Strengths and Weaknesses for AFC North Teams in 2021

By Dan Vasta in NFL
| August 15, 2021 3:32 am PDT

The best division in football is arguably the AFC North. Recency bias plays a vital role, and the favorites in this division have had postseason success.

Many of the teams have positives and negatives that will help them develop further as a team.

Here are the biggest strengths and weaknesses heading into the 2021 season for every AFC North team.

Baltimore Ravens

The Baltimore Ravens under John Harbaugh have consistently been a tough out. Here is what we can expect from the Ravens for the upcoming NFL season.

Biggest Strengths for the Ravens: Harbaugh and Jackson

BetOnline and other NFL sportsbooks have the Ravens as the tentative favorite (+135) to win this division. It’s all due to elite coaching and stellar play under center.

John Harbaugh has won the most games on the road in postseason history (8). He has been a Hall of Fame coach that deserves more praise for what he has accomplished during his tenure at Baltimore.

Harbaugh is the fourth longest-tenured coach in the NFL. Hired back in 2008, the Ravens have reached the postseason nearly every season (missed just four seasons). We have seen one losing season under Harbaugh, and many are not expecting another anytime soon.

The ability to make decisions in crucial moments has been impressive. It also helps to have a kicker such as Justin Tucker, but Harbaugh has been a top 5 active coach for a decade-plus.

Another deep postseason would solidify his status as one of the all-time greats.

Most NFL Road Postseason Victories Wins (Years Coached)
John Harbaugh 8 (2008-Present)
Tom Landry 7 (1960-1988)
Tom Caughlin 7 (1995-2015)

The 11-8 record in the postseason has had plenty of disappointments, but winning it all in 2012 was quite the joy ride. The last two seasons have featured trips to the Divisional round.

They will be looking to get over the hump with Lamar Jackson under center.

Lamar Jackson

Lamar is arguably the most explosive player in the league. His ability to make defenders miss with ease is simply remarkable. The quickness has been a cheat code in the open field and Baltimore needs more of it.

Most defensive backs cannot hang with Jackson, and the defenders in the box have had issues as well. If you don’t get Jackson down after the first few defenders, he could be gone.

Jackson is considered the top home-run hitter in the NFL, and he has carried the Ravens offense. The dominant downhill rushing attack Baltimore has shown with Jackson under center does not look like it will slow down any time soon.

The superstar signal-caller has rushed for 2,906 yards over the last three seasons. Throw in his 19 rushing scores, and he has been video game-like against the top competition.

Despite being labeled as a quarterback who cannot thread the needle with consistency (more on that shortly), the mobility he has shown is unstoppable.

Most stars get judged on their performances in the postseason. That is where Jackson will need to improve. He has rushed for 367 yards on the ground in four career playoff games. That is just below 100 per game. He only has one rushing score and has five picks compared to his three passing scores.

Those numbers are mediocre at best when you factor in the 1-3 record. Most of those games had an inept passing attack. Jackson has loads of talent and will need more help from the weapons around him.

Improvement is likely to be made in the passing game, but the Ravens have accomplished quite a bit during the regular season. Jackson has posted a 30-7 record in the regular season, and the 2019 MVP is ready to flourish.

Be sure to check out where he ranks among our top NFL MVP contenders for 2021.

Harbaugh has used a heavy running attack to help the former MVP only throw when the team is behind the sticks. They are often ahead of the yard marker running behind a solid offensive line, but the speed of Jackson is what has separated him from the pack.

He just needs to remain healthy. If so, he will be a threat on the ground, and Baltimore will have a chance to go far. The combination of Harbaugh and Jackson is legit, and the Ravens are inching closer to a deep postseason push.

Biggest Weakness for the Baltimore Ravens: Passing Attack

The passing attack for Baltimore has had issues over the years. They were dead last in the NFL, averaging a measly 171.2 yards per game.

They finished below the New York Jets of all teams. Dead last is never good news, and they are ways away from becoming a relevant passing attack.

Tight end Mark Andrews is a serious threat towards the goal-line. When Jackson cannot find room to run, he often looks towards the former Oklahoma Sooner. The size and athleticism will allow Andrews to reap the benefits.

Still, throwing to a tight end every down makes life difficult.

Not having reliable options through the air led the Ravens to rank dead last in passing yards per game a season ago.

