Ahead of the start of the 2020 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 AFC North offenses. The breakdown will contain “the best” at each unit followed by “the rest” in descending order.
2020 AFC North Breakdown by Position: The Offense
The best: Baltimore Ravens
The rest: Pittsburgh Steelers, Cleveland Browns, Cincinnati Bengals
There’s not much debate about which team in the AFC North has the best quarterbacks because of two words: Lamar Jackson. The 2019 unanimous MVP took the league by storm. His athletic tools make him so hard for opposing defenses to plan for. He’ll beat you with his legs or he’ll beat you with his arm. Many will knock Jackson’s throwing ability, but most of those criticisms aren’t warranted. His arm talent might not be the best in the league, but he’s still a very good passer. The big hump remaining for Jackson as he enters year three is getting a playoff win under his belt. If he does that, a lot of criticism will be silenced.
Many pundits are considering the Steelers quarterback position to be a bit of a question mark. Ben Roethlisberger is coming off season-ending elbow surgery at age 38. For that reason, his status as a very good quarterback entering 2020 will be questioned until proven otherwise. But his track record over his Hall of Fame career speaks for itself. He’s working with a young receiver group that’s full of talent and an offensive line unit that’s still towards the top of the league. Based on all training camp footage, Roethlisberger is fully healthy and there should be no doubts surrounding his arm entering the season. If that’s the case, there’s no reason to assume he won’t have a good season.
The Browns come in third at the quarterback position due to Baker Mayfield‘s major struggles last year. As we saw during his rookie season, Mayfield can be a really good NFL quarterback. But last year, we just didn’t see it. The Browns had loads of talent on the offensive side of the ball last year but Mayfield still had all kinds of issues. Cleveland’s offensive line should be better this year thanks to some crucial additions. That will help Mayfield, but being on his third coach in three years won’t do him any good. If the team can finally get clicking and play the way they are capable of, Mayfield could have a good year. But his mechanical issues mixed in with the Browns coaching and management turnover, there are still factors working against him.
Cincinnati comes in at fourth more as a question mark than a bad sign. It’s always tough for rookie quarterbacks in the NFL, and this crazy off-season won’t do Joe Burrow any favors. The talent is absolutely there for him; he’s probably a better quarterback than Mayfield. But the Bengals have a very bad offensive line, which will work against Burrow. If a certain Bengals receiver can stay healthy, they will have a solid plethora of weapons for Burrow to throw to. For now, though, it’s hard to have a good grasp of what to expect out of Burrow. Since this is meant to be a ranking of depth, the backup quarterbacks came into play here. Case Keenum of the Browns is the best backup quarterback in the AFC North. Ryan Finley… not so much.
The best: Cleveland Browns
The rest: Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, Pittsburgh Steelers
Man, what a running back tandem they have in Cleveland. Nick Chubb is one of the best running backs in the NFL. The NFL’s second-leading rusher from 2019 will look to put together another solid campaign in 2020. Kareem Hunt‘s presence might take some touches away from Chubb, though. Hunt racked up 80 touches in just eight games with the Browns last year, so he will play a crucial part in their offense again. He is especially important in their passing game. No matter which way the touches are split up, this is probably the best running back tandem in the NFL. In their first full season together, they will be a pain in the neck of AFC North defensive coordinators.
While their quarterback was their leading rusher in 2019, the Ravens still have a very solid group of running backs entering 2020. Mark Ingram eclipsed 1,000 yards last year and had 10+ touchdowns for the second time in his career. He will be joined by J.K. Dobbins, who many thought was the best running back in the 2020 draft class. His big-play potential will be welcomed with open arms to an offense with numerous big-play threats. And you won’t find many third-string running backs who are better than Gus Edwards. Baltimore is anything but low on options at running back.
Cincinnati comes in at third on the list, with Joe Mixon potentially keeping them out of the basement. Mixon is the team’s workhorse, as he averaged just shy of 20 touches per game in 2019. By no means is he a bad receiver; he’s a good weapon out of the backfield. But Mixon does his best work when running the football. He’s a nightmare to bring down, with his 24 broken tackles last year to vouch for that. Joining Mixon in Cincinnati’s running back room is the veteran Giovani Bernard. Once one of the best receiving running backs in the game, Bernard’s production took a hit last year, averaging just over five touches per game. But the elusive back is still a nice weapon to have.
