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Ranking every defensive position group in the AFC North

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After losing several starters from last season, how does the Ravens defense fare within the division?

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NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Baltimore Ravens Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

The AFC North has always been defined by rugged defense and toughness. Even in an offensive league today, that much largely remains true. This offseason, there was a decent amount of turnover on the defensive side of the ball for each of the four teams in the division.

The Ravens added Earl Thomas in free agency and saw several starters from last season leave for new teams. Pittsburgh and Cincinnati will see the majority of their contributors return and are hoping draft investments pay off, while the Browns made a few splashy acquisitions of their own.

Heading into the 2019-20 campaign, where do the defensive units in the AFC North stand compared to each other? Let’s break it down by position.


Defensive Line

  1. Pittsburgh Steelers
  2. Baltimore Ravens
  3. Cincinnati Bengals
  4. Cleveland Browns

The Steelers starting trio of Stephon Tuitt, Cameron Heyward, and Javon Hargrave all earned grades of 81.8 or higher from PFF last season, and the three of them ranked inside the top-21 of defensive line players. Baltimore’s Michael Pierce is an elite defensive tackle and the combination of him and Brandon Williams along the interior front-seven is a stout run-stopping tandem. The Ravens are also getting Willie Henry back from injury and added Daylon Mack in the draft, although they did lose Brent Urban to the Tennessee Titans.

Geno Atkins has long been one of the better defensive tackles in the league, and that remains true today. Fellow starter Andrew Billings is an impactful player, too, giving the Bengals a solid 1-2 punch. For Cleveland, the addition of Sheldon Richardson in the offseason was significant. Incumbent starter Larry Ogunjobi did post 5.5 sacks last season but graded out as the 88th-ranked interior defensive lineman.

Poll

Which team has the best defensive line unit?

This poll is closed

  • 19%
    Pittsburgh Steelers
    (136 votes)
  • 59%
    Baltimore Ravens
    (415 votes)
  • 10%
    Cincinnati Bengals
    (76 votes)
  • 10%
    Cleveland Browns
    (76 votes)
703 votes total Vote Now

Edge Rushers

  1. Cleveland Browns
  2. Pittsburgh Steelers
  3. Cincinnati Bengals
  4. Baltimore Ravens

The acquisition of Oliver Vernon from the Giants was a significant move for the Browns. Pairing him with Myles Garrett forms a dynamic tandem that should cause serious problems for opposing offensive lines. Pittsburgh returns T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree, who combined to force 18 sacks last season, 13 of which came from Watt. The Steelers also drafted Sutton Smith who, while listed as an inside linebacker, is capable of setting the edge.

The Bengals are listed above the Ravens here, however, that’s under the assumption that Carl Lawson recovers from his ACL injury and plays next year. Cincinnati still has Carlos Dunalp, too. In losing Terrell Suggs and Za’Darius Smith in free agency, the Ravens are now absent a combined 15.5 sacks from last year. They’ll be relying on in-house improvements from Tim Williams and Tyus Bowser to compensate. Rookie Jaylon Ferguson also figures to play a big role next year, although there’s too many unknowns (aside from Matthew Judon) at this moment to rank them any higher.

Poll

Which team has the best edge rushers?

This poll is closed

  • 53%
    Cleveland Browns
    (322 votes)
  • 19%
    Pittsburgh Steelers
    (117 votes)
  • 10%
    Cincinnati Bengals
    (63 votes)
  • 16%
    Baltimore Ravens
    (102 votes)
604 votes total Vote Now

Linebackers

  1. Cleveland Browns
  2. Pittsburgh Steelers
  3. Baltimore Ravens
  4. Cincinnati Bengals

There are a lot of question marks at linebacker for all four teams in the division, so these rankings were a bit of a toss-up. Several rookies and unproven players are set to play significant roles this upcoming season, so these linebacker rankings are largely based on projections rather than what we’ve already seen.

The Browns got a steal by landing Alabama LB Mack Wilson in the fifth round. Wilson could push Christian Kirksey for a starting job right away, but figures to see a healthy amount of snaps regardless. Joe Schobert continues to be a stout presence in the middle of the defense, as he ranked as the 11th-best linebacker last season via PFF. Pittsburgh traded up to select Devin Bush Jr. in the first round of the draft and they’ll be relying on him to play a significant role away. The talented, athletic linebacker appears up to the task. Bush will join Vince Williams and Mark Barron on the depth chart, as well as the other rookie linebackers Pittsburgh drafted - Sutton Smith & Ulysees Gilbert III.

