Rank the AFC North quarterbacks. Seemingly every fan has either been asked to do this on social media or decided to do it on their own accord over the last several months. The ranking of AFC North quarterbacks, along with being a way to kill time during the offseason, symbolizes the anticipation for what should be an exciting division to follow during the 2021 season.
Fresh off of their best season in over a quarter century, the Cleveland Browns have their sights set on winning their first division title since 1989. Standing in their way are the Baltimore Ravens, who last season won their first playoff game with Lamar Jackson under center. The Steelers, the defending AFC North division champion, are once again expected to be in the thick of things as far as the playoffs are concerned. In Cincinnati, fans are hoping that a stronger supporting cast will lead to a breakout season for last year’s No. 1 overall pick, Joe Burrow.
Each team still have some questions to answer before the 2021 regular season begins. Let’s take a look at the three biggest questions surrounding each team, starting with the team that is currently favored to win the division for a third time since 2018.
What are the strengths/weaknesses of Baltimore’s re-vamped O-line?
Baltimore suffered a big blow when they were forced to trade away starting Pro Bowl tackle Orlando Brown Jr. this offseason. To help replace Brown, the Ravens signed former Steelers Pro Bowl left tackle Alejandro Villanueva. While he has impeccable durability (his 96 consecutive games played led the Steelers), Villanueva is not as good in pass protection as he was during his Pro Bowl seasons of 2017 and ’18. He was also part of an offensive line that produced the fewest rushing yards during the 2020 season. Villanueva attributed some of last year’s issues to the Steelers’ predicable offensive game plan. He said that he is also excited to play for a run-oriented team after playing in pass-happy Pittsburgh for the majority of his career.
John Harbaugh will have to choose his new starting left guard before the season-opener. Harbaugh recently called it a “wide open” competition between rookie Ben Cleveland and veterans Ben Powers and Tyre Phillips. Bradley Bozeman, the team’s starting left guard in 2020, is expected to replace Matt Skura (now with the Dolphins) at center. Another fresh face on Baltimore’s offensive line is Kevin Zeitler, a nine-year veteran who was quite possibly the Giants’ biggest cap casualty. Harbaugh offered glowing reviews of both Villanueva and Zeitler during offseason workouts.
Who is the Ravens’ No. 3 WR?
Marquise Brown and Sammy Watkins are expected to be the top-two receivers on Baltimore’s depth chart. Rookie Rashod Bateman should be considered the front-runner to be the Ravens’ No. 3 receiver, but he faces decent competition in second-year wideouts Devin Duvernay and James Proche II, fellow rookie Tylan Wallace and veteran Miles Boykin. Boykin was reportedly very consistent during offseason workouts, while Duvernay and Proche looked more polished as they enter their sophomore seasons.
Is Baltimore’s pass rush good enough?
Baltimore was a pedestrian 14th in the league with 39 sacks in 2020. Matt Judon, the team’s leader with six sacks last season, signed with New England this offseason. The Ravens are hoping for a breakout season from Tyus Bowser, who recorded two sacks and three interceptions last season. Baltimore is also hoping for early returns from rookie Odafe Oweh, who did not record a sack during his final season at Penn State. Look for the Ravens to possibly explore signing a veteran free agent pass rusher if they see signs of weakness from this part of their defense during training camp.
Have the Bengals done enough to better protect Burrow?
This is the biggest question surrounding Cincinnati. The Bengals passed on drafting Penei Sewell (the consensus top offensive lineman prospect in the draft) and instead selected former USC tackle Jackson Carman in the second round. They selected another tackle — D’Ante Smith — in the fourth round and center Trey Hill in the sixth round. Carman is currently slated to start at right guard, where he will play alongside veteran and new Bengals right tackle Riley Reiff. The big question here is Jonah Williams, a 2019 first-round pick who struggled to stay healthy during his first two seasons. Williams is currently projected as the Bengals’ starting left tackle.
Is there enough talent at RB?
While their offensive line additions should help, the Bengals didn’t add much personnel to a running game that was 24th in the league in yards gained in 2020. Former 1,000-yard back Joe Mixon returns after missing 10 games last season with an injury. Cincinnati is confident that Samaje Perine (who averaged a team-high 4.8 yards per carry in 2020) can be an adequate replacement for Giovani Bernard. It appears that rookie sixth-round pick Chris Evans and Trayveon Williams (who rushed for just 157 yards in 2020) will battle for the No. 3 spot on the depth chart. A possible sleeper in this position battle is undrafted rookie Pooka Williams, a two-time 1,000-yard rusher at Kansas who ran the 40-yard dash in 4.38 seconds during his pro day.
