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AFC North projected starters: Browns bursting with firepower; don't dismiss Steelers

With the 2021 NFL Draft and most of free agency in the rearview, Gregg Rosenthal will project starting lineups for all 32 teams because that's his idea of fun. Check out the AFC North breakdowns below.

Table inside Article
QB Lamar Jackson DE Calais Campbell
RB J.K. Dobbins DT Brandon Williams
WR Marquise Brown DE Derek Wolfe
WR Sammy Watkins OLB Tyus Bowser
TE Mark Andrews LB Patrick Queen
TE Nick Boyle OLB Pernell McPhee
LT Ronnie Stanley CB Marlon Humphrey
LG Ben Cleveland CB Marcus Peters
C Bradley Bozeman CB Tavon Young
RG Kevin Zeitler S Chuck Clark
RT Alejandro Villanueva S DeShon Elliott
  • With Robert Griffin III no longer on the roster, the Ravens are going to roll with Trace McSorley or Tyler Huntley as their backup quarterback. General manager Eric DeCosta is excellent at self-scouting, but my professional analysis of the situation is hoo boy.
  • J.K. Dobbins is ready for a starting role. No running back with 100 carries last year had a higher percentage of his yardage coming from big plays (15-plus yards), per Pro Football Focus, but Dobbins also showed plenty of wiggle to evade defenders in tight spaces. Gus Edwards is a terrific backup.
  • A rotation is likely among Baltimore's outside receivers, but I wouldn't assume that rookie first-rounder Rashod Bateman is going to beat out Sammy Watkins. A rotation makes sense.
  • Devin Duvernay is the expected starter in the slot and has the skill set to make a big jump this season. He plays where Lamar Jackson throws the ball best.
  • Alejandro Villanueva was smart to wait for a new contract, getting $8 million guaranteed after the draft to replace Orlando Brown at right tackle. The Ravens are operating as if stalwart Ronnie Stanley, recovering from a torn ACL, will be ready for Week 1.
  • The return of one of football's best blocking tight ends will help Baltimore's versatility. Nick Boyle averaged more than 700 snaps per season between 2017 and '19, which could be more than any wideout not named Marquise Brown gets.
  • Each year in this space, I write how the Ravens' pass-rush personnel has fallen off. Each year, they make it work because of their great secondary. They are pushing the limits of this approach more than ever in 2021, with their best individual edge rusher probably ... Tyus Bowser? It's not like the pass rush performed great even before Matt Judon left in free agency. The Ravens finished 14th in sacks and 25th in PFF's pass-rush grades a year ago. They could desperately use first-round pick Odafe Oweh to make an early impact, but it usually takes Baltimore edge players a minute to get up to speed in this system. Then again, the Ravens go cheap on the edge because they know their interior line and their secondary can carry that weight. Calais Campbell, Brandon Williams and Derek Wolfe comprise a ferocious, if aging, wall of man muscle.
  • Malik Harrison could battle L.J. Fort for the linebacker spot next to Patrick Queen. The bigger story at the position is whether Queen's significant struggles in coverage last year were just part of the usual rookie learning curve.
  • The secondary looks great on paper again, led by top-10 cornerback Marlon Humphrey. The safety duo of DeShon Elliott and Chuck Clark is underrated. The biggest concerns could be Tavon Young's inability to stay on the field and Marcus Peters' tendency to start fading the longer that he's with an organization.
Table inside Article
QB Joe Burrow DE Sam Hubbard
RB Joe Mixon DT D.J. Reader
WR Ja'Marr Chase DT Larry Ogunjobi
WR Tyler Boyd DE Trey Hendrickson
WR Tee Higgins LB Logan Wilson
TE Drew Sample LB Germaine Pratt
LT Jonah Williams CB Trae Waynes
LG Jackson Carman CB Chidobe Awuzie
C Trey Hopkins CB Mike Hilton
RG Quinton Spain S Jessie Bates III
RT Riley Reiff S Vonn Bell
  • It's easy to see what the Bengals were thinking when they passed on Penei Sewell for Ja'Marr Chase. Not only could the Bengals have the best young wideout trio in football, but the offensive line doesn't look that bad on paper. I promise! Second-round pick Jackson Carman slides into one of the open guard spots. Riley Reiff has been a competent tackle for most of his career. Left tackle Jonah Williams, already solid, could ascend one more year removed from a torn ACL.
