The bulk of NFL free agent signings are now in the rear view as the start of training camp is only days away. While some additions could still be forthcoming, we have a good idea of where each AFC North team’s depth chart stands ahead of the 2023 season.
Looking at the defensive side of the ball, how does every team’s positional groups stack up to one another in the division?
Let’s break down the opposite side of the trenches up front — the defensive line. This will include both interior defensive lineman, such as nose tackles, as well as edge players (outside linebacker/defensive ends). The base defense personnel groupings differ between each AFC North.
1. Pittsburgh Steelers
Starters: T.J. Watt, Larry Ogunjobi, Keeanu Benton, Cam Heyward, Alex Highsmith
Depth: DeMarvin Leal, Markus Golden, Isaiahh Loudermilk, Nick Herbig
The Steelers continue to have one of the league’s best defensive lines, anchored by longtime veteran Cam Heyward and T.J. Watt. Even in his age-33 season, Heyward recorded 10.5 sacks and tied his career-high in quarterback hits (23) in 2022, showing he still has plenty left in the tank. Watt missed seven games due to injury in the middle of the year.
The emergence of Alex Highsmith opposite Watt at edge rusher is a strengthening development for this group overall. Highsmith, now entering his fourth season, had 14.5 sacks and 20 quarterback hits in 2022. The Steelers added Keaanu Benton in the second round of the draft, who could immediately step in as a starting-caliber interior talent.
2. Cincinnati Bengals
Starters: Sam Hubbard, D.J. Reader, B.J. Hill, Trey Hendrickson
Depth: Joseph Ossai, Myles Murphy, Zach Carter, Josh Tupou
Trey Hendrickson earned a second-straight Pro Bowl nod in 2022 despite a small drop in production, albeit in nearly 100 less total snaps. He’s still been one of the league’s more consistent sack-getters over the past few years. Sam Hubbard on the other side gives the Bengals a high-end edge rusher duo.
They’ve supported that with youthful depth in recent years by adding Joseph Ossai and Myles Murphy in the draft. Murphy, a late first-round pick this year, could be a potential Round 1 steal. D.J. Reader and B.J. Hill provide solid play on the interior both against the run and with pass-rushing capability.
3. Cleveland Browns
Starters: Myles Garrett, Jordan Elliott, Dalvin Tomlinson, Za’Darius Smith
Depth: Alex Wright, Siaki Ika, Maurice Hurst, Ogbo Okoronkwo
Myles Garrett continues to produce at an All-Pro level and is on the cusp of Defensive Player of the Year recognition. He had 16 sacks in 2022 for a second-straight season and now has five consecutive 10+ sack campaigns. Garrett has carried the Browns’ defensive line for a number of years now, but they made a key offseason trade for Za’Darius Smith.
Smith will replace Jadeaveon Clowney at the opposite edge rusher spot and brings more juice as a pass-rusher. Smith has 36 combined sacks in his last three full seasons, excluding 2021 where he played only 18 snaps total. This Garrett-Smith duo is dynamic, but the Browns’ interior defensive line has been a much weaker spot. Dalvin Tomlinson, who was signed in free agency, should provide a significant upgrade in run defense.
4. Baltimore Ravens
Starters: Justin Madubuike, Michael Pierce, Broderick Washington, Odafe Oweh, Tyus Bowser
Depth: Travis Jones, David Ojabo, Tavius Robinson, Brent Urban
The Ravens lost two key veteran defensive line pieces this offseason in Calais Campbell and Justin Houston. While it’s possible the latter could still be re-signed, as-is the Ravens will be relying on internal development from a group of young players.
Interior players Justin Madubuike, Broderick Washington, and Travis Jones will all be relied on more with Campbell gone. Houston’s departure, along with another veteran in Jason Pierre-Paul, opens the door for Odafe Oweh, David Ojabo, and rookie Tavius Robinson to step forward with increased snaps at edge rusher. Michael Pierce and Tyus Bowser are the only veteran starters in this mix.
Which defensive line group is the best in the AFC North?
This poll is closed