Prior to the start of the 2020 NFL season, 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 2020 AFC North defenses and special teams. The breakdown will contain “the best” at each unit followed by “the rest” in descending order.
2020 AFC North Breakdown By Position: Defense and Special Teams
The Best: Pittsburgh Steelers
The Rest: Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns
If there is one position group that has owned the AFC North for an extended period of time, it has been the Steelers defensive line. Kevin Colbert has always had an eye for assembling great interior talent and in 2020, they will once again be led by perhaps the most underrated player in football — Cameron Heyward. Heyward has been one of the Steelers best players over the past three years and is only becoming more refined with age. Over this time span, Heyward has registered at least 10 tackles for loss, 8.0 sacks, and 18 quarterback hits each year. His 83 total tackles in 2019 were a career-high and his 91.5 overall grade per Pro Football Focus was the second-highest amongst all defensive players.
Losing Javon Hargrave to the Philadelphia Eagles will be a tough pill to swallow but a now-healthy Stephon Tuit should help keep the Steelers line strong. Tuit is both an elite interior pass rusher and a good run stopped. Adding Chris Wormley from the rival Ravens should also help the pass rush from the middle. Tyson Alualu and Daniel McCullers will provide experienced depth while Isaiah Buggs could be looking to take the next step as a consistent NFL contributor going into his second year as a pro.
The Ravens are a close second to the Steelers but have just a few more questions on the interior. Baltimore added both Calais Campbell and Derek Wolfe as well as rookie Justin Madubuike through the draft to help with an interior pass rush that has had virtually no production over the past few years. The three are all very good at creating pressure up the middle but aside from Campbell, are not the most polished run defenders. Veteran Raven Brandon Williams is still one of the better run-stopping nose tackles in the NFL but is not an every-down player. Still, the Ravens interior has quality players that can both plug the middle and get to the quarterback. Behind these four players, there is a log jam of other defensive lineman buying for the last few roster spots.
Paul Brown has been one of the more active VPs this off-season and perhaps his most underrated move has been bulking up the Bengals interior defensive line. Geno Atkins has been one of the best interior defenders of the past decade but has seldom had help since Domata Peko began to decline. Now, he will be playing with one of the most complete young defensive tackles in football — D.J. Reader. Reader signed with the Bengals in free agency after registering career highs in tackles (52), tackles for loss (six), sacks (2.5), and quarterback hits (13). Also signed from the Green Bay Packers was veteran run-stopper Mike Daniels. Daniels’s only season grading under a 69.0 by Pro Football Focus was his first season in the NFL in 2012. Rounding out the group is UDFA and rookie Trey Dishon.
Cleveland has the weakest interior defensive line but not because it is a horrible group of players. Sheldon Richardson still has some juice left but 2020 will be his first season starting on the same team in back-to-back years since 2016. Larry Ogunjobi has registered 50+ tackles, 5.5 sacks and 13+ quarterback hits in his last two seasons as well. Now it’s a matter of being a consistent presence on the field. He registered just a 56.0 overall grade per PFF last season. Behind the two big dogs, Eli Ankou is the only player with more than 150 snaps of experience. Jordan Elliott is likely the player with the highest upside outside of the two starters. The former Missouri Tiger was one of the most consistent defensive tackles in the SEC last season in both the run and pass game.
The Best: Cleveland Browns
The Rest: Pittsburgh Steelers, Cincinnati Bengals, Baltimore Ravens
Despite their 2019 season ending in supreme disappointment for almost everyone on the Browns roster, they still have one of the most complete defenders in the NFL returning from suspension to begin the 2020 season. Myles Garrett has become the prototype for a modern-day edge defender and is coming off a season in which, prior to his suspension, he was on pace for new career highs in sacks and tackles for loss. Alongside him, Olivier Vernon may not be the perfect pass rusher Garrett is, but he is still an effective enough player against both the pass and the run. His 80.4 overall grade per PFF is his third 80+ grade since 2015.
Adrian Clayborn will likely be the Browns best option behind their two starters. He’s not the sexiest option as a pass rush specialist but had registered 13+ quarterback hits in four straight seasons prior to 2019. Chad Thomas made a career-high eight starts for Cleveland due to Garrett and Vernon missing playing time last season and registered a respectable 26 tackles, five quarterback hurries, and 4.0 sacks. He needs to take another step to push for more starting time but is still a decent fourth option to have. The Browns pass rush is anchored around Garrett but their unit is very strong as a whole.
