Now that the draft is over and free agency has calmed down, let’s take a look at how the AFC North defenses will look heading into the 2016 NFL season. Some of the notable additions and returning players will be featured.
Notable Draft Picks:
1. DL/OLB Emmanuel Ogbah (32nd Overall): Ogbah began his college career with a bang at Oklahoma State, starting his redshirt freshman year making an immediate impact. He finished his 3-year career with the Cowboys earning Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year Honors.
2. DL Carl Nassib (65th Overall): The Penn State product started off as a preferred walk-on and wound up holding the school record for sacks in a season his senior year (15.5). He and Ogbah could certainly be a force on the field together, whether they both start right away or not.
3. Other mentions: Joe Schobert (LB-99th overall), Derrick Kindred (DB-129th overall), Trey Caldwell (DB-173rd overall)
1. Joe Haden(CB): Missed 11 games in 2015, but we all know what this man is capable of in coverage.
2. Paul Kruger (LB): Had a down year in 2015, but recorded double digit sacks one year earlier. He is the leader of this linebacking corps.
3. Rahim Moore (FS): This veteran safety will look to fill the shoes of Tashaun Gipson and make an impact following a season where he started just 6 games.
The Browns have obviously had issues on both sides of the ball for years now, and last year was more of the same for Cleveland. They finished the year in the bottom ten of nearly every defensive category, and failed to make big plays when the team needed. Granted they haven’t had much help from their offense, but this team continues to get gashed in the running and passing game. And with the departure of leading tackler Karlos Dansby and free safety Tashaun Gipson, they will face an uphill battle. That said, with some key additions along the defensive line and multiple corners, along with a (they hope) healthy Haden, this squad just may be close to becoming a solid unit.
Notable Draft Picks
1. CB William Jackson III (24th overall): The draft pick many expected to go to the Steelers will very likely be given the starting job from day one. His impressive ball skills and size will be a difficult matchup for many receivers. Good thing the Steelers have Antonio Brown.
2. NT Andrew Billings (122nd overall): Billings was a highly touted true nose tackle coming into the draft, but eventually fell to the Bengals in the 4th round. He’s extremely athletic and strong, and he led Baylor in both tackles for loss (15) and sacks (5.5) in 2015.
1. Geno Atkins (DT/NT): The dude’s a beast, and the Steelers have seen their fair share of his dominance. He finished 2015 with 11 sacks.
2. George Iloka (S): Great re-signing by a team that needed to keep their secondary intact.
3. Adam Jones (CB): He may be old by some standards, but Jones provides consistency at the position.
4. Karlos Dansby and Rey Maualuga (LB): They signed the 2015 Browns’ leading tackler in Dansby and were able to keep their veteran Maualuga who remains productive.
The Bengals have all the tools to be the best defense in the division, and possibly one of the best in the league yet again. They made significant signings/re-signings and drafted some quality players at their few positions of need on the defensive side. Anyone trying to pass on these guys in 2016 will surely have a tough battle ahead of them. And, oh yeah, that Atkins guy is still there. It’s clear that the Bengals and Steelers will be the top two defenses in the AFC North next year, but Cincinnati may have the edge here.
Notable Draft Picks
1. CB Artie Burns (25th overall): We know he’s got the ball skills and the know-how, so it will depend on his ability to transition to determine his impact in 2016. But it’s likely he gets a starting nod very early if not right away.
2. NT Javon Hargrave (72nd overall): The most likely to start right away very well may be Hargrave. With minimal options at the position, coupled with his credible production at SCSU, Hargrave could be the final piece to make Pittsburgh one of the best defensive lines in the NFL.
3. S Sean Davis (58th overall): Davis brings flexibility to a largely depleted secondary. He can play both corner and safety, and will likely get his shot at both the nickel and safety positions throughout the 2016 season.
1. Robert Golden (S): This was key for the team to develop depth in the secondary. Golden performed well enough in 2016, and showed signs of improvement. He likely will get be the opening day starter, but will have considerable competition in the form of Sean Davis.
2. Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt (DE): These guys are either in their prime or still approaching it, meaning the best is yet to come from this duo. They combined for 13.5 sacks in 2015 and are consistently getting after the quarterback. With their constant pressure, teams will be hard-pressed to run against this duo. With a hopefully improved secondary, these two are likely to dominate even more.
3. Ryan Shazier and Lawrence Timmons (LB): Here we have a young, promising new age linebacker in Shazier and a veteran run-stuffer in Timmons. These two are a force to be had, and complement each other extremely well. While they aren’t always on the field at the same time, given the high volume of nickel formations, they manage to produce big plays. Shazier, if healthy, could be looking at a pro bowl season, while Timmons will look to defend his crown as the team’s leading tackler.
4. Mike Mitchell and William Gay (DB): The re-signing of Gay will prove to be vital in 2016. He was clearly the best corner for the black and gold last year and still manages to come up with the splash play. Mitchell showed last year just how tough he is, having battled through injury all season. If he can garner a good chemistry with the likes of Golden and Davis, the safety position could prove to be one of this unit’s strengths rather than a glaring weakness.
5. James Harrison (LB): The man defies everything we know about longevity in the NFL. Seriously, he is still producing! Look to see him continue to provide a great pass rush, even if he sees limited playing time.
The Steelers lost some depth at linebacker and corner this offseason, but made up for it in the draft and some key re-signings. This squad undoubtedly finished the 2015 season much better than they started, and they should continue this upward trend. Look for even more turnovers in 2016, and an improved secondary. They really should end up as the best defense in the division, but will have a worthy opponent in Cincinnati.
Notable Draft Picks
1. OLB Kamalei Correa (42nd overall): The Ravens went with a high-motor linebacker, who can likely see starting time right away. He’s a classic fit for the Ravens and will also fit in well with the tough rivalry that is the Steelers/Ravens. Not to mention, the dude is a playmaker.
2. DE Bronson Kaufusi (70th overall): The Ravens went with a largely under the radar player here and it might pay off. Kaufusi will probably start right away given the departure of Chris Canty.
1. Terrell Suggs (LB): He may be in his 30’s, but we all know what Suggs brings to the table. If he stays healthy, he will continue to be a force for this linebacking corps and can provide invaluable leadership to players like Correa. The Ravens clearly missed him last season, when he was put on IR.
2. Eric Weddle (S): The savvy veteran will look to showcase his toughness and intellect in a very physical division. This signing could certainly help this squad, though he has been on the downward trend over the past couple of season.
3. Elvis Dumervil (LB): Same as Suggs, he’s getting up there in age, but Dumervil still managed to lead the team in sacks last year (6).
4. C.J. Mosley (LB): This young linebacker is poised to continue his upward progression in 2016. He totaled 117 tackles in 2015 and finished with 4 sacks. Look for even more improvement next year.
5. Jimmy Smith (CB): Smith has the ability to come up with some big plays. He led the team with 3 interceptions last year and proved to be a shining light in an otherwise struggling secondary. Look for more improvement in 2016.
The Ravens’ defense has taken a hit in recent years, but with some young linebackers in the fold they have the potential to return to dominance, but not in 2016. They still need more in the secondary, a position they oddly neglected until the 4th round of the draft, and their defensive line is not what it was when they had Haloti Ngata, obviously. They’ll be in the middle of the pack in terms of overall defense next year, but we can certainly still expect to see a very close game whenever they play Pittsburgh.