Vault Valuables: AFC North Preview
After going 11-5 last year and losing in the divisional round to the Buffalo Bills, the Ravens look to rebound and continue their playoff streak. At +122, can Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens continue division dominance?
There is not much to speak about here. The 2019 unanimous MVP Lamar Jackson will likely continue to put defenses on notice, as his legs are just as much of a weapon as his arm. He has shown that he can win games by himself. He has this ability so much so that he came out of the team’s locker room (for a presumed bathroom break) and made a spectacular play, scrambling and hitting Marquise Brown in stride for a touchdown. The only question at this position is whether or not Jackson’s contract extension gets done during this offseason or not.
Running back is one of the most important positions in this run-heavy Ravens offense. This year, they will return last year’s second round running back JK Dobbins, newly extended Gus Edwards, and pass catching specialist Justice Hill. Over the last few years, there has not been a traditional bellcow in this offense, but if there ever was a year, it would be this one. After a successful rookie season, JK Dobbins looks to take over the backfield this year, with Edwards and Hill supplementing him. Dobbins will not necessarily take 95% of the carries like a traditional bellcow, as this offense does not allow for that. Depth is necessary, and the Ravens have it. Besides the running back position, fullback is also extremely important. The Ravens have a great one in Patrick Ricard to play as a great lead blocker in this zone read offense.
Over recent seasons, receiver has been a question mark in this run heavy offense. This offseason, Baltimore signed Sammy Watkins and drafted Rashod Bateman. On top of Bateman and Watkins, they have Marquise Brown, Devin Duvernay, Miles Boykin, and James Proche II, among others. While no exceptional talent, they are loaded with average to above average receivers and depth. They also have many different skill sets as well. They have speed in Brown, a big body in Watkins, and a route runner in Bateman. On top of his legs, Jackson should have the bodies at receiver to succeed.
At tight end, arguably Lamar Jackson’s most trusted weapon in this offense is Mark Andrews. Over the last few seasons, Andrews has been arguably a top five tight end. In 2019, he had over 850 yards and ten touchdowns, while in 2020 Andrews came back down to Earth with 701 receiving yards and seven touchdowns. Those 2020 numbers are not measly by any means, and he looks to rebound again in 2021. Behind Andrews is Nick Boyle who is capable of catching and is a supreme blocker.
Arguably the most important part of this Ravens team is the offensive line. In a run heavy offense, without a strong offensive line, there is not a strong offense. Over the years, the Ravens have had an extremely strong offensive line. While they may have downgraded a bit, it shouldn’t be too much of a downgrade. At left tackle is Ronnie Stanley. After a gruesome ankle injury that ended his season, he is back, hoping to be worth every bit of his massive contract. They then have Ben Cleveland, Bradley Bozeman, and Kevin Zeitler inside. Kevin Zeitler has been elite, but Cleveland and Bozeman are just above average. Right tackle is the key here. Orlando Brown Jr demanded a trade during the offseason and got it. Baltimore then replaced him with two time pro bowler Alejandro Villanueva. The main problem here is his age, as he is 32 compared to Brown’s 25. While a downgrade, it is not massive, and the Ravens should be fine.
The Baltimore defense is consistently elite, and this year is no different. In this 3-4 defense, the defensive line will consist of Derek Wolfe, Brandon Williams and Calais Campbell. Three great players, they are sure to disrupt the passing and rush game. As another rusher, they lost Matthew Judon, and they have Pernell Mcphee to assume that role, someone that has done it before. Behind him is Jaylon Ferguson, a young player who can rush the passer and has loads of potential. Behind them are last year’s first round pick, Patrick Queen, Tyus Bowser, and LJ Fort. Three more players that have done it before, and will once again do it this year.
This front seven overall is strong, but doesn’t have an extreme amount of depth. John Harbaugh should be able to coach up this group to have some depth behind the starters.
At corner, the Ravens don Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters. Two ballhawks that can also rip the ball out of the ball carrier’s hands. They are sure tacklers that force turnovers all game long. They talk the talk and they certainly walk the walk. Behind Peters and Humphrey are Jimmy Smith and Tavon Young. Smith is a cagey veteran that has done it year in and year out, and Tavon Young can do what Humphrey and Peters do, just at somewhat of a lower level.
