As the NFL season kicks off this week, it is fun to look ahead and project what the storylines at the end of the season will be. Instead of picking who will play each other in Super Bowl L this year, this exercise will go division by division looking at the players each roster has to offer, including who could breakout or breakdown this year, who the best rookies are, and where the best rookies of next year will likely play on each team. This piece highlights the AFC North.
Surprise Player: Will Hill, S
Will Hill is more of a surprise not because he isn’t already a high-caliber player, but because not many recognize him as such yet. Hill was one of the best pieces of the Baltimore defense last season, and should excel if given an expanded role this season.
Bust: Justin Forsett, RB
After performing poorly enough that even Jacksonville gave up on him, Forsett exploded out of nowhere for 1,266 rushing yards and eight touchdowns, both of which were at least twice as much as any other total he had posted in his career. The pieces are there for him to achieve those numbers again, but based on his prior work, I’m more confident he begins falling back to Earth rather than soar even higher.
Best Rookie: Maxx Williams, TE
As a disclaimer, I think Breshad Perriman will put up bigger stats than Williams receiving. But, in terms of being the best rookie, I give the edge to Williams over players like Perriman, Carl Davis, and Za’Darius Smith for one simple reason: he will get more playing time. A lot of Baltimore’s top rookies are locked in backup roles on the depth chart behind established veterans. Davis (Brandon Williams) and Smith (Elvis Dumervil, Courtney Upshaw) seem destined to play much of the season in reserve roles, while Perriman’s inconsistent hands don’t make him a lock to earn the second starting spot at receiver until much of the season has passed. Although he is no guarantee to start himself, Williams should get on the field consistently as at least the second tight end, allowing him to make the biggest impact for the team.
Projected 2016 First-Round Targets: Cornerback, Defensive Line, Running Back
Surprise Player: Tyler Eifert, TE
Cincinnati has an underutilized weapon at tight end that they need to focus on more, and that is Tyler Eifert. Eifert is the type of athletic weapon that forces teams to alter their matchups every week, and if Hue Jackson can begin working Eifert into the offense more, there’s no place for Cincy to go in the AFC North but up.
Bust: Andre Smith, OT
Not long ago, Cincinnati was bringing back Andre Smith as a cornerstone of the offensive line. Now, they have an offensive tackle that comes hand-in-hand with multiple insurance policies in the form of veteran Eric Winston, first-round pick Jake Fisher, and second-round pick Cedric Ogbuehi. When healthy and focused, Smith is a rock for an offense to lean on. However, the team has made the necessary moves to facilitate a move to another starting tackle, and I think it would take something in the neighborhood of a career year to halt all the talk of moving on from Smith.
Best Rookie: Jake Fisher, OT
This projection for Fisher is entirely by default, not based on an incredibly deep analysis of every draft pick and UDFA brought on by the Bengals. Cincinnati started off the draft with two offensive linemen, then drafted role players that they felt had upside. Of all the other rookies on the Bengals right now, about the only ones with a chance of sniffing a decent amount of playing time are Tyler Kroft (tight end) and Paul Dawson (linebacker with a lot of upside). Each of them will need to outplay veterans to earn their time, where as Fisher and Cedric Ogbuehi will both get time as part of an offensive line rotation.
Projected 2016 First-Round Targets: Quarterback, Linebacker, Cornerback
Surprise Player: Cameron Erving, OL
Pierre Desir was my original pick, but as of now it’s no guarantee Desir gets enough playing time to break out. I will instead backtrack to Erving, who will be a surprise because of his incredible versatility along the offensive line. Erving can fill in for almost any member of the Cleveland offensive line, which provides incredible insurance should another devastating injury like Alex Mack’s from last year occur.
Bust: The Collective Unit of Wide Receivers
One of the most baffling decisions from the previous NFL Draft was Cleveland’s choice to abstain from drafting a receiver until the fourth round, especially given how depleted the position was for them. Going into the year expecting some combination of Dwayne Bowe (the only receiver I’d be confident in starting, but as a WR2), Brian Hartline, Andrew Hawkins, Taylor Gabriel, and Travis Benjamin to perform as starters is a recipe for earning another high draft pick in 2016. All of those names are acceptable as third options at receiver, but the offensive woes will continue for the Browns until they finally invest either a high draft pick or some significant free agent cash in a true WR1.
Best Rookie: Danny Shelton, DT
A lot has been mentioned about just how poor the Cleveland run defense was last season, and through the preseason thus far, it looks to be another long year in that regard. One of the bright spots though is rookie Danny Shelton, a behemoth of a defensive tackle who is already making his mark on the defense. He won’t be able to single-handedly fix the D, but it’s not too hard to imagine Shelton supplanting first-round disappointment Phil Taylor as the starter, and performing well when he does.
Projected 2016 First-Round Targets: Wide Receiver, Tight End, Running Back
Surprise Player: Ryan Shazier, LB
Martavis Bryant was a candidate for this spot, but enough people witnessed his explosive potential last season for him to really be that big of a “surprise”. Shazier, on the other hand, was sidelined for much of last season, making him a better kept secret. Shazier is the definition of a defensive weapon in large part for his on-field trademark: blazing speed. Through this much of the preseason, Shazier has been flying around the field and making plays everywhere, earning him a bigger and bigger role in the defense. If he can continue on his current track, Shazier will make progress towards becoming the next great Steeler linebacker.
Bust: Jarvis Jones, LB
Teams don’t typically draft the same position in the first round three years in a row unless they realize that one of the first two picks was a mistake. While the organization remains committed to giving Jarvis Jones a chance to become a starting outside linebacker, he has continued to perform like a bust. The drafting of Bud Dupree is another signal that Jones is almost out of chances to save his Steeler career, which likely won’t last beyond next offseason barring a complete 180 in his performance. Unfortunately for the team, Bud Dupree is starting to follow a similar career track to Jones through limited action in the preseason.
Best Rookie: Tyler Murphy, Slash (QB/WR)
Murphy has the potential to be the real surprise out of this class of rookie offensive weapons. He was given a chance by the Steelers as a quarterback/receiver dual threat, and he made enough of an impact to make the roster. The Steelers have almost no rookies set to make an impact this season: Bud Dupree has been following Jarvis Jones’ career trajectory since he donned the black and gold (here is a spoiler, it gets worse by the down), Jesse James can’t consistently catch, Doran Grant was released, and Coates is now the fifth receiver, having been unofficially beat out by Murphy and others. That’s not to say Murphy won’t make an impact, and the Steelers seem to have a plan to utilize him in a way that he can be truly special.
Projected 2016 First-Round Targets: Safety, Tight End, Defensive Tackle