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AFC North projected starters for 2023 NFL season: Lamar flanked by playmakers; Bengals' time is NOW

With the 2023 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 Edge Tyus Bowser
RB J.K. Dobbins DE Justin Madubuike
WR Odell Beckham Jr. DT Michael Pierce
WR Rashod Bateman Edge Odafe Oweh
WR Zay Flowers OLB Patrick Queen
TE Mark Andrews MLB Roquan Smith
LT Ronnie Stanley CB Marlon Humphrey
LG Ben Cleveland CB Rock Ya-Sin
C Tyler Linderbaum CB Brandon Stephens
RG Kevin Zeitler S Marcus Williams
RT Morgan Moses S Kyle Hamilton
  • As an unrepentant Lamar Jackson fan, I thoroughly enjoyed perusing the skill-position group at his disposal in 2023. It includes five real weapons for Jackson to throw to, more than he's had at any time in his career.
  • J.K. Dobbins should be better this season, another year removed from the ACL tear he suffered in August 2021. His vision and instincts are what make him a great runner, and those skills were still noticeable last season; he just lacked explosion.
  • I wasn't huge on Zay Flowers ahead of the draft, because he profiled as a supporting piece who was going to be selected too early. But the No. 22 overall pick doesn't have to be the No. 1 receiver -- or even the No. 3 pass catcher in Baltimore, if you count Mark Andrews. Flowers just needs to make plays after the catch, and he can absolutely do that.
  • Odell Beckham Jr. and Rashod Bateman both need to show they can stay on the field. If so, they are versatile pieces that complement each other well. Bateman was a big-play machine early last season before being lost to a foot injury in November.
  • Devin Duvernay and Nelson Agholor provide quality WR depth if there is an injury. They would have been starters on most Ravens squads in the Lamar Jackson era.
  • Isaiah Likely made a lot of plays for a rookie tight end last season and adds another element to the offense. He's explosive.
  • Despite all the changes, the biggest X-factor on this offense is whether left tackle Ronnie Stanley can stay on the field. He started 11 games in 2022 after logging just seven combined appearances the previous two seasons. Stanley wasn't quite the same player as he was before injuring his ankle in November 2020, but he helped a lot.
  • These are the Bizarro Ravens. They are deep at receiver and thin on the defensive line.
  • It's not just a dearth of difference-makers on the defensive front, but also a lack of backups. We can expect general manager Eric DeCosta to keep looking for veteran options. Justin Houston again?
  • Baltimore's history of creating edge-rushing production will be challenged this year. Odafe Oweh took a step back in his second season. A leap from second-year pro David Ojabo could go a long way. Ojabo played two games in his rookie season while coming off an Achilles injury.
  • This will probably be Patrick Queen's last season with the Ravens; his tenure since being selected in the first round in 2020 has been a roller coaster, and the team declined his fifth-year option.
  • Baltimore's defense continues to be built back to front. Marcus Williams and Kyle Hamilton comprise what could be one of the most dynamic safety combinations in the league. Rock Ya-Sin is one of the best post-draft signing values.
  • This is a below-average defensive roster compared to the standard set by recent Ravens teams. But defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald got into a groove late last season, and the unit performed well.
  • It's a new day in Baltimore. The offense is more stacked than the defense and will be expected to lead the way.
Table inside Article
QB Joe Burrow DE Trey Hendrickson
RB Joe Mixon DT D.J. Reader
WR Ja'Marr Chase DT B.J. Hill
WR Tee Higgins DE Sam Hubbard
WR Tyler Boyd OLB Germaine Pratt
TE Irv Smith Jr. MLB Logan Wilson
LT Orlando Brown Jr. CB Chidobe Awuzie
LG Cordell Volson CB Cam Taylor-Britt
C Ted Karras CB Mike Hilton
RG Alex Cappa S Dax Hill
RT Jonah Williams S Nick Scott
  • The same five names lead the Bengals' projected starters for a third straight year. Teams don't often maintain that sort of continuity, youth and talent for this long.
  • In fact, this group might by nearing the end of its time together, with Joe Mixon declining while Joe Burrow and all three receivers approach free agency.
