AFC North 2021 Preview

Photo Credit: How They Play

When you start to look over the landscape of the 2021 season the battles in the AFC North should be at the forefront of your mind. Every game inside this division is a bloodbath. Everyone that has played in this division currently or previously has stated “You do in one way, and don’t leave it the same way” The term “Old school football” comes to mind when you look at the teams in this division. As the resident AFCN guy here on the network I have the unique pleasure of breaking down this division.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Last Year’s Finish: 12-4

Photo Credit: GettyImages

Key Additions: JuJu Smith-Shuster (WR) Cameron Sutton (CB) Tyson Alualu (DT/NT) Melvin Ingram (LB) Joe Schobert (LB)

Key Losses: Bud Dupree (Titans) Mike Hilton (Bengals) Alejandro Villanueva (Ravens) Steven Nelson (Eagles) James Conor (Cardinals)

Outlook: If anyone was confused with what the game plan / outlook was going to look like for the 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers you don’t have to look further than the 2021 NFL draft, where 4 of the 7 picks were on the offensive side of the ball. The Steelers were dead last at rushing the football in 2020, a honor that coach Mike Tomlin vowed to never achieve again. Expect the Steelers to feature rookie RB Najee Harris early and often running /catching the ball out of the backfield. Look for veteran QB Ben Roethlisberger to be able to open the offense up to 2nd year WR Chase Claypool and Diontae Johnson. The Steelers also drafted former Penn State standout TE Pat Freiermuth to add to an already loaded assortment of weapons. If the Steelers offensive line is able to play well this team is going to return to the “Killer B’s” days.

The defense has been and will again be the calling card for this team. The outlook of the 2020 season shifted with the injuries to both LB Devin Bush and LB Bud Dupree. The Steelers addressed the depth issues at the LB position this offseason with key signings of veterans Melvin Ingram and Joe Schobert. Both men add knowledge and years to a veteran defense. An area of weakness the Steelers need to sure up or evolve this season is in the secondary. Joe Haden is going into his final year under contract, and Minkah Fitzpatrick needs to solidify the back end the league’s takeaway leading defense. The loss of Mike Hilton and Steven Nelson leaves a hole that needs to be addressed.

2021 Prediction: 12-5 (1st place)

Fantasy Targets: Najee Harris, Chase Claypool, Diontae Johnson, Chris Boswell, Team Defense

Baltimore Ravens

Last Year’s Finish: 11-5

Photo Credit: GettyImages

Key Additions: Sammy Watkins (WR) Alejandro Villanueva (OL) LeVeon Bell (RB)

Key Losses: Matthew Judon (Patriots) Mark Ingram (Texans) Willie Sneed IV (Raiders)

Outlook: The Ravens do not hide what they love to do. Former league MVP Lamar Jackson leads an offense that has cracked the code on running the football. The Ravens as a team has run for north of 100 yards in the last 24 games. Unless the rest of the league figures out how to stop this unique rushing attack, I’d expect them to continue to run over the league. The Ravens are extremely one dimensional as they have yet to find a constant WR (since Steve Smith). The Ravens spend a 1st round pick in this year's draft on WR Rashod Bateman, who’s going to start the season on the injury list. TE Mark Andrews seems to be the only reliable target that QB Lamar Jackson seems to have any chemistry with. Look for the Ravens to use play action and find Andrews matched up on LB’s.

The calling card for this team will be defense. Patrick Queen is in his 2nd and has shown the ability to lead a great defense into battle every week. He’s assisted by a great group of talent at every level. Calais Campbell has been in it all and seen it all, so he’s game for anything. CB Marlon Humphery is the total definition of a “ball hawk” there’s not too many that has a nose for the ball like Humphery.

2021 Prediction: 9-8 (3rd place)

Fantasy Targets: Lamar Jackson, Mark Andrews, Justin Tucker, Team Defense.

Cleveland Browns

Last Year’s Finish: 11-5

Photo Credit: GettyImages

Key Additions: Jadeveon Clowney (DE), Malik Jackson (LB)

Key Losses: Sheldon Richardson (LB)

Outlook: The expectation for the 2021 Cleveland Browns are higher than it’s ever been since the Jim Brown area. The 2020 Browns caught fire late and found themselves not only in the playoffs, but in the division round vs the eventual AFC Champions Kansas City. No matter who you ask the 2021 Browns are the favorite to win the division and make a deep playoff run. The Browns are going to go as far a QB Baker Mayfield and RB Nick Chubb take them. This is a run first, play-action offense that loves to exploit matchups against defenses. the two headed monster of Chubb and Kareem Hunt is one of the best 1-2 combinations in the league. Mayfield has solidified himself as the QB1 and the future of this team. WRs Odell Beckham Jr and Jarvis Landry lead a pretty solid group of WR’s that came into their own in OBJ's absence from a season ago.

On the defensive side of the ball Myles Garrett is the straw that stirs the drink. During the Browns success towards the end of the 2020 season it was Garrett that took over games and made things difficult for opponents. An area of weakness is the secondary that got picked out a lot last year. In order for the Browns to get over the hump and really become the team everyone is expecting them to be in 2021 they need this side of the ball to collectively play better.

2021 Prediction: 11-6 (2nd place)

Fantasy Targets: Nick Chubb, Kareem Hunt, Baker Mayfield

Cincinnati Bengals

Last Year’s Finish: 4-11-1

Photo Credit: GettyImages

Key Additions: Mike Hilton (CB) Eli Apple (CB)

Key Losses: AJ Green (Cardinals) John Ross (Washington Football Team) Giovani Bernard (Bucs)

Outlook: The Bengals season took a dramatic turn when rookie QB Joe Burrow went down with an ACL injury. He’s back and has a few new toys to play with. Former LSU teammate Ja'Marr Chase was drafted in the 2021 NFL draft to go along side 2nd year WR Tee Higgins. There's a regular saying we use in sports “speed kills”, and the Bengals have arguably the fastest group of WR’s in the division, the question at hand is Joe Burrow going to have enough time to get them the ball? In 2020 the Bengals arguably have the league’s worst offensive line (Besides the 2020 Pittsburgh Steelers). If Burrow is given time to survey the field this is going to be a nice group to root for.

The days of Gino Atkins and Vontaze Burfict are LONG gone. This new brand of Bengals defense is much faster and more opportunistic. Key additions Mike Hilton and Eli Apple provide veteran presence and ball hawking ability that has alluded this team for years. Germaine Pratt looks to improve on his 2020 campaign, where he accounted for 55 solo tackles. Look for this Bengals team to use more slot blitzes to put pressure on opposing offenses.

2021 Prediction: 5-12 (4th place)

Fantasy Targets: Joe Mixon, JaMarr Chase, Tee Higgins

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