Analysis

AFC North roster reset: Three-horse race at the top of the division

Our Roster Reset series takes a division-by-division look at where things stand across the league heading into the 2021 NFL Draft. Marc Sessler examines the current makeup of the AFC North below.

Baltimore Ravens
Baltimore Ravens
2020 record: 11-5

BIGGEST ADDITION: Kevin Zeitler, offensive guard 

Old team: New York Giants


The Ravens desperately needed help up front and found it in the form of Zeitler. The veteran guard was cast off by the Giants, but remains a sturdy interior presence and plus pass protector with only one missed start since 2014. His 65.9 grade from Pro Football Focus last season was a career low, but he should bounce back in Baltimore's run-heavy, mauling ground attack.


BIGGEST LOSS: Matt Judon, edge rusher

New team: New England Patriots


I won't critique the Ravens for refusing to pay Judon the $32 million guaranteed he netted from the splurging Patriots. He's been a consistent performer who benefitted from Baltimore's blitz-heavy front. PFF noted that exactly half of Judon's total pressures have charted as "unblocked or cleanup pressures" since 2018. With Yannick Ngakoue also out the door, Baltimore is a lock to mine for pass-rushing depth in the draft.


TOP DRAFT PRIORITY: Edge rusher


Baltimore has a problem if right tackle Orlando Brown Jr. wins his battle to be traded away. They need a receiver, too, even after inking Sammy Watkins. No position group is more paper thin, though, than the club's collection of pass rushers. Judon and Ngakoue waving farewell creates a crystal-clear need for a prospect to unleash beside Tyus Bowser, Pernell McPhee and Jaylon Ferguson, who collectively piled up just seven sacks in 2020.


FINAL THOUGHTS:


  • It says something when JuJu Smith-Schuster and T.Y. Hilton apparently took less money to play somewhere other than Baltimore. I bring this up not to pile on, but to acknowledge that play-caller Greg Roman is under a fair bit of pressure. The Ravens deserve credit for draping an attack around Lamar Jackson that maximizes his unique gifts. Still, another offseason of opponents poring over film will further challenge an offense that had defenses "calling out our plays," according to Jackson. The Ravens must grow more versatile, raising the possibility of doing more at wideout than adding a durability-challenged Watkins.
  • I'm interested to see what becomes of Josh Oliver, the traded-for tight end who missed 28 games over his first two seasons in Jacksonville. He's a freaky, athletic prospect dropped into one of league's friendliest tight end environments. For all the Roman-centric questions above, there's no doubt about his ability to maximize this position.
  • A worst-case scenario for Baltimore would be moving Orlando Brown Jr. only to discover that stalwart left tackle Ronnie Stanley isn't ready for the opener after multiple ankle surgeries. Considering how valuable a quality edge blocker is in today's NFL, general manager Eric DeCosta would need to convince a team to give up legitimate assets for Brown, whose contract expires after this coming season. The Athletic's Jeff Zrebiec acknowledged the intriguing (and unfounded) rumors that Brown could theoretically be dealt to Chicago for wideout Allen Robinson. If that ever went down, the Ravens would roll into September as a far more versatile offense.
Cincinnati Bengals
Cincinnati Bengals
2020 record: 4-11-1

BIGGEST ADDITION: Trey Hendrickson, edge rusher

Old team: New Orleans Saints


After losing Carl Lawson in free agency, Cincy patched over its pass-rushing void by dropping $60 million over four years on Hendrickson. The Bengals are gambling that his 13.5-sack breakout campaign for the Saints last autumn was a sign of things to come. They put up just $16 million guaranteed, which makes this deal less risky than it first appeared. Hendrickson is an old-school, bullying edge who gives the Bengals a dose of nastiness up front. 


BIGGEST LOSS: Carl Lawson, edge rusher

New team: New York Jets


We just talked about his replacement in Hendrickson. Did the Bengals lose out on the better player, though, when Lawson inked a deal with the Jets packed with $30 million guaranteed? That's nearly twice the guaranteed green Cincy paid Hendrickson, but Lawson is the more consistent player, sitting in the 96th percentile among all edge men in pass-rushing grades since 2017, per Pro Football Focus. Instead of pairing the two together, the Bengals are on the hunt for more help.


