While the AFC North is currently known for its star power at quarterback top-to-bottom and its physical, fast defenses, one area that is getting overlooked when it comes to overall depth and talent might be the tight end rooms.
Last season, the Cleveland Browns signed standout free agent Austin Hooper and drafted Mackey Award winner Harrison Bryant, while the Ravens rolled with one of the best tight ends in football in Mark Andrews and arguably the best blocking tight end in football in Nick Boyle.
Pittsburgh and Cincinnati seemed to be trending in the wrong direction in the area ahead of the 2020 season, but now, after addressing the position in the offseason through the draft and free agency, both teams are on an upward trajectory at the position, making it a very deep overall group within the division.
Some of the changes in this group compared to last season might surprise you. Let’s get to it.
1. Baltimore Ravens
Any time you can start your positional depth chart with a true talent like Mark Andrews, you’re doing something right. Andrews is a terrific receiving option at tight end for the Ravens, having hauled in 58 passes for 702 yards and seven scores in 14 games last season.
Andrews can carve up defenses over the middle of the field and is a tough cover when the Ravens use play action.
Add in the blocking abilities of Nick Boyle and it’s clear the Ravens have a terrific pairing that works well together, allowing them to be a bit creative with Andrews as a receiver.
Last season though, the Ravens struggled with injuries at the position as Boyle played just nine games. What came out of that adversity though was overall improved depth as the Ravens brought in Eric Tomlinson to play the Boyle role, which he did well in, and also saw the Ravens address tight end heavily via the draft, grabbing Michigan FB/TE Ben Mason and Virginia’s Tony Poljan.
Mason should slot in comfortably as TE3 on the Ravens, giving them a terrific blocking option that could line up on the line or in the backfield, helping the run game continue to roll downhill.
Behind those five names, guys like Eli Wolf, Jacob Breeland and Josh Oliver are all battling for an opportunity on the practice squad or are auditioning for other teams that need TE depth in camp. This is a deep group overall. Don’t be surprised if one or two teams pluck some of these guys at the end of camp cuts.
2. Cleveland Browns
Last year the Browns were No. 1 and looked ridiculously loaded at tight end with Hooper, Bryant and David Njoku.
All three return this year in their roles, but it’s clear that not all three are right for the Browns’s style of play.
Hooper was the big get in free agency for the Browns, but he’s not the best blocker overall and really struggled to find his footing in the play-action heavy system in Cleveland, which really took away his ability to stretch the field like he did in Atlanta, hauling in 46 passes last season — the lowest total he’s put up dating back to the 19 passes he caught as a rookie in 2016.
He’s still a supreme talent at the position. It just feels like Cleveland’s system hinders him quite a bit.
Behind Hooper, Bryant really emerged last season as a possible No. 1 TE in the future, catching 23 passes for 238 yards and three touchdowns in limited action. He was the Mackey Award winner for a reason, much more of a move TE that can play in the slot than in-line. That could be a guy Kevin Stefanski and the Browns try to exploit this season with mismatches in the secondary.
Njoku, a former first round pick, seems to have fallen out of favor, but he’s stuck around and pushed through the adversity, so credit to him. He’s embraced his role as TE3 in Cleveland and has really committed to improving as a blocking option. The stats simply aren’t there to match the talent (19 catches, 213 yards, two touchdowns), but he provides experienced depth at the position in case of injuries.
Behind that trio, names like Stephen Carlson, Jordan Franks and Connor Davis will battle it out for a practice squad spot in Cleveland with very little chance of cracking the top three, barring a trade of Njoku in training camp.
3. Pittsburgh Steelers
No change here in the ranking for the Steelers compared to last season, though some names have changed.
Eric Ebron returns after an up-and-down season and entering a contract year. Ebron flashed a bunch last season, grabbing 56 passes for 558 yards and five scores in his first year as a Steeler. But he was a liability as a blocker in-line, and really went through a rough stretch late in the season with drops.
He’s TE1 though and gives the Steelers a chess piece offensively to move around and take advantage of mismatches.
The retirement of Vance McDonald hurt from a blocking standpoint, but in steps rookie Pat Freiermuth, drafted in the second round 55th overall out of Penn State. A great athlete overall, Freiermuth wasn’t utilized downfield at Penn State, serving as more of the check down tight end in the middle of the field. That might stay the same in Pittsburgh, at least for this season. He’ll take over the TE2 role and handle a large portion of the blocking duties as well.
Behind those two, TE3 is up for grabs between Zach Gentry, Kevin Rader, and Dax Raymond. Kevin Colbert pulling off a trade to grab a more experienced tight end to fill the depth role on the roster wouldn’t surprise, but I have to give Rader the edge right now.
I know it’s such a small sample size, but I really liked what I saw from him late last season as a blocker and on special teams.
4. Cincinnati Bengals
If you’ve read me on Steelers Depot at any point in the last six years, you know how much I love me some C.J. Uzomah.
Uzomah played just two games last year, but quickly established rapport with Joe Burrow last season, averaging four catches for 43.5 yards per game in those two appearances. He returns healthy for 2021 and has more playmakers around him, which should open things up for him in the middle of the field.
Behind Uzomah though, there’s little depth.
Drew Sample flashed at times last season, but he’s more of that throwback tight end for the Bengals, one that can handle himself on the line of scrimmage but might not provide much as a receiver consistently.
Behind those two, who are locks to make the 53-man roster in Cincinnati, names like Thaddeus Moss, Mason Schreck, Pro Wells, Mitchell Wilcox and Cheyenne O’Grady will battle for the third tight end spot and a practice squad job.
Moss and Wells are probably the most notable names there for those reading this. Moss reunites with Burrow, his college QB. Wells has the basketball background and excels downfield but needs a lot of work as a blocker. The name to truly watch though as a deep sleeper is O’Grady, a true move tight end that went undrafted strictly for character concerns coming out of Arkansas.
He’s good after the catch, can line up all over the field and has the ability to hold up as a blocker.
2020 AFC North TE rankings:
No. 1 – Cleveland Browns
No. 2 – Baltimore Ravens
No. 3 – Pittsburgh Steelers
No. 4 – Cincinnati Bengals