Who Dey?

BtB Previews the 2007 AFC North
By Paul Bessire, WhatIfSports.com
June 13th 2007

We will preview an NFL division each day for eight days, before presenting final standings, leaders, award winners and playoff results. This analysis is part of a broader endeavor with FOXSports.com's Fantasy Football. Each regular season game is simulated 61 times, with the sum of the averages of those games being our final predicted outcome. This allows us to account for ever player and stat as well as assign probabilities of winning for each team for every game. Rosters and depth charts are up-to-date and as accurate as possible as of June 10, 2007. A schedule of upcoming NFL preview content is listed here.

Today we will preview the AFC North.

Cincinnati Bengals (9-7)
After entering the 2006 season with aspirations to be the best conference in all of football, the AFC North is very average in 2007. Ultimately, the team that did not lose a playmaker at linebacker to free agency (though a strong case can be made that it never had one to begin with) emerges as just slightly better than average to win the division. The Bengals aerial attack averages 24.7 points per game and the defense allows 22.3 points a game against a light schedule that features just three 2007 playoff teams.

Offensive Outlook: The 24.7 points a game are seventh in the NFL and third in the AFC. Carson Palmer is not just a budding superstar for this team anymore, he is the franchise. He is also clearly a top five quarterback who solidifies that with another healthy solid season, throwing for 4,489 yards and 32 touchdowns - both second in the league. If Carson has become the team's offensive leader, Rudi Johnson, along with tackle Willie Anderson, is the team's rock and model of consistent production. Rudi's statistical production wanes slightly with backups Kenny Watson and Kenny Irons in the mix, but he still puts up 1,279 rushing yards and keeps pressure off of Palmer. For a high-powered offense with a great passing attack and two elite receivers, the Bengals have very little experience and depth at the position. After Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh, who both tally 98 receptions, third-year player Tab Perry emerges as a viable third receiver in place of the suspended Chris Henry. Despite nine career receptions before the season, Perry grabs 48 balls and scores five touchdowns. With some uncertainty at receiver, tight end Reggie Kelly is targeted more than ever. He responds with a career-high 32 catches and three touchdowns.

Defensive Outlook: The 22.3 points a game allowed are 18th in the league. In 2005, the defense looked like it could become one of the game's greatest. But, the injury to David Pollack, legal woes of Odell Thurman and decline of cornerbacks Deltha O'Neal and the departed Tory James stymied those hopes. A rebuilt secondary and versatile linebacking corps may not have the Bengals among the league's elite, but the defense does enough to help Cincinnati to the division championship. Justin Smith and Robert Geathers return to a defensive line that makes a ton of tackles, while also getting to the quarterback. Both get to double digit sacks with ten and 12 respectively. Veteran John Thornton and second year player Domata Peko anchor the athletic line that actually improves without Sam Adams. Inexperience and athleticism characterize the linebackers. Landon Johnson again leads the team in tackles, while Rashad Jeanty and Ahmad Brooks improve on impressive 2006 rookie campaigns. The secondary may not pick 31 passes off as it did in 2005, but it improves over 2006. Part of that is an easier schedule, yet health and stability may be the biggest factors in the squad's success. Hard-hitting Madieu Williams and the ball-hawking Dexter Jackson are perfect compliments to each other at safety. And, second year standout Jonathan Joseph leads the team with six interceptions. The other cornerback position is filled by O'Neal and rookie Hall. Much like Joseph last year, Hall looks much quicker than O'Neal and sees quite a bit of playing time, intercepting five passes and making 51 tackles.

