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Ravens Insider: Mike Preston: Ravens face an even tougher test from stronger AFC North | COMMENTARY


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Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin must have studied some Ravens history.

He apparently learned a major lesson from former Ravens coach Brian Billick about going down with his star quarterback, which is why the AFC North, already the best division in the NFL, has gotten even stronger during the first wave of free agency.

The Ravens selected Kyle Boller with the No. 19 overall pick in the 2003 NFL draft and Billick stuck with the former University of California star until he was fired after a 5-11 season in 2007, which eventually led to Boller leaving in 2008.

Tomlin apparently had seen enough of former University of Pittsburgh star Kenny Pickett, a first-round pick in 2022, and traded him to the Philadelphia Eagles last week in a swap of draft picks.

Pittsburgh appears to be back in full playoff run mode, and that will make the AFC North more competitive and so, so spicy.

There are so many storylines. Will Super Bowl champion quarterback Russell Wilson, signed by the Steelers via free agency, be able to hold off Justin Fields, obtained in a trade with the Chicago Bears, for the starting position?

Can Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow return from a season-ending wrist injury last season, and how will wide receiver Tee Higgins’ trade request play out in the locker room?

Cleveland has added a top receiver in Jerry Jeudy to team with Amari Cooper, but the status of quarterback Deshaun Watson’s recovery from a broken bone in his right throwing shoulder is more questionable than Burrow’s return.

And there has to be mourning in Cleveland because the Browns allowed quarterback Joe Flacco to sign with the Indianapolis Colts and got Jameis Winston as their backup.

Ah, boo-hoo. Now, where does that leave the Ravens?

Until proven otherwise, they are still defending champions and at the top of the division. This offseason has already been rough for the Ravens, with the team losing three defensive assistants in coordinator Mike Macdonald (Seattle Seahawks coach), defensive line coach Anthony Weaver (Miami Dolphins defensive coordinator) and defensive backs coach Dennard Wilson (Tennessee Titans defensive coordinator).

Because of the Ravens’ success in 2023, losing coaches and players in free agency was expected. Running back Gus Edwards (Los Angeles Chargers), safety Geno Stone (Cincinnati), guard John Simpson (New York Jets) and linebacker Patrick Queen (Pittsburgh) all signed elsewhere, but the Ravens did re-sign defensive tackle Justin Madubuike (four years, $98 million) and receiver Nelson Agholor and brought in star running back Derrick Henry for a bargain price of $16 million for two seasons.

That’s not to say the Ravens won’t have holes, because they need to find offensive linemen and outside linebackers. There are three major keys for Baltimore heading into 2024. First, it’s imperative for the new assistants to develop strong relationships with the players like their predecessors did. Second, the Ravens will have to either draft an offensive lineman or hope their internal candidates can step in immediately.

And lastly, quarterback Lamar Jackson will have to throw more accurately outside the numbers and down the field. Opposing teams are going to stack the line of scrimmage against Henry like they’ve done the past six years. That’s a no-brainer.

It’s like Tomlin’s decision in Pittsburgh. Beep, beep, he threw Pickett under the bus. Gone. Now, the Steelers have a more realistic shot. Wilson will always be a diva, but so is Denver Broncos coach Sean Payton, whom Wilson played for last season.

The Steelers have been void of on-the-field leadership since quarterback Ben Roethlisberger retired after the 2021 season, but Wilson will bring a new attitude while Fields adds some mobility. Fields has always had a strong arm, but he needs to be in the right place and organization.

Denver Broncos wide receiver Jerry Jeudy (10) before an NFL football game in Empower Field at Mile High Sunday, Dec. 24, 2023, in Denver. (AP Photo/Geneva Heffernan)
The Browns acquired wide receiver Jerry Jeudy, a 2020 first-round draft pick, from the Broncos. (AP Photo/Geneva Heffernan)

Fields spent three seasons in Chicago, where no one should be forced to play. Go ask Ravens middle linebacker Roquan Smith. As for Queen, he will do well in Pittsburgh because he is a Tomlin-type linebacker. He has good speed, an eye for the ball and can turn into a “fetch” player as a pass rusher.

The Steelers also traded for Carolina Panthers cornerback Donte Jackson, so they won’t give up as many deep passes. Baltimore fans need to remember that Pittsburgh hasn’t lost much in free agency and has owned the Ravens recently, winning seven of the past eight meetings and 11 of the past 15.

With Cincinnati, it’s all about Burrow because the Bengals are the second best team in the division. They will miss running back Joe Mixon, especially in short yardage situations, but they’ve added Zack Moss, who has averaged 4.3 yards per carry in his first four seasons in the league.

The Bengals also signed Mike Gesicki, who will be an upgrade at tight end. The addition of Stone will help in the secondary because he is a smart player. His AFC-leading seven interceptions last season were more a result of his intelligence than his athleticism.

The Bengals also re-signed tight end Drew Sample and placed the franchise tag on Higgins. Of course, Higgins prefers to be trade, but we heard that last season from Jackson during his contract negotiations.

The bet here is that Higgins will be playing opposite Ja’Marr Chase one way or another when the season starts, giving the Bengals one of the top passing combinations in the NFL again. But a sour attitude can be disruptive early in training camp.

The Browns will have an upbeat mood, especially if Watson comes back fully healthy. He was 5-1 last season as a starter before getting hurt in the Browns’ 33-31 upset win against the Ravens in Baltimore last November. The addition of Jeudy will improve the passing game and Winston, despite not having the arm strength or the recent success of Flacco, can be a good stopgap replacement.

Regardless, if running back Nick Chubb returns fully healthy from knee surgery, the Browns still have one of the most physical offensive lines in the NFL. Just like every other team in the division, they should be in playoff contention again if everyone stays healthy.

Health is always a major factor, but there are also some other common threads in the AFC North. Cleveland still has the best defensive player in the league in end Myles Garrett and Pittsburgh might have the best pass rusher in outside linebacker-end T.J. Watt, who had 19 sacks in 2023. Cleveland and Baltimore can debate for hours which team had the best defense last season.

But if the NFL is a quarterback-driven league, then the AFC North sets the standard with Jackson, Burrow, Watson and now Wilson, with Fields and Winston as backups.

That’s a star-studded group. That’s what makes this division so promising.

Can’t we start the season now? Please.

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