Four Downs
Offseason analysis of the NFL, division by division

Four Downs: AFC North

Baltimore Ravens WR Marquise Brown
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

Baltimore Ravens

Biggest Need: Wide receiver

It's possible that the promising but inconsistent Marquise Brown is already the best wideout Baltimore has ever drafted, a damning statement about the team's history of development in that department. Brown was the 55th-ranked wide receiver by DYAR in 2020, in case a statistical bulwark was required for backing what everyone saw with their eyes. Clearly, the Ravens need reinforcements at the position, preferably a true No. 1 type player whom Lamar Jackson can target both in and out of structure.

Unfortunately, the likes of free agents Allen Robinson or Kenny Golladay won't come cheap, and the Ravens don't have a great deal of cap flexibility—some serious can-kicking and manipulation would be needed to sign a top-tier wideout. A more possible scenario might be someone like Marvin Jones, who remains reliable if a shade or two below elite. Even he might be a stretch to acquire, however. The team will almost certainly draft a wideout early, regardless of free agency. The 27th pick in the first round is a bit rich for the top-heavy receiver corps available in April, but at No. 58 someone along the lines of Nico Collins of Michigan, Minnesota's Rashod Bateman, or LSU's Terrace Marshall should be in play. Baltimore doubled up in the slot in last year's draft; don't be surprised if they pick yet another receiver—a perimeter threat—on Day 3 this time around.

Major Free Agents: Matt Judon, OLB; Yannick Ngakoue, DE; Derek Wolfe, DE; Tyus Bowser, OLB, Pernell McPhee, OLB; Willie Snead, WR

After playing on the franchise tag in 2020, Matthew Judon will be off in search of a big deal. There is a small chance he gets franchised a second time, though his six sacks and 25 pressures don't really justify that kind of money. The Ravens may be desperate enough, however, given they only have a single pass-rusher under contract at the moment (Jaylon Ferguson). Yannick Ngakoue was asked to come in and provide an immediate jolt, which he didn't accomplish. A player of his voltage remains a need for the Ravens, who were an OK but hardly dominant 13th in adjusted sack rate; toss out one seven-sack game against the Bengals' struggling offensive line and Baltimore had 32 sacks in 15 games. Ngakoue should have plenty of suitors, however, including teams for whom he seems a better scheme fit. The same is true of Derek Wolfe, Tyus Bowser, and Pernell McPhee—Baltimore can't afford to lose the entirety of its pass-rush depth, but none of the three will be an automatic re-sign either. The team's best bet might be a discarded cap casualty from another team, one who won't ask for top dollars to play in purple. As for Willie Snead, see above—the Ravens need all the quality pass-catchers they can get, and Snead qualifies. His sample size was small (48 targets) but his efficiency (9.9% DVOA) was the equivalent of Tyler Lockett's. But with the all the young receivers who need development, and the likelihood of reinforcements, Snead will probably be squeezed out.

Cincinnati Bengals

Biggest Need: Offensive line

That the Bengals need to better protect their meal ticket quarterback, Joe Burrow, is hardly a revelation. What is questionable is the puzzling lack of commitment over the last half-decade to improving the line—this from a franchise that has historically had good-to-great front fives. If seeing Burrow writhing in agony from a severe knee injury didn't at last slap some sense into the Cincinnati front office, nothing will. The team did, at least, make a sensible first step into improving the unit, firing offensive line coach Jim Turner, a highly suspect hire who still managed to fall short of expectations in his two seasons shepherding the big uglies. The circle is unbroken, as Turner was replaced by Frank Pollack, who turned in a strong 2018 in Cincy before being let go in favor of Turner.

Pollack will be instrumental in deciding which free agents and draft picks to target. There are a plethora of options, from dream-big tackles Taylor Moton and Trent Williams to more realistic types such as tackle Darryl Williams and guards Joe Thuney and Brandon Scherff, among others. The Bengals will almost assuredly bid for the services of at least one if not more; their success with the wallet will determine whether they target the line with their No. 5 pick (Penei Sewell, if he's there, or perhaps Rashawn Slater of Northwestern), or look for reinforcements on Day 2, where myriad draftable linemen should be available.

