Wake-Up Call: Players Who NEED to Play Well in the AFC North

Every team has their star players who are expected to put up numbers on a weekly basis and contribute to the success of their team. However, a handful of superstars does not make a full team. In order for a team to be successful, the non-super star players need to contribute. Looking forward to the 2017 NFL season, here are the players from each AFC North team that need to contribute for their team to be successful:

Baltimore Ravens – Jeremy Maclin (WR)

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As much as I’d love to put former UNI quarterback Aaron Bailey, who has now been converted to a wide receiver, in this spot – I force myself to stay realistic and realize he might not even make the roster. In reality, this spot more likely belongs to fellow wide receiver Jeremy Maclin who the Ravens signed from the Kansas City Chiefs in free agency this past off-season. Maclin was brought to KC in 2015 in order to remedy the Chiefs passing offense that did not see a wide receiver catch a single touchdown the entire 2014 season (which had not been done since the 1964 New York Giants – who played in an era where the Chicago Bears barely averaged over 200 passing yards per game and still led the league). Now Maclin will look to fill in for future Hall of Fame receiver Steve Smith Sr. who retired at the end of last season. Ravens’ quarterback Joe Flacco is not the elite quarterback he was once believed to be, so he will need a receiver like Maclin to have an amazing year to help him lead this Ravens offense so they can remain competitive enough that they don’t get surpassed by a young Cleveland Browns team in their division.

Cincinnati Bengals – Andrew Billings (DT)

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This offense seems to have been loaded up with weapons. While quarterback Andy Dalton has not always been consistent, he has been surrounded with A.J. Green, John Ross, Tyler Eifert, Joe Mixon/Jeremy Hill/Gio Bernard, and Tyler Boyd. If Dalton can’t put up numbers with that supporting cast – his days as a starter are surely numbered. But the real question for the Bengals is defense. Their secondary is loaded with solid players, their linebacking corp is not garbage, and their line is okay. In order for this defense to jump from mediocre to respectable, they need to start up front. Defensive tackle Pat Sims has been around for a long time and is not getting any younger, but Andrew Billings is coming back from a knee injury. Billings was predicted to be a first round pick coming out of Baylor in 2016, but surprisingly fell to the fourth round and was predicted to be a huge steal for the Bengals. Unfortunately, Billings suffered a knee injury before the start of last season and has not played in the NFL yet. With this season being essentially his rookie year, he needs to show that he was paying attention and learning during his “redshirt” year. If Billings can live up to his pre-draft buzz of being the strongest player in college football for 2016, the Bengals should be solid. If he can’t do much, the Bengals will find themselves still searching for an answer to anchor their defensive line around.

Cleveland Browns – Jabrill Peppers (DB)

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In college, Peppers was a weapon on offense and defense for the Michigan Wolverines. In Cleveland, he will likely be more of a “gadget” player in their defensive secondary. This Cleveland Browns team has been the punchline of many jokes for about as long as I can remember paying attention to football – it’s time that Cleveland punches back. Cleveland has a really young and talent-laden roster. Once they get their quarterback situation figured out, the Cleveland Browns are playoff contenders every year for a good chunk of time. Peppers needs to continue to be dynamic at the next level though. If he can’t, Cleveland will find themselves still searching for more players. But if Peppers succeeds, this team is scary good. I don’t think I’ve made it clear yet how good I think this Cleveland team can become: I’m saying that they are good enough that, once Tom Brady retires (and Ben Roethlisberger will retire before that), the AFC will be run by the Las Vegas Raiders (since the move from Oakland will have already happened) and the Cleveland Browns. Here me now, believe me later, the future of the Cleveland Browns in the next five or so years looks very bright. #SuperBowlChamps2023

SIDENOTE: It was also tempting to put former UNI defensive end Karter Schult at this spot, but he faces a battle to stay on the roster for now – but he could develop into a starting defensive lineman eventually.

Pittsburgh Steelers – T.J. Watt (LB)

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It was so tempting to put former UNI linebacker L.J. Fort at this spot (I grew up half an hour from the UNI campus – so naturally they are my favorite FCS school), but his best bet is to be the second inside linebacker with Ryan Shazier. While Fort has competition to earn a starting spot, Watt now is primed to start now that Pittsburgh legend James Harrison has retired. There are certainly high expectations for Watt, as his older brother, J.J. Watt, is already a three-time defensive player of the year after just six NFL seasons (one of which he only played three games in due to injury). If Watt can give the Steelers a smooth transition from the Harrison era to the Watt era, things should still look good in Pittsburgh (until Roethlisberger retires) with Bud Dupree, Ryan Shazier, L.J. Fort (?), and T.J. Watt at linebacker. However, should Watt be a bust, the Steelers defense will need to address their linebacking corp in order to remain dominant for years to come.

 

 

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