The offseason has brought plenty of change in the AFC North, but it hasn’t altered a certain belief among the division’s head coaches.
“If you look at the teams, everybody's looking to run the ball, everybody's looking to play great defense, and again like I said, it's very competitive just because we all know each other and a lot of the guys on the teams know each other,” said the Cleveland Browns’ Mike Pettine. “… I think it's the best division in football.”
“I’ve always felt it’s a very strong division,” said Marvin Lewis of the Cincinnati Bengals. “I think it was evident last year with three of the four teams going to the playoffs and the fourth team very close in the Browns. Everybody in the division plays very physical football, so when you play our division, it’s a slugfest all of the time. I think the teams are all built that way.”
The AFC North was the only division in last season to send three teams to the playoffs and the division’s cumulative record of 38-25-1 was a league best. The AFC North has also boasted of multiple playoff teams in six of the past seven seasons.
However, a couple of the division’s teams have taken some significant losses this offseason. The Bengals, at least on paper, have probably had the best free-agent period, bolstering their defense with the signings of linebackers Michael Johnson, A.J. Hawk and Rey Maualuga and defensive tackle Pat Sims. Cincinnati’s biggest loss to this point has been 36-year-old cornerback Terence Newman though free agent tight end Jermaine Gresham could depart as well.
The Browns, in the midst of another tumultuous offseason, have brought on wide receivers Dwayne Bowe and Brian Hartline, defensive tackle Randy Starks and cornerback Tramon Williams. But they’ve also lost tight end Jordan Cameron, defensive linemen Jabaal Sheard and Ahtyba Rubin and cornerback Buster Skrine. And the switch from Brian Hoyer to Josh McCown didn’t exactly alleviate the team’s quarterback concerns.
The Steelers’ biggest outside free agent addition was veteran running back DeAngelo Williams. Meanwhile, an already vulnerable defense lost linebacker Jason Worilds and cornerback Brice McCain, along with long-time mainstays Brett Keisel and Ike Taylor.
Then, there are the Ravens. Gone are wide receiver Torrey Smith, tight end Owen Daniels, defensive tackle Haloti Ngata and linebacker/defensive end Pernell McPhee. Running back Justin Forsett is back, but the Ravens only outside addition to this point is unheralded safety Kendrick Lewis.
The Bengals’ Lewis, however, doesn’t expect a drop-off with any of the teams.
"Pittsburgh made the transition we were just talking about a year ago. They had guys move on,” he told reporters at the league meetings. “Baltimore does it yearly and they have the plan for the next guy to step up and play. We know how talented Cleveland is as a football team. Their guys will be a year better in their system. It’s going to be a very difficult division as it always is.”
Harbaugh also expressed confidence that the Ravens would be able to overcome their offseason losses, especially on the offensive side of the ball under new coordinator Marc Trestman.
"I’m excited about our offense next year,” Harbaugh said. “I’m excited about every part of it. I like our players. I like our possible additions that we’re going to make, however we make them. And I love our coaching staff.”
Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin voiced a similar sentiment about his offense.
"My expectation is that we are capable of being the very best, because we have the goods,” Tomlin said when asked about how good his Ben Roethlisberger-led offense can be. “We have guys that are capable. We have guys that know what they are doing. We have guys that have played together for an extended period of time. That’s a reasonable expectation.”
It’s far too early to make any predictions but there’s a good chance that the Steelers, thanks to their dynamic offense that includes Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown, will be the preseason favorite to repeat as AFC North champs. However, Tomlin knows that means nothing, especially not in a division whose coaches expect to be as strong as ever despite significant offseason losses.
"The reality is, I think you wipe the slate clean, and I think you start the preparation process again, because the reality of today’s NFL is each team is different,” Tomlin said. “Many of the components will remain the same. But even the components that are the same change - evolving positively or negatively. And if you are not respecting that, you are missing the boat."