Don’t sleep on the AFC North. Despite boasting the conference champion, the AFC North has been largely overlooked this offseason, as other divisions have received more attention from fans and media circles alike. Expect that to change if the North has yet another entertaining division race in 2022.
The AFC champion Bengals are the favorites, but the Ravens are primed for a bounce back season after injuries derailed them in 2021. The Browns are also planning to rebound this fall after suffering a disappointing ’21 season. And the Steelers, the team that perhaps benefitted the most from the Ravens and Browns’ recent shortcomings, are entering a new era following Ben Roethlisberger’s retirement.
With OTAs underway, we decided to take a look at each AFC North’s burning question. Let’s start with the team that came up just short of hoisting the Lombardi Trophy just three months ago.
Bengals: Can the Bengals repeat last year’s success?
Since the inception of the Super Bowl, the ’72 Dolphins, ’74 Vikings, ’90-93 Bills, and ’18 Patriots have made it back to the big game a year after losing it. One thing each of those teams had in common was a future Hall of Fame quarterback. The Bengals may also have one in Joe Burrow, who would have led Cincinnati to its first title in February had he had a little more time on his final snap of Super Bowl LVI.
Along with Burrow, Cincinnati boasts arguably the NFL’s best receiving corps, led by Ja’Marr Chase. It aggressively addressed last season’s biggest weakness by signing veteran offensive linemen Ted Karras, Alex Cappa and La’el Collins. Throw in a 1,200-yard running back in Joe Mixon, and you have an offense good enough to lead the Bengals back to the promised land.
If there’s a question in Cincinnati, it’s whether or not the defense can raise its level of play after a so-so regular season but mostly good postseason. Like the offensive line, the Bengals invested in their secondary this offseason, using the draft to acquire defensive backs Daxton Hill, Cam Taylor-Britt and Tycen Anderson. Hill should immediately compete for a starting job, while Taylor-Britt and Anderson could take snaps from Eli Apple and Vonn Bell.
Handling expectations — and the distractions that come with it — is another challenge the Bengals will face. Cincinnati has already had to endure reports of Jessie Bates‘ possible holdout. How well the team remains focused on the task at hand will go a long way in whether or not the Bengals can duplicate — and possibly surpass — last year’s success.
Browns: Where will Baker Mayfield end up?
Mayfield’s decision to skip OTAs is not a surprise given the team’s offseason acquisition of former All-Pro quarterback Deshaun Watson. The team also acquired veterans Jacoby Brissett and Joshua Dobbs to back up Watson during his first season in Cleveland.
Mayfield is due $18.858 million this season after the Browns picked up his fifth-year option last spring. His large salary is likely the main reason why a trade with another team involving Mayfield has yet to materialize. The Panthers and Seahawks, two teams that still have questions at quarterback, are reportedly still open to acquiring Mayfield this offseason.
Injuries largely hindered Mayfield’s play in 2021. In 14 games, Mayfield completed just over 60% of his passes with 3,010 yards with 17 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. He went 6-8 in his 14 starts as the Browns missed the playoffs with an 8-9 record.
Ravens: Is there enough help for Lamar Jackson?
There are questions regarding the short- and long-term future of Jackson, who has put off extension talks despite entering the final year of his rookie contract. While he was a Pro Bowler last year, Jackson went just 7-5 as a starter while throwing nearly as many interceptions (13) as touchdown passes.
Injuries certainly hurt, but a limited receiving corps also impacted Jackson, who was sidelined for the Ravens’ final five games with an injury. Jackson publicly voiced his displeasure after the team traded his top receiver, Marquise Brown, during this year’s draft.
Jackson still has tight end Mark Andrews, who earned All-Pro honors last year after pulling down 107 passes for 1,361 yards and nine touchdowns. He’ll need further production from Rashod Bateman, Devin Duvernay and James Proche, who caught a combined 95 passes and three touchdowns last season. A first-round pick in last year’s draft, Bateman started to catch on last season after missing the season’s first five games. He was especially productive in both of Baltimore’s games against Cleveland, as he caught a combined 11 of 12 targets in those contests.
Jackson will further be aided by the returns of running backs J.K. Dobbins, Gus Edwards and Justice Hill, who each suffered season-ending injuries before the start of the ’21 season. One would hope that Baltimore’s backs will reduce Jackson’s rushing workload while saving himself from taking more hits.
This is a pivotal season for Jackson and the Ravens. If Jackson and the team thrive, a long-term deal between the two sides seems extremely likely. But if things go sideways, Jackson may try to test his worth on the open market, assuming the Ravens don’t try to franchise tag him.
Steelers: Who will be the team’s Week 1 starting QB?
It looked as if Mason Rudolph would finally get his chance to be Pittsburgh’s starter following Ben Roethlisberger’s retirement announcement in January. Things quickly changed after the Steelers signed Mitchell Trubisky to a two-year deal, then used the 20th overall pick in the draft to select former Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett.
Rudolph now finds himself as the unofficial third wheel in the race to become Big Ben’s heir apparent, though coach Mike Tomlin has said numerous times that the position battle is anyone’s to lose.
Each quarterback brings something unique to the competition. Pickett brings the promise of a first-round pick. Trubisky is a former Pro Bowler with more than 50 career NFL starts (including playoff experience) under his belt. Rudolph is the Steelers’ longest-tenured quarterback as he enters his fifth season with the team.
How will this play out? Trubisky will likely start training camp at the top on the team’s initial depth chart, but don’t expect the Steelers to name a starting quarterback until the days leading up to the season opener in Cincinnati. By that point, it will probably be easy to figure out who won the job based on how each player performed in training camp and during the preseason. One thing we know for sure is that no decisions will be made during this juncture of the offseason program.
“Nobody’s going to win a job or lose a job out here in shorts in May,” Tomlin said during Day 1 of OTAs.
Steelers fans shouldn’t sleep on Chris Oladokun, the team’s final pick in the draft. If he has a good summer, the Steelers’ “other” quarterback may do enough to convince the team’s brass to keep him while releasing one of the team’s other quarterbacks. That quarterback would likely be Rudolph, who carries a cap hit of $4 million.