Baltimore let C.J. Mosley walk in free agency, as they ultimately weren’t willing to pay the record-setting price necessary to retain him. This, as well as the fact that they didn’t draft a replacement or add anyone in free agency, shows they’re confident in Patrick Onwuasor and Kenny Young as the starting duo. Young showed flashes of promise in his rookie season and “Peanut” played at a very high level over the final 6-7 weeks of the year, but the Browns and Steelers have more depth. Cincinnati’s linebacking play was arguably their biggest weakness last season and Vontaze Burfict is now a member of the Oakland Raiders. The Bengals drafted Germaine Pratt but unless he suddenly becomes a superstar, they’ll continue to round out the bottom of the linebacker corps in the division.

Poll

Which team has the best linebacker unit?

This poll is closed

  • 25%
    Cleveland Browns
    (141 votes)
  • 29%
    Pittsburgh Steelers
    (160 votes)
  • 39%
    Baltimore Ravens
    (213 votes)
  • 5%
    Cincinnati Bengals
    (30 votes)
544 votes total Vote Now

Cornerback

  1. Baltimore Ravens
  2. Cleveland Browns
  3. Pittsburgh Steelers
  4. Cincinnati Bengals

After drafting Greedy Williams to pair with Denzel Ward, the Browns could potentially have one of the best cornerback duos in the league. However, the addition of Williams isn’t enough to vault them over the Ravens (not yet, at least). Led by Marlon Humphrey, Brandon Carr, Jimmy Smith, and Tavon Young, Baltimore’s combination of talent and depth at the position is unmatched by many, if any teams in the league.

The Steelers got a potential steal in the third round of the draft by landing Justin Layne, a talented cornerback from Michigan State. Joe Haden isn’t getting any younger, but the trio of Haden, Layne, and Steven Nelson is better, at least on paper, than the Bengals cornerback group. William Jackson III is coming off a solid season but outside of him, Cincinnati’s cornerback depth chart is full of question marks.

Poll

Which team has the best cornerback group?

This poll is closed

  • 74%
    Baltimore Ravens
    (472 votes)
  • 11%
    Cleveland Browns
    (72 votes)
  • 4%
    Pittsburgh Steelers
    (31 votes)
  • 9%
    Cincinnati Bengals
    (60 votes)
635 votes total Vote Now

Safety

  1. Baltimore Ravens
  2. Cincinnati Bengals
  3. Cleveland Browns
  4. Pittsburgh Steelers

The Ravens would have been #1 here even had they kept Eric Weddle, but signing Earl Thomas to replace him is a fairly significant upgrade. Thomas and Tony Jefferson’s skill sets figure to mesh well together and they should form a prolific tandem. Jessie Bates III had a strong rookie season for Cincinnati last year, grading out as the 12th-ranked safety in the league. Shawn Williams is a solid compliment to Bates III at the strong safety spot.

Elsewhere, the Browns traded away Jabril Peppers and replaced him with Morgan Burnett, whose stint with the Steelers ended after just one year. Burnett will join Damarious Randall in the backend of the defense. This combination is enough to give them the edge over the Steelers. Pittsburgh’s Sean Davis showed a lot of improvement last year but there’s no telling in how Terrell Edmunds will perform in a larger role, should he be the one to repalce Burnett in the starting lineup.

Poll

Which team has the best safeties?

This poll is closed

  • 77%
    Baltimore Ravens
    (479 votes)
  • 11%
    Cincinnati Bengals
    (70 votes)
  • 6%
    Cleveland Browns
    (39 votes)
  • 4%
    Pittsburgh Steelers
    (30 votes)
618 votes total Vote Now

Final Tally

1st place rankings - Ravens (2), Browns (2), Steelers (1)

2nd place rankings - Steelers (2), Ravens (1), Browns (1), Bengals (1)

3rd place rankings - Bengals (2), Browns (1), Steelers (1), Ravens (1)

4th place rankings - Bengals (2), Browns (1), Steelers (1), Ravens (1)