NFL preview 2019: AFC North player to watch, impact rookie, projected finish
A division won by the Steelers in three of the previous four years was left wide open last season as player drama boiled over in Pittsburgh.
The seemingly never-ending Le'Veon Bell saga ended up lasting the entire season, the end of which was overshadowed by receiver Antonio Brown and his apparent disconnect with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
By the offseason, the AFC North had seen one of the biggest turnovers in the league as two-thirds of the 'Killer B' trio was gone from Pittsburgh, Odell Beckham Jr joined Cleveland and Baltimore lost Terrell Suggs, C.J. Mosley, Eric Weddle and Brent Urban.
Now, the new-look AFC North appears to be up for grabs in 2019, and expectations are high in an unexpected city looking to end the league's longest active playoff drought dating back to 2002.
"This wasn't no business move," Beckham said of the New York Giants in an interview with Sports Illustrated after he was traded to Cleveland. "They thought they'd send me here to die."
But a little added star power does not mean the Browns are a guaranteed bet, especially with Earl Thomas levelling the field in Baltimore as the Ravens prepare for the post-Joe Flacco era under second-year signal-caller Lamar Jackson. It also does not hurt that he got a new weapon from the Saints in Mark Ingram.
Here is your 2019 AFC North preview.
Player to watch:
Odell Beckham Jr, Browns wide receiver
Beckham's blockbuster trade was arguably the biggest transaction of the offseason, and one of the burning questions entering the season is whether the merging of his big personality with second-year quarterback Baker Mayfield will work. The two have the potential to become a great quarterback-receiver duo because of their undeniable talent, but practice is not the same as in-game action, and challenges could arise when the regular season starts.
There is a lot of uncertainty in Cleveland as to whether this team can work together. But after being slowed down by injuries in recent years, including a hip issue during the preseason, OBJ could be poised for a breakout season, maybe cracking 1,500 yards receiving for the first time in his career.
Marquise Brown, Ravens wide receiver
In addition to Ingram, Baltimore bolstered their offense by drafting the speedy Oklahoma standout with the 25th pick. While he has not got as much work in this preseason as coach John Harbaugh would like because of offseason foot surgery, there is still reason to believe he can be a difference-maker for the offense.
"As a rookie, he hasn't had a lot of reps," Harbaugh told the team's official website. "So he'll have to get up to speed quickly. We'll have to be vigilant in what we ask him to do well - things that he can do well. It will be a challenge for them to cover him. He's really fast and he's got great hands. So that's the challenge the other way."
Brown had 75 receptions for 1,318 yards and 10 touchdowns for the Sooners last season and impressed in the two preseason games he played, though he was limited to special teams duty in the final outing. Still, his explosiveness gives Harbaugh and the Ravens reason to be optimistic.
Coach under pressure:
Mike Tomlin, Steelers
Many have questioned whether Tomlin has lost control of his locker room in recent seasons. While the Rooney family does not give up on coaches easily, a change could be looming on the horizon.
Tomlin is just the third head coach hired by the Steelers since 1969 and he is among the league's longest-tenured, entering his 13th season.
His impressive resume includes a 125-66-1 record in the regular season, six division titles, eight playoff appearances and a Super Bowl win.
But the Steelers have slipped into dysfunction in recent seasons after long being the league's standard for stability -10 years without a championship has to feel like a lifetime for Pittsburgh fans. Perhaps the ownership is growing impatient, too.
Steelers vs. Ravens, December 29
These rivals will clash in the regular-season finale in a game that may have important playoff implications. What could be better?
The Steelers and Ravens have met 50 times, with Pittsburgh winning 28 times to Baltimore's tally of 22. But the Ravens managed to edge out the Steelers in 2018 with the superior record for the first time since 2012, which is the same season Baltimore won the Super Bowl.
While the game will likely come down to defense, it is worth noting Ben Roethlisberger is 13-8 all-time against the Ravens.
It's hard to gauge how these roster overhauls play out, but the division is trending toward looking like 2018 all over again. As the Bengals rebuild under first-year coach Zac Taylor -staying healthy would be a good start for them - expect the Browns to put up a fight for their first winning season since 2007 but fall short as they extend their postseason absence for at least another year.