  • These days, no team does a better job planning a year ahead than the Bengals, who took swings on three Day 3 players (running back Chase Brown and wideouts Charles Jones and Andrei Iosivas) who could wind up assuming big roles in 2024.
  • It's a surprise Mixon is still on this roster, considering his salary and decreased effectiveness, as well as his offseason charge of misdemeanor aggravated menacing. It's still presumably possible Mixon will have to take a pay cut to make it to Week 1.
  • Tight end is an obvious weakness after Hayden Hurst left. Irv Smith Jr. has plenty of talent, but he struggled to stay healthy in Minnesota.
  • The Orlando Brown Jr. signing upgraded this offensive line, even if it's only to the level of average.
  • Right tackle La'el Collins was also believed to be on the chopping block but remains on the roster at publishing. The Bengals may see how he looks during his recovery from a torn ACL before finalizing his future.
  • That RT spot is a bit of mess. The Bengals plan to move Jonah Williams there, but he asked for a trade before the draft. Williams is coming off a dislocated knee cap and may not have a choice as to where he plays, especially with over $12.6 million guaranteed due on a fifth-year option. Cody Ford will take offseason snaps until someone else can get healthy.
  • The continuity continues on the defense. Among the starters, only Rams import Nick Scott wasn't on this roster last season. Safety is probably the only position here with real questions, following the departures of Jessie Bates and Vonn Bell; the Bengals are loaded with talent and depth everywhere else.
  • 2022 first-round pick Dax Hill will step into a starting safety role, presumably opposite Scott. The Bengals have a great track record when it comes to developing their picks. 2022 second-round pick Cam Taylor-Britt showed a lot of promise at corner late last season.
  • This year's first-rounder, Myles Murphy, will rotate in behind the DE starters, eventually replacing one of them.
  • In an offseason where the Bengals unexpectedly lost a few players they reportedly tried to keep -- Hayden Hurst and Samaje Perine were both unsuccessful re-sign targets, per The Athletic's "Hear That Podcast Growlin' " -- hanging on to linebacker Germaine Pratt was a nice surprise. Like the rest of the defensive group, Pratt and Logan Wilson know their roles.
  • Retaining coordinator Lou Anarumo makes this defensive roster look even better. Like the Patriots of the mid-2000s, the Bengals can attack every offense with a unique game plan, because their players can handle it all.
  • In the grand scheme of this exercise -- projecting starting lineups across the league -- this Bengals roster stands out. No other team features this sort of continuity with players in their prime. It's Cincy's time, because it can't last like this forever.
Table inside Article
QB Deshaun Watson DE Myles Garrett
RB Nick Chubb DT Dalvin Tomlinson
WR Amari Cooper DT Jordan Elliott
WR Elijah Moore DE Za'Darius Smith
WR Donovan Peoples-Jones OLB Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah
TE David Njoku MLB Anthony Walker Jr.
LT Jedrick Wills Jr. CB Denzel Ward
LG Joel Bitonio CB Martin Emerson
C Ethan Pocic CB Greg Newsome II
RG Wyatt Teller S Juan Thornhill
RT Jack Conklin S Grant Delpit
  • Cleveland's offense was one of the easiest to project in the entire NFL. That's usually the sign of a strong team.
  • Wideout is still the weakest spot, with room for reserves like rookie Cedric Tillman and second-year pro David Bell to emerge. But I loved the Elijah Moore trade, and Donovan Peoples-Jones has established himself as a quality rotation receiver at worst.
  • Journeyman Joshua Dobbs and rookie Dorian Thompson-Robinson will compete for the backup-quarterback spot. Don't be surprised if DTR has a long NFL career.
  • I'm curious to see if Nick Chubb's workload will continue to increase with Kareem Hunt off the squad. Chubb was not only healthier last season, but earned two extra touches per game than in the previous two seasons. More Nick Chubb is always a good thing.
  • The offensive line has great continuity; the Browns just need more consistent play from left tackle Jedrick Wills Jr. It should be a top-10 group -- and better be, considering the money and resources poured into it.
