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Mailbag: Is AFC North best division in NFL? Who could make Pro Bowl for first time?

Q: In your opinion, is the AFC North the best in the NFL this season?

— @MrEd315

A: Without a doubt.

The records are the easiest point of reference, with all four teams entering Sunday at least two games above .500 and in playoff positions. The Browns, Bengals and Steelers are 5-3 and chasing the 7-2 Ravens. The Steelers are the least talented of the rivals, at least at quarterback, but have managed to win more than lose despite being outgained in every game.

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Greg Newsome II active, will play today vs. Ravens

But believing the North is the best goes beyond wins and losses. Cincinnati’s Joe Burrow and Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson are among the top quarterbacks in the league, and Cleveland’s Deshaun Watson is trying to get back to that level. Baltimore’s John Harbaugh and Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin might be the second- and third-best coaches in the league (behind Kansas City’s Andy Reid), Cincinnati’s Zac Taylor has been to a Super Bowl and another AFC Championship Game and Cleveland’s Kevin Stefanski should be a candidate for Coach of the Year after winning two games with P.J. Walker at quarterback and losing Nick Chubb and Jack Conklin for the season.

There’s also a toughness factor throughout the division that might not be matched anywhere in the NFL.

Chemistry, closeness, resilience on display in fun but trying season, will be tested again vs. Ravens

I don’t think another division comes close to the North. I’d probably go with the NFC East second. The Eagles and Cowboys are Super Bowl contenders and the Commanders are competent, but the Giants are awful. The AFC East is similar. The Dolphins and Bills are legitimate, but the Patriots and Jets quarterback Zach Wilson drag it down.


Q:
Which Browns have a shot to be first time Pro Bowlers if they continue their current level of play for the rest of the season?

— John Palazzo

A: I like this question. Although I’ve had to self-edit my answer the longer I think about it.

Second-year cornerback Martin Emerson Jr. deserves strong consideration. He’s been fantastic on the other side of Denzel Ward, and some teams shy away from even targeting Emerson. He has two interceptions and six passes defensed.

Amari Cooper is used to overcoming obstacles, double teams

Defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson is next on my list. He’s played a huge role in the transformation of the defense to the NFL’s top-ranked unit. He has three sacks, seven quarterback hits and two tackles for loss.

Safety Grant Delpit came to mind first, but I bumped him down the list. I still think he’s got a shot. He’s been productive all season and has an interception, a fumble recovery, a half-sack and 53 tackles, three for loss. The former second-round pick is finally playing like the Browns expected and seems headed toward a nice contract with the Browns or someone else. A Pro Bowl on his resume would help.

Tight end David Njoku and center Ethan Pocic could also get a Pro Bowl nod if the Browns make the playoffs.

Browns-Ravens Preview: 3 things to watch, 3 key numbers, the prediction


Q:
Can Bill Callahan get these new starting tackles good enough to protect the QB in the biggest game of the year so far

— @krow_dawg

A: That’s the question of the day. If the tackles/protection hold up, the Browns’ chances of an upset skyrocket. If Watson is under constant duress and/or fumbles/throws interceptions, the Browns are in deep trouble.

To answer your question, I believe so. I think Callahan and the coaching staff realize Geron Christian at left tackle and James Hudson III at right tackle (I’m assuming they’ll start, the Browns still haven’t announced it) can’t be trusted to hold up by themselves in single protection all day. But they’ll have a plan to help when appropriate and get the ball out of Watson’s hands on time when necessary. Having said that, Christian and Hudson have to do their part and slow down the pass rusher in front of them.


Q:
What’s with Alex Leatherwood? He was a first-round pick. Is he so bad?

— @TomanBehemoth

A: It’s a fair question considering the tackle situation.

Leatherwood, who was the No. 17 pick of the Raiders in 2021, was signed to the practice squad after the preseason but has yet to be elevated for a game and has been passed on the tackle depth chart by new additions Christian and Leroy Watson IV. In Leatherwood’s defense, the Browns may view him as a guard. When he arrived, coach Kevin Stefanski said he’d work at both spots.

Q: What is up with Siaki Ika? Was he drafted as a developmental-type player or has he been a disappointment?

— @DannyMcVay

A: He’s inactive again today for the Ravens game, making it a clean sweep through nine games.

To the second part of your question, I’d say both. The Browns added veterans Tomlinson, Maurice Hurst II and Shelby Harris in the offseason to go with incumbent Jordan Elliott, so that reduced the need for Ika to contribute immediately. But Harris was a late add, and if Ika were dominating in practice, he’d be in the lineup. He was also a third-round pick, so that’s high to draft a guy for a redshirt season.

It’s a long year and the Browns may need Ika at some point. But through the halfway point, the season’s a lost one.

Browns writer for The Chronicle-Telegram and The Medina Gazette. Proud graduate of Northwestern University. Husband and stepdad. Avid golfer who needs to hit the range to get down to a single-digit handicap. Right about Johnny Manziel, wrong about Brandon Weeden. Contact Scott at 440-329-7253, or email and follow him on and Twitter.

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