While the AFC North is known for its star power at QB, the division is often overlooked when it comes to the depth and high-end talent at receiver top to bottom.
Though some names have come and gone over the years, there’s still a number of top names at the position that really move the needle at the position in the AFC North.
Things may not change much, if at all, in my Ranking the Rooms: AFC North WRs piece this year compared to 2020, but everything is much closer this year, especially at the bottom as teams are doing everything possible to help supplement their franchise QBs.
Previously, I’ve ranked the AFC North QBs and RBs.
Let’s dive into the 2021 Ranking the Rooms: AFC North WRs edition.
1. Cincinnati Bengals
I said this last year and I stick with it this year.
Though the Bengals’ receiving room didn’t quite live up to my lofty expectations last year with the top slot in the rankings, the group somehow got better on paper with the selection of LSU star receiver Ja’Marr Chase fifth overall in the 2021 NFL Draft.
Pairing Chase — an elite route runner with top-end speed, physicality, and versatility to line up anywhere on the field — with guys like Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins on paper is cooking with gas. That’s a fantastic trio of receivers to roll out onto the field and force defenses to try and stop.
Boyd continues to be slept on across the league as a top 25 receiver who works primarily in the slot and consistently creates separation on a full route tree. He’s tough as nails, too, and is the perfect security blanket for Burrow.
Then there’s Higgins, who burst onto the scene as a rookie in 2020, finishing with 908 yards receiving and six touchdowns on 67 receptions. He’s big, physical, runs like a gazelle and has a massive catch radius.
That trio is just fun.
Behind those three, names like Auden Tate, Mike Thomas, Stanley Morgan and Trent Taylor provide veteran depth and versatility, giving the Bengals an answer at every position should injuries pop up.
2. Pittsburgh Steelers
People continue to be down on JuJu Smith-Schuster as a true No. 1, and that’s fine.
What he is though is an elite third-down receiver that consistently moves the chains and makes the tough plays across the middle of the field, which was a massive help to the Steelers’ offense in 2020.
Yes, he hauled in 97 passes last year, and yes his average yards per catch was a paltry 8.6 yards. A lot of that had to do with the system and the need to get the ball out quickly due to poor pass protection. I’m betting his numbers rise to a very respectable level once again in 2021.
After Smith-Schuster, Diontae Johnson, James Washington and Chase Claypool give the Steelers a solid 1-4 overall.
Johnson is a terrific route runner, but he struggles to consistently catch the football, which really reared its ugly head last season, leading to a benching. When he’s on though, he’s almost impossible to cover and is a YAC monster.
Claypool emerged as a star in the making last season, serving as a true vertical threat for the Steelers while also excelling as a blocker. He needs to do a bit more after the catch in 2021 and needs to start hauling in some of the deep shots that bounced off of his hands in contested-catch situations last year, but the makings of a top 20 receiver are there without a doubt.
As for Washington, he just quietly goes about his business, is as tough as they come, and rarely — if ever — drops the football. I’d like to see him get more work in Pittsburgh, but there’s only one football to go around.
Ray-Ray McCloud is slotted in as the fifth receiver and kick/punt returner in Pittsburgh. He could see more offensive work under new offensive coordinator Matt Canada, who wants to create mismatches everywhere on the field. With McCloud’s speed and vision, he could be a fun offensive piece to experiment with.
Behind though five, names like Rico Bussey, Isaiah McKoy, Anthony Johnson, Tyler Simmons, Matthew Sexton, and Cody White will all battle for a couple of roster spots. I like McKoy a ton with his size, speed and contested catch abilities. Keep an eye on Sexton, though. He’s shifty, fast, and can play in the slot or on the boundary. He has kick return abilities too.
3. Cleveland Browns
Last year I raised some eyebrows with the Browns’ WR room No. 3 in this list, considering they had Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. on the roster.
This year, I’m doing the same thing.
Yes, Landry and Beckham Jr. — when healthy — are outstanding receivers. But Beckham Jr. is coming back from a torn ACL and has been relatively inconsistent in Cleveland as the Browns struggle to figure out how to properly use him. Landry is fantastic in the slot and one of the hardest receivers to tackle after the catch. He’s perfect in the play-action, run-heavy offense Cleveland runs.
But behind those two, there’s a lot of inconsistency.
I love Rashad Higgins; he’s an awesome No. 3. But he’s so up and down that you never quite know what you’re getting week to week. He’s flashed the ability to be a good No. 2 when called upon. He really needs targets to get in a groove, and there’s not many to go around in Cleveland.
Donovan Peoples-Jones had a strong rookie season, finishing with 14 catches, 204 yards and two scores in limited action. As a possible No. 3, he could make a big jump this season.
Familiar face Ryan Switzer appears to possibly have the inside track for the No. 5 job after a full off-season with the Browns, giving them another slot option. Names like KhaDarel Hodge, JoJo Natson, and Derrick Willies could battle it out with Switzer for the No. 5 and No. 6 WR jobs.
4. Baltimore Ravens
I used the word “meh” to describe the Ravens’ receiver room last season.
The play on the field in 2020 backed up my take.
Entering 2021 though, no receiver room has undergone a larger transformation than the Ravens. Though it still ranks dead last in my series, the Ravens’ room is trending in the right direction in a hurry.
Baltimore grabbed standout receiver Rashod Bateman in the first round, giving Lamar Jackson a bonafide No. 1-type talent at the position, and added veteran Sammy Watkins in free agency, getting him late in the process after striking out on signing guys like Smith-Schuster and T.Y. Hilton.
After drafting Bateman, the Ravens also drafted Oklahoma State star Tylan Wallace, giving Baltimore another deep threat who has some juice after the catch, completely rebuilding the position around incumbent No. 1 Marquise Brown.
Now, the Ravens have a strong five of Bateman, Brown, Watkins, Wallace, and Miles Boykin. Behind that five, there’s a ton of names to like, which will put the Ravens in a roster crunch considering there’s only so much space for guys like James Proche II, Devin Duvernay, Jaylon Moore and former Steeler Deon Cain.
With a rebuilt receiving corps, there’s really no excuse for the Ravens’ passing game this season unless injuries decimate it.
2020 AFC North WR rankings:
No. 1 – Cincinnati Bengals
No. 2 – Pittsburgh Steelers
No. 3 – Cleveland Browns
No. 4 – Baltimore Ravens