Teams Passing Yards Per Game NFL Rank
New England Patriots 180.6 No. 30
New York Jets 174.8 No. 31
Baltimore Ravens 171.2 No. 32

There are ways for the Ravens to get better in this department. There is room for growth from within, while the franchise also was aggressive in getting Jackson some help.

This offseason, Baltimore added a ton of pieces to help improve the passing attack.

Sammy Watkins

Sammy Watkins has had a successful career when he has been able to stay on the field.

The production has been inconsistent due to health concerns, but he has had solid moments in his career. Becoming the third ever freshman All-American (Adrian Peterson, Herschel Walker) to earn recognition was quite an accomplishment.

Watkins sliced and diced Richard Sherman in the 2020 Super Bowl. He has shown the explosiveness that a solid passing option needs to find to achieve success.

Rashod Bateman

Minnesota Golden Gophers rookie Rashod Bateman should also be a contributor. Bateman is an undersized option that could see most of his snaps in the slot.

Baltimore is looking for increased production from every player on their roster. Many of them were not on the team last season, but Bateman could improve the squad on third downs.

He will be sure to help fantasy football owners after cracking the top 10 of our fantasy football sleepers for 2021.

Marquise Brown

The hope is to see a healthy and improved version of Marquise Brown. Hollywood taking the top off of defenses more consistently could put Baltimore’s offense on another level.

Brown is the cousin of Antonio Brown and has shown elite speed when he can stay healthy on the gridiron. Brown has not been able to explode on the national scene with consistency.

There are some weeks where everything is in place for success; and there are other weeks where the team has issues completing passes.

Jackson deserves some of the blame, but the front office does, as well.

They could not have done a worse job at helping the former MVP out. Most playoff teams have at least one Pro Bowl option at wide receiver, but the Ravens have had average backups that often cannot stay healthy.

Miles Boykin

Miles Boykin is another youngster that is looking to step his game up.

The former Notre Dame product has the speed and size to be a solid contributor for Jackson. Boykin was very inconsistent the past few years but did have a few respectable performances.

He went bonkers against Tennessee in the 2019 postseason but has yet to return to that production.

Everyone Else

Outside of Andrews, there remain question marks among all of the young weapons at wide receiver.

Running backs JK Dobbins and Justice Hill are two backs that should contribute alongside Jackson. Gus Edwards is more of a plodder that does not catch many passes.

They were dead last in the NFL last season but should avoid being disastrous in 2021.

Biggest Strengths for the Cleveland Browns: The Trenches

As of lately, the Cleveland Browns look like they have become contenders in the AFC for years to come. Here is what we can expect from the Browns

Biggest Strengths for the Cleveland Browns: The Trenches

Great teams build from the inside-out, and the Cleveland Browns possess the best offensive line in the NFL. The amount of beef in the trenches should allow Baker Mayfield to have great success shortly.

The duo of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt is among the best in the NFL. They bring a lot to the table, but they are perfect for Mayfield and the offensive line.

Chubb is the north-south runner that can run downhill against defenders. Chubb missed time last season but still had no issues eclipsing 1,000 yards.

He has a chance to lead the AFC in rushing because of the five hog mollies blocking for him.

Just look at the production Hunt and Chubb churned out together in 2020.

Cleveland RB ‘20 Attempts ‘20 Rush Yards ‘20 Total Yards ‘20 Total TD
Nick Chubb 190 1,067 1,217 12
Kareem Hunt 198 841 1,145 11

Cleveland’s success on the ground made them one of the most feared rushing attacks last season.

That elite one-two punch is a big reason why, while the team’s new run-first philosophy plays a big hand. Oh, and they simply have an offensive line filled with man-eaters up front.

An Elite Offensive Line

Cleveland has been able to dominate on the ground due to three things: proper coaching, stellar running backs, and an elite offensive line.

Their current trench mavens are the following.

  • JC Tretter
  • Joel Bitonio
  • Jack Conklin
  • Jedrick Willis Jr.
  • Wyatt Teller

All five are Pro Bowl-like players, and are young enough where they are going to improve.

They are well-known as tremendous road graders that pave the way for all backs to find success. Conklin came over from Tennessee, where the Titans ran roughshod on the NFL.

Teller was an underrated prospect out of Virginia Tech. He has a massive body that has launched grown men to the ground since being selected by the Browns. Some argue he has the highest upside among the five blockers, but Willis Jr. has a bright future as well. The former Alabama premier tackle is an athletic blocker that brings so much size to the trenches.

