Last season, the AFC North sent three teams to the playoffs with the Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers falling in the Wild Card round, while the Baltimore Ravens came up short in the AFC Championship Game.
The offseason has seen some teams rosters change more than others with injuries, free agency and the draft all leading to changes in depth charts throughout the division. Some feature rookies trying to oust veterans, while others are a result of poor performance in the past. Nonetheless, all are key to how each team’s depth chart will look come Week 1.
So, with that in mind, let’s take a look at the positional battles in the AFC North.
Position: Defensive End
The Players: Pernell McPhee and Arthur Jones
The Battle: The injury to Terrell Suggs wasn’t the only loss the Ravens’ defense suffered this offseason with both Jarret Johnson and Cory Redding bolting to pastures new in free agency. Both graded out positively against the run, coming in at +22.8 and +12.3, respectively. That, coupled with the loss of Suggs, highlights a massive concern for the Ravens heading into the season. However, that also means an opportunity for more snaps for other players on the roster this season. Suggs and Johnson figure to be replaced by Paul Kruger and rookie Courtney Upshaw. The real battle will be for the 615 snaps that have been vacated by Redding and that comes down to two former fifth round draft picks in Jones and McPhee.
Expectations for McPhee are high in Baltimore, coming off a rookie season that saw him lead all interior linemen in our Signature Stat Pass Rushing Productivity. However, for him to move into a full-time role on the vaunted Baltimore defense, he’ll need to be able to ensure his production doesn’t drop with a higher snap count and be able to hold up against the run.
There is definitely something in the Jones DNA, with one of his brothers, Jon “Bones” Jones, a current UFC Champion and the other, Chandler, a recent first round pick of the New England Patriots. He barely saw the field in his rookie season, playing just nine snaps in two games, but was featured in 26.6% of the team’s snaps in 2011. While he doesn’t come close to McPhee as a pass rusher–just one hit and three hurries last season–he didn’t look out of place against the run (+3.4 in the regular season).
The Verdict: It all comes down to how McPhee performs in an increased role in our eyes. If he can keep up that level of production and show even half that success against the run, it’s hard to see him spending too much time on the sidelines. That being said, both men will see an increase in snaps and Jones’ previous play against the run could see him feature more on early downs, particularly at the start of the season.
The Players: Nate Clements, Jason Allen, Terence Newman and Dre Kirkpatrick
The Battle: As many things as there were to like about the Cincinnati defense in 2011, the secondary was not one of them with only Leon Hall (+1.4) finishing the season with a positive grade. Hall’s starting spot at one of the cornerback spots is safe, provided he is healed from an Achilles injury that he sustained last November. If so, the question then becomes who will start opposite him? Clements is the incumbent starter and was the only Bengals defensive back with a positive grade against the run last season. In coverage, however, he gave up four touchdowns and allowed an average of 13.0 yards per reception. That leaves him open to competition from new signees Newman and Allen and rookie Kirkpatrick. There has even been some speculation that Clements salary could lead to him becoming a cap casualty if the Bengals have enough faith in the new additions.
After using the 17th overall pick on him in April’s NFL Draft, the Bengals clearly plan on having Kirkpatrick in the starting line-up at some point, how quickly it happens however remains to be seen. Newman started 2011 well and graded out positively in coverage in five of the first seven games he played in. The second half of the season was not so impressive though, with a horrible Week 17 game on the road against the New York Giants proving to be the lowlight. Allen struggled early in his career after being drafted in the first round back in 2006 by the Miami Dolphins; however he flashed good form in the second half of last season in Houston, giving up just 17 receptions and two touchdowns from Week 10 through the playoffs. We’ve seen flashes before from him, however, and he normally reverts back to the form that saw him benched in the first place.
The Verdict: On paper, Clements should have enough to beat out both Newman and Allen, although he will need to show that his play in coverage last season was not a sign that he is nearing the end of his career. The X-Factor is Kirkpatrick: can he start from Day 1? In the end, Clements’ saving grace could be his play in the slot, where he performed admirably last season.
Position: Wide Receiver
The Players: Mohammed Massaquoi, Josh Cribbs, Josh Gordon, Travis Benjamin, Jordan Norwood and Carlton Mitchell
The Battle: Even before they used a second round draft pick on Josh Gordon in the supplemental draft last week, the Cleveland Browns already had a log-jam at wide receiver. The problem being that there isn’t anyone on the roster who has shown much of anything so far. Greg Little will start at one spot, despite being our second worst graded WR last season. He flashed enough that the team will look for him to cut out some of the drops that blighted his rookie season before looking elsewhere on the roster.
Beyond Little is where the battle really begins. Massaquoi, who started last season, dropped four passes in 2011 and in his two seasons in the league, has yet to show that he can be a long term starter at the position. Cribbs was the Browns most productive player at the position last season, dropping less passes than Little and out-performing Massaquoi. However, an increase in snaps and targets in 2012 doesn’t seem likely given the new additions on the roster and the coaching staff wants him to focus on making more of an impact on special teams. The Browns were impressed by the size-speed combination of Mitchell but despite this and reports of an impressive showing at offseason workouts, having made just four receptions in his first two seasons makes Mitchell a long shot to even make the roster. Norwood is another on the roster bubble however; his decent play from the slot at the end of last season should see him safe.
That leaves the rookies in Benjamin and Gordon, both of whom figure to see significant snaps this season. The main concern with Gordon is how long it has been since he played football (even though he practiced full time at Utah last season). The Browns apparently view him as their No. 1 receiver of the future. Benjamin could benefit from Gordon’s time off at the beginning of the season as he tries to seize any available snaps.
The Verdict: Opposite Little it really is up in the air and it won’t be a shock to see more than one guy take the field as the No. 2 receiver. By the end of the season it will likely be Gordon but don’t be surprised to see Benjamin starting in Week 1 ahead of him and Massaquoi. If the end of last season is anything to go by, Norwood still figures to be a factor from the slot.
Position: Defensive End
The Players: Ziggy Hood and Cameron Heyward
The Battle: One of the more interesting battles in the division this offseason is the battle between two former first round draft picks to replace Aaron Smith on the Pittsburgh defensive line. Hood showed promise in his rookie season on limited snaps, however in the two seasons since he has never graded out better than our third-worst 3-4 defensive end. Reports this offseason are that Hood has replaced nearly 20 pounds of fat with muscle in a bid to up his game, something he’ll need to do to keep hold of the starting job he inherited when Smith went down last season. The concern with Hood is that he was poor both against the run and as a pass rusher, finishing the season with just one sack, four hits and 10 hurries on 522 pass rush snaps.
Heyward didn’t embarrass himself as a rookie but he didn’t do much to stand out either. The 31st overall pick out of Ohio State a year ago never graded above +1.7 or below (-1.5) in his first season in the league. With one sack, four hits and seven hurries, he almost matched Hood’s totals on less than a quarter of the pass rush snaps. He should see an increase in snaps this season but the opportunity to replace Hood in the starting line-up will only come if Hood struggles again.
The Verdict: As down as we are on Hood’s play over the past two years here at PFF, the news that he has rededicated himself this offseason is encouraging. He’ll start the season as the starter at left defensive end but if his offseason improvements don’t lead to an improvement on the field, Heyward could seize the starting job from him.