The 2020 NFL Draft has come and gone, and we’re all floating through the abyss that is the extended NFL dead season.
Thanks, China. Appreciate the Coronavirus.
Although there’s nothing going on in the NFL world, the work at Draft Rite never stops. As such, we’re going to take a semi-in-depth look at how the AFC North, a division absolutely dominated by the Baltimore Ravens in 2019, has changed. Is it tougher? Are the Ravens still the clear-cut top team?
Let’s dig in. We’ll go by record.
Baltimore Ravens – 2019 Record: 14-2
Key Departures: Marshal Yanda (retired), Michael Pierce (FA to Vikings), Hayden Hurst (traded to Atlanta).
The Ravens ran – pun intended – all over just about everybody in 2019. Thanks to a dominant run game and much-improved Lamar Jackson, they seemed destined to go all the way to the Super Bowl, until their hopes were derailed by a leaky run defense in the Divisional Round of the playoffs.
Eric DeCosta clearly identified the run defense (as well as the pass rush) as a problem, adding guys like Calais Campbell (for a fifth) and Derek Wolfe through trade and free agency while reacquiring draft capital by trading tight end Hayden Hurst. He continued to address a defense that wasn’t quite elite by adding Patrick Queen and Malik Harrison to his linebacker room – a room that was led by L.J. Fort and Joshua Bynes in 2019 – while beefing up his defensive line even more with guys like Justin Madubuike in the draft.
The defense wasn’t the only thing that got strengthened.
The Ravens led the league in rushing by a fair margin (they also broke the NFL All-Time Rushing Record), but that didn’t stop them from adding 2,000-yard rusher J.K. Dobbins to a group that already had Mark Ingram coming off of a career year, as well as downhill runner Gus Edwards and scatback Justice Hill – this isn’t even taking into account the phenom that is Lamar Jackson.
While pundits (myself included) surmised that the Ravens would try to add a big-bodied ‘X’ receiver in the draft, EDC continued to zag while everybody else zigs, adding Devin Duvernay and James Proche instead of guys like Tee Higgins, Michael Pittman, or Denzel Mims. While these guys are relatively unheralded when put up against the likes of the bigger guys, what they lack in size, they make up for in speed and insanely sure hands.
They didn’t let guys like Ben Powers, Bradley Bozeman, or Patrick Mekari rest comfortably either. They’re trying to fill the gaping void left by All-World Future Hall of Fame Guard Marshal Yanda by adding guys like D.J. Fluker through Free Agency, not to mention guys like Ben Bredeson and Tyre Phillips in the draft. A run-first team won’t have much success if they don’t have an offensive line that’s worth a heck.
The most underrated ‘stock up’ of their off-season is the fact that they didn’t lose a single integral coach from the staff. Greg Roman is still there. Wink Martindale is still there. John Harbaugh is still there. Even guys like David Culley, who has given fans hope of finally developing homegrown receiver talent – still there. Consistency is big in the NFL. It’s something that the Ravens haven’t had in a while – just ask Joe Flacco.
It’s hard to say that the Ravens will duplicate their dominant (regular) season in 2020, especially with no real off-season program to speak of. But I see no reason to crown anybody else Kings of the North at this point in the off-season. While I don’t think they win 14 games, I do think they’re a comfortably 11-12 win team, and I’m not sure any of the division rivals have done enough to derail that.
Expected 2020 Regular Season Victories: O/U 11.5
Pittsburgh Steelers – 2019 Record: 8-8
Key Departures: Javon Hargrave (FA to Eagles)
The Pitiful Steelers. That’s what the once-proud franchise often looked like in 2019, as they struggled to the very end, trying to make the postseason but ultimately failing. I promise I’m not enjoying this (I am).
All is not lost, yinzers – though it’s probably not enough to gain the number one spot in the division.
Big Ben Roethlisberger is coming back for the 2020 season, though it’s probably just a matter of time before he breaks a nail and is seen in the infamous walking boot. His weapons include guys like Juju Smith-Schuster (who proved he wasn’t a No. 1 receiver in 2019), Chase Claypool (Miles Boykin with a lower ceiling), and James Washington (intriguing). The Steelers have shown themselves to have the impressive ability to develop wide receivers, so fans should feel pretty comfortable with this trio.
