2021 NFL Preview: AFC North

Matthew King

Fans are back and most players are back and ready to roll. We are just days away from what should be one of the most exciting seasons of football in a long time. The countdown is on.  Every day leading up to the NFL season I will post a preview of each division with records and breakdowns of each team. It will all culminate on opening day with my playoff predictions where I will give you my pick to hoist the Lombardi Trophy this season. Think of these as little appetizers to help pass the days.

The AFC North is extremely interesting to me this season. I think the battle between Baltimore and Cleveland will be very exciting as both teams have plenty of young and hungry talent. Pittsburgh is in the the last dance mindset. Then, Cincinnati is in rebuild mode but things look promising. In the most physical division in football, who will be the team to come out on top?


1. Cleveland Browns (2021 Prediction, 13-4)

Last season was a big sigh of relief for the Cleveland Browns. They finally got to the playoffs for the first time since 2002. They also got to beat their division rival Pittsburgh Steelers in the Wild Card round. In 2021, they have their sights set on a division title. Do they have the pieces to actually pull it off?


Baker Mayfield silenced his doubters last season by taking his team to the playoffs. With the talent surrounding, Mayfield just had to avoid hurting the team. He did just that by cutting down his interceptions from 21 in 2019 to just eight last season. He isn’t a guy that will throw 40 touchdowns like Patrick Mahomes or Josh Allen, but he doesn’t have to be. All Cleveland needs from Baker is to limit the mistakes and make teams have to respect the passing game. Mayfield checked both of those boxes last season. If he can take another step this season, we could be talking about this team in the AFC Championship.


At running back the Browns have the best one-two punch in the NFL. Nick Chubb is special. A lot of people continue to sleep on him because he plays for a team that isn’t seen nationally very often. Chubb averaged the second most yards per game last season behind only Derrick Henry and Dalvin Cook. He also finished 4th in touchdowns while missing four games. When he isn’t healthy, they can just slide in Kareem Hunt. he also finished in the top 20 in rushing yards last year. Hunt is better in the pass game and is extremely explosive on the ground. These guys are both all-around great running backs. Cleveland can interchange them and not give away anything to the defense. They will once again be a lethal duo for the Browns.


The big change for this team in 2021 is the return of Odell Beckham Jr. Now, he and Mayfield still haven’t shown that they work well together on the field. However it wasn’t until after Beckham went down that Mayfield seemed to turn the corner in his career. Maybe now they can get on the same page and we can see the return of the explosive Odell Beckham Jr. One receiver Mayfield has a great relationship with is Jarvis Landry. Landry hasn’t put up huge numbers. But he is the guy that Mayfield looks for when a play needs to be made. There is a lot of trust between those two to get the job done. Austin Hooper and David Njoku make for a great tandem at tight end. I would like to see them get a little more involved in the offense, but they both do well in their current roles. For a team that relies on the run game, the aerial attack is capable of making some plays late in games to help this team win.


The Browns had a top three offensive line at least in 2020. They bring back all five starters from that line and look to repeat the success. J.C. Tretter has been a very good center for most of his career and is the leader of the O-Line. The right side was extremely strong in 2020. Right tackle Jack Conklin and right guard Wyatt Teller were way better than anyone anticipated going into the season. They both had career years and looked like great foundation pieces for Cleveland. Now asking all of these guys to duplicate their career years is a lot to ask for. There will be some regression this season. But, they should still be able to end the season as a top 5 offensive line.


The Browns defensive line should once again be a strength of this team. Myles Garrett is an elite pass rusher. He is one of those guys that is going to get his pressures. It isn’t about stopping him. You have to limit his impact on the game. Cleveland also brought in Jadeveon Clowney to create a strong pass rushing duo if Clowney can stay healthy. Clowney has missed 13 games combined during the last two seasons. They desperately need him out on the field to create more opportunities for Garrett. The secondary struggled a bit last season. They gave up 31 touchdowns through the air and only managed 11 interceptions. Denzel Ward and Greg Newsome II need to figure out a way to stop the opposing aerial assault. If the secondary can at least make opposing quarterbacks hold the ball just a little bit longer, the sack numbers will go up for Cleveland. The defense should be better, but how much better is the real question.


