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Ranking the AFC North: Defensive Line

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Ranking the AFC North's defensive lines. Guess who we think comes out on top? The Bengals, that's who!

Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

In recent years, the AFC North has featured some of the top front sevens in all of football. The Ravens, Steelers and Browns all run a 3-4 defense as their base defense, while the Bengals are the lone 4-3 base defense in the division. As a result, the Bengals have more defensive lineman on their roster, and in my opinion, the best (and most experienced) defensive line in the division. Here, we rank each of the AFC North's defensive lines.

Note: * Indicates projected starters

1) Bengals (Base 4-3)

Predicted Depth Chart

DT/NT: Geno Atkins*, Domata Peko*, Brandon Thompson, Marcus Hardison, Pat Sims, Devon Still DE: Carlos Dunlap*, Michael Johnson*, Wallace Gilberry, Will Clarke, Margus Hunt The Bengals were dead last in the NFL in terms of sacks in 2015 – as in 32nd out of 32 teams. With just 20 sacks, the 2015 Bengals had less than half the sacks of the Ravens (49) and about 65 percent of the sack total of the Steelers (33) and the Browns (31). Therefore, many will see this as a bogus "Homer" ranking…but hear me out.

The 2014 version of Geno Atkins was not "Geno Atkins" and even his own defensive coordinator referred to him as "just a guy out there." As with most ACL tears, players take a full year to get back to their old self and all indications from camp are that Geno is back to his pre-injury self and is no longer "just a guy out there" but one of the best tackles in the league. Geno, pre-injury, was as disruptive as any tackle in the league and makes every player on the Bengals line better. He is the type of player who requires double teams – and sometimes triple teams – and because of that, Dunlap, Johnson and the other ends will get plenty of one-on-one opportunities, opportunities which they win more often than not.

The health of Atkins and return of Johnson will solidify the Bengals run defense, the only question which remains is who will step up for the Bengals at the second tackle position? Can Peko be effective enough to continue starting? Brandon Thompson has shown flashes, but can he take the next step to NFL starter? Could Pat Sims take the spot next to Atkins? Or, could Devon Still, the 2011 Big Ten Defensive Player of the year and 2012 second round pick finally realize his potential on the field now that his off-the-field life has found some stability?

2) Ravens (Base 3-4)

Predicted Depth Chart

DT/NT: Brandon Williams*, Carl Davis

DE: Timmy Jernigan*, Chris Canty*, Casey Walker, Brent Urban, Lawrence Guy

The Ravens certainly have an argument for the best defensive line in the division. The Ravens are very high on Timmy Jernigan, the second year player out of Florida State, and it was their comfort level with Jernigan which prompted them to trade Haloti Ngata. Jernigan (and the line as a whole), played well in the four game absence of Ngata in 2014, and if they keep that up in 2015, this probably is the best line. However, Ngata, while not the player he once was, is still one of the best lineman in the league as well as a good leader and his absence cannot be underestimated – both on the field and in the locker room. We have seen players spot start in the past and play well in small sample sizes and then struggle when relied upon as starters (the Bengals Wallace Gilberry was a great example of this in 2014). Not saying this will happen with Jernigan, but being relied upon as the starter brings about a whole new level of pressure.

3) Steelers (Base 3-4)

Predicted Depth Chart

DT/NT: Steve McLendon*, Daniel McCullers

DE: Stephon Tuitt*, Cameron Heyward*, Clifton Geathers, Cam Thomas (DT/DE)

The Steelers have a solid line as well, the big question here is continued progress. After a few disappointing seasons to start his career, Heyward has developed into a solid all-around lineman and was rewarded with a big contract in the offseason. Can Tuitt and McLendon do the same? The Steelers have high hopes for Tuitt, the second year player out of Notre Dame, and while he has talent, he also has just four starts and 13 tackles to his name. Is he ready for that starting role? McLendon has been OK after the retirement of long time nose tackle, Casey Hampton, but he hasn’t been dominant. He is in a contract year, staring at his 30th birthday and is coming off an arm injury in 2014, so the question will be, can McLendon take that next step and earn one more big contract?

4) Browns (Base 3-4)

Predicted Depth Chart

DT/NT: Danny Shelton*, Phil Taylor, Ishmaa’ily Kitchen

DE: Randy Starks*, Desmond Bryant*, Billy Winn, Armonty Bryant, John Hughes, Xavier Cooper

I loved the Danny Shelton pick in the first round and I don’t buy the negative talk surrounding his speed prior to the draft. I believe he can become a solid run stuffing nose tackle in the NFL – but he is a rookie. I also liked the signing of Starks in the offseason and I think Bryant is a solid end as well. As a whole, I think this Browns line will be pretty good, but with a rookie nose tackle and a new end, that means no one on this Browns line has ever played together, two thirds of the line have zero experience in the Browns’ scheme and one third of the line has zero snaps in the NFL. The line may end up being very good, but there will be growing pains and therefore this is the weakest of four solid defensive lines.

Insight from the AFC North SB Nation Writers:

Chris Pokorny (@DawgsByNature), Dawgs By Nature

Injuries and a 32nd ranked run defense last year didn't sit well with Mike Pettine. The team responded by drafting two defensive linemen in the first three rounds and signing Randy Starks. Won't be an elite line, but hopefully will approach respectability again.
Matthew Stevens (@MatthewS_balt), Baltimore Beatdown (@BMoreBeatdown)

The Steelers are extremely young on the defensive line with Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt tabbed as starters at the DE position and Steve McLendon and Daniel McCullers anchoring the NT position. These players need to improve in run support if the Steelers defense wants to be a Top 10 unit once again.
Jeff Hartman (@BnGBlitz), Behind the Steel Curtain (@btsteelcurtain)

Much will be made about the loss of Haloti Ngata, but if anything, his departure will allow the Ravens to do more things. With Ngata, you had a dominant all-around player, but by rotating players in, you get to maximize their strengths and minimize their weaknesses while getting a far younger and healthier group to play snaps. The Ravens have one of the more talented defensive fronts in football and a lot of that comes from the massive amounts of depth they have along the line. With newly established players like Brandon Williams, and Timmy Jernigan to go with the veteran in Chris Canty and some young players like Christo Bilukidi, Brent Urban and Kapron Lewis-Moore, this should be another top-5 run defense group and help the Ravens to get top-5 in sacks again this season.