2015 AFC North Preview: Will the Steelers Repeat as Champions?

Three AFC North teams advanced to last year's playoffs. Do our projections predict they'll do it again?

Last season, the AFC North proved once again that it may be the toughest division in football. With both AFC playoff wild card spots coming out of the division, three AFC North teams competed in last year's playoffs, taking over over for an AFC West division that performed the same feat in 2013.

Led by tough running games and tough defenses, the AFC North has provided some of the best recent rivalries in the game, and 2015 should continue to bring more of the same.

Can last year's 11-5 Pittsburgh Steelers repeat as AFC North Champions?

Let's see what numberFire's projections have to say.

4. Cleveland Browns

Key Additions: Josh McCown (QB), Dwayne Bowe (WR), Brian Hartline (WR), Rob Housler (TE), Cameron Erving (C)
Key Losses: Jordan Cameron (TE), Brian Hoyer (QB)

The Cleveland Browns -- despite finishing last year at 7-9 -- had one of the worst offenses in the league in 2014, as they finished 32nd in Adjusted Rushing Net Expected Points (NEP) and 26th in Adjusted Passing NEP.

Led by a pair of rookies and an unsuccessful stint by Ben Tate, the rushing attack never took flight as the offensive line struggled to create holes for the backs after losing center Alex Mack by mid-October. In fact, the Browns had a tough time run blocking, as the line allowed 22% of their rushing attempts to be "stuffed" where the running back was either tackled at or behind the line of scrimmage according to Football Outsiders. Only Tampa Bay was stuffed at a more frequent rate (23%). Adding the versatile Cameron Erving to help solidify the offensive line in numerous spots was a great insurance pick if Mack struggles getting back to health or decides to walk in a contract-year.

The onus didn't fall entirely on the offensive line, however. Out of the 73 running backs with at least 50 carries last season, Isaiah Crowell ranked 36th in Rushing NEP, Terrance West ranked 50th, and Ben Tate fell to 61st. Each back had negative scores -- which isn't uncommon, as rushing is generally less effective than passing -- but Tate's -14.46 cost his team over two scores when they decided to utilize him rushing the ball. Cutting him was a smart move by the Browns front office given his inefficiencies.

Adding Miami's Duke Johnson via the draft could help alleviate some of the Browns' rushing concerns. Johnson is a patient, versatile rusher who should immediately be able to come in and have an impact in a receiving role. An adept explosive rusher, Johnson has a nose for finding first downs and Cleveland is hoping this can transfer over to the next level.

Cleveland's passing attack will see a facelift this season, as the team is moving on from Brian Hoyer and tries to see if journeyman Josh McCown can bring life to this offense. Adding Dwayne Bowe, Brian Hartline, and Rob Housler won't ignite the Dawg Pound into hysteria, but at least the front office is trying to provide some change to a passing attack that left much to be desired.

McCown may not be the solution they're looking for. Last year throwing to big targets like Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson, McCown had one of the worst Passing NEP scores of all quarterbacks with putrid inefficiency ranking in the bottom five of all passers with 100 or more drop backs. Now he gets to target Dwayne Bowe and Brian Hartline instead? There's a reason we have him ranked as our 28th quarterback in our fantasy projections.

Bowe should see the bulk of the targets in new offensive coordinator John DeFilippo's scheme, but even our projections have him at a modest 62.51 receptions for 788.18 yards and 3.10 touchdowns; the rest of the depth chart desperately needs an upgrade. Andrew Hawkins (5'7") and Taylor Gabriel (5'8") will provide a stark contrast from McCown's previous wideouts. Fourth-round pick Vince Mayle has the size teams covet (6'2", 225 pound), but after a disappointing combine, the slow receiver may need to hone his craft before seeing significant playing time. Not paying up for Jordan Cameron, despite the concussion worries, may come back to haunt Cleveland as it's passing game is in dire need of playmakers.

Key Additions: Tramon Williams (CB), Randy Starks (DE), Danny Shelton (NT), Nate Orchard (OLB)
Key Losses: Jabaal Sheard (OLB)

Cleveland's defense continues to make forward progress as the front office continues to spend considerable draft equity on this side of the ball.

The front-seven looks to add some new blood along the defensive line in Randy Starks and first-round pick Danny Shelton at the nose. After giving up the most yards on the ground last year, Cleveland had to create a new identity up front and are hoping these two can be more disruptive in their opponent's backfield.

Losing Jabaal Sheard takes admitting defeat, as Cleveland's former second-rounder was only able to garner 7.5 sacks over the last two years after what started off as a promising rookie campaign. Utah's Nate Orchard will be added to the pass rushing rotation for the Browns behind Barkevious Mingo and Paul Kruger. Orchard was a disruptive player in the Pac-12 and will transition from a 4-3 defensive end into a 3-4 outside linebacker after accumulating 18.5 sacks.

