VAVEL USA's 2015 AFC North Roundtable Preview

The 2015 season is quickly coming up on us all. As of Thursday, July 16, we are all merely 56 days away from the NFL season opener between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the New England Patriots. Everyday we get closer and it just gets the writers at VAVEL USA more thrilled for what is to come. As we continue our series of roundtables, this time we took time to look at the AFC North and their conglomerate of teams that got three representatives into the playoffs last year. What exactly do our writers think will happen this year? Let's take a closer look together.

1. Who do you trust more to quarterback the Cleveland Browns, Josh McCown or Johnny Manziel? Why? Can they get out of the cellar in the AFC North.

Norman Tall--I would say Josh McCown. While neither McCown nor Manziel have much experience as a starter McCown has shown flashes of starter potential in his journeyman NFL career. In his first year in the league, Manziel struggled with the duties of being a starter throwing no touchdowns with three turnovers. While I would pick McCown over Manziel I don't think either of these quarterbacks can get the Browns out of the cellar in a stacked AFC North. With three teams from this division making the playoffs last year, I don't see anyway for the Browns to overcome there multitude of issues to surpass any of the other teams in this loaded division. 

Joe Spang--Josh McCown gets the nod here based on the fact that he has shown, in the right situation, he can be a capable NFL quarterback. I think he is better suited as a backup for most NFL teams, but here in Cleveland he would get the start. As for Johnny Manziel, I just have not seen enough to buy in yet or turn over my team to him as the QB. I loved him as a college quarterback, but I feared his skills would not translate to the NFL game. I’m not writing him off yet, but I think he would benefit with a few more years as a backup to get settled on and off the field. I haven’t seen that he wants to truly go through the process of being a pro quarterback, and if I were the coach or GM of this team I would want him to prove it to me.  I see some improvements from this team, but in a difficult division I see another last place finish. 

Colin Williams--Josh McCown or Johnny Manziel? Is there an option C? No. Okay. I don't trust either quarterback but if I had to chose one I'll take the veteran. McCown and Maziel on most teams would be the backup. With McCown at least you know what you are going to get. I was not a big fan of Manziel when he was coming out of Texas A&M. My top 3 quarterbacks in that draft were Teddy Bridgewater, Blake Bortles, and Derek Carr. If you watched a lot of his college tape he succeeded because he could get away from the rush and throw the ball up for grabs to Mike Evans. Mobile quarterbacks are usually not very effective in the NFL because the defenses are better, adapt faster, and the players are faster and bigger. Dual-threat QBs take to many hits and will get hurt and come injury prone. There are few exceptions to this such as Russell Wilson in Seattle who is smart when to run, when to pass, or when to throw it away. In 2014 Wilson lead the league in throwaways with 39, that number was the second highest since 2007 according to Pro Football Focus. That injury proneness with a dual-threat quarterback was shown when Manziel got hurt after one good hit by Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly.  No matter who starts at quarterback the Browns are not getting out of the bottom of the AFC North. The Bengals, Ravens, and Steelers all have to much talent and I can see all three teams again making the playoffs, leaving the Browns watching the playoffs from the couch. 

Caleb Wahlgren--Let’s face it folks. This isn’t exactly a great competition. I’d still rather have Brian Hoyer than go with the older McCown or the younger Manziel. The Cleveland Browns are still going to remain on the bottom of the division because they still haven’t figured out how to do what the best teams do the best. They are over tinkering with everything. They are firing a Head Coach after one season, firing an Offensive Coordinator the next, and just trying one season experiments with quarterbacks hoping to find a genie in a bottle. The Browns do have some talent, but they still do not have the quarterback they have been looking for since they brought the Dawg pound back to Cleveland. Having said all of that I would still not trust Johnny Manziel to lead my team or my locker room. So, the lesser of two evils is going to be Josh McCown. I assume that Manziel will probably start the second half of the season and the Browns will finish behind everyone else in the division, in the cellar once again.

2. What rookie is going to have the biggest impact in this intense division?

Norman Tall--I think Ravens first round pick, wide receiver Breshad Perriman out of the University of Central Florida will have the biggest impact in the AFC North. He has good speed and size.( listed at 6"2, 212). The Ravens have no true number two receiver behind the aging Steve Smith Sr. due to the departure of Torrey Smith, who left to go to the 49ers in the offseason. Perriman should come to Baltimore and help them to fill a void that's much needed. With Smith Sr. being 36, Perriman will be the Ravens wide receiver of the future, and should do an excellent job with that. 