Cleveland is now longer the laughing stock of the NFL. They are a legitimate threat to any team in the league. The division is loaded with talent and there really isn’t an easy win in the AFC North. Cleveland does play a third place schedule which gives them the slight edge for me.


2. Baltimore Ravens (2021 Prediction, 13-4)

Now we get to a team that is about as intriguing as it gets. Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens seemed destined to be the big rivals to Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs for the next decade. It hasn’t worked out that way. Jackson is just 1-3 in playoff games and averaging 13 points per game in the playoffs. Can they finally take the next step and get to the AFC Championship in 2021?


There is no questioning that Lamar Jackson is a special player. His running ability is incredible. I believe the only quarterback we have ever seen that can even be in the same conversation with Jackson when it comes to a running quarterback is Michael Vick. Jackson wasn’t able to duplicate his success last season from his MVP season in 2019, but was still dangerous with his arm. He broke 1,000 yards rushing once again including seven rushing touchdowns. The biggest critique against Lamar is his ability to come up with big throws when his team needs them. We saw him do it in the game of the year last season in Cleveland. But then we saw him get completely shut down by Buffalo in the playoffs. I am a believer that Lamar Jackson will get to a Super Bowl eventually. But until he can perform in the playoffs on the big stage, there will be criticisms.


The running game for Baltimore took a big hit when J.K. Dobbins tore his ACL in the final preseason game. He was supposed to be the starter and have a massive season in the Ravens run heavy attack. Justice Hill also is out for the year after tearing his achilles. So two of the Ravens best running backs will not play a snap in 2021. Enter Gus Edwards. Edwards had 723 yards and six touchdowns last season on just 144 carries. He will be a viable starter for the season and should be able to break 1,000 yards. The best rusher on the team is still healthy in Lamar Jackson. Baltimore also signed Le’Veon Bell to the practice squad so he should get bumped up onto the main roster in a week or two. Add in Ty’Son Williams and the Ravens should still possess one of the top rushing attacks in the league.


Some criticisms of Baltimore have been about the front office not getting Jackson enough weapons in the pass game. Baltimore is looking to change that narrative. The Ravens went out and got Sammy Watkins in the offseason to be the number two receiver. Watkins brings some experience to the offense and still is valuable when healthy. The top receiver is still Marquise Brown. Hollywood has incredible speed and is one of the best deep threats in the game. Having him as a deep threat while Watkins handles the intermediate game will create more opportunities downfield. Their first round draft pick Rashod Bateman will miss at least the first three weeks of the season after undergoing groin surgery. I think Bateman is a very good receiver and could develop into the top guy in Baltimore in a few years. Mark Andrews just signed an extension and will be back in a Ravens uniform in 2021. Andrews saw a bit of regression from his breakout season in 2019, but the offense regressed as a whole. In the redzone, Andrews still seemed to be Lamar’s favorite target as he had seven touchdowns on 58 receptions. Once Bateman returns, I think we will see a much better and more explosive offense in Baltimore. Don’t expect 2019 numbers, but an improvement from what they did in 2020 is reasonable.


The offensive line missed Ronnie Stanley in a big way in 2020. The left tackle is one of the best in the league and the leader of this unit for Baltimore. His return should see the line improve quite a bit this season. They also added Alejandro Villanueva but will shift him to right tackle. Villanueva should make a smooth transition to give Baltimore solid pass protection as well as run blocking on the edges. Kevin Zeitler got beat up on the interior in 2020. He now has Villanueva at his side but the center on his other side is a question mark. Bradley Bozeman looks to be the guy at center in his first season at the position. If he and Villanueva can transition nicely to their new positions, the line will be good. If they struggle in those transitions, Jackson will be doing a lot of running in 2021.


Baltimore should once again have one of the best defenses in the league. Marlon Humphrey is one of four or five really elite corners in the league. He and Marcus Peters can be one of the toughest duos to figure out in the passing game. If Peters can focus up and get back to how he looked when he first came into the league, they will be the top secondary in the NFL. Patrick Queen should also be better in his second season after being thrown right into the mix last season. Justin Houston joins the squad at outside linebacker and that will add another element to their pass rush. The Ravens will face some really good offenses this season, but this defense will give them the opportunity to win those games and potentially walk away with the division crown.