At safety, the Ravens have Chuck Clark and Deshon Elliot, with Anthony Levine behind them. While they do not need to be outstanding behind Humphrey and Peters, they are quite good safeties who can roam the field and deliver the boom.
At +122, the Ravens have all the pieces to be a first place team. Will injuries hold them back, or will the elite talent they have at the starting positions be able to keep them afloat? I would bet on them being at least a top two team, as Lamar Jackson and Coach John Harbaugh should be able to lead them to at least 11 victories this season.
After an 11-5 season, the Cleveland Browns destroyed their rival Steelers, and then lost in a close one to the Chiefs in the divisional round. Getting back key players from injury, Kevin Stefanski’s Brown’s look to capitalize on +145 odds to win the AFC North.
Returning for his 4th season, former first overall pick Baker Mayfield can be a bit of a wild card. After upping his game to a 26:8 TD to INT ratio, Mayfield seems to have taken his game to a new level last season. If he can continue on this trajectory, he can cement his place as the Browns’s franchise quarterback for the foreseeable future. With a cornucopia of weapons around him, as long as Mayfield doesn’t get himself in trouble with his erratic decision making, he can be a top ten quarterback in this league.
As said previously, the Browns are LOADED with talent at the skill positions. At running back, Cleveland has arguably the best 1-2 punch in the league. With Nick Chubb as 1A and Kareem Hunt as 1B, the Browns will never be without a great player in the backfield. Chubb is one of the most ferocious runners in the league, perennially leading the league in broken tackles. Hunt is not only one to run defenders over, but he is amazing at pass catching as well. Hunt and Chubb have been great for these Browns, and they will continue to be.
At wide receiver, Cleveland is extremely talented. Returning from a torn ACL is the infamous Odell Beckham Jr. Supposedly looking stronger and faster than ever, there is large hope that Beckham will return to all-pro form and be the elite number one receiver he can be. In the slot, the Browns have former Dolphins pro bowler Jarvis Landry. An NFL record holder, Landry is intense, ferocious, and extremely talented. Behind them, they have Donovan Peoples-Jones and Rashard Higgins, two talented receivers. They also drafted speedy Auburn wideout Anthony Schwartz to supplement.
At tight end, the Browns have possibly the deepest unit in the league. Starting is Austin Hooper, who the Browns made the highest paid tight end in history last offseason. Behind him is former third rounder Harrison Bryant and former first rounder David Njoku. All three are very capable players receiving the ball. Blocking, they are fine, but nothing special.
After having one of the strongest offensive line groups in the league last year, they hope to repeat that performance in 2021. At left tackle, last year’s 10th overall pick Jedrick Wills looks to build on an extremely strong rookie season. Joel Bitonio, JC Tretter, and Wyatt Teller are inside. At right tackle, the Browns signed Jack Conklin. Looking at this group, they should continue their dominance that led to one of the top run games in the league last year. Overall, these 5 excel in both run and pass blocking, making them an elite bunch. If they do not get injured for long periods of time, this group should be top 5 in the whole league next year.
Just as on offense, this Cleveland team is talented on defense. On the edges, the Browns have former first overall pick Myles Garrett. For all the busts that the Browns drafted, Garrett is certainly not that. He is so dominant that we could be looking at a future hall of famer if he keeps up the pace he is on. On the other side, the Browns signed another former first overall pick, Jadeveon Clowney. Those two should wreak havoc on opposing offenses, as they should also get 1-on-1 opportunities. Inside, the tackles are Andrew Billings and Malik Jackson. Billings is fine, but Jackson is certainly more talented.
At linebacker, the Browns nabbed Jeramiah Owusu-Koramoah in the second round after concerns over a heart issue flagged at the combine. After being considered a top 15 talent, as long as he can stay healthy, he will elevate this offense. They also don Sione Takitaki and Anthony Walker. As depth, the Browns have former Super Bowl MVP Malcolm Smith and former Alabama star Mack Wilson. With depth at the linebacker spots, this front seven has a good balance of talent and depth.
At corner, former fourth overall pick (high draft picks are a common theme here), Denzel Ward will likely shadow the opposing team’s number one receiver. Opposite of Ward is former Rams corner Troy Hill. Coming off a three interception season, Hill hopes to continue his success. Behind them is Greedy Williams and this year’s first round pick from Northwestern: Greg Newsome.
