2021 NFL Draft: Team Needs - AFC North
Andrew Cooper takes a look at the AFC North division and breaks down the needs for each team ahead of the NFL Draft later this month!
Team Needs: AFC North
Picks: 5, 38, 69, 111, 149, 190, 202, 235
Set: Quarterback, running back, cornerback
As the title suggests, the focus of this article is on needs. We’ll discuss some depth moves as well but the Bengals have both Joe Burrow and Joe Mixon under contract until 2025 so they’re relatively “set” with starters. They may have released Gio Bernard but Trayveon Williams actually graded out surprisingly well in pass blocking (which was Gio’s specialty) and they have him and Samaje Perine under cheap deals until 2023 so I don’t see them using any of their more valuable picks on backup QB or running back this year. They have bigger fish to fry at picks 5, 38, and 69 at least.
They also may have lost cornerback William Jackson to the Washington Football Team in free agency but they have Trae Waynes returning (who missed 2020 with a torn pec) as well as bringing in Chidobe Awuzie to start out wide opposite him. They then brought in Mike Hilton from the division rival Steelers to play in the slot. Those three are under contract through 2023, 2024, and 2025 respectively so it’s a position I feel they are less likely to make a big splash on in the draft. Hilton is more of a bruiser at the line of scrimmage but they have 10 CBs on the roster including Eli Apple so they should be able to find a cover counterpart to him in the slot.
Immediate: Offensive line, pass catcher
When it comes to team building there is a game within the game. You are building a team to win the Super Bowl of course but you also need to build your team to win the division. In a division that has guys like Myles Garrett , Jadeveon Clowney , Calais Campbell , T.J. Watt , Stephon Tuitt etc. you need to protect your young quarterback. Especially after your worst nightmare came true with him getting hurt last season. The Bengals have 1st round pick Jonah Williams at left tackle and just brought in Riley Reiff from the Vikings but here is the thing about Reiff - former Vikings coach and offensive line guru Mike Tice is on record essentially saying Reiff would be better off at guard and Reiff himself already said that he played guard in college and would play wherever they asked him to. So it sounds like that discussion has already been had. If I’m the Bengals, I do the smart/safe thing here and grab the best offensive tackle in the draft. It’s hard to argue against building a long term foundation in front of your franchise quarterback.
Above I wrote “pass catcher” rather than wide receiver or tight end because they could go either direction but I don’t think they use early picks on both. They have Tee Higgins on the outside with Tyler Boyd as a slot/flanker so they really only need one more premium pass catcher. If you take Jamar Chase you can replace AJ Green and go heavy three wide sets. If you take Kyle Pitts, you can use him in two tight end sets with CJ Uzomah or blocking tight end Drew Sample or you can split him out in the slot or at wide receiver - he’s THAT versatie. If they don’t take a WR with their very first pick they are likely to take at least one with their other seven picks considering, outside of Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins, every WR contract they have expires at the end of this year. That’s five of seven and seven WRs under contract isn’t even that many compared to some teams that have 10-15 right now. I think they go offensive tackle but it wouldn’t be crazy to see them take Ja’Marr Chase or Kyle Pitts who are in another prospect tier than everyone else at their positions.
Potential early round picks: Penei Sewell (Oregon), Rashawn Slater (Northwestern), Ja’Marr Chase (LSU), Kyle Pitts (Florida), Kadarius Toney (Florida), Dyami Brown (UNC), Tylan Wallace (Oklahoma State)
Depth: Pass rush, interior offensive line, safety, kicker
The Bengals were dead last in the league in sacks last year so you could list this one under “immediate” if you wanted. They also have three picks in the top 70 so that pick at 69 could easily be an impact player. However, they did bring in Trey Hendrickson from the Saints who had 13.5 sacks last year as well as Larry Ogunjobi who had back to back 5.5 sack seasons with the Browns in 2018 and 2019 so the need might not be as immediate as some may think. For me, an offensive lineman or pass catcher is more likely in the first two rounds which is why pass rush lands in this section (albeit at the top).
Interior offensive line finding itself in this section is more a consequence of the possibility that they don’t take a tackle in the early rounds. If they do take a tackle, then Reiff slides over and interior O-line is no longer a concern. If they go with flashier picks in the first couple rounds, it might make sense to take someone that could compete at right guard right away or possibly even play center. Former first round pick Billy Price hasn’t really panned out and Trey Hopkins tore his ACL at the end of last season so there is always some risk there.
