This past week has seen the first NFL teams report to training camp and by the end of July all 32 teams will be taking the first steps towards their build up to the start of the 2017 NFL season.

With this in mind I felt it would be a good time to assess each team's roster and offer some thoughts and opinions on players who will be key to their team's chances in the 2017 season. Who is each team's key player? Who have they added that can make a difference? Who can they least afford to lose to injury? Hopefully, this series of blogs can help provide the answers. We'll continue the series in the AFC North.

Be sure to check out the five and ten year trends for the AFC North as well as the league wide trends from my previous blogs.

You can also see the previous editions of this series by following the links below:

NFC East

AFC East

NFC North

NFC South

I'll also note some potential bets regarding some of the players that are discussed. I don't intended to back any of these bets at this point as most bookmakers are still forming their markets on the individual player markets and training camp/pre-season can bring injuries but they'll be markets I'll be keeping an eye on and blogging about closer to the start of the regular season.


Their offensive talisman... needs to be Quarterback Joe Flacco. He's one of those players in a tough spot. He's not a top five guy and is probably never going to be one so maybe gets too much blame when the Ravens offense struggles. However, he's coming off a season where he set career bests in yardage and completion percentage and it's worth remembering he was coming back from a serious knee injury that likely held back his offseason workouts. He's been part of a Super Bowl winning team, he's now 32 years old and has nine seasons under his belt so he's got the right blend of experience and the ability to still get better with that experience. For the Ravens to return to the playoffs they need Joe Flacco to perform to as close to his best as possible and avoid the turnovers that have frustrated fans and media pundits alike at times.

Their defensive star... is 3rd year Inside Linebacker C.J. Mosley. Still only 25, Mosley has developed into a real leader on the Ravens defense and is a player who can do it all. Stuff the run, play coverage (4 interceptions last season) and be an effective blitzer. The Ravens have seen some veterans move on in the past few seasons and will have a few new faces on defense, both veterans and rookies, in 2017. Mosley needs to be the guy who gets them set up correctly before the play and then lead by example within the actual play.

Going under the radar is... arguably the best kicker in football, Justin Tucker. I touched on kickers previously in the AFC East version of this blog and mentioned how the Bills new and old kickers have had issues with the new extra point. Tucker hasn't missed one yet and he only missed one kick all of last year from 39 field goal attempts and 27 extra point attempts. In fact, he's never missed an extra point in his five year career and is just under 90% for field goals in his career which sees his top the all-time list at the position (although it is a list dominated by modern kickers as percentages improve all the time).

NFL For a team that gets involved in a lot of close games and hasn't had the strongest offense in recent times, Tucker is vital and without him the Ravens could have found the past two years a lot tougher than they have been. He appears to have ice in his veins and can make his kicks in the most clutch of situations.

Their key offseason veteran addition will be... former Chiefs and Eagles Wide Receiver Jeremy Maclin who was added recently following his release by the Chiefs. Maclin comes off a frustrating season in 2016 where he missed some games but was also part of a passing offense that was pretty conservative at times. Previous to 2016 he enjoyed two straight 1,000+ yard seasons and 18 TD's over that period. If he can get back to that kind of level he'll be a big help to QB Joe Flacco and gives defenses more to think about.

A rookie to watch... will be 3rd round choice, Linebacker Tim Williams. He could be a boom or bust player but he had the talent to be taken in round one but a number of legal issues and admissions of drug problems seen him slip to the 3rd round. He's been honest about his issues though which is part of why the Ravens felt they could take this risk and if he concentrates on football, his pedigree (coming from Alabama) and ability to get pressure on Quarterbacks could be vital in helping the Ravens find success.


Their offensive talisman... is, in my opinion, one of the best Wide Receivers around today in AJ Green. To put his impact on the Bengals in simple terms, since the team drafted him in 2011, Green has posted over 1,000 yards receiving each season and the Bengals made the playoffs every year. In 2016 Green missed 6 games with injury, he fell short of 1,000 yards for the first time as a pro because of that (only by 36 yards) and had a career low 4 touchdowns - the Bengals missed the playoffs and had their first losing season since Green joined the team.