Bitonio and Tretter have both been around the league for a bit now. They are some of the more productive linemen in the league. Tretter found success with Green Bay and will now bring leadership to the Cleveland franchise. Winning with consistency has not always been there for Cleveland, but these five premier blockers are the most entertaining to follow.

Chubb has been running like a mad man since his days in Georgia. He may have had a tough night against Alabama in the College Football Playoff national championship, but he had an exceptional career.

Battling injuries in both college and professionally is tough to endure.

Chubb has accomplished so much thus far. He is the perfect back to run by and through defenders in Cleveland. Moving the chains and continuing the forward momentum is tough to limit. He is the heart-and-soul of the offensive Cleveland attack.

Only Baltimore and Tennessee averaged more rushing yards per game last season. The Browns had two 1,000-yard rushers and are threats yet again. Kareem Hunt filled in admirably for the injured Chubb and ended up earning 198 carries. He only hauled in 38 receptions, but Cleveland has been a heavy-running team.

There is no need to pass the ball much when you are getting five-plus yards a pop. Mayfield was licking his chops last season due to having the best protection in the league.

The Browns are looking to erase some bad memories from their franchise by playing in a few additional postseason games. The offensive line and rushing attack might be the unit that carries them.

Here is a list of franchises with the longest active NFL droughts in reaching their conference championship games.

Biggest Weakness for the Cleveland Browns: Secondary and History

The secondary of Cleveland was appalling last season. They allowed 221.2 yards per game, ranking No. 24. The number of injuries was tough to overcome, but the Browns were talented enough to make it to the Divisional round against Kansas City.

To knock off the Chiefs, the Browns will have to dominate the trenches and avoid getting torched against their speed.

We have seen a pair of Rams get added to the equation.

Troy Hill and John Johnson III are both capable due to the depth around them. Greg Newsome was an outstanding corner for the Northwestern Wildcats.

Often wearing a hoodie on the gridiron, Newsome played as smooth as any corner in the country last season. The fluid hips allowed him to quickly turn and grab the pigskin with the best of them. Newsome learned a lot in the Big Ten, and he will likely see playing time to start the season.

Denzel Ward, another Big Ten performer (Ohio State), was not fully healthy last season. Ward has solid talent but must stay healthy on the field.

The play dropped for the Browns last season and many point the finger of Ward’s health as the main concern.

Grant Delpit came out of LSU with lofty expectations, but he is known more for his ability to lay the lumber in run defense.

Richard LeCounte is a rookie out of Georgia that will provide much-needed depth. Ronnie Harrison is the other backup safety, so clearly, this team did all it could to put their secondary woes away.

The unit was struggling so much that they were bringing and playing guys off the practice squad.

Defending the Pass

Against teams such as Kansas City and Buffalo, defending the pass will be imperative. It hasn’t helped that the team could not stay healthy in the back end, but a great pass rush will always make the secondary improve.

Myles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney could be the best pass-rushing tandem in the league.

They certainly have been incredibly effective. Pairing them together could be a nightmare for opposing offenses.

Cleveland is one of the more talented rosters in football, but we have seen the franchise have rotten luck. They just won their first playoff game since 1994. They have yet to reach the AFC Championship since 1989.

Their grueling loss to Denver prevented them from reaching their first-ever Super Bowl.

Quarterback Woes

We all know about quarterback woes over the years, but Baker Mayfield seems like the best of the recent bunch. Bernie Kosar was sensational for them (1985-1992), and Mayfield has the best talent since those fun days.

Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. provide more talent for the squad. They should put an end to many of these disastrous and cringe-worthy memories that fans have not been able to put in the rear-view mirror.

Winning the division is a strong possibility with their top five rosters. The 11 wins they had in 2020 were the most for the franchise since 1994.

A 12-win season would give them their most since 1986. The franchise failed to win more than 12 games in the NFL. They did win 14 in 1948 as part of the AAFC.

The Browns didn’t have many amazing seasons since, and recent history has been daunting.

Teams Length of Drought Last Appearance in Conference Championships
Cincinnati 32 years 1988 AFC W over Buffalo
Washington 29 1991 NFC W over Dallas
Detroit 29 1991 NFC L to Washington
Cleveland 28 1989 AFC L to Denver
Miami 28 1992 AFC L to Buffalo
Dallas 25 1995 NFC W over Green Bay

The franchise is pushing for the longest drought when it comes to simply reaching the AFC title game.

