The AFC North has always had a reputation for being one of the grittiest divisions in the NFL. From the Baltimore Ravens rewriting the history books with their historic rushing offense in 2019 to the Pittsburgh Steelers and Mike Tomlin‘s continued success through bad and worse roster conditions, the North is always fun to watch. 2020’s edition sees the Cleveland Browns looking to make good on another wild off-season of new acquisitions while the Cincinnati Bengals bring a reshaped look behind their first-overall pick in quarterback Joe Burrow.
After establishing itself as one of the best divisions in football for a long time, the North has become less predictable the past few seasons. From 2008-2015, multiple teams from the AFC North made the playoffs seven of the eight seasons. However, only the division winner has advanced to the playoffs over the past four years. Now in 2020, the division looks a lot more competitive than it has in a while. The Ravens finished with the best overall record in the NFL in 2019 but they should see some stiff competition from the rest of the teams.
The AFC North is home to some of the best athletes in pro football as well as some of the brightest young stars in the game today. These are the top 10 players in the AFC North going into 2020.
Top 10 Players in the AFC North in 2020
Just Missed: Odell Beckham Jr., Joel Bitonio, A.J. Green, Mark Ingram, Jarvis Landry, Justin Tucker
1. Lamar Jackson (Baltimore Ravens) – Quarterback
The NFL players got it right this year. After winning the league MVP and doing things that have never been done by a player at his position before, Jackson deserved the number-one spot on the NFL Top-100. The Ravens quarterback became the first quarterback in history to pass for 3,000+ yards and rush for 1,000+ yards in a single season as well as lead the league in touchdown passes. His season did not end the way he would’ve hoped but Jackson is still just 23 years old and could make another significant jump in play if his Wild Card loss from 2019 is a motivator. He might already be the greatest athlete to ever play the quarterback position in the NFL.
2. Myles Garrett (Cleveland Browns) – Edge
Garrett’s season ended in embarrassing fashion. After hitting Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph over the head with his own helmet, he was suspended for the remaining six games of the 2019 season. However, Garrett is still one of the NFL’s best edge rushers. Since entering the league in 2017, the NFL’s new highest-paid edge defender has the 11th most sacks and 13th most quarterback hits despite playing just 37 games. Per Pro Football Focus, at the time of his suspension, Garrett was leading the NFL in QB pressures and had the NFL’s highest pass-rushing grade in 2019. He is maybe the most complete edge defender in pro football and should continue to prove that, as he is just three years into his career.
3. T.J. Watt (Pittsburgh Steelers) – Edge
Whether you think that Watt was robbed of Defensive Player of the Year in 2019 or not, everyone who watches him can see his natural ability to be a game-changer. Watt finished last season tied for fourth in sacks with 14.5, tied for third in QB hits with 36, and led the league in turnovers forced with two interceptions and eight forced fumbles. His combination of speed, power, and motor make him one of the craftiest outside linebackers in the NFL and one that can play both the pass and the run. His brother J.J. Watt might’ve been on to something when he said that T.J. was more NFL ready than he was coming out of college.
4. Ronnie Stanley (Baltimore Ravens) – Offensive Tackle
If blindside tackle is the second most important position on the football field, then Stanley needs to be one of the highest-valued players in the NFL. Since entering the league as the Ravens sixth-overall pick in 2016, Stanley has improved every year he’s been in the league. His quality play hit a new peak this past season where he played a total of 479 pass-blocking snaps and did not give up a single sack. Stanley’s PFF grade of 88.5 was the highest of his career and his pass blocking grade of 93.3 was the highest among all qualifying NFL tackles. Stanley is likely just a season away from becoming the NFL’s highest-paid tackle and it’s very well deserved.
5. Cameron Heyward (Pittsburgh Steelers) – Defensive End
Maybe the most underrated defender in all of football, Heyward has displayed consistent production almost every year of his career. Now going into his 10th season of NFL action at 31 years old, he continues to be one of the best defensive tackles in all of football. His PFF grade of 91.5 was the second-highest among all defensive players last season. Heyward finished 2019 third in sacks (9.0) and tied for fourth in tackles for loss (11) among interior defenders. He was also the only player in the NFL to finish the season with 80+ tackles and 30+ QB hurries in 2019. It’s crazy to think Heyward’s play is actually improving at his age.
6. Marcus Peters (Baltimore Ravens) – Cornerback
Since being taken in the first round of the 2015 draft, there has been no player who is a better ballhawk than Peters. His 27 interceptions over the past five years are nine more than any other player. Peters found himself switching teams early in the 2019 season and his new home in Baltimore brought the best out of a corner who was struggling to find consistency. After Peters was acquired by the Ravens prior to their Week 7 game, Baltimore allowed the fewest total yards, points, and lowest passer rating against over the next 11 weeks. Peters finished the year as PFF’s fourth-best regular-season cornerback and should continue to help the Ravens secondary be one of the top units in the NFL.
7. Marlon Humphrey (Baltimore Ravens) – Cornerback
The second half of the Ravens elite cornerback duo, Humphrey is slowly turning into one of the best corners in the NFL. The 24-year-old has improved his play each of his first three seasons in the league on his way to being named a first-team All-Pro for the first time in his career last season. Humphrey was one of just four defensive backs in 2019 to record multiple forced fumbles and interceptions while also logging 10+ pass defenses. Finding complete corners in the NFL is very difficult and the Ravens have developed one in Humphrey. He played both the outside and the slot last season and finished the year allowing the second-lowest yards per completion against (5.0) among corners.
8. Nick Chubb (Cleveland Browns) – Running Back
While the Browns as a whole were largely a mess last season, Chubb was one of the biggest bright spots. Cleveland’s offensive line play took a big step back from his rookie to sophomore season but Chubb still managed to improve his game from year-one to year-two. He recorded the third-most yards from scrimmage and second-most rushing yards per game among running backs. His 32 broken tackles ranked tied for first in the NFL while his 882 yards after contact ranked second at his position. Chubb may have fallen just six yards short of his first 1,500-yard season, but he is going to be one of the best running backs in the NFL for the next half-decade. The only thing keeping Chubb from being higher on this list for the AFC North is his positional value.
9. Minkah Fitzpatrick (Pittsburgh Steelers) – Safety
No one was going to have consistent success on the 2019 Miami Dolphins but Fitzpatrick saw one of the most dramatic improvements in production mid-season of any player in the NFL. After being traded to the Steelers prior to their Week 3 game, Fitzpatrick helped a bland Steelers secondary finish with the franchise’s most takeaways and best passing defense since 2012. The safety, himself, forced seven turnovers and nine pass defenses. After allowing a perfect passer rating in coverage in Miami, Fitzpatrick finished the season allowing just a 46.3 rating over Pittsburgh’s next 14 games. His rookie year wasn’t his finest but Fitzpatrick looks to be working on all the potential he showed at Alabama with his new team.
10. Calais Campbell (Baltimore Ravens) – Defensive End
While there’s no guarantee Campbell is the same dominant force at 34 years old for a new team, he should still be one of the better interior linemen in the NFL on a defense already flush with talent. Campbell has been one of the best defenders in the NFL over the past three seasons with the Jacksonville Jaguars and is coming off a year in which he registered 6.5 sacks, 10 tackles for loss, and 25 QB hits. Per PFF, he was the best run defending defensive lineman in the league last season. The Ravens have been known for their scary defensive linemen and Campbell is about as big a presence on the line as you can find.
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