Much like the running backs rooms in the AFC North, the wide receiver rooms are loaded with big names across the board, featuring names like Ja’Marr Chase, Diontae Johnson and Amari Cooper, not to mention high-ceiling guys in Tee Higgins, Chase Claypool and Rashod Bateman.
While the North profiles as a run-heavy division overall based on the location of the four franchises and the talent at the running back positions across the landscape, the North is truly loaded with receivers who will help once again light up scoreboards and put up stats in bunches each and every week in the NFL.
That said, unlike the running back rooms rankings I put together earlier in the week for Steelers Depot, I didn’t have much of a tough time at all ranking the receivers in the AFC North, as it appears pretty cut and dry overall, despite the amount of talent spread out within the division.
Let’s dive in.
1. CINCINNATI BENGALS
Another year, another top ranking for the Cincinnati Bengals here in this exercise. Even before they added the sensation that is Ja’Marr Chase last season with the fifth overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, I felt the Bengals’ receiving corps was the best in the division. Adding the Rookie of the Year, who happened to set a bunch of new NFL receiving records, to the room easily keeps them on top.
Chase is a true nightmare for opposing defenses. He’s a great route runner with elite-level game-breaking speed. He shook off some hands issues in training camp to completely dominate the NFL weekly, helping the Bengals reach the Super Bowl in the second season with Joe Burrow at the helm.
Along with Chase, Tee Higgins is another high-level receiver who is the big, physical threat opposite him, one that has good speed and consistently wins 50/50 balls in the air. He reminds me so much of a young Plaxico Burress in his ability to work vertically and win in the air with impressive body control.
Then there’s Tyler Boyd, the consummate professional. Tough as nails over the middle and impressively reliable, all Boyd does is produce when called upon. Though his numbers have dipped in recent seasons, he remains a high-level slot receiver.
Depth is pretty sound for the Bengals here as well. Stanley Morgan is a solid special teams player for the Bengals and can handle a number of roles on offense when called upon, while Mike Thomas brings a bunch of NFL experience to the table. Trent Taylor provides the return abilities on special teams, which has kept him in Cincinnati the last two years.
Names like Jaivon Hieligh, Kendrick Pryor and Pooka Williams Jr. are names to watch as undrafted free agent receivers. Hieligh was considered one of the top route runners in the draft class out of Coastal Carolina, while Williams was a former running back at Kansas who is making the switch to receiver.
2. PITTSBURGH STEELERS
A top two of Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool is a very solid starting point overall for the Steelers at the receiver position. Despite consistently putting up impressive numbers year after year, Johnson continues to be relatively underrated, in terms of how he rates league wide.
Johnson remains one of the very best route runners and separators in the NFL, one that consistently finds himself open and has handled a heavy share of the target during his time in Pittsburgh.
Claypool had an exceptional rookie season before falling off a bit in 2021, dealing with some struggles overall. He appears geared up for a big third season though. With his combination of height, weight and speed, he’s an obvious mismatch. If he taps into his potential, the Steelers could be at the top of this list next season.
Along with Johnson and Claypool, rookies George Pickens and Calvin Austin III provide high-ceiling talent as depth options in the Steel City. Pickens could prove to be the steal of the draft at the receiver position, while Austin III is the ideal weapon in the slot for a Matt Canada-led offense.
Anthony Miller and Myles Boykin are intriguing veteran options, while Gunner Olszewski is the special teams ace of the group. Names like Tyler Snead, Steven Sims, and Cody White are potential practice squad guys but will be worth monitoring in the preseason.
3. CLEVELAND BROWNS
The Browns saw a bit of transition at the receiver position in recent years after the release of Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry. However, the Browns moved quickly to add a star receiver to the fold in Amari Cooper, getting him in a trade with the Dallas Cowboys involving only draft compensation, making for a bit of a steal.
When healthy, Cooper is a great route runner and has terrific hands. Problem is, he’s always dealing with some sort of ailment, and that might get a bit worse in Cleveland, where it’s cold and windy in half the home games. He’s a great talent when on the field though, that much is certain.
Donovan Peoples-Jones appears poised for a breakout in his third season in the NFL, having produced as a receiver in 2021, showing consistent hands and big-play ability. How he handles a true starting role moving forward remains to be seen, but hopes are high in Cleveland. The same goes for second-year pro Anthony Schwartz, who is one of the fastest receivers in football. With his home run speed, he could be a Will Fuller-type player for the Browns whenever new quarterback Deshaun Watson sees the field.
The Browns also invested some draft capital in names like David Bell and Michael Woods, while also signing Isaiah Weston and Mike Harley Jr. as UDFAs this season. Bell struggles to separate consistently, but he’s very much like JuJu Smith-Schuster out of the slot, which will work well in Cleveland.
Woods, Weston and Harley Jr. are all developmental pieces, but if they can hit, the Browns quickly reshaped their room overall.
Veterans Jakeem Grant Jr. and Javon Wims remain on the roster and will battle for spots. Grant is an exceptional special teams player, while Wims has carved out a career as a gunner, coverage unit player and a sound blocker when on the field.
4. BALTIMORE RAVENS
The Ravens came in last ahead of the 2021 season and remain there this year after trading Marquise “Hollywood” Brown for a first-round draft pick, let Sammy Watkins leave in free agency and also cut Myles Boykin, who eventually landed with the Steelers.
2021 first-round pick Rashod Batemen remains and is poised for a huge season in 2022, but he has to first prove he can be a true No. 1 after he caught 46 passes for 515 yards and one touchdown in 2021.
Behind Bateman, the Ravens have some intriguing names, but it’s going to be tough sledding for Lamar Jackson through the air.
Tylan Wallace and James Proche remain names to watch at receiver, while Devin Duvernay should take a significant step forward in 2022 now that his role has expanded offensively. Those three are solid veterans overall with bright futures, should they be utilized.
Baltimore did bring in rookie free agents Makai Polk, Shemar Bridges, Slade Bolden, Trevon Clark, Devon Williams and Raleigh Webb in an effort to throw as much at the wall as possible, but outside of Polk there’s not much intrigue there. Instead, they’re going to need young players Binjimen Victor and Jaylon Moore to take a step forward, and Bateman, Wallace, Proche and Duvernay to assume larger roles and realize their talents.
It’s not pretty, but it might not matter much for Baltimore, which loves to run the football at a high rate.
2021 AFC North WR rankings:
No. 1 – Cincinnati Bengals
No. 2 – Pittsburgh Steelers
No. 3 – Cleveland Browns
No. 4 – Baltimore Ravens