The NFL recently announced that training camps will proceed as planned as of July 28. That is subject to change as the NFL continues to closely monitor the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, as of now, teams are preparing for training camp as planned. This is the first installment of an 8-part series that will cover every division’s strengths, weaknesses, position battles, and more leading up to the projected start of training camp. The first division to break down is the AFC North.
The Baltimore Ravens finished first in the AFC North in 2019 with a 14-2 record, the NFL’s best. Their offense was powered by their quarterback, the 2019 MVP, Lamar Jackson. Jackson is entering his third season in the NFL and looks to establish himself as not just a dangerous runner but an effective passer.
Jackson finished first in 2019 with 36 passing touchdowns, however, the Ravens finished 29th in pass yards per game. He also led the Ravens in rushing yards with 1206 and seven touchdowns, breaking the record for rushing yards by a quarterback in a season. In 2020, Jackson wants to move the team down the field with his arm rather than just his legs. If Jackson wants to find long term success in the NFL, he can still use his legs to make plays but he also needs to be able to stand tall in the pocket and deliver a strike to his receivers.
The first battle for touches in Ravens camp will happen in the backfield between Mark Ingram and JK Dobbins. The Ravens selected the Buckeye running back 62nd overall in the 2020 NFL Draft. His mix of speed and power paired with his elite field vision and balance made him one of the top running back prospects available. He needs work in the passing game but his talent as a runner gives him a real opportunity to push Ingram for carries in 2020
Slot Wide Receiver
Willie Snead is presumed starter at the slot wide receiver position for the Ravens but it wouldn’t be shocking to see 5th round pick Devin Duvernay sneak into the discussion in camp. The 5’11” Texas Longhorn put up 1387 yards and 9 touchdowns in 13 games in 2019. His top-end speed allows him to create separation deep downfield.
Duvernay’s combine numbers including a 4.39-second 40-yard dash prove he has the athletic ability to succeed in the NFL. He also has amazing hands and is create at creating yards after the catch. However, in order to be successful in the NFL, Duvernay needs to work on his routes. His breaks aren’t as clean as they should be and creating space in the short and intermediate passing game will be difficult for him at the start.
The Ravens have a very strong projected depth chart in 2020 but their strongest position group would be running backs with Ingram, Dobbins, Edwards, and Justice Hill comprising Baltimore’s top tier rushing offense. Pass rusher is also a position of strength for the Ravens with Calais Campbell, Brandon Williams, and Derek Wolfe upfront along with Matthew Judon and Pernell McPhee coming in off the edge.
The biggest glaring weakness on the Ravens is over the top on defense. The free safety spot alongside Chuck Clark seems to be up for grabs with Earl Thomas’s future with the team in question. However, the Ravens still have a strong secondary with cornerbacks Marlon Humphrey, Marcus Peters, and Jimmy Smith but safety will be a position of emphasis for them in training camp.
The Steelers finished second in the AFC North with an 8-8 record. They experienced some bad injury luck, most notably losing star quarterback Ben Roethlisberger following Week 2. The Steelers had to roll with quarterbacks Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges the rest of the year. Coach Mike Tomlin was a deserving Coach of the Year candidate for getting that team to a .500 record.
The defense was another huge factor in their 8-8 record. Trading for defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick kicked their defense into high gear. The Steelers defense led the NFL with 38 total turnovers and 54 sacks. They also finished top five in points allowed per game despite the awful offense. That unit is seeing all 11 starters return and expecting growth from second-year linebacker Devin Bush. If the offense gets its groove back under Roethlisberger, the Steelers could be a playoff contender in 2020.
JuJu Smith-Schuster is the undisputed top receiver in Pittsburgh but the second spot is up for grabs. James Washington, Diontae Johnson, and rookie Chase Claypool should all contend for that position. Washington saw work as a deep threat in 2019 with 44 receptions, 735 yards, and three touchdowns. Johnson, who seems to be emerging as the favorite amassed 59 receptions, 680 yards, and five touchdowns. Claypool is also expected by some to put his 6’4″ 238 lb frame to use at tight end this season, a position the Steelers have struggled at since Heath Miller retired.