He has everything you want in a receiver and even if defenses give him extra attention he can still make plays. I watched the Bengals at Wembley last season and Green gave All-Pro Cornerback Josh Norman fits that day and made some amazing catches. He makes the entire offense twice as effective if playing.

AJ Green can be backed at 10/1 to lead the league in receiving yardage with Betfred.

Their defensive star... is Defensive Lineman Carlos Dunlap who causes havoc as a pass rusher but also deserves more praise for his ability to make plays if he doesn't get to the QB before the pass has got off. Dunlap defensed 15 passes last season so it shows that he keeps playing even after his chance for a sack has gone. In the last three seasons Dunlap has 30 sacks and in the last five seasons he has 15 forced fumbles. When this guy is on the field it's only a matter of time until bad things happen to the opposing offense.

Going under the radar is... is a guy who needs to help hold together an offensive line undergoing some major changes this offseason. Guard Clint Boling needs to be the glue that holds together an very new look line. Gone are veterans Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler and in comes veteran Andre Smith to start at Guard and former first round pick Cedric Ogbuehi to start at the all important Left Tackle spot. The O-line has been a strength in Cincinnati for the past few years but these moves are a tough sell as improvement and Boling will be vital in supporting Ogbuehi as he switches from right to left tackle. He struggled badly as a rookie and was benched in midseason. If he bounces back in his second year at a new position it'll be because he has Boling watching his back.

Their key offseason veteran addition will be... Linebacker Kevin Minter who is coming off a career best season with the Cardinals in 2016. Minter is a speedy player who will be expected to improve the play behind their D-line as he replaces long time veteran Rey Maualuga and part of that will be assuming the role of calling the defensive signals.

The Bengals are not usually players in the free agency market but they've taken a smart chance on Minter, who comes here in the prime of his career and looks to be a player who is already productive but still with the potential to improve further.

A rookie to watch... could be the perfect complement to AJ Green in first round pick John Ross. This kid has speed to burn and caught national attention at the scouting combine when he ran the fastest 40 yard dash recorded in combine history. Wide Receiver can be a position that takes some time for players to develop as a pro but for Ross, he can at least be allowed to try and stretch defenses and leave the grunt work to Green. If he can make some plays over the top then defenses will have to take that into consideration when facing the Bengals.

John Ross can be backed at 16/1 with William Hill and BetVictor to win the AP Offensive Rookie of the Year Award.


Their offensive talisman... is a the rare selection in these series of blogs - an offensive lineman! Joe Thomas is an unheralded superstar on a team that has struggled for year but he could well be a future Hall Of Famer! That's how good he is. He went to his 10th straight Pro Bowl despite the Browns only going 1-15 last year.

If the Browns are going to get any kind of improvement after so long in the wilderness, Thomas' ability to protect a QB's blindside and open holes for the running attack will be vital. It would be nice for such a good player to taste some success before he calls it a career.

Their defensive star... is Linebacker Jamie Collins who was acquired in a trade with the Patriots last season. Despite having to learn a new scheme from a midseason team change he post career numbers between the two teams.

He's a versatile player who can have an effect on all aspects of the game. He'll rush, he'll plug running lanes and he'll help in coverage. What the Browns also need from him is leadership and for some of the winning magic he has experienced with Patriots to rub off on the rest of the team.

Going under the radar is... last year's leading rusher in Running Back Isaiah Crowell. Is it fair to call a stats leader “under the radar”? In this case I think it is because had the Browns been more competitive and not had to chase the game so often last year I think this guy could have had really eye-catching stats.

He can break the big run, is tough to tackle and he can also help as a receiver. The Browns need a focal point for their offense and this guy could be it if given the workload by the coaches and the game situation(s).

Their key offseason veteran addition will be... the intriguing addition of Quarterback Brock Osweiler via an unusual trade with his former team, the Texans, in that the Texans effectively compensated the Browns to take Osweiler of them as long as they paid the guaranteed money he was due. The Browns had salary cap room to burn so took the deal. At first it was assumed Osweiler would be dealt on with the Browns eating the guaranteed money and gaining more draft picks. However, they've kept him and it looks like he'll enter the season as the starter.

