watt are first-round picks and the Steelers are looking for a stronger pass rush from that duo. Watt had seven sacks as a rookie while Dupree had a career-high six. Dupree is now on the right side and Watt on the left because the Steelers believe Dupree will be more effective as a rusher coming from the blind side. Thomas, an undrafted free agent from Florida State, shined during the preseason and could see playing time as a rookie. Matakevich and Fort are strong on special teams. Chickillo is the top reserve to Dupree and Watt, but Adeniyi, an undrafted free agent from Toledo, could see time as well. He had three sacks and two forced fumbles in four preseason games.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: RCB Joe Haden, LCB Artie Burns, FS Sean Davis, SS Morgan Burnett. Backups - S Terrell Edmunds, S Nat Berhe, S Jordan Dangerfield, S Marcus Allen, CB Cameron Sutton, CB Coty Sensabaugh.
Haden and Burnett will anchor a secondary that is changing under the direction of new defensive backs coach Tom Bradley, who changed the terminology of the playbook for the unit and is striving to limit the communication errors that previously dogged the players under former assistant Carnell Lake. Haden is the most experienced corner and played well last season after being acquired in a trade. Burnett, one of the surest tackling safeties last season for the Packers, was brought in to improve the run defense. Burns is entering his third season and the Steelers are looking for more consistency from their former first-round pick. Davis moves to free safety after playing strong safety the past two seasons. Look for Edmunds to play a big role as a rookie most likely in sub-packages. He adds speed and athleticism to the back end of the defense. Other reserve safeties include Dangerfield and Berhe, who are good on special teams, and Allen, who is a hard-hitting rookie from Penn State. Sensabaugh and Sutton are versatile corners who can play outside or in the slot.
SPECIAL TEAMS: K Chris Boswell, P Jordan Berry, LS Kameron Canaday, KR/PR Ryan Switzer.
Boswell signed a new long-term contract during training camp that made him one of the league's highest-paid kickers. He has been one of the most accurate kickers in the league since joining the Steelers in 2015. Berry held off free agent Matt Wile in a training camp battle. The Steelers traded for Switzer late in camp because they were not happy with their returners in training camp. He is expected to handle punt and kickoff return duties.