The Steelers Edge defenders are led by a player that many believe should’ve won Defensive Player of the Year in 2019. T.J. Watt has firmly established himself as one of the best outside linebackers in the NFL at just 25 years old and is rapidly improving every season. Bud Dupree is coming off a career season in 2019 where he recorded career highs in sacks (11.5), quarterback hits (17), and forced fumbles (four). If Dupree replicates his success from 2019 in 2020, the Steelers could once again lead the NFL in sacks. The remainder of Pittsburgh’s edge defenders are all fairly unproven. Olasunkanmi Adeniyi has played just 71 career snaps and Alex Highsmith and James Lockhart are both just rookies. Highsmith was one of the smoothest moving EDGE’s at the 2020 NFL Combine and is coming off of a senior season at Charlotte that saw him finish third in the NCAA with 15.0 sacks. The Steelers group of edge defenders is just a little behind the Browns but both are amongst the best in the NFL.
The Bengals defensive line, as a whole, is improving fast. Led by Carlos Dunlap, Cincinnati’s pass rush is going to have a decent amount of success in 2020. They finished 2019 with the seventh least sacks, and eight least pressures but still have a decent amount of talent in house. Dunlap is as consistent as they come — registering 7.5+ sacks and 21+ quarterback hits in seven straight seasons. Sam Hubbard could also be considered a sleeper to break out on the edge, after his 76 tackle and 8.5 sack campaign in 2019. A healthy Carl Lawson also has the potential to hit double-digit sacks after having 5.0+ sacks and 21+ quarterback hits In two of his first three seasons as a pro. Andrew Brown and Khalid Kareem are the youth on the team, looking to establish themselves as regulars in the lineup.
Baltimore has needed help on the edge for a while now but is still hanging on to enough decent players to keep their pass rush formidable. With the way that defensive coordinator Don Martindale dials up blitz pressures (54.9% of the time), all of their edges get a chance to get to the quarterback. Matt Judon is the only Pro Bowl-caliber outside linebacker on the team but they have other younger contributors as well. Jaylon Ferguson and Tyus Bowser both took steps forward in 2019 and will be looking to break out in 2020 the way so many other Ravens pass rushers have before them. Pernell McPhee is the veteran of the group and was having a decent amount of success before going down with an injury early in last season. The 31-year-old recorded three sacks, six quarterback hits, and seven tackles for loss in his seven games last season. Baltimore being ranked last here is a testament to how good the EDGE’s are in the North.
The Best: Pittsburgh Steelers
The Rest: Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns
The AFC North is really not the division to look at if you’re looking for elite interior linebacker play, but the Steelers get the crown by default. Devin Bush’s style of speed and power has him looking like a player with multiple Pro Bowls in his future. He finished his rookie season with 109 total tackles, nine tackles for loss, and three turnovers forced (two interceptions and one forced fumble). His partner, Vince Williams, has been consistent enough as a starter over his seven-year Steelers career to be considered a safe second starter. Ulysees Gilbert and Robert Spillane will be asked to fill out the unit and try and replace the 82 tackles Mark Barron made in 2019.
The Ravens linebackers this year are a bit of a mystery, but if history is any indicator, Patrick Queen is going to be a very good player. Ray Lewis and C.J. Mosley are the only other two inside linebackers that the Ravens have drafted in the first round and both have been named All-Pros multiple times. Queen was considered one of the best value picks of the draft and will team up with fellow rookie, and training camp standout, Malik Harrison, and L.J. Fort to fortify the middle of the field. Harrison is coming off of a stellar season for the NCAA’s top-ranked defense at Ohio State while Fort is the journeyman veteran of the group. Otaro Alaka and Chris Board will battle for the final roster spot. Both have very limited NFL experience as of now.
Cincinnati’s linebacking corps is a mish-mash of sorts going into 2020. Second-year player Germaine Pratt is the only returning starter on the unit. Pratt had a rough rookie season, not really excelling as a run or pass defender but he is still just 24 years old and has time for improvement. Josh Bynes will likely make the biggest impact of the Bengals’s new signings in the middle. Bynes had a career season with the Ravens in 2019. His colorful stat line of 46 tackles, six tackles for loss, four pass defenses, and two interceptions led to a career-high PFF grade of 76.6. Jordan Evans will be the primary backup behind the two starters. His defensive snap percentage heavily dropped in 2019 from 510 the season prior to 76 last year. Rookies Logan Wilson and Akeem Davis-Gaither should provide fun competition at the position in their first years.
