Projected Starters

AFC North projected starters: Ravens loaded; Browns' O-line key

With the 2020 NFL Draft and most of free agency in the rearview, Gregg Rosenthal will project starting lineups for all 32 teams because that's his idea of fun. Check out the AFC North breakdowns below.

BALTIMORE RAVENS

Table inside Article
OFFENSE PLAYER DEFENSE PLAYER
QB Lamar Jackson DE Calais Campbell
RB J.K. Dobbins DT Brandon Williams
WR Marquise Brown DT Derek Wolfe
WR Willie Snead OLB Matt Judon
TE Mark Andrews ILB Patrick Queen
TE Nick Boyle OLB Jaylon Ferguson
LT Ronnie Stanley CB Marlon Humphrey
LG Bradley Bozeman CB Marcus Peters
C Matt Skura CB Tavon Young
RG D.J. Fluker S Earl Thomas
RT Orlando Brown Jr. S Chuck Clark
  • Perhaps this is an optimistic projection for J.K. Dobbins, a second-round pick who won't get a normal offseason to practice the Ravens' voluminous playbook. But Dobbins' overall skill, better than average in every area, can eventually make veteran Mark Ingram the 1B option here.
  • The 2019 Ravens were one of the most efficient teams in recent NFL history. It's hard to expect that level of production again, but they won't stay static. This is a young group with room to grow. Lamar Jackson and offensive coordinator Greg Roman should have new counters to the opposition's counters.
  • The Ravens didn't draft an outside receiver, so second-year pro Miles Boykin could be a nominal "starter." I still would expect blocking tight end Nick Boyle to play more than him, because the Ravens are in two-tight end sets so much.
  • Sixth-year pro Willie Snead has maxed out his potential throughout his career, but he probably will see a diminished role this season. Rookie third-round pick Devin Duvernay could add a speedier element to the slot.
  • Don't sleep on the Ravens' tackle combination. If Lamar Jackson is the engine to the Ravens offense, the tackles are the gas. Having an MVP QB on a rookie contract is amazing, but it's outrageous to have perhaps the league's best tackle duo (Ronnie Stanley and Orlando Brown Jr.) and an MVP all on their first deals. That should be impossible, and the entire group will get more expensive soon.
  • It's unclear which position Patrick Queen, the team's first-round choice, will play. It may not matter. The former LSU linebacker was chosen because he can stay on the field all three downs, so whether he plays in the middle on base downs or perhaps on the weak side next to L.J. Fort, he's likely to lead the group in snaps.
  • Former Bronco Derek Wolfe signed after a deal with Michael Brockers fell apart. Wolfe is the type of over-30 veteran the Ravens have been signing to great results for decades. If healthy, he could push this front seven from good to great. He and trade acquisition Calais Campbell offer coordinator Don Martindale the ability to be flexible with his formations.
  • If I was going to nitpick this defense, the edge rushers still aren't quite up to the usual standards. Matthew Judon is a smart, high-effort player, and Jaylon Ferguson improved as a rookie last year, but neither are true game-breakers. The Ravens' secondary, however, can make the pass rush look a lot better.
  • There is no indication that Earl Thomas' recent incident with his wife will impact his status on the team.
  • You know it's a good secondary when Jimmy Smith is the No. 4 cornerback. How slot corner Tavon Young recovers from neck surgery to correct an injury that cost him the 2019 season is this group's biggest question mark. Chuck Clark and Thomas were feeding off each other at safety by the end of the year.