The Ravens live and die by their defense. They always have. Lamar Jackson and company have given them a great offense but only during the regular season. The offense needs to be able to step up and make some plays in the playoffs if they finally want to get to the AFC Championship.


3. Pittsburgh Steelers (2021 Prediction, 10-7)

Well the Steelers were on the highest of highs before finishing on the lowest of lows in 2020. Pittsburgh was the last unbeaten team at 11-0 before limping to a 12-4 finish and losing in the Wild Card round to Cleveland. Now it looks to be Ben Roethlisberger’s last ride and he is looking to go out on top.


Big Ben is probably going to retire after this season. We have been saying that for about four years now so you never know but it sure has that last ride feel to it. He doesn’t have the arm to take shots down field which this offense is more built for. It’s the same thing we saw from Drew Brees last season. Not everyone can be Tom Brady and be elite in their late 30s and 40s. Roethlisberger can’t carry the team anymore and he is beat up and worn down. I can’t see him turning in one old vintage season. I think he has a really tough year and maybe even retires mid-season.


James Conner is now gone so the Steelers will have a new face in the backfield. Rookie Najee Harris looks to give Pittsburgh more of a run game than they had last season. Pittsburgh was dead last in rushing yards in 2020 but they will have a different style to their ground attack. Harris is more of a vintage Steelers bruiser out of the backfield. At 6’2” and 230 pounds, Harris is not going to try to juke you out. He is going to run you over. His skills in the pass game are better than one would expect as well. Pittsburgh is also one of the few teams that still uses a fullback and they have a good one in Derek Watt. Having to get through Watt to hit the monster that is Najee Harris won’t be fun for opposing defenses this season.


The receiving corps of course is talked about quite often but not always for what they do on the football field. The Tik Tok crew of JuJu Smith-Schuster and Chase Claypool were great for the Steelers to begin last season. Claypool looked like the Offensive Rookie of the Year with his explosive offense. The rookie had eight touchdowns through week 10 but then fell off a cliff. He had only one for the rest of the season and watched Justin Jefferson pass him as the top offensive rookie in the 2020 Draft. JuJu had the second best season of his young career but also fell off after week 10. Diontae Johnson is probably the best all-around receiver on the team and I expect him to be the top guy in this offense. Eric Ebron always draws some attention at tight end as well. In his first season with Pittsburgh he had 56 receptions for 558 yards and five touchdowns. For these guys to be successful the offense has to do more short and intermediate passes. They don’t have a home run hitting quarterback anymore, so the offense needs to adjust.


Now we get to the biggest reason for the Steelers skid late last season. The offensive line struggled big time. They could not create any running lanes for their halfbacks and didn’t do a very good job protecting Big Ben. This season, the line looks very different. The biggest difference is at center where Marukice Pouncey retired after last season. He was the center in Pittsburgh since 2010 but that spot now belongs to Kendrick Green. Green is viewed as a hit or miss guy. He will either be great or really struggle. David DeCastro is also gone after being released during the preseason. They will hope Trai Turner can find the skills that had made him a bright prospect when he first entered the league. One returning starter is also switching positions. Chukwuma Okorafor moves from left tackle to right tackle which is a big switch. The Steelers are really hoping they strike gold but it is much more likely they once again struggle up front. 


One word that I would use to describe the Steelers defense is tenacious. They had the highest pressure and by quite a bit. They also led the league in sacks and were second in takeaways behind only Miami. The leader of this defense is T.J. Watt. Like his brothers, T.J. is a machine. He is so quick and yet still so strong. Watt can bull rush you or hit you with a swim move on his way to another sack. He will be a top three pass rusher for a very long time. Cameron Heyward and Devin Bush also add to that pass rush, although the entire front seven creates pressure consistently. In the secondary, Minkah Fitzpatrick is a special safety. He hits like a truck and is a fantastic ball hawk. Fitzpatrick has 11 interceptions in just three seasons. The entire secondary will look to improve on last season as a whole. If they can have great coverage with this pass rush, they will be the top defense in the NFL.