Between Mack Wilson’s knee injury, a Malcolm Smith that has been losing snaps every year for the past three seasons, and two young depth pieces in Sione Takitaki and Jacob Phillips, the Browns have a lot of questions at linebacker. This might be okay if the Browns were better last year but their 30th-ranked run defense from 2019 is reason enough to look at their linebacking room and have some concerns. Wilson would’ve likely been the centerpiece of the unit and there isn’t a lot of quality in-house to fill his spot. Fifth-year player B.J. Goodson could also have a chance of grabbing starting time seeing as he has made 29 starts over the past three seasons for various teams. There are a lot more questions for Cleveland at linebacker than answers and they will likely feel the loss of Joe Schobert in a big way next season.
The Best: Baltimore Ravens
The Rest: Pittsburgh Steelers, Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns
This is probably the most slam dunk ranking amongst the positions in the division. The Ravens have not only the best cornerback duo in the division, but perhaps in the NFL. 2019 All-Pros Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters headline a unit that is widely considered one of the deepest units at any position in the league. Behind Humphrey and Peters, Jimmy Smith will be entering his 10th year as a Raven and though he just turned 32, is still a valuable rotational piece that any team would love to have. The Ravens will also be hoping for big things in 2020 from slot corner Tavon Young after he became the highest-paid slot corner in the NFL during the 2019 off-season. Anthony Averett will once again be the fifth-man in the rotation due to the early injury to Iman Marshall.
The Steelers corners have heavily benefited in recent years by having a particularly strong front-seven but in 2019, their unit took a surprising step forward. Steven Nelson could be turning into one of the more-reliable number-one corners in the NFL, recording a 50% completion percentage in coverage and a 65.8 quarterback rating when targeted in 2019. Joe Haden also had a small resurgence of sorts last season allowing just 5.9 yards per target. The depth behind their two outside corners is a little more scattered in quality. Mike Hilton had a career-high 11 pass defenses last year but allowed a lackluster 84.8 quarterback rating when targeted. Cameron Sutton was the most successful of the depth options, registering an overall grade of 74.5 per PFF during a strong 2019 campaign— second-highest amongst Steelers corners. Justin Layne is yet to play a defensive snap in the NFL but should have an expanded role in 2020.
Many corners on the Browns have received very little attention over the past two seasons, but Denzel Ward continues to stick out. Ward is best known for his incredibly strong first few games as a rookie in 2018 but had a solid 2019 as well — improving both his completion percentage (48.2%) and passer rating (62.2) when targeted. Greedy Williams will now be entering his second year as Wards outside-running mate and will hope to improve on an underwhelming rookie season. Outside of the starting two, the Browns corner group features a number of new signings including Terrance Mitchell and Kevin Johnson — both players that have never quite been consistent enough stick with one team. The inexperienced Robert Jackson and Donnie Lewis should fill out the depth chart. Cleveland’s unit is currently Ward and a bunch of other unproven guys buying for playing time.
Cincinnati is a team that has seen some good corner play in recent years but they finished 2-14 last season for a reason. Everyone played poorly. William Jackson III, the team’s shutdown outside corner, had a career-worst season and now with Mackensie Alexander’s arrest potentially taking him away from the team for an uncertain amount of time, there are a lot of questions with the Bengals corners. Trae Waynes has signed from the Minnesota Vikings this past off-season but he isn’t the type of player to completely change a defense. He’s still a solid depth piece at the nickel. Darius Phillips was a pleasant surprise in 2019, allowing just six completions and grabbing four interceptions on the 16 targets he saw. A number of players will battle for the last few spots. The Bengals are a bit of a wildcard on the team.
The Best: Baltimore Ravens
The Rest: Pittsburgh Steelers, Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns
If you had been reporting on the Ravens safeties just a few months ago, they would hands-down be the superior group in the division. However, with the release of one of the best safeties in the NFL in Earl Thomas, safety is suddenly a question mark for Baltimore. Chuck Clark could be one of the breakout stars of 2020 after an incredibly successful under the radar season in 2019 but the Ravens now need to find someone to play beside him. DeShon Elliott is the popular candidate. He’s a big favorite of the Ravens after having consistent success whenever he’s been on the field. The problem is that injuries have limited him to just six games over his first two seasons. Jordan Richards and rookie Geno Stone will now look to fill the backup roles. Jimmy Smith is also a dark horse to take snaps at safety in 2019.
The Steelers, like the Ravens, are currently anchored around one centerpiece and then have questions throughout the group. 2019 All-Pro Minkah Fitzpatrick found his footing, in a big way, in his sophomore season and could be turning into one of the best playmaking safeties in the NFL. Fitzpatrick notched an impressive five interceptions and one forced fumble in the 14 games he played as a Steeler last season. Outside of Fitzpatrick, the options are a little less dependable. Starting strong safety Terrell Edmunds allowed a rough 72.0 completion percentage in coverage as well as a 131.6 passer rating when targeted. Behind their two starters, the other Steelers safeties are largely unproven. Curtis Riley could fill Edmunds role, while he could potentially a little time due to injury, but was a liability in coverage as well last season. Jordan Dangerfield led the other projected backups with six defensive snaps in 2019, and with Marcus Allen moving to linebacker, rookie Antoine Brooks will likely complete the group.
