Ranking The AFC North After NFL Free Agency

Derrick Henry, Lamar Jackson, Baltimore Ravens
NFL Analysis Network

The AFC North is probably the best division in the NFL, which makes it the hardest one to predict top to bottom going into 2024.

This past season, all four teams in the AFC North finished over .500, with three of them making the playoffs. The Cincinnati Bengals were the only club that did not qualify for the postseason, and that was mainly because Joe Burrow missed the entire second half of the year.

The four titans had a chance to improve their rosters via free agency this month, and now, a whole lot has changed in the division.

So, let’s rank the four AFC North squads.

4. Pittsburgh Steelers

Keep in mind, this is the best division in football, so just because I’m ranking the Steelers last does not mean I think they are going to be bad.

After all, this team won 10 games this past season while employing Kenny Pickett, Mason Rudolph and Mitchell Trubisky under center, and now, Pittsburgh has Russell Wilson and Justin Fields in their quarterback room. That’s quite the upgrade, at least on paper.

That being said, we really don’t know how Wilson is going to adjust to his new surroundings with the Steelers. He was dreadful in his first season with the Denver Broncos in 2022, and while he was certainly better this past year, he still wasn’t great and no longer appears to be the same player he was during his Seattle Seahawks days.

Pittsburgh also lacks receiving depth behind George Pickens, as it traded Diontae Johnson to the Carolina Panthers. Surely, it will select a wide receiver in the NFL Draft, and there have been some rumors that the Steelers could pull off a trade for someone like San Francisco 49ers star Brandon Aiyuk.

But for now, it’s Pickens and not a whole lot else in the club’s receiving corps, so Wilson doesn’t exactly have a ton to work with in terms of weapons.

The Steelers did make some moves to address their mediocre defense (they finished just 21st in yards allowed in 2023), bringing in linebacker Patrick Queen and defensive backs Donte Jackson and DeShon Elliott.

In just about any other division, Pittsburgh would be quite a bit higher on this list, but again, it plays in the AFC North.

3. Cleveland Browns

The Browns’ 2024 campaign hinges almost entirely on the play of Deshaun Watson.

Since being acquired by Cleveland in March 2022, Watson has played in a grand total of 12 games. Of course, he missed 11 contests due to suspension for sexual misconduct allegations in his first season with the Browns. This past year, however, Watson went down with a shoulder injury that required surgery.

The 28-year-old is expected to be ready for Week 1, but how healthy will he be? And will he look anything like the elite quarterback from his Houston Texans days?

Watson certainly has some fine weapons at his disposal, as Cleveland suddenly has a deep receiving trio thanks to the addition of Jerry Jeudy, who will join Amari Cooper and Elijah Moore. Plus, the Browns have one of the NFL’s best tight ends in David Njoku.

It should be noted that Cleveland’s rushing attack could use some work, as Nick Chubb is working his way back from a devastating knee injury and may not even get on the field early in the season. Heck, even if he does, it’s hard to imagine he’ll be even close to the same player anymore.

The Browns will be relying a lot on Jerome Ford to carry the load in the backfield, and they also signed D’Onta Foreman in free agency. That’s not a very enviable running back duo.

Defensively, though, Cleveland is brilliant, featuring the reigning Defensive Player of the Year in defensive end Myles Garrett and supporting talent like cornerback Denzel Ward and edge rusher Za’Darius Smith.

The question is, can the Browns do enough offensively to make it to the playoffs for the second straight year? It worked this past season, but with the aforementioned Burrow on the mend and the Steelers looking better, it will be tough to qualify for the postseason without a notable improvement on offense.

2. Cincinnati Bengals

The Bengals are the only team other than the Kansas City Chiefs to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl over the last five years, so we know they have what it takes to win this division.

Joe Burrow is making his way back from a wrist injury that shortened his 2023 campaign, and as of right now, wide receivers Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins are on the roster.

Higgins is currently embroiled in the beginning stages of a contract dispute with Cincinnati after the team franchise tagged him, but more than likely, he will be with the Bengals come September.

We know how good Cincy can be offensively, although its aerial attack may take a bit of a hit with the inevitable loss of wide out Tyler Boyd. The Bengals also parted ways with Joe Mixon this offseason, replacing him with Zack Moss in the backfield.

So, Cincinnati may look a bit different in 2024, but so long as Burrow is healthy and Chase and Higgins are in tow, the Bengals should be just fine.

Cincinnati also made a couple of key free-agent additions to bolster its shaky defense, signing defensive lineman Sheldon Rankins and prying safety Geno Stone away from the Baltimore Ravens.

Does that suddenly mean the Bengals’ defense is good? No. Cincy’s defense ranked second-to-last in the NFL this past season, so it’s going to take more than two good players to vault Cincinnati’s defense to new heights. But the Bengals still have the NFL Draft to add some pieces, so we’ll see what they do there.

This team went 9-8 in 2023 in spite of Burrow missing half the year and Higgins being sidelined for five games. Even with their terrible defense, it seems hard to imagine the Bengals would have missed the playoffs if Burrow and Higgins were healthy.

1. Baltimore Ravens

As of right now, there is no change at the top in the AFC North.

Lamar Jackson and the Ravens should repeat as division champions, health permitting.

Baltimore didn’t do a ton in free agency, but it did make a significant addition to its offensive arsenal by signing four-time Pro Bowl running back Derrick Henry.

Now, the caveat here is that Henry is certainly not the same elite rusher he was several years ago. But, he is still productive, as evidenced by the fact that he registered 1,167 yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground during his final season with the Tennessee Titans in 2023.

Henry should absolutely take some pressure off of Jackson, and vice versa: Jackson’s ability to run the football himself should help keep Henry fresh for the stretch run.

It would still be nice if Baltimore added another wide receiver. Behind Zay Flowers, the Ravens don’t really have all that much. They experimented with Odell Beckham Jr., but that didn’t work, and now he will very likely be signing elsewhere. Rashod Bateman is quickly approaching bust territory, if he isn’t there already.

Right now, all Baltimore really has at wide out behind Flowers is Bateman and Nelson Agholor, so the Ravens either need to make a move and sign someone like Boyd (who was mentioned earlier) or really attack the position in the NFL Draft.

We know the Ravens have a pair of terrific tight ends in Mark Andrews and Isaiah Likely, but only relying on tight ends has not gotten Baltimore very far in the playoffs over the years. This squad needs legitimate deep threats, and outside of Flowers, it doesn’t have any at the moment.

On the defensive side of the ball, the Ravens were able to re-sign defensive tackle Justin Madubuike, which is huge. They lost Queen and Stone, but Baltimore has been a perennially good defensive ballclub that should be able to recover.

As long as Jackson is healthy, the Ravens should be the favorites to win this division, but it would still be nice to see them add more pieces on offense. How many times is Baltimore going to get bounced in the playoffs before it realizes that Jackson needs more receivers to throw to?

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