The Browns had one of the better passing defenses, ranking sixth in numberFire's Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP metric. Adding long time Green Bay veteran Tramon Williams to join Joe Haden could help improve this secondary into one of the top units if last year's first-round pick Justin Gilbert can elevate his performance. Donte Whitner and Tashaun Gipson -- whose six interceptions were the second most in the league last year -- round out the back end and quite the formidable secondary.

2015 Outlook
The offense doesn't have a lot of reasons for optimism heading into 2015, but hopefully rookie Duke Johnson can provide a much needed spark. The additions Cleveland made to the defense were terrific and should help an already strong unit solidify into one of the best in the league if their rushing defense improves. However, that task won't be easy though in a rough AFC North that features some of the league's top running backs.

Projected Record: 6.9-9.1
Division Probability: 11.0%
Playoff Probability: 16.8%

3. Cincinnati Bengals

Key Additions: Cedric Ogbuehi (OT), Jake Fisher (OT)
Key Losses: Jermaine Gresham (TE)

The Bengals offense was bit by the injury bug, as A.J. GreenTyler Eifert, Marvin Jones, and Andre Smith all spent serious time in the trainer's room. The fourth-ranked offense by Adjusted Rushing NEP was bolstered even further this offseason adding back to back first- and second-round picks to the offensive line. An already impressive line, this unit should improve even more in 2015 with some quality depth behind the starters.

Jeremy Hill had a terrific rookie campaign once the coaching staff allowed him to take the lead back role in the offense. After a Week 9 explosion against the Jaguars, Hill went on to lead the league in rushing for the remainder of the season while putting up the seventh most fantasy points, the fourth most rushing touchdowns, and the fourth best Rushing NEP among all backs.  

Giovani Bernard will continue to help out in a dynamic manner rushing and receiving as he put up the 13th highest Total NEP of the 43 backs with at least 100 carries. Moving into more of a receiving role after an injury led to the emergence of Hill -- Hill went from averaging 19.3 snaps per game to 40.0 snaps after Week 9 -- both will retain fantasy value in an offense that ran the ball the fifth most in the league last year.

Working much of the season without a full deck, Andy Dalton struggled in 2014 as injuries to his key targets led to one of his worst seasons. Dalton's completions, attempts, passing yards, and touchdowns fell off a cliff as Dalton went from 2013's fifth overall fantasy quarterback to 19th. Bringing back a healthy A.J. Green is paramount to Dalton's success as Green has been Dalton's main target by a landslide when on the field. After missing three games and hobbling through several more at less than 100%, a healthy Green can help revitalize a passing attack that desperately needs it's top receiver.

Marvin Jones returns after spending all of last season on Injured Reserve. Jones is only a year removed from a 10-touchdown campaign, and is a great buy-low at his current redraft ADP of WR55. Mohamed Sanu came on last year out of necessity, but after leading the league with 14 drops, it's fair to say he bit off more than he could chew. Tyler Eifert looks to take over the role vacated by Jermaine Gresham after a season-ending elbow injury in Week 1 last year. Eifert has the speed, size, and draft pedigree and looks to have a monster year as the Bengals best option behind Green. After missing so many key pieces on this side of the ball last year, don't be surprised if this Bengals offense turns quite a few heads in 2015.

Key Additions: Michael Johnson (DE), A.J. Hawk (LB), Paul Dawson (LB), Josh Shaw (CB)
Key Losses: Terrance Newman (CB), Robert Geathers (DE)

Returning two dominant defenders back from injury last year in Geno Atkins and Vontaze Burfict, the two playmakers will be a welcome addition back after spending much of the season on the injury report. Adding Michael Johnson and A.J. Hawk should be just the shot in the arm this Cincinnati front seven needs to regain it's 2013 pedigree. A middle of the pack team against the run, the Bengals could use Atkins returning to his 2012 form to turn this squad around.

Posting a league-low 20 sacks last year, the Bengals struggled on defense getting consistent pressure to the opposing quarterback. The aforementioned Micheal Johnson returns to try and help bolster the pass rush as the former 2009 third-rounder returns to Cincinnati. 

Cincinnati allowed the third fewest passing touchdowns last year, and they ranked fifth defending the pass in Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP. The Bengals secondary will expect more out of 2012 first-rounder Dre Kirkpatrick in the wake of Terence Newman's departure if they hope to keep that ranking in 2015.

Rookies Paul Dawson and Josh Shaw have the most direct path to playing time and after the injuries this squad endured, they'll be welcomed depth.

2015 Outlook
After seeing the Bengals post a 10-5-1 record with both the quantity and quality of injuries Cincinnati sustained last year, it wouldn't be surprising to see the Bengals give the projections a run for their money. However in a conference overloaded in talent -- particularly in the AFC North division -- they'll have a tough road ahead of them.

