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The AFC North: Grading the Draft Classes of 2021

Pittsburgh Steelers tight end Pat Freiermuth, Bengals receiver Ja'Marr Chase, Bengals defensive end Joseph Ossai
Photos Courtesy of USA Today Sports

The draft season has come and gone, and so now it is time to grade the draft classes. First up is the AFC North, as each team from the division had a first-round selection and multiple later-round selections. Here are the draft grades for each of the teams in the AFC North.

Baltimore Ravens: B+

Minnesota Golden Gophers wide receiver Rashod Bateman (0) catches a pass over Purdue Boilermakers safety Cory Trice (23) in the second half at TCF Bank Stadium.
Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports
  1. Rashod Bateman, WR, Minnesota (Round 1, 27th Overall)
  2. Jayson Oweh, OLB, Penn State (Round 1, 31st Overall)
  3. Ben Cleveland, OG, Georgia (Round 3, 94th Overall)
  4. Tylan Wallace, WR, Oklahoma State (Round 4, 131st Overall)
  5. Shaun Wade, CB, Ohio State (Round 5, 160th Overall)
  6. Daelin Hayes, DE, Notre Dame (Round 5, 171st Overall)
  7. Ben Mason, FB, Michigan (Round 5, 184th Overall)

The Ravens’ top need appeared at left tackle after trading Orlando Brown to the Kansas City Chiefs right before the draft. While they neglected to use any of their picks on a cornerstone tackle, it was apparent why after the draft when the team signed former Steelers tackle Alejandro Villanueva to a 2-year contract. With their main position of need addressed, they got good value at other positions to put Lamar Jackson and Co. in a good position to make a run at the Super Bowl this year.

Getting Bateman at 27th was of great value and fitted a need for the team. The Ravens spent their first-round pick on receiver Marquise Brown in the 2019 draft, but Brown is better utilized in the slot as opposed to outside. Bateman will step in and immediately become Jacksons’ top red-zone target with his big frame and physicality at the catch point. The team also selected Oklahoma State receiver Tylan Wallace to add more weapons for Jackson in the 4th round. He is also great at the catch point, tying for 4th in the nation last year with 13 contested catches. He will likely trade-off snaps with Brown in the slot.

Ravens Address the Defense

With the first-round pick that the team received from the Chiefs, they opted for Penn State outside linebacker Jayson Oweh. After letting Matthew Judon leave in free agency, the team needed depth at the linebacker position. After just one year as a full-time starter, the Ravens will look to bring Oweh along slowly and refine his technique to go along with his physical traits and athleticism.

The team took two corners as well, Ben Stephens from SMU and Shaun Wade from Ohio State. Wade had a fantastic 2019 playing nickelback with the Buckeyes but struggled in 2020. If he can reach his full potential, he has a chance of starting Week 1. Given that the team signed left tackle Alejandro Villanueva after the draft, the Ravens were able to find great value at other positions of need.

Cleveland Browns: A-

Notre Dame Fighting Irish defensive back Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah (6) celebrates after sacking USC Trojans quarterback Kedon Slovis (9) in the first quarter at Notre Dame Stadium.
Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports
  1. Greg Newsome ll, CB, Northwestern (Round 1, 26th Overall)
  2. Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, ILB, Notre Dame (Round 2, 52nd Overall)
  3. Anthony Schwartz, WR, Auburn (Round 3, 91st Overall)
  4. James Hudson, OT, Cincinnati (Round 4, 110th Overall)
  5. Tommy Togiai, DT, Ohio State (Round 4, 132nd Overall)
  6. Tony Fields ll, ILB, West Virginia (Round 5, 153rd Overall)
  7. Richard LeCounte, S, Georgia (Round 5, 169th Overall)
  8. Demetric Felton, WR/RB, UCLA (Round 6, 211th Overall)

When a team can get two first-round talents using just one first-round pick, that draft is considered a success. General manager Andrew Berry found great value with his picks in the last few drafts, and this year was no different.

First up was Northwestern corner Greg Newsome ll. A patient corner, his coverage grade ranked in the 98th percentile according to Pro Football Focus. Newsome will compete with last year’s draft pick Greedy Williams for the starting corner spot opposite former top-10 pick Denzel Ward.

They were able to snag Owusu-Koramoah in the second round, which was fantastic value given his some predraft predictions had him going in the top-10. A heart issue discovered late in the process caused him to fall out of the first round, but he was cleared, and it is not expected to be an issue in the future. He is a stellar coverage player and brings a lot of versatility to the Browns front 7.

Cleveland Adds High Upside Players on Offense

The Browns also added two stellar weapons on offense in Schwartz and Felton. Schwartz was a burner at Auburn and is spectacular with the ball in his hands. He was 2nd in the nation in screen yards last season. Other than his speed, he’s very raw in his route running and will be a project for the Browns receiving staff. Felton fell to 6th because of abysmal testing numbers, but he showed a lot of versatility at the Senior Bowl. The Browns grabbed a lot of high-upside players and filled needs at the same time. While a lot of their mid-round selections may not pan out, Newsome, Owusu-Koramoah, and Schwartz have the potential to be some of the team’s best payers in a few years.

