Breaking down the AFC North

BrownsUK takes us on a guided tour North of the AFC wall!

The AFC North promises to be one of the most entertaining Divisions in 2021 with possibly a close battle for supremacy between three of the four teams. In this article I take a closer look at each roster and make a prediction on who could come out on top.

Cincinnati Bengals

The Bengals are starting from a low base so I'm not expecting them to be in the chase for the Division, but they have had a reasonable postseason. They really needed to address their Offensive Line which was the cause of the serious injury to Burrow last season. I don't think they gave this as much attention as it needed. They lost RT Bobby Hart in Free Agency and brought in LT Riley Reiff from the Vikings who is a serviceable player. They had to give the OL attention in the Draft, but chose not to pick quality Tackles early on instead trading down and selecting LT Jackson Carman from Clemson who might end up playing Guard. They picked up another Tackle D'Ante Smith from East Carolina who can also play Guard and a Centre Trey Hill from Georgia. These last two players will develop well, but there are legitimate question marks over whether the Bengals addressed their OL deficiency with sufficient seriousness. Jonah Williams, Quinton Spain, Trey Hopkins, Xavier Su’s-Filo and Riley Reiff is not a strong OL. However, all they need for it is it to improve to average giving Joe Burrow enough time to distribute it to their very good wide receivers, but I really worry for Joe Burrow with the Browns, Ravens and Steelers all having very strong pass rushing qualities. There is no doubt Burrow is going to be an outstanding QB so the future is very bright for the Bengals over the next few years especially when they get a good OL.

One of the strengths of the Bengals is undoubtedly their wide receiver room with Tee Higgins, Tyler Boyd and Ja’Marr Chase. Boyd is a 2x 1000 yard + receiver, and Bengals fans will be drooling over the Burrow-Chase combination. In 2019 Chase led the Power 5 in both receiving yards and receiving touchdowns. However, in preseason games Chase has dropped virtually everything sent his way, with 4/5 passes dropped! Evans has had a good few games and scored a great TD against Miami. The Tight End room isn’t strong with CJ Uzomah average at best, but Joe Mixon, a 2x 1000 yard + rusher, and Samaje Perine are very good weapons at RB.

(Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins, C/O

The Bengals lost a lot of good players in their Defense in Free Agency: IDL Geno Atkins, Edge Carl Lawson, S Shawn Williams, CBs Mackenzie Alexander and William Jackson III. However, they replaced most of these with equally good players: CBs Mike Hilton & Chidobe Awuzie, IDL Larry Ogunjobi and Edge Trey Hendrickson. I particularly like the additions of Hilton and Hendrickson. Hendrickson has played in 5 postseason games and is only 26 years old. They then went and added 3 Edge players in the Draft which could be argued as unnecessary, but Joseph Ossai with their 3rd pick was a great choice. However, he has picked up a knee injury and is out for most of the season. Cameron Sample should develop in to a good Edge, who they selected with their 4th pick, but he has injured his shoulder in training. I’m looking forward to seeing Hendrickson and Kareem made some good plays against Miami, but the starting Edge players are Hendrickson and Hubbard. With their 5th Draft pick the Bengals selected Tyler Shelvin from LSU who is basically a 346lb run stopper. In 2 years he only got 1.5 sacks so they have brought him in to plug holes, although given his size it’s probably going to be very easy to run around him and not through him.

There are legitimate concerns over safety depth and the linebacker room, but there is no doubt that certainly early in the season they can beat teams. Jessie Bates III is a very good safety and with him are Ricardo Allen, Vonn Bell and Brandon Wilson, but these 3 are average at best. The Corner Back room is stronger with Trae Waynes and Awuzie as the starting Outside CBs. Both are very solid, but not exceptional and Waynes can play both Nickel and Outside CB. Waynes was ranked the no46 CB in 2019 by PFF. Unfortunately he has a hamstring injury so will miss a little time. Mike Hilton is an excellent Nickel CB, and these are the players the Bengals will be relying on. Eli Apple will probably start opposite Awuzie and Darius Phillips behind him who I like. Logan Wilson and Germaine Pratt are listed as the starting Linebackers and they didn’t grade well last season at all. The highest graded LB was Jordan Evans who is very average. I suspect teams will find some joy running wide and in and around the box/slot. The Defensive Line is solid without being too exciting. If used as a 3 Tech Larry Ogunjobi could be a useful weapon and DJ Reader and Mike Daniels are fine, but Reader only played 4 games last year due to injury.

