Lamar Jackson, Photo by All-Pro Reels
We’re moving along in our preparation for the 2022 NFL season by bringing you another installment in our series of NFL team previews.
We’ve gone division-by-division and covered half the league thus far, with breakdowns and roster analysis of the AFC East, NFC East, AFC West, and NFC West. Today, we’re breaking down the AFC North!
Injuries are a huge part of NFL football, and every team deals with them, but the 2021 Ravens were historically ravaged by injuries. Running backs JK Dobbins and Gus Edwards and cornerback Marcus Peters were lost for the year before it began, and all-pro left tackle Ronnie Stanley played just one game after suffering a devastating ankle injury the year prior.
The injuries never ceased for Baltimore, eventually coming for Lamar Jackson – it was essentially a lost year.
Without Stanley and with other injuries along the way, the offensive line was bad in 2021 and should be vastly improved from a year ago.
Stanley has had no setbacks and will be activated off the PUP list two weeks prior to the season. The Ravens added center Tyler Linderbaum in the first round, and he’s expected to start immediately, and they signed solid right tackle Morgan Moses in free agency. They also added monstrous tackle Daniel Faalele in the fourth round. The biggest question mark will be whether Stanley can stay healthy; he’s been limited to just seven games in the previous two seasons.
Surprisingly, after trading Hollywood Brown to the Cardinals, the Ravens made no corresponding move to replace him. Late in camp, they added veteran DeMarcus Robinson to the group, but despite having 11 picks, including six fourth-rounders, they didn’t add a receiver in the draft.
Tight end Mark Andrews is a beast, and he and Lamar have great chemistry.
2021 first-round pick Rashod Bateman is widely expected to break out and become a household name at receiver. Bateman missed the early portion of 2021 with an injury but brings an all-around skill set; he has excellent hands, makes plays in traffic, and moves the chains.
2020 sixth-round pick James Proche looks like he has the inside track on the number two receiver role. Duvernay is in line to be the speedy number 3, but his contribution has mostly been on special teams so far in his career.
With the weakness at receiver, we know this will be a Bateman/Andrews-heavy passing game.
The broader conclusion to draw from this offseason is that Baltimore will return to first principles as a Lamar-centered run-heavy team this season. Even with all the injuries, they were still 4th in rushing DVOA in 2021.
Baltimore added two tight-ends in the draft, Isaiah Likely, and Charlie Kolar.
Likely has been a standout in camp and preseason and could contribute immediately. We expect more two-tight end sets this season from Baltimore, more play-action, and more deep shots to compliment the run-heavy approach.
After being ravaged by injury in 2021, the secondary will be a strength of this team in 2022.
Baltimore signed rangy free safety Marcus Williams to a rich free agent deal and grabbed top safety prospect, Notre Dame’s Kyle Hamilton, with the 14th pick. The two investments in safeties this offseason, alongside Chuck Clark, are a strong indication that they’ll play with more defensive backs on the field.
With Williams, Clark, the rookie Hamilton, with stud corner Marlon Humphries and the expected return of Marcus Peters, Baltimore is loaded on the back end.
John Harbaugh hired Mike Macdonald to replace Wink Martindale as defensive coordinator as part of a philosophical shift on defense.
Macdonald comes from Martindale’s staff, so they’ll still be aggressive, but this defense will blitz less than the Raven teams we’ve become accustomed to watching, especially on early downs.
On the defensive line, Tyus Bowser, who led the team in sacks in 2021, returns from an Achilles tear in January, and his status for the start of the season is uncertain. 2021 first-rounder Odafeh Oweh has to take a leap for this team in year two, off a five-sack rookie year.
Baltimore is solid on the interior with Michael Pierce, Justin Madubuike, and veteran Calais Campbell. Baltimore ranked 4th in DVOA against the run in 2021, and that should remain a strength.
The biggest question for this defense will be whether they can generate enough pressure with Bowser, Oweh, and veteran Justin Houston.
There’s not much to glean from the 2021 Ravens season – we expect Baltimore to return to form as one of the league’s elite teams. We’re not sleeping on Lamar after a down year, and neither is the betting market.
While the Bengals have surged to the forefront after a magical run, the Ravens are actually a slight betting favorite to win the division over Cincinnati.
The AFC North will face an out-of-conference schedule that features the NFC North.
Baltimore will play a last-place schedule this season, which gives a nice edge in the divisional race. While they will face the Bills and Bucs, Baltimore will meet the Jets, Giants, Jaguars, Panthers, and Falcons this season.
You can stack the Browns roster up against almost any in the league. Before this summer, GM Andrew Berry and his front office had merited acclaim for they’d done building this team – but they needed a quarterback. Then they screwed up and went all in on the wrong quarterback.
A foul moral odor will trail Cleveland for a long time.
For his abhorrent behavior, Deshaun Watson will be suspended for eleven games. Barring a move, this all but sinks Cleveland’s hopes of competing for a playoff berth in the stacked AFC.