CINCINNATI BENGALS

Table inside Article
OFFENSE PLAYER DEFENSE PLAYER
QB Joe Burrow DE Carlos Dunlap
RB Joe Mixon DT D.J. Reader
WR A.J. Green DT Geno Atkins
WR Tyler Boyd DE Sam Hubbard
WR Tee Higgins LB Germaine Pratt
TE C.J. Uzomah LB Logan Wilson
LT Jonah Williams CB William Jackson III
LG Mike Jordan CB Trae Waynes
C Trey Hopkins CB Mackensie Alexander
RG Xavier Su'a-Filo S Jessie Bates
RT Fred Johnson S Vonn Bell
  • 2017 No. 7 overall pick John Ross is probably this team's fourth receiver despite some spiffy moments in 2019. Auden Tate, who was a human highlight reel down the stretch, is the No. 5! If second-round pick Tee Higgins pans out, this group could rank among the league's best. Really!
  • The depth at wideout and coach Zac Taylor's de-emphasis on the tight end could mean a lot of four-wide sets. That should feel very familiar to Joe Burrow after his days at LSU.
  • Removing Andy Dalton from the equation sensibly saved a lot of money, but Burrow could use a veteran presence with him in the quarterback room. Second-year pro Ryan Finley doesn't qualify.
  • What will holdouts be like in the age of the coronavirus and this new collective bargaining agreement? Joe Mixon may be one player that helps us find out. New CBA rules state a player won't earn an accrued season toward free agency if they don't show up for the first day of training camp. The Bengals have shown repeatedly they will withstand holdouts without blinking, for better or worse, though personnel executive Duke Tobin did recently talk about exploring a long-term contract with Mixon.
  • Despite all the understandable excitement in Cincinnati, the Bengals are at risk of being this season's Browns, a group that can't deliver on their offensive hype because the offensive line is so shaky. Jonah Williams is a former top-10 pick, but he's never taken a snap as a pro after missing his rookie year in 2019. Fred Johnson is an undrafted free agent who started in Week 17 last year, and Bengals fans have seen plenty of swing tackle Bobby Hart. The interior group isn't much better.
  • The Bengals play their defensive line starters more than most. That leaves Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap at risk of wearing down, with Atkins not quite at his All-Decade level last season. Still, this is a front four you want to keep on the field. Sam Hubbard stepped up in class last year, and D.J. Reader is coming off a huge contract season in Houston.
  • Tobin has been searching for passable linebackers not named Vontaze Burfict for a while. They appear likely to start their last two third-round picks there in Germaine Pratt and Logan Wilson, although journeyman Josh Bynes is also a possibility. I can already see Lamar Jackson and Ben Roethlisberger attacking this group.
  • Thanks to the signings of Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander, the Bengals' cornerbacks are basically the Vikings' cornerbacks from a year ago, with Xavier Rhodes subbed out for William Jackson. Defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo struggled to find an identity in his first year calling plays, and there's a whole lot of hope and what-ifs beyond the defensive front four.
  • Former Saints safety Vonn Bell could wind up having as big an impact as the Bengals' bigger free agent defensive signings, Reader and Waynes. Bell's versatility and toughness match well with Bates.

CLEVELAND BROWNS

Table inside Article
OFFENSE PLAYER DEFENSE PLAYER
QB Baker Mayfield DE Myles Garrett
RB Nick Chubb DT Sheldon Richardson
WR Odell Beckham DT Larry Ogunjobi
WR Jarvis Landry DE Olivier Vernon
TE Austin Hooper OLB Mack Wilson
TE David Njoku ILB Sione Takitaki
LT Jedrick Wills CB Denzel Ward
LG Joel Bitonio CB Greedy Williams
C JC Tretter CB Kevin Johnson
RG Wyatt Teller S Karl Joseph
RT Jack Conklin S Grant Delpit
  • Baker Mayfield's 2019 was disappointing, but not nearly as bad as it was made out to be. It doesn't surprise me that he finished in Pro Football Focus' top-20 quarterbacks, not so embarrassing for a second-year quarterback. Any chatter that he could be on the hot seat because Case Keenum is behind him sounds silly. It's Baker, ride or die; Keenum's ascension would signify the Browns were already dead.
  • This offensive line has as much pressure on it as Baker does. On paper, the Browns should have plus starters at four of the five positions. The season could come down to whether or not this group is coached well and whether or not first-round pick Jedrick Wills' move from right tackle to left tackle pays off. If all goes well, they should maul opponents, especially on the ground.
  • I listed Njoku as a second starting tight end because Browns coach Kevin Stefanski doesn't use three wideouts nearly as much as most coaches. (He prefers a fullback or a second tight end.)
  • Stefanski's preferences match up with the Browns' roster, because the No. 3 receiver spot doesn't look like a strength. Options include Rashard Higgins, Taywan Taylor and Damion Ratley. If OBJ or Jarvis Landry get hurt, there could be issues.
  • Then again, backup running back Kareem Hunt will probably play more than any third wideout, including snaps in the slot.
  • The best reason to believe Odell Beckham will bounce back strong: what he did in his first five seasons in the league, when healthy. One reason not to believe: 2016 was the last completely healthy year.
  • Mayfield may have one of the top five supporting casts in football, including the line.
  • Three of the five Browns starters in the secondary are known for poor tackling. That's something to monitor, especially in a division that also includes the Ravens.
  • General manager Andrew Berry had a quietly excellent first offseason at the helm. One of his most surprising decisions was keeping Olivier Vernon at a $15.25 million base salary. It's still possible that decision could be reversed if the Browns get into Jadeveon Clowney bargain shopping.
  • The defensive front four looks great. It looked great last year, too, but the group never quite added up to the sum of its parts because of Vernon's injuries and defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi's so-so season.
  • Second-year pro Mack Wilson figures to be the only three-down linebacker at the weakest position group on the team. Based on last year, the team is more likely to give third safety Andrew Sendejo starter snaps than a second linebacker.
  • The Browns' starting 22 stacks up well against most of the league. If there's a difference between Cleveland and the best rosters, it's in the lack of proven or promising depth. From wideout to defensive end to cornerback, the drop in talent from starter to reserve is precipitous.

