Moving on to the AFC North, It is similar in ways to its fellow northern division in the NFC with a few strong defense, including one that could be considered the best in the AFC last season.
The Ravens have always seemed to have a great defense as it was the cornerstone for their 2 super bowl champion rosters. They also had a defense last year that was put as the best in the conference by many. However, coming into this year there is less certainty on that side of the ball as they lost many key players during the offseason. Firstly, the state of their linebacking corps should be addressed as they have usually been the leaders of the stacked Ravens defenses and was the one that experienced the most losses during this offseason. While letting Terrell Suggs return to his home state by signing with the Cardinals makes sense as he will be entering the 16th season in the league and last season he had his least statistically valuable season where he had double digit starts, it still will definitely hurt the team both production-wise and in terms of leadership as Suggs was the longest tenured player and evident leader on the field, especially since Baltimore wanted to resign him. Za’Darius Smith was another solid player that was lured away by an NFC team. The Packers signed Smith during the offseason which is a bigger on-field loss for the Ravens than Suggs as Smith had the best season of his career in 2018 as he had a total of 45 combined tackles and led Baltimore with 8.5 sacks on the season. Smith had solid seasons before, but having a career-best in 2018 spelled big trouble for the Ravens chances of resigning him. Even more unfortunate is that Baltimore lost one more linebacker, a veteran defensive leader who is still in his prime that the Jets signed away, C.J. Mosley. Though a step-back from the previous year, Mosley’s 2018 was still a solid pro-bowl-worthy season where he racked up over 100 combined tackles along with a pick. He even ended up as the Ravens highest scoring IDP last season. If there is solice, though Mosley was the best fantasy-wise, he still finished in the ranked in the 60s among all defensive players, which means that the Ravens fantasy production is a team effort. That being said however they lost a lot of parts to that team in free agency and only was able to replace one of those pieces during free agency.
The Ravens FS for the past few seasons, Eric Weddle walked in the offseason to sign with the NFC champion, Rams. Luckily, Weddle was only part of the safety-stacked free agency class. The Ravens were able to get the guy who very-well could be the best defensive player of this free agency period in Earl Thomas. Thomas will be coming off of a leg fracture that happened during week 1 last year that ended his season. Though leg injuries are never good, reports were that there was no ligament damage or displacement, so he should be able to comeback from this injury just fine. Which, in terms of play, will be an upgrade for Baltimore and with the added signing by the Ravens of Justin Bethel, the Ravens secondary should be much improved heading into next season. A secondary that has been okay over the past few seasons, but will need to step-up and make up for the losses to the linebackers. Besides Bethel, the cornerbacks will also be joined by one of the Ravens 4th round picks, Iman Marshall. Marshall will probably see a lot of action going into the season as the cornerbacks have probably been the weakest spot on their defenses.
Speaking of their front 7. They still will have a solid group up front, but they will need to prove that they can make up for the loss of 3 of those 7. Matt Judon and Patrick Onuwuasor will need to step up and lead the linebackers and will probably be able to have breakout seasons this year and Brandon Williams has proven himself to be a lead contributor even with the talent they’ve had lined up alongside him. The biggest question will be how Brent Urban will perform. Urban has been serviceable, but doesn’t have the type of stats you would hope for from a defensive end who started every game last season. He can get some help be the guy who will probably be on the placed on the other edge, Jaylon Ferguson. Ferguson was one of Baltimore’s 3rd round picks this past draft and was most notable in college for his ability to get to the QB, breaking the NCAA sack record that was held by the Raven’s guy who signed with Arizona.
So, while I feel like they may not be as good as last year, the Ravens still have a formidable defense that can do well weekly and is worth a draft pick.
The Bengals had one of the worst defenses last season and it has not improved. Their only defensive signings were B.W. Webb and Kerry Wynn who both previously played for the Giants and they aren’t going to have a big effect on the defense. Germaine Pratt and Renell Wren were drafted in the 3rd and 4th round and while they had solid college careers, Pratt may have a difficult time developing. While Wren will joining a surprising solid corps of linemen that he can learn from, Pratt may be thrust into a starting role and expected to contribute immediately which may be hard especially considering he has only been playing linebacker for two years as he was a safety throughout high school and for his first two years of college. So, having to adapt to the NFL game so quickly may cause some problems for Pratt.
So, Pratt is the only player I would consider an upgrade, but even then he may not be able to perform well on this team and looking at the returning guys. Shawn Williams and Dre Kirkpatrick help their secondary not be absolutely terrible and Carlos Dunlap, Geno Atkins, and Andrew Billings make a decent group on the defensive line, but they didn’t do well at all and so it would be hard to imagine they will be able to better next year, even with a new head coach. Zac Taylor is more of an offensive mind as that’s the only side of the ball he has been the coach of and the defensive coordinator, Lou Anarumo has only coached on NFL defenses that were less than stellar.
So, in terms of fantasy, this is a defense that you do not want under any circumstance, not even as a streaming candidate. With the changes they are going through in coaching at the performance last year and years prior, this is just a no.
The Browns have one of the more hyped defense coming into the 2019 season and daresay the most overhyped. That is not to say that they haven’t improved, because they definitely have. Their defense in fact is going to look pretty solid next season and will probably be a great streaming candidate and put them on the verge of being a weekly starter, but knowing the hype and how they are being hyped they will probably taken in fantasy drafts and used as the latter mostly.