Schedule (simulated 2007 record in parentheses): Baltimore (8-8), @Cleveland (5-11), @Seattle (6-10), New England (12-4), @Kansas City (9-7), NYJ (9-7), Pittsburgh (7-9), @Buffalo (7-9), @Baltimore (8-8), Arizona (8-8), Tennessee (3-13), @Pittsburgh (7-9), St. Louis (8-8), @San Francisco (11-5), Cleveland (5-11), @Miami (8-8)

Fantasy Notables (fantasy rank at position in parentheses): Carson Palmer (2) 4,489 yards, 32 TDs, 16 INTs; Rudi Johnson (15) 1,279 yards rushing, 20 receptions, 11 total TDs; Chad Johnson (9) 98 receptions, 1,362 yards, 8 TDs; T.J. Houshmandzadeh (19) 98 receptions, 1,144 yards, 8 TDs; Reggie Kelly (21) 32 receptions, 361 yards, 3 TDs; Shayne Graham (11) 43/44 XPs, 25/32 FGs; Defense (17) 21 INTs, 35 sacks, 357 points allowed.

Baltimore Ravens (8-8)
2006 may have been Steve McNair and Ray Lewis' last chances at getting back to the Super Bowl. In 2007, even with Willis McGahee in place of Jamal Lewis, the team looks older, a step slower and, well, average. Still, Baltimore will contend for a competitive division title with a team that will score 20.4 points a game and allow 21.8, versus a schedule that features six games against 2007 playoff teams.

Offensive Outlook: The 20.4 points a game are 23rd in the NFL and 12th in the AFC. McNair is not bad, but he is nothing like the player who once won an MVP. He throws for 2,787 and 17 TDs in a not-to-surprisingly injury-plagued year. After a disappointing season by Jamal Lewis in 2006, the Ravens hope to upgrade at running back with McGahee. It did not really happen the way they had hoped, as someone missed the fact that McGahee is more injury prone and had an eerily similar season to Lewis in 2006. Add that to losses on the offensive line, and McGahee rushes for under four yards a carry and is out-shined by Mike Anderson and Musa Smith. On a positive note, the Ravens seem to have a trio of good receivers in Derrick Mason, Mark Clayton and Demetrius Williams. Williams breaks out with 523 yards and three touchdowns. Williams' performance steals some catches from standout tight end Todd Heap, yet Heap still looks great with 582 yards and three TDs.

Defensive Outlook: The Ravens defense was historically good in 2006, leading the league with just 12.5 points allowed a game. They take a step back in 2007 against a very difficult schedule. The 21.8 points a game allowed are 16th best in the league. The Ravens' line has never been its strongest asset, but it usually contains depth and multiple run-stuffers. This year, Trevor Pryce and Haloti Ngata lead a line that lacks depth and athleticism. Only 12 of the team's 46 sacks come from the line. Adalius Thomas' departure to New England leaves a void that cannot be filled by just one player, let alone Dan Cody, Gary Stills, Jarrett Johnson or rookie Prescott Burgess. Bart Scott, Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs still make this one of the better linebacker corps in the league, but the loss of Thomas, who played everything from end to safety, cannot be under-valued. The secondary stays intact with Samari Rolle, Chris McAlister, Ed Reed and Dawan Landry. Reed leads the team in interceptions with six.

Schedule (simulated 2007 record in parentheses): @Cincinnati (9-7), NYJ (9-7), Arizona (8-8), @Cleveland (5-11), @San Francisco (11-5), St. Louis (8-8), @Buffalo (7-9), @Pittsburgh (7-9), Cincinnati (9-7), Cleveland (5-11), @San Diego (11-5), New England (12-4), Indianapolis (10-6), @Miami (8-8), @Seattle (6-10), Pittsburgh (7-9)

Fantasy Notables (fantasy rank at position in parentheses): Steve McNair (28) 2787 yards, 17 TDs, 11 INTs; Willis McGahee (14) 1,327 yards rushing, 17 receptions, 11 total TDs; Mark Clayton (36) 67 receptions, 874 yards, 5 TDs; Derrick Mason (61) 63 receptions, 681 yards, 4 TDs; Demetrius Williams (74) 28 receptions, 523 yards, 3 TDs; Todd Heap (9) 57 receptions, 582 yards, 3 TDs; Matt Stover (17) 34/34 XPs, 27/30 FGs; Defense (14) 17 INTs, 46 sacks, 350 points allowed.

