2021 NFL Offseason Outlook: AFC North

2020 Recap

The AFC North was one of the most compelling divisions in the NFL last season as they were the only group to have three different teams reach the playoffs. The Pittsburgh Steelers won the division in the regular season with a 12-4 record (4-2 in division), but they were embarrassed by the upstart Cleveland Browns in the first round of the playoffs. Cleveland went 11-5 during the regular season in Kevin Stefanski’s first year as head coach. The Baltimore Ravens won a playoff game against the Titans, a team they have struggled to beat recently, and they finished the regular season with an 11-5 record. The Bengals finished at 4-11-1 but did see some encouraging play from rookie quarterback Joe Burrow before his devastating, season-ending injury. Three of four teams in this division will feel that they should be back in the postseason in 2021.

Pittsburgh SteelersPittsburgh Steelers

Current Cap Space: -$26.1 million (as of 2/20)

Top Free Agents: EDGE Bud Dupree, OT Alejandro Villanueva, CB Mike Hilton, OG Matt Feiler, DT Tyson Alalu, WR JuJu Smith-Schuster, RB James Conner, LB Avery Williamson, TE Vance McDonald, CB Cameron Sutton

Biggest Team Needs: OT, IOL, CB, RB, IDL, EDGE, LB, QB

2021 Draft Picks: #24 (R1), #55 (R2), #87 (R3), #118 (R4), #190 (R6), #208 (R7), #217 (R7)

Analysis: The Steelers looked like Super Bowl contenders early in the season as they racked up eleven straight wins to start the year. However, things swiftly fell apart from there as they lost five of their next six games, including a shocking loss at home to the Browns in the first round of the playoffs that was over by the end of the first quarter when Cleveland had a 28-0 lead. Ben Roethlisberger threw four interceptions in that game to cap off an underwhelming season. It’s unclear if Roethlisberger will be back with the team at 38 years old, and he carries a $41.25 million cap hit this season. The Steelers can save $19 million against the cap if they release the veteran quarterback before June 1. Pittsburgh will likely aggressively look to trade Roethlisberger to clear cap room with several key free agents to take care of.

The Steelers’ most pressing need heading into this offseason is the offensive line. Alejandro Villanueva, their stalwart left tackle, is a high-priority player to resign, and PFF projected his contract at $45 million over 3 years. Maurkice Pouncey retired last week after a disappointing final season, while Matt Feiler also becomes a free agent. David DeCastro is the only locked-in starter on the offensive line at the moment, and Pittsburgh using their first-round pick on an offensive lineman would not be surprising. A disappointing season on the offensive line held back the Pittsburgh run game, and James Conner was not impressive last year. Without much cap flexibility, the Steelers can’t afford a high-priced replacement, but Conner may not return either. Pittsburgh will likely add a running back at some point during the draft as Benny Snell Jr., Jaylen Samuels, and Anthony McFarland aren’t enough to carry the rushing offense. Young wide receivers Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool return after very impressive seasons, and Pittsburgh may not afford to bring JuJu Smith-Schuster back.

Defensively, the Steelers do have some decisions to make despite an epic season as one of the best defenses in football. Tyson Alalu had a phenomenal season on the interior of the defensive line and is a player who Pittsburgh would not like to lose. Bud Dupree is still an enticing pass rusher, but the Steelers generate plenty of push upfront from T.J. Watt, Cameron Heyward, and Stephon Tuitt. Dupree likely won’t return to the team. More importantly than the front seven, the Steelers need to figure out their cornerback group. The team was hurt by inconsistent play in the secondary at times, and two of their top three corners, Mike Hilton and Cameron Sutton, are set to be free agents. With more cap space, the Steelers could look to bring in Richard Sherman, Shaquil Griffin, or Xavier Rhodes in free agency. However, they will find it difficult to clear up enough room to resign their current starters. If Pittsburgh can find a way to offload Ben Roethlisberger this offseason, their fortunes change dramatically in their ability to improve the roster. However, a continued decline from Big Ben and a steady departure of talent could hurt this team heading into 2021.

First-Round Pick Targets: CB Jaycee Horn, OT Teven Jenkins, CB Asante Samuel Jr., IOL Alijah Vera-Tucker, OT Dillon Radunz, IOL Wyatt Davis, OT Samuel Cosmi

Free Agency Targets: CB Nickell Robey-Coleman, S Malik Hooker, CB Gareon Conley, C Alex Mack, CB Troy Hill, RB Mike Davis, RB Marlon Mack

Baltimore RavensBaltimore Ravens

Current Cap Space: $18.1 million (as of 2/20)

Top Free Agents: EDGE Matt Judon, EDGE Yannick Ngakoue, WR Willie Snead, RB Mark Ingram, IDL Derek Wolfe, C Matt Skura, EDGE Tyus Bowser, EDGE Pernell McPhee, OG D.J. Fluker, CB Tramon Williams, RB Gus Edwards

