Our Roster Reset series takes a division-by-division look at where things stand across the league heading into the 2020 NFL Draft. Nick Shook examines the current makeup of the AFC North below.
Lamar Jackson's bunch sprinted to a 14-2 record, the No. 1 seed and the favorite pick of most for the AFC crown in 2019. Baltimore's Divisional Round loss to Tennessee stunned the football world and set the table for the Ravens to embark on a revenge tour in 2020. Additions of Calais Campbell and Derek Wolfe helped reinforce Baltimore's defensive front, which suffered against the Titans in the postseason. General manager Eric DeCosta has taken the steps necessary to ensure that won't happen again. Now it's up to the Ravens to replicate their 2019 regular-season success -- and then add to it in the postseason. Everyone else better watch out for the purple-and-black birds.
Up in the city the Ravens franchise used to call home -- Cleveland -- the Browns emerged from the free agency frenzy with a pair of signings who could help them become the team they were supposed to be in 2019. Austin Hooper joins David Njoku to comprise a tight end duo that should be used plenty in new coach Kevin Stefanski's offense, and Jack Conklin shores up Cleveland's weakness at right tackle. The Browns will have to find an answer for left tackle, but Andrew Berry and Co. provided a big boost in protection for Baker Mayfield in Conklin, who could also help Cleveland become an even better running team in 2020. Now it's up to new pickups like Karl Joseph, B.J. Goodson, Kevin Johnson, Andrew Billings, Andrew Sendejo and Adrian Clayborn, to fit into Cleveland's new-look defense, which will look to replicate its early-season performance in 2019, not its second-half downfall. If the two units can come together, the Browns can legitimately contend with the Ravens for the AFC North -- but it won't be an easy road, as this division lacks a legitimate bottom feeder to feast upon for two easy wins.
One example resides down I-76 in Pittsburgh. The Steelers disappointed in 2019 because they didn't have Ben Roethlisberger at the controls of the offense. With Big Ben on the mend, Pittsburgh's ready to return to the playoffs after a two-year hiatus. The Steelers weren't incredibly active in the first few waves of free agency, but they didn't need to be. Now it's up to the existing team to stay healthy and give the Ravens (and Browns, to a lesser degree) a legitimate challenge.
Cincinnati, meanwhile, is getting its presses ready to produce some new jerseys with BURROW emblazoned across the back. We're on the verge of a new era at quarterback in Cincy, and while some weaknesses still exist along the offensive line, the Bengals uncharacteristically spent a good amount of money on remaking their secondary. It's not time to gear up for a run to the Super Bowl, but it is time to start the trek out of the cellar toward more wins in 2020 along the Ohio River.
Things are looking up for every team in this division. We'll have to let the regular season separate the contenders from those who felt best in March.
FREE AGENCY NOTABLES
Campbell's move to Jacksonville back in 2017 was stunning and significant, and he could be even more impactful in Baltimore. Ravens fans will quickly forget how 2019 looked without Za'Darius Smith when Campbell lines up at defensive end and Matthew Judon returns on the franchise tag to hunt from the edge. The trade for Campbell, which only cost Baltimore a fifth-round pick, also brings a rock-solid veteran presence to this locker room, which was filled with successful players in 2019 but could have used another experienced voice. AFC North passers will always have to identify where Campbell is lining up when playing the Ravens, making Baltimore that much more difficult of an opponent to face in 2020.
Yanda didn't leave for another team, but for the green pastures of retirement. Any time a team loses a future Hall of Famer, it's a big blow to the roster's overall strength. For a franchise that was a favorite to win its conference before an unexpected postseason one-and-done last winter, it's even more significant. Baltimore succeeded in 2019 in large part because of its running game, which led the league in yards per contest and befuddled opposing defenses, thanks to the dual-threat nature of its MVP quarterback. While the Ravens will replace Yanda, his consistently excellent play will undoubtedly be missed.