The Steelers actually have a decent rotation built up in their backfield. What’s keeping them from being higher on this list is their lack of a true featured back like the rest of the AFC North teams have. James Conner is the closest thing they have to a three-down back. He’s a good runner, receiver, and pass blocker, but his biggest issue has been durability. When he’s on the field, he’s an underrated player. Benny Snell is the team’s best runner but offers very little in the passing game. Rookie Anthony McFarland will provide a home run threat that the team has been lacking in the past few years.
The best: Cleveland Browns
The rest: Pittsburgh Steelers, Cincinnati Bengals, Baltimore Ravens
As previously mentioned, the Browns are loaded with talent on the offensive side of the ball. Their wide receiver trio of Odell Beckham Jr., Jarvis Landry, and Rashard Higgins is among the best trios in the league. Donovan Peoples-Jones was a late pickup in the draft who adds even more talent to this group. The question with this group, like last year, is whether or not the production will match the talent level. That will again fall partially on Baker Mayfield and the offensive line. But leaving statistics out of the discussion, this is easily the most talented wide receiver group in the AFC North. It’s not even close.
Their stats from last year won’t show it, but the Steelers sneakily have a very good group of receivers. It’s a young group, too. Their top four wide receivers are JuJu Smith-Schuster, Diontae Johnson, James Washington, and rookie Chase Claypool. Their ages are 23, 24, 24, and 22, respectively. Smith-Schuster battled through injuries and poor quarterback play and had a down year last season. Johnson and Washington played very well despite the level of quarterback play the team had. With Roethlisberger back, the assumption is that all three of those guys will be better than last year. Throw in Claypool, a physical freak who will be a great deep and red zone threat, and this group of receivers could be in for a big year.
Cincinnati has a pretty good group of receivers, but their biggest concern is health. A.J. Green, one of the two best receivers in franchise history, missed the whole 2019 season after playing just nine games in 2018. We all know how good he is when healthy, we just haven’t seen him healthy for a long time. At 32 years old, who knows what’s ahead for Green. Tyler Boyd is a good number two to Green and played very well as the team’s number one last year. The addition of Tee Higgins through the draft will be a big help, especially if Green isn’t healthy. Speedster John Ross is another weapon for rookie quarterback Joe Burrow, but Ross has also had an injury-riddled career so far.
Finally, there are the Ravens. Despite having the most productive offense in the division, they have by far the worst group of receivers in the AFC North. Marquise Brown had a good rookie year and definitely put his speed to good use. “Hollywood” came into the league undersized, and put on a lot of muscle this off-season. If his speed doesn’t take a step back due to the added weight, Brown could be in for a big year as Lamar Jackson‘s favorite receiver. Willie Snead being the team’s number two is all you need to know about their depth at the position. He had just 339 yards last year and five touchdowns. Joining Brown and Snead are Miles Boykin and rookies Devin Duvernay and James Proche. It’s no wonder Jackson likes to throw to his tight ends.
The best: Cleveland Browns
The rest: Baltimore Ravens, Pittsburgh Steelers, Cincinnati Bengals
Continuing their streak of top-ranked offensive units, the Browns come in at number one among tight ends. The addition of Austin Hooper this off-season was a big one. He was among the league’s best tight ends in 2019. Hooper’s 75 receptions ranked him fifth among tight ends, 787 yards was good for sixth, and six touchdowns tied him for fourth. He was a Pro Bowl selection each of the past two years in Atlanta, and his production has improved each of his four years in the league. If the trend continues, he will once again be among the league leaders at the tight end position. David Njoku, the Browns other tight end, is a good number two to have from a talent perspective. He spent 2019 battling injuries and only appeared in four games. There was uncertainty surrounding his future in Cleveland, but it appears he will be a Brown this year. If he’s able to stay healthy, he and Hooper will form a very dangerous tight end duo.
Coming in a close second in the AFC North at the tight end position is the Ravens. Last year, they easily had the best tight end group in the division, and arguably the league. Mark Andrews emerged seemingly out of nowhere to be one of the best tight ends in the NFL last season. His 64 receptions, 852 yards, and 10 touchdowns earned him a Pro Bowl nod. With Hayden Hurst out of the picture this season, that will funnel more snaps and targets to Andrews. Joining Andrews is Nick Boyle. He was the team’s number three last year but is more than capable of being their number two tight end. He’s a solid blocker, has reliable hands, and broke the 10 yards per reception mark for the first time in his career last year. Andrews at Boyle will be a nice one-two punch for the Ravens at tight end, and we know Jackson will be happy to give them a fair share of targets.