Biggest Team Needs: EDGE, IOL, WR, TE, S, IDL, OT, RB

2021 Draft Picks: #27 (R1), #58 (R2), #121 (R4), #154 (R5), #184 (R6)

Analysis: Lamar Jackson needs help. The Ravens have relied on a heavy run game and strong defense on their way to a couple of great regular seasons, but their difficulties in passing the ball have plagued Baltimore in the playoffs. Marquise Brown and Mark Andrews are very talented players, but the team lacks a dominant X-receiver with a great catch radius. Luckily for them, there are plenty of those players available in free agency. Allen Robinson, Chris Godwin, Kenny Golladay, and Will Fuller V would all provide incredibly high-value additions to the passing game and bring a different dimension of play to the field. The Ravens have plenty of cap space at their disposal, and a 4-year $80 million offer for a top wide receiver is not out of the question. The run game will look different in 2021 as Mark Ingram and Gus Edwards may not come back as free agents, and J.K. Dobbins is likely to dominate touches in his second professional season. Adding a top talent at receiver to this offense would give them one of the best groups of skill players in football.

Baltimore’s offensive line may need some reworking. Orlando Brown has requested a trade after filling in at left tackle for the injured Ronnie Stanley last season. Brown would shift back to the right side this year, but he has expressed a desire to play on the left instead. In addition to what would likely be generous draft compensation, Baltimore could save $15.25 million against the cap this season by trading Brown. The offensive line interior could use some juice, especially with Matt Skura’s potential departure in free agency. The likely starting trio of Bradley Bozeman, Patrick Mekari, and Ben Powers on the inside could use some improvement. As it stands, Ronnie Stanley is the team’s only guaranteed starter on the offensive line, and he’s still recovering from a gruesome dislocated and fractured ankle that he suffered last season.

The Ravens’ defense provides a lot of intrigues this coming offseason. After finishing last season as the second-best defense in terms of points allowed, they face the potential departure of much of their front seven. Matt Judon, Yannick Ngakoue, Pernell McPhee, and Tyus Bowser are all key pass-rushers whose contracts expire this year, and Derek Wolfe was an important piece of the defensive line last season. If Baltimore opts to utilize its cap space to sign a high-priced wide receiver, their pass rush may struggle as a result. As it stands, it’s highly unlikely that all of these defensive pieces will return next season, especially with Judon reportedly seeking a $20 million per year contract. Baltimore can clear $7.5 million in cap space by releasing defensive tackle Brandon Williams before June 1. The Ravens’ secondary is set in stone, with Marcus Peters, Marlon Humphery, and Jimmy Smith providing arguably the best trio of cornerbacks in football. However, the front seven is set to undergo some serious upheaval.

First-Round Pick Targets: EDGE Gregory Rousseau, IOL Alijah Vera-Tucker, EDGE Aziz Ojulari, OT Samuel Cosmi, IOL Wyatt Davis

Free Agency Targets: WR Allen Robinson, WR Will Fuller V, WR Kenny Golladay, WR Chris Godwin, OG Brandon Scherff, OG Joe Thuney

Cleveland BrownsCleveland Browns

Current Cap Space: $20.2 million (as of 2/20)

Top Free Agents: EDGE Olivier Vernon, CB Kevin Johnson, CB Terrance Mitchell, S Karl Joseph, LB B.J. Goodson, S Andrew Sendejo, DT Larry Ogunjobi, WR Rashard Higgins

Biggest Team Needs: EDGE, CB, IDL, LB, S, WR

2021 Draft Picks: #26 (R1), #59 (R2), #89 (R3), #91 (R3), #100 (R4), #122 (R4), #152 (R5), #185 (R6), #219 (R7)

Analysis: The Browns come into this offseason in an interesting position, like their division rival Ravens. Armed with plenty of cap room and several key players becoming free agents, Cleveland has a ton of big decisions to make. The biggest question mark for this team is in the secondary. Kevin Johnson and Terrance Mitchell played a ton of snaps at cornerback for the team in 2020, varying levels of success and becoming free agents. Greedy Williams has played sparingly with arm and shoulder issues resulting from nerve damage, and he missed all of last season. His return to form would be monumental, but it’s not a guarantee. Denzel Ward is an elite lockdown cornerback, but the Browns need to find some long-term starters to play alongside him.

The safety spot is also a question mark as Andrew Sendejo becomes a free agent. Grant Delpit missed the entirety of his rookie season with an Achilles injury, but he may be in line to start next year. Ronnie Harrison had a breakthrough third season, and he’ll likely get a lot more snaps this season. With Delpit, Harrison, and Karl Joseph, the Browns likely don’t need to bring back Sendejo. Cleveland will also have to make some key decisions in its front seven. Edge defender Olivier Vernon should be a high-priority resigning while Larry Ogunjobi and B.J. Goodson are bigger question marks for the Browns moving forward. Ogunjobi is likely replaceable as a gap-plugging defensive lineman, as is Goodson at linebacker, but neither player is likely to garner a big-money contract in free agency. Luckily for the Browns, they have plenty of avenues to creating more cap space as they can save $6 million by cutting David Njoku and have a handful of other cut candidates who wouldn’t leave them with dead money heading into 2021.

