The AFC North has the potential to be one of the most competitive divisions in the entire league this upcoming season, and for the first time in decades the Cleveland Browns are in a terrific position to come out on top. Cleveland’s aggressive offseason, in which they addressed many of their defensive deficiencies, has catapulted them into the conversation of the game’s elite following a historic playoff run a season ago.
Three of the four teams in the AFC North qualified for the playoffs last season, a trend that could very well continue into 2021, given the current roster constructions. The Pittsburgh Steelers won the division in 2020, and many pundits around the league feel they have taken a step back as they faced some difficult decisions during free agency in regards to their own players. Most notably, linebacker Bud Dupree and cornerback Mike Hilton signed with Tennessee and Cincinnati respectively.
The Steelers were able to retain Juju Smith-Schuster on a one year deal, in addition to drafting running back Najee Harris in the first round of the NFL Draft. While Pittsburgh should be solid offensively if Ben Roethlisberger does not take a step back, they will be without the services of a number of key defensive players from a season ago.
The Baltimore Ravens finished in second place in 2020 and like the Steelers, lost a few key defensive contributors heading into 2021. Linebacker Mathew Judon signed a lucrative contract with New England, while Yannick Ngakoue inked a deal with Las Vegas. The signing of Sammy Watkins however, should give Baltimore a steady veteran at wide receiver as long as he is able to stay healthy. Baltimore’s offensive line will also presumably take somewhat of a hit as they traded disgruntled left tackle Orlando Brown to Kansas City while replacing him with veteran Alejandro Villanueva. Kevin Zeitler is also a new face to the Ravens’ offensive line, as keeping Lamar Jackson upright and healthy is the key to Baltimore’s success.
The Cincinnati Bengals finished in last place a season ago, but showed great promise offensively before the injury to quarterback Joe Burrow. The former Heisman Trophy winner looked every bit like a number one overall pick before tearing his ACL versus the Washington Football Team.
As is the case with Baltimore and Lamar Jackson, Cincinnati’s chances of success hinge on keeping Joe Burrow healthy, as they had one of the worst offensive line units in football last season. While they had the chance to draft the top rated offensive line prospect in the draft, they opted for Joe Burrow’s former college teammate, LSU wide receiver Jamar Chase. Despite the Bengals boasting one of the league’s youngest and brightest wide receiving corps, their inability to control the line of scrimmage will unequivocally be their downfall once again in 2021.
While NFL games are certainly not won on paper, Andrew Berry has made the necessary roster adjustments to the defensive side of the ball without losing anyone of note, which should give Cleveland an edge in 2021. Despite players such as Baker Mayfield, Nick Chubb and Denzel Ward being eligible for contract extensions, Berry has not hamstrung the team’s finances despite remaining active in free agency, as evident in the singings of John Johnson, Troy Hill, Jadeveon Clowney and Anthony Walker. With the help of Kevin Stefanski and Paul DePodesta, Berry has helped cultivate an environment that players want to be apart of, whether they are new to the NFL or a ten year veteran. Based on last year’s production and offseason acquisitions, the Cleveland Browns should be the favorite to win the AFC North in 2021.