  • Coaching has been as big an issue on the offensive line as talent. While head coach Zac Taylor remains, there is hope that returning OL coach Frank Pollack can steady the ship. All the Bengals need is this group to be average. Joe Mixon had his best season in 2018 under Pollack, who also has the title of run game coordinator.
  • Tyler Boyd is somehow still underrated, as one of the premier slot receivers in football. And Tee Higgins' rookie season fell too far under the radar after Joe Burrow's injury. At worst, Higgins looks like an elite No. 2 and possibly a burgeoning top-20 NFL receiver in his own right.
  • Oh, yeah: Joe Burrow. He may have swag, but his development should not be taken for granted. I worry about outsized expectations for him when he has below-average arm strength and a lot to learn as a second-year pro while coming off a torn ACL.
  • The defensive line should be a strength. While there is some boom-or-bust quality to Cincinnati's recent free-agent additions (Trey Hendrickson and Larry Ogunjobi this year, D.J. Reader last), it should be a productive group.
  • Prediction: Sam Hubbard will go from a relative unknown to a highly sought after free agent, just like Carl Lawson did last season.
  • Every year, I write about the Bengals' off-ball linebackers looking like a forgotten position, and this year is no different. There has to be a veteran available in free agency or a cheap trade Cincy can make in camp to upgrade the position.
  • Cornerback signings Mike Hilton and Chidobe Awuzie made sense individually, just like Trae Waynes a year ago. But the Bengals are counting on players who were developed elsewhere to coalesce together in a system that has not proven to work. It's the same approach they are using on the defensive line and it's the opposite of the Bengals' longstanding preference for players they drafted.
  • Marvin Lewis' absence has been most clearly felt in Cincinnati's defense, which has finished 27th and 30th in Football Outsiders' DVOA over the last two years. It was a big surprise that Taylor didn't replace coordinator Lou Anarumo heading into this season.
Table inside Article
QB Baker Mayfield DE Myles Garrett
RB Nick Chubb DT Malik Jackson
WR Odell Beckham Jr. DT Andrew Billings
WR Jarvis Landry DE Jadeveon Clowney
WR Rashard Higgins LB Anthony Walker
TE Austin Hooper LB Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah
LT Jedrick Wills Jr. CB Denzel Ward
LG Joel Bitonio CB Greg Newsome II
C JC Tretter CB Troy Hill
RG Wyatt Teller S John Johnson III
RT Jack Conklin S Ronnie Harrison
  • Baker Mayfield played so much better down the stretch after his so-so first two months under Kevin Stefanski. Mayfield simply maintaining that level would be enough for the Browns to realize their offensive goals. (And for Mayfield to earn his second contract.)
  • The wideout group falls into place with Odell Beckham Jr. back atop the depth chart. Jarvis Landry makes more sense as a No. 2, "Hollywood" Higgins makes more sense as a No. 3, and Cleveland suddenly has enviable depth with rookie speedster Anthony Schwartz and Donovan Peoples-Jones coming off the bench.
  • The Browns also have three tight ends with varying skill sets, even if none of them are stars. It won't be a surprise if second-year pro Harrison Bryant winds up starting eventually; he nearly played more than big-ticket free-agent signee Austin Hooper a year ago. Bryant and David Njoku have more juice than Hooper.
  • Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt are the best running back tandem in football and it's not particularly close.
  • I can't find anything wrong with the offensive line personnel except that the entire NFL cognoscenti agrees. The best argument against this unit is spurious: that O-lines are inherently unstable, a mysterious alchemy that makes it hard to stay as good as the '20 Browns line was for long.
  • After averaging over 900 snaps per season between 2016 and '18, Jadeveon Clowney has averaged fewer than 600 the last two seasons because of injuries. It feels like this defense will go as far as Clowney and third pass rusher Takkarist McKinley takes it, which is one of those late-May declarative statements I chose to have zero accountability for come October.
  • Rushing the passer opposite Myles Garrett is like pass protecting for Tom Brady. Just be average and you'll probably look amazing.