Joe Spang--I’m going with the Steelers’ 1st round pick, number 22 overall, Bud Dupree. The Steelers got excellent value as Dupree slipped to their position here in the 1st round. I think Dupree is a pass rusher that can make a huge impact this season and be starting at some point (if not week 1). Coming out of Kentucky, Dupree has freakish athletic ability coming off the edge. One of the only knocks on him in the draft process was that he lacked consistency, so that will need to be addressed at the pro level. However, he has big play ability that I think is a great fit for Pittsburgh’s defensive scheme. My choice is partly on Dupree’s ability and partly on how I believe Pittsburgh will use him as a player and cater to his strengths. I expect big things from this rookie.

Colin Williams--Baltimore's Breshad Perriman. The Ravens need a legitimate number one receiver and Perriman gives them that. All respect goes out to Steve Smith Sr. He is one of my favorite players in the league and I love the way he plays the game. He may have fought off Father Time in 2014, but eventually Father Time will catch up to Smith and the Ravens need a plan for the future. Torrey Smith left this off-season for the San Francisco 49ers. He wasn't that big of a loss in my opinion. He was really only useful for the deep ball and that was it. Perriman can be that legitimate threat Joe Flacco has needed for most career. Perriman is raw but he has rare size and speed that can help him develop into a great wide receiver but his hands may be the only thing keeping him back. He dropped a lot of balls in college but if he can get the drop issue fix and become a better route runner he will be fine. 

Caleb Wahlgren--I’m going to go with Danny Shelton for the Cleveland Browns. When you are facing up against Le’Veon Bell, Giovani Bernard, and Justin Forsett for 6 of your 16 games, it is important to have a good guy up the middle of your defense. While the league has gone to a more passing offense around the league, the AFC North continues to be a group that likes to impress by showing how they can physically run the ball down people’s throats. It’s highly likely that Shelton could take time to develop, but if he is able to show his strength early on, then he is going to make the Browns defense even better, it’s all going to be just a matter of what they can do on offense.

3. Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell is suspended for the first three games of the season, how will the Steelers do in those games?

Norman Tall--Le'Veon Bell's suspension will play a major factor in the first three game of the 2015 Steelers season. We saw the impact in had in the playoffs last season when Bell was injured. The Steelers lost that game to the Ravens 30-17 and the loss of Bell was mightily felt. This year the Steelers open up against the defending Super Bowl champion, New England Patriots. As of now star Patriots QB Tom Brady will be inactive due to a four game suspension for his role in deflategate. With no Brady I predict a Steelers victory. If Brady gets his suspension overturned I see the Pats prevailing with a victory.  In the second game, Pittsburgh host the 49ers. This off-season the Niners have made so many changes I feel they will not have that immediate team chemistry which will help the Steelers to a big win at Heinz field. In the last game before Bell's return, the Steelers travel to St. Louis to take on the Rams. While the Rams tend to elevate their game against better opponents, I think Big Ben and the Steelers offense will be too much. Overall, I see the Steelers going 3-0, or 2-1 in the absence of star Running Back, Le'Veon Bell.

Joe Spang--In the playoffs we saw that the Steelers’ run game was not what it was during the regular season when Le’Veon Bell was out of the lineup. However, Pittsburgh only had a week to prepare for his loss instead of a whole off-season knowing he will be out three games. I see the Steelers being 2-1 when Bell returns from suspension. I think they will drop the opener to New England but rebound against San Francisco and St. Louis.

Colin Williams--Le'Veon Bell is a huge loss for the Steelers, not as just a runner but as a great receiver out of the backfield. This was evident in the playoff loss at home in 2014. Despite all that I can see the Steelers winning all 3 games if things break right for them. Last year when Bell went down, the Steelers only had a 175 pound rookie running running back in Dri Archer and fellow rookie running back undrafted free agent Josh Harris. While the Steelers did sign Ben Tate there was a reason he was looking for a job. The Steelers now have a proven veteran in former Carolina Panthers running back DeAngelo Williams. While Williams is definitely not Le'Veon Bell he is a more reliable player than Harris or Archer. Williams probably had the worst season of his career in 2014, but I believe there reason that lead to that. Williams only played in 6 games due to injury and off the field distractions due to the unfortunate passing of Sandra Hill, Williams's mother, may of had him out of Focus preparing for games and playing in them. Williams also played behind a really poor Panthers offensive line which didn't help. While Pittsburgh's line isn't in the discussion for the top-of-the-line award it's still a pretty solid line that and improve under second year O-line coach Mike Munchak. If Williams is half as good as he was in his prime he should be able to help the Steelers with their offense of firepower with Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant, and Ben Roethlisberger. I see the Steelers barely going 2-1 with their only loss at New England. I see the home 49ers game turning into a blow out after their horrendous off-season. The St. Louis Rams game will be close due to the Rams great defense but St. Louis lacks the offensive firepower to win the game. 

