We’re entering a golden age of football in the AFC North if it hasn’t already begun.
The Baltimore Ravens are the rightful kings, seeing as they just sent an NFL record 12 players to the Pro Bowl after going 14-2 in the regular season. The Pittsburgh Steelers somehow clawed their way to an 8-8 record despite exhausting their depth at quarterback. The Cleveland Browns, well, remained under .500, but have aggressively put together a roster worth more than a 6-10 finish.
Where does this put the Cincinnati Bengals? We won’t know until the games begin, but they’ll play six games against their divisional rivals and probably won’t be favored in any of them. That should speak more towards the strength of their division than anything.
These teams are loaded with young and talented players, but since it is Rivalry Week here at SBNation, we want to focus on the non-Bengals players for a minute. These are the 10 best players from the AFC North that the Bengals will have the displeasure of meeting this season.
Pittsburgh Steelers, defensive tackle
Heyward would be the division’s unquestioned king of interior defensive lineman if Geno Atkins played somewhere else. This will be an unpopular opinion, but he just might’ve overtaken Atkins for the crown last year. Since 2017, Heyward has compiled 29 official sacks and 182 recored pressures by Pro Football Focus, with an average defense grade of 88.2. If he’s not yet above Atkins in your rankings, he’s damn sure on the same tier.
Earl Thomas III
Baltimore Ravens, safety
The best free safety of the 2010s took a minor step back in his first year with the Ravens. Thomas saw an uptick in missed tackles from playing more in the box than he usually did with the Seattle Seahawks. In coverage, he was still a boss. He allowed a meager 47.9 passer rating on passes targeted towards him and came away with two interceptions to just one touchdown allowed. The drop off has not happened yet, and respect must still be bestowed.
Baltimore Ravens, quarterback
When examining his progression at Louisville, it wasn’t hard to see Jackson’s MVP 2019 season coming. The magnitude of his success was about as great as it possibly could be for a 22-year old before things came to a screeching halt in the playoffs vs. the Tennessee Titans.
There’s simply no one in the league with his skillset and talent. He’s not as big as Cam Newton, but he’s exponentially more elusive than he ever was. He may not have quite the arm strength we saw from Michael Vick, but he’s already more accurate than Vick at his peak. Not even Vick could claim to be as slippery of a ball-carrier as Jackson is. Jackson’s running style will keep him untouched by violent hits for years to come, and as scary as it sounds, he’ll only grow to be more accurate.
Baltimore Ravens, tight end
Jackson’s favorite target from his first two years in the league came from the same draft class. Andrews’ ranking among tight ends around the league skyrocketed after a hyper-productive 2019. He trailed only George Kittle in yards/route run and receiving grade by PFF for starters at the position. His usage should only increase in his third year with Hayden Hurst—the tight end Baltimore drafted two rounds ahead of Andrews—now with the Atlanta Falcons.
Pittsburgh Steelers, safety
If a franchise trades their first-round pick for a player that isn’t a quarterback, the player better be as good as Fitzpatrick is. After arriving in Pittsburgh in Week 3, Fitzpatrick led all safeties in interceptions (five) and was second in passer rating allowed (27.3). He became a game-changing force that was integral in keeping the Steelers competitive for the entire season when they had little reason to be.
Fitzpatrick played the vast majority of his snaps at free safety, which was a welcome change after being used all over the place with the Miami Dolphins. The 23-year old seems to his found his home on and off the field.
Cleveland Browns, edge defender
By most metrics, the Browns had an average defense in 2018. That should not diminish how much of a force Garrett was in just his second season. His 13.5 sacks helped achieve PFF’s sixth-highest pass rushing grade for starters (86.2) Garrett carried that momentum into 2019 with 10 sacks and the second-highest passing rushing grade (91.6) in just 10 games. His 10th game would be his last of the season due to his involvement in the infamous Steelers-Browns brawl.
Thrusting his helmet against the head of Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph does not make him any less talented than he is. And make no mistake, Garrett is one of the best edge defenders in the game, period.
Cleveland Browns, running back
The Joe Mixon vs. Nick Chubb debate recently caught the attention of Bengals fans, but there is no debating Chubb’s belonging on this list. He finished 2019 as PFF’s highest-graded running back by rushing grade (90.3), and not for nothing. Among starters, he was second in yards after contact/attempt (3.77) behind Derrick Henry and second in avoided tackles (66) behind Josh Jacobs. Chubb also forced the sixth-most missed tackles on receptions despite being middle of the pack in terms of total receptions.
Cleveland’s offensive line underwent a makeover at the tackle position this offseason, which only makes Chubb more dangerous. Only a handful of runners can claim to be harder to bring down than the former Georgia Bulldog.
Odell Beckham Jr.
Cleveland Browns, wide receiver
Beckham’s reputation carries him onto this list because his reputation is so damn strong. Not so long ago was Beckham a top five receiver in terms of yards/route run and led wide receivers in touchdowns (along with Antonio Brown) during that stretch as well. Injuries have plagued his last three seasons, but he still averaged 2.02 yards/route run since 2017. That number is usually good for top 20 in the league during an average season.
Health has robbed us from seeing the 2014-2016 version of OBJ when he was unquestionably one of the very best receivers in the game. The former first-round pick of the New York Giants doesn’t turn 28 until later this year; he’s still got plenty left in the tank.
Baltimore Ravens, offensive tackle
The Ravens watched as the best right guard of the past decade retire from the game this offseason. Marshal Yanda is no longer in the picture, but the best left tackle that nobody talks about is still playing on a rookie contract for Baltimore. No other tackle in the NFL had a higher pass-blocking grade from PFF than Stanley’s 93.3. Stanley was also fourth in ESPN’s pass block win rate (94%) and has only allowed nine sacks in just four years as a starter.
When you read about a new contract for Stanley that exceeds the $20 million per year mark, know that it will be money well spent.
Pittsburgh Steelers, edge defender
Speaking of win rates, 2019’s second-highest pass rushing win rate for edge defenders (28%) belongs to Watt. That percentage validates the 91.7 pass-rushing grade PFF gave him last year along with a ridiculous 81 total recorded pressures and the second-highest pass rushing productivity rating (10.3). Since 2018, he’s fourth in the league in total sacks (27.5); he’s converting those pressures into takedowns at a rate very few in the game can match.
Watt is just one of the reasons for the Bengals to get their situation at offensive tackle in order.