With some training camps already underway and the rest soon to kick off, it’s time to look towards the 2021 season. As we continue to highlight some of the best players in each division, this installment will focus on the 2021 AFC North defense. The division has historically been known for its tough defenses. 2021 will be no different, especially along the defensive line and in the secondary. There is a lot of talent on the defensive side of the football in this division. We previously highlighted the AFC North all-offense team.
2021 AFC North All-Division Team: The Defense
Defensive Tackle: Cameron Heyward, Pittsburgh Steelers
Cameron Heyward has had a spot on this list for half of a decade now, and that doesn’t seem ready to change anytime soon. There are a few interior defensive linemen in the discussion for “second best defensive lineman in the NFL,” and Heyward is one of them. He has been selected as an All-Pro three out of the past four years (first-team 2x), and has been a Pro Bowler each of those four years. Heyward might have the best bull-rush in the league, and his pure strength makes him a force at the position. Entering year 11, Heyward has shown no signs of slowing down at age 32. Eventually he will, but for now, he’s still the best defensive lineman in the AFC North.
Defensive Tackle: Stephon Tuitt, Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers elite defensive tackle duo is also the division’s defensive tackle duo. While Heyward still has the crown of the division’s best, there’s certainly a strong argument that Tuitt had the better 2020 campaign. His 11 sacks were by far the most of any defensive lineman in the division. Tuitt also recorded 25 quarterback hits in 2020 which was a career high. As a pass rusher, he shined over Heyward and all other defensive linemen in the division. He’s strong against the run, too, and overall a very good player. The Steelers defensive front will be among the NFL’s best again in 2021, and the duo of Tuitt and Heyward will be a big reason why.
Edge Rusher: Myles Garrett, Cleveland Browns
There’s a minimal chance that you’ll find a division with a better pair of edge rushers than the AFC North. He doesn’t have the stats of the other guy we’ll get to, but the absolute force known as Myles Garrett kicks us off. Garrett has been one of the league’s premier defensive players for the past three seasons. Twice a Pro Bowler and once an All-Pro, Garrett gets better every year. If his 2019 season wasn’t cut short due to his decision to hit Mason Rudolph in the head with a helmet, Garrett would likely have three Pro Bowl and two All-Pro selections. At his best, there’s a strong argument to be made that Garrett is the NFL’s best pass rusher. Without him, the Browns defense would be a lot less intimidating.
Edge Rusher: T.J. Watt, Pittsburgh Steelers
The AFC North just so happens to have both first-team All-Pro edge rushers from 2020. If you don’t think he’s the league’s most talented pass rusher, fine. But T.J. Watt has undeniably been the most productive pass rusher in the NFL over the past two seasons. In 2019, he led the NFL in forced fumbles and was fourth in sacks en route to a first-team All-Pro selection and a third place finish in the Defensive Player of the Year voting. Last year, he led the NFL in sacks (15) and tackles for loss (23) while earning another first-team All-Pro and placing second in DPOY voting. His production has been unmatched over the past two seasons. All-Pro selections and DPOY contention are now the expectation for Watt, and expect him to deliver again in 2021.
Linebacker: Devin Bush, Pittsburgh Steelers
Unaligned with the history of the division, the current AFC North does not featured many noteworthy linebackers. There’s certainly some young talent, but there’s no Ray Lewis or Jack Ham, that’s for sure. Devin Bush of the Steelers claims one of the two spots. Entering his third season, the young linebacker will have a lot on his plate in the Steelers defense. Before going down to a torn ACL, Bush was having a strong season in 2021. As long as he’s healthy, he’ll rack up a pile of tackles simply due to the volume of snaps he’ll see and responsibilities he’ll have. Bush should keep improving in pass coverage, a skill the Steelers linebackers have lacked since Ryan Shazier’s unfortunate injury. When fully recovered from his injury, Bush should serve as the anchor on an elite Steelers defense.
