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 breakdown of each AFC North offense position group. The breakdown will contain “the best” at each unit followed by “the rest” in descending order.
2023 AFC North Offense Breakdown by Position
The Best: Cincinnati Bengals
The Rest: Baltimore Ravens, Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh Steelers
The AFC North is arguably the best division in the NFL. Having a top-tier quarterback is a must if you want to, at minimum, win the division. Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow is currently the best in class by almost leading the Bengals to consecutive Super Bowl appearances. Burrow has all the traits you look for in a franchise quarterback. He’s smart, tough, hardworking, talented, and a true leader on and off the field. The division will always be in play for the Bengals to win as long as Burrow is at the helm.
Lamar Jackson has been injured the last two seasons and is still very close to Burrow for the top spot when completely healthy. Look for Jackson to rebound nicely from his injury-plagued 2022 and possibly have some of his MVP magic under new offensive coordinator Todd Monken.
Deshaun Watson struggled mightily last season, stemming from his legal troubles, and lack of reps. Much like Jackson, Watson should put a better product on the field in 2023 in hopes of returning to his form with the Houston Texans.
Rounding out the quarterback list in the AFC North is sophomore Kenny Pickett. The Steelers offense seemed lost at times with Matt Canada calling the plays. Pickett started his rookie campaign very slowly but rebounded nicely down the stretch winning seven of his last nine starts to match seven touchdowns to nine interceptions and 2400 yards passing. Look for Pickett to take a big jump this season and nip at the heels of Watson and Jackson.
The Best: Pittsburgh Steelers
The Rest: Baltimore Ravens, Cleveland Browns, Cincinnati Bengals
The Steelers lead us off in the running back rankings and have one of the top one-two punches in the NFL in Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren. The usage of both backs will be interesting this season with Pittsburgh looking to air it out more and be more dynamic in the passing game. As the weather turns though, both backs will see plenty of carries to extend drives and wear down opposing defenses.
Baltimore has a sneaky running back duo of its own in the form of J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards. The big question is, can they both stay healthy throughout the season? If so, this tandem adds another layer to worry about when playing the Ravens when also accounting for Jackson and his ability to create outside of structure.
Everyone knows about how special the Browns Nick Chubb is. He’s been a dominant force since he entered the league in 2018, rushing for over 6300 yards with 48 touchdowns. Behind him is Jerome Ford who is limited right now with a hamstring injury, and Demetric Felton Jr. Chubb is a huge part of Cleveland’s offense and with the depth thin behind, they can ill afford to lose him for an extended period if they want to make the playoffs in 2023.
The Bengals have a known commodity in Joe Mixon but behind him remains somewhat of a mystery. Fifth-year player Traveon Williams is nursing a sprained ankle, and backups Chris Evans and recently drafted Chase Brown are still being evaluated by the coaches. With the Bengals heavy usage of the passing game, the running backs sometimes take a back seat. It’s still very important in the rugged AFC North, and Williams should play an important role as the third-down back.
The Best: Cincinnati Bengals
The Rest: Pittsburgh Steelers, Baltimore Ravens, Cleveland Browns
The three-headed monster of Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, and Tyler Boyd are the NFL’s best. The Bengals are looking to re-sign Higgins as he provides a valuable skill set that balances that of Chase and Boyd. Even though Boyd is the elder of the group, he still seems to have plenty of juice left in the tank at what will be his age 29 season. When this trio is firing on all cylinders they are almost unstoppable.
Second-year player George Pickens and veteran Diontae Johnson are a solid duo for the Steelers. Throw in newcomer Allen Robinson II and you have a handful on game day. Pittsburgh should be looking to throw downfield more this season and their wide receiving corps will be the beneficiaries in giving the Steelers a more well-balanced attack.
The Ravens have seemingly been looking for quality receivers for many years. This season they bring in Odell Beckham Jr. and drafted Zay Jones out of Boston College at pick 22 overall. Rounding out their starting wide receiver group is Rashod Bateman who has dealt with injuries since he was drafted in 2021. If healthy, this unit will provide problems for opposing defenses when also having to consider the running prowess of Jackson.
Amari Cooper is the Browns best wide receiver and does most of the heavy lifting. The Browns placed a large bet on Elijah Moore when they traded with the Jets this offseason. Even though he’s looked good in camp, Moore still can’t shake the injury bug that has followed him since he entered the league. The final piece of the Browns receiver puzzle is Donovan Peoples-Jones. He’s been a mixed bag for Cleveland through three seasons and still seems to be an unknown commodity.
The Best: Baltimore Ravens
The Rest: Pittsburgh Steelers, Cleveland Browns, Cincinnati Bengals
The Ravens All-Pro Mark Andrews carries the flag for the tight end group. He has a strong supporting cast of Isiah Likely and recently drafted Charlie Kolar. This is an overall strong group that’s well-suited for the AFC North.
Pat Friermuth, Zach Gentry, Connor Heyward, and the man mountain of Darnell Washington comprise the Steelers tight ends. They are nipping at the heels of Baltimore for the top spot as Washington remains the wildcard for Pittsburgh. His development this season will be interesting to watch as he’s shown well in camp and preseason games.
Cleveland has a very good tight end in David Njoku and then a bunch of lesser-known players in Jordan Akins and Harrison Bryant. The Browns using Njoku mostly in the passing game but his run-blocking is above average in opening holes for Chubb and company.
To no surprise, the team that uses tight ends the least in the NFL. is last in the AFC North rankings. The headliner for the Bengals is recently acquired Irv Smith from Minnesota who’s been as advertised since arriving in Cincinnati. Veteran Drew Sample returns for his fifth season and is primarily used as a blocking tight end.
The Best: Cleveland Browns
The Rest: Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, Pittsburgh Steelers
The Browns boast one of the best offensive lines under longtime coach Bill Callahan. The bookends of Jedrick Willis Jr. and Jack Conklin are as good as they come. Throw in fourth-rounder Dawand Jones and the depth of riches only increases. Cleveland should be once again at the top of the class for OL rankings.
The Ravens have very good bookends of their own in Ronnie Stanley and Morgan Moses. Second-year player Tyler Linderbaum had a plus rookie season at center, and veteran guard Kevin Zeitler is a consistent presence along their line.
Poor offensive line play has ended the Bengals season for two consecutive years. They went all-in to protect Burrow when they signed Orlando Brown Jr. to protect the blindside. Former left tackle Jonah Williams moves to the right side and has drawn rave reviews in camp thus far. If this unit can just be average the Bengals have a good chance to return to the Super Bowl.
The Steelers offensive line is still a work in progress and they drafted Broderick Jones 14th overall to be their left tackle of the future. Jones is currently running with the second-team behind Dan Moore Jr. and this should be expected to help protect Kenny Pickett. James Daniels does well at right guard but the rest leaves much to be desired. Pittsburgh’s playoff hopes ride on the ability of this group to dramatically improve.
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