Any time a team is on the upswing of a rebuild they could really go any direction with the mid or later picks. It makes a lot of sense to take “best available” regardless of position if you have, say, a second round grade on a guy and he’s there in the third or fourth. But just looking at the depth chart, even with the additions of Vonn Bell and Ricardo Allen , safety is another spot where I could see them going for some depth. The contracts for Jessie Bates III, Trayvon Henderson , and Ricardo Allen all expire after this season.
Finally, I hesitate to ever put kicker as a “need”. First off, it’s rare that teams ever use high end draft capital on a kicker and using high end picks is how we’ve defined “need” positions for this series. Second, the last time a team did use high end draft capital on a kicker (the Buccaneers drafting Robert Aguayo in the second round), it not only didn’t pan out but they were absolutely skewered over the decision. That said, the Bengals current kicker is Austin Seibert, a player who was cut by the Browns after missing both his kicks in the opening game last season. He was able to beat out Randy Bullock down the stretch but he’s the only guy on the roster so the Bengals are certainly candidates to bring in competition.
Picks: 24, 55, 87, 128, 140, 216, 245, 254
Set: Quarterback, wide receiver
Quarterback and wide receiver here may seem controversial as opposed to being in the “depth” or even “immediate” section but let me explain. The Steelers are clearly in it to win now, putting their faith behind Ben Roethlisburger for 2021. Including him, they have four quarterbacks on the roster who all have contracts expiring this year. They have nine wide receivers under contract but seven of them, including JuJu Smith-Schuster , expire after this year. You have what you need at the positions to compete right now before your 39 year old QB calls it a career. So you roll with that. Then, next offseason, you decide who to extend, who to let walk, and address these positions for the long term via the draft or free agency with actual capital rather than throwing darts at picks in the 200s. For right now they have Ben, Juju, Diontae Johnson, and Chase Claypool as starters along with James Washington to mix in in a season where they are “all in” so they should use the five picks they have in the first five rounds on players that can make an immediate impact as opposed to investing heavy capital in plans for the future.
Immediate: Running back, offensive tackle, center, cornerback
It’s always kind of fun when a team needs a running back isn’t it? It’s that luxury pick that you get really excited about as a fan even if you realize that it’s not the safest or smartest long term asset. The Steelers have a good QB who is nearly 40 and are in that rare win-now window where taking the best RB who can contribute immediately actually makes sense. With their zone blocking scheme, they’ve seen success from guys that don’t necessarily have otherworldly speed like Le’Veon Bell (4.6 forty) and James Conner (4.65 forty). Well, there just so happens to be a top tier running back from Alabama in Najee Harris whose only real knock is not possessing elite high end speed…
As far as offensive tackle, that’s only a need if they can’t coax Alejandro Villanueva to come back. 2020 starting tackle Matt Feiler is already gone, signing with the Los Angeles Charges, but Villanueva is still a free agent. They currently just have Zach Banner , Joe Haeg , and Chuks Okorafor - none of which are exciting as left tackles. A return for Villanueva changes OT from an “immediate” need to “depth” for the Steelers overnight. As of now there have been conflicting reports of everything from John Clayton saying he’s coming back to others saying his house is under contract to be sold. One thing that’s not conflicting is Villanueva’s durability - he hasn’t missed a start in five years and hasn’t missed a game with injury in his entire career. Even if Villanueva returns, center Maurkice Pouncey announced his retirement this offseason so center is on the table as a position they could address in the early rounds as well. Steelers owner Art Rooney II said that he “doesn’t want to see the Pittsburgh Steelers last in the league in rushing ever again” and that they’ll “look for ways to improve in the draft” so that could be hinting at a running back or at the O-line. Or both.
If that wasn’t enough, the Steelers also released wide cornerback Steven Nelson and lost their tough, run stuffing slot corner Mike Hilton to the Bengals in free agency. They have Joe Haden locked in as the wide guy on one side. From there they have the versatile Cam Sutton (who was the Yin to Mike Hilton ’s Yang as the cover guy in the slot for nickel and dime), 2019 third round pick Justin Layne, and undrafted free agent Pierre James. Rather than move Sutton to an outside role or trust Layne or James, they may end up using a high pick on an outside CB but, if they don’t, they’ll at least add someone for depth at the position with one of these picks. They only have six cornerbacks under contracts and they all expire either next year or the year after.
