The 2021 NFL season is fast approaching. As usual, the AFC North is primed to be one of the league’s toughest divisions. Three teams from the division made the playoffs last season with two of them winning a playoff game. This had led to much speculation about which team will stand atop the AFC North rankings at the end of the season.
In this article, I will go over the biggest X-factor for each team in the AFC North for the upcoming season.
Lamar Jackson’s new weapons
From contracting COVID-19, to an ever-changing patchwork offensive line, and a less-than-stellar set of targets to throw to, the 2019 MVP quarterback faced his share of adversity in 2020. General manager Eric DeCosta made sure to attack the last issue this offseason. After signing veteran free agent wide receiver Sammy Watkins, DeCosta selected Minnesota wide receiver Rashod Bateman in the first round of the draft and doubled down by selecting Oklahoma State receiver Tylan Wallace in the fourth round.
These three new weapons will pair with 2019 first-round receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown and one of the NFL’s top tight ends in Mark Andrews to give the Ravens a much-improved group of targets on paper. How this group performs for Jackson will have massive implications for how good Baltimore can be.
Steelers’ new offensive line
The Steelers are currently set to field an almost entirely new offensive line this season. Pittsburgh made headlines with the release of Pro Bowl guard David DeCastro late in June. This was not the only Pro Bowler the Steelers lost upfront, as veteran center Maurkice Pouncey decided to retire following last season. DeCastro and Pouncey have been linchpins for Pittsburgh’s offensive for the last decade. The Steelers also let left tackle Alejandro Villanueva and guard Matt Feiler walk in free agency.
Former Pro Bowler Trai Turner was quickly signed to replace DeCastro at right guard. Pittsburgh’s offensive line will presumably consist of Chukwuma Okorafor at left tackle, Kevin Dotson at left guard, rookie Kendrick Green at center, Turner at right guard, and Zach Banner at right tackle. Okorafor is the only returning starter from last season and was the lowest-rated player by PFF of the 2020 unit.
After spending their first-round pick on running back Najee Harris, Pittsburgh needs their offensive line to perform better after fielding one of the worst rushing attacks in the league in 2020. The Steelers will need to lessen the load on the 38-year-old quarterback Ben Roethlisberger this season.
Browns’ retooled defense
The Browns not only made the playoffs for the first time in over a decade last season, they also won a playoff game in Pittsburgh and nearly upset the Chiefs on the road as well. Quarterback Baker Mayfield finished the season incredibly strong. Mayfield will have consistency for the first time in his young career with the same offensive system.
The Browns also return all five starters from one of the league’s best offensive lines and potentially the NFL’s best running back duo in Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. Wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. will return from injury as well to rejoin Jarvis Landry and tight end Austin Hooper in the passing game.
With such a potent offense, Cleveland invested heavily in their defense this offseason. Safety John Johnson III and cornerback Troy Hill were signed in free agency to help shore up a shaky secondary. The Browns also spent their first-round pick on Northwestern cornerback Greg Newsome II. The Browns landed one of the presumed steals of the draft with Notre Dame linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah in the second round. Other notable free-agent acquisitions include defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, defensive end Takkarist McKinley, linebacker Anthony Walker, and defensive tackle Malik Jackson.
Cleveland needs their defense to take a step in order to overcome Baltimore and Kansas City in the AFC.
The return of Joe Burrow
The Bengals are currently the odd man out when predicting who will win the AFC North this season. While they may still be a year or two away from playoff contention, the return of the 2020 No. 1 overall pick at quarterback will surely boost Cincinnati’s win total this upcoming season. Burrow suffered a torn ACL and MCL in Week 11 of his rookie season. Since then, the Bengals reunited Burrow with his favorite college target in Ja’Marr Chase with their first-round pick. Cincinnati also added some help upfront to their offensive line in the form of veteran offensive tackle Riley Reiff and Clemson guard Jackson Carman in the second round of the draft.
Everything rides on how Burrow performs in his return from injury, however. Before the injury, Burrow attempted 404 passes, completing 264 for 2,688 yards, 13 touchdowns, and five interceptions. Burrow added another 142 yards and three touchdowns on the ground on 37 attempts. Burrow was sacked 32 times and fumbled nine times — two numbers that need to come down in his second season. A second-year leap from Burrow would do wonders for the Bengals’ chances of competing for a spot in the now expanded playoffs.