NFL There's no doubt he struggled in Houston last year but he had huge pressure on him and maybe with expectations lower he'll be able to play with more freedom. He's also in a spot where he can't really do any worse than what has gone on before him and he comes from two previous stops that have tasted success so like Jamie Collins, the team will be hoping the winning habit rubs off on the entire roster.

A rookie to watch... is without doubt the top overall selection in this years NFL draft, Defensive End Myles Garrett. Whilst all rookies have their growing pains to go through, garrett is expected to bring an instant impact to the Browns and help improve a pass rush that only recorded 26 sacks last season. With every divisional opponent having an established veteran Quarterback, upsetting the passing games of those rivals could be key to helping the Browns finally turning their fortunes around.

Garrett has been given a quote of 20/1 from SkyBet to be the league's Defensive MVP in 2017!


Their offensive talisman... is a tough choice because there are so many offensive weapons to choose form but in Wide Receiver Antonio Brown you have a guy who has had to work so hard to get to where he is and he continues to graft at his craft despite his past success. His smooth route running and excellent run after the catch ability means he can break a big play from anywhere.

Proof he can produce even without help around him comes last season when Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger missed the Week 7 clash versus the New England Patriots yet Brown was still the top target for backup Landry Jones with over 100 yards receiving. He did the same the previous year versus the Chiefs when Roethlisberger missed some time. If that's not enough, Brown can also be deadly returning punts!

Brown is the favourite with those firms offering a market at present on the league leader for receiving yardage. He is 7/2 with the likes of bet365 and Betfred.

Their defensive star... is a former first round pick who has had his injury problems but when he plays, Linebacker Ryan Shazier is a guy who just seems to be able to find the football and create turnovers. Last season he enjoy four straight games (two of them playoff games) with an interception. The previous season his two forced fumbles in the wild card victory over the Bengals proved to be the difference.

The Steelers defense isn't quite the dominant force of old but Shazier is only 24 years old and his speed and burst can be eye-catching at times so he could only be scratching the surface of his talent.

Going under the radar is... Tight End Jesse James. I'm sure he wasn't named after the outlaw nor was the Cher song about him but he's come to my attention in that he did a solid job at the position last year when the Steelers had made a rare big money free agent splash on former Charger Ladarius Green in the 2016 offseason only to see him miss a bunch of time injured and he has now been released.

American Football James just turned up every week and did a solid job with 39 receptions of which 20 went for first downs and three for scores. He should continue to improve and might be able to chase a big money deal of his own in a year or two.

Their key offseason veteran addition will be... Wide Receiver Justin Hunter. The Steelers have never been big proponents of free agency and in Hunter they have taken a flyer on a player with potential. A former 2nd round draft choice of the Tennessee Titans, Hunter struggled with injuries that seen him released. After a short stop in Miami he landed in Buffalo last season when Sammy Watkins was injured and he scored 4 TD's and averaged nearly 19 yards a reception off only 10 interceptions in limited time.

Hunter is an excellent athlete who represented his country at the IAAF World Junior Championships at the long jump in 2010 and he has landed in a spot where his talents can complement an already talented offense. Hunter could be an excellent red zone target for Ben Roethlisberger.

A rookie to watch... is a guy with a great story in Running Back James Connor. A local guy from Pittsburgh college he's become a story before he's taken a pro snap in that his jersey has become the bestseller for rookies of all NFL teams over the offseason. In part that's because the Steelers enjoy solid support nationwide and he's a local kid but he's also survived cancer so he's already fought a tougher battle than making the NFL ever will be.

As a player Connor helps because as good as Steelers star back Le'Veon Bell is, he needs to have his workload reduced so as not to burn him out. Connor is 6'2”, 240lbs, runs hard and whilst inexperienced as a receiver, showed he can do it at his pro day. When this guy touches the ball at home, the crowd will tell you he's in the game!

As always feedback and comments are welcome. Please feel free to check out the other blogs regarding American Football on OLBG too.

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