Potential early round picks: Najee Harris (Alabama), Travis Etienne (Clemson), Teven Jenkins (Oklahoma State), Liam Eichenberg (Notre Dame), Landon Dickerson (Alabama), Quinn Meinerz (Wisconsin-Whitewater), Jevon Holland (Oregon), Aaron Robinson (UCF)
Depth: Defensive tackle, pass rush, tight end
With the complexity of modern offenses, modern defenses too have adapted and become equally complex. Gone are the days of simply saying you run a 3-4 or 4-3. More teams than ever are running creative nickel packages and disguising their pass rushers. And with that, labels like “defensive end”, “defensive tackle”, “nose tackle”, “outside linebacker” are more muddled than ever. Ask Bud Dupree who filed a grievance over whether he should be paid as a defensive end and linebacker under the franchise tag. It can be confusing. What we do know is that Bud Dupree is now gone. The Steelers obviously have a formidable front still with Cameron Heyward , Stephon Tuitt , T.J. Watt , Devin Bush, etc. And the surprising returns of Tyson Alualu and Vince Williams makes things a little easier on them. They could still use depth at nose tackle and off the edge but it’s not necessarily an immediate issue that requires heavy, early draft capital either.
Eric Ebron has filled a hole for the Steelers in terms of pass catching tight end but there has been one issue that has plagued him for his entire career: drops. And 2020 saw him match his career high of 9 that he set back in 2016 with the Detroit Lions. Primary blocking tight end Vance McDonald announced his retirement in January this year so tight end could be a position they take a look at for depth. That said, Ebron gets the job done and the return of JuJu Smith-Schuster in the slot means that they can utilize JuJu, Claypool, Diontae Johnson, and James Washington to run three or even four wide receivers, making a second tight end less of a need and more of a depth play.
Picks: 26, 59, 89, 91, 110, 169, 211, 257
Set: Quarterback, offensive line, running back, tight end, defensive end
The Browns are no longer one of the NFLs running jokes as they have one of the most rock solid depth charts in the league coming into this year’s draft. Starting quarterback is locked in with Baker Mayfield . Case Keenum still has two years left on a three year deal that includes $10 million guaranteed. They also have Kyle Lauletta under contract for two years as well so they are set at QB until at least 2023.
Their offensive line is one of the best in the league. In fact, four out of five of their offensive linemen graded out in the top eight at their position per pro football focus and the one who didn’t, Jedrick Willis Jr., is a 2020 first round pick that they are hoping takes a step forward. Jack Conklin (OT #8), Wyatt Teller (G #1), Joel Bitonio (G #6), and JC Tretter (C #5) are already there. I guess technically you could argue that they might want to draft someone for depth but this team is clearly poised to win now so early picks should be used on impact players who will play right away. And it’s unlikely anyone available at pick 26 or 59 would crack this lineup anyway.
At running back they have arguably the best one-two punch in the league with Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt who are both highly capable in the run and the pass. Hunt is under contract for two more years. Chubb becomes a free agent next year but, given his performance, he should be a priority to extend (or could be a candidate for the franchise tag in 2022). At tight end they signed Austin Hooper then drafted Harrison Bryant in the 4th round - both are under contract until 2024. They also have the last year of David Njoku as well as three other tight ends technically under contract so it wouldn’t seem like a good allocation of high end draft capital. This offense is pretty much set right now.
If that’s not enough, they already had 2017 first overall pick Myles Garrett at left defensive end and just managed to sign the 2014 first overall pick Jadeveon Clowney to play right defensive end. Before that they brought in Takkarist McKinely who has 17.5 sacks and 45 QB hits in 49 career games so defensive end isn’t a position they need to address with a top pick either.
Immediate: Cornerback, linebacker defensive interior
We’ve mentioned this in a number of these writeups but the league has shifted towards far more nickel and dime packages than ever before. So you can never have enough corners. The Browns currently have 2018 first round pick Denzel Ward on one side, 2019 second round pick Greedy Williams on the other side, and they just brought in slot corner Troy Hill from the Rams. On paper that sounds pretty good but the issue is health. In three years since joining the league Denzel Ward has yet to stay healthy for a full season. And, even more concerning, Greedy Williams missed the entire season in 2020 and reportedly suffered severe damage to the axillary nerve in his shoulder which made it so that he had issues just moving his arm. If I’m the Browns and I have a team that is close to complete on paper, I’m not taking any chances so I’m investing in another high end corner. Assuming they pick up the fifth year option on Ward, both he and Williams will be free agents in 2023.