Caleb Wahlgren--The Pittsburgh Steelers knew they were going to miss him this time around, compared to their playoff defeat at the hands of the Baltimore Ravens, and so they went out and got another option. That option is better known as DeAngelo Williams. He’s not going to be an immediate cure all, but he is a huge help compared to Ben Tate. I see them actually going 1-2 without him though, as the Steelers are going to start the 2015 season slow as they have the past few seasons. Losing to both the Patriots and then to Nick Foles and the Rams without Bell being able to be their bell cow carrying the load.

4. The Baltimore Ravens once again have a new Offensive Coordinator in Marc Trestman as Gary Kubiak left to become the Head Coach of the Denver Broncos. How will this impact the Ravens this season?

Norman Tall--I think the loss of Gary Kubiak will play a major role for the Ravens in 2015. Under the direction of Kubiak last year the Ravens total offense was in the top half of the league finish 12th overall. Before Kubiak joined the Ravens staff, in 2013, the Ravens total team offense was a horrendous 29th in the NFL. The only teams worse were St. Louis, Jacksonville, and Tampa Bay, respectively. I think Marc Trestman will try and help the Ravens but their offense without Gary Kubiak will hurt their production this year.

Joe Spang--With Kubiak’s departure to Denver, the Ravens were quick to hire Marc Trestman during the off-season as Offensive Coordinator. Trestman’s resume includes many offensive successes throughout his career that ranges from the NCAA to the CFL to the NFL. Some are down on Trestman after his unsuccessful stint as head coach in Chicago, but it is important to note his success as a coordinator. There are several quality names in the NFL right now that are better suited as a coordinator than a head coach and Trestman fits that role. I expect big things from the Ravens offense this year.

Colin Williams--The hiring of Marc Trestman will make the Ravens a more passing attack offense with quick throws and running back screens. You're not going to see the same ground and pound offense that you saw last year. I don't think this will affect the Ravens too much because they have the pieces to be a legitimate passing offense. This new approach might help them keep up with Indianapolis's and Pittsburgh's high power offenses. While the Bears didn't have a great 2014 season in 2013 he had a great 8 game stretch with Josh McCown starting at quarterback for an injured Jay Cutler. I don't except much of a difference record wise but I can see them being more of a passing first offense. 

Caleb Wahlgren--The Baltimore Ravens seemingly have had a revolving door at Offensive Coordinator as they keep having to put up new names on the door every off-season, and sometimes during the middle of the season. In their Super Bowl run, they fired Cam Cameron before the end of the season. Then they used Jim Caldwell for the remainder of the season and the next before he took the Lions job. They next gave it to Gary Kubiak, who is now the coach of the Denver Broncos. Finally now they have given it to Marc Trestman, who is a coach I feel with certainty is not going to be a new Head Coach in the NFL anytime soon, but could potentially leave for a CFL job. Trestman’s most famous work has been with Rich Gannon and the Oakland Raiders and being under Sean Payton in New Orleans. So, Trestman is more of a passing minded guy. Expect more use from their tight ends, and rookie Breshad Perriman could have a big impact if he beats out the other receivers to line up across from Steve Smith. But the targets are just not as big as they were before, and they need to play with their strengths in the running game. I feel like Trestman will have somewhat of an impact, but albeit a minor one, and will only impact them by a game or two.

5. Can Andy Dalton lead the Bengals back to the playoffs this year and can he finally win a playoff game?

Norman Tall--I think this is the year that Andy Dalton finally misses the playoffs. Last year Dalton really struggled. He threw just 19 touchdowns and 17 interceptions. He struggled mightily in the teams final five games with 7 touchdowns and 7 interceptions, including a 3 pick game Vs, Tampa Bay. While in the NFL, Dalton has consistently had a very strong team around him, including WR A.J. Green and RB Gio Bernard. I think this year Dalton's mistakes will finally catch up with him and cost him and his team a shot at the playoffs.

Joe Spang--I see the Cincinnati Bengals just missing the playoffs in the 2015 season. Looking at last season, I felt the Bengals actually overachieved by making the playoffs. The team was pretty much middle of the pack in offensive and defensive rankings. Those rankings were both a step back from previous seasons. Part of the struggles, especially on offense, were due to key injuries (A.J. Green missed significant time, for example) but there was some regression across the board. In a difficult division, I see the Bengals just missing the postseason in 2015.