TOP DRAFT PRIORITY: Wide receiver


The offensive line is needy, but the Bengals added right tackle Riley Reiff and appear ready to stick with 2019 first-rounder Jonah Williams at the bookend slot. If you love Oregon's Penei Sewell, you grab the draft's top tackle and don't look back. Reiff's one-year deal doesn't change that after Joe Burrow absorbed the second-most sacks league-wide before shattering his ACL in Week 11. The line needs help, but finding the next A.J. Green -- and not Peter Warrick -- is an equally tantalizing option. There's plenty of heat around the team pairing Burrow with his former LSU teammate in Ja'Marr Chase. Burrow has reportedly lobbied for the wideout behind the scenes, making this an easy series of dots to connect.


FINAL THOUGHTS:


  • Are the Bengals open to trading out of the No. 5 spot? They might be in great position to do so if an unprecedented four straight quarterbacks are chosen before Cincy's on the clock. Suddenly we'd have 27 other teams staring at the chance to grab the best non-passer in the draft. An enviable position for the typically paint-by-numbers Bengals.
  • Mike Hilton is coming off a down campaign, but I like this signing. Hilton is an athletic, pesky slot who fills a need. Losing William Jackson III? Not so nice, but Cincy stocked up at corner by inking Chidobe Awuzie and Eli Apple and re-signing Tony Brown.
  • The Bengals boast (likely the wrong word) a league-leading $15.9 million allocated to their running back room. Joe Mixon remains the workhorse despite an injury-ravaged campaign that limited him to just six games. The club re-signed Samaje Perine. The question is whether Giovani Bernard is a goner after reports suggesting he might be shopped.
  • The Bengals' defense welcomes back nose tackle D.J Reader and cover man Trae Waynes, who played a combined five games in 2020. Geno Atkins is out the door, but the one-year signing of Larry Ogunjobi could pay off. He's streaky but talented. 
  • Zac Taylor is a concerning 6-25-1 after two years as head coach. It's fair to wonder if the record says more about his skills or a roster that suffered a tornado of injuries over the past two seasons. For the first time in eons, though, ownership is spending money, with a total belief in Burrow's destiny. Taylor is under pressure to show he can lead the band. 
Cleveland Browns
Cleveland Browns
2020 record: 11-5

BIGGEST ADDITION: John Johnson, safety

Old team: Los Angeles Rams


Cleveland's secondary spent 2020 as a banged-up, susceptible unit that ultimately crumbled against the Kansas City Chiefs in January. Inking smart and reliable safety John Johnson (along with ballhawking corner and fellow ex-Rams standout Troy Hill) turns this group into a juicy strength. Coordinator Joe Woods can finally run his 4-2-5 base with a cadre of helpers including starry corner Denzel Ward and back-from-injury, second-round safety Grant Delpit. Johnson and Hill were wise additions by savvy general manager Andrew Berry. 


BIGGEST LOSS: Olivier Vernon, edge rusher

New team: Free agent


The Browns prioritized keeping a valuable piece on offense in wideout Rashard Higgins. They'll need to find a replacement, though, for pass rusher Olivier Vernon, who hit free agency after suffering an Achilles injury in Week 17. He started slow last season before notching nine sacks and 14 quarterback hits over his final eight games. Signing Takk McKinley is a wild-card maneuver with no guarantees, leaving Cleveland's front office with a burning to-do. 


TOP DRAFT PRIORITY: Edge rusher


I fully expect Cleveland to grab a havoc-spinning pass rusher to complement superstar Myles Garrett. They won't get their top choice at No. 26, but Washington grabbed the productive Montez Sweat at that spot two years ago. T.J. Watt fell all the way to Pittsburgh at No. 30 in 2017. The free-agent haul patched up the secondary, but help at linebacker and a pass-catching prospect also make sense for one of the AFC's better rosters.


