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NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE - JANUARY 10: Lamar Jackson #8 of the Baltimore Ravens against the Tennessee Titans in the Wild Card Round of the NFL Playoffs at Nissan Stadium on January 10, 2021 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)


2021 NFL AFC North Preview

With previews for both the AFC East and NFC East now in the books, it’s time to get around to the next set of divisions. Next up on the docket, the AFC North and the NFC North, two divisions full of history and tradition.

Just like we did when we started these previews, we’re going to start with the AFC side of things first.

So let’s jump right into this one.

2020 Standings

1. Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4)

2. Baltimore Ravens (11-5)

3. Cleveland Browns (11-5)

4. Cincinnati Bengals (4-11-1)

Overview of 2020 for the AFC North

Ah yes, the nauseating roller coaster known as the AFC North. A division full of rich history and competition, but one that was littered with inconsistency and negative story lines throughout the 2020 season.

The Pittsburgh Steelers were the epitome of dominance from the early to middle part of the regular season. The defense was rag dolling opposing offenses around like toys and the offense was doing just enough to get by despite the obvious decline in play from Ben Roethlisberger. But once November hit, things started to go a bit downhill.

The offense that was getting by suddenly became boring and dang near unwatchable. The defense was starting to lose its focus and began to look more human per say compared to their performance earlier on in the season. Things really started to look a little concerning, but the veteran leadership and proven talent righted the ship and kept things afloat. Well, until their embarrassing loss to the Cleveland Browns in the first round of the playoffs.

The Baltimore Ravens were the opposite of dominant early on. The offense was a mess, the defenses wasn’t exceptional, it looked like doom was set to rule over the skies of Baltimore for the foreseeable future. But this team found its rhythm, especially during the last stretch of the season. That late run led to a second straight playoff appearance, as well as a playoff win against the Tennessee Titans.

But a painful, frustrating loss in Buffalo ended their season on a rather sour note.

Cleveland was the biggest surprise of the 2020 season. Kevin Stefanski worked magic on this Browns offense, giving it an identity for the first time in what seemed like years. He even led the franchise to its first playoff win since 1994. A close, competitive loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in the divisional round ended the Browns’ season, but they have a load of things to be excited for moving forward.

Cincinnati’s season was full of excitement and misery. Although they did consistently lose football games, Joe Burrow’s development was a bright spot during the period of disappointment. However, that lone bright spot was lost once Burrow tore his ACL in week 11. After that occurred, there just wasn’t much to be ecstatic about regarding this Bengals team. Burrow is back for the 2021 season, but with an added sense of caution surrounding that previously injured knee. You can only hope a talent like him stays healthy and avoids further injury in the future.

Best Offense for 2021

Cleveland Browns- You could make a case for Baltimore’s diverse rushing offense to take the top spot here. But I’m uncertain about the Ravens’ passing offense even after the additions they made at wide receiver during the off-season. Because of that, I’m giving the Browns’ offense the useless pre-training camp “Best Offense” award.

Out of all the offenses that reside in the AFC North, I think the one that’s prepared to do the most damage in 2021 is none other than Kevin Stefanski’s unit in Cleveland. The potent rushing attack, the dangerous play action that feeds off the physicality and success in the run game, it’s all there to create another monster of an offensive year in Northern Ohio.

I really love the duo of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. Their ability to take Stefanski’s zone running scheme and abuse it to the best of their abilities is nothing short of impressive. The only question I have for the two young stars is how will Stefanski manage their workloads?

The situation could unfold like it did last season. With Chubb taking the statistical majority of the snaps in the backfield and Hunt getting his fair share as well. For all that matters this could be a dumb question in the eyes of many, but it’s one I always ponder when two backs of such high quality play for the same team.

Moving on to Baker Mayfield and this passing game, I’m high on the overall build of it. I love Cleveland’s collective group of pass catchers. Jarvis Landry is good, Rashard Higgins and Donovan Peoples-Jones are good as well. That group really meshed well last season, especially after the injury to star receiver Odell Beckham Jr. How will that group respond to the return of Beckham Jr.? It remains to be seen, but I wouldn’t be too worried about it at this point in time.

Austin Hooper, Harrison Bryant, and even David Njoku combine to make a very strong tight end group as well. Bryant was more of a surprise to me, since I wasn’t all that familiar with his game before the 2020 season. He’s a really nice pass catching option to place alongside a more reliable blocker in Hooper. Njoku is and will always be the wild card here.

His athleticism is elite for the tight end position, but drops and inconsistency have killed any chance of him making his mark so far for the most part.

With all that in mind, I don’t think this unit has truly reached the peak of its potential just yet. A lot of the core pieces are still very young with a lot of room to improve in the future. Not only that, this unit’ll get a normal off-season for the first time since Stefanski took over as head coach. That’s huge for the prospect of further scheme insertion, development, and familiarity.

That’s why I think this unit’ll be even better in 2021.

Now the idea of this unit being even better this year will largely depend on the play of Baker Mayfield, and whether he can put the issues in his own game behind him. But he’s still quite young and has room left for development, so the current kinks in his game could eventually be weeded out with time.

Best Defense for 2021

Pittsburgh Steelers- Despite the changes Cleveland made across their own defense during the off-season, I still have to give the “Best Defense” award to the Steelers.

