To understand the intrigue within the AFC North, one needs to look no further than the division's starting quarterbacks. In Baltimore, Lamar Jackson is hoping to vindicate his individual triumph with more postseason success. In Cleveland, Baker Mayfield looks to reinforce last season's heroic run with an ever better 2021. In Cincinnati, Joe Burrow is looking to help lead the Bengals out of the proverbial cellar while also establishing himself as one of the league's top young guns. Ben Roethlisberger, the John Wayne of AFC North quarterbacks, is hoping to have one more Super Bowl run in what could be his last year in Pittsburgh.
The success of each quarterback will largely depend on their respective teams. Each team made significant moves this offseason in order to gain the upper hand for the 2021 season. The defending AFC North champion, the Steelers put significant resources into improving what was the league's worst rushing attack in 2020. The Browns, the team that ended the Steelers' 2020 campaign, added pieces to a defense that lacked some bite last season. The Bengals, despite passing on the top offensive lineman in the 2021 draft, added some new pieces to their line to help protect Burrow. The Ravens have given Jackson several more weapons in order to help open up Baltimore's offense.
With voluntary offseason workouts underway, we decided to look at each AFC North team's burning question for this year.
Browns: Can Baker Mayfield lead Cleveland to a title?
After clawing back from a 22-3 deficit, a pair of touchdown passes by Baker Mayfield had helped the Browns pull to within three points of the defending champion Chiefs in the divisional round of the playoffs. But after getting the ball back with eight minutes to play, the moment appeared to be a little too big for the Browns' offense and specifically Mayfield, who succumbed to the Chiefs' pressure on Cleveland's final two offensive plays of the 2020 season.
The 2020 Browns built enough goodwill that most fans were generally OK with their team giving the defending champions all they could handle. It's safe to say that won't be the case in 2021, not after the team spent the offseason strengthening a roster that won 12 total games last season, including the franchise's first playoff win in over a quarter century.
The Browns have certainly put Mayfield in position to have success in 2021. Along with having one of the league's top rushing duos in Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, Mayfield has a strong offensive line that includes veteran right tackle Jack Conklin and 2020 first-round pick Jedrick Wills Jr. Mayfield also has his entire receiving corps in tact for the 2021 season after Cleveland was able to re-sign Rashard Higgins. Speaking of receivers, the young QB will have to show that he can have a successful partnership with Odell Beckham Jr. (who missed most of last season with an injury) without it hindering the rest of the passing game.
It obviously won't fall solely on his shoulders, but Mayfield does carry the expectation of a franchise and a fan base that is starving for a championship. As Troy Aikman once said, when a franchise takes you with the No. 1 overall pick, that franchise isn't drafting you to to win a division or two; they're drafting you to win a championship. That's the expectation for Mayfield and the Browns in 2021. Anything else is a disappointment.
Bengals: Did Cincinnati do enough to protect Burrow?
The Bengals have a budding star in Burrow, who led the NFL in passing through the first 10 games of his rookie season. Cincinnati, however, was unable to adequately protect its greatest asset, as Burrow suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 11. In order to shore up their offensive line (a unit that ranked 30th in the league in 2020 according to Pro Football Focus), the Bengals signed veteran tackle Riley Reiff while spending a second-round pick on former Clemson tackle Jackson Carman. They also spent a fourth-round pick on former East Carolina tackle D'Ante Smith and a sixth-round pick on former Georgia center Trey Hill.
The big question is whether or not the Bengals will ultimately regret selecting Ja'Marr Chase over Penei Sewell with the No. 5 overall pick. If Burrow thrives with Chase and Carman as productive teammates, the Bengals' gamble will have paid off. If not, and Sewell develops into the next Anthony Munoz, this decision will haunt the franchise for years to come.
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Steelers: Will Pittsburgh's offensive line hold up?
We could have gone several different directions with the Steelers. The Steelers lost three key members of last year's defense that includes linebacker Bud Dupree and cornerback Steven Nelson. Last year's late-season slide begs the question as to how effective Big Ben will be as he enters his 18th year. But the biggest question surrounding the Steelers is the state of their offensive line after losing perennial Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey to retirement and letting tackles Alejandro Villanueva and Matt Feiler walk in free agency.
The Steelers are placing a lot of faith in four-year veteran Chukwuma Okorafor, who will replace Villaneuva at left tackle after serving as Pittsburgh's starting right tackle in 2020. Okorafor's spot on the right side will be filled by Zach Banner, who enjoyed a breakout season in 2019 before missing most of last year with an injury. At center, the Steelers have considerable depth that includes veterans JC Hassenauer and B.J. Finney as well as third-round pick Kendrick Green. The Steelers are surely hoping that fourth-round pick Dan Moore Jr. will add much-needed depth to the tackle positions. At guard, the Steelers still boast one of the league's best in David DeCastro. Flanking DeCastro in the starting lineup is second-year guard Kevin Dotson, who showed considerable promise during his rookie season. The Steelers further bolstered their line with the selection of tight end Pat Freiermuth, who served as a solid blocker during his time at Penn State.
As alluded to above, the Steelers' depth at tackle is a significant concern. But if Moore and veteran Joe Haeg prove to be solid contributors, Pittsburgh's offensive line should be good enough to protect Roethlisberger while opening consistent running lanes for rookie Najee Harris.
Ravens: Does Baltimore have enough pass rushers?
Baltimore had several renovation projects that included a revamping of the receiving corps and the offensive line. While both of those projects appear to be complete, the Ravens still have question marks as it relates to their pass rush after losing Matt Judon, Yannick Ngakoue and Jihad Ward in free agency.
Baltimore has countered these losses by re-signing Tyus Bowser and Pernell McPhee. They also drafted former Penn State linebacker Odafe Oweh in the first round and former Notre Dame defensive Daelin Hayes in the fifth round. While this group has promise, the Ravens are lacking a reliable, veteran pass rusher who can help bolster a group that finished just 14th in the league in sacks in 2020. Fortunately for the Ravens, there are still several available pass rushers on the open market. The Ravens have expressed interest in Justin Houston, a four-time Pro Bowler who collected eight sacks with the Colts in 2020. Other available options include Melvin Ingram, Olivier Vernon and Everson Griffen. If the price is right, look for the Ravens (who currently have about $10 million in cap space) to add a veteran pass rusher to their roster sometime before the start of training camp.