PITTSBURGH STEELERS

Table inside Article
OFFENSE PLAYER DEFENSE PLAYER
QB Ben Roethlisberger DE Cameron Heyward
RB James Conner DE Stephon Tuitt
WR JuJu Smith-Schuster OLB T.J. Watt
WR Chase Claypool ILB Vince Williams
WR Diontae Johnson ILB Devin Bush
TE Vance McDonald OLB Bud Dupree
LT Alejandro Villanueva CB Joe Haden
LG Kevin Dotson CB Steven Nelson
C Maurkice Pouncey CB Mike Hilton
RG David DeCastro S Minkah Fitzpatrick
RT Matt Feiler S Terrell Edmunds
  • No team has a higher ceiling or a lower floor than the Steelers, and it all rests on the highly problematic 38-year-old wing of Ben Roethlisberger. If Big Ben can play like he did a few years ago, they are Super Bowl contenders. If his very real injury risk plays out (coming off a season lost to an elbow injury), it's easy to see the defense buckling under the weight of another Mason Rudolph-led campaign.
  • In related news, this is the best potential fit remaining for Cam Newton. Either he spends a year with a great organization, or he becomes the next long-term starting quarterback for a great organization.
  • I could be falling for the post-draft presser hype, but the Steelers coaches' love of rookie wideout Chase Claypool makes me believe he'll have every chance to start. When they started comparing his blocking to Hines Ward, it made me think he could play over James Washington immediately. Beyond Smith-Schuster, Washington, Claypool and Diontae Johnson all figure to rotate snaps. If Washington maintains his gains, and Johnson takes a logical leap, the Steelers could have one of the better young wideout groups in the league again.
  • The receiving depth continues at tight end, where Eric Ebron will be a nice rotational option.
  • It was surprising that the Steelers didn't upgrade from Benny Snell as the primary backup to James Conner. Jaylen Samuels also is around for passing downs. Don't be shocked if the team adds a veteran.
  • The Steelers' offensive line took a step back last year. Perhaps it was the inferior talent at quarterback and running back making the group look bad, but many of their mainstays looked a half-step slower. Or perhaps it was the absence of offensive line coach Mike Munchak, who left for Denver.
  • Left guard and right tackle both appear to be open competition. Matt Feiler, who played well at right tackle last year, could move inside if Chukwuma Okorafor or Zach Banner emerge on the right side.
  • I could have listed a third rotational defensive lineman like Daniel McCullers or Tyson Alualu, who will primarily play on running downs, like Vince Williams.
  • The defense could look even faster if Devin Bush can take the next step after a solid rookie season where he was often a beat late because he was thinking, not reacting.
  • If Bush pops, does any front seven have a better top-five than T.J. Watt, Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, Bud Dupree and Bush?
  • A lot went right for the Steelers' secondary last year after the trade for safety Minkah Fitzpatrick. While some regression could be inevitable this year, this is the best Steelers secondary since early in the Mike Tomlin era.

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.

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