Projected Starters  

 

AFC North projected starters: Good luck stopping Steelers

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Gregg Rosenthal will project post-draft starting lineups for all 32 teams to distract us from the inevitability of death. The AFC North is below:

Baltimore Ravens

QB: Joe Flacco
RB: Terrance West
WR: Mike Wallace
WR: Breshad Perriman
TE: Dennis Pitta
TE: Crockett Gillmore
LT: Ronnie Stanley
LG: Alex Lewis
C: John Urschel
RG: Marshal Yanda
RT: James Hurst

DE: Chris Wormley
DT: Brandon Williams
DE: Bronson Kaufusi
OLB: Terrell Suggs
ILB: C.J. Mosley
OLB: Albert McClellan
CB: Jimmy Smith
CB: Brandon Carr
CB: Marlon Humphrey
S: Eric Weddle
S: Tony Jefferson

» Those starting lineups are not created equal. The Ravens are a defense-heavy franchise once again, with Joe Flacco working with his worst group of skill-position talent since his rookie season in 2008, back when Le'Ron McClain was the leading rusher and Mark Clayton was his No. 2 receiver.

» Mike Wallace, who showed he wasn't just a one-trick pony last season, proved to be another nice value signing by general manager Ozzie Newsome. That doesn't mean Wallace should be the top option at Flacco's disposal in 2017. Newsome has a terrific history of signing free agents after the draft (Bryant McKinnie, Daryl Smith, T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Willie Anderson), and I'd expect him to add a wideout to this thin group.

» Baltimore has a deep and competitive tight end group, with Dennis Pitta, Crockett Gillmore, Ben Watson and Maxx Williams, but no difference-makers.

» Kenneth Dixon is the most complete running back on the roster and a strong candidate to take the starting job when he returns from suspension in Week 5.

» The depth in this secondary rivals that of any group in football. Tavon Young was terrific as a rookie and may be fourth in the pecking order at cornerback. Lardarius Webb adds great depth to a safety position that was bolstered by free-agent addition Tony Jefferson.

» The team is strangely thin at defensive end after losing two starters this offseason in Lawrence Guy (signed by the Patriots) and Timmy Jernigan (traded to the Eagles). At this point, the favorites to start are a third-round rookie (Chris Wormley) and a second-year player in Bronson Kaufusi, who missed his entire rookie season due to a broken ankle. Coach John Harbaugh also wants little-seen second-year pro Kamalei Correa to take over the weak-side linebacker job left open by Zachary Orr's retirement.

For a team built around its defense, there are a lot of questions in the front seven.

Cincinnati Bengals

QB: Andy Dalton
RB: Joe Mixon
WR: A.J. Green
WR: John Ross
WR: Tyler Boyd
TE: Tyler Eifert
LT: Cedric Ogbuehi
LG: Clint Boling
C: Russell Bodine
RG: Andre Smith
RT: Jake Fisher

DE: Carlos Dunlap
DT: Geno Atkins
DT: Andrew Billings
DE: Michael Johnson
MLB: Kevin Minter
OLB: Vontaze Burfict
CB: Dre Kirkpatrick
CB: Adam Jones
CB: Darqueze Dennard
S: George Iloka
S: Shawn Williams

» This offensive projection goes against Marvin Lewis' track record of not starting rookies. Joe Mixon's all-field talent should prove too difficult to sit in his battle with incumbent Jeremy Hill.

» The Bengals didn't draft John Ross No. 9 overall to sit him behind Brandon LaFell. It's a crowded, speedy receiver group, with 2016 second-rounder Tyler Boyd likely taking snaps out of the slot.

» The success of this entire Bengals season could come down to whether 2015 draft picks Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher can handle the two starting offensive tackle jobs. If not, the team has old friend Andre Smith learning to play guard and ready to help out on the edge if needed.

