Who would have thought that the AFC North would have three teams with 11 wins or more? The Pittsburgh Steelers had a buzz saw defense led by Defensive Player of the Year candidate TJ Watt. They won their first 11 games, before crumbling towards the end to teams like the Washington Football Team. Quarterback Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens had a great regular season, much to the surprise of no one. Jackson and company ran all over opposing defenses. The Cleveland Browns are no longer the butt of jokes. Baker Mayfield had a bounce-back year after throwing 21 picks the season prior. The Cincinnati Bengals landed Joe Burrow and although he got hurt around the halfway mark, he has mostly delivered.
Below are bold predictions for each of the four AFC North clubs.
1. Steelers get another Watt
Starting with the reigning AFC North champion, it’s no secret that Pittsburgh likes the Watt family. Otherwise, why else would they have two of them on their roster? Acquiring defensive end JJ Watt does not address a need, but it does build depth along the defensive line. If he were younger and healthier, Watt could probably fill in the role of free agent Bud Dupree.
Watt provides veteran leadership to the locker room. He can still generate pressure on opposing quarterbacks as a 3-4 end while remaining stout against the run. Perhaps, Watt is willing to take a significant pay cut to play with his brothers and a contender.
2. Ravens sign a physical receiver
Next in the AFC North, we have the Baltimore Ravens, who decided to go against the flow and run the football down their opponents’ throats in a pass-happy NFL. It worked. Their quarterback had over 1,000 yards on the ground and running back J.K. Dobbins chipped in with 805.
Lamar Jackson is electrifying with his running ability, although he needs to work on his passing, especially in the playoffs and against elite defenses who force him to beat them with his arm. Marquise “Hollywood” Brown is a burner, who can take the top off a defense and open things up for his teammates. Tight end Mark Andrews has been a safety valve for Jackson. The quarterback will benefit a lot from having a big-bodied receiver who can make tough catches for crucial first downs. Corey Davis almost had 1,000 receiving yards last season and finished with five trips to the end zone. He is athletic has reliable hands and would be a perfect complement to Brown and Andrews. Having a target like Davis would be a huge help in Jackson’s passing.
Davis won’t come cheap, so while the Ravens have substantial cap space, the front office still needs to get creative and make tough decisions.
3. Browns upgrade their linebacker corps
One of the surprises of the AFC North was the Cleveland Browns. When your team makes the playoffs for the first time since 2002, do you really want to change anything? Mayfield had a solid season throwing for 3,563 yards with 26 touchdowns and eight picks. While he has room for improvement, he made the Cleveland quarterback carousel stop. The Browns had arguably the best offensive line in all of football. Their two-headed rushing attack of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt was deadly. Even when Odell Beckham Jr. got injured, the passing attack became more balanced and even flourished. The Browns have a game-wrecking defensive playmaker in Myles Garrett. They have a solid secondary, which should only get better with time.
The one unit that could use some help is the linebackers. This is where Lavonte David comes in. He has already collected a Super Bowl ring and might be looking for one last big contract before calling it a day. Cleveland has the cap space to sign an inside linebacker to top money, while still being dark horse contenders. It would be difficult to imagine David wearing anything other than a Tampa Bay Buccaneers jersey, but then again it didn’t seem possible for Tom Brady to be in one.
David provides veteran leadership to a young defense. He is a well-rounded defender, who can cover receivers and tight ends, rush the passer, and be stout in the run game. David is one of those players that just makes a team better.
4. Bengals trade up to protect Burrow
Last in the AFC North, the Bengals are in a good spot in the upcoming draft with the fifth overall pick. Trevor Lawrence is a lock for the Jacksonville Jaguars, who will be drafting first. The second pick will most likely be a quarterback. The third and fourth overall picks are harder to predict.
Seeing Burrow go down with an injury gave longtime Cincinnati fans flashbacks of when Carson Palmer suffered a devastating injury. The team needs to protect Burrow at all costs. Last season, it looked like Jonah Williams was the only reliable pass protector. If Burrow can fulfill his assigned role of making the Bengals significant again, he needs a clean pocket to operate.
Penei Sewell from Oregon is the best offensive lineman in this draft class. He has the size, length, and mobility needed at the tackle position. He and Williams can be the bookend tackles that keep Burrow’s jersey clean. If there is even a possibility that Sewell is gone by the time the Bengals pick, they should move up in the pecking order.