NFL Draft Preview: AFC North

Pittsburgh Steelers

By Heath Newman

The Pittsburgh Steelers enter the 2021 NFL Draft with a handful of needs due to imploding last season following an 11-0 start. With quarterback Ben Roethlisberger slated to return for what appears to be his final season, adding depth in the backfield is crucial to much needed offensive production. The Steelers held the NFL’s worst rush attack in 2020, and have had little success at finding a replacement for Le’Veon Bell since his departure in 2018. There is perhaps no greater running back prospect in this year’s draft than Alabama’s Najee Harris, a violent runner with terrific hands. His addition to the team would certainly take some of the load off Big Ben’s shoulders and diversify the Steelers’ stagnant offensive game plan. This would also allow Juju Smith-Schuster, Chase Claypool and Diontae Johnson to generate more production from the wideout position. 

However, the Steelers may forgo spending their 24th overall pick on a running back and opt to select a new center to anchor the offensive line. Maurkice Pouncey, who perfectly embodied the gritty and tenacious attitude of Steeler football, will be sorely missed. Nevertheless, some excellent prospects will likely be on the board for the Steelers in the first round, including Alabama’s Landon Dickerson. With his history of injuries, Dickerson would be an extremely high risk, high reward pick for the first round. 

While Pittsburgh is in dire need of offensive support, I cannot consciously rule out the possibility of the Steelers sticking to their roots and selecting a defensive player with their first pick. The Steelers desperately need help at the corner position with the departure of Mike Hilton, so perhaps Greg Newsome II out of Northwestern or Florida State’s Asante Samuel Jr. would be viable options at pick 24. I do not anticipate the Steelers selecting another edge rusher or linebacker here, but I certainly would not be surprised if they did. 

Finally, a sneaky possibility for the Steelers first pick could be the highly touted Ohio State quarterback, Justin Fields. With Pittsburgh’s propensity to trade up on draft day and the thought that Fields’ value may drop, the Steelers could elect to trade up and select Fields. He would have a year to learn from a Hall of Fame quarterback and would be groomed to become the next franchise QB in Pittsburgh. Though an unlikely outcome, Coach Mike Tomlin was seen at Field’s pro day, reminding him: “You know who we came here to see.” I guess we’ll just have to wait until April 29 to determine whether Coach T was impressed enough.

Cincinnati Bengals

By Zach Schiller

After selecting Joe Burrow with the first pick in last year’s NFL draft, the Bengals appear to have found their quarterback of the future. Now the team needs to surround Burrow with other talent on offense to facilitate his growth. Cincinnati has two directions they could go in at pick number five to accomplish this goal. One option could be to take one of the draft’s elite offensive lineman in order to protect their franchise quarterback, who suffered thirty-two sacks with the last one leading to a torn ACL that prematurely ended Burrow’s season. This would likely lead to the team drafting tackle Penei Sewell, who is widely considered the top offensive line prospect in the draft. The Oregon product opted out of this last college football season in order to prepare for the draft, but was an absolute monster in his sophomore season. He was a unanimous All-American selection and took home the Outland Trophy as the nation’s top interior offensive lineman. He would go a long way to keeping Burrow more upright this season. 

Alternatively, the Bengals could instead opt to take one of the draft’s elite playmakers with their first pick. This draft is deep in tackles, which could lead Cincinnati to forgo taking Sewell in favor of giving Burrow another weapon. In this case, the Bengals would most likely take either Florida tight end Kyle Pitts or Louisiana State University (LSU) wide receiver Ja’marr Chase. Pitts is a freak athlete with crazy measurables. He’s six-foot-six, weighs 239 pounds and ran a 4.44 40-yard-dash at his pro day. On top of that, he has excellent hands, an ability to go up and get the fifty-fifty balls and the versatility to line up anywhere on the field. He is a matchup nightmare. Chase is a pro-ready wide receiver who dominated college football when he last suited up for the Tigers in 2019. He led the nation with 84 catches for 1,780 yards and 20 touchdowns while on the same team as last year’s rookie superstar wide receiver Justin Jefferson. The Bengals could look to reunite Burrow with his favorite college target and form a three-headed monster of young receivers with Chase, Tyler Boyd, and Tee Higgins.

Baltimore Ravens

By Aaron Silverstein

Last season for the Baltimore Ravens was an interesting one. The team stumbled out of the gates and were hit harder by the coronavirus than any other team in the league. Down the stretch, however, the Ravens mounted an impressive string of victories and squeaked into the playoffs, notching a victory on Wild Card Weekend against the Tennessee Titans before being outmatched by the Buffalo Bills in the divisional round. The Ravens hold the twenty seventh overall pick in this year’s first round and have a plethora of options. One player you can expect them to target if he is still on the board is Miami edge rusher Gregory Rousseau. Baltimore lost Matthew Judon and Yannick Ngakoue during the offseason, and the six-foot-seven Rousseau has a ton of athletic upside. This pick could help bolster the Ravens’ defense as they look to continue to give the immensely talented and continually improving Lamar Jackson every chance to win. Speaking of Jackson, perhaps the Ravens will spend their second round selection on a wideout, as the team is still looking for that dynamic player on the outside who will be Lamar’s number one target of the future. Tyan Wallace out of Oklahoma State has the potential to be a big play threat and add to an already explosive offense that runs through Jackson.

Cleveland Browns

By Clark Austin

The Cleveland Browns are coming off a strong season in which they snapped the franchise’s long playoff drought and defeated their bitter rivals, the Pittsburgh Steelers, in decisive fashion to advance to the divisional round. The Brown’s offense continually improved throughout the season and flashed tremendous potential, even with the absence of wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. However, the Brown’s glaring weakness and point of emphasis for the draft is to improve the defense. The Browns already began addressing the defensive side of the ball with the signings of several free agents including safety John Johnson Jr., edge rusher Jadeveon Clowney, cornerback Troy Hill and linebacker Anthony Walker Jr. The Browns sit at pick no. 26, and are poised to pick the best defensive player available. Their list of biggest needs includes defensive tackle following the departure of free agent Larry Ogunjobi and the release of Sheldon Richardson. Another need is middle linebacker with last year’s starter BJ Goodson likely not returning. The Browns have added free agents in the secondary with Johnson Jr. and Troy Hill and to the edge with Clowney but could still add depth to one of these position groups in the first few rounds of the draft. There’s also a potential that the Browns could select a wide receiver if they do opt to trade Beckham Jr., who’s recovering from a torn ACL from early this past season. Some potential draft targets for the Browns include Alabama defensive tackle Christian Barmore, Michigan edge rusher Kwity Paye, Florida State cornerback Asante Samuel Jr. and Tulsa linebacker Zaven Collins. General Manager Andrew Berry could also consider trading back at certain points in the first few rounds to continue to add draft capital while still drafting players high on their draft board, such as last year with safety Grant Delpit. The offense has no needs for starters but could use extra depth from later round picks towards interior offensive lineman and another wide receiver.