The AFC North was highly competitive last season, as three of its teams made the playoffs. While Pittsburgh was the NFL’s last undefeated team at 11-0, the Steelers fizzled down the stretch, losing four of their last five before a first-round exit to division rival Cleveland in the playoffs. Baltimore and Cleveland will look to continue to build around their young quarterbacks to drive deeper playoff runs in 2021. Finally, Cincinnati will look to restock the roster as its QB, Joe Burrow, returns from the injury that ended his rookie season.
Baltimore took a small step back in 2020, but avenged 2019’s playoff upset with a playoff win over Tennessee. The Ravens should focus on adding a bona fide No. 1 WR, as it will be critical to the continuing development of QB Lamar Jackson (89%). While WR Marquise Brown (78%) has shined in moments, it is clear he is better suited to be a team’s No. 2 or No. 3 WR. Fortunately for Baltimore, there are multiple intriguing options at the position, such as free agents Kenny Golladay and Will Fuller. Do not be surprised if the team chooses to add a WR both in free agency and the draft. Baltimore’s second pressing decision will be what to do with OT Orlando Brown (100%), who has publicly announced he would prefer to play left tackle over right tackle. With star OT Ronnie Stanley (30%) expected to make a full recovery from his ankle injury, Brown asked the organization for a trade. The Ravens have further questions along the offensive line with the impending free agency of C Matt Skura (64%), who was benched in favor of 2019 UFA Patrick Mekari (54%). Unsurprisingly, the organization cut RB Mark Ingram (16%), who had fallen behind RBs J.K. Dobbins (44%) and Gus Edwards (34%). Finally, Baltimore should be proactive pursuing an extension with Jackson. Dak Prescott’s new deal reset the market at $40 million and will be an important benchmark for Jackson. With a new TV deal on the horizon, the team will only save money the earlier they agree to a deal.
Baltimore has multiple impact defenders entering free agency, including DT Derek Wolfe (58%), EDGE Matthew Judon (53%), EDGE Tyus Bowser (51%) and EDGE Yannick Ngakoue (33%). Replacing this production will be critical for a team that blitzes at the second-highest rate in the NFL. Give the organization credit for proactively extending standout CB Marlon Humphrey (91%) last season, so the team is set in the secondary.
Cincinnati improved in 2020 before rookie QB Joe Burrow’s (66%) season-ending injury. Yet, the Bengals still ranked as one of the worst in the NFL. Cincinnati’s first, second and third priority must be retooling its offensive line, which did no favors for Burrow. With the fifth pick in the draft and plenty of cap space, the team has multiple avenues to overhaul the position group. Fortunately for Cincinnati, there are many premier o-linemen at every position hitting free agency this offseason including G Joe Thuney, OT Trent Williams, G Kevin Zeitler and C David Andrews. Do not be surprised if the Bengals decide to both sign one or two o-linemen and add a future centerpiece such as Oregon’s Penei Sewell. Former star WR A.J. Green (76%) will enter free agency, but the team is likely set at the position with young starters Tee Higgins (75%) and Tyler Boyd (69%). RB Joe Mixon (27%) will return from injury and join RB Giovani Bernard (48%).
On defense, Cincinnati’s number one priority should be re-signing EDGE Carl Lawson (68%). While there is a wealth of pass rushing talent in this year’s free agent pool, Lawson’s age (25) could mean he will be in high-demand. The Bengals have multiple questions at the secondary as starting CBs William Jackson (84%) and Mackensie Alexander (61%) are both set to hit free agency. The team will need to re-sign or replace the CBs as there are few clear answers on the roster. The Bengals starting LB Josh Bynes (72%) will also enter free agency.
Cleveland’s 2020 was a massive success under first-year head coach Kevin Stefanski, with its first playoff win since 1995. Stefanski worked wonders for QB Baker Mayfield (98%), who answered some questions after a poor sophomore season. Now the question becomes whether Mayfield is extension worthy. Cleveland has until May 3 to decide on Mayfield’s fifth-year option, which would buy time to decide on a future extension. There is increased risk with this year’s fifth-year option as the most recent CBA made the option fully guaranteed. Previously, the option was only guaranteed against injury, but now the option is fully locked in once decided. Next on offense the team will have to decide on the future of WR Odell Beckham Jr. (30%), coming off a season-ending knee injury. Will the organization decide OBJ is worth the $15.8 million he is due in 2021 after the success the team had on offense without him? Under contract until 2023, Beckham could have significant trade value for a team wanting to make a splash at WR. The team returns all its starting offensive line, running backs and tight ends. TE David Njoku (39%) is another interesting trade candidate or a potential cut for $6.0 million in savings.
Credit to Cleveland for locking up star EDGE Myles Garrett (70%) last season, but now the team will look to add another EDGE to partner with him. Starting EDGE Olivier Vernon (75%) is an impending free agent, but coming off an Achilles tear at age 30, it seems likely his best days are behind him. The Browns should then focus on their secondary with the impending free agency of CB Terrance Mitchell (99%), S Andrew Sendejo (85%), S Karl Joseph (61%), and CB Kevin Johnson (53%). The Browns secondary is thin besides standout CB Denzel Ward (72%). The team will need major contributions from S Grant Delpit and CB Greedy Williams, both of whom missed the entirety of the 2020 season with injuries. Finally, the organization needs to reload at LB, as starters B.J. Goodson (79%) and Malcolm Smith (52%) both will enter free agency.
Pittsburgh reworked the contract of QB Ben Roethlisberger (played 92% of snaps in 2020) to include a $5 million pay cut in 2021, convert much of the contract to a bonus, and four voidable years to spread the necessary payments. Despite the pay cut and ability to spread out the bonus payments, Pittsburgh is still investing $14 million of cash on a player who was arguably the worst QB in his division last season. The focus for the Steelers this offseason must be acquiring a QB of the future, as neither backup Mason Rudolph (7%) nor former Washington first-rounder Dwayne Haskins are Pittsburgh’s long-term answer. With limited cap space and its first-round pick at 22, it is difficult to say how the Steelers will acquire a QB of the future. After many years of offensive line stability, Pittsburgh will need to rework its offensive line with the retirement of C Maurkice Pouncey (78%) and OT Alejandro Villanueva (100%) entering free agency. Other notable offensive free agents include WR Juju Smith-Schuster (83.91%) and RB James Conner (51%). Smith-Schuster once was considered an ascending star, but two seasons of middling production (under 9 yards per catch in 2020) likely means the team will prefer to rely on WRs Diontae Johnson (67%) and Chase Claypool (63%). Expect the team to bring in a RB, as Benny Snell (26%) does not appear to be the answer at this position
It was mildly surprising the Steelers chose to not franchise tag EDGE Bud Dupree (59%). Dupree is coming off one of his most productive seasons as a pro in 2020, with 8 sacks in 11 games before a knee injury cut his season short. Yet this decision likely signals the team will focus on getting star EDGE T.J. Watt (83%) extended with one year remaining on his contract. This should be a focus for the team as Watt finished second in NFL Defensive Player of the Year voting in 2020. The Steelers bring back most of last season’s dominant defensive unit, but key contributors CB Cameron Sutton (53%), CB Mike Hilton (45%), DT Tyson Alualu (44%), and LB Avery Williamson (30%) will enter free agency.
Tyler Brown contributed to this story