With the start of the regular season (for most teams) just over 24 hours away, it’s time to take one last look at how things stack up. Last week I ranked the division by offensive position, this week I’ll close things out with defense and special teams. We’ll start with the line and then work our way back before finishing with kickers and punters. One note to start: I decided to condense the defensive line and linebackers into a front 7 group. This was to due to each team running different schemes, a 3-4 defense only sees 3 defensive linemen compared to the 4 in a 4-3, so the numbers may skew what is supposed to be a talent-based assessment. Condensing everything to front 7 nullifies that for the most part.
1. Bengals: If this list were covering the D-linemen specifically, the Cincinnati Bengals would have won easily. Ranking the front 7 as a whole still sees the same outcome, but with a much smaller disparity. This is a potentially top 5 pass rushing group that more than holds its own against the run. Geno Adkins is one of the best interior pass rushers in the league, sacking the QB 10 times a year ago with an additional 10 hits and 50 hurries to go with it. Next to him, on the edge, is the 2x pro bowler Carlos Dunlap, who’s coming off of 8 sacks of his own. Dunlap had 13.5 sacks just 3 seasons ago and is still very capable of reaching that level again, which could make him and Adkins the most threatening pass rushing D-line duo in the league. Andrew Billings could round out the unit in 3-4 schemes. He’s a largely unproven prospect to this point, but could make his mark with extended saying time in his 3rd year. Michael Johnson is also on the roster as a defensive end, but he’s already been cut and re-signed with rumblings of trust issues between him and the team. Look for Jordan Willis to get the starting nod, with Carl Lawson mixed in on obvious passing downs. At linebacker the Bengals begin to struggle a little more, especially with Vontaze Burfict facing another 4 game suspension. Preston Brown was an offseason pick up that should be able to step in and at least tread water before Burfict returns. Nick Vigil will return from injury to start once again this season. The team has talked about using Carl Lawson at the opposite linebacker spot, but expect Preston Brown to bump there once Burfict returns. They also drafted Malik Jefferson in the 3rd round. He’s an athletic prospect who could develop into a great player, but might not make much of an impact in his rookie year.
2. Ravens: Every team in the division has strengths and weaknesses within their front 7. There are elite pass rushers, highly paid d-linemen, and top-tier middle linebackers scattered throughout the 4 teams. Everyone in the division has the potential to be a top 5 unit, but your Baltimore Ravens are the team worthy of being most excited about. The tandem of Brandon Williams and Michael Pierce return to stuff the interior line. With Williams on the field, the Ravens sport one of the best run defenses in the league. He had some injury problems a year ago, and will be looking to return to another healthy, dominant season. Willie Henry, Brent Urban, and Zach Zeiler will all compete for the third line role and rotational time. CJ Mosley is in a contract year, and while it’s surprising a deal hasn’t been done already, he hasn’t threatened a holdout and has competed every practice. Mosley is one of the best middle linebackers in the league and is criminally underrated. Next to him will be a mixture of Patrick Onwuasor and rookie Kenny Young (who I think is a perfect fit). Finally, at the outside linebacker spot we have a surplus of talent. Terrell Suggs is still playing strong in year 16, finishing his age 35 season with double-digit sacks. Opposite of him, Matt Judon broke out a season ago with 8 sacks of his own. Behind that, our depth is ridiculous. Za’Darius Smith, Tyus Bowser, and Tim Williams all got to the quarterback often in the preseason, and if they all reach their expected potential we should have enough talent to keep our pass rush fresh all the way through the 4th quarter.
3. Steelers: Losing Ryan Shazier definitely hurts Pittsburgh on this list. The injury was shocking and horrific, and leaves the team without their most talented linebacker. Jon Bostic was signed to attempt to fill in. Pittsburgh will be his 5th team since being drafted in the 3rd round in 2013. He has yet to make his mark in the league, but will get a chance as a starter this season. Next to him will be Vince Williams, who just received a contract extension earlier this year. Luckily for the Steelers, the interior linebackers are the weak point of this unit, and they could be much better elsewhere. TJ Watt lived up to the hype immediately to the tune of 7 sacks. He’s entering his second season and will be looking to break out as a potentially elite pass rusher. On the opposite side, Bud Dupree hasn’t lived up to be what the team was expecting to this point, but will have one more chance to prove his worth as a former 1st round draft pick. A world exists where both Dupree and Watt reach their full potential, and that world is a scary one. Of course, another world exists where Dupree continues to underperform and is fazed out in a year as well. On the line, Pittsburgh sports 2 pro bowl caliber players in Stephon Tuitt and Cameron Heyward, who combined for over 100 pressures a season ago. They also have Jason Hargrave, who is a solid nose tackle that’s still early in his career. 4 of the Steelers’ last 8 first round picks were spent on either the defensive line or edge rushers; hey could have been an even better unit, but a few draft misses contributed to them being just average with a ton of potential.
4. Browns: The Browns front 7 isn’t bad per say, but they’re not very good either. The exception to that would be Myles Garrett, 2017’s first overall draft pick. If you ever want to feel bad about yourself, watch an episode of Hard Knocks and catch a glimpse of one of the scenes where Garrett is throwing a shirt on before practice. A guy who’s that big and that jacked shouldn’t be able to move the way he does, he’s an absolute freak of nature. He put up 31 tackles and 7 sacks in his rookie season despite missing 4 games, and will only continue to get better with experience. He’s an absolute nightmare for opposing left tackles and could be an elite rusher throughout his career. Opposite of him is Emmanuel Ogbah, who has shown talent in flashes but hasn’t put it all together for a whole season to this point. Larry Ogunjobi and Caleb Brantley likely round out the line, with rookie Chad Thomas as a rotational piece. Christian Kirksey returns for his 5th year with the team at outside linebacker. He averages over 100 tackles per season to this point but doesn’t offer much as a pass rusher. On the other side of him will be former patriot and second team all pro (2015) Jamie Collins. Joe Schobert is nothing special at the middle linebacker position. The team has some obvious strengths with Garret, Collins, and Kirksey, but don’t thrive either as pass rushers or run defenders. Like every team on the list they have the chance to be great, but they have more potential gaps and questions than the other teams in the division.
