2019 AFC North Betting Preview and Expert Predictions
As we look to fill the often seemingly endless gap of time between the heart of the NFL offseason - the draft, free agency, and so on - and the start of the regular season, there is nothing more productive that we can do than look forward. That's what we are doing this week, with a division-by-division look at the highlights and lowlights, the warts and the promise. It's time now for the AFC North, and it sets up as a bit of a dogfight. There is a favorite that is easy to be a little skeptical of, and two other real contenders who have seen better days, but who are too wily to go away. This should be fun. (Odds are from BetOnline)
Biggest lock: It's a cop out, perhaps, but I don't feel like there is a lock in this division. It's wide open. Cleveland has big expectations, but they haven't proven anything yet. Pittsburgh has lost their two best offensive players and seem to be at a crossroads. Baltimore is all in on a sophomore QB with massive upside but some questions. Cincinnati is behind those three, but it feels completely wide open up top, and any team could come out in front. This is going to be a battle.
Most likely to disappoint: Cleveland. I'm not actually that pessimistic about this team, but there is no other choice here. Cleveland has been so bad for so long. But after finishing strong last year, and after perhaps the best offseason in the league - in a battle with Arizona, at least - expectations have really gone through the roof. They were 7-8-1 last year, so the season win total of nine isn't too bad. But the over is solidly favored, the team is a solid favorite to win the division - they are at +100, with Pittsburgh at +200, and the Browns are the fifth choice to win the Super Bowl. This team is, finally, moving in the right direction. And they added real talent. But their coach hasn't proven anything other than that he is a great quote yet, and Baker Mayfield is sitting on one great half season. Patience, people. You need to find some chill.
Best betting value: Cincinnati "over" 6 on the season win total . I can't really believe that I am saying this. They didn't have a great offseason. Except for one thing, and it is entirely why I am making this pick - they finally got rid of Marvin Lewis. It was many years too late, but he was toxic, and his absence is a total joy. The team won six games last year, and ridding themselves of his horrific game management, stale strategies, and total inability to inspire or maintain discipline, should, at the very least, keep them at the status quo.
Biggest mystery: Andy Dalton. What is Andy Dalton? We have not really had a sense of what he really is for a long time. Is he a star? Or a guy they should be looking to replace? More Matt Ryan or Blake Bortles? Now he has a new staff to work with, which could be a positive or a problem for him. I don't feel like we will know until we see his season get rolling - or maybe we won't know for another decade.
Most improved: Cleveland. I know I'm hedging myself calling Cleveland most improved and most likely to disappoint, but that's where we find ourselves right now. Trading for Odell Beckham Jr. is a big move. So was trading for Olivier Vernon. And adding Sheldon Richardson. I'm not crazy about the Kareem Hunt addition, but for off-the-field reasons - on the field he's a plus. They weren't busy on draft day as a result of their trading, but Greedy Williams was a steal in the middle of the second round. Add in a year of experience to Baker Mayfield, and a new coach in Freddie Kitchens, who certainly does not any trouble stating an opinion and has plenty of familiarity with the team already, and you have a team that is ready to improve.
Underrated new player: Devin Bush. It's hard to say that a guy is underrated when the Steelers traded up 10 spots to 10th overall to get him. But I watched every game he played in college, and the guy's impact and versatility can't be overstated. And he has landed in exactly the perfect spot for him in the league. We are going to look back in a few years and wonder how Bush was available at 10th.
Overrated new player: OBJ. Don't get me wrong - I like the guy. He's a special talent. But he's a receiver. And while receivers are important, a single receiver is not the guy who turns things around. He's a piece, and a big one, but so many things need to be in place for the power of a receiver to shine - quarterback, line, coaching, and so on. Remember, OBJ was full on OBJ and the Giants were profoundly awful. He's a metaphor for the rampant expectations of this team.
Key coach storyline: Zac Taylor is 36-years-old. He has never been a coordinator in the NFL. Two seasons ago he was an assistant wide receiver coach. He was hired because he knows Sean McVay, and there is some obvious upside here, but it is far from certain that he can find his game while being thrown into the deep end - and working against a culture that was established by a coach who had been there forever. Lots of young geniuses have struggled with a similar situation with more experience - Josh McDaniels, Adam Gase the first time, and so on. He's one to watch. You could make some of the same arguments about Freddie Kitchens in Cleveland, but he has more talent to work with, he's older, and he's been with the team for a year, so he's not starting from scratch.
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