Colin Williams--Andy Dalton is the perfect mediocre quarterback. He is usually good enough to get them to the playoffs but not good enough to win a playoff game. It will be hard to make the playoffs without winning the division this year due to number of talented teams in the AFC. I don't think the Bengals make the playoffs this year. In my opinion they won't win the division and won't beat out the Dolphins of the Chiefs for the two wild card spots. The Bengals have the second toughest schedule behind fellow divisional rival, the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Dolphins and the Chiefs have way easier schedules compared to the Bengals. Their Schedule does not play into their favor. While I don't see them making it this year, I wouldn't be completely shocked if they did make it. The Bengals have the second best receiver and running back in the division with A.J. Green and Jeremy Hill and a young talented defense. My prediction is Bengals miss the playoffs by one game. 

Caleb Wahlgren--The Bengals will once again make the playoffs in 2015. Andy Dalton is their leader, and the red headed quarterback will once again get them back into the playoffs. It won’t be easy, but is their anything remarkably different from this team then there was in the past? Also, who else are you expecting to make the playoffs? The AFC has consistently put in the Patriots, Colts, and Broncos the last few seasons, with the AFC North Champion rotating. But then there are still two wild card spots, and I just don’t trust the teams from the AFC East or AFC South to take a spot, which leaves one for the AFC North and the AFC West. I think Cincinnati not only gets a playoff game, but they win that playoff game in 2015.

6. What team do you think will win the division and how many teams from this division make the playoffs in 2015?

Norman Tall--I think the Baltimore Ravens will win the AFC North in 2015. Joe Flacco will have a good year and as usually the Ravens will be a force in the AFC come playoff time. With additions like Safety Kendrick Lewis and the re-signing of RB Justin Forsett the Ravens will be primed for a deep playoff run. I also think the Pittsburgh Steelers will make the playoffs. With the constant play of 'Big' Ben Roethlisberger, the rise of WR Antonio Brown, the drafting of Bud Dupree along with minor signings like RB DeAngelo Williams, the Steelers will be tough to beat come playoff time.

Joe Spang--The Baltimore Ravens will be 2015 AFC North Champions. Despite some key departures on offense and defense I see the Ravens coming through with enough balance to win the division. With Kubiak moving on to Denver, I think former Bears head coach Marc Trestman is an adequate replacement. I like draft pick Brashad Perriman as a replacement for Torrey Smith at WR.  Steve continues to play at a high level at the other WR spot, and Justin Forsett was solid at RB.  Joe Flacco, despite many doubters, continues to win games. I like the Offensive line of the Ravens, especially with a healthy Eugene Monroe at Tackle this year.  Along with the Ravens I see the Pittsburgh Steelers as the other playoff team in this division.

Colin Williams--The Bengals, Ravens, and Steelers are all capable of winning the AFC North and making the playoffs, but I have the Steelers coming out on top simply because they have the division's best quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger. The Ravens will make it as a wild card team just like last year and the Bengals miss out by one game. All 3 teams have young and upcoming defenses. They all have the firepower on offense but the thing that separates the Bengals from the Steelers and Ravens is the Bengals don't have a legitimate quarterback. I consider Roethlisberger to be the third best quarterback behind only Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady. I have Joe Flacco as top 10 quarterback. I could think of 15 to 20 QBs I would rather have than Dalton. The Steelers and Ravens Head Coaches are also on a different level than Bengals Head Coach Marvin Lewis. In my opinion Mike Tomlin and John Harbaugh are both top-five HCs in the National Football League. Lewis hasn't done anything in 12 years with the Bengals other than losing four straight playoff games. So my prediction is the Steelers and Ravens will be competing for a Lombardi trophy while the Bengals watch at home thinking about that one interception Andy Dalton thew that kept them out of the playoffs. 

Caleb Wahlgren--Right now it’s anyone’s division to win or lose. Health is going to be a major factor, and I feel like two of these teams are going to be stronger than the others. Schedule is going to play a strong role too, let me explain. Cleveland will not make the playoffs. They just are not at the same level. The Baltimore Ravens again are overhauling a new Offensive Coordinator, while Pittsburgh and Cincinnati are keeping it pretty similar. The Steelers won the division in 2014, so they have to play all the division winners, which means they play the New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts. Compare that to the Bengals who get the Texans and the Bills, or to the Ravens who face the Jaguars and the Dolphins. Currently I have the Ravens winning the division this time around and the Bengals making it as a wild card. Sorry Steelers fans, there will not be three teams from the division making it to the playoffs this year.