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2021 AFC North Team Needs and Prospect Fits

As much as “don’t draft for need” gets mentioned with the NFL Draft, the truth is that teams do draft for need (and they should). That’s why I’m taking a top down approach in this column, spending far more time studying exact team needs than which prospects are actually good. I want to be specific about the exact position a team is looking for, so instead of listing “safety”, you’ll see “single-high free safety” or “two-high strong safety” when necessary. As for the mock draft part of the column, I’ll highlight each Round 1-3 pick in red and list their expected draft position (EDP) courtesy of Benjamin Robinson’s Grinding The Mocks. Consider everything here to be predictive rather than what I (a donkey) would do if I were calling the shots.

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Links: NFC East | NFC North | NFC South | NFC West

Baltimore Ravens Team Needs

1. Edge Rusher

The Ravens lost Yannick Ngakoue, Matt Judon, and Jihad Ward to free agency this offseason, leaving the group with just Tyus Bowser, Pernell McPhee, Derek Wolfe, and Jaylon Ferguson as pass rushers. Baltimore’s 40% blitz rate (2nd) would be more lethal with a high-end quarterback chaser.

1.27 Options: Kwity Paye (EDP: 22), Azeez Ojulari (26), Jaelan Phillips (31)

2.58 Options: Carlos Basham (EDP: 45), Patrick Jones (57), Joe Tryon (69)

3.104 Options: Pete Werner (EDP: 95), Chris Rumph (110), Dayo Odeyingbo (118)

2. Center

Matt Skura signed with the Dolphins in free agency, pushing 2019 undrafted free agent Patrick Mekari into the Ravens’ starting lineup. Center is viewed as a more important position in Baltimore’s run-heavy offense. Mekari is a fringe starter.

1.27 Options: Creed Humphrey (EDP: 45), Landon Dickerson (47)

2.58 Options: Creed Humphrey (EDP: 45), Landon Dickerson (47)

3.104 Options: Josh Myers (EDP: 94), Trey Hill (105), Drake Jackson (118)

3. Offensive Guard

The Ravens addressed right guard by signing veteran Kevin Zeitler to a three-year contract, but there’s room for an upgrade at left guard over 2018 sixth-rounder Bradley Bozeman. Baltimore was 23rd in adjusted sack rate in 2020, largely because of problems on the interior offensive line.

1.27 Options: Alijah Vera-Tucker (EDP: 20), Wyatt Davis (37)

2.58 Options: Trey Smith (EDP: 60), Quinn Meinerz (61)

3.104 Options: Deonte Brown (EDP: 105), Aaron Banks (110)

4. Outside Receiver

There’s enough speed between Marquise Brown, Sammy Watkins, and Devin Duvernay, but Lamar Jackson needs an X receiver with a larger catch radius that can operate as a safety blanket. Watkins can play in the slot in 2021 if an outside receiver falls into Baltimore’s lap.

1.27 Options: Rashod Bateman (EDP: 21), Terrance Marshall (45)

2.58 Options: D’Wayne Eskridge (EDP: 73), Tylan Wallace (73), Dyami Brown (94)

3.104 Options: D’Wayne Eskridge (EDP: 73), Tylan Wallace (73), Dyami Brown (94)

Cincinnati Bengals Team Needs

1. Offensive Guard

The Bengals rotated bodies at both spots with no success in 2020. With Joe Burrow coming off an ACL tear and with Joe Mixon signed to a large contract, Cincy needs a better interior presence immediately. Xavier Su’a-Filo and Quinton Spain are fringe starters at guard.

1.05 Options: NA

2.38 Options: Wyatt Davis (EDP: 37), Jalen Mayfield (35), Alex Leatherwood (40)

3.69 Options: Trey Smith (60), Quinn Meinerz (61), Deonte Brown (105)

2. Center

Starting center Trey Hopkins tore his ACL in the final week of 2020, and he doesn’t have any guaranteed money beyond 2021. The former undrafted free agent is best viewed as a quality backup option instead of a long-term starter, particularly coming off this injury.