Major Free Agents: Carl Lawson, DE; William Jackson III, CB; A.J. Green, WR; John Ross, WR; Mackensie Alexander, CB; Kevin Huber, P

Cincy is in a tricky position with its two major free agents—Carl Lawson and William Jackson are good, not great, but they are also two of the very few impact defenders on a poor unit. Worse, the corner and edge-rusher markets are thin this year, meaning the Bengals may have to overpay to keep one or both, and neither would be easily replaced with an incoming signee. Given their putrid pass rush (dead last in sacks and adjusted sack rate), Lawson is the priority. Meanwhile, A.J. Green leaves on a down note after a sterling career in stripes, while former top-10 pick John Ross just leaves.

Cleveland Browns

Biggest Need: Defensive line

Cleveland's secondary is weak (25th against the pass in DVOA) and injury-ravaged, but if healthy there is some talent around, led by Denzel Ward and the highly drafted but seldom available LSU tandem of Greedy Williams and Grant Delpit. But the likely departures of Olivier Vernon and Larry Ogunjobi up front in free agency, with Sheldon Richardson's future hazy at best, could leave superstar end Myles Garrett marooned on the island of endless double teams. Even with Garrett's 12 sacks and four forced fumbles, Cleveland was just 19th in adjusted sack rate, while also struggling against the run up front (24th in adjusted line yards).

Cleveland has a decent amount of cap room (12th-most according to Spotrac). In much the way they signed Jack Conklin and Austin Hooper in the opening hours last year, the Browns could immediately target the few top pass-rushers available, such as Carl Lawson or Yannick Ngakoue, thus simultaneously weakening their AFC North rivals. Their success in doling out the green will determine how the team approaches the draft. Best defender available is the likely scenario at No. 26, with needs at all three levels. Indeed, all four picks the Browns have in the first two days of the draft could be devoted to that side of the ball.

Major Free Agents: Olivier Vernon, DE; Karl Joseph, S; Larry Ogunjobi, DT; Rashard Higgins, WR; B.J. Goodson, ILB; Malcolm Smith, OLB; Kevin Johnson, CB; Terrance Mitchell, CB; Cody Parkey, K

Rashard Higgins was third in the league in WR DVOA, quietly moving the chains while Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham (in absentia) hogged the headlines. Alas, the LSU twosome (the Browns love them some Bayou Bengals!) also hog the dough in the wideout room, to the tune of over $30 million combined for 2021. Given Beckham's inconsistency and injuries in Cleveland, losing Higgins would be a blow. Malcolm Smith and Terrance Mitchell played far more snaps than their talents dictated, but as depth pieces they deserve to be brought back. Kevin Johnson and B.J. Goodson played more snaps than their talents dictated, and don't deserve to be brought back. Olivier Vernon is a pass-rushing force (he averages half a sack per game over his nine-year career) when he isn't injured, which is all too rare over the last several seasons. Unless he finds zero love on the market and crawls back for a cheap deal, consider him gone.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Biggest Need: Offensive line

The attrition of aging and lack of talent, along with the sustained effects felt by the loss of offensive line coach/genius Mike Munchak in 2019, finally caught up with the Steelers in 2020. Pittsburgh was dead last in adjusted line yards, and while a quick passing scheme and somewhat better pass-blocking allowed them to be tops in the NFL in adjusted sack rate, it was clear by season's end that an infusion of young talent was desperately needed. Center Maurkice Pouncey has retired and left tackle Alejandro Villanueva won't be back. Indeed, the Steelers currently have just a single tackle (Chukwuma Okorafor) under contract.

