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NFL Draft

Which AFC North Team Has The Best Non-QB Roster?

  • The Draft Network
  • June 26, 2020
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I cannot brag about Lamar Jackson here if I wanted too. These AFC North rankings are omitting each team’s passer and, in a rare turn of events, are exactly like the 2019 divisional rankings. 

The Baltimore Ravens, sans Jackson, are still the best team in the division. Both the Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers corner the competition here. They’ll steadily be the two best teams in the division if things don’t change for the bottom half; and even with recent additions, I’m not betting they will. The Cleveland Browns and Cincinnati Bengals have consistently struggled, while each quarterback can be their saving grace, they don’t help here.

Let’s take a closer look.

Baltimore Ravens

Parsing out these top two teams was almost like splitting hairs. Sure, the Steelers have a slightly better defensive front and receiving corps but the Ravens edge them out with their running back room, offensive line, and secondary. 

Baltimore’s rushing attack was led by Jackson, who had 1,206 yards on the ground on the way to becoming the NFL’s second unanimous MVP. But Mark Ingram, at 30 years old and in his ninth season, topped 1,000 yards and rushed for 10 touchdowns; it was Ingram’s third 1,000-plus-yard season in four years. I’m not counting Jackson as part of the backfield here—that’s not his position, that’s not what he does; he’s just one of the most electric, talented quarterbacks we’ve ever seen. The Ravens did bolster the backfield with second-round draft pick J.K. Dobbins. They’ll be operating behind one of the top run-blocking offensive lines, highlighted by Ronnie Stanley, in the league. The receiving corps could be better and, again, without Jackson, aren’t huge playmakers; but one middling position group isn’t enough to move the Ravens down in these rankings.

The team’s defensive line is just a step behind Pittsburgh’s, but Baltimore has since improved its front by adding Calais Campbell via trade and Derek Wolfe in free agency. The Ravens also have upside in the middle of their defense. They selected Patrick Queen 28th overall, who will be a Day 1 starter. After losing some veterans—Patrick Onwuasor and Josh Bynes; Bynes is now with the Bengals—Queen will be able to come in and play all three downs. 

Baltimore has Marcus Peters under contract in the secondary and Marlon Humphrey playing some of the best football of his career after a three-interception, two-touchdown season; at this point, we’re just bragging about a team that’s talented—mostly—top to bottom.

Pittsburgh Steelers

The Steelers should prepare for an eventual change under center as Ben Roethlisberger is at the tail end of his career, but that's not a worry for this exercise. Pittsburgh has one of the best coaches in the NFL, Mike Tomlin, who miraculously went 7-1 after Pittsburgh’s bye week. The Steelers did lose their last three games, but they didn’t crash and burn which can be chalked up as a successful season considering the carousel of quarterbacks.

The Steelers are able to be at the top of the AFC North because of their overall talent. They don’t have the best backfield and offensive line anymore, but they do have potential. James Conner needs to return to his 2018 form if Pittsburgh wants to have a strong rushing attack. JuJu Smith-Schuster and the offensive line also need to bounce back from a digression in 2019.  

Pittsburgh’s defensive line is one of the league’s better units with Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt; Heyward, like Roethlisberger, is reaching the latter part of his career and Tuitt needs to stay healthy after missing 10 games last season. T.J. Watt is a problem for opponents off the edge. He finished 2019 with a career-high 14.5 sacks. The Steelers lack depth at linebacker but Devin Bush’s talent masks that shortcoming, and they have a solid pairing—Joe Haden and Steven Nelson—in the secondary.

Cleveland Browns

I’m not too high on the Browns, but others disagree. In Pro Football Focus’ rankings of all 32 teams, Cleveland ranked 11th behind Baltimore (first) and Pittsburgh (10th). This was factoring in Baker Mayfield, but I’ll bite. 

The Browns do boast the best running back in the division, Nick Chubb, one of the NFL’s most elite EDGE rushers, Myles Garrett—who was on track for another strong campaign, likely besting previous career highs, before he was suspended indefinitely following a Week 10 scuffle with Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph—and have the game-changing Odell Beckham Jr. as the star of their receiving corps. In short, the key playmakers needed to make this offense go are there, but they need improvements in other spots to open up the field and allow these players too, well, make plays. Cleveland addressed its need on the offensive line by adding Jack Conklin in free agency and drafted Jedrick Wills 10th overall. Get these two to mesh well and hello highlight reel.

Some of Cleveland’s biggest weaknesses—without getting into Mayfield—are on their defense. PFF noted the linebacker group and the absence of Joe Schobert are a potential detriment to the upcoming season. The Browns’ defensive line is another and the health of a star in the secondary, Denzel Ward, is also concerning. The Browns are a hodgepodge of talent that needs to come together to fix a decade-plus of losing seasons; they may finally have the right mixture of talent and play-calling to do so. 

Cincinnati Bengals

This two-win team last season has very few good position groups. Two of the good ones are running back, headlined by Joe Mixon, and the receiving corps with A.J. Green, Tyler Boyd, and now Tee Higgins. Mixon has had back-to-back 1,100-plus-yard seasons in just three years in the league and is playing behind one of the worst offensive lines. Still, Mixon has averaged 4.2 career yards per carry and 17 touchdowns.

Cincinnati’s defensive line was another remotely positive position group last season, but the Bengals need help in nearly every area. The offensive line is one of the league’s worst and now has to protect first overall draft pick, Joe Burrow. Cincinnati tried to add to the front by grabbing Xavier Su'a-Filo in free agency and Hakeem Adeniji in the sixth round of the draft. There’s a spark of hope with the return of 2019 first-round selection Jonah Williams, who missed his rookie season due to a shoulder injury. 

Elsewhere, things look grim; from the linebacker room to the Bengals’ EDGE rushers, they’re not in the best position to maximize Burrow’s potential. But after all, that’s why they were able to get him.

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