» This Bengals team is undeniably younger. Cincy jettisoned a lot of familiar veteran names (Andrew Whitworth, Kevin Zeitler, Rey Maualuga and Domata Peko), hoping that second-year players like Andrew Billings and William Jackson III, last year's first-round cornerback, can earn significant snaps in 2017. The youth movement would be bolstered if rookies Jordan Willis (Round 3) and Carl Lawson (Round 4) can earn snaps as situational pass rushers.

Cleveland Browns

QB: Cody Kessler
RB: Isaiah Crowell
WR: Corey Coleman
WR: Kenny Britt
WR: Ricardo Louis
TE: David Njoku
LT: Joe Thomas
LG: Joel Bitonio
C: JC Tretter
RG: Kevin Zeitler
RT: Shon Coleman

DE: Myles Garrett
DT: Danny Shelton
DT: Larry Ogunjobi
DE: Emmanuel Ogbah
OLB: Jamie Collins
MLB: Christian Kirksey
CB: Joe Haden
CB: Jason McCourty
CB: Briean Boddy-Calhoun
S: Jabrill Peppers
S: Ibraheim Campbell

» Cody Kessler, Brock Osweiler and rookie DeShone Kizer should all get a spin at the starting quarterback job before the 2017 season is up. Kessler is the best bet to succeed Robert Griffin III as the team's Week 1 starter because of Kessler's sneaky-effective rookie year in Hue Jackson's system.

» The Browns drafted four receivers in 2016, and they combined to gain 21 more yards than former Browns receiver Travis Benjamin did with the Chargers. Corey Coleman will be counted on to step up as a star, and veteran newcomer Kenny Britt will be the team's WR2, but the wide-open battle for the No. 3 job between second-year players Ricardo Louis, Jordan Payton and Rashard Higgins could be just as crucial.

» There is a notable lack of depth of proven receiving talent if injuries strike, which is why it was so surprising that the team cut veteran tight end Gary Barnidge.

» Kessler and the running game will benefit greatly from Cleveland's fortifications on the offensive line. Perhaps underrated third-down back Duke Johnson should be listed as the third wideout, because he's a safer bet for production.

» The transition to Gregg Williams' 4-3 defense will force a lot of Browns defenders to change roles. I'm particularly curious to see how he deploys Jamie Collins and rookie safety/linebacker hybrid Jabrill Peppers.

» This still looks like a roster at the beginning of a rebuild, with two rookies competing to start at defensive tackle and at least four starting jobs available on defense overall.

Pittsburgh Steelers

QB: Ben Roethlisberger
RB: Le'Veon Bell
WR: Antonio Brown
WR: Martavis Bryant
WR: Eli Rogers
TE: Jesse James
LT: Alejandro Villanueva
LG: Ramon Foster
C: Maurkice Pouncey
RG: David DeCastro
RT: Marcus Gilbert

DE: Cameron Heyward
DT: Javon Hargrave
DE: Stephon Tuitt
OLB: James Harrison
ILB: Ryan Shazier
ILB: Vince Williams
OLB: Bud Dupree
CB: Artie Burns
CB: Ross Cockrell
S: Sean Davis
S: Mike Mitchell

» This is the most loaded offense in the league. The Steelers are essentially adding Martavis Bryant (conditionally reinstated from a year-long suspension) and second-round pick JuJu Smith-Schuster to a group that was already the best supporting cast of Ben Roethlisberger's career. Sammie Coates could struggle to make the team.

» A big part of Ben's weaponry is an offensive line with perfect continuity and a great position coach in Mike Munchak. There is no position battle to be found there.

» The Steelers have been drafting outside linebackers who fail to displace James Harrison for roughly a decade, so don't expect T.J. Watt to start right away. Pittsburgh is back to a strong foundation in the front seven, with enough young building blocks (Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, Ryan Shazier, Bud Dupree) to carry on the Steelers' defensive tradition.

» Another Pittsburgh tradition: fretting about a secondary that doesn't look built to hold up against the Patriots. (Or the Raiders, for that matter.)

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.

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