2021 NFL Draft Preview: AFC North Edition

Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster (19) runs after a catch against Baltimore Ravens cornerback Tramon Williams (29) during the fourth quarter at Heinz Field. Pittsburgh won 19-14.

‘Tis the season for the NFL Draft. For some of the leagues’ cellar-dwellers, this is the highlight of the year. After disappointing seasons, the draft symbolizes a clean slate for the new season. Even for the best teams, the draft is a great chance to find new, exciting young talent who can contribute from Day 1. Here is the team-by-team draft preview for teams in the AFC North.

Cleveland Browns

Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield (6) throws a pass during the AFC Divisional Round playoff game against the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium.
Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Season Outcome: 11-5 (Lost in AFC Divisional Round to Kansas City Chiefs)

Team Needs: S, DT, WR

Picks Within First 3 Rounds: 26, 59, 90, 92

After years of being the laughingstock of the league, the Browns are trending in the right direction. The franchise finally got their act together and mustered their first playoff appearance since 2002. While this is an improvement, the organization remains unsatisfied.

Cleveland’s biggest needs are on the defensive side of the ball. Safety was problematic for much of last season for the Browns. Andrew Sendejo, who led all Browns safeties in snaps, ranked 88th out of all 94 eligible safeties in the league last season. Sendejo also posted a horrendous 41.6 coverage grade through 625 coverage snaps last year.

Enter Trevon Moehrig, the top-ranked safety in this year’s draft class. Moehrig has everything a safety needs to succeed in today’s NFL. He has great ball skills, as he ranked 3rd in the nation in forced incompletions in 2020. He is great in coverage and can lay the boom to receivers coming over the middle. Moehrig is also an enforcer in the run game, as he diagnoses plays quickly and beats his blocker with impressive speed.

The Browns will also get Grant Delpit back to start next season. Delpit was a highly touted second-round pick for the Browns last season but missed his rookie year due to a torn Achilles. Pairing Delpit with Moehrig could give Cleveland one of the best young safety tandems in the entire league. The Browns should be salivating over the chance to land Moehrig with their first pick.

Browns Secondary Needs

Defensive tackle and receiver are two areas that the Browns need depth at. With a more shallow defensive tackle class, the Browns will likely use their second or third-round picks to get value at that position. With another outstanding receiver class and the anticipated return of Browns star receiver Odell Beckham Jr., either one of the Browns third rounds pick are likely where Cleveland would address the receiver position, if at all.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (7) throws a pass against the Cleveland Browns in the fourth quarter of an AFC Wild Card playoff game at Heinz Field.
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Season Outcome: 12-4 (Lost in AFC Wildcard Matchup to Cleveland Browns)

Team Needs: QB, TE, RB

Picks Within First 3 Rounds: 24, 55, 88

Nothing hurts more than losing in the postseason. The only thing worse is losing in the postseason to your division rivals. After starting the season on fire (undefeated through their first 11 games), Pittsburgh lost 5 of their next 6 games, including the fatal playoff loss to the Browns. So after a season full of promise, the Steelers find themselves back at square one.

There is little to knit pick regarding the Steelers defense. The team is led by star edge rusher T.J Watt and includes a stout secondary led by defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick. With solid depth and affordable contracts on the books for the next few years, the Steelers will likely use their early picks to retool the offense.

Positions of Need On Offense

The first question starts at the quarterback spot. Ben Roethlisberger is under contract for the upcoming season, in which he will be 39 years old. He is coming off a solid season in which he threw for 33 touchdowns and just 10 interceptions. Despite the numbers, there is a significant cause for concern. This upcoming season will be Roethilisbergers’ 15th year in the league. Unless he is on the Tom Brady regiment, odds are he is nearing the final years of his career. The Steelers will have a tough decision to make come draft day.

Regardless of who is the starting quarterback in Pittsburgh to start next season, adding some weapons at the tight end and running back spots should be a priority. Tight end Eric Ebron had an average season with the team (558 yards and 5 touchdowns), but he will be out of contract at the end of next season. Running back, James Conner struggled to stay healthy and is unlikely to be retained for next season.

For a tight end, the Steelers could turn to Penn State product Pat Freiermuth. An absolute mauler in the run game and productive with the ball in his hands, Freiermuth is the complete package.

His toughness shows through in his effort when blocking as well as his catching over the middle of the field. Depending on how intrigued Pittsburgh is by him as a prospect, hearing his name called at 24 is not out of the question.

For running back, Clemson back Travis Ettiene could be a great compliment to Conner in the backfield. Etienne is a blur out of the backfield, using his unmatched acceleration to turn drives into touchdowns. A second-round projection means that the Steelers may be able to snag him with their pick at 55th overall.

Baltimore Ravens

Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson (8) runs with the ball against the Baltimore Ravens during the second half of an AFC Divisional Round playoff game at Bills Stadium.
Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Season Outcome: 11-5 (Lost in AFC Divisional Round to the Buffalo Bills)

Team Needs: OT, WR, S

Picks Within First 3 Rounds: 27, 58, 105

With the new COVID-adjusted playoff format, three teams from the same division made it to the postseason. Like their divisional rivals, the Ravens season ended in disappointment at the hands of the Buffalo Bills. With that, the Ravens go back to the drawing board.

