AFC North 2021 offseason needs: Browns, Steelers hope to land J.J. Watt, Bengals look to protect Joe Burrow

The AFC North was quite possibly the NFL’s most competitive division in 2020. Three of the AFC’s seven playoff teams came from the North, with the Browns defeating the division champion Steelers in the wild-card round, 48-37. The Browns then took the defending Super Bowl champions to the brink before falling just short of an historic upset. 

The Ravens, led by reigning MVP Lamar Jackson, mirrored the Browns’ wild-card success with their upset of the Titans. Also like Cleveland, Baltimore was unable to sustain that success in the divisional round, losing to Buffalo in a hard-fought defensive slugfest. And though they did not make the playoffs, the Bengals showed promise with rookie quarterback Joe Burrow under center. 

Given what transpired last year, the AFC North once again promises to be one of the league’s more competitive division races in 2021. While it sounds obvious, the team that does the best job filling its positional needs this offseason will have a significant edge when it comes to capturing the division. Without further ado, let’s take a look at each AFC North team’s needs entering free agency and the upcoming draft, starting with last year’s division champion. 

[Note: Cap space figures provided by Spotrac, and will change once official salary cap is finalized for 2021.]

Pittsburgh Steelers 

Needs: C, LT, RB, OLB, CB, WR 

The Steelers put quite a few eggs in last year’s basket, only to see the basket spill during the final several weeks of the season. With their backs against the wall with the salary cap, Pittsburgh will have to significantly adjust Ben Roethlisberger’s contract in order to do anything as far as free agency is concerned. Pittsburgh will have to find a replacement for the recently retired Maurkice Pouncey. It will also have to find a replacement for James Conner, who will enter free agency next month. The Steelers may try to keep either Bud Dupree or JuJu Smith-Schuster, but don’t expect both players to be back in Pittsburgh next season. The Steelers will also be in the market for help at cornerback, with Mike Hilton and Cam Sutton set to enter free agency. Another name to keep an eye on is Alejandro Villanueva, Pittsburgh’s starting left tackle since 2015. Villanueva is set to become a free agent. Matt Feiler is also set to become a free agent, but he could be a player the Steelers decide to invest in moving forward. 

If Villanueva leaves, expect either Feiler or Chukwuma Okorafor to replace him at left tackle, with fellow tackle Zach Banner moving into the starting lineup. Kevin Dotson would also move up into the starting lineup following an impressive rookie campaign. Expect the Steelers to invest more into this group via the draft. The same can be said of the running back, receiver, and outside linebacker positions. Steelers fans should also keep an eye on J.J. Watt, who may decide to team up with brothers T.J. and Derek Watt in Pittsburgh. 

Mason Rudolph will be under center in the event Roethlisberger is not back in 2021. If this scenario plays out, Rudolph will get one year to show the Steelers that he can be Big Ben’s longterm successor. 

Estimated current cap space (top 51): $-14.24 million (27th in NFL)
CBS draft projections: RB Najee Harris (Ryan Wilson), OL Teven Jenkins (Chris Trapasso and Josh Edwards) 
Free agents to watch: WR Corey Davis, C Ben Garland, LT Kelvin Beachum, CB William Jackson 

Baltimore Ravens 

Needs: EDGE, C, WR, G, FS, TE, CB 

Baltimore struck gold with its second-round selection of running back J.K. Dobbins, who averaged a whopping six yards per carry last season. The Ravens did not fare as well with rookie receivers Devin Duvernay and James Proche, as Lamar Jackson continued to rely heavily on tight end Mark Andrews and receiver Marquise Brown. Baltimore will also look to strengthen its offensive line after last year’s unit struggled to provide consistent protection for Jackson. And with Derek Wolfe, Jihad Ward, Pernell McPhee and Yannick Ngakoue slated to become free agents, the Ravens will have to re-stock their cupboard with adequate pass rushers in 2021. 

