The infamous AFC North.
Headlined by gritty, defensive-minded rosters laced with top offensive talent, selecting a division victor come season's end is about as difficult as trying to halt one of the teams’ stacked edge rusher combos. But don’t let history fool you, the Baltimore Ravens, Cleveland Browns, Cincinnati Bengals, and Pittsburgh Steelers each enter 2021 with loaded offensive units to counter what is arguably the most well-rounded defensive division in all of football.
If this is your first time here, let me take a second to both welcome you while also laying down the law of this exercise. Quarterbacks are irrelevant, meaning each franchise’s projected starting signal-caller is put to the wayside as we strictly are judging each roster from the 10-man group around center on offense and the full 11-man unit on defense. It will offer you a glimpse into the lay of the land in the AFC North this fall as the Browns and Bengals look to alter the holding pattern that has been the rotation of the Ravens and Steelers donning the division crown in each of the last five seasons.
Let’s get right into it. From top to bottom, here is how each roster stacks up to the next, all non-QB things considered.
Despite just one playoff appearance since 2002—one that ended in a divisional-round loss at the hands of the Kansas City Chiefs just last year—the Browns from top-to-bottom have the most complete roster in the division. From arguably the league’s top offensive line to a dynamic 1-2 punch at running back on offense, to an elite edge rush duo in Myles Garrett and Jadaveon Clowney who will pave the way for an outstanding back seven, the Browns are flat-out loaded.
It starts in the trenches, where 2020 first-round selection Jedrick Wills pairs with two-time All-Pro Jack Conklin as the bookend tackles in charge of leading the way for the duo of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. Out wide, it’s weapons galore with Odell Beckham Jr., and Jarvis Landry while Anthony Schwartz, the Browns third-round pick, and Rashard Higgins, offer a slew of speed to pop the seal off any opposing team’s secondary ceiling.
Defensively, it doesn’t get much better foundationally than the tandem of Clowney and Garrett up front, but as we move toward the linebacking corps, the true potential of Cleveland’s defense begins to take shape. An underrated asset to a fast, physical unit, Sione Takitaki pairs with free-agent addition Anthony Walker and one of the league’s potentially dominant first-year defenders in three-down talent Jeremiah Owusu-Koromoah. Add in the additions of Troy Hill, John Johnson III, Greg Newsome II, and a healthy Grant Delpit to a secondary already overflowing with talent in Denzel Ward, Greedy Williams, and Ronnie Harrison, and we are talking about a potentially dominant unit in Cleveland.
I can already hear you, Steelers fans. But, the fact is the black and gold simply don’t stack up toe to toe with the heavyweights of the division after the offseason losses this spring.
The Ravens are a bit of an interesting group of talent, as they moved on from Orlando Brown this offseason but signed guard Kevin Zeitler and veteran stop-gap Alejandro Villanueva while also stealing pass-catcher Sammy Watkins away from the Chiefs to bolster an underperforming receiving corps outside of tight end Mark Andrews.
General manager Eric DeCosta didn’t rest on his laurels, however, drafting both Rashod Bateman and Tylan Wallace to round out what is now an impressive group of talent on the boundary for Lamar Jackson. In the backfield, Baltimore heads into the campaign rather unchanged as J.K. Dobbins looks to serve as the bell-cow back in a two-man system with Gus Edwards.
Defensively, Wink Martindale’s group is one built around veteran prowess. With just one first-year player set to make an immediate impact on defense (Odafe Oweh), the Ravens tout one of the more aging defensive groups in all of football—but don’t let that take away from the overall impact they could have in their dynamic 3-4 base. Littered with dynamic talent in the secondary in ball-hawking corners Marcus Peters and Marlon Humphrey, the onus on safeties Chuck Clark and DeShon Elliott to sway from their assignments at times near the LOS or on patented Baltimore blitzes from the top.
The Ravens’ biggest progression, on paper, came via the offensive side of the ball this spring. DeCosta’s overhaul of the offensive line and wideout group has the Ravens in prime position to battle their way back to the postseason.
A 12-4 team last year, the Steelers showed their true makeup during the latter half of the campaign, suffering back-to-back-to-back losses to Washington, Buffalo, and Cincinnati as they approached the postseason. It didn’t get much better for Pittsburgh as they fell to the hands of Kevin Stefanski’s Browns in the wild-card round. And now, as we enter 2021 without David DeCastro, Maurkice Pouncey, Villanueva, James Connor, Bud Dupree, Mike Hilton, and Matt Feiler, it’s difficult to project the Steelers’ amount of success after making minimal moves this spring to fill the shoes of such lost assets.
First-round selection Najee Harris could win Offensive Rookie of the Year—there’s no one doubting his potential as an elite weapon for the Steelers—but other than Harris, Pittsburgh doesn’t excite when projecting their arsenal out wide. Sure, they brought back JuJu Smith-Schuster to pair with a progressing Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool, but just last year Smith-Schuster was the de facto scapegoat and Johnson fell victim to being benched after multiple dropped passes. Pittsburgh’s receiving corps had decent numbers in 2020, but it’s beyond difficult to truly project the group's overall success when considering each wideout's individual ceiling. Harris’ presence will help open up things both in the intermediate areas and downfield, but in a loaded defensive division—outside of Cincinnati—it’s far-fetched to say this group scares anyone.
On the other side of the ball, I would be remiss to not credit the success the Steelers had as a group in 2020. They were a dominant unit, at times, but failed to show up when it counted most, allowing 48 points on wild-card weekend. With playmakers at each level in annual DPOY candidate T.J. Watt, a now-healthy Devin Bush, and safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, the Mike Tomlin-led unit has a pathway back to success, if all comes to fruition.
It starts and ends with the success under center for the Bengals, but that topic is for another time. As a whole, however, the Bengals are on their way.
A healthy Joe Mixon will lift the burden of Joe Burrow’s pressure to succeed, as will the arrival of Burrow’s LSU running mate Ja’Marr Chase to pair with Tyler Boyd and second-year talent Tee Higgins. Up front, the Bengals did what they needed to do after an abysmal 2020 season where they allowed 48 sacks, tied for the third-most in football. A fully healthy Jonah Williams will serve as the blindside anchor with draft addition Jackson Carman to shore up the right side adjacent to Riley Reiff.
While Trey Hendrickson highlighted the Bengals’ offseason additions, expecting Cincinnati to be any more than a below-average defensive unit under coordinator Lou Anarumo would be a reach. They have a long way to go, but there’s a bright light at the end of the tunnel in the form of Chase, Mixon, Boyd, Higgins, and a potentially high-flying offense in the Bengals’ near future.
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