Is Cincinnati’s starting CBs good enough?
While they were able to sign former Steelers nickelback Mike Hilton, Cincinnati bid adieu to William Jackson and Mackensie Alexander during the offseason. Trae Waynes is hoping to bounce back after missing the entire 2020 season with an injury. Waynes will likely start opposite former Cowboy Chidobe Awuzie, who inked a three-year deal with the Bengals in March. They also signed former Giants first-round pick Eli Apple to add depth to the position. While there is certainly potential, this unit will have to mesh relatively quickly before the Bengals kick things off against the Vikings on September 12.
How will Odell Beckham fit into the Browns offense?
Last year’s success has largely erased the stink of what was a terribly disappointing 2019 season for the Browns. Among the biggest storylines that season was the decline of Baker Mayfield’s play despite the offseason acquisition of Beckham, a three-time Pro Bowler during his years with the Giants. The Browns were 5-2 prior to his season-ending injury in 2020, but Beckham’s numbers (23 receptions on 43 targets for 319 yards and three touchdowns) were well below his usual standards. Expect Mayfield to spend a considerable part of training camp getting in rhythm with Beckham, who appears to be back at full speed eight months after undergoing ACL surgery.
Is Cleveland’s interior D-line good enough?
Cleveland parted with Larry Ogunjobi and former Pro Bowler Sheldon Richardson this offseason. Newcomer Andrew Billings had a so-so career in Cincinnati before opting out of the 2020 season. Fellow newcomer Malik Jackson was a Pro Bowler in Jacksonville after he played an integral role in the Broncos’ 2015 championship run. Jackson’s career has been on a downward trajectory following his Pro Bowl season, however, as he has made just eight starts since the start of the 2018 season. The Browns are hoping to get some quality snaps out of fourth-round pick Tommy Togiai, who put up solid numbers during his final season at Ohio State.
Can Jadeveon Clowney be Robin to Myles Garrett’s Batman?
After trying unsuccessfully to land him in 2020, the Browns closed the deal with Clowney this offseason to the tune of a one-year deal that is worth up to $10 million. After deciding not to retain Olivier Vernon, the Browns need Clowney to play better than he did during his only season in Tennessee. Cleveland instead needs Clowney to be closer to the player who earned three consecutive Pro Bowl selections during his final season with the Texans. In Houston, Clowney took full advantage of having J.J. Watt on his side. He will look to have similar success playing alongside Garrett, who racked up 42.5 sacks during his first 51 regular season games.
Did Pittsburgh do enough to re-tool the offensive line?
The Steelers did their best to replace four starters from last year’s unit. They drafted center Kendrick Green and tackle Dan Moore, players who will likely be key backups this season. They also re-signed B.J. Finney, the team’s best backup center/guard during the 2016-19 seasons. Following David DeCastro’s abrupt release, Pittsburgh quickly signed Trai Turner, a five-time Pro Bowler during his first seven seasons. A big key to the unit’s success is the play of starting tackles Zach Banner and Chukwuma Okorafor. Banner returns after missing 15 games with a torn ACL. Chukwuma will look to be an upgrade from Villanueva, who protected Ben Roethlisberger’s blind side for the past six seasons.
Can Roethlisberger flourish in Matt Canada’s offense?
The Steelers’ offense finished last in the NFL in rushing in 2020. They also became far too predictable, which led to the team promoting Canada to offensive coordinator. While Canada spent last season as Roethlisberger’s position coach, his offense will be vastly different from the one Big Ben has operated for the majority of his career. Fortunately for Roethlisberger, he has familiarity in the form of receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster, Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool, James Washington and tight end Eric Ebron. Canada’s offense will also focus more on the running game, which will feature rookie running back Najee Harris. Roethlisberger will have to do his part, but Canada is hoping to take some of the pressure off of the 39-year-old gunslinger.
Is Pittsburgh deep enough at CB?
The Steelers never truly filled the void left by the release of Steven Nelson this offseason. Justin Layne, a two-year veteran who has yet to start an NFL game, is currently slated to start alongside Joe Haden when the Steelers face the Bills in Week 1. While they may have a potential sleeper in undrafted rookie Shakur Brown, cornerback remains the Steelers’ biggest question mark entering training camp. Expect the Steelers to act quickly if they don’t see what they’re looking for out of this unit in the early stages of camp. One option could be bringing back Nelson, who was initially released due to the Steelers’ limited salary cap.