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. As a result, the Ravens, Steelers and Browns have put more emphasis on the linebacker position - both in the draft and in free agency - and it shows in the rankings.
Note: * Indicates projected starters
1) Ravens (Base 3-4)
Projected Depth Chart
OLB: Terrell Suggs*, Courtney Upshaw*, Elvis Dumervil, Za'Darius Smith
ILB: C.J. Mosley*, Daryl Smith*, Zachary Orr, Albert McClellan
On the outside, Suggs (33) and Dumervil (31) are entering/in the backsides of their careers, but don't tell them. The two combined for 29 sacks in 2014 and show no indication of slowing down. While Dumervil excels at rushing the passer, he is not great against the run, therefore he will split snaps with Upshaw, a guy who was known for rushing the passer in college, but has found his niche in the NFL by stopping the run. On the inside, the Ravens have a solid veteran in Smith and a good looking rookie in Mosley. Mosley is coming off a great rookie season where he led all rookies with 133 tackles. While he can improve in coverage, Mosley is a solid run defender and was the only player in 2014 to have at least 125 tackles, three sacks and two interceptions. Ultimately, the Ravens find themselves atop the Steelers at the linebacker position due to their experience.
2) Steelers (Base 3-4)
Projected Depth Chart
OLB: Bud Dupree (R)*, Jarvis Jones*, Arthur Moats, James Harrison
ILB: Ryan Shazier*, Lawrence Timmons*, Sean Spence, Vince Williams
The surprise retirement of Jason Worilds this offseason was a shock to the NFL, and while it didn't leave the Steelers linebacking cupboard bare on talent, the loss of his team leading 7.5 sacks did leave them lacking in experience. This Steelers unit definitely has the most potential, speed and ability, but three of their starting four linebackers have two years or less NFL experience. As far as talent goes, the Steelers are deep - starting four first round linebackers and drafting a first round linebacker for the third consecutive year. However, there are legitimate questions. Shazier is an incredibly fast playmaker, but can he stay healthy? Jones was a pass rushing specialist at Georgia, but has just three sacks in his two seasons. And Dupree, a physical and athletic freak, must prove he can translate his raw skills and abilities to the NFL. The Steelers' defense will go as far as this linebacking corps will take them. If everything clicks for this young and talented unit, they could be the best in the division - if not the NFL - by the time the season ends. However, if Jones continues to struggle, Shazier can't stay healthy and Dupree doesn't pick up the game quickly, this could be a long season for the Steelers linebackers.
3) Browns (Base 3-4)
Projected Depth Chart
OLB: Paul Kruger*, Scott Solomon*, Barkevious Mingo, Nate Orchard
ILB: Craig Robertson*, Karlos Dansby*, Christian Kirksey, Hayes Pullard III, Tank Carder
The Browns have a solid linebacking corps as well. Kruger was their big free agent signing two years ago and with 15.5 sacks during those two seasons - including 11 in 2014 - he has not disappointed. Dansby is a solid veteran in the middle and will be the leader of this defense. The other inside linebacker, whether it is Robertson or Kirksey, is a bit of a question mark, as is the other outside linebacker. It sounds like as a result of a knee injury and lack of career production from Barkevious Mingo, the former first rounder and sixth overall pick in the 2013 draft will be benched in favor of Scott Solomon. The Browns coaching staff has been impressed with the fourth year journeyman and hope this demotion may be the spark Mingo needs to realize his potential. If the Bengals linebackers are healthy, the Browns would bring up the rear in the North. However, with the injuries and question marks surrounding the Bengals group, the Browns come in third here.
4) Bengals (Base 4-3)
Projected Depth Chart
OLB: Vontaze Burfict*, Emmanuel Lamur*, Vincent Rey, P.J. Dawson, Marquis Flowers
ILB: Rey Maualuga*, A.J. Hawk
The Bengals' 2015 linebacking corps is far better than their 2014 group, and if everyone is/stays healthy, this could be a solid unit. However, in this division, this group would be no better than third. The Bengals are saying Burfict will be healthy by the start of the season, however, I have heard that before from this medical staff and more specifically, in regards to Burfict. My belief - and my preference - would be that Burfict start the year on the PUP list and Hawk start in his place. Microfracture surgery is tough to come back from, so Burfict's return does not mean he will be the player he once was. If Burfict is healthy, I like this group and like the depth. If, however, Burfict is not healthy or is not the player he once was, this is a group with a lot of question marks and limitations. Maualuga is good against the run, but is a liability in coverage. Hawk was once a very good linebacker, but at 31-years-old and coming off one of his worst seasons (if not his worst), how much does he have left in the tank? Can Lamur improve on his first year as a starter? Can Dawson contribute as a rookie? As I said, this has the potential to be a solid linebacking group, maybe even top 10 if all goes well, but there are too many unproven players and question marks to rank them anywhere other than fourth in the AFC North.
Insight from the AFC North SB Nation Writers:
Chris Pokorny (@DawgsByNature), Dawgs By Nature
As an overall group, probably the very definition of "average."
With a mix of young and old, the Ravens have a competent group of linebackers. Terrell Suggs, Daryl Smith and Elvis Dumervil are all older players and likely entering their career ends soon, but have all been top performing players in the league as recently as last season. Adding in C.J. Mosley last season just sealed the deal to make this unit one of the best in the league until players start to fall off or retire. The depth behind the inside linebackers is a little questionable, but luckily, both Mosley and Smith have been pretty healthy so far.
The ILB position is a strength for the team with Ryan Shazier and Lawrence Timmons, but nothing but question marks remain at the OLB position. James Harrison and Jarvis Jones on the right side and Arthur Moats and Bud Dupree on the left. Who ends the season at these positions are anyone's guess.