The Steelers have had one of the strongest offensive lines in the league for some time now and it figures to get better with the addition of free-agent guard Stefen Wisniewski. The right tackle is a concern where the current projected starter is Matt Feiler. However, Feiler played 100% of offensive snaps in 2019 and only committed three penalties while allowing six sacks.
There aren’t admittedly a lot of concerns for the Steelers. Despite that, while they had a very productive defense in 2019, the talent level of the secondary is concerning. The addition of Fitzpatrick this past season in trade helped drastically. The front seven also helped take the pressure off the secondary but if they regress, the secondary could see a similar dip in production.
After an offseason surrounded by high hopes, the Browns finished 6-10, third in the AFC North in 2019. The Browns have a strong roster on paper but it was unable to translate to the field in 2019.
The biggest question for the Browns revolves around quarterback Baker Mayfield. He was expected to show improvements from his rookie season and disappointed. The offense has the potential to be a high powered unit in 2020 but Mayfield has to improve in order for that happen.
The Browns added a few key pieces to help the team reach its full potentials like the first-round pick at tackle, Jedrick Wills Jr, and free-agent tackle Jack Conklin. They also acquired safeties Karl Joseph and Grant Delpit to help add to a strong secondary.
The Browns running back duo with Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt is among one of the league’s best. Chubb is one of the best pure runners in the NFL and Hunt’s claim to fame is being one of the most dynamic pass catchers at running back in the NFL. The recipe for this offense running through these two with an improved offensive line is something the Browns will focus on if they wish to improve on their 2019 results.
A question with the linebacker group doubles as the Browns’ biggest position battle and weakness. The Browns projected starters at linebacker in 2020 are Jacob Phillips, Slone Takitaki, and Mack Wilson. Wilson showed flashes in 2019 and will play the Mike linebacker role in passing situations. BJ Goodson, known for being a run stopper will come in for running situations. Phillips is a rookie drafted in the third round and Takitaki saw limited game action in 2019, only starting in one game. The Browns will use primarily nickel packages in 2020, requiring only 2 linebackers. The Browns are leaning on their strong secondary in 2020 but the decision to move on from Christian Kirksey and Joe Schobert looms large.
The Bengals finished last in the AFC North in 2019 with a record of 2-14. This record also gave them the first overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. Obviously, the biggest story is the player taken with the top pick in the draft, quarterback Joe Burrow. Burrow was a standout at LSU but he isn’t a shoo-in to be a top-level NFL quarterback, especially not right away.
It’s tough to know what exactly Zac Taylor’s offensive system looks like given the lack of talent the Bengals had on the roster last year. This year, it figures to become more clear with Burrow as the quarterback. The roster isn’t devoid of talent surrounding Burrow either. Wide receivers like Tyler Boyd and AJ Green will see the starting time in 2020. Despite the Bengals offensive woes, Boyd put up 90 receptions for 1046 yards in 2019. Green spent much of the year on injured reserve but he will come back to likely a reduced role as well and he was a star pre-injury and can still produce at age 30. Joe Mixon is a star at running back to also help take some pressure off of Burrow.
Slot Wide Receiver
Boyd and Green are locked to start but there are a lot of bodies at wide receiver that could end up seeing work. In the event of another Green injury, second-round pick Tee Higgins or Auden Tate are both names to keep an eye on as a potential starter opposite Boyd. Not to mention, Alex Erickson and John Ross III are locked into a battle for the starting slot receiver. Erickson saw 55.86% of offensive snaps in 2019 where Ross saw 36.6% of offensive snaps so history is on Erickson’s side but neither will be locked in for every offensive snap.
The Bengals got much stronger in the secondary this offseason but the defensive line is the strongest position group the team has. Geno Atkins and Carl Lawson are perennial stars the can be relied on year in and year out. No matter how bad the team around them is, Lawson and Atkins find ways to produce, and this coming season with more talent on defense should be no different.
This has been the Bengals Achilles’ Heel for years. They should see a boost this year now that first-round tackle in 2019, Jonah Williams is expected to be fully recovered from labrum surgery in 2020. However, aside from Xavier Su’a-Filo being the projected starter at right guard, every 2020 starter is the same as in 2019. The offensive line could end up becoming the deciding factor in whether or not Burrow sinks or swims in his inaugural season.