Unfortunately, top-end (or even mid-level) free agency likely isn't a pool the Steelers can dive into this year, given their existing payroll constraints, unless Ben Roethlisberger agrees to volunteer his services in 2021. Using at least one of their top picks on a lineman seems mandatory. If the likes of Christian Darrisaw from Virginia Tech or Sam Cosmi of Texas fell to No. 24, either would be hard to pass up. Oklahoma's versatile Creed Humphrey could be a second-round target, and a natural to eventually replace Pouncey in the middle of the line. Offensive line is a position of depth in the draft, and the Steelers have multiple needs to fill up front.

Major Free Agents: Bud Dupree, OLB; Tyson Alualu, DE; JuJu Smith-Schuster, WR; Matt Feiler, OG; Alejandro Villanueva, OT; Zach Banner, OT; Cam Sutton, CB; Jordan Perry, P; James Conner, RB; Chris Wormly, DT; Sean Davis, S

Salary cap realities mean Bud Dupree and JuJu Smith-Schuster are almost certainly gone (and how the two are viewed by Steelers fans has completely reversed in the last couple of years, with it now being a case of "You, me, and Dupree" versus "Don't let the door hit your JuJu on the way out"). Roethlisberger's contract restructuring, should it happen, will determine who else departs—which may include the quarterback himself if the dollars don't work. Yes, it helped that Maurkice Pouncey and Vance McDonald chose to retire; regardless, Pittsburgh is more likely to cut players under contract than it is to aggressively sign outside free agents or re-sign their own. Only Tyson Alualu is anything close to a priority; the team won't punt away 2021, but internally they have to feel like a retrenchment is in order to get back to truly competing in 2022.

Comments

6 comments, Last at 24 Feb 2021, 12:15pm

1 Villanueva

How can you be sure they won't resign the Army Captain?

They need help on the O-line.

5 Ravens biggest need is OL, not WR

John Harbaugh and Eric DeCosta each in their separate end-of-season press conferences, mentioned offensive line as the #1 priority.  The Ravens fan base is the thirstiest for a "True #1 WR" of any in the NFL, and even Ravens fans think they need to address iOL at least as urgently as WR.

Center and RG were a problem for the Ravens all season.  It got worse after the bye.  Three different centers sailed snaps over Lamar's head in games, including the playoffs vs Buffalo and the monsoon game vs New England, and in one or two other games.  At RG, Tyre Phillips routinely misread his assignments leaving pass rushers untouched.  RG Ben Powers was more aware of his assignment, but he seemed to struggle to anchor, at least against Buffalo.  

RT became an issue after Ronnie Stanley went down with the broken ankle, and Orlando Brown switched over from the right side to the left.  Brown has made noises this offseason about maybe wanting a trade so he can play LT somewhere else, after Stanley comes back.  If Brown goes, that makes the Ravens OL situation that much worse.

I expect the Ravens to either sign a big-name at Center in free agency (Corey Linsley? David Andrews?) or draft one of the top guys with an early pick (Creed Humphrey? Landon Dickerson?).

It's also a little silly to rank WR as a greater need than pass rusher for the Ravens.  You mentioned this, but maybe buried the lede a little: the Ravens have one single pass rusher under contract for 2021.  And he's not exactly a cornerstone.  Jaylon Ferguson had 1 snack and played 28% of snaps. They can't even put a defense on the field, as the roster stands today.

Pass rusher would be my other expectation for one of the their top two picks.  Names I've seen mocked to the Ravens in the 1st include Azzeez Ojulari, Joseph Ossai, Zaven Collins, Carlos Basham, Jaelen Phillips.  They'll also likely re-sign Tyus Bowser; if they retain Ngakoue too, obviously that would change the urgency at pass rusher on draft day.

The Ravens do need to improve their WR group.  I could see them signing a mid-tier WR like say Marvin Jones or Corey Davis in free agency.  Then using a 3rd-rd pick on one, just as they have the last couple years.  But OL & edge are clearly the bigger priorities.