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Draft Preview: AFC North

The 2021 season is hoped to be the first step on the road back to normality however the offseason has provided some challenges with the salary cap reductions across the board and the confusion about OTA’s.

We take a look at the AFC North division that has seen it’s fair share of trades, issues and stories...

*Pittsburgh Steelers:

2020: 1st in AFC North (12-4 record) Wild Card Play-Off (Loss 48-37 to Cleveland Browns)

The Steelers have had an eventful offseason by many accounts. Thanks in no small part to the salary cap adjustments. The Steelers Nation will be pleased to know that Ben Roethlisberger and JuJu Smith-Schuster set to start the new season after both agreeing new contracts in free-agency.

Although the Black and Gold will be without one of their star edge rushers, Bud Dupree as he signed with the Tennessee Titans in free-agency. The Steelers felt that they could not justify matching $35 million guaranteed by the Titans.

Hopefully they can replicate their form in the first 12 weeks of the 2020 season where they went 12-0. And they have every chance to, having retained most of their talent although they will be looking to strengthen their run game having lost leading rusher James Conner to the Arizona Cardinals.

The Draft is set to be interesting for Pittsburgh as they hold the 24th overall pick and they have a big need in the trenches and look set to address that with Creed Humphrey, center out of Oklahoma. The Steelers are lacking depth at both Center and Right Guard which is a problem for Buddy Snell Jr. who is now top of the running back order, which is a problem, with Snell only managing 29 carries in his two-year NFL Career to date.

Overall, the Steelers have some work to do before the season starts, but the core players are ready and raring to go. If they address the issues in their offensive line, then it’s very reasonable to think they will find themselves in the postseason come 2022. Especially now that they have an extra game to play from now on.

Prediction: (12-5) 1st in AFC North

*Baltimore Ravens:

2020: (11-5) 2nd in AFC North (Lost in AFC Divisional Play-Offs to Buffalo Bills 17-3)

Baltimore have a tough season ahead of them, having made some big moves in their roster as early as January. Mark Ingram was waived after a less-than-average 2020 running the football, with 299 yards from 74 carries. To put that in perspective, that is a third of the yards that QB Lamar Jackson accrued over the 2020 season.

Recently, the Ravens traded OT Orlando Brown Jr. to the Kansas City Chiefs for the 31st pick in the upcoming draft also 3rd and 4th round selections, plus a 2022 5th round pick. These picks are invaluable for the Ravens with holes in the right side of their O-line, although they have made strides in rectifying this with the addition of Guard Kevin Zeitler from the Giants.

The defensive front is also looking weaker in spots, especially after Matt Judon joined the Patriots for $32 million guaranteed. His 49 total tackles will be missed by the ‘Purple Murder’.

They say the best indicator of the future is the past so, if the last few seasons are anything to go by, the key to Baltimore’s success this year is Lamar Jackson, with 2,757 passing yards and 1,005 rushing yards. This overdependence can lead to burnout and a lack of plan B. Although, J.K. Dobbins, 2nd year RB out of Ohio State showed great promise last year with 805 yards in 134 carries.

Prediction: 2nd in AFC North (10-7)

*Cleveland Browns:

2020: 11-5 (3rd in AFC North) Lost in AFC Divisional Play-Off (22-17 to the Kansas City Chiefs)

The boys in the ‘Dawg Pound’ have completely turned their fortunes around after a stream of bad years and now the fruits of their labour are starting to come to light.

Baker Mayfield’s fifth-year option has been picked up by the Browns after improving year-on-year and has cemented himself as a franchise quarterback for years to come.

They can also count on the services on their star corner Denzel Ward, who has also had his fifth year option picked up. And they have bolstered around him in the backfield as safety John Johnson of the LA Rams has made the switch to Ohio on a three-year, $33.75 million deal.

However, with the backfield strengthening for the Browns, the defensive front has taken a hit after their edge rusher Olivier Vernon has been released after obtaining an achilles injury in week 17 also the loss of Sheldon Richardson to free agency is a massive hit to their front 7.

They will be looking to replace the dominant force in the trenches in the upcoming draft and they are not short of options. Jayson Oweh is the most likely suitor for their edge rushing conundrum but if they are going by the age-old method of best talent available that suits their needs then Levi Onwuzurike is the safest bet at Defensive tackle.

Having kept both Kareem Hunt and Nick Chubb in the backfield they have one of the best rushing lineups in the league with two backs that are able to produce huge numbers and win games.

Prediction: 3rd in AFC North (9-8)

*Cincinnati Bengals

2020: 4-11-1 (4th in AFC North)

Whilst there is definite hope of improvement for the Bengals they are still far behind the pack when it comes to their divisional rivals.

Rookie Quarterback Joe Burrow had a decent start to debut season with 2,688 yards passing, 13 Touchdowns and only 5 Interceptions in his first 10 games in the league. However a rather nasty knee injury in week 11 against the Washington Football Team left him on the sidelines for the rest of the year.

In a recent photoshoot for new uniforms, the scar on the 2020 number one pick’s knee was very visible and appeared to be healing well. Every report and update seems to share the view that the former-LSU QB will be ready come week one.

Another welcome sight in week,Trey Hendrickson as the swift replacement of Geno Atkins as a force up front for the bengals defense. Hendrickson was a dominant force off the edge for the Saints with 13.5 sacks. This also solves the loss of 2020 sack leader Carl Lawson to free agency however, throwing $60 million was a big risk but we will see how it pays off.

A big question is how the Bengals will manage without A.J.Green, their star wide receiver for 10 years. The pass-catcher left for Arizona, who are mounting somewhat of a revival in the desert.

Tee Higgins is a good option for future seasons but if Cincinnati want to catch up to their increasingly advancing division rivals, then perhaps a look into free agency will prove fruitful as there are still reputable players looking for a football team.

Antonio Brown, fresh off of a first Super Bowl Ring is still available. A more realistic option is Golden Tate, who was released by the New York Giants after 2 years out of a total 4-year, $37.5 million contract.

Whoever the Bengals get in to fill the whole will have a tough task on their hands as the franchise is still undergoing a full rebuild and will need time to structure around Joe Burrow.

Prediction: 4th in AFC North (5-12)

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