clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Pre-draft AFC North position rankings: Defense

Pittsburgh Steelers v Baltimore Ravens Photo by Benjamin Solomon/Getty Images

The AFC North has had an active offseason thus far. Free agency provided the Ravens, Steelers, Browns and Bengals with opportunities to acquire players and improve their rosters. There are likely additional acquisitions coming down the pipeline, but the primary focus is on the draft — which is now just days away.

With this in mind, let’s take a look at how each team’s defensive position groups stack up compared to one another at this juncture. Last week’s article about the offensive side of the ball can be found here.


Defensive Line —

1) Pittsburgh Steelers

Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, Tyson Alualu, Isaiah Buggs, Carlos Davis

2) Baltimore Ravens

Calais Campbell, Derek Wolfe, Brandon Williams, Justin Madubuike, Justin Ellis

3) Cleveland Browns

Malik Jackson, Andrew Billings, Jordan Elliott, Sheldon Day

4) Cincinnati Bengals

D.J. Reader, Larry Ogunjobi, Mike Daniels, Kahlil McKenzie

The Steelers’ longtime duo of Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt is still incredibly formidable. Heyward’s PFF grade in 2020 was 89.7 and Tuitt racked up 12 sacks. They have some exciting young talent, too, in Tyson Alualu and Isaiah Buggs. How the rankings should look after Pittsburgh is up for debate.

Baltimore is keeping their defensive line core intact after re-signing Derek Wolfe and Justin Ellis in free agency. Wolfe, Brandon Williams and Calais Campbell makes for a strong trio of veterans. The x-factor, though, could be rising sophomore Justin Madubuike. He flashed a lot of upside in spurts last season.

The Browns lost Larry Ogunjobi this offseason and replaced him with Malik Jackson. They’ll also be getting Andrew Billings on the field for the first time after he opted out of the 2020 season. Jordan Elliott has some upside as a rising sophomore talent.

D.J. Reader and Mike Daniels, who the Bengals signed last offseason, played a combined 16 games in 2020. Neither were particularly great in their time on the field, though that could change next season and the Bengals did nab Ogunjobi from Cleveland. Losing a longtime stalwart like Geno Atkins could sting.


Edge Rusher —

1) Cleveland Browns

Myles Garrett, Jadeveon Clowney, Takkarist McKinley, Joe Jackson

2) Pittsburgh Steelers

T.J. Watt, Alex Highsmith, Jamir Jones, Cassius Marsh

3) Cincinnati Bengals

Trey Hendrickson, Sam Hubbard, Khalid Kareem, Amani Bledsoe

4) Baltimore Ravens

Tyus Bowser, Pernell McPhee, Jaylon Ferguson

As it pertains to edge rushers, there’s a clear two-headed race at the top of the division between the Steelers and Browns. Who should be ranked first is up for the debate, but I’ll lean towards Cleveland at this current juncture.

T.J. Watt is a little better than Myles Garrett, but the difference is not overwhelming. It’s the Steelers’ subtraction of Bud Dupree and the Browns’ addition of Jadeveon Clowney that could give Cleveland a slight edge. The Browns also added Takkarist McKinley. The Steelers will be looking to Alex Highsmith to step into a bigger role unless they draft someone early.

The Bengals lost Carl Lawson and Carlos Dunlap in free agency. They did sign Trey Hendrickson, though, who ranked second in the NFL in sacks last season with 13.5. Sam Hubbard is a decent starter and Khalid Kareem could improve in his second year.

Baltimore slots in as fourth here after losing Matthew Judon and Yannick Ngaouke in free agency. They re-signed Tyus Bowser and Pernell McPhee. They’re likely to draft an edge rusher early and sign a veteran, too, such as Justin Houston. These two moves would certainly strengthen their outside linebacker room.


Linebackers —

1) Pittsburgh Steelers

Devin Bush, Vince Williams, Robert Spillane, Christian Kuntz

2) Baltimore Ravens

L.J. Fort, Patrick Queen, Malik Harrison, Chris Board

3) Cleveland Browns

Sione Takitaki, Mack Wilson, Anthony Walker, Jacob Phillips

4) Cincinnati Bengals

Germaine Pratt, Logan Wilson, Akeem Davis-Gaithers, Jordan Evans

The division doesn’t field particularly strong linebacker corps overall, but it’s certainly not devoid of talent. Devin Bush is the most talented player listed above. His return to the field combined with the re-signing of Vince Williams gives the Steelers an edge. Robert Spillane filled in for Bush admirably in 2020, too.

