Games are won and lost in the trenches on both sides of the football, and that is nowhere truer than in the AFC North at the moment.
In years past, the trenches were loaded with talent in the rugged AFC North, but that hasn’t been the case in recent years as one team or another has seemingly skimped on investing in the offensive line, leading to a relative lack of talent overall.
With another year gone by, the 2021 season marks a year in which there seems to be a slight switch in the philosophy of building through the trenches once again, as the AFC North appears to be on the right path up front, especially along the interior of the offensive line, which I’ll focus on today in my latest Ranking the Rooms: AFC North series.
Previously, I would just focus on offensive lines as a whole, but this year I decided to try something different, breaking it up into offensive tackles and interior offensive linemen.
Let’s dive into the latest piece.
1. CLEVELAND BROWNS
Last season I had real concerns about Wyatt Teller potentially holding down a starting role with the Cleveland Browns. I’m not sure I’ve been more wrong about a player ahead of a season than I was Teller, who blossomed into one of the best guards in football in 2020 for Cleveland.
A castoff from Buffalo, Teller fit in perfectly with the Browns’ ground-and-pound scheme, helping pave the way for Kareem Hunt and Nick Chubb as the Browns won their first playoff game in 26 years.
Teller pairs with veteran standout guard Joel Bitonio and terrific center JC Tretter to form a stout interior offensive line that is a huge key to the Browns’ success. Bitonio may be getting up there in age, but he’s played some strong football as of late and really gets after it in the run game. This trio is as good as it gets in the NFL inside.
Behind them, the Browns have young center Nick Harris, who could push for a starting role in a year or two, and veteran guards Colby Gossett, Drew Forbes, and Michael Dunn that can fill in in a pinch should injuries pop up. Depth overall isn’t great, but the starting trio is absolutely fantastic.
2. BALTIMORE RAVENS
Gone are the days of Kelechi Osemele and Marshal Yanda controlling the interior of the offensive line in Baltimore, but quietly General Manager Eric DeCosta has rebuilt the interior into a mauling, strong group overall, which fits perfectly into Baltimore’s run-first offense.
Veteran Bradley Bozeman will likely hold down the starting center job after making the transition into the middle from guard. The former Alabama standout played center, guard and some tackle in college and played both guard positions in the NFL to date. He’s not overly athletic and doesn’t have a ton of power, but he’s very smart overall and is a technician inside.
At guard, the Ravens traded for veteran Kevin Zeitler this offseason, giving them a Pro Bowl caliber guard inside to continue their dominant ways in the run game. Zeitler is getting up there in age, but he still plays at a high level nine years into his career. It is worth mentioning that Zeitler posted career-worst grades from Pro Football Focus across the board in 2020, but he’s going to bounce back to career norms with the Ravens. Book it.
Opposite Zeitler, guys like rookie Ben Cleveland, second-year pros Ben Bredeson and Tyre Phillips, and third-year pro Ben Powers will battle it out for the starting job. Phillips appears to be in the driver’s seat, but I would not be shocked to see Cleveland take over at some point. He’s a hulking human who absolutely moves people in the run game.
For depth, Patrick Mekari can play center or guard, and whoever loses out on the starting guard battle will provide depth at both spots, making this a strong Ravens unit.
3. PITTSBURGH STEELERS
Following the retirements of Ramon Foster and Maurkice Pouncey in back-to-back offseasons, what was once the best unit in the league is now a major question mark with just David DeCastro in the fold.
With Pouncey gone, the Steelers addressed center in the offseason, signing veteran BJ Finney and drafting athletic center Kendrick Green in the third round. Green and Finney will battle it out with JC Hassenauer for the starting center job, with Green the frontrunner for now.
DeCastro should be back at right guard, giving the Steelers a high-end player to build around inside, while second-year pro Kevin Dotson will start at left guard after a couple of spot starts as a rookie due to injury. Dotson fared well overall as a rookie and appears poised for a breakout second season inside as the Steelers look to re-establish the run game.
Depth is a concern overall though, which likely led to the Steelers hosting veteran guard Trai Turner for a visit Friday. Finney and Hassenauer can provide depth at guard, assuming they lose the starting center battle in training camp, while names like Rashaad Coward and Joe Haeg add veteran depth at guard.
Should injuries pop up again inside for the Steelers, it could spell real trouble for Pittsburgh again.
4. CINCINNATI BENGALS
It’s not for a lack of trying for the Bengals inside, but the talent just simply isn’t there right now.
At center, the Bengals are poised for a three-way battle between former first-round pick Billy Price, veteran Trey Hopkins, and rookie Trey Hill. Hopkins has the inside track after starting 31 of 32 games last season, but this is the final shot for Price, who did not have his fifth-year option picked up, meaning he’s in the final year of his contract. As for Hill, the Bengals like his strength and physicality, which could help rejuvenate a stagnant rushing attack behind Joe Burrow.
At guard, the Bengals invested early in Clemson’s Jackson Carman, and also slid promising tackle Hakeem Adejini inside to guard, giving them two solid athletes with great length and power to work with at guard. Though neither project to start right away, the future appears bright at guard for the Bengals.
The projected starters for now appear to be veterans Xavier Su’a-Filo and Quinton Spain. Spain played well in spurts last season for the Bengals as a mid-season addition and really brings some nastiness to the group, while Su’a-Filo enters his second season with the Bengals and posted a 59.1 grade from Pro Football Focus in nearly 300 snaps last season.
Depth is a question mark overall though, with veteran Michael Jordan trying to hold down a roster spot, and names like Carman and Adejini moving to new positions.
2020 AFC North OL rankings:
No. 1 – Baltimore Ravens
No. 2 – Pittsburgh Steelers
No. 3 – Cleveland Browns
No. 4 – Cincinnati Bengals