Look for the Ravens to spend their top draft picks on the defensive back, receiver and edge rusher positions. The Ravens should still consider bringing in a veteran wide out who can bring some experience and leadership inside Baltimore’s receivers room. One option could be Kendrick Bourne, who played an integral role on the 49ers’ NFC title run in 2019. Another free agent that would make sense is center David Andrews, a six-year veteran who won two Super Bowls with the Patriots. The Ravens may also target free safety Justin Simmons, who was just selected to his first Pro Bowl after recording five interceptions for the Broncos

Estimated current cap space (top 51): $29.95 million (11th in the NFL)
CBS draft projections: DB Richie Grant (Ryan Wilson), WR Terrance Marshall Jr. (Chris Trapasso), LB Joseph Ossai (Josh Edwards) 
Free agents to watch: C David Andrews, FS Justin Simmons, G Austin Blythe, WR Kendrick Bourne, TE Gerald Everett

Cleveland Browns 

Needs: S, LB, WR, CB, DE 

The Browns’ defense stepped up in the red zone in their divisional round playoff loss to the Chiefs. And while that game showed their potential, the Browns’ defense will need some reinforcements if they are going to complement their offense on a more consistent basis next season. The Browns’ offense was led by the two-headed monster of running backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. They were also the beneficiary of a nice bounce-back season from quarterback Baker Mayfield. Cleveland will likely add to its receiving corps this offseason, regardless of what Odell Beckham’s status on the team is in 2021. 

A name Browns fans are certainly monitoring is J.J. Watt, who is reportedly seriously considering coming to Cleveland. The addition of Watt would make free agent defensive end Oliver Vernon expendable. Watt would also complement fellow defensive end Myles Garrett, who earned his first All-Pro selection last season. If they lose Karl Joseph in free agency, the Browns could target strong safety Shawn Williams, a starter for four of his eight seasons in Cincinnati. If Andrew Sendejo departs in free agency, second-year free safety Grant Delpit may be asked to step into the starting lineup. 

Estimated current cap space (top 51): $29.74 million (10th in the NFL)
CBS draft projections: DL Levi Onwuzurike (Ryan Wilson), LB Azeez Ojulari (Chris Trapasso), DL Jaelan Phillips (Josh Edwards) 
Free agents to watch: DE J.J Watt, SS Shawn Williams, CB Patrick Peterson, DT Shelby Harris, LB Reuben Foster

Cincinnati Bengals 

Needs: OT, EDGE rusher, G, DT, CB 

With a very healthy amount of cap space, the Bengals are prepared to spend in free agency for a second consecutive year. Cincinnati’s current roster includes several promising players in Burrow, receivers Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd, running back Joe Mixon, free safety Jessie Bates III, and defensive end Sam Hubbard. The Bengals may decide to part with perennial Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins, who struggled with a shoulder injury last season. 

Offensive line is the Bengals’ primary target this offseason. Brandon Scherff and Joe Thuney are two guards the Bengals may pursue in free agency. Russell Okung and Cam Robinson would be significant upgrades at left tackle. The Bengals have a slew of options at defensive end. That list includes Benson Mayowa, Derek Wolfe and Tyson Alualu. Yannick Ngakoue and Leonard Williams would also be options if the Bengals want to spend big at that position. Cornerbacks Ronald Darby, Mike Hilton and Kevin Johnson could be options in free agency. 

The Bengals should get Burrow a veteran receiver as well as a new weapon at tight end. While both positions will likely be addressed during the draft, veteran wide outs Willie Snead and Keelan Cole would be good fits inside the Bengals’ offense. Tight end Jacob Hollister, who played well in a reserve role in Seattle, would be a good addition to Cincinnati’s passing attack. 

Estimated current cap space (top 51): $45.6 million (5th in the NFL)
CBS draft projections: TE Kyle Pitts (Ryan Wilson), OL Penei Sewell (Chris Trapasso and Josh Edwards) 
Top free agents to watch: G Joe Thuney, LT Cam Robinson, DE Benson Mayowa, Derek Wolfe, CB Ronald Darby, TE Jacob Hollister 

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