With respect to the AFC West, the AFC North might be the best and most exciting division in the NFL as it is now home to three of the best young quarterbacks in the Baltimore Ravens‘ Lamar Jackson, the Cincinnati Bengals‘ Joe Burrow and Cleveland Browns‘ Deshaun Watson.
Led by Burrow and breakout rookie wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase, the Bengals (10-7) won their first division crown in six years in 2021 and made an improbable run to the Super Bowl. The Pittsburgh Steelers (9-7-1) celebrated Ben Roethlisberger’s final season with a gritty run to the playoffs. The Browns, a trendy Super Bowl pick to start 2021, finished a disappointing third, at 8-9, as quarterback Baker Mayfield struggled through a shoulder injury suffered in Week 2. And the Ravens (8-9) stayed in the thick of the postseason race despite a season-long rash of injuries that eventually included 2019 NFL MVP Jackson.
In the offseason, the Bengals bolstered an offensive line that played a role in Burrow being sacked 70 times in 2021. The Ravens addressed a glaring need at safety with one of the NFL’s best at the position. The Steelers brought in former Chicago Bears (and more recently Buffalo Bills) quarterback Mitch Trubisky after Roethlisberger’s retirement. And the Browns made the biggest move of them all — trading for Watson despite the former Houston Texans quarterback being the subject of 22 civil lawsuits alleging sexual assault and inappropriate conduct during massage sessions.
With the draft approaching, NFL Nation reporters Ben Baby (Bengals), Jake Trotter (Browns), Jamison Hensley (Ravens) and Brooke Pryor (Steelers) analyze each team’s offseason, predict a draft pick and provide a way-too-early prediction for next season.
Biggest offseason move: While La’el Collins stole the headlines during the busy portion of free agency, Cincinnati’s premium addition was signing former Tampa Bay Buccaneers guard Alex Cappa. Cappa committed to the Bengals immediately at the start of the negotiating period, earned the most guaranteed money of Cincinnati’s signees and solidified a right guard position that has been influx for at least the past two seasons.
This remains an area of concern: The depth on the outside. Cincinnati re-signed cornerback Eli Apple on a one-year deal, and he has been given a vote of confidence to be the starter for a second straight season. But the Bengals, at the very least, need depth at outside corner. The same goes for wide receiver, where the Bengals have unproven options behind the starting trio of Chase, Tee Higgins and slot receiver Tyler Boyd.
Best guess at first draft pick: Given where the Bengals are selecting (No. 31) at and the relative lack of other needs following a solid free agency, cornerback seems to make the most sense. The best option is someone who played outside cornerback in college and is ready to make that transition in the pros. Perhaps Washington’s Kyler Gordon is a good option.
The Bengals win the division if … they continue to make offensive progress. In 2021, Cincinnati showed the defense is good enough to win a Super Bowl. However, the team’s offense sputtered far too often during the regular season and didn’t do enough to push the Bengals over the finish line in Super Bowl LVI against the Los Angeles Rams. The revamped offensive line should help Cincinnati field one of the most potent offenses in the league.
Way-too-early prediction: Thanks to another quality offseason, the Bengals will repeat as AFC North champions but will be unable to recapture the playoff magic they had in 2021.
Biggest offseason move: Obviously the trade for Watson. Despite the 22 civil lawsuits he is facing, the Browns traded three first-round picks to the Texans for the former Pro Bowler, then handed him the biggest contract in NFL history (five years, $230 million, fully guaranteed).
This remains an area of concern: Wide receiver and defensive line. The Browns also traded for wideout Amari Cooper, and they still obviously boast pass-rusher Myles Garrett. But outside of those two players, the Browns don’t have much in proven performers. Whether via trade, free agency or the draft, Cleveland has work to do in both areas to complete the roster.
Best guess at first draft pick: The Browns don’t have a first-rounder, so as it stands, their first pick won’t come until the second round. Pass-rusher, defensive tackle and receiver are the positions to watch there.
The Browns win the division if… Watson is not suspended and shows little rust after not playing at all in 2021. The NFL’s investigation of Watson is ongoing and he could still be suspended under its code of conduct. But it’s too early to predict when the league will complete its investigation, and what suspension, if any, it will give him.
