Three of the most important positions in the NFL involve the quarterback, pass protectors, and those that get after the quarterback.
In the AFC North, the four teams within the division have stockpiled the latter, causing nightmares for not only the QBs within the division, but the rest of the league as well as the Pittsburgh Steelers, Cleveland Browns, Cincinnati Bengals and Baltimore Ravens all possess athletic pass rushers that can get to the QB in a hurry.
Today, we’ll take a look at the EDGE position in the division as part of the next installment in the Ranking the Rooms: AFC North series here at Steelers Depot. For some clarity, guys like Stephon Tuitt and Cameron Heyward will not appear in the EDGE group, considering they play more along the interior. This is strictly for guys that rush from the outside, like the 3-4 OLBs in Pittsburgh and Baltimore, and the 4-3 defensive ends in Cleveland and Cincinnati.
Let’s dive in.
1. Cleveland Browns
This could be a bit of a surprise to those reading this, but it in no way, shape or form matches how I feel about T.J. Watt compared to Myles Garrett.
Instead, I just see the Browns having great depth and strong talent across the board at the EDGE position.
There’s no denying Garrett is one of the best players in the NFL on the defensive side of the football. He is a physical freak that consistently turns the corner and gets to the quarterback, having racked up at least 10.0 sacks in three straight seasons.
Opposite Garrett, the Browns added veteran pass rusher Jadaveon Clowney in free agency on a one-year deal. Though Clowney hasn’t come close to living up to his No. 1 overall pick expectations, he is a guy that teams still worry about at this point despite his decrease in pass rush grade year over year, according to Pro Football Focus.
Behind those two, I really like the depth the Browns have. Takkarist McKinley comes over in free agency after a bit of a rough journey following his time in Atlanta. He can still get after the passer in bursts, but he needs to prove he can stay healthy.
Guys like Porter Gustin and Joe Jackson flashed at times last season in limited action and can give Clowney and Garrett rest a few series a game. One name to watch is Romeo McKnight, a rookie out of Charlotte, that the Browns have been raving about as of late. He is a former teammate of current Steeler Alex Highsmith.
2. Pittsburgh Steelers
T.J. Watt is soon to become the NFL’s highest-paid defensive player in the game, and rightfully so. He’s a tour-de-force on the outside and consistently draws double teams as teams do everything in their power to try and negate his impact.
It hasn’t worked yet, as Watt has recorded at least 13.0 sacks in each of the last three seasons. Add in his ability to punch the football out and drop into coverage and it’s clear he’s one of the best all-around defenders in the NFL.
Opposite Watt, second-year pass rusher Alex Highsmith is in for a big year after taking over for Bud Dupree, who signed with the Tennessee Titans in free agency. Highsmith stepped in for Dupree late last season after the veteran tore his ACL. Highsmith played well overall, flashing at times, including in a comeback win over the Indianapolis Colts in Week 16.
Though he’s relatively unproven, the sky is the limit for the young pass rusher, who could be in for a breakout year giving the Steelers two high-level pass rushers once again.
Depth is a corner behind the two with veteran Cassius Marsh and rookie Quincy Roche projected to make the 53-man roster as we sit here today. Marsh is well-traveled and has played more than 1,600 defensive snaps in his journeyman career, while Roche has some significant upside coming out of Miami (FL) where he was a skilled, consistent pass rusher.
The Steelers are still in the market for a depth outside linebacker and could add good depth veteran at this point in the summer.
3. Cincinnati Bengals
Losing a guy like Carl Lawson in the offseason to the New York Jets in free agency should have really hurt the Bengals. Instead, they addressed the position quickly in free agency and in the draft, signing veteran pass rusher Trey Hendrickson away from the Saints, and drafting Texas EDGE Joseph Ossai to pair with Sam Hubbard to give the Bengals three strong options off the edge.
I’ve always been a fan of Hubbard, who profiles well in Cincinnati’s 4-3 system where he can use his athleticism and terrific get-off to win off the edge.
Hendrickson really took a massive leap forward last season in New Orleans in a contract year, racking up a career-high 13.5 sacks, though a lot of them were of the effort variety, rather than winning quickly with skill. Ossai is very similar to Hubbard and could really develop in Cincinnati in the right role.
Behind those three, rookie Wyatt Hubert and second-year pro Khalid Kareem provide some intrigue as back-end-of-the-roster options.
4. Baltimore Ravens
Letting Matthew Judon and Yannick Ngakoue leave in free agency makes this one rough position for the Ravens after years of being a strength.
Baltimore now has just seven sacks total returning at this position in 2021 with Pernell McPhee (three), Tyus Bowser (two), and Jaylon Ferguson (two) the lone returning players at the position with experience. None of the three really moves the needle, with both McPhee and Ferguson really lacking athleticism. Bowser is the best of the bunch but could see his playing time drastically reduced with the Ravens investing heavily in the position this offseason through the draft.
In steps Penn State rookie Odafe Oweh, who is an incredible athlete for the position but really doesn’t have much of a pass rush plan or a go-to move. He’s a moldable mound of clay though, and the Ravens could reap the rewards of a terrific athlete at the position.
Baltimore also added Notre Dame rookie Daelin Hayes to the group. Hayes flashed at times in college, but he struggled with injuries and carries that red flag into the NFL.
2020 AFC North DL rankings:
No. 1 – Cleveland Browns
No. 2 – Cincinnati Bengals
No. 3 – Pittsburgh Steelers
No. 4 – Baltimore Ravens