They’re still a unit capable of shutting down an opposing offense at any given notice and making it look like the easiest thing in the world. Yes, they lost Bud Dupree and Steven Nelson, two important parts of their defense over the last couple of seasons.

But this unit has the history of excelling in next man up situations. Whether it comes by way of free agency additions, draft picks, or via an option currently on the roster. So until they show they’re not able to handle the duty of finding strong replacements for their lost talent, I won’t make too big a deal about the apparent holes they have on the defensive side of the ball.

Plus, this defense is still bringing back a majority of the contributors that made last season so successful. T.J. Watt is obviously still there, along with Cameron Hayward, Stephon Tuitt, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Devin Bush, Joe Haden, and even Alex Highsmith.

In other words, I don’t expect this defense to suddenly drop off a cliff.

Now they could take a step back since defensive play like last season is incredibly hard to repeat year after year. But even if they do take a dip statistically, they’ll still at least be a top ten unit.

Best Head Coach for 2021

Mike Tomlin- If you want to put Harbaugh here, I wouldn’t blame you. But the incredible job Tomlin has done during his time in Pittsburgh reins supreme in my humble opinion.

He’s commanded a multitude of all time defensive units, taken this team to two Super Bowls, and has never finished with a losing record during his entire tenure as the head man in Pittsburgh. He’s the living definition of a winner, a consistent winner at that.

He’s had some disappointment and heartbreak along the way, but he still stands near the top when it comes to ranking the best head coaches the league has today. He’s a proven guy that’s given so much to the game and has a lot of time to give even more.

If you haven’t given Tomlin your props yet, I think it’s your best bet to start giving them out now.

He’s earned it.

Potential Breakout Player to Watch for Each Team in 2021

Pittsburgh Steelers- OLB Alex Highsmith

With Bud Dupree now gone, it looks like Alex Highsmith will be the one to fill the void and line up alongside star pass rusher T.J. Watt. Highsmith was a rotational edge rusher for the most part in 2020, but when Dupree went down with a knee injury, Highsmith stepped in and flashed a bit during the stretch run.

Flash forward to now and Highsmith is slated to take over as one of the two starting pass rushers in Pittsburgh’s 3-4 defense. If Highsmith can build on what he showed during the latter half of 2020, then he’ll be due for a big uptick in production.

If you don’t believe me, then don’t take my word for it. Instead, invest in the words of trusted Steelers reporter Nick Farabaugh, who’s been banging the table for this guy all off-season long as a breakout candidate in Pittsburgh.

Baltimore Ravens- ILB Patrick Queen

I put J.K. Dobbins down as the Ravens’ breakout player initially. But due to a knee injury he suffered in the preseason, he’s now going to miss the entire 2021 season.

Which means I’ll have to select a new breakout player.

I’ll go with Patrick Queen here. He had a lot of hype coming into the draft last season, but he ultimately struggled for the most part.

With another offseason under his belt, Queen could improve enough to warrant significant praise from people around the league. Think of it as a Devin White situation.

White struggled his rookie year, but came back and put his name on the map in his second year. It was a monumental rise in play and recognition, one I think Queen could achieve in 2021.

Cleveland Browns- OT Jedrick Wills

A lot was said about how much success Nick Chubb, Kareem Hunt, and Baker Mayfield had in 2020. For good reason too. But none of that would’ve been possible without the exceptional play from the Browns’ offensive line, and more specifically the play from emerging standout left tackle Jedrick Wills.

Wills was a right tackle prospect coming out of Alabama last off-season. But with that spot already filled by Jack Conklin, the Browns deployed him at left tackle. That’s not an easy position switch whatsoever, but it seems like Wills took it in stride and made the best out of it.

Even with that year of experience and dominance under his belt, he still has a lot of room to improve. I don’t know about you, but that’s downright scary.

Wills could turn into a legit star in 2021, so you should really keep an eye on how he progresses during his second full season as a pro.

Cincinnati Bengals- WR Tee Higgins

Before Joe Burrow was lost for the reason due to a torn ACL, he built a pretty nice rapport with then rookie wideout Tee Higgins. Burrow is back now, so I expect that rapport to pick up right where it left off in 2020.

Higgins finished his rookie season with 67 catches and 908 yards, not too bad for a first year pass catcher that suffered from the consequences of a quarterback carousel. I think it’s reasonable to expect those numbers to increase in 2021. Especially with A.J. Green now gone and rookie Ja’Marr Chase being an talented, but unproven young option at receiver.

If you’re looking for a receiver to take a flyer on during the middle rounds in fantasy football, then Higgins might be perfect for you, so keep an eye out for him.

Who Wins the Division in 2021?

This is a tough one.

Baltimore drastically improved the one spot on their roster that was full of red flags. But Cleveland has improved their defense and brings back a lot of their major contributors from last season.

For now, I’ll pick the Browns as the late off-season AFC North division winners. They have the talent and staff to do it, now it’s all about corralling that young talent and getting it to execute week in and week out like an experienced squad.

I’ll tell you this though, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if the Steelers or maybe even the Ravens with all their injury concerns end up taking home the division crown. That’s just how high me and a lot of other people are on them.