So the NFL’s 2022 participants have been decided after each team has completed their annual post-camp bloodletting. As usual, some tenured veterans and familiar names were released Tuesday along with the expected slew of rookies, drafted or otherwise, with several from columns A and B landing on various practice squads. While there’s still plenty of internal movement between IR and active rosters. the players are mostly set.
For better or worse.
Here’s a glancing, quick-take assessment of the AFC North’s teams in 2022, and as little extrapolation as I can offer.
Last season’s winners of the “Decimated By Injuries” award, the Ravens are still reeling from the large spate of ailments and broken appendages they experienced in 2021, and things may not improve much anytime soon. Mercurial QB Lamar Jackson has imposed a negotiating deadline of the season opener for his new contract, although the assumption is he’ll play regardless of whether a new deal is in place or not. The RB room is essentially where we left it in ’21, with presumed starter J.K. Dobbins and backup Gus Edwards still rehabbing; a slate of backups will carry the load initially. The WR corp is wholly dependent on second-year WR Rashod Bateman, because, well…there’s just not much else. The TE group appears to be the strength of the offense. Given Jackson’s propensity to use his TEs more than most, this is a good thing.
Defensively, this group is still lacking a consistent pass-rushing presence. Rookie OLB Davd Ojabo may one day fill that role, but he remains sidelined by an Achilles injury suffered at February’s combine. For now, the group has assembled a hodgepodge of veterans and young players to rush the passer, led by second-year OLB Odafe Oweh. The secondary, mostly intact and sporting a couple of shiny new additions at safety, may be crucial to any success this middling group of edge players may provide.
Even in trying to keep this brief, I’m not sure where to begin.
The Browns will be without embattled QB Deshaun Watson for the first 11 games of the season, and while backup Jacoby Brissett is a solid option to start a game or two, it’s doubtful he’s going to provide the same degree of athleticism and awareness Watson would. Gleaning four wins from the initial 11 would be an achievement for this offense, who will again rely on the prodigious rushing talents of RBs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt to establish their play-action passing attack. WR addition Amari Cooper may help, but without Watson, it’s anyone’s guess how much.
The Browns, however, sport a capable defense with few holes. CB Denzel Ward received a five-year extension this offseason after his best professional season. Edge rusher Jadeveon Clowney was re-signed, eliminating the need to scour the rookie market. The only real weakness appears to be the interior of the defensive line, where recent draftee Perrion Winfrey may have to accelerate his learning curve.
Gone is longtime QB and probable first-ballot Hall of Famer Ben Roethlisberger, whose practice visit last week had a few folks speculating about a possible return (not happening). The resulting QB battle has probably produced a starter from the ranks of rookie Kenny Pickett and free agent pickup Mitch Trubisky, but as of this writing, the team has yet to disclose who that might be. Regardless, this offense may struggle a bit unless they get better play from the offensive line. Second-year RB Najee Harris will again carry the lion’s share for this offense, and with a solid group of receiving targets including WRs Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool and rookie George Pickens, options should be available to move the ball…if the protection is capable and consistent. This preseason, it simply hasn’t been.
The team will roll out essentially the same slate of defenders as 2021’s, with the addition of DT Larry Ogunjobi, ILB Myles Jack and CB Levi Wallace the only notable personnel changes. This group will go as excellent OLB T.J. Watt goes; his presence should again open up pass rushing opportunities on the reverse side of wherever he lines up. Maddeningly-inconsistent MLB Devin Bush is nominally the starter, but unless he shows more of his former acumen, he will surely be benched in favor of capable backup Robert Spillane.
The Bengals spent the offseason addressing their formidable protection issues, hoping to keep prized QB Joe Burrow from again being one of the most sacked QBs in the NFL. Several new linemen, including former Pro Bowl RT La’el Collins, should help in this regard considerably. The skill positions remain largely intact from 2021, with the lone notable addition of TE Hayden Hurst, who will provide Burrow with a passing safety valve of sorts should his protection not improve. RB Joe Mixon is expected to resume his ascension among the league’s better RBs after setting career highs in almost every statistical RB category in 2021.
The Bengals may struggle a little initially at CB, where highly-drafted rookies Dax Hill and Cam Taylor-Britt must grow into their roles quickly. Underrated DE Trey Hendrickson should be ready to pick up where he left off last season in a Pro Bowl campaign, keying off the defensive line’s sizable interior. Overall, this unit is improved from a talent perspective, so their only issues may result from how long it takes them to jell.