The Cincinnati Bengals are expected to finish on top of the AFC North for the third straight year and give quarterback Andy Dalton a fourth chance to finally win a playoff game.
That is the unanimous prediction for 2014 by The Sports Xchange football staff, which also agreed that the Cleveland Browns will once again finish last, regardless of whom they play at quarterback.
The Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens finished in a tie for second/third place.
Here is an in-depth, unit-by-unit look the AFC North as analyzed by reporters from The Sports Xchange who cover each team (using roster information as of Sept. 1):
1st -- CINCINNATI BENGALS
QUARTERBACKS: Starter - Andy Dalton. Backups - Jason Campbell, A.J. McCarron.
Dalton enters his fourth season with 30 career wins, three playoff appearances and a new $120 million contract, but no playoff victories. Dalton already owns franchise records for season passing yards and touchdowns due in large part to the large number of pass plays called by former offensive coordinator Jay Gruden. New offensive coordinator Hue Jackson will try to get the same production out of Dalton but with fewer opportunities. Campbell is a solid insurance policy and McCarron, the rookie from Alabama, is a project who will sit out the first six weeks while on the non-football injury list.
RUNNING BACKS: Starter - Giovani Bernard. Backups - Jeremy Hill, Cedric Peerman, Rex Burkhead.
Bernard is as electric as they come and is coming off a rookie season in which he had 1,209 yards from scrimmage despite platooning with BenJarvus Green-Ellis. The Law Firm is gone, but Bernard will find himself a part of another tailback tandem in 2014 with the rookie Hill bringing a bigger, strong presence when he enters the game. The Bengals have worked hard at getting Hill involved in the passing game with 14 targets in the last three preseason games. If Hill can be a factor receiving the ball as well as running it, that will enable Jackson to have the use of his entire playbook regardless of who is in the game.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters - A.J. Green, Mohamed Sanu. Backups - Marvin Jones, Dane Sanzenbacher, Brandon Tate, James Wright.
Green continues to put up bigger and bigger numbers every year without great production from the starting spot opposite him. The Bengals are hopeful the tandem of Jones and Sanu can emerge as stars and take some of the pressure off Green, but Jones is out until at least October with a broken foot. Sanu had one of the best camps of anyone on the team and appears poised for a breakout year. He lacks Jones' speed but he offers the kind of versatility offensive coordinator Hue Jackson can have a lot of fun with, lining him up wide, in the slot or even in the backfield in Wildcat formation. Sanzenbacher always seems to make plays when his number is called, and that should be a lot more often while Jones is out. Tate's value is primarily as a kick and punt returner, while the speedy rookie Wright is a dynamic player on teams as well and has big-play potential in the passing game.
TIGHT ENDS: Starters - Jermaine Gresham, Tyler Eifert. Backups - Alex Smith, Ryan Hewitt.
This is a contract year for Gresham, who has been a solid starter but never really lived up to his first-round pedigree. The presence of Eifert, another first-round pick, last year led to Gresham catching a career-low 46 passes, but as a tandem he and Eifert combined for 85 catches, 903 yards and six touchdowns, which is the kind of production any team outside of New England and New Orleans would love to have from its tight ends. Hewitt was the surprise of camp and the only undrafted player from the 2014 class to make the 53-man roster. He will used more as a fullback/h-back.
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters - LT Andrew Whitworth, LG Clint Boling, C Russell Bodine, RG Kevin Zeitler, RT Andre Smith. Backups - G/C Mike Pollak, G/C T.J. Johnson, T Marshall Newhouse, G/T Tanner Hawkinson.
Whitworth anchors a group that enters the season with plenty of promise and a couple of questions. Within minutes of trading up to draft Russell Bodine in the fourth round in May, the Bengals said they thought he could win the starting job and he has. Bodine has proved his has the physical tools, but that's a lot of responsibility to put on a rookie's plate. Andre Smith has emerged as one of the top tackles in the league during his six seasons, but his slow recovery from a concussion early in training camp leaves doubts about whether he'll be ready to start the season. Newhouse, who protected quarterback Andy Dalton's blind side at TCU, will be a capable replacement if Smith can't go. Zeitler continues to improve after winning the starting job as a rookie two years ago, and he could push for a trip to the Pro Bowl soon. Pollak provides value and versatility and will be the one called on if Bodine struggles or Boling experiences any setbacks in his surgically repaired knee.
DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters - DE Carlos Dunlap, DT Geno Atkins, DT Domata Peko, DE Wallace Gilberry. Backups - Margus Hunt, Brandon Thompson, Robert Geathers, Christo Bilukidi, Will Clarke.
Atkins returns from a torn ACL to provide a huge boost to what has been one of the best defensive lines in the game the last few years. Michael Johnson has moved on to Tampa, but Dunlap and Geathers shared the team lead in sacks last year with 7 1/2 each, and both are capable of hitting double digits in 2014.
Margus Hunt, a second-round pick in 2013, essentially redshirted his rookie season, but he has been one of the most impressive players in the preseason and could be poised for a huge year with the way the Bengals like to use an eight-man rotation up front. Rookie Will Clarke, a third-round pick built in the long, lanky mold of Dunlap, Hunt and Johnson, will get the chance to watch and learn this year the way Hunt did last year. Thompson did a solid job of filling in for Atkins last year, so there will not be much dropoff when he and Bilukidi, who beat out 2012 second-round pick Devon Still, take their turns in the rotation. The defensive line has been a major reason why the Bengals have ranked in the top 10 defensively three years in a row and four of the last five, including a franchise-best third last year.
LINEBACKERS: Starters - Vontaze Burfict, Rey Maualuga, Emmanuel Lamur. Backups - Vinny Rey, Jayson DiManche, Sean Porter, Marquis Flowers.
Burfict has emerged from an undesirable, undrafted free agent to a Pro Bowler and the leading tackler in the NFL who was rewarded with a four-year, $20 million contract extension a few days before the opener. As good as he has been, the Bengals believe there is still plenty of upside. Maualuga, on the other hand, is a six-year veteran who has plateaued into a serviceable run stopper in base packages. Lamur is the wild card. The Bengals had huge plans to use the rookie undrafted free agent as the cover linebacker in nickel packages last year, but he suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in the preseason finale against Indianapolis. He's healthy again and poised to be an impact player this year.
Rey provides great depth as he can play any of three spots. Last year when Maualuga missed a couple of games with a knee injury, Rey stepped in and had one of the greatest starting debuts in franchise history with 13 tackles, three sacks and interception against Baltimore. DiManche made a huge impact on special teams last year and will used mainly in that role again this year, along with Flowers.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters - CB Leon Hall, CB Terence Newman, S Reggie Nelson, S George Iloka. Backups - CB Adam Jones, CB Darqueze Dennard, CB Dre Kirkpatrick, S Shawn Williams, S Taylor Mays.
Five first-round picks at cornerback. Newman has re-energized his career since coming to Cincinnati in 2012 and hardly looks like a 35-year-old veteran of 12 NFL seasons. Hall is coming back from his second Achilles surgery in three years, and while that may sound daunting, he returned from the first one to have perhaps the best year of his career in 2012 and was playing a high level last year before going down. Jones did a great job filling in for Hall last year, although it took a toll on how often the Bengals could use his electric abilities as punt returner. Kirkpatrick has yet to live up to his first-round billing, but the coaches have been raving about Dennard since minicamp.
At safety, Nelson enters his eighth season as a steady, solid presence in the back end, and Iloka is hoping to improve from his first season as a starter in 2013. Iloka is a hitter who can cover well for his size, but he struggled to haul in some catchable interceptions last year after breaking his hand punching a teammate in the helmet during training camp. Fully healed, he could be on the verge of a big season. Williams has played a key role on special teams but has been used sparingly on defense. Mays floats between safety and nickel linebacker, a role he was thrust into last year when Emmaneul Lamur went down in the preseason finale.