  • The weakest spot on Cleveland's roster is probably defensive tackle. But Dalvin Tomlinson was a great veteran to add to the room, and Za'Darius Smith can move inside on passing downs, opening up QB-hunting opportunities for talented edge Ogbo Okoronkwo, who arrived in free agency.
  • New defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz may simplify Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah's role, which isn't a bad thing. Like a lot of Cleveland defenders, "JOK" didn't to maximize his ability last season under Joe Woods because the Browns were trying to do too many things at once.
  • The secondary underperformed last season considering the talent of its top three cornerbacks. Greg Newsome II and Martin Emerson both look like keeper recent picks. Denzel Ward, having just turned 26, already has two Pro Bowls under his belt.
  • If not for Juan Thornhill's guaranteed money ($14 million), I wouldn't assume he'd beat out Rodney McLeod for the starting job.
  • Deshaun Watson is coming off the worst six-game stretch of his career by far. He was an obvious downgrade from Jacoby Brissett in 2022. If he doesn't play better in 2023, everyone will be fired, and it will go down as one of the most regrettable moves in NFL history. If he's even just above average, Cleveland has enough around him to win 10-plus games.
  • It's a massive season for head coach Kevin Stefanski and general manager Andrew Berry, who are in their fourth year together. If they aren't winners now after all they gave up for Watson, what was the point?
Table inside Article
QB Kenny Pickett DE Cameron Heyward
RB Najee Harris NT Keeanu Benton
WR Diontae Johnson DE Larry Ogunjobi
WR George Pickens Edge T.J. Watt
WR Allen Robinson Edge Alex Highsmith
TE Pat Freiermuth MLB Cole Holcomb
LT Broderick Jones CB Joey Porter Jr.
LG Isaac Seumalo CB Patrick Peterson
C Mason Cole CB Levi Wallace
RG James Daniels S Minkah Fitzpatrick
RT Chukwuma Okorafor S Damontae Kazee
  • Kenny Pickett was above average for a rookie quarterback. Being above average for a second-year starter is a much higher bar.
  • Diontae Johnson is a great route runner. George Pickens is great deep down the field and on contested catches. On paper, they complement each other perfectly.
  • Allen Robinson figures to play on the outside in three-wideout sets, with Johnson moving inside. I have my doubts the soon-to-be 30-year-old has a lot left to contribute, so don't be surprised if Calvin Austin III picks up snaps as the year wears on.
  • The skill positions are good enough. It's a team full of good enough, even if Pittsburgh lacks star power outside of T.J. Watt and Cameron Heyward.
  • I love that the Steelers didn't stand pat with their offensive line. Four of their five starters were acquired in the last two offseasons. (The fifth is right tackle Chukwuma Okorafor, who received one of the most surprising contract extensions of the last few years.)
  • Now the Steelers have experienced OL backups in Dan Moore Jr. and Kevin Dotson, who were starters previously. Moore will battle Broderick Jones for the left tackle spot, but it'd be a big letdown if the first-round pick lost that job.
  • The Steelers are thinner than usual up front defensively. Asking a rookie second-round nose tackle to start is risky. There isn't a lot of depth, and Larry Ogunjobi has been boom-or-bust throughout his career.
  • The off-ball linebacker group was completely remade, with their entire three-man rotation from a year ago deposed. I like the Cole Holcomb signing a lot. After that, Mike Tomlin needs to work some magic.
  • Pittsburgh's secondary looks average on paper, which is an improvement over the last few years. Patrick Peterson will probably play inside when there are three cornerbacks on the field. He could even play a safety hybrid role because the Steelers are thin there.
  • Pittsburgh probably signed Keanu Neal to start, but I'm not convinced he's a better player than Damontae Kazee.
  • Alex Highsmith has played so well as T.J. Watt's tag-team partner that his contract extension is viewed as a matter of when, not if.
  • No one can replace Watt when he gets hurt, but the Steelers are particularly thin at edge after their great starting duo. Perhaps fourth-rounder Nick Herbig -- part of yet another Steelers brother combo, with Nate signed at guard in free agency -- can develop into an asset.
  • Tomlin did an excellent job dragging inferior rosters to a 18-15-1 record over the last two years. Expectations should be higher this season, although that's true of this entire loaded division.

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