Last week we kicked off our series on positional rankings within each NFL division, analyzing the NFC East, NFC West and AFC East offenses, along with the AFC West defensive positions. Our second week of the series begins with a look at the offenses of the AFC North, one of the more competitive divisions in football until last season, when power seemed to tilt in the Pittsburgh Steelers’ direction as the Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals struggled.
When complete, this series will consist of 16 parts, as we rank the position groups of each division in the NFL on both sides of the ball. Keep in mind that each position group is ranked based on current ability, with a lean toward “near future” projections thrown in. Here are the divisions and position groups we’ve completed so far:
1. Pittsburgh Steelers – Ben Roethlisberger
2. Cincinnati Bengals – Andy Dalton
3. Baltimore Ravens – Joe Flacco
4. Cleveland Browns – Cody Kessler/Brock Osweiler/DeShone Kizer
Analysis: Even the most passionate Bengals and Ravens fans would begrudgingly admit that Roethlisberger is the best quarterback in the division, but the veteran did see his play decline a bit last season. Having hinted at retirement in his near future, there’s at least some chance this could be Roethlisberger’s final season, which could spur him to one last epic run with the team. If I had to guess, I’d say we’ll get at least two more years of the Steelers’ signal caller, but he has to prove last year’s up-and-down play was an aberration.
Dalton and Flacco are both mid-tier starters, but Flacco has been dipping closer to the low end of that group of late. His offense is admittedly devoid of talent, and Flacco has pieced together some nice years in the past, but right now his struggles under pressure and inconsistent downfield accuracy are painfully obvious. Dalton has had two solid years back-to-back, but he never seems to be able to get it done in big moments, consistently wilting under pocket pressure and struggling to finish key drives. I don’t see either as a player who will consistently elevate the play of those around him, so right now I’ll take the more consistent quarterback when everything is right in Dalton.
DeShone Kizer could eventually be better than both Dalton and Flacco, but that’s unlikely to happen in his rookie season, if he is even inserted into the starting lineup. Kessler is a game-manager type with a lollipop arm, and Osweiler has been a below-average starter in Denver and Houston when given the opportunity.
1. Steelers – Le’Veon Bell, James Connor, Knile Davis
2. Bengals – Joe Mixon, Giovani Bernard, Jeremy Hill
3. Browns – Isaiah Crowell, Duke Johnson, Matt Dayes
4. Ravens – Ken Dixon, Danny Woodhead, Terrance West, Lorenzo Taliaferro, Javorius Allen
Analysis: Bell is the best running back in the NFL and perhaps the league’s best all-around offensive weapon, but the Bengals might have found their own version of the Steelers back in Joe Mixon. The rookie needs to prove he can stay out of trouble and continue to develop his vision, as his skill set and dynamic big play ability could elevate the Bengals offense to another level. Bernard is a good third-down back who has never really been trusted with a full workload, even when Hill was a complete disappointment the past two years.
Crowell is inconsistent and not as talented as his diehard supporters would like him to be, but he’s a capable starter if the group in front of him is a good one. Duke Johnson is a solid receiving option, but has really failed to bring any explosive elements to Cleveland’s offense. The Ravens hope they have a better all-around version of Johnson in Ken Dixon, but the running back has now been suspended the first four games of the season for PEDs. West and Woodhead will likely shoulder the load in the meantime, as the former comes off the best statistical year of his career, which was still relatively average.
1. Steelers – Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant, Eli Rogers, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Sammie Coates
2. Bengals – A.J. Green, John Ross, Tyler Boyd, Brandon LaFell, Josh Malone
3. Browns – Kenny Britt, Corey Coleman, Rashard Higgins, Jordan Payton, Ricardo Louis
4. Ravens – Jeremy Maclin, Mike Wallace, Breshad Perriman, Chris Moore, Michael Campanaro
Analysis: Pittsburgh again holds the top spot with Cincinnati nipping at the Steelers’ heels. If Bryant is able to stay out of trouble, he and Brown might represent the best starting wide receiver duo in the league this season, and Rogers and Smith-Schuster are pretty strong third options. Meanwhile, Green is a superstar who dealt with some injuries last season, and Ross could be the big-play threat to really open up the Bengals’ offense.
A lot of people would take the Ravens’ crew over the Browns’, but I’m a big believer that Corey Coleman’s strong start to his rookie season before suffering a broken hand was a sign of thing to come, and Britt has quietly been a very solid receiver the past three years despite atrocious quarterback play. The Browns depth is unproven, but Higgins has the skill set to be a capable slot, while Payton could evolve into a Jermaine Kearse-like possession target when called upon.
