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AFC North projected starters: Browns loaded, Steelers ain't dead

Gregg Rosenthal will project post-draft starting lineups for all 32 teams, because there's no better way to celebrate the arrival of spring.


» There's no team built quite like Baltimore. No team used more two-tight end sets than the Ravens a year ago, a strategy that goes well with a Lamar Jackson run-heavy attack. After adding Mark Ingram and fourth-round speedster Justice Hill to a backfield that already featured Gus Edwards, they are fixing to creatively pound the ball again.

» Mark Andrews topped 500 yards as a third-round rookie tight end, so he gets the starting nod over last year's first-round pick, Hayden Hurst. Both will have a big role, but Nick Boyle will keep getting snaps as the team's designated blocking tight end.

» The Ravens really need Marquise Brown to make an immediate impact at receiver, and third-rounder Miles Boykin will have a chance for significant snaps, too. General manager Eric DeCosta might not be done adding to the position.

» After the franchise's most dramatic defensive overhaul in more than a decade, there aren't a lot of sure things in the Ravens' front seven, outside of their two run-stuffing defensive tackles. They need some options on the outside to step up, whether it's Tyus Bowser, Tim Williams or rookie third-round pick Jaylon Ferguson. Ravens outside linebacker has been a reliably excellent position for two decades, but this group has an uphill climb to keep up the legacy.

» This is an older secondary, but the group has a chance to be among the league's best with good health. Brandon Carr may not even crack the starting lineup.

Biggest change from a year ago: The Ravens' commitment to building an entirely new Jackson-led offense has been impressive.


» If first-year head coach Zac Taylor brings fresh offensive concepts to the Bengals, this should be the most fun Andy Dalton-led squad to watch in a while. A.J. Green, Tyler Boyd and Joe Mixon are all squarely in their primes.

» Figuring out where No. 11 overall pick Jonah Williams fits on the line will be a prime objective of the offseason. Williams' "natural" position is left tackle, so it's possible Cincinnati could move Cordy Glenn to the right side or to guard. The Bengals gave Bobby Hart weirdly-big money this offseason, and now he might not start.

» Even if Tyler Eifert is healthy enough to play, Cincy could limit his snaps alongside C.J. Uzomah in an effort to keep him healthy.

» The Bengals didn't add much to their pass rush, apparently hoping that Jordan Willis can bounce back and Carl Lawson recovers from his ACL surgery. Linebacker is also a concern, with Preston Brown likely to come off the field on passing downs.

» The secondary has a rare combination of continuity and relative youth. Like the rest of the defense, it lacks sizzle despite looking solid on paper.

Biggest change from a year ago: The offensive line no longer looks like a huge liability.


» Browns fans can be forgiven for taking a deep breath and just appreciating the collection of talent above. Less than two years removed from 0-16, Cleveland has the best combination of talent and youth in all of football.

» It's a relief to write about a Browns offseason without a quarterback battle. It's hard not to be excited about Baker Mayfield's second-year-leap potential after he showed such incredible promise and feel for the game as a 23-year-old starter.

» The potential chink in the armor is obvious enough. Mayfield's blind-side protector is Greg Robinson, who has washed out of his two previous organizations for a reason. Right tackle Chris Hubbard isn't exactly Jackie Slater, either. First-year head coach Freddie Kitchens doesn't want to rely too much on Mayfield's ability to avoid pressure.

» When Kareem Hunt comes off suspension in mid-November, he figures to take some of the workload off Nick Chubb. There should still be room for Duke Johnson in the passing game, especially before Hunt returns to the field. Johnson has missed offseason workouts and apparently requested a trade, but it seems more likely the Browns will call his bluff.

» The additions of Sheldon Richardson and Olivier Vernon could give Cleveland the best pure pass-rushing four-man defensive line in football.

» It's remarkable how few position battles there are on this roster. Second-round pick Greedy Williams will have to earn his starting job over incumbent Terrance Mitchell, but nearly all 22 spots above look predictable.

» The starting lineups look great. If I were trying to pick nits, the depth at positions throughout the defense is lacking. The Browns could be more susceptible to collapsing due to injuries than most teams, as GM John Dorsey still hasn't completely built up the middle class of this team.

Biggest change from a year ago: From winless last offseason to Super Bowl contenders this year, Cleveland is the latest example (hello, Rams) that teams can change their fortunes faster in the NFL than in any other professional sport.


» The wide receiver depth chart will not shake out until training camp. I'm giving Moncrief the slight early edge over second-year pro James Washington as the second starting receiver on the outside. The Steelers have a great track record developing wideouts, so a Year 2 leap from Washington wouldn't surprise anyone, but Moncrief is getting paid $5 million this season.

» It'd make sense for third-round pick Diontae Johnson to get snaps in the slot. The Steelers still have Ryan Switzer and Eli Rogers on the roster, so the post-Antonio Brown depth chart isn't that thin.

» Early chatter from GM Kevin Colbert indicates the Steelers don't want James Conner to carry as heavy a load this year as he did in 2018. They invested a fourth-round pick in Benny Snell Jr., who will battle Jaylen Samuels for the backup job.

» The departure of offensive line coach Mike Munchak cannot be overlooked, but one of the league's best units returns intact. Feiler quietly started 10 games last year and held his own, although he is the only one here without his starting job guaranteed.

» The Steelers didn't trade up for Devin Bush at No. 10 to not have him starting Week 1. Vince Williams and free-agent pickup Mark Barron figure to compete for snaps next to Bush, possibly getting taken off the field on passing downs.

» I listed excellent slot cornerback Mike Hilton over excellent nose tackle Javon Hargrave as the 11th starter, because the slot corner position should get more snaps.

Biggest change from a year ago: Performing this exercise, it's striking how the Steelers have enviable continuity, Antonio Brown aside, from a roster that went toe to toe with the Patriots and Saints (beating the former) in late December. This is not a franchise in retreat.

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.


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