Cleveland truly could take that next step in 2021, but they will have to put the franchise demons to the side. The playoffs were enjoyable last season with their win over Pittsburgh.

They nearly upset Kansas City at Arrowhead, and it truly puts the current state of the franchise in perspective. If they continue to pick up momentum, the Browns could be a future Super Bowl champion.

Pittsburgh Steelers

The Pittsburgh Steelers have been one of the better franchises in the history of the sport. Can they keep that tradition alive? Here is our Steelers’ preview.

Biggest Strengths for the Pittsburgh Steelers: Defense, Youth, and Coaching

The Pittsburgh Steelers have been one of the most productive franchises in all of sports. The Steel Curtain defense has been remarkable for the past half-century.

The amount of Hall of Fame legends that have donned the black and yellow has been countless.

Defensively, it was impressive what they were able to accomplish for the majority of last season.

The Defense

The defense nearly carried the team to an undefeated regular season before the final month became an albatross. T.J. Watt has been one of the better players in the entire NFL. Being the brother of J.J. Watt seemed unfair to T.J., but he was a stud at Wisconsin just like his older brother.

I didn’t think there was a chance for him to become better since J.J. was one of the elite players in the league at his peak with the Texans.

T.J. was dominant with Wisconsin. He has arguably been on track to become a Hall of Fame player just like his older brother. At just 27 years old (October 11), the Steeler linebacker has registered 49.5 sacks through four seasons.

He certainly has a long way to go to become an all-time Steelers legend, but he is on a great path thus far.

It is impressive how many players the franchise has consistently found in the draft to become the next big thing.

Watt has been spectacular, as has veteran Cameron Heyward. The former Buckeye has been a mainstay on the defensive line. Heyward has been tremendous due to his skills, but the leadership has been instrumental.

Pittsburgh has been a fun team to watch, but their amount of preparation and awareness has always stood out.

Stephon Tuitt (28) and Deon Bush (22) are other contributors that should impact the front seven. Tuitt has been solid over the years, but Bush brings upside to the team.

One of the better Michigan linebackers in recent memory, Bush has blazing speed that should make life difficult for the opposition. Quincy Roche and Alex Highsmith are other youngsters that can leave their mark as pass-rushers, too.

Collectively, this is a nasty unit that has gotten after the quarterback and been stingy, overall.

Teams Defensive Yards Allowed NFL Rank
Los Angeles (NFC) 281.9 1st
Washington 304.6 2nd
Pittsburgh 305.8 3rd

The Steelers have lived off of an elite pass rush and stellar talent in the trenches, but their secondary has also improved in recent years.

Pittsburgh swung a big trade for safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, and it landed them a top-5 defensive back in the NFL.

Fitzpatrick has been bonkers since his Alabama days. He returned a 109-yard pick-six against Arkansas during his sophomore season. He ended up with three picks that day in a lopsided road victory.

The Crimson Tide have had several studs in the NFL, but Fitzpatrick is one of the best ones on the defensive side of the ball.

An absolute ball-hawk, Fitzpatrick has elite speed with the ability to track down any wide receiver in the NFL. He has been a joy to watch ever since they traded for him from the Miami Dolphins.

Now, Fitzpatrick looks like one of the better defensive backs the Steelers have had under Mike Tomlin.

Mike Tomlin

Speaking of the future Hall of Fame coach, Tomlin is simply Mr. Consistent.

We hardly see the Steelers struggle for long in the AFC North. It was rare to see them fall apart down the stretch, but the team still won the AFC North. While it will be tough to repeat as division champs this season, Tomlin has yet to post a losing record during his tenure with the Steelers.

We have seen a handful of eight or nine-win seasons, but the Steelers have never had a losing record. We have seen nine seasons worth of playoff appearances in his 14 years as the head coach. Two trips to the Super Bowl in 2008 and 2010 were remarkable seasons.

A narrow loss to Green Bay in 2010 nearly gave them two titles in three seasons after dethroning Arizona in 2008. Super Bowl XLIII was one of the best finishes in the history of the sport.

To see so many elite touchdowns and plays in one game was simply amazing. James Harrison, Larry Fitzgerald, and Santonio Holmes had spectacular scores that we may never see again.

