I was thinking this morning about the rule changes coming to the NFL this year. It wouldn't be an offseason without ten new rules to learn. Of course - kickoffs have once again been altered. As one of the biggest sources of concussions, the NFL has tried for years to basically eliminate the kickoff. They took it a step further this year. Now - players on the kicking team can no longer get a running start and the return team can't make wedge blocks (when multiple players form a wall of blockers to create a running lane). There are some other wrinkles to the new rule, but basically everything will slow down in hopes of limiting full-speed collisions. Speaking of - the league has also expanded the rule that prohibits players from lowering their helmets to make a tackle. We've already seen it come into play this preseason with multiple players drawing unnecessary roughness penalties and even a few being ejected. The first year of this rule is going to be a major shit show. The rule is subjective to each ref. It's bound to happen that a marquee player is going to get ejected late in a game for a questionable call because the ref doesn't want to get in trouble with his bosses. It's going to be horrible. Especially for teams in one of the most physical divisions in the NFL: The AFC North.
The AFC North has been one of the best divisions in the NFL over the last decade (if you overlook the Browns). But even with Cleveland in the division - the North has still sent more teams to the playoffs since 2008 than another other division in the NFL. Seven out of the last ten years has seen multiple North teams reach the postseason including a three team entry in 2014. Now the Steelers have been the only team to make it the last two years, but 2018 may be different...
5) When will we see Baker Mayfield start for the Browns? The Browns shocked a lot of people when they took Baker Mayfield with the 1st pick in the 2018 draft. But I understand why they did it. Baker has succeeded everywhere he's played. He walked on at Texas Tech and earned the starting job before transferring to Oklahoma. And boy did he put up numbers in Norman. His senior year - he threw for over 4,300 yards and 41 touchdowns. He won the Heisman Trophy in convincing fashion and became the first walk-on to ever win the award. The Browns need a winner. They need someone to change the culture. This is a franchise that hasn't made the playoffs in 15-years and needs a complete overhaul. Will that change this year? No. But as long as Baker doesn't get swallowed up in the misery of Cleveland - he may be the guy to turn things around. The Browns also brought in Tyrod Taylor this offseason to be the starter, but there's no way that Mayfield watches from the sidelines the entire season.
4) Can be Bengals create on offense? The 2017 Bengals were a tough team to watch. They were dead last in the league in total offense and 26th in scoring. But even those number weren't enough for the Bengals to make a change at head coach. Marvin Lewis will return for his 16th season in Cincinnati and one has to wonder why. I suppose if your goal is to make it to the playoffs and bow out in the first round, this is your guy (0-7 playoff record). The Benglas major shakeup this offseason was promoting interim offensive coordinator Bill Lazor to the position full time. If he can manage to keep AJ Green, John Ross and Tyler Eifert all healthy at the same time - he's doing a good job. If the offensive line holds up - Andy Dalton has the weapons around him to succeed. Now it's up to him to get them the ball.
3) Will Lamar Jackson threaten Joe Flacco's job in Baltimore? The safe and smart answer to this is no. Flacco has been the starter for 10-years and helped the Ravens win Super Bowl 47. Flacco had a pedestrian 2017 season and the Ravens still managed to win 9 games. Lamar Jackson relied a lot on his legs in college and could provide an offensive spark at times during the season. Don't be surprised in the Ravens have a few plays specifically drawn up for him. The Ravens may use Jackson in spurts, but don't expect to see him start any time soon. Jackson is an electric young football player, but has a long ways to go if he hopes to challenge the incumbent Flacco.
2) Do the Steelers need to win it all this year? All-Pro running back Le'Veon Bell has made it quite clear that he will not be returning to Pittsburgh next year. Big Ben was on the verge of retiring last year. The Super Bowl window is quickly closing for this dynamic group of Steelers. At 36 - Roethlisberger can still sling it. When healthy - he has one of the most dangerous receivers in the game (Antonio Brown) and a rising star in JuJu Smith-Schuster. The Steelers have made the playoffs in each of the last four seasons, but haven't reached the big game since 2010. With uncertainty looming next year - the Steelers need to go all in on 2018.
1) How many AFC North teams make the playoffs this year? Two. There's a small part of me that wants to say three, but the safe bet is two. The Steelers and Ravens. The Steelers have too much talent to not make the postseason and Ravens will be better in 2018. I fully expect the Bengals to win 8 to 10 games, but depending on how the AFC West and South pan out - that may not be enough this year.
How about y'all? How do you think the AFC North will shape out?
Thursday - AFC South