  • Linebacker could go in a lot of directions. Former Colt Anthony Walker is the best guess to start in the middle, with rookie Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah playing a variety of roles next to him. "Wu" looks like the most complete linebacker on the roster, but rookies routinely have been exposed in coverage in recent years. Almost every other Browns linebacker -- including Walker, Mack Wilson, Sione Takitaki and Jacob Phillips -- probably falls short of the mythical three-down linebacker benchmark.
  • It's a mystery what the Browns will get out of recent second-round defensive backs Grant Delpit and Greedy Williams, who both missed last season to injury. The Browns made it clear they weren't counting on them to start with their offseason moves, including drafting Greg Newsome II with the No. 26 overall pick.
  • John Johnson III was always an underrated player in Los Angeles, but he went to another level when paired with cornerback Jalen Ramsey and coordinator Brandon Staley. It's on Johnson and slot corner Troy Hill to prove their fine play hasn't just been the product of the Rams' system.
  • Cleveland's defense looks a lot better on paper, but that's damning with faint praise. Even after a productive offseason, it's not necessarily a top-10 group in talent because of questions at defensive tackle and linebacker.
  • The Browns just need to be average on defense to win 11 games or more. The offensive mix of talent, continuity and coaching makes Cleveland as safe a pick to field a top-five attack as any team that doesn't employ Patrick Mahomes.
Table inside Article
QB Ben Roethlisberger DE Cameron Heyward
RB Najee Harris DT Tyson Alualu
WR Chase Claypool DE Stephon Tuitt
WR Diontae Johnson OLB T.J. Watt
WR JuJu Smith-Schuster LB Devin Bush
TE Eric Ebron OLB Alex Highsmith
LT Chukwuma Okorafor CB Joe Haden
LG Kevin Dotson CB Cameron Sutton
C Kendrick Green CB Justin Layne
RG David DeCastro S Minkah Fitzpatrick
RT Zach Banner S Terrell Edmunds
  • For all the falling sky in Pittsburgh this offseason, Ben Roethlisberger's group of weapons ranks among the best in football if rookie RB Najee Harris delivers.
  • Chase Claypool has the skill set to take a step forward to become a true No. 1 wideout. Diontae Johnson destroys man coverage. JuJu Smith-Schuster is as tough a slot receiver as there is, and James Washington's a No. 4 option who led the Steelers in receiving in 2019.
  • There aren't many competitions on this offensive roster. One is at tight end, where rookie Pat Freiermuth will have a tough time earning more snaps than Eric Ebron.
  • If the Steelers' offense struggles again, it won't be because of their pass catchers. It will be because of Big Ben, their offensive line or their coaching.
  • On paper, this could be the worst offensive line of the Roethlisberger era. In reality, I give coach Mike Tomlin and general manager Kevin Colbert some benefit of the doubt when it comes to self-scouting. If they believe that Chuks Okorafor and Zach Banner can hold up at tackle, the concept shouldn't be dismissed. Kevin Dotson looked like a building block in his rookie season. Colbert needs third-round rookie center Kendrick Green to be a hit. No matter how optimistic the Steelers are about this line, it's a group that's built to maul better than pass protect.
  • New coordinator Matt Canada was promoted from quarterbacks coach and will need to update a Pittsburgh offense that got predictable last season.
  • The glory years of the Cam Heyward-Stephon Tuitt duo will end at some point. Until that happens, they are the cornerstones of a front seven that still rivals any other.
  • Alex Highsmith taking over for Bud Dupree isn't a huge concern. Highsmith can ball and it's an enviable spot for a pass rusher. The bigger concern is the depth behind T.J. Watt and Highsmith if an injury occurs. Teams always want three pass rushers.
  • Devin Bush remains a bit of a question mark after missing most of last season with a torn ACL. He looks the part and has flashed major traits, but his strong reputation has more to do with his teammates and draft pedigree. Opponents will attack him, Vince Williams and Robert Spillane in coverage whenever possible.
  • If the defensive line is the bedrock of this defense, the secondary remains the weakness. Even if cornerback Cam Sutton continues to progress, two quality cornerbacks is not enough, and the position falls off a cliff after 32-year-old Joe Haden and Sutton.
  • The Ravens and Browns have better rosters than the Steelers overall, but not by that much. Pittsburgh's embarrassing end to last season has too many people believing this team is cannon fodder. Tomlin hasn't had a losing record yet and there's little reason to think he'll start now.

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