Start with the offense. A run-heavy, pound-the-rock team, the Ravens’ offense was prolific behind star quarterback Lamar Jackson. As the teams’ quarterback, Jackson finished 9th in the league in rushing yards with 1005. The next closest quarterback? Kyler Murray with 819. Say what you will about Jackson as a passer; there is no denying Jackson’s playmaking ability and top-end speed as a runner.

While the Ravens offense doesn’t have a glaring need, there are a few positions that need to be shored up. The first position to address is the right tackle spot. This spot is currently occupied by Orlando Brown Jr., a fantastic lineman. He expressed his displeasure with playing right tackle and feels his talents would be better served at the left tackle spot. The issue with that is that the Ravens just signed left tackle Ronnie Stanley to a long-term, big-money deal. Add that all up, and Brown Jr. has started to explore trade options away from Baltimore.

Tackle Prospects the Ravens Could Target

It isn’t all bad news for the Ravens. This year’s tackle class is very deep, with quality tackle prospects projected to go in the late first to early second round. Stanford tackles Walker Little or USC offensive lineman Alijah Vera-Tucker are two options that will likely be available at 27th overall when the Ravens select. Vera-Tucker played left tackle during his time with USC but has the athleticism to slide over to right tackle if needed.

The next biggest need is a true X wide receiver. As previously mentioned, the Ravens use their run game to kickstart the offense. However, that is in part due to the lack of weapons on the outside. Marquise Brown has improved steadily since being drafted in the 2019 draft. However, his slender frame means he is primarily a yard after catch guy.

Luckily, the depth at wide receiver has carried over from last year’s draft. While the Ravens will almost certainly miss out on the top guys like Ja’Marr Chase or Devonta Smith, there are plenty of big, physical receivers that the Ravens will have the option to select with one of their later picks. LSU receiver Terrace Marshall could be a great option for the Ravens. A physical target, Marshall’s catch radius and frame make him a presence in the red zone.

He demonstrated the ability to play out wide and in the slot during his three years with LSU. While his route running needs some serious refinement, Ravens could get good value for Marshall if they could select him with their pick at 58.

Cincinnati Bengals

Cincinnati Bengals defensive end Carl Lawson (58) and Cincinnati Bengals free safety Jessie Bates (30) combine to tackle Baltimore Ravens cornerback Tavon Young (25) in the first quarter during a Week 17 NFL football game
Kareem Elgazzar via Imagn Content Services

Season Outcome: 4-11-1 (Missed Playoffs)

Team Needs: OL, CB, TE

Picks Within the First 3 Rounds: 5, 38, 69

The runt of the division, the Bengals continued their playoff drought with their fifth consecutive season with a record below .500. While only three needs are listed, the Bengals have a plethora of positions that need to be addressed.

It is impossible to talk about the Bengals’ issues without starting with the offensive line. According to Pro Football Focus, not one player along that unit graded higher than 71 on the season. Like the parting of the Red Sea, the offensive line would let any and all pass rushers through for free shots at the quarterback. Their poor play ultimately got their franchise quarterback sidelined for the year. Joe Burrow suffered a torn ACL on a brutal sack versus the Washington Football team during last season. With how important quarterback is at a position, the Bengals top priority needs to get Burrow some protection.

It is hard to see the Bengals using their fifth overall pick on anything other than an offensive lineman. The best-case scenario would be Oregon tackle Penei Sewell, but Northwestern’s Rashawn Slater could also be a great pick if Sewell isn’t available. Sewell and Slaters are both game-changers in the run game and have the athleticism to keep Burrow off the floor in pass protection.

Addressing the Cornerback Position for the Bengals

Cornerback is a secondary need for the team, as one more solid defensive back could give the Bengals one of the best secondaries in the league. Mackensie Alexander played the fourth-most snaps in coverage for the Bengals last season but ranked 63rd amongst 121 eligible corners. While William Jackson and Darius Phillips performed well, the secondary is only as strong as its weakest link. Selecting a cornerback at their pick at 38 is a real possibility.

Washington’s Elijah Molden is the perfect replacement for Alexander in the Bengals secondary. A playmaker at the catch point, Molden is the best slot corner in the entire draft. He plays bigger than his 5’10 frame and tackles ferociously in the open field.

In a league where versatility is coveted, there are concerns about whether Molden can flex out to other positions. Out of 1118 snaps played during his last two years at Washington, Molden played a total of 65 snaps at free safety. However, if the Bengals plan on using Molden strictly in the slot, he is the perfect option. With his stock steadily rising, it is unclear if Molden will be available at 38, where the Bengals’ second-round pick falls. Florida States’ Asante Samuel Jr. and Syracuses’ Ifeatu Melifonwu are two other cornerback prospects that the Bengals could look at with their early round selections.

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