The AFC North was the best division in football last season by overall winning percentage, going a combined 38-25-1 and sending three teams to the playoffs. All four starting QBs return from 2020, but with varying degrees of their supporting casts returning. Cleveland returns essentially their entire offense from last season but has undergone a defensive overhaul. Pittsburgh returns most of their key targets but with a heavily redone offensive line. Baltimore let a couple of its veteran players leave, but they have done well to identify their replacements either in free agency, the draft or in guys already on the roster. Cincinnati loses a mainstay of the last decade in A.J. Green as well as some other key targets they’ll have to replace. Will keeping things mostly the same with their targets be good enough for Pittsburgh and Cleveland, or will Cincinnati and Baltimore’s changes help propel them to a divisional crown?
- Targets Retained: NFC South
- Target Retained: NFC North
- Targets Retained: AFC South
- Targets Retained: NFC West
Roster Moves through July 9th
- Overall Targets Returning: 90.2% (588/652) (8th in the NFL)
- WR Targets Returning: 100% (459/459) (T-1st)
- TE Targets Returning: 82.1% (92/112) (17th)
- RB/FB Targets Returning: 46.3% (37/80) (28th)
Pittsburgh returns all five targeted wide receivers from 2020 after re-signing JuJu Smith-Schuster. Health was huge for them at the position in allowing them to only need that group, as Diontae Johnson’s single missed game was the only full game missed by the group. Going into 2021, there are no major additions, so the health and availability of those five will be key for Pittsburgh, as they still lack experienced depth behind them. At the TE position, Vance McDonald’s retirement opened up a hole at TE2 that will likely be filled by second-round draft pick Pat Freiermuth. Expect a slightly larger receiving role for Freiermuth than the one McDonald had, but Eric Ebron will still be the clear TE1 when healthy. James Conner has departed as the RB1, and he is replaced by first-round draft pick Najee Harris. Joining Harris in the backfield are FA signing Kalen Ballage and returnees Anthony McFarland Jr. and Benny Snell. Harris should be expected to take on the bulk of the carries but won’t necessarily be the top pass-catching back. It’s very possible he is, but that isn’t his calling card, so they may look elsewhere in key passing situations; that is something to look out for early on in the season.
- Overall Targets Returning: 82.1% (322/392) (15th)
- WR Targets Returning: 73.3% (162/221) (22nd)
- TE Targets Returning: 97.2% (106/109) (8th)
- RB/FB Targets Returning: 87.1% (54/62) (11th)
Baltimore had the fewest total targets in the NFL last season, as they had a run-centered offense that led the league in rushing attempts. As a result, more minor losses of targets have bigger effects on their percentages. A big example of this is at WR, where they return the 22nd-highest percentage of targets but only lost Willie Snead and Dez Bryant at the position. They will have no problem replacing that production, with Sammy Watkins added in FA and Rashod Bateman and Tylan Wallace selected in the first and fourth rounds of the draft respectively. At TE, Baltimore added Josh Oliver, a third-round pick of the Jaguars in 2019 who has struggled to stay healthy thus far in his career, to replace Luke Willson as the TE3 behind Mark Andrews and Nick Boyle. Those two will still get the vast majority of the targets at the position, with Andrews likely to be among the team leaders in targets. At RB, Mark Ingram has departed, but he had already slipped down the depth chart in 2020, so his loss isn’t a major one. J.K. Dobbins will be the RB1, with Gus Edwards and Justice Hill his primary backups. This scheme historically doesn’t involve much throwing to the RB, so don’t expect much of that from this offense in 2021.
- Overall Targets Returning: 98.9% (462/467) (1st)
- WR Targets Returning: 98.8% (244/247) (6th)
- TE Targets Returning: 100% (139/139) (T-1st)
- RB/FB Targets Returning: 98.7% (78/79) (4th)
Cleveland returns the highest percentage of targets out of any team in the NFL. Marvin Hall and Taywan Taylor, who combined for three targets in four games, are the only departures at WR, with third-round pick Anthony Schwartz added as further depth. He is unlikely to see a lot of targets without injuries to players ahead of him, as the WR target distribution will likely be pretty similar to last season, but he will take on a bigger role in upcoming seasons. The most notable difference going into 2021 is a healthy Odell Beckham Jr. after he missed the final nine weeks of the regular season. He averaged roughly 6 targets per game while healthy, so he figures to have a similar role once again. At TE, Austin Hooper, Austin Bryant, David Njoku and Stephen Carlson all return with no major additions, so expect the target distribution to remain mostly the same. At the RB position, Dontrell Hilliard’s 1 target before being waived is the only lost target at the position. Demetric Felton was selected in the sixth round of the draft and will be depth at the position behind Nick Chubb, Kareem Hunt and D’Ernest Johnson. Chubb will be the RB1 when fully healthy, but Hunt will still see plenty of targets. Overall, due to almost all of the offense returning, it will look nearly identical to last year’s offense.
- Overall Targets Returning: 65.5% (371/566) (25th)
- WR Targets Returning: 67.3% (263/391) (24th)
- TE Targets Returning: 90.3% (65/72) (11th)
- RB/FB Targets Returning: 42.2% (43/102) (29th)
Cincinnati lost a franchise mainstay in A.J. Green this offseason, and his loss along with the losses of John Ross and Alex Erickson open up quite a few targets in this offseason. Ja’Marr Chase is reunited with college QB Joe Burrow after being selected with the fifth overall pick of the draft and he figures to have a huge role in the passing game. Trent Taylor was signed and will likely fill a much smaller role as WR depth but could factor in as well. Cethan Carter is the only departing TE and Thaddeus Moss is the biggest addition, so Drew Sample will still command most of the targets with C.J. Uzomah as his backup. At RB, Giovani Bernard has departed without really being replaced, so a fully healthy season from Joe Mixon will be crucial at the position. Samaje Perine is his backup, but Mixon will command the majority of the targets as long as he’s healthy.