The offense is pretty set so, keeping with the theme of investing in defense, the Browns could also go with a linebacker or interior defensive lineman with one of their first two picks. Anthony Walker comes over from the Colts but that’s a one year deal for $3 million so doesn’t necessarily offer a long term solution. The Bengals signed away their interior D-lineman Larry Ogunjobi and they only have Jordan Elliott signed beyond this season. Malik Jackson , Andrew Billings , and Sheldon Day are all unrestricted free agents next year. Considering the needs of other teams in this draft, there could be a lot of value that slides in the interior front seven.
Potential early round picks: Greg Newsome II (Northwestern), Caleb Farley (Virginia Tech), Asante Samuel Jr (Florida State), Christian Barmore (Alabama), Nick Bolton (Missouri), Jamin Davis (Kentucky), Alim McNeill (NC State)
Depth: Wide receiver, safety, kicker
There are people out there projecting the Browns to add a wide receiver in the first two rounds claiming that a third wide receiver is an immediate need. And, considering how solid they are at most positions, they could go that direction with their first two picks. But they have two high end pass catchers in Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry and, per Sharp Football, the Browns used at least two tight ends on almost 50% of their snaps (and actually used three tight ends on a whopping 15%). You might say that is a result of losing Odell Beckham Jr. to an ACL tear but the configuration was similar in 2019 and Kevin Stefanski is a run heavy coach that has been known to use multiple tight end sets going back to his time in Minnesota. So to me, the third wide receiver is more of a luxury for this team than a “need” which is why I have it in this section. They have 10 wide receivers under contract including Odell Beckham Jr. through 2024 and Jarvis Landry through 2023. They also just brought back Rashard “Hollywood” Higgins and Khadarel Hodge on one year deals to go along with second year wideout Donovan Peoples-Jones so they could honestly get by without adding another pass catcher at all if need be. If I were the Browns, I personally might consider a wide receiver with one of the third round picks but I don’t think it’s something you need to draft in say, the first round.
Last year the Browns took safety Grant Delpit in the 2nd round of the draft but he unfortunately tore his Achilles and missed the entire season. To replace him they traded with the Jaguars for Ronnie Harrison who they will retain for this year. On top of that they signed John Johnson away from the Los Angeles Rams so they have options at safety but, if they have concerns about Delpit’s ability after dealing with a brutal injury, this is a spot where they could add some additional depth.
As we mentioned in the Bengals section, the Browns kicked Austin Seibert to the curb after his first game of 2020. They brought in Cody Parkey but, out of the guys who attempted at least 10 field goals, he graded out as kicker #26 and he missed 5 extra points. The Browns could bring in some competition there but it’s unlikely they use a high pick.
Picks: 27, 31, 94, 104, 131, 136, 171, 184, 210 (updated following Orland Brown trade)
Set: Quarterback, tight end, running back
Quarterback is set - they have Lamar Jackson , Trace McSorley , and Tyler Hunter when they probably only need to carry two. The Ravens now have three pass catching tight ends in Mark Andrews , Josh Oliver (recently acquired from the Jaguars), and the sneakily fast Eli Wolf (4.43 40 yard dash). On the blocking side they have Nick Boyle , Eric Tomlinson , and Jake Breeland. Realistically, they need to do some trimming down of this group, not adding to it, but they do love using multiple tight ends.
At running back they just used a second round pick on JK Dobbins last season, they retained 6’1” 238 pound Gus Edwards to help with the short yardage work, and they have fourth round pick Justice Hill to pitch in on pass downs. They also have Ty’Son Williams and fullback Patrick Ricard. Perhaps they use a late pick on a guy who can fill out the depth chart and play special teams but they have more than enough to go into the season as is.
Immediate: **Offensive tackle(?), EDGE, safety
**Edit: As we originally speculated, the Baltimore Ravens have traded Orlando Brown to the Kansas City Chiefs. As their second round pick was included, they still have only two picks in the first two rounds.**
If you remember our writeup on the NFC East, you might recall a question mark next to tight end for the Dallas Cowboys. And that’s because they don’t actually need a tight end. But we also can’t ignore the NFL rumor mill because, oftentimes when there's smoke, there's fire. So when word gets out that Jerry Jones is “infatuated” with Kyle Pitts, you have to consider that. Same goes with the Ravens and rumors surrounding offensive tackle Orlando Brown Jr. There seems to be some legitimacy to the idea that he could be traded, possibly to a team like the Minnesota Vikings who just lost Riley Reiff . If that were the case, the position obviously would become an immediate need for the Ravens. If not, it’s still at least a position where they need depth as Brown’s contract is up after this year and, according to Brown himself via Twitter, he wants to play and be paid like a left tackle - a position the Ravens already have filled by Ronnie Staley. So the prospects of him re-signing to play right tackle are just about zero.
