The AFC North is up for grabs with all four teams entering reboot mode. Now that the 2019 NFL Draft is complete, we have a good idea of what the end game could be for this season.
For years the AFC North has been a division of stability. The Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens have been at the head of the class. The Cincinnati Bengals were like a pesky little sibling, always around but easy to swat away. The Cleveland Browns were as good a bet as any to finish last.
Not anymore. Longtime roster staples are gone from the Steelers offense. The Ravens’ new general manager is giving the team a new identity. The Browns have a new head coach, franchise quarterback, and the most enigmatic wide receiver in the game. The Bengals enter a season without Marvin Lewis as head coach for the first time since 2002.
The first wave of free agency is over. Now we can look to the NFL Draft as a predictor of what each team has planned for the future. These are rookies, malleable and willing to fit into whatever scheme or game plan coaches draw up. By closely analyzing each class, we begin to see the new vision for each team.
Baltimore Ravens: DeCosta creating new identity
|3||Jaylon Ferguson||DE||Louisiana Tech|
|3||Miles Boykin||WR||Notre Dame|
|4||Justice Hill||RB||Oklahoma State|
|6||Trace McSorley||QB||Penn State|
In aiming to become the top gun in the division, new Ravens GM Eric DeCosta has identified the need… the need for speed. Baltimore desperately required wide receiver help. They didn’t just draft a receiver but rather one of the fastest in recent memory in Oklahoma’s Marquise “Hollywood” Brown.
A Lisfranc injury prevented Brown from running the 40-yard dash during workouts, but he did run a 4.30 40-time last offseason at Oklahoma. In 2018, he racked up 75 receptions for 1,318 yards and 10 touchdowns. All of this while playing with a quarterback boasting a similar skill set to Lamar Jackson in Kyler Murray.
DeCosta doubled up on receiver in the third round, selecting Notre Dame’s Miles Boykin. He stands 6’4” and runs a 4.42 40-yard dash, rivaling D.K. Metcalf. Boykin is more of a project than Brown but will eventually start opposite “Hollywood” as the perfect big body complement.
Faster than the past
The Ravens weren’t done there. In the fourth round, they chose Oklahoma State running back Justice Hill. He ran the fastest 40 yard dash time of all running backs at 4.40. Hill offers a change of pace to the more physical Mark Ingram and is a home run threat.
Baltimore spent their final selection, a sixth-rounder, on Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley. He brings rare athleticism to the position, with a 4.57 40 time. Scouts even suggested he work out at wide receiver or safety. He wouldn’t budge, however, and the Ravens see him as an ideal backup with a similar style to Lamar Jackson. Look for them to use McSorley in a variety of offensive roles similar to the way the New Orleans Saints use backup QB/utility player Taysom Hill.
In his first draft as general manager, DeCosta seems intent on moving away from Baltimore’s tradition of punishing defense and ground-based offense. The 2019 draft class is building a faster, more dynamic offense and roster based on speed.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Out with the old, in with the old
|3||Justin Layne||CB||Michigan State|
|6||Sutton Smith||DE||Northern Illinois|
|6||Ulysees Gilbert III||LB||Akron|
After the New England Patriots, one could argue that the most consistent NFL team in recent memory has been the Pittsburgh Steelers. This offseason suggested a difference, with much change to the roster. However, the team has rebuilt the team in the image of successful rosters of years past.
Fortify the middle
The Steelers defense never recovered from losing Ryan Shazier to a spinal cord injury in December 2017. They looked to remedy that by leapfrogging the rival Cincinnati Bengals in the first round to select Michigan linebacker Devin Bush.
Bush’s production on the field is matched by his measurables. He ran an incredible 4.43 40-yard dash with 21 bench reps of 225 lbs. and a 40.5-inch vertical jump. The pieces are in place for the Steelers defense to be dominant again, especially in the front seven. They may have just found an athlete to perfectly replace Shazier.
Add a weapon
With their first pick in the third round, Pittsburgh began repairing their offense. Enter Toledo WR Diontae Johnson. On paper, you might see an Antonio Brown clone. Johnson is from the same conference (Brown played for Central Michigan in the Mid-American Conference). He stands 5’11” (Brown is 5’10”). He finished with 2,235 receiving yards and 23 TD’s in college (compared to Brown’s 3,199 yards and 22 TD’s).