The Browns could go out and acquire Jimmy Garrapolo to pump life back into their season – a move that would make a ton of sense – but we’ll assume Jacoby Brissett will be the quarterback for the first 11 games.
That’s unfortunate for the rest of the players on this team.
Brissett should play better in Cleveland than in Miami, where the Browns’ excellent offensive line (and better offensive coaches) will help offset his tendency to hold the ball for too long. Still, we wouldn’t even characterize Brissett as a high-level backup at this stage.
The Browns will have to be dominant on the ground. At least they have the pieces to do it.
Nick Chubb is one of the three best running backs in football and Kareem Hunt, who’s coming off an injury-plagued year, may still be one of the fifteen best backs in the league. D’Ernest Johnson came out of nowhere last year looking like a real find.
The Browns still have a very good offensive line but may not be the elite group it’s been in previous seasons.
The offensive line took a hit in training camp when projected starting center Nick Harris was lost for the year. Former Seahawk Ethan Pocic will replace him, which isn’t great, but it helps that the Browns may have the best pair of guards in the league, Wyatt Teller and Joe Bitonio. Right tackle Jack Conklin is coming off a season-ending knee injury, though he is reportedly healthy and on schedule to start this season.
Despite adding Amari Cooper, the receiver group remains Cleveland’s biggest question mark.
Cooper slots in as their number one receiver, while Donovan Peoples-Jones looks set as the number two. Second-year speedster Anthony Schwartz has yet to prove he can do anything other than run fast. Rookie third-rounder David Bell has looked far more reliable than Schwartz.
Stefanski loves to play in heavy personnel, with a ton of 12 (two-tight end) and 13 (three-tight-end sets). No team had three tight ends on the field more than the Browns in 2021.
On defense, Cleveland has the deepest and most talented secondary in the NFL.
Denzel Ward is among the elite corners in the league and his new contract reflects that. 2021 first-round pick Greg Newsome II had an outstanding rookie season and has all the tools to be a top corner – he’ll play the slot. With John Johnson, Grant Delpit, and Ronnie Harrison Jr., Cleveland goes three deep at safety.
Delpit and linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah are major young breakout candidates on this defense. Owusu-Koramoah, a 2021 second-round pick, is an elite athlete who played all over the field in his rookie season.
The big question on defense is the interior of the defensive line, where they may struggle to stop the runs on early downs.
Cleveland lost a few steady veterans on the inside and will rely on unproven young guys. They were 23rd in run DVOA allowed and 28th in run EPA in 2021.
All-Pro Myles Garrett and Jadaveon Clowney need to stay healthy along the edge, but this should be a borderline top-ten defense.
Last year, they brought in a ton of new players and didn’t play well early in the season, but they still finished 11th in defensive DVOA. With continuity and the development of several promising young players, this defense should be more consistent in 2022.
The Browns will win some games with the combination of elite rushing and defense, but the ceiling for this team will come down to whether they can upgrade the quarterback position – and what they can get out of Brissett if they don’t.
The Browns’ schedule projects as one of the ten easiest in the league. They open this season with the Panthers, Jets, Steelers, and Falcons, and it’s crucial they get off to a good start. Their most challenging non-divisional games include the Chargers, @Bills, and Bucs.
The Steelers turn to Mitchell Trubisky as their bridge quarterback in a bridge season for Pittsburgh.
They drafted local product Kenny Pickett to be their future QB, Pickett played as a fifth-year senior at the University of Pittsburgh, so we expect to see the rookie starting at some point this year, but they will start the year with Trubisky behind center.
Roethlisberger’s immobility and dead arm restricted the offense last year, so we’re not quite sure what offensive coordinator Matt Canada’s offense will look like. Trubisky brings a night and day improvement in mobility but has his own limitations; he’s inaccurate and poor under pressure.
And we expect he’ll be under pressure.
Even if it’s better than last year, the offensive line again looks like a weakness. The Steelers made modest upgrades on the interior with young guard James Daniels and center Mason Cole, but the Tackles, Chuk Okorafor, and Dan Moore Jr. struggled in pass protection a year ago.
Big Ben was getting rid of the ball faster than any QB in the league, which hid their deficiencies. Those deficiencies upfront will be more exposed without the quick game, but they played in such a confined space offensively with Ben. Trubisky’s athleticism and mobility should at least create more time to push the ball downfield.
The pass catchers are the strength of this offense, with Diontae Johson, rookie George Pickens, Chase Claypool, and tight end Pat Friermuth. Pickens has been one of the standout rookies in camp across the NFL. After dropping to the mid-second round due to injury and character concerns, Pickens has looked the part of a big, smooth prototype outside receiver. The Steelers look like they hit on another receiver.
As has been the case for several years, the strength of this team is the defensive front with TJ Watt and Cam Heyward.
