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2020 AFC North Positional Rankings: Defensive Line

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NFL: Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

As the dog days of the NFL offseason continue to settle in, each team’s roster is pretty much set with free agency and the draft in the rear view mirror. Therefore, it’s an opportune time to detox with our annual positional rankings for the AFC North.

After knocking out each of the offensive position groups already, we’ll shift focus towards the other side of the ball - beginning with each team’s defensive line. Between a few key additions and some returning veteran studs, the AFC North is brimming with talent at the defensive tackle and defensive end positions.

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Additionally, you can find last year’s rankings here. Check out the listing below, vote on the corresponding poll and join in on the conversation!


1) Pittsburgh Steelers

Starters: Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, Daniel McMullers

Depth Chart: Chris Wormley, Isaiah Buggs, Tyson Alualu

The Steelers have one of the better defensive lines in the NFL for quite a few seasons now, and that should remain the same in 2020. Losing Javon Hargrave in free agency will surely sting a decent amount, but Pittsburgh remains well-equipped up front nonetheless.

The primary reason the Steelers are No. 1 on this list is because of the fearsome duo of Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt.

Heyward is entering his age-32 season but demonstrated last year that he still has plenty left in the tank. The veteran defensive lineman recorded 83 combined tackles, 23 QB hits, 11 TFL and nine sacks - a tremendous stat line indicating his all-around dominance. To cap it off, PFF gave him a grade of 91.5 for the season.

Tuitt’s run last season was cut short after just six games after he suffered a torn pectoral injury, but he should be back at full strength come Week 1. That’s good news for Pittsburgh, as Tuitt was on his way to another strong showing in 2019 before going down. He had 22 tackles, seven QB hits and 3.5 sacks, finishing with an impressive PFF grade of 89.1.

After these two players, the Steelers have a few solid role players including Chris Wormley, who they acquired from the Ravens in an offseason trade. Wormley could potentially earn a starting role alongside Tuitt and Heyward but as of now, DT Daniel McNullers likely has the inside track to fill Hargrave’s shoes.

Isaiah Buggs and Tyson Alualu are two young players with high upside.

Poll

Where would you rank the Steelers in the DL ranking?

This poll is closed

  • 36%
    First
    (100 votes)
  • 55%
    Second
    (151 votes)
  • 7%
    Third
    (20 votes)
  • 1%
    Fourth
    (3 votes)
274 votes total Vote Now

2) Baltimore Ravens

Starters: Calais Campbell, Brandon Williams, Derek Wolfe

Depth Chart: Jihad Ward, Justin Madubuike, Daylon Mack, Justin Ellis, Broderick Washington

One of the most improved position groups in the entire division heading into the 2020 season is the Ravens’ front-seven. Baltimore added accomplished veterans in Calais Campbell and Derek Wolfe via free agency to fortify a defensive line that struggled to consistently generate pressure last year.

Campbell, even at the age of 34, is a top-tier defensive end and was the highest-graded run defender in the NFL in 2019, per PFF. Campbell has multiple Pro Bowls and All-Pro nods to his name and figures to have a profound impact on Baltimore’s defense.

Wolfe is entering his ninth NFL season after playing for the Broncos since 2012. Last season, he suited up in 12 games before suffering a season-ending injury, but not before racking up 34 tackles, 12 QB hits, seven sacks and a forced fumble. His 2019 sack total represented a career-best mark.

Brandon Williams is back in the fold and will slide over to his more natural position of nose tackle with Michael Pierce no longer in the mix. Jihad Ward was re-signed after a fairly impactful short stint with the team last season.

The Ravens also drafted a pair of defensive tackles in Justin Madubuike and Broderick Washington Jr., the latter of whom figures to compete with Daylon Mack and Justin Ellis for a roster spot.

Poll

Where would you rank the Ravens in the DL ranking?

This poll is closed

  • 71%
    First
    (211 votes)
  • 25%
    Second
    (75 votes)
  • 2%
    Third
    (7 votes)
  • 0%
    Fourth
    (1 vote)
294 votes total Vote Now

3) Cincinnati Bengals

Starters: D.J. Reader, Geno Atkins

Depth Chart: Josh Tupou, Andrew Brown, Renell Wren

Because of their 4-3 defensive scheme, Carlos Dunlap and Sam Hubbard are listed as the Bengals’ starting defensive ends. However, for the purposes of these rankings, they’ll be left off of this list and instead placed in the edge-rusher category.

Looking at the team’s other players, Cincinnati’s front-seven appears to be one of the more stronger position groups on the roster. Like Tuitt and Heyward for the Steelers, the combination of Geno Atkins and D.J. Reader should be a tough assignment for any offensive line group this season.

Atkins wasn’t quite the same force in 2019 as he has been in the past. His sack total dropped from 10 in 2018 to 4.5 last season and his QB hits fell from 19 to 10. Additionally, he had 11 less QB hits than the year prior.

Whether this was indicative of a decline or simply a product of him playing alongside an injured-riddle, talent-deprived group is subject to debate. Even in a down year, though, Atkins still mustered a PFF grade of 76.2 and racked up 47 combined tackles, tied for the second-highest mark of his career.

Cincinnati’s biggest free agent addition this year was DT D.J. Reader, who they signed from the Texans. Reader is a tremendous run-stuffer but demonstrated some pass-rushing prowess in 2019, too, which was the best season of his career thus far.

Reader posted 52 tackles, 13 QB hits, 2.5 sacks and six TFL, good for a strong PFF grade of 86.7 on the season. He earned himself a big contract from the Bengals and they’ll be hoping he can replicate his performance from last year moving forward.

Poll

Where would you rank the Bengals in the DL ranking?

This poll is closed

  • 5%
    First
    (10 votes)
  • 7%
    Second
    (13 votes)
  • 50%
    Third
    (86 votes)
  • 36%
    Fourth
    (63 votes)
172 votes total Vote Now

4) Cleveland Browns

Starters: Sheldon Richardson, Larry Ogunjobi

Depth Chart: Andrew Billings, Jordan Elliott

Like the Bengals, the Browns’ 4-3 defensive scheme will keep Myles Garrett and Oliver Vernon, among others, off this list. Focusing more on their interior defensive lineman, the Browns are a pretty solidified fourth place in the division.

Sheldon Richardson is entering his second season with the team after a pretty strong debut campaign. In 2019, Richardson racked up 62 tackles, three sacks and forced three fumbles, too, while suiting up in all 16 games.

Next to him in the lineup is Larry Ogunjobi. Despite posting a solid stat line of 5.5 sacks, 13 QB hits and 10 TFL last season, Ogunjobi’s PFF grade a measly 56.0 - indicating that the box score may not tell his whole story.

Ogunjobi, 26, is entering the final year of his contract and could use a stronger showing in 2020 to earn himself a new deal. He’ll likely be pushed for playing time by Jordan Elliott, a talented fourth-round pick out of Missiouri in this year’s draft, or Andrew Billings.

Billings is an AFC North native, having played the past three seasons with the Bengals before signing with Cleveland in free agency.

Poll

Where would you rank the Browns in the DL ranking?

This poll is closed

  • 2%
    First
    (5 votes)
  • 3%
    Second
    (6 votes)
  • 28%
    Third
    (48 votes)
  • 65%
    Fourth
    (110 votes)
169 votes total Vote Now