The Pittsburgh Steelers are positioned to win the AFC North yet again.
The Steelers, who finished the 2017 NFL season with a 13-3 record before losing to the Jacksonville Jaguars in the AFC divisional round, have absolutely dominated AFC North opponents over the past two seasons behind quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, running back Le’Veon Bell and wide receiver Antontio Brown.
However, there are plenty of questions surrounding Bell, who still hasn’t reported to practice and has yet to sign his $14.5 million contract tender. Will his contract issues with spill into Week 1 and keep him off the field? Do the Steelers have a plan to replace him if this is the case?
Only time will tell.
Here’s our AFC North preview:
DIVISION ODDS (via OddsShark)
Pittsburgh Steelers -230
Baltimore Ravens +400
Cincinnati Bengals +750
Cleveland Browns +1000
Pittsburgh Steelers — This really comes as no surprise, considering Pittsburgh has steamrolled to an 11-1 division record in the AFC North over the last two seasons. Despite the Bell drama and a lack of depth at the linebacker position, its offense still is elite with Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster at wide receiver and Roethlisberger under center. It will be interesting to see how Bell’s situation plays out, though, as it’s no secret he’s unhappy with his contract.
Cincinnati Bengals — The Bengals made a lot of changes this offseason — from sprucing up their offensive line via free agency and the NFL Draft to signing linebacker Preston Brown — and now have four solid pass rushers in Geno Atkins, Michael Johnson, Carl Lawson and Carlos Dunlap. The offensive line should provide better pass protection for quarterback Andy Dalton, and there’s no reason to think Brown won’t have another solid year after he tied for the league lead in tackles (144) last season. And don’t forget about running back Joe Mixon, who could be a breakout player in his second year after tallying 913 rushing yards in 2017. Of course, the Bengals also employ wide receiver and seven-time Pro Bowl selection A.J. Green, who caught 75 passes for 1,078 yards last season.
Bengals LB Preston Brown — Cincinnati should be excited about Brown, who gets to play in front of his hometown crowd at Paul Brown Stadium. The 25-year-old had four solid years with the Buffalo Bills and never has missed a game since being drafted in 2014. With Vontaze Burfict suspended for the first four games of the season, Cincinnati will look at Brown as a leader. And with skill and youth on his side, Brown has the chance to prove himself as one of the Bengals’ best linebackers.
Browns QB Tyrod Taylor — Will Taylor lead Cleveland to its first win since 2016? That remains to be seen, but it is refreshing to have a proven veteran like Taylor calling the shots. Although the Browns drafted Baker Mayfield with the No. 1 pick in this 2018 draft, Taylor has shown poise and leadership this Cleveland team has lacked over the years at the quarterback position. He also had a winning record with the Bills — 22-20 in three seasons — and helped lead Buffalo to a playoff berth in 2017. While that likely won’t be the case in Taylor’s first year with his new team, he certainly could help get the Browns headed in that direction.
Ravens WR Michael Crabtree — Joe Flacco’s projected No. 1 target may not turn heads the way Antonio Brown or Green does, but he’s been one of the league’s most consistent end zone pass-catchers over the course of his career: He’s one of two players (Brown is the other) to catch at least eight touchdowns in the last three seasons. His physicality will help Baltimore’s passing attack, which ranked 29th in the NFL last season. Crabtree hauled in a 29-yard pass from Flacco in the Ravens’ preseason game against the Indianapolis Colts on Aug. 20 — good for Flacco’s longest play of the night. And after the team cut ties with Breshad Perriman on Saturday, his presence in the red zone will be noteworthy.
Browns WR Jarvis Landry — Landry has made plenty of headlines for his role on HBO’s “Hard Knocks,” but the Browns will need him to back up his talk on the field. Landry tallied a career-high 112 receptions in 2017 during his final season with the Miami Dolphins, and he enters the 2018 season as Cleveland’s top wideout. The 25-year-old may not be able to replicate that production with the Browns, but if he develops some chemistry with Taylor, he could help spark an offense that finished dead last in points scored last season.
Just how much time will Bell miss?
This has been the question of the offseason. The ongoing dispute between the running back and the Steelers seemingly has hit a standstill that’s resulted in Bell missing time on the practice field. He’s arguably one of the best running backs in the league, so it’s understandable he wants to get paid like one. If Bell elects not to play after holding out in all of the offseason activities, the Steelers will have a huge void to fill.
However, considering the deadline to negotiate with franchised players has passed, there’s essentially no reason Bell should hold out come Week 1 considering he’d be forfeiting his own money. But, the closer Sunday becomes without any answers from Bell or the Steelers, the more questions arise surrounding the 26-year-old’s future.
Thumbnail photo via Philip G. Pavely/USA TODAY Sports Images