Projected Record: 8.0-8.0
Division Probability: 24.1%
Playoff Probability: 34.6%

2. Pittsburgh Steelers

Key Additions: DeAngelo Williams (RB), Sammie Coates (WR)
Key Losses: Lance Moore (WR)

The Steelers finished 2014 as the AFC North Champions, but were ousted from the playoffs quickly by their rival Baltimore Ravens. The Steelers were one of the most entertaining teams to watch in 2014 and it all started with a dynamic, explosive offense.

After shedding nearly 20 pounds in the 2014 offseason, a leaner Le'Veon Bell came in with a historic campaign for the ages. Bell compiled 1,361 rushing yards and 8 touchdowns while adding another 83 receptions for 854 receiving yards and 3 additional scores. Bell was at least a top-24 performer every week of the fantasy season while providing 11 top-12 weeks. In fact, Chase Stuart noted that during Bell's four-game span starting in Week 11 against the Titans, Bell acquired the 7th-most fantasy points in a four-game stretch ever by a running back. Despite a currently reduced two-game suspension, Bell has climbed into the conversation as being the top fantasy option in fantasy circles this upcoming season.

Running behind a steady offensive line that returns all five starters, the Steelers have finally set a foundation for the offense in a unit that produces well both run blocking and in pass protection. Longtime Carolina Panther DeAngelo Williams will answer the bell during Le'Veon's suspension, but the 32-year-old will likely just be a change of pace back with little fantasy relevance upon Bell's return.

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was given a huge contract extension, capable of escalating up to $108 million over the next five seasons. Finally being given some offensive weapons on the perimeter to work with, Roethlisberger had arguably his best season last year throwing for 4,952 yards with 32 touchdowns. Big Ben had the third-highest Passing NEP score among all quarterbacks trailing only Aaron Rodgers and Peyton Manning while setting an NFL record for throwing more than 500 yards twice in a career. Roethlisberger was also a very consistent fantasy quarterback, as he had 9 different weeks of top-12 performances.

The man paving the way for much of Roethlisberger's success was the ever-reliable Antonio Brown. Brown's current streak of 32 consecutive games with at least five catches and 50 yards has shattered Laveranues Coles' 19-game streak. With a built-in floor like that, Brown's fantasy value is as consistent as can be, but his fantasy ceiling -- Brown had 10 top-12 weeks -- is what warrants bringing two Steelers into the first round of fantasy picks and why we have him as our highest projected fantasy wide receiver.

Sophomore receiver Martavis Bryant was part of the historic 2014 rookie wide receiver class, and expectation for Bryant in an expanded role are bordering sky-high. Bryant has seen his average draft position rise from a 6th-7th round pick in early June up to 4th-5th round pick over the past two months. This growing hype isn't unwarranted, as Bryant's ability to turn just 48 targets into 8 touchdowns has owners eager to see how his sophomore season plays out. The rest of the wide receiver corp includes the somewhat neglected Markus Wheaton who saw dwindling snap counts in favor of Bryant as the season wore on, and rookie Sammie Coates. The ageless Heath Miller rounds out the rest of the Roethlisberger's viable targets as he finished as the 11th best fantasy tight end last year but enters his age-33 season with the behemoth 6'7" rookie Jesse James waiting in the wings.

Key Additions: Bud Dupree (OLB), Brandon Boykin (CB)
Key Losses: Troy Polamalu (S), Jason Worilds (OLB), Brett Keisel (DE)

Pittsburgh's defense loses one of it's greatest defenders in team history in Troy Polamalu to retirement, as the rest of the defense looks to improve on their eighth-worst standing by our overall Defensive Adjusted NEP metric. The Steelers defense ranked below the league average in almost every significant defensive category in Dick LeBeau's final season with Pittsburgh.

The Steelers continue to look for adept pass rushers as they now bring in Kentucky's Bud Dupree to fight for a starting position with Jarvis Jones and Arthur Moats following the sudden retirement of Jason Worilds. 37-year-old James Harrison continues to get it done, but Pittsburgh needs more from the two first-round picks. Ryan Shazier brings optimism to the inside linebacking crew, but needs to stay healthy.

A much maligned secondary got a boost late last week as they added Philadelphia's Brandon Boykin in exchange for a future draft pick. Despite playing on a limited basis as a nickel corner in Chip Kelly's defense, Boykin ranked as a top-25 cornerback that past two years according to ProFootballFocus. Boykin will join William Gay and Cortez Allen in a secondary that's in dire need of an injection of talent. With Shamarko Thomas and Mike Mitchell filling out the back end, new defensive coordinator Keith Butler better hope his pass rush hits home early and often.