Pittsburgh’s addition of Eric Ebron in the off-season should provide them with much-needed depth at the tight end position. Despite playing in 14 games and almost 70 percent of the team’s snaps last year, Vance McDonald can’t be relied on to play so many snaps. Last year, his production took a hit. Part of that was due to the absence of Roethlisberger, but part of it was also due to McDonald being banged up a lot. With Ebron in the picture, McDonald won’t be tasked with playing as many snaps and should be more productive and healthy when he’s on the field. When they’re playing together, these two will form a solid duo. What Ebron lacks as a blocker, McDonald more than makes up for in that area. As a receiver, Ebron will provide the team with a red zone target and a presence over the middle of the field, two areas in which they had major struggles in 2019.
This one might be the easiest decision so far on these rankings. The Bengals don’t have much to offer at the tight end position. After losing Tyler Eifert in the off-season, they are left with C.J. Uzomah and Drew Sample. Cincinnati might have high hopes for Sample, who was a second-round selection in the 2019 draft. But last year, he only had five receptions and played just 108 snaps on offense. Uzomah doesn’t have a ton to offer as a receiving threat, either. He racked up 242 yards last year on 27 receptions with two touchdowns. Both of these guys are better as run blockers than they are as receivers. This might be a good thing considering the state of the Bengals offensive line. But in terms of giving Joe Burrow an extra weapon to use, don’t expect much out of the tight end position.
The best: Baltimore Ravens
The rest: Pittsburgh Steelers, Cleveland Browns, Cincinnati Bengals
It’s an impressive feat for the Ravens to sport the best offensive line in the AFC North after losing Hall of Famer Marshal Yanda to retirement. The big standout on Baltimore’s offensive line is left tackle Ronnie Stanley. He was one of the best linemen in the entire NFL last season, earning himself first-team All-Pro honors. Across from Stanley at right tackle is Orlando Brown Jr., who earned a Pro Bowl selection while playing every snap in 2019, his second NFL season. His continued improvement will be crucial for the development of this offensive line. Matt Skura played very well at center last year before going down with a knee injury. He will resume his center duties this year. Bradley Bozeman played every snap at left guard last year and played well. Veteran D.J. Fluker will have the tough task of attempting to replace Yanda. The Ravens added depth in the draft too, as they picked up Tyre Phillips and Ben Bredeson.
The Steelers are also tasked with replacing a long-time starting guard this year. Ramon Foster had a strong career in the Black and Gold. It will be Matt Feiler moving into left guard from right tackle. Feiler played well in one game at left guard last season. Of course, the Steelers have perennial Pro Bowl candidates Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro filling out the rest of the interior offensive line. DeCastro still seems to be at his best, while Pouncey is still very good despite maybe taking a small step back. Alejandro Villanueva is a common scapegoat among Steelers fans, but he continues to play well at the left tackle position. The question mark on this offensive line is the right tackle. It will either be Zach Banner or Chukwuma Okorafor, two guys with very limited experience. They’re both more than capable of starting, but entering the season, the right tackle position will likely be the weak link.
One of the biggest letdowns for the Browns last year was their offensive line play, especially their tackles. The team made protection for Baker Mayfield a top priority in the off-season. They signed former All-Pro Jack Conklin to a three year, $42 million deal to be their right tackle. Protecting Mayfield’s blindside will be rookie Jedrick Wills. Cleveland invested their number 10 overall pick on Wills in the 2019 draft, so they obviously have high expectations for him. Joel Bitonio will continue to be a key piece to the Browns offensive line at the left guard position. J.C. Tretter will handle the center position, another guy who has been solid despite not getting much attention. The question mark here is right guard Wyatt Teller, who has struggled especially as a run blocker so far. Overall, the Browns have enough talent to potentially slide ahead of the Steelers by the end of the year. But, due to having two new tackles, a new head coach, and a shortened off-season, there could be some growing pains at first.
Cincinnati’s offensive line unit is among the worst in the league and is definitely the worst in the AFC North. Their savior could be left tackle Jonah Williams, who missed his entire rookie season after being the 11th overall pick in the 2019 draft. Still, Williams is just one player, and there isn’t much else around him. The Bengals right tackle will be Bobby Hart, who had a pretty bad year in 2019 and consistently got beat by opposing pass rushers. Trey Hopkins, the team’s center, is probably their second-best offensive lineman, but he is nothing more than average. Michael Jordan, Xavier Su’a-Filo, and Billy Price will be competing for the two guard positions. While he has some weapons around him, Joe Burrow might struggle as a rookie, and most of those struggles will likely stem from poor offensive line play.