Tomlin deserves all the credit by balancing divas or negativity in the locker room over the years.

Every coach deals with troubles. To deliver with as much success on top of the lofty expectations is even more impossible.

Tomlin is one of the better coaches in recent memory in the NFL, and the hope is they still have enough talent in the tank to take them back to the promised land.

The Young Skill Players

The young skill players that Pittsburgh has should make the majority of the league jealous. The talent at running back and wide receiver are almost illegal.

Just look at the big names that will be calling Pittsburgh home in 2020.

  • Najee Harris (23)
  • Juju Smith-Schuster (24)
  • Chase Claypool (23)
  • Diontae Johnson (25)

Harris is the only rookie of the bunch, but these are all tremendous skill players.

To see all four of their best offensive players at or under the age of 25 is unusual. Some colleges are not much older than the quartet of Pittsburgh.

The future looks bright for a franchise that has been accustomed to so much winning. Harris was one of the more successful and complete Alabama backs in SEC history. He was arguably the best back in the history of the program.

Harris catches passes in the flats and out of the backfield with such ease. He may not be in the same breath as Marshall Faulk or LaDainian Tomlinson since he has not taken a professional snap yet, but the upside is there.

Harris looks similar to former NFL running back Ricky Watters. Mike Renner of Pro Football Focus even said this.

“He reminds them of Le’Veon Bell”.

Some say Harris may even be better.

Bell was so patient out of the backfield and was arguably the best pass-catching back in the NFL for a handful of seasons. Most NFL backs fall off the map after a few seasons, and it wasn’t long before Bell departed Pittsburgh.

The hope for Harris is he will be able to stay in town for a decade-plus and shatter franchise records thanks to the exceptional skills that he possesses. Tremendous hands will always help backs in the passing game, but his size has come in handy to pass protection.

Picking up the blitz and fumbling the ball will get you benched in the NFL as a youngster. Harris has thrived in both areas.

Harris has the speed, size, strength, and vision to become the next great Steeler back.

A struggling Pittsburgh offensive line losing four starters from last season could lower the expectations for the rookie.

The young wideouts are really where this team can turn it into overdrive.

Juju, Chase, and Diontae all have the speed to burn. Ben Roethlisberger does not have an elite arm like he once had several seasons ago, but his health will determine how much success this trio has.

Juju is the slot option that was unstoppable when he played alongside Antonio Brown for a few seasons. He fell off once Brown was no longer around.

Juju did put together a solid 2020 campaign despite garnering more attention due to his TikTok videos.

Smith-Schuster is still maturing in the NFL, but his youth should be an advantage that he can use against the opposition. As long as he can stay healthy, he has solid enough size and speed to remain a tremendous number two or three option on the Steelers.

Chase Claypool was a beast at Notre Dame due to his massive hands and tremendous athletic ability. Standing at 6’4-plus and 229-plus pounds, the former Irish star put together a solid rookie campaign.

Look at the numbers he put up in year one.

  • 62 receptions
  • 872 receiving yards
  • 9 touchdowns

While the Steelers were a heavy passing team, Claypool answered the call when given the opportunity. Due to his size, he should continue to improve and become a great red zone option for many years to come.

Johnson flew under the radar coming out of Syracuse back in 2018. Only two seasons in, Johnson already has 147 grabs for 1,603 yards and 12 receiving touchdowns. The yards and touchdowns are nothing to brag home about, but those numbers are on 236 targets.

He has been the quickest receiver out of the bunch. While he is the smallest in stature, he has been able to get open the most.

Roethlisberger will continue to use Johnson when pressure comes, and we should see Johnson reap the benefits in 2021.

This team has four tremendous skill players that all have solid ceilings in the NFL. It will be fun to see Mike Tomlin’s defense dominate the field position to allow the youngsters to grow.

Pittsburgh Steelers’ Weaknesses: Offensive Line, Running Game, and Health

The health of Ben Roethlisberger is a ticking time bomb. We don’t know when it might explode, but we have seen disasters before.

The Steelers just two seasons ago had Big Ben miss most of the entire season, and Pittsburgh barely avoided a losing season with practice squad players that would have struggled in the SEC.

Roethlisberger isn’t going to stay young forever, and he may not remain in one piece, either.

One year shy of turning 40, Roethlisberger has seen far too many games from the sidelines. We have seen Big Ben miss 41 games in his 17-year career, and most of them are related to injuries.