Pittsburgh Steelers (7-9)
Is Joey Porter worth one win? Probably not. But, that's the only real difference between the 2006 and 2007 Steelers who decline slightly despite Ben Roethlisberger's health. In 2007, the Steelers will score 21.8 points a game and allow 23.1, versus a schedule that features five games against 2007 playoff teams.

Offensive Outlook: The 21.8 points a game are 18th in the NFL and ninth in the AFC. Roethlisberger improves slightly with his health and better relationship with head coach Mike Tomlin. Big Ben still hurts the team with turnovers though, throwing for 3,681 yards and 25 touchdowns, but also a conference-high 19 interceptions. Willie Parker will remain the feature back even after the team added Kevan Barlow and Najeh Davenport and re-signed Verron Haynes. Parker just breaks the 1,000 yard mark with 1,055 yards and seven touchdowns. The real surprise on the offense though is the emergence of a clear #2 receiver in Santonio Holmes. The 2006 first round draft choice out of Ohio State snags 64 balls for 980 yards and six touchdowns, as the perfect deep-threat compliment to productivity of Hines Ward. Nate Washington and Cedrick Wilson return to make the corps as formidable and deep as any receiving group in the conference. The tight ends are improved as well with a healthy pass-catching Heath Miller with blocking specialist Jerame Tuman and the addition of all-around rookie Matt Spaeth. The three of them combine for 61 catches, 685 yards and five touchdowns. The offense may have improved slightly from 2006, yet it still lacks the sizzle and creativity of 2005 with Antwaan Randle El.

Defensive Outlook: The 23.1 points a game allowed are 21st in the league. It's not that the team got much worse on paper with Joey Porter's signing with Miami - in fact it may have improved with youth and athleticism - but it got older and will face several high-profile offense. The line includes the generally rated run and pass thread Aaron Smith and mammoth tackle Casey Hampton. At linebacker, the team is fairly strong with veterans Clark Haggans, Larry Foote and James Farrior. Rookies Lawrence Timmons and Lemarr Woodley will also add speed and youth as outside linebackers who can shift to end to add pass-rush ability and versatility to some of Tomlin's formations. In fact, 13 Steelers will record a sack in 2007. If healthy, the backfield is also above average and experienced. Safety Troy Polamalu struggled in 2006 with an injury and without Chris Hope playing centerfield. Polamalu will look more like he the playmaker he was in 2005 with 79 tackles, four interceptions and three sacks.

Schedule (simulated 2007 record in parentheses): @Cleveland (5-11), Buffalo (8-8), San Francisco (11-5), @Arizona (8-8), Seattle (6-10), @Denver (11-5), @Cincinnati (9-7), Baltimore (8-8), Cleveland (5-11), @NYJ (9-7), Miami (8-8), Cincinnati (9-7), @New England (12-4), Jacksonville (9-7), @St. Louis (8-8), @Baltimore (8-8)

Fantasy Notables (fantasy rank at position in parentheses): Ben Roethlisberger (14) 3681 yards, 25 TDs, 19 INTs; Willie Parker (17) 1,055 yards rushing, 33 receptions, 9 total TDs; Hines Ward (15) 95 receptions, 1,220 yards, 7 TDs; Santonio Holmes (28) 64 receptions, 980 yards, 6 TDs; Heath Miller (13) 45 receptions, 514 yards, 4 TDs; Jeff Reed (27) 39/40 XPs, 21/28 FGs; Defense (19) 19 INTs, 34 sacks, 370 points allowed.

