2016 AFC North Roster Evaluation

Training camp is nearly upon us and it is time to see how teams stack up after an offseason filled with changes, and not just in Cleveland. The Ravens hope to have addressed some needs in the draft, as did Pittsburgh, and there are possibilities in Cincinnati. Jeff Feyerer applies his model of scouting teams to create a 2016 AFC East roster evaluation to determine how the teams shake out in his ratings system.

In the coming weeks, I will be rolling out divisional breakdowns based around the rating system I introduced a few weeks ago. Using each team’s condensed depth chart, as currently constructed and based on my initial projections, I have scored every NFL squad based on the three ratings I set forth: talent, stability, and volatility.  

A few important points before we jump in. First, this model is a work in progress, and I am refining the model in order to make it an all-encompassing, usable metric for roster evaluation. Second, these ratings are fluid. Following the completion of each division, there will be a league wide projection as each rating is translated into wins based on each team’s three ratings and their schedule. While we don’t have any game action to alter the ratings right now, as the season progresses and more information to aid evaluation comes in, teams will rise and decline, rosters will change, and ultimately these ratings will allow us a real time evaluation of each team’s roster and the league as a whole.

Baltimore Ravens

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The Ravens are coming off their first losing season of John Harbaugh’s eight-year tenure as head coach. Given the track record of Harbaugh and general manager Ozzie Newsome, that is unlikely to happen again. The team dealt with a slew of major injuries including the loss of outside linebacker Terrell Suggs for the season in the opening game. The team’s best players – Suggs, Joe Flacco, Steve Smith, Marshal Yanda, Elvis Dumervil, and new addition Eric Weddle – are all on the wrong side of 30, but the front office has done a good job of integrating young players into the plans. The Ravens are one of two teams to have a top 12 rating in both talent and volatility, signaling a wealth of established talent on hand and a gaggle of young players ascending.

Three Focus Points

  1. Based on my ratings, the weak spot on the roster is at the wide receiver position. The Ravens have had trouble developing young players into top shelf, consistent threats on the outside. The now departed Torrey Smith was not consistent enough to warrant that classification and, because of this, they have had to rely on veteran free agents like Smith and Anquan Boldin. Kamar Aiken was a pleasant surprise last season leading the team with 75 catches and 944 yards as an off-the-street free agent, but was that a result of his actual talent level or the fact the Ravens’ quarterback needed to throw it to someone? The team brought in Mike Wallace this offseason and, while he may be a veteran presence, his performance is on the decline. The biggest piece of the entire puzzle for the future upside of the Ravens’ receiving corps is the health of 2015 first-round pick Breshad Perriman. Perriman missed the entire 2015 season with a torn PCL and reaggravated the injury this offseason, leaving his sophomore campaign in doubt and leaving open the possibility that the Ravens’ one blind spot in selecting talent remains at the wide receiver position. Three average veterans, including Steve Smith, who falls into that classification based on age and recent injury history, a banged up former first-round pick, and a legion of lottery ticket type players does not make for a successful group.
  2. The Ravens’ secondary struggled mightily last season making big plays and preventing them from the opposition. Baltimore surrendered 30 passing touchdowns to opposing quarterbacks while snagging only six interceptions. Statistically, it is extremely rare for a team to register such low interception numbers in back-to-back years, as some regression to the league average is expected. The talent on the back end makes it even more unlikely for the number to be that low again. Smith, Webb, and Arrington are all good veteran players in the prime of their careers while free agent acquisition Weddle will be motivated to prove he still has something left.
  3. In an effort to torment opposing quarterbacks and turnover their roster, the Ravens have invested heavily through the draft in their front seven over the last three years There are currently five players with a HI-INVESTMENT youth rating slated to see significant playing time in the front line of the Ravens defense. Jernigan, Mosley, and Williams have proven they belong while Correa will add to the pass rush. I fully expect Carl Davis, a guy I was extremely high on prior to the 2015 draft, to break out in his second season. Newsome saw an aging front seven following the 2013 season and in two years, has set them up to have a sustainable rotation for the long haul while still needing to develop replacements for Suggs and Dumervil.