I keep hearing people say that it isn’t going to hurt so bad that the Ravens lost Matt Judon and Yannick Ngakoue . Which is obviously what you say to make yourself feel better when you lose two guys who have combined to average a little over half a sack every game for their entire careers. But the reality is that the Ravens were already only middle of the pack at 14th with 39 sacks last year and guys like Pernell McPhee and Tyus Bowser are downgrades no matter how you slice it. So, you know what would actually make you feel better? Taking a high end pass rusher in the draft who could contribute right away.
They have two picks in the top 100. There is a chance they trade Brown and get a pick back this year but that would be a wash since they’d have to use a high end pick on OT. So, after EDGE, they’d have one more high end pick. Right now they basically have two great strong safeties in Chuck Clark and DeShon Elliott but no true free safety. The solution of course is that you take a high end free safety and then you can use one of the other guys as a hybrid safety/linebacker/slot corner with a defense that skews heavily nickel/dime. Of course no one is going to all of a sudden be Ed Reed but isn’t the idea kind of a new free safety in town kind of fun?
Potential early round picks: Kwity Paye (Michigan), Jaelan Phillips (Miami), Azeez Ojulari (Georgia), Teven Jenkins (Oklahoma State), Samuel Cosmi (Texas), Elijah Molden (Washington), Jamar Johnson (Indiana), Ar’Darius Washington (TCU), Andre Cisco (Syracuse)
Depth: Wide receiver, defensive line, cornerback
There are some people that might consider WR to be an immediate need for this team and worthy of one of their top two picks. And that’s understandable given the lack of production in recent years. But you also have to realize that that lack of production is by design to a certain degree. This team uses more substitution and personnel groupings than nearly any other team - in 2019 the only position players to play more than 50% of the snaps were Nick Boyle (69.59%), Willie Snead (61.45%), and Marquise Brown (50.95%). And in that season, Lamar Jackson led the league in passing touchdowns. In 2020 Nick Boyle and Mark Andrews both missed games but, when everyone is healthy, they often deploy multiple TE on anywhere from a quarter to a half of the offensive snaps. When you think about what they want to do, it’s obvious that guys like Willie Snead and Myles Boykin were rostered not necessarily for their pass attack prowess but for their contributions via run blocking. That’s what makes Sammy Watkins such a good fit at split end as he’s widely regarded as one of the better run blocking WRs in the league.
So let’s look at it from the basics. You need 11 guys. You have five lineman, one quarterback, one running back, one tight end on most plays. That’s eight. Then you have Sammy Watkins at split end and Marquise Brown at flanker. That’s 10. So on any given play you are then using only one out of a second tight end in Nick Boyle , fullback Patrick Ricard, third round pick Devin Duvernay, or third round pick Miles Boykin . Spending high draft capital on another asset to join that group just is not an “immediate” need for the team as opposed to defensive players who would play nearly every snap. That said, I will admit that the Ravens roster is fairly deep and they could go for the luxury pick if the right guy is there - Brown (2024), Duvernay (2024), and Boykin (2023) are under contract long term but Watkins is only on a one year deal.
Beyond that, the starters at defensive line are solid on paper with Brandon Williams at nose and Calais Campbell and Derek Wolfe at defensive end. But all three are over 30 (Campbell is 34) and both Campbell and Williams have contracts that expire after this year. Cornerback is kind of a similar boat for them. They have Marlon Humphry, Marcus Peters , and Jimmy Smith so the outside CB position is one of the best in the league. But more and more teams use nickel and dime packages, Jimmy Smith is 32 years old on a one year deal, and last year was the first year that the Ravens didn’t use a pick on a CB in half a decade, so it wouldn’t shock me to see a depth pick here as well. Or, if they take a player like Elijah Molden in the early rounds who is projected to play free safety but played a ton of slot corner in college, you may be able to kill two birds with one stone.
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