Overall I see the Bengals have strengthened their pass rush which was a weakness and their WR room, plus have good CBs. They are making progress and are going to surprise teams especially early in the season. I feel that all the while Zac Taylor is their Head Coach the Bengals will start games well, but will tail off in the 3rd and 4th Quarters. Optimistic Bengals fans will see 8-9 wins, but realistically I see about 6 wins as depth is a concern for me once injuries start to happen.

Pittsburgh Steelers

The reigning AFC North Champions have got worse since the end of the 2020 season. The question is how much worse? In Free Agency the biggest names they lost were: OLB Bud Dupree, C Maurice Pouncey, CBs Steven Nelson & Mike Hilton, Tackles Matt Feller and Alejandro Villanueva, and S Sean Davis. They brought in C BJ Finney from the Bengals and RG Joe Haeg from the Buccaneers neither of which are very good.

In the Draft with their first pick they selected a Running Back, Najee Harris. The Steelers have got a lot of criticism over this pick, but ultimately they picked the best player on their Board in a position of need. He looks to be a player with great potential over the next 5 years as a running and receiving threat. However, the running game will only improve if you have a strong Offensive Line. The Steelers didn't address their OL until their 3rd and 4th picks selecting a Guard first and then an OT. The Steelers clearly like Najee Harris and Kendrick Green, but they missed out on quality Tackles before selecting Dan Moore who was considered to be the 12th best Tackle in the 2021 class.

With their second pick they selected a TE Pat Freiermuth from Penn State. Again, they have received criticism for picking a TE so early in the Draft when they had so many other holes to fill. They didn't select a Corner Back in the Draft when they have very little depth at this position and their starting CBs are very average. They didn't pick a Safety until their 8th pick who was Tre Norwood from Oklahoma, a pick I like as he led the Big 12 in interceptions. In true Steeler fashion they concentrated 3 picks on pass rushing with LB Buddy Johnson, DE Isaiahh Loudermilk and OLB Quincy Roche, who they have since cut from the roster. I like the pick of Buddy Johnson and with TJ Watt and Alex Highsmith on the team they have a formidable pass rush room. Johnson is 6.0 and 229lbs and had 85 tackles plus 4 sacks. So the Steelers LB core and blitzing ability remains excellent. Loudermilk they must really like because they actually moved up to get him and gave away a 4th round pick next year to do so. Bizarrely they wasted a pick on a Punter.

(Steelers Rookie TE Pat Freiermuth, C/O

Their OL is currently LT Chukwuma Okorafor, LG Kevin Dotson, C JC Hassenauer or rookie Kendrick Green, RG Trai Turner, RT Zach Banner/Joe Haeg. There are 5 new OL men and one is coming back from a serious injury. The Steelers need this OL to be average so they can get their running game going and give Ben sufficient time to make the deeper throws and build the confidence he lacked last season. A lot of the Steelers potential success is dependent on this OL and for Big Ben to stay healthy for 17 games. Matt Canada their new OC has made some necessary adaptations to the Steelers offensive playbook catering for a weak OL and building in the skills of Najee Harris. They looked better than expected in the preseason, but they were playing the Eagles and Lions in those games. They have very good WRs and it looks like they have picked up an excellent RB in Najee Harris. Chase Claypool and JuJu Smith-Schuster are both very good WRs and Diontae Johnson and James Washington are good depth. The tight end room is fine with Eric Ebron receiving average grades last year and Pat Freiermuth is a rookie with TEs traditionally slow developers in the NFL.