The Ravens are also returning the same linebacker corps after re-signing L.J. Fort and Chris Board in free agency. Fort is a solid all-around veteran and one of the better linebackers in the division. Patrick Queen should be more consistent next season and Malik Harrison could be a sleeper with more playing time.

Cleveland is also banking on internal improvement from youngsters in Mack Wilson, Sione Takitaki and Jacob Phillips. They signed Anthony Walker to a one-year deal in free agency, who should bring some stability to the position. They could potentially look to add another linebacker in the draft.

The Bengals don’t have a single linebacker on their roster that was drafted before 2017. Two of their starters are rising sophomores in Logan Wilson and Akeem Davis-Gathers, while Germaine Pratt is entering his third season. This youth offers some excitement but none of these players have been particularly good so far.


Cornerback —

1) Baltimore Ravens

Marlon Humphrey, Marcus Peters, Jimmy Smith, Tavon Young, Anthony Averett

2) Cleveland Browns

Denzel Ward, Troy Hill, Greedy Williams, M.J. Stewart Jr.

3) Pittsburgh Steelers

Joe Haden, Cameron Sutton, Justin Layne, James Pierre

4) Cincinnati Bengals

Trae Waynes, Mike Hilton, Chidobe Awuzie, Eli Apple

There’s no disputing the Ravens have the best set of cornerbacks in the division. Marlon Humphrey is a top-tier player at the position and he’s flanked by one of the better No. 2 corners in the NFL in Marcus Peters. If Tavon Young can stay healthy, this group is only more formidable.

The Browns’ pass defense was subpar in 2020 but should be much improved. They signed an underrated slot corner in Troy Hill and will be getting Denzel Ward and Greedy Williams back from injury. Ward is a high-level CB1 when healthy and Williams has good upside.

The Steelers could be in for a step back after losing Mike Hilton in free agency, a key contributor in the slot. They’ve also yet to re-sign Steven Nelson. If they

Cincinnati re-shaped their core in free agency by poaching Mike Hilton from Pittsburgh and signing Chidobe Awuzie and Eli Apple. They lost a capable starter in William Jackson II, though, and it remains to be seen how these new pieces fit together.


Safety —

1) Cleveland Browns

John Johnson III, Ronnie Harrison Jr., Grant Delpit, Elijah Benton, Sheldrick Redwine

2) Pittsburgh Steelers

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Terrell Edmunds, Antoine Brooks Jr., Miles Killebrew

3) Cincinnati Bengals

Jessie Bates III, Vonn Bell, Ricardo Allen, Brandon Wilson

4) Baltimore Ravens

DeShon Elliott, Chuck Clark, Anthony Levine Sr., Geno Stone, Jordan Richards

This is a difficult position group to rank. All four teams in the division have strong safeties and frankly, you could reverse this order entirely or re-position the hierarchy and have a solid argument.

The Browns made a huge splash in free agency by signing Josh Johnson III, one of the best safeties in the league. Johnson should have a big impact on Cleveland’s defense. Him and Ronnie Harrison Jr. makes for a strong pairing. A healthy Grant Delpit could be a major X-factor after an injury-plagued rookie season.

Pittsburgh and Cincinnati are similar cases. Both teams have a top-tier safety (Minkah Fitzpatrick, Jessie Bates III) but their second starters leave much to be desired (Terrell Edmunds, Vonn Bell). Bates was PFF’s No. 1 ranked safety in the NFL in 2020 but a slight edge could go to the Steelers here since the Bengals’ pass defense was very poor.

The Ravens’ starting duo of Chuck Clark and DeShon Elliott is underrated, and they’re likely to add another piece to the mix in the draft. Clark and Elliott mesh well together but neither are quite the individual talents of Johnson, Fitzpatrick, or Bates.


Agree with these rankings? Disagree? Chime in with your own thoughts below!