In the NFL offseason, when everybody is healthy or patiently rehabbing a previous injury, each team has dreams of Super Bowl glory – and rightly so in this unpredictable league. One only has to look back six months, when seven clubs that made the 2008 playoffs were left out of 2007 postseason contention.
Acknowledging that not one player has practiced in pads yet, BaltimoreRavens.com looks ahead to 2009 and offers AFC North offensive unit rankings.
No. 1 – Pittsburgh Steelers: Until the champs are unseated, they get top billing.2008 – 22nd overall (311.9 yards per game), 17th pass (206.3), 23rd rush (105.6)
The reigning Super Bowl champions have room to grow on what was a promising season for them. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger enters his sixth year in the league fresh off winning his second title ring.
Roethlisberger is where it all starts, too. As one of the toughest competitors in the league, "Big Ben" is a tough match to bring down and a definite threat when he scrambles out of the pocket. The Steelers took a hit when deep target Nate Washington left for the Tennessee Titans, but that must mean Pittsburgh's brass believes second-year Limas Sweed (6-foot-4, 220 pounds) can fill that role in the aerial attack.
Really, as long as Roethlisberger has Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes, the Steelers' passing game will be solid. As shown by Holmes' Super Bowl-winning toe tap in the end zone last season, the Ohio State product may have developed into Roethlisberger's go-to man.
Pittsburgh also relies on their strong commitment to the run. Willie Parker can be expected to post a monster season entering the final year of his contract. Parker, whose speed is eye-popping, always plays with a chip on his shoulder since he went undrafted out of North Carolina, and the Steelers gave him extra motivation by drafting Rashard Mendenhall last year. Mendenhall sat out most of his rookie campaign after Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis broke his shoulder in Week 4.
No. 2 – Baltimore Ravens: I don't see Flacco and the offense under Cam Cameron faltering at all.2008 – 18th overall (324.0), 28th pass (175.5), 4th rush (148.5)
In Joe Flacco's first season, he became the only rookie quarterback in NFL history to win two playoff games. The Ravens have done a lot to support their young quarterback in the offseason.
It starts with the offensive line, where first-round draft pick Michael Oher and Jared Gaither* *combine to make the youngest starting tandem of offensive tackles in the league. With six-time Pro Bowler Matt Birk taking over for the departed Jason Brown (St. Louis Rams), Baltimore should be able to protect their prized signal caller without using the max-protect schemes that were so frequent in 2008.
The question for the Ravens is how healthy can Flacco's top targets get before the season opener. Tight ends Todd Heap*(back) and L.J. Smith (groin) have been nursing injuries throughout offseason minicamps, as has third receiver Demetrius Williams (Achilles'). Running back Willis McGahee *also had offseason surgery on his ankle and knee.
Still, Flacco has shown all the signs of taking a step forward in Year 2, and Ray Rice bulked up so he could be an every-down back, which the Ravens like. With last season's leading rusher Le'Ron McClaincontinuing to grind out tough yards in special situations, the Ravens' reliance on the run will only open more passing opportunities for Flacco.
No. 3 – Cincinnati Bengals: The running game and a young offensive line are just too suspect.
2008 – 32nd overall (245.4), 30th pass (150.4), 29th rush (93.0)
The Bengals were anemic as an offense last year, but that was mainly because of a lackluster showing from star wideout Chad Ochocinco and a season-ending elbow injury to quarterback Carson Palmer.
Now, Ochocinco has said that he dove headfirst into his offseason workouts in hopes to return to greatness, and Palmer maintains that his elbow, which required surgery, is back to 100 percent.
Cincinnati lost T.J. Houshmandzadeh, but replaced the former Pro Bowler with the capable Laveranues Coles. And by all accounts, the troubled Chris Henry, a lanky vertical weapon that had previously been suspended by the league for violations of the personal conduct policy, has righted his ship.
The passing game should not be a problem for the Bengals if everyone involved can stay on the field. The Bengals will need former first-round draft pick Cedric Benson to make contributions in the rushing attack to remain competitive. Benson totaled 282 yards over the last two contests of 2008, but that was one year after he was jettisoned by the Chicago Bears following a disappointing career.
No. 4 – Cleveland Browns: You have to build around a quarterback. Who is the Browns'? 2008 – 31st overall (249.1), 31st passing (148.8), 29th rush (100.3)
With a new head coach in Eric Mangini and no definite starting quarterback, the Browns could be somewhat of an enigma. Brady Quinn and Derek Anderson are both vying for the start under center, a competition that could last until the end of training camp.
Mangini is known for a run-heavy offense, and the load will be placed squarely on the shoulders of Jamal Lewis. Lewis rushed for 1,002 yards last year, his third 1,000-yard campaign in the previous three seasons, and while he has had durability issues in the past, he played in at least 15 games each season since 2005.
The Browns lost two considerable pieces to their offense, however. Tight end Kellen Winslow, Jr., was traded to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and wideout Donte Stallworth was suspended indefinitely by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell after pleading guilty to DUI manslaughter. Braylon Edwards, who is known for his drops, needs to step up, but there are only rookies and unproven players behind him at the receiver position.