As far as the offense goes, everything looks golden for Cleveland. All five starters return from what was one of the league’s best offensive lines last season, as do Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt as one of the most fearsome running back duos in football. Odell Beckham Jr. should return from injury to join Jarvis Landry and Austin Hooper as the team’s top pass-catchers. Rashard Higgins should be resigned to a solid deal with his consistent productivity to this point in his career. The Browns could stand to add another dynamic pass-catcher, but this offense has no real holes. Baker Mayfield should also be due for an extension shortly. This offense is in a powerful position heading into 2021, and the Browns will be better served, focusing their offseason efforts on a defense that is very much in transition.

First-Round Pick Targets: LB Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, CB Jaycee Horn, LB Zaven Collins, EDGE Jaelan Phillips, LB Joseph Ossai, S Trevon Moehrig

Free Agency Targets: WR Corey Davis, CB Ronald Darby, WR Marvin Jones Jr., EDGE Haason Reddick, CB Nickell Robey-Coleman

Cincinnati BengalsCincinnati Bengals

Current Cap Space: $37.6 million (as of 2/20)

Top Free Agents: CB William Jackson, CB Mackensie Alexander, LB Josh Bynes, EDGE Carl Lawson, WR A.J. Green, WR John Ross

Biggest Team Needs: OT, CB, IOL, IDL, EDGE, TE, S, WR

2021 Draft Picks: #5 (R1), #38 (R2), #70 (R3), #101 (R4), #132 (R5), #165 (R6), #195 (R7), #197 (R7)

Analysis: The Bengals have the advantage of copious cap space to rebuild their roster this offseason, but they also have many pressing needs. Joe Burrow looked good as a rookie last year, but he needs more help in the offense moving forward. The team’s offensive line is a major need this offseason despite no in-house free agents. Third-year offensive tackle Jonah Williams is the only guaranteed high-level starter up front next year, and he’s dealt with his fair share of injuries so far in his career. Michael Jordan, Trey Hopkins, Quinton Spain, and Bobby Hart can all be improved upon at their respective positions. The Bengals may also look to bring in another pass-catcher with A.J. Green, John Ross, and Alex Erickson, all set to become free agents. Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins are locked in as the Bengals’ long-term starting receivers, but it couldn’t hurt to add some more juice to the pass-catching corps for Burrow. Joe Mixon and Giovani Bernard are locked up as the team’s top running backs.

Cincinnati’s defense is also in need of a major overhaul, but they come into this offseason with some major decisions to be made. Cornerback William Jackson and edge defender Carl Lawson are among the top free agents this offseason at their respective positions. Both will be priority re-signings for the Bengals. Jackson has been inconsistent but has flashed enough high-level play to garner a big contract. Lawson has 6 sacks per 16 games over his career, despite starting under a third of his games so far in his career. Cornerback Mackensie Alexander and linebacker Josh Bynes are also free agents and were key contributors last season. The Bengals still have Darius Phillips and Trae Waynes at cornerback, but they will likely bring back either Jackson or Alexander, or both. Jessie Bates III and Vonn Bell are locked in as one of the most underrated safety tandems in football, while D.J. Reader is a stud at defensive tackle. This team has some real building blocks on defense, but it will be interesting to see where they decide to invest their resources, especially with potential trades available (Orlando Brown?).

The Bengals will have plenty of strong options available in the first round of the draft this year. Elite wide receivers Devonta Smith and Ja’Marr Chase will likely still be available to provide another dimension to the receiving game for Burrow. Kyle Pitts would be another intriguing option as a high-level pass-catcher. All of the offensive tackles available at #5 would likely reach as Penei Sewell will likely be off the board. Rashawn Slater and Christian Darrisaw would be the most enticing options, but both are likely reaches at #5. The Bengals could look to address cornerback at this spot, with Patrick Surtain or Caleb Farley providing an instant boost to the pass defense. Depending on how the first handful of picks end up, Cincinnati could also have the opportunity to trade this pick to a team desperate to move up for a top quarterback. The Bengals have a lot of flexibility this offseason, especially with their copious cap space.

First-Round Pick Targets: WR Ja’Marr Chase, WR Devonta Smith, CB Patrick Surtain, CB Caleb Farley, LB Micah Parsons, TE Kyle Pitts, OT Rashawn Slater, OT Christian Darrisaw

Free Agency Targets: OT Taylor Moton, OT Daryl Williams, LB Lavonte David, WR Rashard Higgins, CB Ronald Darby

  
What's up, I'm Jacob. I grew up watching Peyton Manning play and stuck with the Broncos after he retired. I'm also probably the only Clippers fan you'll ever meet. I'm from Southern California but I'm a junior at the University of Michigan studying sport management. Beyond my passion for sports I play guitar, grill a mean rib eye, and enjoy gambling on pretty much everything.

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