The Pittsburgh Steelers are the defending AFC North champion. It doesn’t matter, though. The Bengals loom as the team to beat in 2017.
So say the listeners and readers of the Talk of Fame Network, who voted the Bengals in our weekly poll as the team most likely to win the AFC North this season. And why not? The Bengals won the division in 2013, then the Steelers unseated them in 2014. The Bengals won again in 2015, then the Steelers unseated them again in 2016.
The Bengals win in the odd-numbered years, the Steelers win in the even-numbered years. According to that sequence, it’s again Cincinnati’s turn in 2017.
The Bengals finished 6-9-1 last season, five wins back of the Steelers. Then Cincinnati took some hits in free agency this offseason, losing offensive linemen Kevin Zeitler and Andrew Whitworth. But the Bengals spent the draft collecting offensive playmakers and pass rushers to help the NFL’s 13th-ranked offense and 17th-ranked defense.
The Bengals used their first pick on the fastest player in the draft, wide receiver John Ross, and their second pick on arguably the most talented runner in the draft, Joe Mixon. He slid out of the first round because of character concerns.
Cincinnati then used third-and fourth-round picks on elite college pass rushers, Jordan Willis of Kansas State in the third and Carl Lawson of Auburn in the fourth.
The Bengals received 49 percent of the vote, followed by the Steelers at 29 percent, the Browns at 17 percent and the Ravens at five percent.
The Talk of Fame Network hosts disagreed with the poll. Ron Borges voted the Bengals, Clark Judge the Steelers and Rick Gosselin the Ravens.
“I’ve gone broke picking the Bengals to do something, so why stop now?” Borges said. “Bengals ROAR!”
Judge: “The Steelers are the biggest threat … and maybe the only threat … to New England in the AFC.”
Gosselin: “Baltimore is the last team to win a Super Bowl from this division. The Ravens are the last team to win consecutive AFC North titles (2011-12). They also have the best GM in football. Frankly, they are due.”
Pittsburgh lost starting linebacker Lawrence Timmons to Miami in free agency but offset his loss by selecting Wisconsin edge rusher T.J. Watt in the first round. Second-rounder JuJu Smith-Schuster gives Ben Roethlisberger another set of hands on the flank to complement 100-catch machine Antonio Brown. Smith-Schuster arrives in Pittsburgh following an 89-catch, 1,454-yard, 10-touchdown season at Southern Cal.
Third-round CB Cameron Sutton gives the Steelers coverage depth and fourth-round James Conner a power running back.