Historically, the AFC North has been one of the most difficult divisions to play in, making it quite a gauntlet for teams to get through.
Based on the way the Baltimore Ravens, Cleveland Browns, Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers look on paper ahead of the 2023 season, that will again be the case. That led to Pro Football Focus’ Gordon McGuinness ranking the AFC North as the NFL’s toughest division entering the 2023 season Monday morning.
The AFC North edged out the AFC West and the NFC East — home of the two teams to make it to the Super Bowl last season in the Kansas City Chiefs and Philadelphia Eagles — to land the top spot.
“The Cincinnati Bengals have been to the AFC championship game in each of the past two seasons, falling at the final hurdle against the Los Angeles Rams in the Super Bowl to end the 2021 season. Quarterback Joe Burrow finished with the NFL’s highest PFF passing grade in the regular season and playoffs last year (91.0). Lamar Jackson missed the final six games of the season for the Baltimore Ravens but ended the year with an 85.2 PFF grade, which ranked fifth at the position. With a revamped group of wide receivers featuring Odell Beckham Jr. and first-round draft pick Zay Flowers, they will expect to contend with the Bengals for the division crown,” McGuinness writes for PFF highlighting the perceived top two teams in the division. “Myles Garrett of the Cleveland Browns earned the highest PFF pass-rushing grade in the NFL last season (93.5), but they will need quarterback Deshaun Watson to produce better than his 51.6 PFF passing grade, which ranked 34th of the 36 quarterbacks to record at least 200 dropbacks in 2022. Over the final eight weeks of the season, only three quarterbacks had a higher PFF passing grade than the 82.9 mark produced by Kenny Pickett of the Pittsburgh Steelers, something that will spark hope for a quick turnaround.”
Top to bottom, the AFC North is loaded.
Cincinnati seems to be the top dog, at least currently, thanks to the back-to-back trips to the AFC Championship Game, not to mention the back-to-back AFC North division titles under head coach Zac Taylor.
Having a quarterback the caliber of Joe Burrow, not to mention key pieces like receivers Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins, and defensive pieces like pass rushers Trey Hendrickson and Sam Hubbard, linebacker Logan Wilson and defensive tackle D.J. Reader certainly helps. Cincinnati’s roster is loaded at key positions and has great depth on paper, making the Bengals a formidable foe atop the AFC North.
With the Ravens retaining Lamar Jackson, Baltimore is right up there with Cincinnati, even after an offseason in which there was a lot of turnover on the roster. Along with Jackson back atop the offense, Baltimore added key pieces in wide receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and Zay Flowers this offseason and sees the (hopeful) return to full health for running backs J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards.
Defensively, Baltimore should also see 2022 draft pick in pass rusher David Ojabo get onto the field after suffering a torn Achilles during his Pro Day workout at Michigan last season, which should significantly shore up outside linebacker in the Charm City.
Cleveland again had a strong offseason, though those haven’t quite translated to success on the field. The trade for Za’Darius Smith gives the Browns a two-headed monster at defensive end with Myles Garrett, while quarterback Deshaun Watson enters his second season in Cleveland looking to turn things around after a rather rough stretch in 2022 coming back from suspension.
The Browns had a strong draft despite not picking until the third round due to recent trades for Watson and wide receiver Elijah Moore. They also made savvy free agency moves with the signings of defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson and defensive end Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, shoring up the trenches on the defensive side of the football.
Then there’s the Steelers, who have had the busiest offseason in franchise history, bringing in a number of free agents, including cornerback Patrick Peterson and linebackers Cole Holcomb and Elandon Roberts, plus offensive guard Isaac Seumalo, really overhauled the roster and shored up some major holes. Then, the Steelers had a tremendous draft, landing a number of high-end talents with great value throughout the three-day selection process.
It will all come down to second-year quarterback Kenny Pickett and if he can take a step forward in 2023 though for the Black and Gold. Should he, Pittsburgh will be right there in contention for the AFC North crown.
But, top to bottom, the AFC North is loaded and should be as good as its been in a long, long time, making it an easy choice for PFF’s best — and toughest — division in the NFL ahead of the 2023 season.