There have been a lot of changes in the AFC North recently. The Steelers find themselves without Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown. The Browns are suddenly making moves left and right to acquire big names. The Ravens are in the middle of a massive youth movement on offense and of course the Bengals made a coaching change.
With all of these changes, who is the best player at every position group in the AFC North and what, if anything, does it mean? Let’s run through the division position by position.
Quarterback - Baker Mayfield - Cleveland Browns
The other choice would be Ben Roethlisberger, and he’s been regressing for the past few seasons. Now that he has lost Brown, expect his level of performance to completely fall off a cliff. The top seat is wide open.
Lamar Jackson is interesting, but still need to take a big step to get to his peak. Hopefully Andy Dalton will be riding high under new head coach Zac Taylor, but Mayfield is something special. Ironically, my comparison for Mayfield since prior to the 2018 NFL Draft was Roethlisberger. Both play with certain level of reckless abandon that inspires everyone around them. There is no denying it, Mayfield is a special player, and he could be the best quarterback in the AFC North.
Running Back - Joe Mixon - Cincinnati Bengals
I’m sure I am preaching to the choir on this website, but Mixon is one of the top running backs in the league. He led the AFC in rushing last year despite missing two games and is likely to see more intentional use in the pass game in 2019. Cleveland’s Nick Chubb and Pittsburgh’s James Conner are both very talented young players, but they aren’t the same caliber as Mixon. Mark Ingram was a step up for Baltimore, but he is not the dynamic player that Mixon is.
Wide Receiver - Odell Beckham Jr. - Cleveland Browns
This breaks my heart, but I am really trying to be objective here. First, let’s get a few things out of the way. A.J. Green and Beckham Jr. are on a level of their own in the AFC North. No disrespect to Cleveland’s Jarvis Landry or Pittsburgh’s JuJu Smith-Schuster, but they can’t touch those two.
I have never been as high on Beckham as other people, but he does some unique things athletically that make him one of the NFL’s top receivers. My personal preference would certainly be Green not just because he is a Bengal, but also because he conducts himself with a high level of professionalism that Beckham simply doesn’t. This is important, especially when a team faces adversity. Looking at it objectively however, Beckham has a slight edge for what he does on the field alone.
Tight End - Tyler Eifert - Cincinnati Bengals
Yes, I get that Eifert’s injury history is an issue, but he is really the only player in this division who deserves the title. Steelers’ tight end Vance McDonald definitely doesn’t deserve it. The Ravens have some young and talented players at the position, but they are not at that level yet. Don’t even talk to me about Nick Boyle.
The only real competition is Browns tight end David Njoku. He is a good player, but not at Eifert’s level. A healthy Eifert gives the Bengals a huge advantage in the passing game, particularly inside the 40-yard line.
Offensive Tackle - Alejandro Villanueva - Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers don’t need USSA for their quarterback because they have Villanueva. He is one of the best in the league and blows the AFC North competition away. Hopefully some day Jonah Williams will challenge for this spot, but for now, Villanueva has it hands down.
Interior Offensive Lineman - Marshal Yanda - Baltimore Ravens
Equally indisputable is the dominance of Yanda amongst AFC North interior linemen. Yanda is an absolute stud. He is arguably the best offensive guard in the NFL. The Steelers’ David DeCastro is also talented and deserves respect, but Yanda is on an entirely different level.
Defensive Tackle - Geno Atkins - Cincinnati Bengals
There are some good defensive tackles in the AFC North, but none on the level of Atkins. Cleveland’s Larry Ogunjobi and Pittsburgh’s Javon Hargrave have some talent, but neither are as dominant as Atkins as a pass-rusher. The Baltimore duo of Brandon Williams and Michael Pierce deserve recognition, but again, Atkins is the better disruptor on passing downs. He had 10 sacks last season and has 71 over the course of his career.
Defensive End - Myles Garrett - Cleveland Browns
There are some interesting options here. The Bengals have Carlos Dunlap and skilled pass-rusher Carl Lawson. The Steelers have Cameron Heyward and the Browns have Olivier Vernon. In the end, it has to go to Garrett. He was a force for the Browns last year despite the fact that defensive coordinator Gregg Williams apparently didn’t want him using more than two pass rush moves (cue the frustrated Jonah Hill scratching his head gif). He had 13.5 sacks in 2018 and with a new coaching staff this year could be even better for Garrett.
Linebacker - T.J. Watt - Pittsburgh Steelers
Technically, Watt is listed as a linebacker, so we’re counting him. The absence of C.J. Mosley really changed things in the AFC North at this position, but honestly there is not a lot of competition here. Watt has this hands down.
Cleveland’s Joe Schobert has developed into a nice coverage player and Steelers rookie Devin Bush has some talent and could challenge in the future, but what Watt brings as a pass rusher is extraordinary. He had 13 sacks last season and is one of the more underrated players in the NFL.
Cornerback - William Jackson - Cincinnati
There are some great contenders here. Pittsburgh’s Joe Haden and Baltimore’s Marlon Humphrey are both very talented, but they will have to compete for the bronze. The real competition for Jackson was Cleveland’s Denzel Ward, as his rookie season proved why he was a top-5 pick. Ward is incredible in man coverage and has proven ball skills. Jackson gets the edge here because Ward is still developing as a zone player.
Jackson is already excellent in both zone and man. The biggest selling point for him is Antonio Brown’s lack of success against him. He looks to take another step up in 2019 with the new defensive regime in Cincinnati.
Safety - Earl Thomas - Baltimore Ravens
The Ravens made this an easy decision by acquiring Thomas. Although he is getting a little older and coming off of an injury, Thomas is still one of the league’s best. Jessie Bates may be able to give him a run for his money in the future, but for now, Thomas is the standard.
When you add up the totals for every team, interestingly enough, the Ohio teams come out on top. The Bengals had four top players (RB, TE, DT, and CB), the Browns had three (QB, WR, and DE) and the Steelers (OT and LB) and Ravens (OG and S) each had two.
The tightest competition seemed to be between the Ohio teams. For example Ward could have very easily been the pick at cornerback and it was a toss up between Green and Beckham Jr. at receiver.
Much of the top-end talent in the division is now in Ohio. Could this be indicative of a changing of the guard in the AFC North?