Behind a tandem of good safeties, the Bengals have had one of the more underrated secondaries in the NFL for a decent amount of time. However, last year was a year from hell for Cincinnati that saw a number of their key pieces take steps backward. The duo of free safety Jessie Bates and Shawn Williams makes safety maybe the biggest strength on the Bengals defense. Adding Von Bell also makes the unit deeper as well. As a team in 2019, Cincinnati didn’t have an awful passing defense either. They gave up the 12th most passing yards and gave up the 11th worst passer rating but the downfall of their team was their league-worst run defense. The safeties contribute to this as well and Bell and Williams will need to play a big part in improving this area of the team. Safety play should be a strength for the Bengals next season.
The Browns already had questions at safety and losing last year’s Thrope Award recipient, second-round pick Grant Delpit, adds even more uncertainty to the unit. New free agent additions strong safety Karl Joseph and free safety Andrew Sendejo will be the starters on the team while last-year rookie standout Sheldrick Redwine will likely see an expanded role after a good first season. Each is coming off relatively productive 2019’s where all of the three safeties recorded overall grades of 66.0 or better by PFF. JT Hassel and Elijah Benton should battle for the final roster spots. In short, the Cleveland safeties are a whole lot of new faces put together with the goal of improving an already decent passing defense. The Browns pass defense was actually a strength in 2019 and the safeties have a better track record between them and the corners.
The Best: Baltimore Ravens
The Rest: Cincinnati Bengals, Pittsburgh Steelers, Cleveland Browns
Since Harbaugh became the head coach of the Ravens, his team has been the picture of consistent special teams. It doesn’t hurt to have maybe the best kicker and punter duo in the NFL either. Justin Tucker is the most accurate kicker of all time and even in a down year (by his incredibly high standards), still missed just one of his 29 field goal attempts while drilling a league-high 57 extra points. Sam Koch on the other hand was far last busy. The Ravens had Koch punt a career-low 40 times in 2019 but he still had 21 punts within the 20-yard line. Where the Ravens special teams faltered last year was in the return game. While the Ravens defended most returns fairly well, they averaged the third-least kick return yards in the NFL. The search for a consistent return man, since the departure of Jacoby Jones, is still on in Baltimore.
Of the three stages in football, special teams might be the only area in which the Bengals weren’t awful last season. While Zac Taylor’s team wasn’t great, they were middle of the pack in a number of special teams categories. Kevin Huber was able to average a solid 45.3 yards per punt while finishing the year tied for seventh in punts downed within the 20. Randy Bullock had a decent year, converting 87.1% of his field-goal attempts and missing just one extra point. The Bengals excelled in the return game as well. Brandon Wilson and Darius Phillips contributed to Cincinnati finishing second in average yards per kick return (26). They were also one of just three teams to collect three kick returns of 40+ yards. The Bengals have a lot of weaknesses if last year is an indicator but special teams may be a relative strength.
The Steelers’ special teams might not be the strongest unit, but they’ll help keep the team on a straight path. They’re average to above average in most facets. The strongest part of their game was the punt return ability of rookie Diontae Johnson. Johnson helped the Steelers finish fourth in punt return yards while with his 12.4 yards per punt return —ranking first amongst players with more than 10 punt returns. This would be an even bigger deal if Pittsburgh’s 18.1 yards per kick return didn’t rank second-last in the league. The kicking and punting game is close to the middle of the road in both categories. Chris Boswell has been a very solid contributor and bounced back well last season after a severe down-year in 2018. The Steelers special teams quality is a little wonky but should be good enough in 2020 to not lose them games.
The Browns season didn’t go as they planned and their special teams performance echoed this by playing about as average as you can. Cleveland finished between 15th and 21st in each net punt average, punt return average, and kick return average. They did, however, finish fifth in kick return defense (20.4-yard return average) while forcing the second least touchbacks in the league. The main pieces of their special team’s core are young as well. 2019 Both Austin Seibert and Jamie Gillan are each 23 years old and could become key pieces to the Browns special teams for a long time. Seibert hit over 85% of his field goals and extra points. Gillan finished 12th in average yards per punt. Cleveland’s special teams haven’t been flashy but they have the potential to improve over the next season.
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