AFC North Breakdown by Position: The Offense

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During the month of August, the Last Word On Sports NFL department will be breaking down every division in the league by position. This article contains a position-by-position breakdown of the AFC North offenses. The breakdown will contain “the best” at each unit followed by “the rest” in descending order.

AFC North Breakdown by Position: The Offense

Quarterback

The Best: Pittsburgh Steelers

The Rest: Cincinnati Bengals, Baltimore Ravens, Cleveland Browns

When looking at quarterbacks as a whole it becomes an interesting debate. In ranking backup quarterbacks, the Steelers are certainly last. However, the starter power and the ability of Ben Roethlisberger makes this one obvious. Roethlisberger is among the elite quarterbacks in the NFL. He has a 64% completion percentage for his career and last season fought through a sprained MCL, concussion, ankle sprain and bruised ribs to throw for nearly 4,000 yards and lead the Steelers to the second round of the playoffs.

Between Joe Flacco and Andy Dalton, it is picking your preference. Dalton is conservative and athletic but cracks under pressure, while Flacco is the walking argument that mechanics do not matter but in the clutch, he is Joe Cool and hardly ever misses a pass. A.J. McCarron proved as a reliable backup in a conservative offense and while Ryan Mallett wasn’t terrible last season, the Bengals get the slight edge on that note.

Then there is Robert Griffin and Josh McCown. McCown can be argued as best back up, but they have the biggest enigma in the NFL as the starting quarterback. To say the least, it is going to be worth the watch to see what can be made out of Griffin and to see where the Browns stack up against the others this time next year.

Running back

The Best: Pittsburgh Steelers

The Rest: Cincinnati Bengals, Baltimore Ravens, Cleveland Browns

Even without Le’Veon Bell for three games, the Steelers have the best set of backs in the division. DeAngelo Williams finished 13th in rushing in the NFL in 2015. He did so despite having five games with less than five carries. He led all AFC North backs in rushing yards last year and in 2016 it is possible that Bell will lead all AFC North backs despite the suspension.

The Bengals are starting to make a claim, however. The thunder and lightning of Gio Bernard and Jeremy Hill are impressive. Bernard should be more of a receiver this year and both will have a major role in this offense. The Steelers, on the other hand, have typically relied on only one back when Bell is healthy and in uniform.

The Browns also go to a two man rotation with power and speed. Duke Johnson caught 61 balls last year, which was much needed. However, while Isaiah Crowell put up over 700 yards on the ground, he did it at a 3.8 yard per carry mark. Johnson also had 3.6 yards per carry rate. With Hue Jackson leaving the Bengals and heading to the similar styles of backs in Cleveland, we will really get to see if it was the scheme or the talent making the Bengals backfield boom.

The Ravens backfield brings a lot of questions and a lot of possibilities. Justin Forsett came back to down earth in 2015 and ended the year with a broken arm. It brings a ton of questions but his 2014 with 5.4 yards per carry still lingers. On top of Forsett, the Ravens have drafted running backs in the fourth round in the past two years with Javorius Allen and Kenneth Dixon. They also signed Terrance West who once started for the Browns and has the attention of some beat writers. If one of the four emerge they have the legitimate depth to be considered a much stronger backfield. The question is just who takes the step forward and leads the group?

Wide Receiver

The Best: Pittsburgh Steelers

The Rest: Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns, Baltimore Ravens

It is feeling a bit Pittsburgh-centric but with Antonio Brown, Ben Roethlisberger, and Le’Veon Bell being in the top tier of players at their position in the NFL, it is tough to argue they are not the best in their own division. The Steelers have some questionable depth at the wide receiver position with Martavis Bryant suspended, but reports have been high on the second-year players Eli Rogers and Sammie Coates, and Markus Wheaton has stepped up at times when needed as well.

The Bengals can essentially be locked in at number two just because of A.J. Green in the same way the Steelers are number one solely on the presence of Antonio Brown. Without Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu and potentially Tyler Eifert for a small stretch, it only means that Green will have to own defenses even more. In every year of his career, he has gained 1,000 yards plus, and three of his five seasons resulted in the least 10 touchdowns. Tyler Boyd and Brandon LaFell were acquired, and Bernard will be used in the passing game more, so it is not like the are going to be triple teaming Green here. The Bengals wide receiver unit should be fine in 2016.