1.05 Options: NA

2.38 Options: Creed Humphrey (EDP: 45), Landon Dickerson (47)

3.69 Options: Quinn Meinerz (EDP: 61), Josh Myers (94), Trey Hill (105)

3. Outside Receiver (or Kyle Pitts)

Tee Higgins projects as a No. 1 or high-end No. 2 receiver, but there’s little depth behind him on the perimeter. Auden Tate is currently starting with Tyler Boyd in the slot. Adding more skill talent will allow the Bengals to use more four-receiver and empty sets, something Burrow had success with in college and as a rookie. We can assume Burrow is recruiting his stud LSU teammate Ja’Marr Chase.

1.05 Options: Ja’Marr Chase (EDP: 4), Kyle Pitts (8), DeVonta Smith (9)

2.38 Options: Terrace Marshall (EDP: 45)

3.69 Options: D’Wayne Eskridge (EDP: 73), Tylan Wallace (73), Dyami Brown (94)

4. Offensive Tackle

Jonah Williams (634 snaps through two seasons) could be a building block at left tackle if he stays healthy, but the short-term issue is at right tackle with veteran Riley Reiff projected to start. Drafting Penei Sewell in Round 1 would push Williams to right tackle and Reiff to the interior, meaning both would be out of their natural position. That’s not a dealbreaker but something to consider.

1.05 Options: Penei Sewell (EDP: 5), Rashawn Slater (11)

2.38 Options: Jalen Mayfield (EDP: 35), Alex Leatherwood (40), Liam Eichenberg (47)

3.69 Options: Dillon Radunz (EDP: 60), Jackson Carman (60), Walker Little (74)

5. Edge Rusher

The Bengals were 32nd in adjusted sack rate last season, and the free agent moves haven’t moved the needle. DT Larry Ogunjobi and EDGE Trey Hendrickson are two-for-two replacements for DT Geno Atkins and EDGE Carl Lawson. Hendrickson (a one-year wonder) and Sam Hubbard (2.0 sacks in 2020) are the top two edge rushers right now.

1.05 Options: NA

2.38 Options: Jaelan Phillips (EDP: 31), Joseph Ossai (EDP: 39), Jayson Oweh (40)

3.69 Options: Patrick Jones (EDP: 57), Joe Tryon (69), Quincy Roche (73)

Cleveland Browns Team Needs

1. Edge Rusher

Myles Garrett is one of the league’s best, but if DC Joe Woods wants to rush with four and not blitz (30th), Garrett needs a running mate. The Browns have chased all of the top free agent edge rushers and only managed to sign Takk McKinley, who has 4.5 sacks over the last two seasons.

1.26 Options: Gregory Rousseau (EDP: 22), Kwity Paye (22), Azeez Ojulari (26)

2.59 Options: Carlos Basham (EDP: 45), Patrick Jones (57), Joe Tryon (69)

3.89 Options: Ronnie Perkins (EDP: 78), Cameron McGrone (84), Rashad Weaver (89)

3.91 Options: Cameron McGrone (EDP: 84), Pete Werner (95), Chris Rumph (110)

2. Defensive Tackle

Larry Ogunjobi is a free agent, and 30-year-old three-tech Sheldon Richardson is in the final year of his contract. The Browns need to get younger and better at defensive tackle. A one-tech is the main priority with Ogunjobi in Cincy, but finding the long-term Richardson replacement is also on the bucket list. The Browns were 21st in rushing EPA last year. The DT Malik Jackson signing will help in the short term.

1.26 Options: Christian Barmore (EDP: 27)

2.59 Options: Daviyon Nixon (EDP: 39), Levi Onwuzurike (53), Alim McNeill (76)

3.89 Options: Alim McNeill (EDP: 76), Tyler Shelvin (84), Marlon Tuipulota (111)

3.91 Options: Alim McNeill (EDP: 76), Tyler Shelvin (84), Marlon Tuipulota (111)

3. Off-Ball Linebacker

The scheme will push safeties into the linebacker position in certain situations and the front office views this as a devalued position, but the Browns can find an upgrade over newly-signed LB Anthony Walker who only signed a one-year, $3.5 million contract. 2019 third-rounder Sione Takitaki, 2019 fifth-rounder Mack Wilson, and 2020 third-rounder Jacob Phillips sit behind Walker on the depth chart.