The relentless Watt is coming off a monster season, with a record-tying 22.5 sacks and a defensive player of the year award. Cam Heyward is still at the top of his game and shows no signs of decline at age 33, putting up ten sacks and 35 hurries in 2021.
In the secondary, the Steelers have a few solid players but are without a number one corner. Cam Sutton is solid and versatile, and former Bill Levi Wallace was a nice low-cost add. Akhello Witherspoon played well down the stretch last season, and Pittsburgh will be looking for him to step into a bigger role in 2022.
Veteran defensive tackle Tyson Alualu missed all but two games in 2021, and without him the Steelers’ run defense was dreadful, slipping to 27th in DVOA. They also added defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi after the former Bengal signed a big free agent deal with Chicago before failing their physical. If Ogunjobi is healthy, he should bolster the run defense.
The inside linebacker position could be an issue for Pittsburgh; they need former first-round pick Devin Bush to step up, especially in the run game.
The Steelers overhauled their defensive coaching staff this offseason.
Teryl Austin is the new defensive coordinator, and former Dolphin head coach Brian Flores was hired as a defensive assistant. It doesn’t sound like the defense will be too much different, but with Flores on board you can expect more blitzing. Last year, they ranked high in base defense rate, so we’d expect more nickel this year too.
With Watt, Heyward, Minkah, and improvement stopping the run, this can be top ten defense, but we’re not sure where that gets Pittsburgh in 2022.
Without a bonafide starting quarterback and a weak offensive line, they won’t be in a position to maximize their talent on the outside. We’re skeptical that Kenny Pickett can come in at some point and elevate the ceiling of this offense very much. Trubisky has won his share of games as an NFL quarterback, but he won’t be winning any shootouts against the AFC’s elite.
Like with Belichick, you have implicit faith that Mike Tomlin will get the most out of what he has. But in a stacked AFC, we’d be surprised if Tomlin didn’t suffer the first losing season of his career.
Pittsburgh will face one of the tougher schedules in the league in 2022. Their non-division schedule includes games @Bills, Bucs, @Dolphins, @Eagles, Saints, @Colts, and Raiders.
Joe Burrow was sacked a combined 70 times in the regular season and postseason a year ago, and yet, the Bengals were a few minutes from winning the super bowl.
This offseason, Cincinnati decisively addressed its biggest weakness, adding three new starters to the offensive line.
Soon after free agency opened, they signed guard Alex Cappa from Tampa and G/C Ted Karras from the Patriots. Later, Cincy added a right tackle in Lae’l Collins from Dallas. All three players should lift each position from liability to solid.
We saw Cincy’s interior line trampled by the Titans in the wild-card playoff game in 2021. Burrow has elite pocket awareness, and now he’ll have a better pocket to work with. We aren’t ready to say this will be more than an average offensive line, but when you have Joe Burrow, just average is good enough.
Burrow and the Bengals will get the Allen/Mahomes treatment in 2022: less blitzing, more two-high safeties, forcing them to drive methodically.
There isn’t a receiver group in the league we’d rather have than Cincinnati’s, and Burrow’s accuracy, the Bengals are scarier than any team down the field.
In 2021 Cincy was heavily reliant on explosive plays. Those plays aren’t going to be as readily available this season, and when they aren’t available (or connecting as frequently) they need to find other ways to get down the field.
Year two of Jamarr Chase should include more diverse usage, putting him in a position to run after the catch more frequently.
Head coach Zach Taylor loves to live in empty personnel, and with improvements to the offensive line, don’t expect that tendency to abate.
Simultaneously, the Bengals’ offense will be more challenged by defenses but more equipped to meet those challenges.
Lou Anarumo’s defense came on strong down the stretch a year ago, and aside from adding to the secondary in the draft, the defensive personnel remains mostly unchanged. Continuity should bode well for this unit, as last year they had brought in a bunch of new faces in free agency.
The Bengals’ defense ranked fourth in the NFL in the rate of rushing three, and tenth in rushing six or more, using a lot of simulated pressures and flooding passing lanes with bodies in zone coverage.
In the draft, Cincinnati added safety Dax Hill first round and corner Cam Taylor-Britt in the second round. Chidobe Awuzie was one of the best free agency signings a year ago, emerging as a number one corner in his first season as the Bengals. Star safety Jessie Bates ended his hold out for a new contract and signed the franchise tag.
Our biggest concern on this defense is their pass rush depth behind starting defensive ends Trey Hendrickson and Sam Hubbard. The Bengals ranked third to last in pressure rate in 2021.
The Bengals improved this offseason, and we expect them to be a better team than last year, but they won’t catch anyone off guard in 2022 and will face a more difficult schedule.
Cincinnati’s non-divisional schedule includes games @Dallas, @New Orleans, @Tennessee, Chiefs, @Tampa, and the Bills. Following a road game against the Steelers in Week 11, the Bengals will face a brutal schedule to close the season and secure a playoff spot.