It’s been a heck of an offseason thus far in the AFC North as we slowly creep into the meat of the summer months. Amidst the reports of Deshaun Watson’s ongoing off-field questions, new faces under center in Pittsburgh, high-impact additions in Cincinnati, and a full-strength roster in Baltimore, the division is deep.
It’s been a whirlwind of a spring, but as we are just a tick over two months from kickoff, let’s take a deeper dive into the who’s who of the AFC North, with signal-callers excluded. Let’s rank the best rosters in the AFC North if we take away the quarterback position.
A roster now at 100% and on the heels of one of the most headlining drafts—on paper—in recent years, the Ravens are a deep, fast, and loaded football team. With J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards back at full strength, the Ravens will tout one of the more well-rounded offenses in football as Mark Andrews leads the way through the air. On the outside, while the loss of Marquise Brown will limit Baltimore’s ability to truly lift the roof off the defense, improvement is expected from Rashod Bateman, Devin Duvernay, and James Proche. Frankly, improvement there is a must if the Ravens idealize winning their first division title since 2019.
On defense is where things get exciting from the top down. Chuck Clark, Marcus Williams, AND Kyle Hamilton? Now you’re cooking with gas. Add in Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters on the outside, and a no-fly zone has formed over M&T Bank Stadium.
Up front, while the presence of Calais Campbell and Michael Pierce will both eat up gaps in the run and push the pocket consistently, youth-infused additions in defensive tackle Travis Jones and edge rusher David Ojabo—who should be healthy by November—have presented newly minted defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald with a ton of bodies primed to make an impact. That doesn’t include pocket pusher Odafe Oweh or linebacker Patrick Queen to headline a defense dripping with talent at all three levels.
At full strength, Baltimore represents the cream of the crop in the division despite overwhelming pop from the teams below.
Let’s not overhype the Bengals due to recency bias. As the reigning AFC champions, they have a healthy allotment of pieces on either side of the ball that must be acknowledged, however. On offense, you know the names. Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, Tyler Boyd, and Joe Mixon. But where their unit pops the most is the group tasked with keeping Joe Burrow upright.
After a season in which Burrow was often found scrambling for his life, the additions of Alex Cappa, Ted Karras, and La’el Collins fortify a front five already touting left tackle Jonah Williams. With improved play in the trenches, the Bengals could produce one of the most well-rounded offenses in football. With more time for their perimeter targets to get open and creases to run through in the ground game, Cincinnati could very well find themselves atop the conference once again.
On defense, I’m extremely intrigued by how defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo will deploy first-round pick Dax Hill. He worked a ton during spring workouts at nickel and has the ability to roll back and play safety. But with Jessie Bates III and Vonn Bell in place, Anarumo could play Hill at all three levels and just ask him to make plays, which could work out swimmingly.
With arguably the top running back duo and offensive line in all of football, slotting the Browns in third is more a representation of the elite talent in the division rather than a knock on their potential 53-man roster. The addition of Amari Cooper finally provides the offense with a legit top target on the perimeter, and although both Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr are elsewhere, Donovan Peoples-Jones and third-round pick David Bell should immediately evolve into trusted targets for whoever aligns at quarterback to kickoff the season.
On defense, Myles Garrett and one of the top secondaries in the NFL headline Joe Woods’ unit, but questions remain within the interior of the trenches and who will push the pocket if Garrett were to miss any allotment of time as he did prior to last fall. Jadeveon Clowney is back and former New England Patriot Chase Winovich was brought in to also wreak havoc, but your secondary is only as good as your pass rush and placing the onus on Clowney, whose proven inconsistent during his career, and Winovich (0 sacks) to consistently move quarterbacks of their spot seems a little far fetched right now.
The Browns are extremely talented and have all the tools to compete for a playoff spot this fall, but depth within the front four and immediate impact in the passing game slots them below the Ravens and Bengals.
I like T.J. Watt, I like Najee Harris, I like Cam Heyward, and I like Pat Freirmuth, but I have a hard time truly getting excited about this Steelers roster. Surely Mike Tomlin will get them prepped for a playoff run this fall—no matter who is under center—but Pittsburgh has a ton of questions on both sides of the ball and it starts within the front five.
Injuries forced nine different offensive linemen into snaps last season, and while the shuffling of bodies usually invites miscommunication and a heavy amount of quarterback pressures, a few performed well in that time. Dan Moore (seven sacks and 46 pressures in 1,079 snaps) and Chukwuma Okorafor (two sacks and 23 pressures in 1,078 snaps) are back, Kevin Dotson played well until a season-ending injury in Week 9, and the team added Mason Cole and James Daniels in free agency. But it looks to be a patchwork unit right now that ranks among the league’s worst. Backups Joe Haeg, John Leglue, Kendrick Green, and J.C. Hassenauer all started at least three games last season, but it’s hard to think that group moves the needle.
Harris is a bellcow and will work into even more touches this fall, and I remain excited about the potential of rookie wideouts George Pickens and Calvin Austin III alongside Chase Claypool and Diontae Johnson, but both Claypool and Johnson have enjoyed their fair share of inconsistencies thus far in their NFL tenures and it’s more of a hope that they reach their performance ceiling rather than production to bank on right now.
On defense, the Steelers have pieces within their front seven, but relying on Levi Wallace and Ahkello Witherspoon as your starting corners should worry Tomlin. Wallace has been a career CB2 in Buffalo, and while Witherspoon played well in spurts last season (nine games), asking those two to cover Chase, Higgins, Boyd, Cooper, and Bateman doesn’t seem like the ideal blueprint for success. Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds are excellent pieces at safety, but the Steelers have a ton to prove on the outside with two of their first three games coming within their division. For positives, Watt will continue to get his and I expect Alex Highsmith to enjoy a breakout season. But within a pass-happy NFL, you need corners with the ability to mirror and make plays on the football and I’m not sure they have the talent in the building to do so.