Linebacker: Patrick Queen, Baltimore Ravens
Patrick Queen’s rookie year got off to a strong start in 2020, but he slowed down a bit over the course of the season. His 106 total tackles were impressive for a rookie, but his pass coverage left some to be desired. He played 80% of Baltimore’s snaps and that number will likely increase in 2021. In that case, there’s no reason to not expect improvement from Queen. 2020 was a weird year for rookies across the board. As he gets more acclimated to life in the NFL and keeps learning the Ravens defense, his performance will keep improving. Like Bush, he will likely rack up numbers because he’s asked to play and do a lot on Baltimore’s defense.
Cornerback: Marlon Humphrey, Baltimore Ravens
The cornerback group in the AFC North is a solid one. Starting off the list is Marlon Humphrey who has been among the league’s best the past two seasons. He has been a Pro Bowler each of the past two years to go with his 2019 first-team All-Pro selection. Humphrey is very strong in coverage, but he doesn’t have a high interception total- just four over the past two seasons. However, he makes up for the lack of interceptions with the amount of fumbles he forces. His eight forced fumbles in 2020 led the NFL, which is absurd for a cornerback. He has one of the best punches that we’ve ever seen. Overall, Humphrey is an elite cornerback thanks in large part to his physicality.
Cornerback: Denzel Ward, Cleveland Browns
Denzel Ward is probably the best cornerback in the division. Like Humphrey, he’s among the best in the league. Also like Humphrey, Ward doesn’t total many interceptions, with just four combined over the past two years. However, Ward has the edge over Humphrey in pass coverage. In each of the past two seasons, Ward has allowed a lower completion percentage and passer rating when targeted than Humphrey. There’s a lot of talent in the Browns secondary and Ward stands out as the best. Having a lockdown cornerback on one side of the defense is a recipe for success in today’s NFL.
Cornerback: Marcus Peters, Baltimore Ravens
After an up-and-down start to his NFL career, Marcus Peters seems to have finally settled in with the Ravens. When Peters came over from Los Angeles to Baltimore in 2019, his level of play skyrocketed immediately. He was so good that he earned his second career All-Pro selection. Last year, despite not scoring any accolades, Peters was still solid in coverage. Due to playing across from Humphrey, Peters gets targeted plenty which provides opportunities to make plays. His four interceptions last year speak to his ability to be a playmaker when he has the chance to do so. He has been a playmaker for most of his career. Even when his coverage isn’t top tier, Peters always has big play potential.
Safety: Minkah Fitzpatrick, Pittsburgh Steelers
The fifth and final Steeler on this list makes a strong case as the best safety in the NFL. Since being traded to the Steelers early in the 2019 season, Fitzpatrick has been nothing short of excellent. His playmaking ability is absurd. On just 25 targets in 2020 (!!), Fitzpatrick still managed to record four interceptions, a forced fumble, and a defensive touchdown. In 2019, Fitzpatrick played 14 games with the Steelers, in which he was targeted 25 times and totaled five interceptions, a forced fumble, two fumble recoveries, and a 96-yard touchdown. He earned a first-team All-Pro selection in each season. Quarterbacks try not to look Fitzpatrick’s way, but when they do, they often regret it. His unique combination of football IQ, athleticism, and ball-hawk abilities make Fitzpatrick one of the top young defensive talents in the NFL.
Safety: Jessie Bates III, Cincinnati Bengals
The Bengals need some representation on defense and they have quite the talent in Jessie Bates. A real defense would need a strong safety, in which case Ronnie Harrison of the Browns would be the choice. But Bates is such a great talent that we can make an exception for him here. One of the most underrated players in the entire NFL, Bates is a perfect example of a “center field” type of safety. He has true sideline-to-sideline coverage abilities. His coverage numbers are similar to those of Fitzpatrick, though he has forced less turnovers on more targets. Still, it’s hard to find much wrong with Bates’ game. He was a second-team All-Pro in 2020 and at just 24 years of age, there are more accolades coming in his future. The AFC North might be home to the two best free safeties in the NFL, so one of them could make it work at strong safety.
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