At running back, there’s the oft-injured James Conner, the unimpressive Benny Snell, and now the new guy – Anthony McFarland out of Maryland. I jest, but that’s a good amount of talent to run behind that mauling offensive line in Pittsburgh – which lost Ramon Foster but gained developmental Kevin Dotson.
Here’s the thing: The Steelers had the 31st ranked passing game in the NFL last year, failing to break 300 yards in a game even once. You have to wonder how much of that was the shoddy play of the Reindeer and the Duck, and how much was just superior opponents.
The defense has less (I think?) question marks. T.J. Watt has quickly grown into one of the better pass-rushers in the league (insert Orlando Brown pancake gif here), and he has guys like Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt manhandling the middle of the line. Last year they added Devin Bush to their inside linebackers, so all-in-all, the Steelers are in a good spot on the first and second levels of their defense. Adding Alex Highsmith to that defensive line only strengthens that feeling. Carlos Davis is a nice developmental piece that could contribute in a year or two.
Not so much in the secondary. Yes, I know. Minkah Fitzpatrick. Golf clap. Joe Haden is getting old(er). Steven Nelson has never lived up to his Twitter handle of ‘Nelson Island’. Guys like Mike Hilton and first-round pick Terrell Edmunds don’t scare anybody. The Steelers have (outside of a few players, before anybody yells at me about Troy P.) historically been bad at drafting defensive backs. But hey, at least they didn’t reach this time, selecting Antoine Brooks out of Maryland at 198th overall. I like Brooks. I think he has a decent ceiling while not being much of a risk on the field as he stands right now. However, he doesn’t move the needle for me much as far as the Pittsburgh secondary goes right now.
As far as coaching, not much has changed. Mike Tomlin has never had a losing season in Pittsburgh, and unfortunately, I don’t think that changes in 2020.
Expected 2020 Regular Season Victories: O/U 9.5
Cleveland Browns – 2019 Record: 6-10
Key Departures: Christian Kirksey (FA to Packers), Joe Schobert (FA to Jaguars), Damarious Randall (FA to Raiders), T.J. Carrie (FA to Colts).
Oh, Cleveland. 2019 was supposed to be your year. We believed in you.. well, some people did. So much hype. So much love. So many expectations. Odell Beckham, Jr. Baker Mayfield. Myles Garrett. Jarvis Landry. Nick Chubb. Kareem Hunt. All of this talent.
Then Cleveland.. Cleveland-ed. Cleveland’d? Browns’d? Ah, you get it.
Cleveland is a team stocked with talent that failed to put it all together. Whether it was coaching issues, too many egos, failed development, or lack of a winning culture, the team sank to a 6-10 record, notching another failed season in their sordid history since coming back into the league in 1999.
They didn’t have any holes on offense (on paper) except for one – offensive tackle. They attempted to remedy this by signing Jack Conklin away from the Tennessee Titans, as well as drafting Jedrick Wills at 10 overall, who was viewed by many as OT1 in the draft. He protected Tua’s blindside at Alabama (Tua is a lefty), and the Browns are praying that he can keep Baker Mayfield upright in 2020. Do the tackles take care of the problem?
I guess we don’t know yet. But on paper, the Browns offense is poised to make a lot of noise.
On the other side of the ball, there were notable deficiencies, and I’m not sure the Browns are any better outside of maybe the Grant Delpit pick. Andrew Sendejo isn’t a world-class talent, and Karl Joseph moves the needle even less. Outside corners Greedy Williams and Denzel Ward are good with the potential to be more, but slot corner is a glaring weakness, and they’ll need help from the pass rush to be effective.
Speaking of the pass rush.
