Looking ahead to the AFC North in 2021, here’s a reason to be positive for each team.
Andrew Berry is floating under the radar as one of the best general managers in the NFL. Berry has shown a calm mind and a cool hand in his dealings with the Browns. As well as appointing Kevin Stefanski as head coach in the summer of 2020, an astute decision that saw the play of Baker Mayfield become more refined this past season, Berry also played a blinder at the 2021 draft.
The Browns entered the 2021 offseason with some serious question marks along with the defence, both at secondary and in the front seven. Berry remedied both these ills with the selections of cornerback Greg Newsome II and linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah – two picks that saw the Browns earn an ‘A’ grade by many draft aficionados and analysts.
The #Browns have hired former #Lions GM Bob Quinn as a Senior Consultant to their Football Ops department, source said. A new voice and sounding board for GM Andrew Berry, Quinn will help in a multitude of areas.
— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) July 30, 2021
A general manager is often not the most exciting component of an NFL franchise. The return of Odell Beckham or the continued development of Baker Mayfield could easily have been the main reason for Browns fans to be excited ahead of the 2021 regular season. However, Berry is exactly the type of decision-maker that the Browns so desperately needed for the past twenty years.
Berry will bring both competence and continuity to the Browns heading into 2021: two factors in the success of any top tier organisation that are as vital as they are underrated.
Some eyebrows were raised when the Bengals selected wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase with the fifth overall pick in the 2021 draft. Many thought the selection of left tackle Penei Sewell would have been the better, more sensible, option – especially since their most prized asset saw his season end early with a devastating knee injury – however, the Bengals opted to go with the exciting option in Chase, Burrow’s former teammate at LSU.
The connection between Burrow and Chase was one of the main reasons LSU won the National Championship in 2019, and that same rapport is going to stand them in good stead come the 2021 NFL regular season. Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan commented on the relationship between the two.
LSU connection back together: Joe Burrow throwing deep to Ja'Marr Chase, who comes down with a gorgeous one-handed grab. Thing of beauty.
— Ari Meirov (@MySportsUpdate) July 26, 2021
Callahan said “The cool thing is Joe’s done that with Ja’Marr for two years and this is the third year of doing it. They got a good rapport… You can see it and feel it. They know how to communicate with each other. I think that’s exciting for me.”
Last season the Bengals found their answer at the quarterback position in Joe Burrow. This year, the Bengals may well have found the answer to the giant A.J. Green sized hole that has been in their offence since 2017. While the Bengals do have an assortment of solid options at the wide receiver position – Tee Higgins, Tyler Boyd and Auden Tate are all talented pass-catchers – Ja’Marr Chase’s combination of speed, power and determination makes him a true X type receiver in the making.
For some reason, there seems to be an air of negativity surrounding the Baltimore Ravens, and more specifically Lamar Jackson, heading into 2021. Perhaps it’s the lack of postseason success (despite Jackson winning his first-ever playoff game in electrifying fashion away to the Titans), a hangover from last year’s disappointing conclusion or how Jackson’s ability in the passing game tailed off towards the end of last season. It would be good to remind those outside of Baltimore just how scintillating, and dangerous, this Ravens team can be with Jackson leading it.
Last season, Jackson accumulated 1,005 yards rushing, that’s 200 yards more than second-placed Kyler Murray and 500 yards more than third-placed Cam Newton. Moreover, per ESPN, the Ravens led the NFL in average rush yards per game last year with 191.9. The second closest was their modern rival Tennessee Titans with 168.1 yards per game.
Lamar Jackson wants to win the Super Bowl, then change his jersey to No. 1 🏆 pic.twitter.com/Qu7qFoEccH
— ESPN (@espn) July 27, 2021
And while Jackson did look frantic and un-composed at times dropping back, especially towards the tail end of the season, that can be explained by the absence of Hall of Fame right guard Marshall Yanda, who retired ahead of the 2020 season, and all-pro left tackle Ronnie Stanely who went down with an ACL injury in Week Eight.
At many points during the latter half of the 2020 season, Jackson was scrambling for his life throwing 50/50 go-balls to Dez Bryant. With the acquisitions of Rashod Bateman and Sammy Watkins, as well as the continued development of Hollywood Brown, the Ravens receivers are in much better shape than last season. With a contract renewal on the horizon, there is no reason for Ravens fans to not be excited with Jackson at the helm in 2021.
With Big Ben’s retirement around the corner, the Pittsburgh Steelers have reminded us all what key component of the roster has held the franchise up since the days of the Steel Curtain: the defence.
— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) July 27, 2021
Per Pro Football Reference, in 2020, the Steelers defence ranked third overall in points and yards allowed. Moreover, per NFL NextGenStats, the defence ranked first in disruptions with 184 and hurries with 122. They were a top-five passing defence, a top ten rushing defence and they’ve only gotten better.
Despite a scintillating safety tandem in Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds, the front seven is the jewel in the crown that is the Steelers defence. Defensive linemen Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt and Tyson Alualu are three stout, run-stuffing, lane-clogging aficionados. T.J. Watt is the best outside linebacker in the NFL and had a legit case at winning DPOY last season over Aaron Donald. And Devin Bush is back from injury and ready to lead this unit from the Mike linebacker position.
Big question marks are surrounding the Steelers offence. Roethlisberger did show flashes of his old self here and there last season, however, the odds of getting seventeen solid, cohesive performances from a 39-year-old Big Ben are seriously slim. Thus, the expectations for the Steelers this year are not sky-high. But this may just play into the team’s hands.
The Buccaneers showed last year that a team can win it all with a veteran quarterback and an aggressive, fast, versatile defence. The best passing attacks in the NFL struggled mightily last season against defences that sat in 2-hi and had a front seven that could attack the quarterback. With the talent this Pittsburgh defence possesses, it’s not impossible that they can emulate the Super Bowl-winning Buccaneers in 2021.