1.26 Options: Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah (EDP: 26), Zaven Collins (29), Nick Bolton (36)

2.59 Options: Nick Bolton (EDP: 36), Jabril Cox (62), Dylan Moses (63)

3.89 Options: Chazz Surratt (EDP: 75), Baron Browning (93), Jamin Davis (101)

3.91 Options: Baron Browning (EDP: 93), Jamin Davis (101), Derrick Barnes (113)

4. Outside Receiver

Odell Beckham doesn’t have any guaranteed money after 2021, and Rashard Higgins was re-signed to just a one-year contract. Despite being a two-tight end team, more than half (51%) of the Browns’ pass attempts came in 11-personnel last season. A rookie can compete with Higgins in 2021 and take over the second outside receiver role in 2022.

1.26 Options: Rashod Bateman (EDP: 21), Terrace Marshall (45)

2.59 Options: D’Wayne Eskridge (EDP: 73), Tylan Wallace (73)

3.89 Options: Dyami Brown (EDP: 94), Seth Williams (97)

3.91 Options: Dyami Brown (EDP: 94), Seth Williams (97)

Pittsburgh Steelers Team Needs

1. Corner

After losing slot CB Mike Hilton and CB Steven Nelson to free agency, the Steelers are left with 31-year-old CB1 Joe Haden and fringe-starter Cameron Sutton as the top two options. Sutton played in the slot last season but could be the second outside corner if Pittsburgh falls for a slot corner in the draft. Haden also is in the final year of his contract.

1.24 Options: Caleb Farley (EDP: 11), Greg Newsome (22)

2.55 Options: Tyson Campbell (EDP: 43), Eric Stokes (52), Ifeatu Melifonwu (53)

3.87 Options: Shaun Wade (EDP: 61), Paulson Adebo (88), Israel Mukuamu (95)

2. Center

All-Pro C Maurice Pouncey retired, and both starting offensive guards haven’t played center in the NFL. Fixing the offensive line will help the Steelers’ run-game more than finding the next bellcow running back. Pittsburgh was 27th in rushing EPA last year.

1.24 Options: Creed Humphrey (EDP: 45), Landon Dickerson (47)

2.55 Options: Landon Dickerson (EDP: 47), Quinn Meinerz (61)

3.87 Options: Josh Myers (EDP: 94), Trey Hill (105), Drake Jackson (118)

3. Offensive Tackle

The Steelers have three potential starters at offensive tackle (2018 third-round RT Chukwuma Okorafor, veteran swing tackle Joe Haeg, and 2017 fourth-rounder Zach Banner), but all three are fringe starters. They are still in the offensive tackle market, and that can be at right or left tackle.

1.24 Options: Christian Darrisaw (EDP: 14), Samuel Cosmi (23), Teven Jenkins (29)

2.55 Options: Alex Leatherwood (EDP: 40), Liam Eichenberg (47), Dillon Radunz (60)

3.87 Options: Jackson Carman (EDP: 60), Walker Little (74), Spencer Brown (88)

4. Nose Tackle

The Steelers used a 5-2 defensive front at times last year, especially in obvious rushing situations, and the man in the middle (Tyson Alualu) just signed with the Jaguars. A one-for-one replacement to mix in alongside DTs Stephon Tuitt and Cameron Hayward is needed unless this 5-2 look is getting scrapped from the playbook in 2021. If that’s the case, Pittsburgh needs to find another linebacker.

1.24 Options: NA

2.55 Options: Daviyon Nixon (EDP: 39), Levi Onwuzurike (53), Alim McNeill (76)

3.87 Options: Alim McNeill (EDP: 76), Tyler Shelvin (84), Marlon Tuipulota (111)

5. Running Back

Tone-setting RB Benny Snell sits atop the depth chart with James Conner hitting free agency. Snell is an early-down rotational member only, leaving the Steelers with a passing down running back need at the very least. Pittsburgh was 27th in rushing EPA in 2020.

1.24 Options: Najee Harris (EDP: 26), Travis Etienne (30), Javonte Williams (66)

2.55 Options: Javonte Williams (EDP: 66), Kenneth Gainwell (74)

3.87 Options: Trey Sermon (EDP: 84), Chuba Hubbard (106), Kylin Hill (133)

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