Cincinnati Bengals

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In a season where so much seemed to be going right for the Bengals, including a franchise record-tying 12 regular season wins, the ending could not have been more disappointing. A broken thumb for quarterback Andy Dalton in Week 13 meant Cincinnati headed down the home stretch and into the playoffs with little used backup AJ McCarron as their main signal-caller. The McCarron-led Bengals lost a winnable home playoff game to the Steelers, leaving their fans wondering, “What if?” Before his injury, Dalton was in the midst of a stellar season (25 TDs, 7 INTs) and the pieces seemed to be in place for a long playoff run, but none of that matters until they snap their awful streak of 17 seasons without a playoff victory. Head coach Marvin Lewis has held the job since 2003, in spite of the above mentioned victory drought, by making the playoffs seven times and getting to 10+ victories in each of the last four seasons. But with so many veterans and a roster built to win now, the Bengals will need to find a way to put it all together soon.

Three Focus Points

  1. The Bengals organization has done a great job not drafting for immediate need, but instead for anticipated need. Prior to the 2014 draft, the Bengals had cornerbacks Leon Hall and Terence Newman entrenched as starters with 2012 first-round pick Dre Kirkpatrick waiting in the wings. Although cornerback was not a pressing need, they selected Michigan State cornerback Darqueze Dennard. In the 2015 Draft, with All-Pro Andrew Whitworth and Andre Smith manning the tackle positions, they drafted two tackles in the first two rounds. There were better options available to rectify immediate problems like Alabama’s Landon Collins or Washington’s Shaq Thompson, but they took the longview. Now, they are better able to combat the departure of Hall and Smith as Dennard and tackles Jake Fisher and Cedric Ogbuehi will look to step up this season and capitalize on the high investment the team has put on them.
  2. Dalton’s rating as a “good veteran” may raise some eyebrows given the number of high level quarterbacks that share that rating and two major offseason changes. Offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, under whom Dalton thrived last season, was hired as head coach of the Browns, forcing a transition to new OC Ken Zampese. The other change is that his #2 and #3 receivers, Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu, have also departed. While second-round pick Tyler Boyd may not be ready to step in immediately, there are a number of weapons – A.J. Green, Jeremy Hill, Tyler Eifert, Giovani Bernard – still on hand for Dalton. I firmly believe Dalton turned a corner last season and 2015 is the type of production we can expect from him going forward.
  3. Two things jump out at me about the Bengals defense. One, is the lack of youth in the front seven; there are no players labeled “youth” as they have missed wildly on defensive line prospects drafted in the third round or earlier since 2012. The other is that they have a large number of simply average players lining up for them on that side of the ball. Geno Atkins fits the bill as a NEXT TIER ranking up front, but there seems to be little developmental growth for the players slotted in those positions.

Cleveland Browns

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Oh, Cleveland. As happy as the entire city must be with the recent Cavaliers NBA championship and a potential World Series contender in the Indians, they now have to suffer through a season of Browns football. New head coach Hue Jackson will attempt to cobble together a competitive football team while new general manager Sashi Brown is left to deal with questionable personnel decisions made by previous GM Ray Farmer. Leading the Browns this season will be either the much maligned Robert Griffin III, desperately searching for a rebirth, or 37-year old Josh McCown. Around whoever eventually gets handed the reins at quarterback, the Browns have begun to assemble an improved stable of weapons, including a pair of young, talented backs in Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson. On the defensive side, Joe Haden remains the star.  In spite of the team’s current rating, the talent is growing.  Maybe Griffin will revive his career and lead a team chock full of young players (#1 in the NFL in volatility score) to a more successful season than Browns fans expect. But more than likely, in a division with three more talented and experienced teams, the Browns will find themselves near the top of the 2017 Draft.  