At safety, the Browns bring back Ronnie Harrison Jr and signed John Johnson III to a big contract this offseason. The issue is not talent here, as the Browns certainly have it, the issue might be depth. Behind Harrison and Johnson, the only player of note is Grant Delpit who was hurt during his rookie season.
At +145, the Browns certainly have the talent to win the division, but do they have the depth? Are they tough enough? The AFC North has been known for having physical games, and these games tend to be won in the trenches. The Browns have improved over the last two years in this area, so they might just be able to do it.
After winning the division last year and starting the season 11-0, the Steelers had a horrible ending to the season. Since winning the division last year, they have dropped to third in odds to win the north at +400. Can they stay on top, or will they fall?
There sure is no quarterback controversy here. 39 year old Ben Roethlisberger will be returning to Pittsburgh for his 18th season. He has thrown less this offseason than he has ever before, stating that he believes his arm feels fresher than ever. Hopefully this leads to success this year, as he dumped off to his running backs early and often last year. As long as he stays healthy, he should be able to keep them afloat. While he won’t be winning them games as he used to, he won’t lose them games either. Behind him are Mason Rudolph, Dwayne Haskins, and Josh Dobbs.
At running back, the Steelers may not be as deep as they have been in years past, but they sure spent on those assets. While most assumed they needed an offensive lineman in round 1, Pittsburgh went with Najee Harris. While extremely talented, there are questions about whether or not he can run behind this offensive line. He is a great runner and pass catcher, and will serve Big Ben extremely well. Behind him, the Steelers have Benny Snell, Anthony Mcfarland, and Jaylen Samuels.
At receiver, the Steelers’ top three receivers return with Juju Smith-Schuster, Diontae Johnson, and Chase Claypool. They should be able to continue their dominance on the field as long as they can continue their development and chemistry with Roethlisberger. Behind them on the depth chart are James Washington and Ray-Ray Mccloud. It is hard to believe that Juju (the Tiktok star) is a veteran in this bunch at just 24 years old. This position group is young, but talented.
At tight end, they are once again talented. The starter is Eric Ebron who had a great year last season. Behind him is talented Penn State rookie Pat Friermuth. Drafted in the second round, Friermuth was once considered the best tight end in this year’s draft class before Kyle Pitts burst onto the scene with a record breaking year. Thus, once again, the Steelers are stocked with pass catching talent in the tight end room.
As I wrote about earlier, it was a surprise to many that Pittsburgh did not go with an offensive lineman in the first round this year. Instead, they went with a running back with a weak offensive line to run behind. In past year’s, this line has been full of pro bowl veterans, but this year is a bit different.
At left tackle, Chukwuma Okorafor will be shifting from right tackle last year. The Steelers then have second year player Kevin Dotson, second year player JC Hassenauer, Trai Turner, and Zach Banner. Long story short, if this line performs how most think it will, it will be a tough year for Roethlisberger and Najee Harris. With a lack of experience and talent, there will need to be a lot of development for this offensive line to have any sort of success this year.
The front seven in Pittsburgh has been strong for years. They have been so strong that they were nicknamed the “Steel Curtain” years ago for their strength on defense. This year will not be much different. They have the former Defensive Player of the Year runner up in TJ Watt. Along with Watt, they have Alex Highsmith on the other edge after losing Bud Dupree in free agency. Inside, the Steelers have Stephon Tuitt, Tyson Alualu, and Cameron Heyward. This front bunch is as strong as ever and arguably one of the best defensive lines in the entire league.
Behind the line, Robert Spillane and Devin Bush are the backers in this bunch. Spillane improved last year, but is certainly not amazing. Devin Bush had a fantastic start to his career, causing turnovers and tackling with speed and precision. However, this was upended by a torn ACL. After going through rehab, he should be ready for the beginning of the season. As long as he follows up his performance from last year, he will have proved the Steelers right with last year’s first round pick.
In the defensive backfield, Pittsburgh is talented. On the boundaries are veteran Joe Haden and Cameron Sutton. Joe Haden is a veteran presence who can lead and is savvy. He can create turnovers and chaos back there. Cam Sutton, however, is not as experienced or talented, as he had a 68.6 PFF grade last season. After only nabbing one interception last year, he hopes to build on that as a starter this season.
