With all the attention in the height of downtime in the offseason focusing on the top EDGE debate for Madden ’23, I thought today would be a good day to continue my Ranking the Rooms: AFC North series here at Steelers Depot, focusing on the EDGE rankings within the North.
Like many other positions across the divisional landscape, thinks are pretty close overall – in terms of talent level — at the EDGE position among the Pittsburgh Steelers, Cleveland Browns, Cincinnati Bengals and Baltimore Ravens depth charts. There’s no shortage of star power either, with the reigning Defensive Player of the Year in T.J. Watt, former first overall picks Myles Garrett and Jadaveon Clowney, and emerging standout Trey Hendrickson.
Compared to other divisions in this series, I really had a hard time determining my rankings No. 1-4. The depth of the position groups for all four teams really ended up factoring in here.
Let’s dive in.
1. CLEVELAND BROWNS
This was really hard to write for the second straight season, especially considering what Watt did for the black and gold in 2021. Still, the Browns are absolutely loaded on the edge with Garrett and Clowney pairing as a solid 1-2 punch.
Though Garrett remains despised in the AFC North, particularly in Pittsburgh, due to that incident a few seasons ago, he’s still a remarkable player, one that creates a ton of pressures and can really alter games overall. Garrett quietly had 16.0 sacks last season, but he noticeably struggled in games against the Steelers, particularly against then-rookie left tackle Dan Moore Jr. Some of that can be attested to the Steelers’ quick release in the passing game, but Moore Jr. more than held his own against Garrett.
As for Clowney, the sack numbers haven’t been there in recent seasons, but he’s become a terrific run defender and continues to put pressure on quarterbacks. Sometimes, pressures are more important than sacks.
Behind Clowney and Garrett, I like what the Browns did this offseason, trading for former Patriots’ pass rusher Chase Winovich, and drafting UAB star Alex Wright, giving Cleveland two twitchy athletes with impressive traits overall to develop behind their standout starting duo. Winovich will fit much better in a 4-3 than the 3-4 he was in with the Patriots, while Wright — at 6-foot-7 — brings great length and burst to position off the edge.
Cleveland also has former fourth-round pick and Boise State star Curtis Weaver on the depth chart at defensive end, as well as veterans Isaac Rochell and Stephen Weatherly to work with from a depth perspective.
It’s a very good room overall on the shores of Lake Erie.
2. PITTSBURGH STEELERS
Watt is the best defender in football, bar none. Sometimes that’s not enough in these rankings though. It’s enough to keep the Steelers at No. 2 in the rankings though.
At this point in his career, Watt is on a Hall of Fame pace, putting himself in the discussion as one of the greatest pass rushers in NFL history, let alone Steelers’ history. He’s on pace to reach a number of historic milestones entering his sixth season, which is just absolutely remarkable for the former No. 30 overall pick.
Opposite Watt, I’m genuinely very impressed with the way Alex Highsmith is developing as the full-time starter opposite Watt. He’s become a good pass rusher overall with a handful of moves that work well against NFL tackles, and he’s quietly developed into a strong run defender overall. I’m expecting a big leap forward in Year 3.
Behind those two though, there’s real concern, which ended up being the tiebreaker for me in the race for No. 1 in the rankings. Currently, veteran Genard Avery is pegged as the No. 3 outside linebacker entering the 2022 season. That’s all well and fine overall, but he’s better suited as an off-ball linebacker that creates pressure with blitzes up the gut, not consistently rushing off the edge. Behind Avery, Derrek Tuszka was serviceable in limited snaps in 2021, but he’s known more for his special teams prowess than his play off the edge at this point. The Steelers would be in serious trouble on the edge if Watt or Highsmith dealt with injuries again in 2022.
Veterans Tuzar Skipper and Delontae Scott, and undrafted rookie free agents TD Moultry and Tyree Johnson will compete to push Tuszka or grab a practice squad role this summer.
3. CINCINNATI BENGALS
I was really impressed with Trey Hendrickson in 2021. Coming off of a breakout season in 2020 with the New Orleans Saints, I had concerns that his performance in a contract year was an aberration. He quickly put that to rest in 2021 with the Bengals, racking up a career-high 14.0 sacks as the Bengals made a run to the Super Bowl.
He’s one of the top 15 EDGE defenders in football, that much I have no doubt about. He’s a great building block for the Bengals’ defense.
Along with Hendrickson, I like what the Bengals can offer with a rotation of Sam Hubbard, Joseph Ossai, Khalid Kareem, Wyatt Huber, Noah Spence and rookie Jeff Gunter, a guy I really liked coming out of Coastal Carolina in the 2022 NFL Draft.
Hubbard is quietly a consistent EDGE defender in today’s NFL. He’s sound against the run, plays with great effort, and — when healthy — will give a team 6-8 sacks a season. Ossai is the real wild card here for the Bengals. After missing his entire rookie season last year due to injury, he’s fully healthy this year and gives the Bengals a legitimate pass rush threat to add into the fold.
Kareem, Huber, Spence and Gunter will all battle for backup roles, but all four of them bring interesting traits and experience to the table overall. That should be a terrific position battle to watch in training camp this summer for the defending AFC and AFC North champions.
4. BALTIMORE RAVENS
I was rather down on this position group in Baltimore coming into the 2021 season, but I was thoroughly impressed with the play of Odafe Oweh last season as a rookie making the jump from Penn State as more of an athlete than refined pass rusher. He quickly became a serious threat off the edge for the Ravens in Wink Martindale’s defense, racking up 5.0 sacks in just 615 defensive snaps.
Now, with a full year under his belt, Oweh is poised for a serious breakout in Baltimore.
The Ravens did a nice job bringing back veteran Justin Houston in a limited role once again, while also adding veteran Vince Biegel to the fold, giving Baltimore a pair of experienced pass rushers that can play key snaps as guys like Oweh and rookie Jeremiah Moon develop.
Veteran Tyus Bowser is coming off of a career year with 7.0 sacks and appears to have figured out the NFL game, so he’s another intriguing name to watch for the Ravens.
Still, the depth chart overall leaves outsiders wanting more from the group. Moon is a fun piece to try and develop for a coaching staff due to his size and athleticism, but he feels at least a year or two away from being able to contribute. Outside of the names mentioned to this point, there’s not much to write home about with the Ravens.
Backups Steven Means, Chuck Wiley, and Daelin Hayes will battle for the final OLB spot on the 53-man roster, or a spot on the practice squad. None of those names really moves the needle overall. The true wild card here for the Ravens is rookie David Ojabo.
Ojabo tore his Achilles during his Pro Day at Michigan, causing him to fall to the second round where the Ravens snapped him up. Once he’s healthy, he’ll form a dynamic duo with Oweh, but that’s still a long ways off, at least in football terms. For now, the Ravens very clearly rank fourth in the division at the EDGE position, which isn’t something I could say a few years ago.
2021 AFC North EDGE rankings:
No. 1 – Cleveland Browns
No. 2 – Pittsburgh Steelers
No. 3 – Cincinnati Bengals
No. 4 – Baltimore Ravens