Three Focus Points

  1. The offensive line continues to be a shining light on an otherwise dull and dreary roster. The left side is led by perennial All-Pro Thomas, left guard Joel Bitonio, and the rock solid Cameron Erving at center. The right side leaves something to be desired, but they have a good talent prospect waiting in the wings in 2016 draft pick Shon Coleman. Even though the Browns struggle in many other areas, having an above average offensive line is a good place to start.
  2. The Browns finished 28th in the league in sacks as they continue to wait on 2013 first-round pick Barkevious Mingo to produce. The team has said they will move him around the defense and try to put him in the best position to utilize his ability, but they declined his fifth-year option and his future is unknown if he can’t deliver results.  Whether it was to find a replacement for Mingo or the fact that you can never have enough pass rushers in today’s NFL, the Browns selected Oklahoma State’s Emmanuel Ogbah and Wisconsin’s Joe Schobert (not in chart) in April’s draft. They may wait one more season for Mingo, but they appear to have more invested in their 2016 draftees, especially Ogbah, for the future. If Cleveland can’t get more than 29 sacks in 2016, the search will continue for a pass rush to frustrate the talented AFC North quarterbacks they face six times per year.
  3. The wide receiver position certainly got a jolt of talent this offseason for the Browns. First, they made up for years of neglecting the position in the draft by selecting five in 2016, including first round big-play threat Corey Coleman and Rashard Higgins who put up huge numbers at Colorado State. Fellow draftee Seth DeValve will be playing tight end and I expect to see his name slotted in behind Gary Barnidge by the time the season rolls around. This week, the NFL decided to reinstate Josh Gordon after two seasons filled with suspensions surrounding his substance abuse issues. Gordon, who will be serving a four game suspension to begin the season, is not currently listed on the Browns condensed depth chart given his history and some uncertainty around his return to the lineup. But one way or another, whoever is slinging the ball for the Browns this season has to be happy about the upgrade in talent on the outside.

Pittsburgh Steelers

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An anticipated transitional 2015 season for the Steelers turned instead into a stellar campaign. Mike Tomlin’s crew pushed the eventual Super Bowl champion Broncos to the brink in the AFC Divisional Round and hopes are high for 2016. The Steelers may have to deal without Le’Veon Bell (pending appeal) for the first four games, but Antonio Brown returns to threaten the NFL receiving record books, catching darts from the hopefully upright and in-one-piece version of Ben Roethlisberger. The big QB continues to play outstanding football going into his age 34 season and health seems to be the only potential issue. For the Steelers to succeed in 2016, one of the biggest determining factors could be whether or not any of the Steelers’ young highly drafted defenders can spin potential into consistent on-field production.

Three Focus Points

  1. A youthful secondary is not something that has been seen in Steelers’ teams of recent vintage, but that is very much what appears to be taking place in 2016. Following a season that saw the Pittsburgh secondary get torched for 4,350 yards and 29 touchdowns, four of their top six defensive backs headed into training camp came into the NFL within the last two seasons. It seems to be a change in attitude from the days when Dick LeBeau served as defensive coordinator, when familiarity of scheme trumped potential and youth. There may be a learning curve with Senquez Golson, Ross Cockrell, Sean Davis, and Artie Burns getting significant playing time, if that is indeed how the rotation shakes out, but it can’t get much worse than how the secondary performed last season. So why not throw the young guys into the fire?
  2. Three of the four linebackers slated to start for the Steelers are HIGH INVESTMENT players (1st round picks in successive seasons from 2013 to 2015) making it a linebacking corps with one of the best pedigrees in the league. However, the team is still waiting on getting the expected performance. Jones has only registered five career sacks and had his fifth year option declined, but should get one more chance to show the talent he displayed ravaging SEC backfields at Georgia. Shazier has been impressive when healthy and Dupree has dropped weight heading into camp as he struggled making the transition from 4-3 end to 3-4 OLB.
  3. It’s crazy to think that Ladarius Green, who was talked about for so long as the potential replacement for Antonio Gates, will already be entering his fifth season in the NFL. As Gates fought the aging process, continuing to perform at a high level, Green found it increasingly difficult to snatch the position away from the San Diego staple and Philip Rivers favorite. Signing with Pittsburgh, coupled with Heath Miller’s retirement, gives him what appears to be an open ride into the starting job. While I acknowledge that Green does have some upside, I rated him as an average veteran for a few reasons. One is simply that he has had four seasons of tape and he has not performed as well as the hype would indicate, catching only 37 of 63 balls thrown to him last season. Another is that he had offseason ankle surgery and his health is still up in the air. Finally, this is when everyone finds out how truly underrated the departed Miller was and how the Steelers used him; Green does not have the same skill set at Miller so there is some question as to fit.

Follow Jeff on Twitter @jfey5 and see his explanation for his new player-team evaluation system here and its application to the AFC East here.

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