At safety, the Steelers pulled off a great trade getting Minkah Fitzpatrick for a first round pick. Long story short… that trade worked out. He was an all-pro last year and is one of the top 5 (at worst) safeties in the entire league. He seems to always be in the right spot at the right time at free safety, leading to 1st team all-pro. At strong safety, young and hard hitting safety Terrell Edmunds hopes to come close to matching Fitzpatrick’s production. But, don’t think Edmunds isn’t talented, he certainly is.
The strength of this Steelers team is certainly the defense. A top 5 defense in the league last year, they should be able to continue the performance from last season. This defense will be the reason the Steelers can win games and reach the playoffs.
As is clear through the past few pages, the strength of this team is defense, but Coach Mike Tomlin has been able to keep this team atop the league for years… don’t think he can’t this year. At +400, they can certainly win the division, but I don’t know if they would be my bet this season.
After going 4-11-1 and nabbing Ja’Marr Chase at number 5 overall in the draft, the Bengals hope to improve on their poor record last year. With the return of Joe Burrow from injury, they hope to defy their +2000 odds and win the AFC North.
After tearing his ACL last year, former number one overall pick Joe Burrow is returning with new weapons and protection around him. Personally, I didn’t see as much talent as everyone else in the world did, but he will likely prove me wrong. As long as he can return to form from his knee injury and can develop, making a year 2 jump, he will be the Bengals’ starter for years to come.
With Gio Bernard gone, this is Joe Mixon’s backfield. The coaches have been hyping up Mixon as a three down back. After being largely a two down back due to Bernard’s pass catching presence, he was extended and should be a top running back in the league this year. With an improved offensive line, Mixon should have an increase in efficiency. Behind Mixon is Samaje Perine, a former Oklahoma running back that owned multiple college records. Pass catching may be lacking, but these two are talented runners.
At wide receiver, the Bengals are both talented and deep. As previously mentioned, Ja’Marr Chase was picked at number 5, somewhat surprisingly over offensive tackle Penei Sewell. Part of the reason Chase was picked was due to his success with the aforementioned Burrow at LSU. Thus, the Bengals are hoping they can duplicate that success in the NFL. Behind Chase are Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd. Boyd has been a mainstay, consistent player in Cincinnati. Meanwhile, Clemson’s Higgins was an exciting young player last season, and should be strong again this season with even more weapons and less attention.
Tight end is not extremely talented, as they boast Drew Sample and CJ Uzomah. While they aren’t bad, they are nothing above average. They can be serviceable for Joe Burrow catching the ball, as well as blocking.
This Bengals offensive line has been a point of contention for years. They have struggled for a long time, leading to poor rushing and a large part of Joe Burrow’s injury last year. They worked this offseason to fix it, but it is still a work in progress. From left to right, the starting line is Jonah Williams, Xavier Su’a-Filo, Trey Hopkins, Jackson Carman, and Riley Reiff. While it is certainly an improvement over the last few years, the job is not officially over… it can’t be. But overall, it should be a bit better this year with the additions of Carman and Reiff.
The defensive line is talented. Despite the loss of Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap, the Bengals did a good job of recouping assets to plug into the line. On the edges, the Bengals return Sam Hubbard and signed Trey Hendrickson from the Saints in hopes of rushing the passer with veracity. Behind them, the Bengals drafted Texas Longhorns’ Joseph Ossai. At one point considered a first round pick, he surprisingly fell to the third round. Inside, they signed former Cleveland third round pick Larry Ogunjobi, as well as the talented DJ Reader. Behind them, they have the former Packers standout Mike Daniels. As I wrote earlier, this line is talented. Behind them, however, is where the problems lie.
Logan Wilson, Germaine Pratt, and Akeem Davis-Gaither are the starting linebackers. Needless to say, there is not much talent back there. These three could be the fall of this Bengals defense.
The secondary is also talented. In the offseason, the Bengals signed Tray Waynes and Chidobe Awuzie on the outside. Behind them are Mike Hilton and Eli Apple. All in all, the Bengals worked to improve their secondary, and they certainly did, adding tons of talent on the outside. Not only do they have talent, but with Hilton and Apple as backups, they have experience on the bench too.
Following up the strong NFC West is another strong AFC North (at least for the top three teams). I might stay away from this division in terms of betting on it, as it will be competitive, and there will not be much value for the Ravens and Browns. Anyways, I foresee the division going with the odds and just the way I wrote it… Ravens in first, followed by the Browns, the Steelers, and the Bengals in last. I could see the Steelers squeaking by Cleveland, but regardless, I think Baltimore will win the division.