Browns hoping first full season with Watson moves them up in balanced, brutal AFC North
Deshaun Watson's impact on the AFC North has been negligible. He hasn't had time to really make a dent.
The Browns are counting on that changing.
Cleveland's polarizing quarterback heads into his first full season inside perhaps the NFL's most competitive and balanced division after serving an 11-game suspension in 2022 for violating the league's personal conduct policy.
Signed to a controversial $230 million contract following a blockbuster trade, Watson was punished after more than two dozen women accused him of sexual assault and harassment during massage therapy sessions while in Houston.
When he returned for six games, Watson was rusty and then some.
The former Pro Bowler went 1-2 against Baltimore, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, 3-3 overall and didn't look anything like the league's 2020 passing leader as the Browns staggered to a 7-10, last-place finish.
It's a critical season for Cleveland and for the Browns to climb and contend, Watson must play on the same level as the North's two other star QBs — Cincinnati's Joe Burrow and Baltimore's Lamar Jackson, who appeared to be leaving before patching things up with the Ravens a nd signing a five-year, $260 million contract.
In Pittsburgh, the Steelers believe QB Kenny Pickett can build on a promising rookie season and keep them competitive.
The Browns, who haven't won a division title since 1989, will find out quickly how they stack up in the North. They open at home with the Bengals on Sept. 10, visit the Steelers in their first road game the following Monday and host the Ravens in Week 4.
“No one else is going to see their division three times in the first four weeks," said Cleveland coach Kevin Stefanski, 15-19 since making the playoffs in his first year. "We look at that as a great opportunity.”
Watson needs to make the most of it.
Burrow's training camp ended July 27 when he was carted off with a strained right calf. Coach Zac Taylor won’t talk about whether he'll be ready for the opener, but all indications point to him being OK.
With Burrow running the show a nd throwing to a top-shelf trio of receivers, the Bengals, who went 12-4 and won the division last season, will shoot for another Super Bowl, two seasons removed from an improbable run to the title game.
Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd give Burrow a trifecta as good as any in the league.
Chase, the AP Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2021, has shown a commitment this summer to reaching another level.
“Some guys get tired and go through the motions,” wide receivers coach Troy Walters said. "Ja’Marr has been elite every day. It comes down to fine tuning route running. Adding nuance to it.”
Linebackers Logan Wilson and Germaine Pratt, and edge rushers Trey Hendrickson and Sam Hubbard anchor an underrated defense.
The secondary has some questions after safeties Jessie Bates III, Vonn Bell and cornerback Eli Apple left as free agents. Cincinnati’s best cornerback, Chidobe Awuzie, is expected back after tearing an ACL last season.
ALL SYSTEMS GO
Along with long-term financial security, the Ravens gave Jackson a couple of new receivers and a new offensive coordinator.
Baltimore signed Odell Beckham Jr. and drafted Zay Flowers in the first round in an attempt to upgrade a receiving group that was substandard a year ago.
“Let’s get these guys the ball and let them do them,” Jackson said. “We have the guys that will make stuff happen, get yards after the catch.”
The big question is how coordinator Todd Monken, who won two national titles with Georgia, will alter Baltimore’s offense to try to get the most out of Jackson’s unique skill set.
The Ravens were a stout team defensively by the end of last season thanks to the linebacker tandem of Roquan Smith and Patrick Queen. But there are injury concerns in the secondary heading into this season. Pro Bowl cornerback Marlon Humphrey needed surgery for a lingering foot issue.
While Watson's suspension created a massive void in the 2022 season, Cleveland's defense was a bigger hole.
Communication breakdowns in the secondary led to the Browns giving up big plays, and they couldn't stop anyone on the ground.
Enter Jim Schwartz, the team's new defensive coordinator, who has arrived with a Super Bowl ring from Philadelphia, a proven scheme and aggressive attitude.
The Browns rebuilt their defensive front, trading for end Za'Darius Smith and signing free agent tackles Dalvin Tomlinson and Shelby Harris to play alongside All-Pro edge rusher Myles Garrett.
The linebacking group remains suspect with Anthony Walker Jr. and Sione Takitaki returning from injuries. Safety Juan Thornhill won a title with Kansas City last season and brings experience and playmaking.
STILL THE STEELERS
Pittsburgh hasn’t won a playoff game in six years, the franchise’s longest drought of the Super Bowl era. The Steelers believe they'll return to contention after essentially rebuilding the offense on the fly following Ben Roethlisberger’s retirement.
Pittsburgh has been transparent about the need for Pickett and wide receivers George Pickens and Diontae Johnson to create more noise downfield for an offense that finished 26th in scoring.
“We want to get yards in chunks,” coach Mike Tomlin said. “But we also want to possess the ball and control the flow of the game, and so we’ve got to do all things if we want to be a dominant group, and that’s a component of it."
Still, the Steelers have built a team that may be the physical yin to the dazzling yang found in places such as Kansas City, Cincinnati and Buffalo.
Pittsburgh invested heavily in bolstering the offensive and defensive lines, and for all the buzz around Pickett, the Steelers look like a team designed to control the ball with running backs Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren.
It’s an approach that would keep a defense anchored by star outside linebacker T.J. Watt fresh enough to wreak havoc late. And if that means Pickett hands it off 40 times a game instead of throwing it 40 times a game, so be it.
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH
Bengals, Ravens, Browns, Steelers.
AP Sports Writers Will Graves, Noah Trister and Mitch Stacy contributed.
AP NFL: https://apnews.com/hub/nfl