There are the occasional games in Week 17 where the team sits him to keep him fresh for the postseason (see Week 17 this past season). That average only comes out to about 2.5 missed games per season, but the depth behind the future Hall of Famer has been horrid.

Just watching every game of the Steelers two seasons ago may have taken a year off my own life, but they managed to get to an 8-8 mark. Mason Rudolph is not a capable backup, and he has seen himself in a few disastrous situations before. His on-field play has been atrocious due to the lack of any mobility and a mediocre arm.

Lack of a Running Game

The lack of a run game has been another issue for the franchise. The Steelers were dead last in the NFL by a mile last season. They stunk up the joint the majority of times that they attempted to run the ball.

James Conner was not healthy for their 2020 season opener, and Benny Snell is now a candidate to be cut in 2021.

As a unit, the team was pathetic. Look at where the running game ranked in 2020.

Teams Rushing Offense Rank
Detroit 93.7 YPG No. 30
Houston 91.6 YPG No. 31
Pittsburgh 84.4 YPG No. 32

They made average teams look dominant at running the ball.

The average NFL team last season averaged nearly 119 yards per game with a 4.4 run per total average, and 16.6 rushing touchdowns on the season. Pittsburgh sadly fell well short of those mediocre numbers. They averaged a measly 84.4 yards per game on a 4.4 yards per tote with 12 scores on the season.

They made the average teams look elite, and it goes to show how vital it is to have successful blockers in the trenches.

They lost four starters from that atrocious line last season, and some of their best players have moved on due to retirement or a change of scenery. If they cannot open up more holes, the team will need their fans to have more patience when they miss out on the postseason.

Najee Harris has a bright future ahead of him, and he’s already made waves at training camp.

Still, the past issues are there, and he will need to remain healthy and patient running behind a suspect offensive line.

The better teams that advance in the NFL have failed to protect their quarterback. The Steelers will have their issues throughout the season when the opposition is pinning their ears back.

Rushing four and putting seven back in coverage is tough to dissect for an offense. If the team cannot improve in the trenches, the offense won’t show the consistency needed to hang with Baltimore and Cleveland.

Cincinnati Bengals

The Cincinnati Bengals have a decent-looking future, and they would have higher hopes if they were in any other AFC division.

Biggest Strengths for the Cincinnati Bengals: Offensive Playmakers

The Bengals will be getting in more shootouts this upcoming season than ever before. The offense has a ton of weapons to help withstand some of their defensive deficiencies.

Joe Burrow to Ja’Marr Chase was a devastating combination at LSU. With many referring to Burrow as “baby Aaron Rodgers”, the sky is the limit in Cincy.

Of course, adding someone as talented as Burrow’s former teammate helps, too.

During their national title season in 2019, the duo connected for 84 receptions.

We saw 20 of those for touchdowns, which included a bonkers performance against Clemson in the national championship.

Chase brought down nine passes for 222 yards, and two thrilling touchdowns that only Randy Moss could have made look more effortless and entertaining.

Chase won the Biletnikoff Award, which rewards the top wide receiver in the country. We just saw the season that Justin Jefferson put together, imagine what Chase can accomplish with Burrow.

The two could become the best young tandem in the NFL in due time. There will be ample opportunities to thread the needle in the AFC North. The offensive line is not dominant, and the team will be trailing in several games this season. That will increase passing attempts, and Burrow will have four different targets to pepper.

Chase will be a premier rookie wideout that can do a little bit of everything. He has the exceptional speed to get by the defense but is known more for his ability to take the ball away from opposing defensive backs.

His pure athleticism should allow him to grow throughout the season next to his former college signal-caller.

LSU Stars in CFP Pass/Rec Yds vs OU Total TD vs OU Pass/Rec Yds vs Clemson Total TD vs Clemson
Joe Burrow 493 8 463 6
Ja’Marr Chase 61 0 221 2

Tyler Boyd

Tyler Boyd brings the highest floor to the offensive squad due to playing in the slot. Boyd has hauled in a minimum of 76 passes in three consecutive seasons.

While he has under 3,000 yards in that timeframe (2,915), Boyd is a capable route runner with reliable hands to move the chains.

That is the name of the game for the Bengals in 2021. Any three-and-outs would be disastrous since the defense has folded quickly. Boyd could be the primary target despite getting the least amount of love among the starting skill players.

