The AFC North has been known historically for its running backs and pass rushers, at least in the last few decades. Not to be overlooked though is a historically great group of off-ball linebackers who also fit right into that mix, thanks to previous names like Ray Lewis, James Farrior, Andra Davis, and Takeo Spikes holding down the middle of AFC North defenses in the early 2000s.
Like the running backs and pass rushers, that trend seemed to be slowly returning in the tough AFC North, albeit with a different breed of linebackers to meet today’s wide-open, fast-paced offenses, at least ahead of the 2021 season. Instead, some key figures in the division regressed, while a few emerged as potential standouts.
That’s lots of work that remains at the off-ball linebacker position in the AFC North for all four teams. Two are much further along than the other two though, which made this position group easier to rank, in terms of teams and depth charts.
Let’s dive in.
1. CINCINNATI BENGALS
The Bengals take a significant step forward here in the rankings, jumping from No. 3 to No. 1 ahead of the 2022 season, thanks — in part — to the emergence of Logan Wilson into the ideal linebacker in today’s game, one that plays the run well and is a high-level coverage defender.
Wilson stepped into a starting role in 2021 and took off, recording 100 tackles, 1.0 sacks, one fumble recovery and four interceptions, adding 30 tackles and an interception in the Bengals’ run to the Super Bowl in his breakout season. He looks like the perfect fit in today’s game at the position for a long time moving forward.
Along with Wilson, the Bengals are in great position at the linebacker spot. Germaine Pratt, a guy I liked quite a bit coming out of North Carolina State a few years ago, found his game in 2021, recording a career high in tackles, hauled in an interception, recorded half a sack and had the lowest missed tackle rate of his career next to Wilson.
I also really liked what I saw from Akeem Davis-Gaither and Markus Bailey in 2021 as both stood out on special teams, and played well in limited action when on the field in the Bengals’ base 4-3 defense. Depth player Joe Bachie, Clay Johnston and Keandre Jones also handled special teams snaps last season and showed signs they could handle some snaps defensively in a pinch.
The Bengals did a nice job landing rookie undrafted free agent Carson Wells to mix as well. He was a Shrine Bowl guy that looked good rushing the passer in Las Vegas, and he runs very well in coverage, looking rather comfortable in space.
This is a strong position group overall just a few years after being the division’s worst by a wide margin.
2. CLEVELAND BROWNS
The Browns drop a spot ahead of the 2022 season after trading away Mack Wilson, and seeing some struggles from Sione Takitaki in 2021. Still, Cleveland has what looks to be the next great linebacker in the division in Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, whom I was very high on coming out of Notre Dame in the 2021 NFL Draft.
He’s one of the most athletic linebackers in football, tackles very well and coverages so much ground sideline to sideline against the run and the pass. He’s a freak, to say the least, and he looked like it late in his rookie season once he made the full adjustment to the pro game.
Joining JOK in the linebacker room in Cleveland, Anthony Walker Jr. was quietly an underrated signing last season, getting him away from Indianapolis. He stepped into a leadership role with the Browns and was re-signed in the offseason, keeping a solid defender in the mix next to the young star. Walker quietly goes about his business, tackles well and is good in coverage.
Takitaki took a step back in 2021, but he’s still a great athlete at the position and tends to be around the football a lot in space due to that athleticism. Same with Jacob Phillips, who will step into an elevated role in 2022 with Wilson trade to the Patriots. Pairing Phillips next to JOK is scary for the next few years.
Behind those four though, the Browns are hurting a bit from a depth perspective. Currently, the Browns have Tony Fields II, Willie Harvey Jr., Silas Kelly and Dakota Allen as depth options. Fields is interesting, as he was a great athlete coming out of West Virginia. He saw limited action in 2021 on special teams, but could take a step forward this season.
3. BALTIMORE RAVENS
Based on Pro Football Focus’s numbers in 2021, Patrick Queen was downright terrible for the Ravens. I saw things in a different light overall. He wasn’t great by any stretch of the imagination, but he is still one of the best young linebackers in football. Even in a down year, he still recorded 98 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, 2.0 sacks, forced one fumble and recovered another.
The Ravens are happy to have him. Many teams would be.
Next to Queen off the ball, the Ravens retained veteran linebacker Josh Bynes for the 2022 season. Bynes played really well in 2021, recording 76 tackles in just 12 starts, adding a career-high two sacks. He’s good against the run, gets off blocks well and can handle himself in space in coverage. He’s a great complement to Queen inside.
Depth is a bit of a concern for the Ravens, though there are a pair of names to like for the purple and black. Malik Harrison enters his third season in the NFL looking to make a mark defensively. Harrison recorded just 25 tackles last season in five starts. He showed flashes at times, but he’s very Cleary the No. 3 inside for Baltimore.
Rookies Zakoby McClain and Josh Ross are very intriguing overall, and should help the Ravens rebuild their depth at the position rather quickly. Ross is a downhill thumper out of Michigan who was a tackling machine, while McClain profiles as a similar player, one with more juice as a blitzer. They will be solid special teams players, at least early on.
Baltimore also has personal favorite Diego Fagot out of Navy at the position. Currently he’s a long-shot to stick on the 53-man roster, but he’s an old-school style linebacker that would fit the Ravens well as a depth and special teams perspective moving forward. Great tackler, great leader. Just plays his tail off.
4. PITTSBURGH STEELERS
This one hurts to write. Just last season when I initially put out the rankings, Pittsburgh was second with expectations high for Devin Bush coming back from injury, and Vince Williams still on the roster.
Since then, Williams retired, Bush took a major step back, Joe Schobert was a failed experiment, and Robert Spillane has struggled to really take advantage of the opportunities. The Steelers are hoping Myles Jack helps solve some of the issues, having signed him to a two-year deal in free agency after he was surprisingly cut by the Jaguars shortly into a four-year extension.
Jack is coming off a rough year as well, so expectations aren’t high overall for the off0ball linebackers in Pittsburgh. That said, if Jack and Bush are right, there’s few duos in the NFL at inside linebacker that are as athletic and rangey as those two are.
Behind Bush, Jack and Spillane, the Steelers are hoping Buddy Johnson takes a big step forward in Year 2 and forces his way onto the field defensively. He’s a freakish athlete for his size, but he really couldn’t get his feet under him as a rookie. Veterans Ulysees Gilbert III and Marcus Allen return as special teams stalwarts at this point in their tenure with the Steelers. I’m most intrigued to see rookie seventh-round pick Mark Robinson in training camp and special teams.
He reminds me of a young Vince Williams. He hits like a truck, has great speed and athleticism for the position. He’ll be brought along slowly due to him playing just one year of linebacker, but he could be quite the find for the Steelers in the long run.
With all that said, this is still a rather rough group to look at, not only for the 2022 season ahead, but beyond. There’s some work to do here.
2021 AFC North Off-Ball LB rankings:
No. 1 – Cleveland Browns
No. 2 – Pittsburgh Steelers
No. 3 – Cincinnati Bengals
No. 4 – Baltimore Ravens