The Browns wide receiver unit may take a huge step forward in 2016. It starts with the drafting of Corey Coleman, Rashard Higgins, Ricardo Louis, and Jordan Payton. Then you add in Josh Gordon, who will serve a four-game suspension and the possibility of 6’5” former quarterback Terrelle Pryor who is running with the number ones in practice and this unit is completely revamped. It is obviously also very raw and this unit, like the quarterbacks, it will be fascinating to see where it is in 2017.

With the Browns, there is some youth and exuberance. On the Ravens, there are questions on top of questions. Steve Smith is returning from an injury almost nobody returns from, and is doing it at a ridiculous age. Mike Wallace is slowly falling off the face of the planet, and their first round pick of 2015 Breshad Perriman has yet to make an NFL appearance. Chris Moore, a fourth-round pick from the University of Cincinnati is a player to watch who may emerge, but as of this moment the Ravens most relied upon receiver is Kamar Aiken. Whether it be Gordon, Pryor, Coleman or more the Browns should have a couple receivers more dynamic than Aiken next season.

Tight End

The Best: Baltimore Ravens

The Rest: Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh Steelers

For once the Steelers are not on top, and in this position are the hands down worst in the division. The Ravens, Bengals, and Browns all have strong tight end situations, and while the Ravens get the slight edge it is only on depth alone.

This team plucks tight ends out of nowhere like the tight end tree is on Russell Street. They added Benjamin Watson, who is coming off of a strong year in the New Orleans Saints offense, and they also hope to see a healthy Dennis Pitta for the first time since 2012. When he was healthy and emerging he was arguably one of the best tight ends in the league, but has played in four games in the past three seasons. Even without him, the Ravens got by with Crockett Gilmore, Maxx Williams, and Nick Boyle. With that much depth and upside from five potential tight ends, they do get the top nod.

Gary Barnidge is certainly worthy of some praise, as is Tyler Eifert, however, both have the potential to be one-year wonders. Barnidge has six seasons of which he amounted to 603 yards and three touchdowns, and last season received for 1,043 yards and nine touchdowns. The law of averages says his 2016 may be a bit down from 2015. Eifert had the talent but has been hurt in his first two seasons. Last year he finally busted out but may miss the start of the season due to an injury at his first Pro Bowl. As  for backups, the Bengals seem optimistic about second-year tight end Tyler Kroft as well as CJ Uzomah, whereas the Browns drafted a tight end in the fourth round who will  either spend the season on the IR or the practice squad. The Bengals do get the edge. 

Then there are the Steelers who are not sure what they are going to do. Heath Miller has retired and with that the Steelers lose 81 targets from last year. Ladarius Green, their big signing, has yet to practice with the team this summer and they are starting to get nervous. They have the worst depth of any team in the position and tight end could be a problem in 2016.

Offensive Line

The Best: Pittsburgh Steelers

The Rest: Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns, Baltimore Ravens

This is probably going to tick a lot of Bengals fans off, but on paper, the Steelers line  is the best. In terms of sacks per game, in 2015 the Bengals gave up 2.00, the Steelers gave up 2.06. The Steelers were sixth in yards per attempt whereas the Bengals ranked 23rd. In terms of adjusted line yards, the Bengals did finish in first, while the Steelers came in eighth. However, in adjusted sack rate, the Steelers finished in eighth, while the Bengals finished 15th.

The huge difference is Maurkice Pouncey. Pouncey did not play in 2015, and to bring back his presence is to bring back a top five center in the game. If you were to construct an all offensive line grouping of the two teams it would include; Andrew Whitworth, David DeCastro, Maurkice Pouncey, Kevin Zeitler, and Marcus Gilbert, which gives the Steelers another edge. The Bengals added depth this offseason, but in a close call, the Steelers get the nod with the addition of a two-time All-Pro to the equation.

The Ravens are not far behind either. Marshal Yanda is arguably the best guard in the league. However, for them, losing Kelechi Osemele is tough, and while they are one of the better offensive lines, the Steelers and Bengals are top five units.  Then there is Joe Thomas of the Cleveland Browns.

The Browns are going to start three players in their first three seasons in the NFL around Thomas. It is an up and coming, and potentially a strong unit, but is in a division with some of the best lines in the NFL.

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