The signing of Jeremy Maclin puts the Ravens receiving crew on the map, but having looked at the veteran’s production and tape from the past two seasons, he might be on a slight decline. Still, Maclin should bounce back statistically from a brutal season last year in Kansas City, and from there the Ravens have to hope Breshad Perriman finally makes good on his first round status in 2017. Mike Wallace had a nice bounce-back year last season, but at 31 years old in Week 1, his best years might be behind him.
1. Bengals – Tyler Eifert, Tyler Kroft, C.J. Uzomah
2. Browns – David Njoku, Seth DeValve, Randall Telfer
3. Ravens – Crockett Gilmore, Ben Watson, Maxx Williams, Nick Boyle
4. Steelers – Jesse James, David Johnson, Xavier Grimble
Analysis: If Eifert can’t stay on the field, it isn’t going to take Njoku long to overtake him as the best tight end in the division. I’m a big fan of Eifert’s game, especially his ability to compete for the ball in the air and make high degree-of-difficulty grabs, but Njoku is a terrific athlete who can offer the same downfield ability and more explosiveness after the catch. If he gets competent quarterbacking, I think he’ll quickly become a top tight end in the NFL.
The Ravens have a mess of bodies at the position, but losing Dennis Pitta to another hip injury leaves them without a starter. All four tight ends on the roster were either hurt or suspended for good chunks of last season, but Gilmore and Watson figure to be the favorites to start, while Williams tries to shake the bust label after being a second-round pick two unproductive years ago.
Even with all their issues, Baltimore’s tight end group is clearly superior to Pittsburgh’s hapless bunch. James and Johnson are both solid run blockers, but neither will give you much of anything as a receiver, and James really struggled in pass protection last season as well. Grimble flashed a little bit in his 204 snaps, and might be the team’s best hope of a pass-catching threat at the position this season.
1. Steelers – Alejandro Villanueva, Ramon Foster, Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro, Marcus Gilbert
2. Browns – Joe Thomas, Joel Bitonio, J.C. Tretter, Kevin Zeitler, Cameron Erving/Shon Coleman
3. Ravens – Ronnie Stanley, Alex Lewis/Nico Siragusa, John Urschel, Marshal Yanda, James Hurst
4. Bengals – Cedric Ogbuehi, Clint Boling, Russell Bodine, Andre Smith/Christian Westerman, Eric Fisher
Analysis: The Bengals went from having one of the best offensive lines in football to one of the worst extremely quickly, as only Boling is currently an above-average starter amidst their front five. Ogbuehi and Fisher were both dreadful last season (Fisher played only 296 snaps), and Bodine has been one of the league’s worst starting centers for the past few years. Andre Smith’s abilities have nose-dived since his strong 2014 campaign, and is now attempting to come back from a season-ending triceps injury suffered four games into last season. Smith has dealt with triceps injuries and concussions during his eight-year career.
Pittsburgh easily has the best offensive line in the division, as all five of their starters played at a high level last season. Mike Munchak has revitalized a unit that was once the weakness of the offense, turning David DeCastro and Marcus Gilbert into two of the best players in the league at their positions. Maurkice Pouncey was already one of the top centers in the game, and Ramon Foster is coming off the best season of his underrated eight-year career. Alejandro Villanueva may have been the most improved player on the entire roster in 2016, turning into a mid-tier left tackle over the second half of the season.
Cleveland’s line edges out Baltimore thanks to the return of Joel Bitonio from injury and the additions of J.C. Tretter and Kevin Zeitler this offseason. Tretter is a solid starter that has just struggled to stay healthy, and Zeitler is one of the better guards in the NFL. Joe Thomas and Bitonio form a potentially devastating left side, but right tackle is a major weakness, regardless of who wins the job.
The Ravens look like they have a future stud at left tackle in Ronnie Stanley, while Marshal Yanda is a top-two guard across the league. After that things go downhill quickly however, as Alex Lewis played poorly last season, and John Urschel has started only seven games at center. James Hurst has been a clear weakness when he’s been forced into action over the years, but Ricky Wagner’s departure leaves him as the only real option at right tackle. The Ravens need the offensive line to be a strength this season, so don’t be surprised if rookies Nico Siragusa and Jermaine Eluemunor are called upon if/when Lewis and Hurst struggle.