Cleveland Browns
Season Outlook: Coming off a 1-15 season, the Browns will be looking to get that first win out of the way. However, the NFL has made that pretty difficult for Cleveland early on. They will open up with Pittsburgh at home, and go on the road to face Baltimore and Indianapolis. The Browns schedule features only 4 teams that made the playoffs last season (Steelers x 2, Lions, Texans, and Packers). This year’s opponents for Cleveland had a combined record of 120-136 in 2016, which is tied for the 21st toughest in the NFL. They will go to London to face Minnesota in week 8, and finish the season with match-ups in Chicago and Pittsburgh. If the Browns can steal a win or two in the first three games, they will gain some confidence for the duration of the year.

Biggest Question Mark: The biggest question mark for the Browns is one that has been asked since the return of football in Cleveland. Who is going to be the quarterback? Deshone Kizer was drafted in the second round and looked good in week 1 of the preseason. Brock Osweiler appears to be the leader in the clubhouse, and I expect him to start the opener against the Steelers. The big question is how soon can Kizer be ready and can Osweiler play well enough to hold off the rookie? With the acquisitions of center J.C. Tretter and Kevin Zeitler on the offensive line, they should make it easier for whoever is under center.

Player to Watch: The player I am most interested in seeing this season is rookie safety Jabrill Peppers. I believe this is the most dynamic player Cleveland has had since Joshua Cribbs. Obviously they have their differences, but Peppers is going to be a play maker for this team. I expect him to play safety, cornerback, and linebacker on defense. He will bring a spark to the special teams in the return game as well. The big question is will Hue Jackson use him on offense at all? Only time will tell.

Offensive MVP: RB, Isaiah Crowell
Defensive MVP: LB, Christian Kirksey
Breakout Player: TE, Seth DeValve
Prediction: 5-11, 3rd place in AFC North

Pittsburgh Steelers
Season Outlook: After getting blown out by New England in the AFC Championship game last season, the Steelers look to get off to a hot start in 2017. They will not play a team that made the playoffs last season until week 6 against the Chiefs. Pittsburgh is tied for the 27th ranked toughest schedule, based on last year’s records. Road contests against Kansas City, Detroit, and Indianapolis will always be tough places to play. A week 15 match-up against the Patriots could decide who gets home field in the AFC playoffs. You will see the Steelers in prime time 5 times this season (1 Thursday, 3 Sunday, 1 Monday). Pittsburgh finishes out with the Browns at home in week 17 and will likely be heading into the playoffs the following week once again.

Biggest Question Mark: The big question for the Steelers will be the arrival of Le’Veon Bell and when that might be. Bell has been out since the contract negotiations fell apart this off-season. Bell wants to be paid like a number one running back and second receiver. Can you blame him? The Steelers are a Super Bowl contender with Bell in the lineup. However, since 2013, Pittsburgh is 10-7 in regular season match-ups WITHOUT Bell, and 11-9 including the playoffs. I fully expect him to come back in a week or two, but he is a huge piece to this team, and they need him to truly be contenders.

Players to Watch: First round pick T.J. Watt has been all over the field in the preseason so far. I am very interested to see how he will do with all of the starters on the field during the regular season. Watt should provide some much needed youth for this defense. Once he figures things out, he will be a force to be reckoned with in the AFC North. Antonio Brown will always make this list. He is the best receiver in football and makes things miserable for defenses. Look for another huge season from him.

Offensive MVP: WR, Antonio Brown
Defensive MVP: LB, Ryan Shazier
Breakout Player: RB, James Conner
Prediction: 10-6, 1st place in AFC North

Baltimore Ravens
Season Outlook: Baltimore opens the season up with a tough divisional match-up with the Bengals. Their next two games will be against Cleveland at home and Jacksonville in London. With a banged up Joe Flacco, the Ravens will have a chance to survive the first three weeks of the season. They will face dangerous road challenges at Oakland, Tennessee, and Green Bay. Of course the two match-ups with Pittsburgh are always fierce battles. Baltimore has earned the right to play in three prime time games this season (1 Thursday, 1 Sunday, 1 Monday). They have the 24th hardest schedule in the NFL. The Ravens will close the season out with home games against the Colts and Bengals. In order to put themselves in playoff position, they will need to get good quarterback play from Ryan Mallet, until Flacco is ready.

Biggest Question Mark: With the addition of corner back Marlon Humphrey in the draft, the secondary for Baltimore should be improved. The health of Joe Flacco will be the biggest concern for this team going forward. He has been the guy for this team and without him, they are cellar dwellers. You can always count on this team to make plays on the defensive side of the ball, but without Flacco, they are hurting. Mallet has to play well in the first few weeks of the season if Flacco is not available. Opening up the running game will also be vital to their success.

Player to Watch: I cannot wait to see LB, Tim Williams, the third round selection from Alabama on this defense. I believe he was overlooked and will be a big time play maker in Baltimore. Williams was passed on by a lot of teams due to concerns about failed drug tests. He has the talent needed to become a premier pass rusher in this league. To me, he fits the black and purple well. Learning from Terrell Suggs will also help this kid reach his full potential. Also, third year tight end Maxx Williams has been a potential threat this preseason.

Offensive MVP: WR, Jeremy Maclin
Defensive MVP: S, Eric Weddle
Breakout Player: DE, Chris Wormley
Prediction: 5-11, 4th place in AFC North

Cincinnati Bengals
Season Outlook: The Bengals have a very favorable schedule in 2017. They are ranked as the 29th hardest schedule in the NFL this season. Cincinnati opens up with Baltimore and Houston at home. They will however face tough road games at Green Bay in week 3, and back to back road games at Tennessee in week 10, and Denver in week 11. The Bengals could easily go into the bye week (6) at 5-1. They have prime time games at home against Houston on Thursday night in week 2, and a Monday night match-up against the Steelers at home. The Bengals close the season with two games against the NFC North (@Vikings, vs. Lions), and finish at Baltimore on New Year’s Eve. Overall, the schedule looks very manageable for the Bengals. I look for them to have some success in 2017 and push towards a wild card spot in the AFC.

Biggest Question Mark: After an injury to starting safety Shawn Williams last night, the Bengals defense really took a hit. Hopefully Williams will be able to make it back this season, but it is very unlikely to be soon. The pass rush continues to worry Coach Lewis and it should. Other than Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap, the rest of the defensive line needs to step it up. Rookie RB Joe Mixon and WR John Ross should help improve an offense that ranked 24th in points, 15th in passing yards, and 13th in rushing yards per game a season ago.

Player to Watch: It’s obvious to everyone what the situation is with rookie running back Joe Mixon. However, the Bengals believe he is a changed man and took their shot when they selected him in the second round of the draft this season. He will be a threat every time he steps onto the field. With weapons like A.J. Green, Tyler Eifert, and John Ross around him, I look for this young guy to be a 1,000 yard rusher. Ross will be another player to watch this year as he looks to be a huge threat next to Green out wide.

Offensive MVP: QB, Andy Dalton
Defensive MVP: Carlos Dunlap
Breakout Player: RB, Joe Mixon
Prediction: 9-7, 2nd Place in AFC North

About the author: Brandon Sweet

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