Just taking a look they have a strong defensive line with two of their biggest offseason transactions getting them Sheldon Richardson and Olivier Vernon to line up alongside Myles Garrett and make the best D-Line in the AFC North. With each needing to garner attention in their own right, Vernon will probably benefit the most as more times than not, offenses will focus on Richardson and Garrett. To predict outputs for each, I can see Vernon getting about 8.5 sacks again this season, Garrett will probably have a great season, but his sack total will probably drop to about 10, Richardson then will probably have 4 sacks. Anyways, point is the line will be good.
Onto the linebackers, Christian Kirksey has been very serviceable for them and Joe Schobert has been the unspoken leader for them as he was the highest scoring IDP for the Browns last season. Aside from them however, the LBs aren’t much to look at as Jamie Collins returned to the Patriots during the offseason and the backups weren’t wowing when they had to fill-in during Schobert and Kirksey’s hamstring injuries. However, they noticed this and did draft two middle round linebackers in Sione Takitaki and Mack Wilson. Takitaki may even be able to make some starts if he can show his worth in the preseason. Though like the Bengals, it may cause concern if they turn to a 3rd round rookie LB to be a main starter. Although the probable starter Genard Avery who was a 5th round rookie last year did have to make 5 starts, but those were due to injuries rather than him being ready.
However one rookie that will definitely be looking for the starting job is Greedy Williams. Williams has a very good chance of doing so too, even though he’ll have to beat out T.J. Carrie and Terrence Mitchell to do so, it’s always nice being the first pick by the team in the draft even if their first pick wasn’t until the 2nd round. The definite CB1 however will be Denzel Ward who their pro-bowl-worthy rookie corner last year and he will probably be able to improve his game along with the defense as a whole. As for safeties, that’s where I believe their biggest loss was this offseason as they sent Jabrill Peppers in the trade that got them Odell Beckham Jr. Even though Peppers wasn’t the stud they wanted right out of the gates, he was a very versatile defender and was progressing little-by-little getting more tackles and pass deflections in his sophomore season last year, even getting a game-winning sack and would have made a great piece for this new defense. However since they don’t have him anymore they went out and got someone during free agency to take over at strong safety, Morgan Burnett. Though not the most talked about signing, it was a very good one to say the least. Burnett was one of the best safeties in the league while with the Packers in the early 10s, but has since taken a step back as he hasn’t had over 100 combined tackles in a season since 2014 and hasn’t even played a full 16 games in a season since 2012. While the Browns are sure hoping that he returns to form, it might not be very likely, especially entering his 10 season. Though with Damarious Randall lining up opposite him at the free safety, the pair should make a serviceable tandem. Looking at them as a whole, I would definitely consider them as the second best defense in their division.
Like seemingly the rest of their division, the best part about the Steelers D is their defensive line. A line led by pro-bowler and former all-pro Cam Heyward who is coming off of another strong season where he racked up more than 50 tackles and notched 8 sacks. The guys who will join Heyward on the line for another season will be Javon Hargrove and Stephon Tuitt and considering the trio were able to combine for 20 sacks last year, the Steelers don’t have to worry about them as their starters. Furthermore Tyson Alualu, Dan McCullers, and late-round pick, Isaiah Buggs should give them good depth off the bench.
As for their linebackers, they did release one of their starters from last season as Jon Bostic on the last day of this past NFL draft. Which makes sense because of Bostic’s underwhelming play and the fact that the Steelers drafted a trio of linebackers, including their 1st round pick, Devin Bush. Bush is the probable starter being the organization’s top pick from the draft and having a great college career at Michigan racking up 10 sacks, 172 tackles, and an interception over 32 games. His biggest competition will probably be found in the newly-signed Mark Barron, who will probably not even be much competition. Barron being a flex safety/linebacker though could fulfill the Steelers dream of having an LB cover WR1s or at least do a better job at it then Jon Bostic. In the end, Bush should be a good add to the LB corps of T.J. Watt, Vince Williams, and Bud Dupree. He may even become the 2nd best LB on the team, obviously only behind Watt, who was the best IDP in Pittsburgh last season and looks to repeat next season. Honestly, the whole front 7 is looking pretty decent.
The secondary is where most problems lie as they were worse at defending the pass then they were at the run. That will probably stay true next season as well as Joe Haden has been a solid CB for them, but the guys behind him are still suspect. Even though, Steven Nelson will be replacing Coty Sensabaugh as the CB2 on the roster it’s hard to see this as an upgrade. Nelson being a part of the Bob Sutton coordinated KC defense last season is bad enough, but also allowed the 2nd most yards by a CB in the NFL according to PFF. Sean Davis and Terrell Edmunds will also be resuming their roles as the safeties for the team and though they are not a bad tandem, they have much to be desired and unless Edmunds can have a breakout sophomore year. The secondary as a whole is nothing to be feared, especially if Artie Burns continues to jump offside.
They can be a streaming candidate, I’d recommend looking at them for their games against the Bengals, Titans, Dolphins, Cardinals if Kingsbury’s system doesn’t work, Bills, and especially against the Jets in week 16 where they’re definitely looking to take on Le’Veon Bell and could win you a ‘ship.
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