FINAL THOUGHTS: 


  • Are we too high on the Browns? Last year's storybook campaign offered hope for the future largely because of coach Kevin Stefanski and front-office gem Berry. Expectations now shoot through the roof, but last year doesn't vibe as a fluke. Nor does Stefanski, who proved to be Cleveland's best game day coach since the team's return in 1999.
  • Baker Mayfield will always have detractors, but he answered plenty of questions last season. For the first time in his career, he won't be changing playbooks or coaches. The looming question is whether Mayfield is worthy of the fifth-year option. I fully expect the Browns to go that route.
  • Along with adding Johnson and Hill to the secondary, Cleveland also gets back 2019 second-round corner Greedy Williams and 2020 second-round safety Grant Delpit, who combined for zero snaps a year ago. The Browns de-emphasize the linebacker position, but look for them to grab someone in the draft to fill out their weakest position group.
  • I have no problem paying real money to Nick Chubb. It's not popular in 2021, but Chubb plays like a hero from 1921. He's old-school, punishing and perfect for the Browns.
Pittsburgh Steelers
Pittsburgh Steelers
2020 record: 12-4

BIGGEST ADDITION: JuJu Smith-Schuster, wide receiver

Old team: Pittsburgh Steelers


Hugging-the-cap Pittsburgh barely made a peep in free agency, but wisely chose to re-sign Smith-Schuster. The 24-year-old wideout turned down more moolah from the Chiefs and rival Ravens to return to a Ben Roethlisberger-led offense loaded with fellow pass catchers Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool and James Washington. JuJu's 97 grabs led to just 831 yards and a career-low 8.6 yards per grab in 2020, but that had plenty to do with an offense that imploded down the stretch. 


BIGGEST LOSS: Bud Dupree, edge rusher

New team: Tennessee Titans


T.J. Watt, Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt remain ready and willing to hassle quarterbacks. Dupree was obviously helped by coordinators swimming in confusion on how to handle so many heat-seeking behemoths, but the Steelers thought enough of him to apply the franchise tag a year ago. They didn't feel like matching the $35 million guaranteed he grabbed from the Titans this year, though. Dupree is a high-effort edge, but it's fair to wonder if he'll match his 19.5 sacks of the past two seasons over his next two campaigns.


TOP DRAFT PRIORITY: Left tackle


The backfield is thin. Secondary, too, after letting corners Steven Nelson and Mike Hilton walk. The Steelers must find a solution for the loss of left tackle Alejandro Villanueva. Plugged-in beat reporter Ed Bouchette noted this week that Pittsburgh's front office asked the veteran to hold off selling his Pittsburgh home. If a reunion materializes, the Steelers could use their pick at No. 24 on an outside linebacker or even think about a replacement for Roethlisberger, whose farewell tour will leave the team with a burning void at the most important position in sports.


FINAL THOUGHTS:


  • It's been a rough stretch for Steelers fans. The cap-strapped front office was forced to replace pricey veterans with low-level patchwork options. They were fortunate to retain defensive lineman Tyson Alualu, who agreed to terms with the Jaguars, caught COVID-19, went into lockdown and decided he wanted to stay in Pittsburgh. Weird times.
  • What brand of Steelers offense shows up this season? The flustered mess that crumbled down the stretch or an attack with a refreshed Big Ben ready to silence the giggles? B.J. Finney, Joe Haeg and Rashaad Coward were added to an O-line that also brought back Zach Banner. Still, this shaky unit suggests trouble for both Roethlisberger and a ground game currently led by Benny Snell and Kalen Ballage. I'd gamble Pittsburgh's workhorse runner comes through the draft. The 55th overall pick makes plenty of sense to boost a ground game that crossed 100 yards only once after Week 6. 
  • The Athletic noted general manager Kevin Colbert has moved up or down in the first round just four times over the past 20 years. The Steelers see themselves as a win-now club. They told us so by bringing back Roethlisberger for one last trip around the sun. After a penny-pinching approach to free agency, don't be surprised if the Steelers shake things up come draft day. Would team brass ponder a deal to move up for a passer in the draft? Not much heat around that narrative, but this might be a juicy landing spot for Sam Darnold if and when the Jets put a ring on Zach Wilson.

Follow Marc Sessler on Twitter.

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