This section could also spotlight the Browns' loss of linebacker Joe Schobert, a 2017 Pro Bowl selection who displayed a knack for takeaways in 2019 but was also often regarded as a tackler who lacked stuffs, instead recording his takedowns of ball carriers downfield. Cleveland was never going to pay Schobert the kind of money he received from Jacksonville ($53.75 million over five years), but will hope veteran B.J. Goodson can fill the void.
OK, Conklin was the best right tackle available on the market, so it's not a complete sleeper, but how often are O-linemen lauded as top-of-the-marquee pickups these days? Sure, he won't touch the ball, but Conklin could create plenty of room to run for Cleveland's offense, which is loaded with talented playmakers. The addition of Conklin stands to help the Browns' running game significantly, opening the door for Nick Chubb (second in the NFL in rushing yards in 2019) and Kareem Hunt to maximize their talents as a two-headed monster behind the quarterback. While the Browns still need to address left tackle, they upgraded in a big way with Conklin, which can help Baker Mayfield get back on track toward becoming a star in this league, especially with the many weapons (Odell Beckham Jr., Jarvis Landry, new pickup Austin Hooper) he has at his disposal.
Baltimore Ravens: Receiver seems to be an area where the Ravens might look to spend a draft pick or two to provide another legitimate threat alongside Marquise Brown. After trading away Hayden Hurst, Baltimore is still strong at tight end but could pick up another new face at the position. Of course, we'll have to see how Ben Powers plays in place of Marshal Yanda at right guard, but we'll leave analysis of that change until the season. Defensively, the Ravens feel pretty confident about their linebacking corps, handing L.J. Fort a two-year extension in November and keeping Matt Judon with a franchise tag, but we could see that position receive a reinforcement via the draft or later free-agent signing. The rest of the defense is largely set, thanks to the addition of Derek Wolfe and elevation of Chuck Clark to permanent starter at strong safety, a position he manned after the loss of Tony Jefferson in 2019.
Cincinnati Bengals: All eyes are on the No. 1 pick of the 2020 draft, which will presumably be spent on LSU quarterback Joe Burrow. Cincinnati watched Tyler Eifert leave via free agency a year after extending C.J. Uzomah, though it wouldn't be surprising to see the Bengals add another prospect at tight end. The Bengals are locked into Bobby Hart's role as starting right tackle for now, though it wouldn't be unwise to explore another option there. Defensively, Cincy spent a healthy chunk of change to replace Darqueze Dennard with Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander, but the Bengals still need to make a move at linebacker, its worst position group in 2019. These Bengals aren't as far from being a legitimate team as some might think, as long as they answer their remaining questions -- and help Burrow acclimate to the pro game quickly. On that topic, Andy Dalton remains on the roster and could still be the team's starter if Burrow isn't quite ready to take the field in Week 1.
Cleveland Browns: Cleveland will hope B.J. Goodson can replace Joe Schobert, and at publishing, the Browns have the most remaining cap space available in the NFL (per Over The Cap) to make some later free-agent additions. They already picked up some defensive depth in Adrian Clayborn, Andrew Billings and Kevin Johnson, and replaced the back end of the secondary with Karl Joseph and Andrew Sendejo, helping reinforce a unit that was looking at significant losses entering the offseason. Now, it's up to the Browns to decide who will be their third receiver behind Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry, one of the few areas that still needs to be addressed (along with left tackle). From there, it'll be time to get the offense on the same page before attempting to rebound from last season's disappointing 6-10 finish.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Pittsburgh's addition of veteran guard Stefen Wisniewski could help the offense a good amount, but what would most benefit the Steelers would be a full healthy season from Ben Roethlisberger (and James Conner). Diontae Johnson's emergence last season was encouraging and helped ease worries about Pittsburgh's receiving corps, and Eric Ebron could make a big impact if he can pick up where he left off in his last full season as a Colt (SEE: 13 TDs in 2018). The Steelers look solid across the board defensively, and if most of the unit can stay healthy in 2020, it should be a strength for the franchise. Above all, reliable quarterbacking and avoidance of injured reserve is the best winning mix for these Steelers, who can use the draft to add depth, seeing how they don't own a first-round pick (but are more than happy to have Minkah Fitzpatrick instead).