Their top starting CBs are Cameron Sutton and Joe Haden both of which received PFF grades of below 70 and Haden is getting on in age now. Minkah Fitzpatrick is a good Free Safety, but there isn’t much depth behind him. So the Steelers have glaring weaknesses along their OL and question marks over their secondary. They had no running game last season because they had a poor OL which has got even worse. They really needed a very strong Draft to try and address these issues. However, they possibly have the best pass rush in the NFL in Stephon Tuitt, TJ Watt, Alex Highsmith with Chris Wormley and Melvin Ingram as depth, both of which are good players. Steelers fans will point out that Mike Tomlin hasn’t had a losing season which means they will need to win 9 games. I don’t see they have the all round quality to compete with the Ravens or the Browns and they have a tough schedule. Could this be the first season they drop below .500? I think it might be.

Baltimore Ravens

The Ravens had a neutral Free Agency. They kept most of the players they would have wanted to keep and brought in RG Kevin Zeitler and RT Alejandro Villanueva to replace their RG and RT DJ Fluker and Orlando Brown. Orlando Brown was a very valuable player for the Ravens and trading him to an AFC rival was confusing albeit for an extra 1st round Draft pick. However they did lose both their primary edge rushers in Matt Judon and Yannick Ngakoue to the Patriots and Raiders. Keeping hold of Calais Campbell and Derek Wolfe was essential. They tried, but failed to add good WRs to their team missing out on JuJu and TY Hilton who tellingly preferred to stay with their respective teams rather than sign for more money with a run heavy Lamar led Ravens. They eventually added Sammy Watkins who isn't a great WR. Selecting Rashod Bateman with their no1 pick was a great choice and now Lamar Jackson has Bateman and Marquise Brown as his primary WRs. These could be a formidable pairing, but preseason hasn’t been kind to the Ravens WR Room with many hit with injuries. Bateman and Boykin have both been moved to IR which means they will miss at least the first 3 weeks. Lamar Jackson was out for 10 days so hasn’t been able to practice with his top WRs. Brown and Watkins have returned to practice after lengthy injuries giving them 12 days to get ready for game 1. On the positive side Tylan Wallace has looked very good in preseason games as has TE Josh Oliver.

Going in to the Draft the Ravens needed to replenish their pass rushing abilities and they did this really well selecting Odafe Oweh who is 6.5, has a 4.3 speed and is 251lbs. Unlike the Bengals and Steelers the Ravens hit their biggest needs with their first two picks and then promptly strengthened their OL with a huge Guard Ben Cleveland 357lbs who will be perfect for their running game. In typical Ravens fashion, which I really like, they added 2 CBs for depth in Brandon Stephens & Shaun Wade who they have since traded to the Patriots for two future Draft picks. No wasted picks and a clear strategy earns them a very high grade from me. The Ravens consistently Draft well and cleverly earning compensatory picks and future picks. Their Front Office is outstanding.

The Ravens are better than last year and for most pundits are the frontrunners for the Division. Lamar is a constant threat both in running and passing. Contrary to some opinions he’s more than capable of throwing accurately deep he just needs to be more consistent. Last year he had a PFF passing grade of 76.9, was 12th in passing touchdowns and 22nd in passing yards. He is protected by a strong OL of LT Ronnie Stanley, LG Ben Powers, C Bradley Bozeman, RG Kevin Zeitler and RT Alejandro Villanueva. Mark Andrews is one of the best TEs in the NFL and Gus Edwards is an outstanding RB. JK Dobbins suffered a knee injury in the Ravens final preseason game, and is out for the season. He averaged 5.8 yards/carry last season so will be missed. Even with an injured WR core the Ravens are certainly not toothless, but it’s their Defense that’s going to be keeping them winning games. This is one of the strongest Defences in the NFL and one of the deepest.