2015 Outlook 

Projected Record: 8.1-7.9
Division Probability: 25.8%
Playoff Probability: 35.9%

1. Baltimore Ravens

Key Additions: Breshad Perriman (WR), Maxx Williams (TE), Javorius Allen (RB), Matt Schaub (QB)
Key Losses: Torrey Smith (WR), Owen Daniels (TE), Jacoby Jones (WR)

The 2014 Ravens finished the season defeating the AFC North Champion Pittsburgh Steelers in the Wild Card Round of the playoffs before losing to the eventual Superbowl Champion New England Patriots in the Divisional Round. After offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak left to Denver, the Ravens hired Marc Trestman to implement his pass-friendly offense and see if he can take Baltimore even further in the playoffs.

The Ravens needed an injection of youth on offense, and that's precisely what General Manager Ozzie Newsome did in this year's draft. Adding Breshad Perriman, Maxx Williams, and Javorius Allen via the draft will provide Joe Flacco some new weapons to complement veterans Steve Smith and Justin Forsett.

Baltimore's running game improved substantially last year going from PFF's 24th ranked run blocking unit in 2013 to the 4th best in 2014. Marshal Yanda ended up being PFF's highest graded offensive lineman in the entire league as he helped pave the way for journeyman Justin Forsett to have a career year.

After rushing for a career-high 1,266 yards and 8 touchdowns, Forsett was re-signed this offseason for a new three-year deal and will likely become a PPR machine in Trestman's offense. After hauling in 44 receptions last season, Forsett could surpass his career high as Trestman's backs have averaged over 100 receptions during his time as either an offensive coordinator or head coach. Fourth-round pick Javorius Allen should edge out Lorenzo Taliaferro becoming the second stringer as Allen was a productive one-cut downhill runner at USC with reliable hands (41 receptions final year).

Joe Flacco is coming off the heels of a career-year passing for 3,986 yards and 27 touchdowns. Considering these are career-best numbers, it's no wonder Flacco has remained a mid-level QB2 for fantasy purposes. Transitioning to Trestman's playcalling, Flacco will likely see an increase in the short and medium-range targets where Steve Smith and Forsett stand to benefit the most.

Steve Smith saw a renaissance of sorts after joining Baltimore last season, but the magic wore off fairly quickly. Smith saw 53.8% of his receiving yards in the first six weeks of the season, as his productivity fell precipitously. Perhaps utilizing the 36-year old more often as a mid-range target could help provide the 14-year veteran with fresher legs throughout the course of the season. 

First-round pick Breshad Perriman and his 4.24 40-yard time should take over the role recently vacated by former Raven Torrey Smith. At 6'2", 212 pounds, Perriman's size and speed will be a welcome addition to the Baltimore offense. A depth chart full of unproven young veterans will likely provide a tough task for Flacco if injuries arise to the receiving corp.

With the future uncertain regarding Dennis Pitta, 21-year old Maxx Williams will be a welcome addition to the Baltimore offense. Williams was among the most productive tight ends in college football last year accounting for nearly 35% of the Minnesota Gopher's receiving yards. While relying on rookie tight ends for fantasy success is often a misguided venture, Williams may be thrust into the starters role out of necessity sooner rather than later.

Key Additions: Kendrick Lewis (FS), Kyle Arrington (CB), Carl Davis (NT)
Key Losses: Haloti Ngata (DE), Pernell McPhee (LB)

The Ravens had one of the most formidable run-stopping units last year ranking 4th in Adjusted Defense NEP against the run. Losing long time veteran Haloti Ngata will take away some of the leadership from this defensive unit, but Baltimore has some great pieces on a defense that seems to be constantly retooling.

Rookie C.J. Mosley was a revelation at inside linebacker, as he immediately flourished picking up 133 tackles en route to his first Pro Bowl. Paired beside Daryl Smith, this duo forms one of the best inside linebacker tandems in the league. Timmy Jernigan will see big uptick in playing time after seeing only 28% of the team's defensive snaps last year to replace Ngata's defensive end position.

Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil continue to be a force to be reckoned with as they combined for 29 of Baltimore's 49 sacks last year. A pass defense gets bolstered with the return of a healthy Jimmy Smith and some newcomers in Kendrick Lewis and Kyle Arrington to provide an immediate upgrade. Unfortunate news on Matt Elam and his recently torn bicep will likely cause the former 2nd rounder to miss all of the 2015 season and thrust Will Hill into the starting rotation.

2015 Outlook 
Facing the 11th most difficult schedule by Strength of Schedule, the Ravens surprisingly have the best odds of representing the AFC North. The Browns face the 9th-most difficult schedule, the Bengals have the 2nd, and the Steelers face with most difficult road to success. A tough division with a tough schedule should make for another incredible slate of games in what looks to be another exciting NFL season in the AFC North.

Projected Record: 8.9-7.1
Division Probability: 39.2%
Playoff Probability: 51.2%