The AFC North sent three teams to the playoffs last season and could do the same again in 2021. Pittsburgh is the defending division champion but the Steelers saw several key veterans either depart in free agency or retire this offseason. Cleveland snapped its playoff drought but has bigger goals in mind after adding some new pieces in free agency and through the draft. Baltimore will continue to lean on the run but needs quarterback Lamar Jackson to take another step forward as a passer and some unproven guys on defense to step up if the Ravens want to reach their true potential. Cincinnati may end up in the AFC North basement again but this is a young team that could surprise before the season's over, especially with all of the weapons on offense.
In order to get an accurate assessment of the AFC North heading into 2021, Athlon asked NFL scouts to talk anonymously about the Ravens, Bengals, Browns, and Steelers.
Note: These scouting reports come directly from NFL scouts and do not necessarily reflect the views of Athlon's editorial staff.
"Even though I don’t believe in Lamar Jackson as a thrower, I tip my hat to how they became a run-first team and built around his unique skill set. He’s a little inaccurate, but he’s a rare athlete. Most coaching staffs and front offices wouldn’t adapt. They saw a great opportunity and value that doesn’t fit the traditional mold. Eric DeCosta, John Harbaugh, they deserve a lot of credit for their courage and foresight."
"They’ve got some real talent at wide receiver in Rashod Bateman and Marquise “Hollywood” Brown. I’m not a big Sammy Watkins fan, but he’s decent. Their tight ends are good blockers. Mark Andrews is a strong route-runner with soft hands."
"Patrick Ricard is a huge lead-blocking fullback."
"Getting offensive tackle Alejandro Villanueva was huge. That’s a great signing to put him next to Kevin Zeitler. With Ronnie Stanley at left tackle, they’ve got a good line. They won’t have a big drop-off without Orlando Brown Jr."
"J.K. Dobbins is a special back. Gus Edwards is solid, too."
"Wink Martindale takes guys from different places and melds them into his scheme. They have some good players. Patrick Queen is a special linebacker. I like their safeties, especially DeShon Elliott as a tackler. He has a ton of pop and is a strong blitzer. When you watch him tackle, you can tell he’s very well-coached, tough and fundamentally sound."
"The defense is physical."
"This is an elite group of corners with Marcus Peters and Marlon Humphrey."
"Joe Burrow is getting ready for a comeback, and the offensive line in front of him that’s supposed to protect him is just average. I would be petrified if I’m Mike Brown."
"Given the state of their offensive line, I would have drafted Penei Sewell instead of Ja’Marr Chase. They had enough wide receivers already with Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd."
"Before Burrow tore his ACL, he showed me a lot as far as accuracy, leadership and overall understanding of the game. I still think he has a bright future."
"Joe Mixon is a phenomenal talent. That’s a guy people should be talking about when they discuss second chances."
"D.J. Reader’s return is big-time for them. He can flat-out play."
Related: Cincinnati Bengals Depth Chart
"I liked Trey Hendrickson when he was in New Orleans, but that’s when he was around a bunch of other solid guys on defense. Here, he’s going to be the first guy to get chipped and double-teamed. I predict it will be an eye-opener for him."
"I like their linebackers. They’re not great, but they're solid football players. I like Trae Waynes. I don’t like Vonn Bell much. He’s a stiff, straight-line guy."
"Jessie Bates III has a lot of range."
"Eli Apple, despite being a bit different and bouncing around the league, he’s a good football player."
"I could see Ricardo Allen earning a starting job. He’s not very tall, but he has good range and playmaking skills."
"I’m very impressed with what GM Andrew Berry has done. He has combined traditional scouting with new-wave analytics, and it’s working."
"Odell Beckham Jr., if you count on him staying healthy, you’re setting yourself up for failure. He’s always hurt. They have enough other receivers with Jarvis Landry and Donovan Peoples-Jones and Rashard Higgins and Ryan Switzer. They’ve got a lot of talent outside."
"This is an excellent offensive line. They are loaded everywhere. They have studs. That takes a lot of pressure off of Baker Mayfield. He can do what he does well. He makes enough plays and he manages the game well."
"They have steady tight ends, not superstars."
"Case Keenum is a great backup."
"I love their running backs."
Related: Cleveland Browns Depth Chart
"It scares me if Jadeveon Clowney doesn’t work hard enough because that lessens the players around him."
"Andrew Billings is a good, solid football player on the defensive interior. Takkarist McKinley is not the easiest kid to coach, but he’s a talented pass rusher. I do think they’ll bring back Sheldon Richardson at defensive tackle."
"Myles Garrett, the guy looks like the Incredible Hulk."
"Denzel Ward is a shutdown corner."
"Grant Delpit will be really good."
"Greg Newsome II was a really good draft pick for that secondary."
"I think adding Troy Hill at cornerback puts this defense over the top."
"This is a better team than they were a year ago when they were already pretty good."
"Ben Roethlisberger is back, and he is what he is. They’re hoping and praying that they can keep using him until they find a new guy."
"I love that they brought in Dwayne Haskins Jr. He’s a young guy with some talent. It makes sense to find out if he can be the guy in a few years."
"They have talent catching the football: JuJu Smith-Schuster is good. It was important to get him re-signed. Diontae Washington and James Washington do some good things."
"At tight end, Eric Ebron doesn’t catch every ball, but he’s a tremendous athlete."
"I like their offensive line. I am more optimistic about Zach Banner than most people; I think he’s going to be a good right tackle. David DeCastro is a really good player. They have to be more consistent as a pass-blocking team because Big Ben isn’t moving around much."
"Najee Harris, I like that pick a lot. This team needed a big running back like him."
Related: Pittsburgh Steelers Depth Chart
"T.J. Watt is very good, but he’ll never be as dominant as his brother."
"Devin Bush is tremendous. He’s all over the field making plays."
"Alex Highsmith is a good outside rusher, a solid replacement for Bud Dupree."
"Their secondary is still strong. Joe Haden is a very good corner. With Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds, this is a good defense."
"If their offensive line doesn’t improve, I could see them struggling to have a winning record."