(Calais Campbell, C/O

Their Defensive Line is DT Calais Campbell and Justin Madubuike who are both very strong players. Brandon Williams is the NT and Derek Wolfe is their best DE. The Ravens Pass Rush isn’t as strong as the Steelers, but it does pose a threat. Patrick Queen, Malik Harrison, Tyus Bowser and Odafe Oweh could all be dangerous. They have the best outside CB duo of Marcus Peters and Marlon Humphrey with very solid depth behind them in Jimmy Smith and Tavon Young. Chuck Clark is the starting Strong Safety and DeShon Elliott is the starting Free Safety both of which are good. Brandon Stephens provides good depth in this position.

The Ravens will be the favourites to win the AFC North this coming season for most pundits and I think they’ll have about 12 wins. There is no doubt they are one of the strongest and deepest rosters in the AFC. I think their biggest rivals this year will be the Cleveland Browns.

Cleveland Browns

The Browns are as strong on paper as the Ravens and have depth in almost every position. It was their Defense last year that was their weakness. In Free Agency they addressed this by adding S John Johnson III, CB Troy Hill, DE Takk McKinley, DE Jadaveon Clowney, DT Malik Jackson and LB Anthony Walker. These additions immediately strengthen a defense that was very leaky last season. They then added CB Gregg Newsome, LB Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and S Richard LeCounte in the Draft to add even more strength and depth. They get back CB Greedy Williams and S Grant Delpit who were both out with injuries all last season. S Ronnie Harrison finishes off a very strong Safety Room and AJ Green as CB 5 is simply downright spoilt. Malcolm Smith, Sione Takitaki, JOK, Anthony Walker, and Draft pick Tony Fields is a good LB Room. Unfortunately Jacob Phillips is on the IR as he tore a bicep in training, but he made the 53 roster so they’re clearly hoping he’ll come back late in the season. The pass rush looks formidable with Myles Garrett, Jadaveon Clowney, Takk McKinley and lJoe Jackson as depth. The main question mark on the Browns defense is their Interior DL. Malik Jackson, Andrew Billings and Jordan Elliott are the starters, but Billings hasn’t been great in preseason. Tommy Togiai is a rookie, but Malik McDowell looked an absolute beast against Atlanta. Overall I think the DT Room is a stronger unit than last season.

The Browns had the best Offensive Line in the NFL last year in both pass protection and run blocking. Joel Bitonio and Wyatt Teller are the two starting Guards with Michael Dunn and Blake Hance as very solid backups. JC Tretter is the Centre and the Tackle Room has Jedrick Wills, Jack Conklin, rookie James Hudson and Chris Hubbard. The OL is what makes the RB threat of Nick Chubb, Kareem Hunt, D’earnest Johnson and Demetric Felton one of the most potent in the NFL. The Browns are strong at TE with Austin Hooper, David Njoku and Harrison Bryant who are all good receivers and blockers. Andy Janovich is a very good FB/TE so adds an additional box threat. Finally the Browns are spoilt at WRs with Odell Beckham Jr, Jarvis Landry, Donovan Peoples-Jones, Rashard Higgins and Anthony Schwartz who has an olympic 4.2 speed.

(Fit again WR Odell Beckham JR, C/O

Detractors will say the Browns have added too many new faces on the roster to win the Division. Although possible I think this ignores the Browns tremendous coaching staff all of whom have returned from last season, but even if true expect them to be a major threat postseason. This is the first time Baker Mayfield has experienced the same playbook in the NFL so you can expect him to make even bigger strides forward. According to PFF he was the 2nd best QB from Game 7 onwards last year and a top 5 QB in some categories all year. In addition the Browns have now returned all 15 Drafted players to their roster from the last 2 years which shows excellent development. I see 12 wins and the Browns going head to head with the Ravens for the Division.

Massive thanks to BrownsUK for this great preview. Be sure to check out his work and follow @DawgPoundEast

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