It doesn’t stop there. Johnson and Brown’s play on the field is similar too. Johnson has a great release, allowing him to get free from defenders early. He has good ball skills and is an electric return man. Johnson could easily slot into Brown’s former role.
Find comparable styles of play
In the fourth round, the Steelers added depth to the running back position with Kentucky’s Benny Snell. He’s a physical runner that always fights for the extra yard. He will be a welcome addition to the Steelers backfield during winter games. Snell and James Conner will no doubt wear down opposing defenses with an old school style of running.
While other teams in the division are busy reinventing themselves, the Steelers are sticking with a proven formula.
Cleveland Browns: The offense is set, now it’s time for defense
|4||Sheldrick Redwine||S||Miami (FL)|
|6||Drew Forbes||T||SE Missouri State|
The Browns didn’t have a first-round selection due to the trade for WR Odell Beckham Jr., but that didn’t stop them from getting a first-round talent. LSU CB Greedy Williams slipped out of the first round and Cleveland was more than happy to grab him in the second.
Williams joins last year’s fourth overall selection and AFC North’s top-ranked CB Denzel Ward in a formidable secondary. Fourth-round safety Sheldrick Redwine of Miami (FL) brings a physicality perhaps missing from last year’s starting strong safety Jabrill Pepper’s game.
The Browns also added a pair of physical linebackers in the second and fifth with BYU’s Sione Takitaki and Alabama’s Mack Wilson. Takitaki should slot into a strongside LB role while Wilson will man the middle. Wilson seems like a steal, as some people had a second-round grade on him heading into the draft.
Save for a fifth-round kicker (Oklahoma’s Austin Seibert) and sixth-round tackle (SE Missouri State’s Drew Forbes), the Browns spent their entire draft capital in an effort to build on a defense that finished 30th in yards allowed last season. The rapid metamorphosis of the Browns continues this offseason, this time on defense.
Cincinnati Bengals: Smart, surgical-like process
|3||Germaine Pratt||LB||North Carolina St.|
|4||Ryan Finley||QB||North Carolina St.|
|4||Renell Wren||DT||Arizona State|
|4||Michael Jordan||G||Ohio State|
|6||Trayveon Williams||RB||Texas A&M|
|7||Jordan Brown||CB||South Dakota St.|
How do you beat Baker Mayfield, Ben Roethlisberger, and Lamar Jackson? Keep them off the field. At least that appears to be the game plan in Cincinnati based on their first few picks. The Bengals invested in Alabama’s former left tackle Jonah Williams and a top-rated run blocking TE with Washington’s Drew Sample in the first and second rounds. This signals that first-year head coach Zac Taylor is focused on emulating his former team’s running attack rather than the passing game.
The future is Finley’s?
Taylor gave a glimpse into Cincinnati’s future with a couple of mid-round picks. The team traded up at the beginning of day three of the draft to select North Carolina State QB Ryan Finley. As PFN pointed out when mocking the QB to the Bengals, Finley draws some comparisons to Taylor’s former QB Jared Goff. He could be Andy Dalton’s successor after 2019.
Run the ball
In addition to these additions to offense, the Bengals needed running back depth. Joe Mixon is slated to be the bell-cow back. Gio Bernard, however, is entering the final year of his contract. Cincinnati took care of that depth with a pair of sixth-round backs. Texas A&M all-purpose back Trayveon Williams should fit nicely in Bernard’s change of pace role. Oklahoma’s Rodney Anderson has feature-back talent with a long injury history. A reserve role where he spells his predecessor at Oklahoma is a perfect way to begin his pro career.
Cincinnati had a number of needs heading into the draft and methodically filled a majority of them with each of their ten selections. In the process, they revealed part of Zac Taylor’s philosophy heading into his first year as head coach.
New faces, new places, and new philosophies make the AFC North perhaps the most exciting and unpredictable division heading into 2019. With the Browns looking like a contender, a remade Ravens team, and a reloading Steelers roster, it’s anyone’s division.