Historically one most inequitable divisions, the AFC North is in the process of a shakeup. Pittsburgh and Baltimore have won the division 15 times in the 19 seasons since realignment, but a pair of young QBs in Cleveland and Cincinnati are poised to make it interesting. With the potential for a wide-open AFC North race in 2021, how have these teams done at retaining their talent this offseason?
(Transactions as of April 3)
Offensive Snaps Retained: 68.11% (25th in NFL)
Defensive Snaps Retained: 74.33% (14th in NFL)
The backbone of the 2020 Pittsburgh Steelers team that started 11-0, namely the defense, is largely back. Although a few high-profile players in CB Steven Nelson (88.14% of snaps), LB Vince Williams (65.21%), DE Bud Dupree (59.09%) and CB Mike Hilton (45.00%) got away, the team managed to hold on to CB Cam Sutton and made a late push to keep DT Tyson Alualu. The offensive side of the ball hasn’t fared as well. Even though WR JuJu Smith-Schuster took a below-market deal to come back, the offensive line took a hit with OT Alejandro Villanueva (100%), OG Matt Feiler (77.27%) and C Maurkice Pouncey all away from the team for different reasons. The skill positions are also going to have to rely on some new faces, as RB James Conner (51.00%) and TE Vance McDonald (44.09%) don’t seem to be coming back through the door. Pittsburgh will have a tall task to repeat as division champions next year.
Offensive Snaps Retained: 81.47% (12th in NFL)
Defensive Snaps Retained: 88.22% (fourth in NFL)
Although they can’t be happy with their loss last year in the divisional round, the Baltimore Ravens are returning large parts of their seventh-ranked scoring offense and second-overall scoring defense. Outside of C Matt Skura (64.42% of snaps) and OG D.J. Fluker (51.75%), the backbone of the league’s best rushing attack is back. J.K. Dobbins is projected to step up for Mark Ingram (15.59%), and free-agent signing Sammy Watkins should replace WRs Willie Snead (52.14%) and Dez Bryant (12.57%). The defense lost leader Matt Judon (52.90%) and some rotational defensive linemen in Yannick Ngakoue (32.58%) and Jihad Ward (25.47%), but the secondary remains almost entirely intact and ready to take on the offensive talent building in the AFC.
Offensive Snaps Retained: 98.82% (first in NFL)
Defensive Snaps Retained: 48.08% (32nd in NFL)
Well, there’s no secret which side of the team GM Andrew Berry wanted back. In a wild 2020 season that ended with special teams coordinator Mike Priefer sitting in for Covid-sidelined head coach Kevin Stefanscki to becoming the first Browns coach to win a playoff game since Bill Belichick, the defense allowed 30-plus points seven times. The offense, meanwhile, hit that mark in eight games (including playoffs). With many more defensive players hitting the market, however, it was always going to be tough to retain everybody, and stalwarts from all areas of the defense are likely to be missing next year. In the secondary, CB Terrance Mitchell (99.35% of snaps), S Andrew Sendejo (85.25%), S Karl Joseph (61.22%) and CB Kevin Johnson (53.43%) leave Denzel Ward to work with some new additions, while the front-seven departures of LB B.J. Goodson (78.66%), DE Olivier Vernon (74.68%), DT Larry Ogunjobi (59.65%) and DE Adrian Clayborn (37.48%) definitely need replacing. Defensive coordinator Joe Woods has his work cut out for him with the only unit in the NFL (as of April 3) that has lost over half of their 2020 snaps.
Offensive Snaps Retained: 76.91% (17th in NFL)
Defensive Snaps Retained: 59.93% (28th in NFL)
If the Bengals can finally keep their first-round picks in Joe Burrow and Jonah Williams healthy, they’re poised to be a sleeper pick to take a large leap this season. A few veteran Bengals on the offense have moved on, including OT Bobby Hart (80.95% of snaps), WR A.J. Green (76.21%) and OG Alex Redmond (41.64%), but most of the core of the team remains. Look for the skill positions to be addressed in the draft, as rotational players in TE Cethan Carter (20.45%), WR Alex Erickson (18.40%) and WR John Ross (7.99%) were all allowed to sign elsewhere. The defense paints an uglier picture, but maybe some change is good for last year’s 26th-ranked total defense. The losses of CB William Jackson III (83.58%), LB Josh Bynes (71.70%) and DE Carl Lawson (68.21%) are the headliners, but valuable players in CBs Mackensie Alexander (60.57%) and LeShaun Sims (57.17%) will also leave holes, and DL Christian Covington (52.64%) or Geno Atkins (11.23%) won’t be there to fill them. The Bengals haven’t made the playoffs since a 2015 campaign that sported the No. 2 scoring defense, and they’ll have to rely on fresh faces in 2021 to make a similar impact.