Without a doubt the Steelers will continue to create chaos for the opposing offenses. My concern is the offense will struggle which will force the defense to be on the field for a lot of the time. No defense can sustain success if they are constantly on the field. Unless Big Ben can turn back the clock or the offense adapts, this team will struggle to stay in the playoff chase.


4. Cincinnati Bengals (2021 Prediction, 4-13)

The Bengals first look at Joe Burrow was cut short when he tore his ACL and other ligaments in week 11. They saw enough though to know they had their potential franchise quarterback. Now they need to figure out a way to protect him. In a division with three teams with great pass rushes, they need to keep Burrow protected.


Burrow did impress me last season. The team struggled, but that was not his fault. He has good mobility but we will see if that returns after that scary injury. Robert Griffin III was never the same after his ACL injury so it is always up in the air on how a guy bounces back. He did a great job avoiding turnovers in his rookie season. Burrow threw only five interceptions in 404 pass attempts. He has a sharp mind and is mentally strong. The former LSU Tiger really is everything you want in a franchise quarterback. The biggest thing to watch with Burrow in 2021 is how has his mobility been affected after the injury. Will he hesitate to run or will he be back to the Joe Burrow we saw to begin his rookie year?


From one Joe to another, we now look at Joe Mixon. The Bengals running back had an injury plagued season last year that saw him play in only six games. Even when he was on the field, you knew something wasn’t right. The offensive line also struggled to open up holes on the ground for both Mixon and Giovani Bernard. The longtime Bengal is now in Tampa Bay so filling the backup role will be Samaje Perine. Perine looked good last year for Cincinnati rushing just 63 times for 301 yards. If Mixon isn’t healthy, Perine could have the opportunity to take over as the featured back in this offense. If Joe Mixon is healthy, the ground attack should see improvement in 2021.


Longtime top receiver AJ Green is now gone. Stepping in to fill the top spot officially is Tyler Boyd. Boyd has pretty much been the top receiver for the last few years with all the injuries to Green. He broke 1,000 receiving yards in 2018 and 2019 before some injuries last season caused him to fall short. The dynamic receiver doesn’t put up the touchdown numbers but he is a respectable top target for Burrow. Tee Higgins is coming off a very good rookie season with 67 catches for 908 yards. At just 21 years old, Higgins looks to be a fantastic addition to the Bengals. Ja’Marr Chase is my favorite receiver from the 2021 Draft. At 6’1” and 201 pounds, Chase has the size to be a bully receiver while also being able to be smooth in his route running ability. I’m not worried about the dropped passes in preseason. Once he and Joe Burrow get on the same page, he could match Higgins’ rookie numbers or do even better. C.J. Uzomah at tight end is an average option for Burrow. I think Uzomah will see a bump in production this season with other guys taking most of the attention. The weapons are still all young, but this receiving corps will be the future of the Bengals.


The Bengals offensive line was embarrassing in 2020. They got run over game after game.The pass blocking was bad and so was the run blocking. They will be better this season though. Jonah Williams is a solid left tackle. He is the guy they need to improve in the run blocking though. Riley Reiff joins the Bengals this season at right tackle Reiff isn’t anything incredibly special, but he is better than anything they had in 2020. Trey Hopkins will be the center once again in Cincy. He hasn’t been a liability, but they need more from him if they want to have success on the ground. The line is still a work in progress but this is the area this team will focus on for the next few years.


Cincinnati finally decided to tear down the defense and start over. Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap are gone after giving many great years to the people of Cincinnati. The secondary actually isn’t too bad and gives them something to build around. Vonn Bell and Jessie Bates III give excellent help over the top and in the middle of the field as they continue to struggle with their linebackers. Chidobe Awuzie is a nice addition at corner to help the pass defense get a little better. I don’t think they did anything to improve against the run. With Pittsburgh adding to their run game, Cincinnati is going to really struggle in the division. We will see if they find a diamond in the rough, but things aren’t looking too good on this side of the ball.


The Bengals look like they have built a solid foundation for their future. They have a young quarterback and young players at the skill positions. Now they need to start focusing in the trenches. The Bengals will be bullied up front this year which will be addressed during this next offseason.

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