Cleveland Browns (5-11)
Before 2006, we took quite a bit of heat for predicting the Browns would be 5-11. Clearly, we were wrong as Cleveland actually finished 4-12. The city is hot right now with a basketball team in the finals and a baseball team leading its division. They also have a young football team with a lot of talent. Unfortunately, that may do far more harm than good for the city, giving it too much hope for a team that seems to be in a perpetually rebuilding mode. In 2007, the Browns will score 18.5 points a game and allow 28.6, versus a schedule that features four games against 2007 playoff teams.

Offensive Outlook: The 18.5 points a game are 29th in the NFL and 14th in the AFC. Some of the hype that surrounds the Browns concerns rookie quarterback Brady Quinn. Quinn will sit out for the first seven weeks until the Browns are essentially eliminated from playoff contention, before unseating incumbent Charlie Frye. Quinn is a mild upgrade over Frye, but cannot account for a lack of running game and an inexperienced line that features fellow first round pick in Wisconsin's Joe Thomas. The Browns tried to make a big splash in the market by signing Jamal Lewis to play running back. Lewis may be able to literally carry the load, but he has averaged 3.4 and 3.6 yards per carry in the last two seasons respectively. With a worse line in Cleveland, Lewis barely gets to 1,000 yards with 1,008 and eight touchdowns. The rapport that Braylon Edwards had with Frye will give way to the more accurate arm of Quinn who can spread the field a little more. Edwards, Joe Jurevicius and Tim Carter combine for 163 catches for 2199 yards and 13 touchdowns. Add in a tight end who has the skills of a receiver in Kellen Winslow, and there is quite a bit of talent on this team. They are still, and may always be, just a few years away.

Defensive Outlook: The 28.6 points a game allowed are 30th in the league. Clearly, in this season of rebuilding, the Browns focused on offense. Maybe, with a high draft choice next season, they can address needs on defense. At this point, the line is mostly comprised of rookies and cast-offs from other teams and lacks any pass-rushing threat. At linebacker, the team is much deeper and has some promise. Romeo Crennel favorite Willie McGinest plays the role of experienced leader and mentor to star-in-the-making Kamerion Wimbley along with Leon Williams and Andra Davis. Wimbley follows up an impressive rookie campaign with 64 tackles and nine sacks. The defensive backfield should be healthier than last season, but uncertainty still plagues the team at cornerback. Leigh Bodden and Gary Baxter looked great in 2005, but struggle with injuries and poor play in 2006 and 2007. Daven Holly and rookie Eric Wright must fill in throughout the season. The best player on this defense, if not the team, is Sean Jones. Jones leads the team with 103 tackles and six interceptions. Building around Wimbley, Davis, Jones and maybe even Wright makes the future look bright. But of course, many people said the same thing about McGinest, Roye, Bodden and Baxter in 2005 (just before we predicted them to go 5-11).

Schedule (simulated 2007 record in parentheses): Pittsburgh (7-9), Cincinnati (9-7), @Oakland (7-9), Baltimore (8-8), @New England (12-4), Miami (8-8), @St. Louis (8-8), Seattle (6-10), @Pittsburgh (7-9), @Baltimore (8-8), Houston (5-11), @Arizona (8-8), @NYJ (9-7), Buffalo (8-8), @Cincinnati (9-7), San Francisco (11-5)

Fantasy Notables (fantasy rank at position in parentheses): Brady Quinn (32) 2224 yards, 14 TDs, 12 INTs; Charlie Frye (33) 1435 yards, 8 TDs, 10 INTs; Jamal Lewis (25) 1,008 yards rushing, 19 receptions, 9 total TDs; Braylon Edwards (25) 65 receptions, 1050 yards, 6 TDs; Joe Jurevicius (38) 71 receptions, 826 yards, 4 TDs; Kellen Winslow (3) 85 receptions, 933 yards, 5 TDs; Steve Heiden (25) 40 receptions, 359 yards, 2 TDs; Phil Dawson (31) 34/35 XPs, 20/26 FGs; Defense (30) 18 INTs, 34 sacks, 457 points allowed.

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