Pittsburgh Steelers: B-

Alabama Crimson Tide running back Najee Harris (22) breaks away from Ohio State linebacker Justin Hilliard (47) as he runs during the College Football Playoff National Championship Game in Hard Rock Stadium.
Tuscaloosa News-USA TODAY Sports
  1. Najee Harris, RB, Alabama (Round 1, 24th Overall)
  2. Pat Freiermuth, TE, Penn State (Round 2, 55th Overall)
  3. Kendrick Green, C, Illinois (Round 3, 87th Overall)
  4. Dan Moore Jr., OT, Texas A&M (Round 4, 128th Overall)
  5. Buddy Johnson, ILB, Texas A&M (Round 4, 140th Overall)
  6. Isaiahh Loudermilk, DT, Wisconsin (Round 5, 156th Overall)
  7. Quincy Roche, OLB, Miami (Round 6, 216th Overall)
  8. Tre Norwood, CB, Oklahoma (Round 7, 245th Overall)
  9. Pressley Harvin III, P, Georgia Tech (Round 7, 254th Overall)

ESPN’s NFL Draft expert Mel Kiper gave the best assessment of the Najee Harris pick at 24 during his grading of all 32 teams classes in his article following the draft.

“I’m a big fan of Najee Harris, but am almost always against taking a running back in the first round… we’ve seen over the past decade that good running backs can be found in any round — or even as undrafted free agents.”

ESPN’s Mel Kiper

Harris was a fantastic player and enjoyed great success at Alabama. However, depth along the offensive line seemed to be a more pressing need, with many good tackle options still available when they selected at 24.

Aside from Harris, the team selected mainly high-floor players that can play a particular role on this Pittsburgh team. Freiermuth will become another big body target in the red zone for the ever-aging Ben Roethlisberger. Green and Moore Jr. are the additional depth pieces on the offensive line, but their draft position feels like a reach based on those players’ pre-draft projections.

Steelers Address the Defense

The Steelers added some high-upside guys on the defensive side of the ball too. Loudermilk is a presence in the trenches at 6’6 and 274 pounds. While not the most athletic guy on the field, Roche always finds a way to the quarterback, leading the AAC in sacks and tackles for loss in 2019 during his time with Temple. With a stellar linebacking core featuring Devin Bush and T.J Watt, adding a big-play guy like Roche will only make the front seven more formidable.

Cincinnati Bengals: B+

Texas Longhorns linebacker Joseph Ossai (46) waits on the snap during the third quarter of the game agains the Oklahoma State Cowboys at Boone Pickens Stadium.
Brett Rojo-USA TODAY Sports
  1. Ja’Marr Chase, WR, LSU (Round 1, 5th Overall)
  2. Jackson Carman, OT, Clemson (Round 2, 46th Overall)
  3. Joseph Ossai, DE, Texas (Round 3, 69th Overall)
  4. Cameron Sample, DE, Tulane (Round 4, 111th Overall)
  5. Tyler Shelvin, DT, LSU (Round 4, 122nd Overall)
  6. D’Ante Smith, OT, East Carolina (Round 4, 139th Overall)
  7. Evan McPherson, K, Florida (Round 5, 149th Overall)
  8. Trey Hill, C, Georgia (Round 6, 190th Overall)
  9. Chris Evans, RB, Michigan (Round 6, 202nd Overall)
  10. Wyatt Hubert, DE, Kansas State (Round 7, 235th Overall)

With the most selections in the division, the Bengals had the most throws at the dartboard and used that surplus of picks to address various positions.

Dilemma With the Chase Pick

They started at 5th overall, the pick that arguably holds them back from receiving an “A” grade. Yes, Chase is a brilliant receiver and will be highly successful in the Bengals’ offense. However, ignoring the offensive line could be a fatal flaw. With a solid receiving corps of Tyler Boyd, Auden Tate, and Tee Higgins, Chase feels like overkill. Oregon’s offensive tackle Penei Sewell was still on the board at fifth, having fallen past the Falcons at 4. After watching Joe Burrow get absolutely massacred last year behind an atrocious offensive line, you would have thought the offensive line would be a top priority.

The next three guys they grabbed will also be able to contribute from Day 1. Carman was a key component of a stellar Clemson offensive line for the last three years. He allowed just 6 sacks in over 1700 snaps with the Tigers. Ossai has a high motor and looked great coming off the edge for Texas last season. Sample finished with the 9th highest overall grade amongst all edges in the country last season. Alongside defensive tackle D.J Reader, Ossai and Sample will give the Bengals a formidable pass rush.

Cincinnati’s late-round flier could blossom into solid rotational players as well. Shelvin is an absolute menace in the middle and will be a big part of the Bengals’ run defense going forward. Smith and Hill provide some much-needed offensive line depth while Evans gives the team some versatility next to Joe Mixon in the backfield. While their top pick may come back to “haunt” them, the rest of the Bengals’ draft was a step in the right direction.

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