All eyes will be on Baker Mayfield and the Cleveland Browns in 2021 after making the postseason for the first time since 2002 last year. A major storyline for the Browns this year will be Mayfield’s contract status. Baker is eligible for an extension of his rookie deal, but the Browns are being cautious (wisely) and taking their time in doing so.
Mayfield bounced back last year from a sophomore slump in 2019 that saw him throw 21 INTs, posting a 54.4 QBR. Odell Beckham Jr. is expected back in the lineup for the Browns, and it will be interesting to see if Mayfield can continue to spread the ball around or if he’ll fall back into targeting OBJ too often.
As improved as Baker was last year, he’s still behind Lamar Jackson of the Baltimore Ravens. Both teams look to move up a notch, if not two, in the division, but the Ravens are already showing that this may be easier said than done. The Ravens and Browns finished 2nd and 3rd in the AFC North last season, having matching 11-5 records.
If we rank the North Division on quarterback play alone, Jackson ranks head and shoulders above the rest. He’s already led the NFL in passing touchdowns during the same year he won the MVP award. The league knows what Jackson brings to the table, but they also know he can’t do it all by himself. Look at names like Tom Brady, Russell Wilson, Aaron Rodgers, and others. As great as they all have been during their careers, whenever they’ve won Super Bowls, it was a total team effort. Offense, defense, and special teams.
It’s already looking like Jackson could be in for another long season of carrying the offensive load. Running back J.K. Dobbins is out for the year, and wide receivers Rashod Bateman and Miles Boykin are out until Week 4 at a minimum. With the scrutiny of Jackson’s postseason performances growing, the Ravens had their young QB’s back in a 20-13 road wildcard victory last year. Now Jackson must build on that success moving forward starting this season.
The cellar-dweller of this division, the Cincinnati Bengals, should be focused primarily on one thing this season: The growth and development of Joe Burrow. The Bengals aren’t expected to be anywhere near a playoff team, so protecting Burrow and allowing him to develop must be at the top of head coach Zac Taylor’s priority list.
In the draft, many people feel Taylor failed his QB by not taking Oregon tackle Penei Sewell with the 5th overall pick. Taylor did draft a tackle with his team’s second-round pick (Jackson Carman – Clemson). Still, when the opportunity to draft a generational talent like Sewell presents itself, you’ve got to be ready to jump at it. The Bengals seem to be headed somewhat in the right direction, as they did draft three offensive linemen this year. Again, protecting and developing Burrow should be number one for the Bengals. Seems like they finally received the memo.
As for Mike Tomlin and his Pittsburgh Steelers, their primary issues begin on the offensive side of the ball, specifically the offensive line, a lack of a running game last year, and a QB in 39-year-old Ben Roethlisberger whose arm may just fall off before the year is done.
The running game was so bad last year the Steelers went out and drafted former Alabama bruiser Najee Harris in the first round, as the team looks to get back to traditional Pittsburgh Steelers football. With so many new pieces along the offensive line, it will be challenging for Pittsburgh to go full-on ground and pound with Harris this year.
Throughout their history, the Steelers have mostly been known for great rushers and hard-nosed defenses. This Steelers defensive front can still get after the QB, having led the league in total team sacks last year with 56, but still, need better coverage in the defensive backfield.
The North will come down to Mayfield, staying consistent in the passing game and not relying too heavily on OBJ. If this happens, the Browns should challenge the Ravens for the top spot in the North.