Way-too-early prediction: Assuming Watson is not suspended, the Browns are much improved and get back to the postseason after missing the playoffs in 2021. If he is suspended for four or more games, Cleveland will miss the playoffs again.
Biggest offseason move: Signing former New Orleans Saints safety Marcus Williams. The Ravens acknowledged they didn’t think they would get Williams, who was widely regarded as the top safety available in free agency. The addition of a ball hawk like Williams should help Baltimore rebound from last season, when the defense allowed the NFL’s most passing yards (4,986) and gave up a franchise-worst 41 touchdown passes.
This remains an area of concern: The pass rush. Baltimore’s top two outside linebackers (Odafe Oweh and Tyus Bowser) are coming off offseason surgeries. To make matters worse, two-time Pro Bowl edge rusher Za’Darius Smith then backed out of an agreement with the Ravens. Baltimore, which hasn’t had anyone produce double-digit sacks since 2017, needs to find someone to go after Burrow and Watson.
Best guess at first draft pick: The Ravens need a pass-rusher or cornerback with the No. 14 overall pick. Purdue outside linebacker George Karlaftis has what the Ravens covet in defensive players — aggressiveness and a high motor. Karlaftis would form a young and explosive pass-rush duo with Oweh. Washington cornerback Trent McDuffie is another option, although he lacks ideal size.
The Ravens win the division if … Lamar Jackson plays like Lamar Jackson again. When he’s on top of his game, Jackson can put the team on his back and cover up a lot of weaknesses. With Jackson as their starter, the Ravens have a 37-12 record (.755) and average 29 points per game. But he’s coming off a season in which he missed five games and recorded career worsts in interceptions (13) and times sacked (38).
Way-too-early prediction: The Ravens win the AFC North. Baltimore becomes the latest team to go from last place to first (it’s happened at least once in 14 of past 16 seasons). The Ravens are getting seven key players back from injured reserve, and they have a history of drafting impact players when selecting in the top half of the first round (Terrell Suggs, Haloti Ngata, Ronnie Stanley and Marlon Humphrey are the latest). Plus, with a healthy Jackson, the Ravens are as dangerous as anyone in the league.
Biggest offseason move: Signing Trubisky. The Steelers addressed the quarterback position as soon as the legal tampering window opened, and they did so in a way that doesn’t prevent them from making more moves at the position. In signing Trubisky, the Steelers have an inexpensive safety net with a higher ceiling than Mason Rudolph while also retaining all of their draft capital — something that could help them further add to the position group if the right fit is available in upcoming draft.
This remains an area of concern: Safety. While the Steelers will likely engage with safety Minkah Fitzpatrick on a market-setting contract later this offseason, they still need to find his running mate for 2022. At the NFL owners’ meetings last month, general manager Kevin Colbert said he felt the team lacked a starting-caliber strong safety after letting Terrell Edmunds test free agency. Edmunds could still return to the Steelers, but they could also look at options like Tyrann Mathieu or Damontae Kazee.
Best guess at first draft pick: The Steelers’ recent pro day travels suggest they’re going to use at least one early pick on a quarterback. Both Colbert and coach Mike Tomlin were clear at the owners’ meetings: previous moves in free agency wouldn’t preclude them from drafting a quarterback. Members of the Steelers’ decision-making nucleus have been at every major quarterback prospect’s Pro Day, and they’re starting to bring prospective signal-callers in for top-30 visits.
The Steelers will win the division if … they find the next franchise quarterback this offseason and he’s a turn-key starter. The Steelers have the pieces to be a relevant team in a stacked AFC, but they lack star power at quarterback. If they hit on quarterback and he majorly exceeds expectations in Year 1, the Steelers could contend in the division — but that combination is a long shot. It would also necessitate a fully healthy defensive line and improved inside linebacking corps. Never say never, but don’t hold your breath.
Way-too-early prediction: Mike Tomlin’s streak without a losing season continues. Though the rest of the division and conference are plowing ahead with big-name signings, the Steelers are holding steady to their draft-and-develop philosophy. That method might not deliver a Super Bowl this season, but with pieces like T.J. Watt, Fitzpatrick, Myles Jack and Najee Harris, Tomlin will keep his team above .500 for the 16th straight season.