The AFC North sent three teams to the playoffs last year, with the Pittsburgh Steelers winning and both the Baltimore Ravens and the Cleveland Browns qualifying as wildcards. Both of the latter two teams were able to advance a round.
Sending three teams to the playoffs would typically be taken as a good measure of a division’s overall health, and it’s true that the AFC North does have plenty of young talent. In fact, Pro Football Focus believes the AFC North is perhaps he richest division in the league in terms of potential second-year breakout candidates.
A short time ago, they compiled a list of 15 players entering their second season whom they believe can take a significant step forward in 2021. Of the 15, four come out of the AFC North, which every team represented.
The Cincinnati Bengals being on the top off the list should be no surprise, as they have 2020 first-overall pick, quarterback Joe Burrow, on their roster. “If Burrow keeps up his accuracy and decision-making under 20 yards and the rest of his game irons out, he could be a strong contender for a Pro Bowl spot in 2021”, the piece reads on the face of the Bengals’ franchise.
But as mentioned, they’re not the only team in the division represented. The Cleveland Browns come next on the list, represented by first-round tackle Jedrick Wills, who was a plug-and-play starter at left tackle and really helped solidify their line in becoming one of the best in the league.
Though he lacks the same sort of pedigree, the Steelers’ Kevin Dotson is right next to Wills on the list. A fourth-round pick and a non-Combine invitee, the Southern boy is projected to enter the starting lineup full-time at left guard, and there is optimism surrounding him.
Finally, the Ravens get their representation as well, on the defensive side of the ball. Defensive lineman Justin Madubuike is listed 12th on the list, and PFF believes his biggest obstacle in the way of making an impact this season is simply getting enough snaps.
Frankly, there are plenty of other options here. The Steelers alone have wide receiver Chase Claypool and outside linebacker Alex Highsmith, both of whom will be starting. The Ravens have linebacker Patrick Queen and running back J.K. Dobbins. And you can throw in the Bengals’ other receiver, Tee Higgins, who has a chance to take off as well.
In terms of talent level, the AFC North certainly has its share of exciting young players coming up in the ranks, still, it’s been some time since any of them have made it very far in a postseason. Is this the year the division finally represents the AFC in the Super Bowl again?