Tee Higgins

Tee Higgins is another high-profile wide receiver that will garner plenty of attention in the passing game. A tremendous college receiver for Trevor Lawrence at Clemson, Higgins had success in two seasons with the 2021 top pick of the NFL Draft.

Higgins put on a clinic in the ACC and the College Football Playoff. Higgins rookie season was not too shabby, either.

Check out his 2020 numbers.

  • 108 targets
  • 67 receptions
  • 908 receiving yards
  • 6 YPC
  • 6 touchdowns

The return of Burrow, a franchise passer, gives Higgins solid upside in this offense, and it will make life difficult for the rest of the division.

Joe Mixon

The x-factor that can make this team go places will be the health and ability of Joe Mixon. If he can put together the best season of his career, this offense will put up numbers.

Mixon could not find any running room last season and was then injured before we knew it. A healthy Mixon is tough to limit because he has balanced skills.

Mixon is a tremendous pass-catcher that can become a factor in the offense. If the line can make any room for him to rumble, we could see 1,500-plus yards from scrimmage.

The 2018 and 2019 seasons were years where he came up short in those numbers. He still hauled in 35-plus catches for nearly 300 yards.

An extra game is on the schedule, so look for improved numbers across the board if fully healthy. Mixon, Chase, Higgins, Boyd, and Burrow are the young core that should grow together.

Biggest Weakness for the Cincinnati Bengals: Defense and Daunting Schedule

The Cincinnati defense has been miserable to watch. They finished in the bottom 11 of the NFL in points allowed per game (26.5), rushing yards allowed per game (148.0), and total yards allowed per game (389.2).

They were downright ugly, and there are only a select few players that bring upside to the roster.

Jessie Bates is an absolute stud safety that deserves more recognition since he hasn’t received much. Bates has tremendous vision as a safety and is often thinking ahead of the quarterback and opposing receivers. At just 24 years old, the Bengals can build around his skills.

Unfortunately, there isn’t much to build around at the moment.

They have brought in other struggling corners like Eli Apple and Trae Waynes. Both were premier shutdown corners in the Big Ten, but their skills have not translated to the NFL.

Front Seven Woes

The front seven is their biggest problem. Not slowing down the Browns and Ravens is a cause for concern. They are two of the best rushing attacks in the NFL, and the Bengals have to defend them four times this season.

Being in the AFC North is a gauntlet for Cincinnati.

The team can be much better on paper entering the season with a healthy Burrow and Mixon. Still, they will be favored to lose double-digit games.

They only have a win total set at 6.5, which ensures another losing season for the sixth straight year. Barring we see teams in the division suffering poor luck with injuries or player performances, a third or fourth-place finish is likely to happen.

If the defense does not make improved strides, they will continue to get gashed. They will also be left with no time to make enough comebacks for a playoff-like season.

Tough Schedule

The Bengals also have a tough NFL schedule this year. Playing in the AFC North has a ton to do with it (three playoff teams in 2020), but the rest of their schedule doesn’t help.

AFC North Teams 2021 Strength of Schedule Overall Rank
Pittsburgh 155-115-2 (0.574) 1st
Baltimore 152-118-2 (0.563) 2nd
Cincinnati 144-128-0 (0.529) T-6th
Cleveland 140-130-2 (0.518) 9th

The Bengals really have their work cut out for them this season. They host Minnesota to start the year, then have to head to Chicago and Pittsburgh.

Right away, this team could be staring 0-3 in the face, and that isn’t even the tough part of their schedule.

Which Team Is Strongest in the AFC North?

If you’re looking to bet on who will win the AFC North in 2021, start with the Browns at the best NFL betting apps.

The Browns have all the pieces in their favor. They dominate at the line of scrimmage and have talented skill players.

Baltimore is right there with the Browns and could win the AFC North. I like Cleveland advancing further in the postseason due to their ability to own the trenches.

Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt are a devastating tandem in the backfield. Myles Garrett can wreak havoc on an opposing team, and that is what you need in the postseason.

Ultimately, the team that goes the farthest in the division will be the quarterback who can play the best in the spotlight.

I believe Mayfield has the most at his disposal and will improve from last season.

This could be a special season ahead for the Browns, but it certainly will be another entertaining one overall in the AFC North.

Keep reading to see what the strengths and weaknesses of all the NFL teams are for 2021.

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