They added Andrew Billings through free agency, and Jordan Elliott in the draft, but the defensive line showed some holes in 2019, and I’m not sure they’re significantly better at the position group in 2020. Myles Garrett is rightfully considered to be one of the best young pass rushers in the league, but again depth is an issue behind him. You’re just hoping (if you’re a Browns fan) that Mack Wilson and rookie linebacker Jacob Phillips can create a strength out of a weakness (Browns lost both of their starters to free agency) to help out.
The coaching carousel continues in Cleveland. Freddie Kitchens clearly wasn’t the answer for a struggling Browns team, even after some success the year before. Kevin Stefanski is the FNG, and while he and new offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt have the myriad talent to work with, we’ll have to wait to see how they work with them.
Expected 2020 Regular Season Victories: O/U 8.5
Cincinnati Bengals – 2019 Record: 2-14
Key Departures: Andy Dalton (Released), Tyler Eifert (FA to Jaguars), Nick Vigil (FA to Chargers), John Miller (FA to Panthers)
Listen. The Cincinnati Bengals were a bad football team in 2019. But they weren’t as bad as their record shows. A bad bounce here, a good bounce there, and they easily could’ve been closer to .500. Take heart, Bengals fans. These are the only nice words you’ll ever hear/read me say about your team.
There are a vast majority of people who will point to Andy Dalton as the biggest problem with the Bengals. I’m not one of those people. A quarterback can’t be Average Andy with the worst offensive line in football.
While the Bengals (potentially) handled the Dalton problem by draft Joe Burrow with the first overall pick, I’m not sold on the fact that the additions of Xavier Su’a-Filo (free agent) and Hakeem Adeniji (draft) do enough to patch the holes. They have to hope that their second-year tackle – Jonah Williams – can hold down the left tackle position and that their interior line can compensate for the lack of talent with cohesiveness. It’s an injury-plagued position group that isn’t overflowing with high ceilings.
Joe Burrow does have some toys to play with though. A.J. Green – the Raven-Killer – got franchise tagged, and he’s joined by Tyler Boyd (1,000 yard receiver) and rookie Tee Higgins (enough speed to be a deep threat, while also excelling at 50/50 balls). John Ross is another threat if he can ever stay healthy, with speed to burn defenses. Then there’s guys like Joe Mixon, who is a constant threat on the ground. Tight end is an average spot for them, but with so many other threats, if they can put it all together they have the potential to be sneaky good in 2020.
On the defensive side of the ball, Mike Brown clearly found his linebacker room lacking in talent, as he drafted not one, not two, but three linebackers in the draft. I was a fan of both Logan Wilson and Akeem Davis-Gaither, but they’ll both need developmental years before reaching their ceilings. Veteran Josh Bynes (FA from the Ravens) should help steady their hands as they learn. Markus Bailey is a bit of a wild card, both on the injury front and the development front. Their defensive line remains stout – Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap are behemoths up front, and adding D.J. Reader through free agency does nothing but strengthen the run defense. Outside linebacker is fairly devoid of talent, unless you’re hoping Sam Hubbard and Jordan Evans take steps forward.
As such, their secondary will have to help. Coverage sacks are very much alive, as the 2019 Baltimore Ravens showed, and William Jackson is a better-than-good corner to lead the secondary. They overpaid Trey Waynes by a fair amount, but he’s a decent CB2, and the addition of Mackensie Alexander provides the Bengals with a starter-level slot corner, replacing Darqueze Dennard. The backend is patrolled by newly acquired Von Bell (who led the league in forced fumbles last year) and veteran-ish Jessie Bates. I’d expect improvement from the defensive backend, which as a DB aficionado, moves the needle for me a fair amount.
The coaching staff in Cincinnati is still relatively unproven, and second-year head coach Zac Taylor will need to show some decent improvement to keep from feeling his seat get warm. The influx of talent at important positions should help in that regard.
Expected 2020 Regular Season Victories: O/U 8.5
All in all, the AFC North looks (on paper) like it’s poised to go back to being one of – if not the – most competitive divisions in football. Fans have been missing the days of the intense Ravens/Steelers rivalry games, and it’s genuinely fun watching the Ohio teams battle it out. With any luck, football fans all over will get to watch ‘The Defensive Division’ restore some of its former glory.