1. Ravens: After struggling with depth at the position for years, the Ravens have put a recent focus on improving the position, and their efforts have seemingly paid off. Jimmy Smith is suspended to start the season, so in comes last years 1st round draft pick, Marlon Humphrey. In somewhat limited action, Humphrey looked like the real deal in his rookie season. He’s actually very similar to Jimmy Smith when it comes to his play style and overall build, leading to speculation that he was the contingency plan to begin with. He had growing pains last year, which is to be expected, but more often than not he got the better of the receiver across from him over the course of the game. Starting opposite of him will be Brandon Carr, who was an underrated acquisition a year ago. Most fans will, unfortunately, remember him getting burned repetitively by Antonio Brown last year, but I’m pointing the blame towards Dean Pees more than Carr. He played solid last season and hasn’t missed a start in his career, he’s a strong veteran presence and a worthy starter, especially as a replacement. Tavon Young will return in a slot role after a season lost to injury as well. This position is about 5 or 6 players deep now, and has become one of our strongest positions after being our Achilles heel for a while. Once Jimmy Smith returns our biggest problem will be finding everyone playing time.
2. Bengals: Adam “Pacman” Jones may be gone, but this corner group is still solid. Where they finish this year will depend mostly on the performance of William Jackson III, the Bengals’ 2016 first round draft pick. Jackson missed his entire rookie campaign due to injury, then had to fight for a roster spot in 2017. He started 4th on the depth chart and made his way to starter level by the end of the year, finishing in the top 10 for PFF grades at the position. The Bengals know what they have in Dre Kirkpatrick and Darqueze Dennard, which is a serviceable #2 and #3 CB respectively, but don’t have a clear #1. If Jackson can make the leap and play to the level of a first round draft pick this unit could be a strong one. If he can’t, well, the Bengals could be in trouble. Behind the top 3 guys there isn’t a ton of proven depth. They drafted Darius Phillips, but if someone regresses or goes down with an injury this group could turn into a disaster real fast.
3. Steelers: Joe Haden had a bit of a resurgence a year ago in Pittsburgh. Haden, who was once a premier corner in the league, struggled his last couple of seasons in Cleveland before being acquired by the Steelers and solidifying himself as a starter once again. He’s nowhere near the player he used to be, but he’s far from bad. Opposite of him is Artie Burns, who’s returning for his 3rd year. His development was initially stunted in his rookie year due to an injury in training camp, but he’s made an impact since being named a starter during the 2016 season. While he hasn’t necessarily stood out from the crowd, Burns also hasn’t made a name for making bad plays either. This tandem led the Steelers a year ago when the team allowed the 5th least pass yards in the NFL. With Burns getting more comfortable in the big leagues and Haden having a full off-season under his belt, they could be even better this upcoming year. The main problem here is that Pittsburgh doesn’t have anything impressive outside of these 2. Coty Sensabaugh, Cameron Sutton, and Mike Hilton will all compete for slot and rotational work. With such shallow depth, 1 injury could derail the entire defense.
4. Browns: I simply don’t see this squad being all that good. Denzel Ward is a top 5 draft pick and will have to live up to that level of hype immediately. He’ll have to cover Antonio brown in week 1, which I’m sure will do wonders for his confidence. That said, he was a standout player in college and was the best corner in the draft. He doesn’t play with a ton of strength and has a smaller frame overall, but he does almost everything else incredibly well. On the other side of him will be Terrance Mitchell, the former Chief. Mitchell won the job over everyone else in camp, which essentially tells you everything you need to know about the group. Mitchell is fine as maybe a nickel or dime sub, but having him as an every-down player probably won’t go well. The reports on him are great coming out of Browns camp, so maybe he’s clicked and is playing at a different level, but until I see him play this season I have to assume he’s a liability. The only other notable player in the unit is EJ Gaines. He’s coming off of an injury in the preseason and isn’t likely to play week 1, but if he can get on the field and be healthy he could certainly compete for significant playing time.
1. Ravens: The Ravens have one of the best safety tandems in the entire league. Eric Weddle was a multi-time pro bowler with the Chargers before continuing an elite level of play with the Ravens for the past couple of seasons. Tony Jefferson was arguably the biggest defensive pickup of the off-season a year ago. At times he underperformed, but I’m adamant about the defensive scheme not being a fit for him. Hopefully, he can find a way to return to the level of play he saw in his final year in Arizona. When they’re at their best, there’s no doubt in my mind that Weddle and Jefferson are easily the best safeties in the division. Behind them, we have both Anthony Levine and Chuck Clark as depth and rotational options. They’re both hybrid players and could play in multiple positions on the defense while also contributing to special teams. The one thing this group lacks is a conventional ball-hawking free safety. Truthfully, we haven’t had that on the team since Ed Reed left in 2013. Sure, Eric Weddle had 6 interceptions a season ago, but that’s probably about where his ceiling is, and it’s not necessarily indicative of his strengths. Both he and Jefferson play a similar style where they thrive closer to the box and as tacklers overall. It’s not ideal to have one of them play a deep zone, but they both showed to be capable of doing so a year ago. I have hope that a change in defensive philosophy will get the best out of our players, and I expect Jefferson to make the biggest leap. An already strong position from a year ago could get even better.
2. Browns: The Browns have an interesting experiment going on at safety right now. Jabrill Peppers was an early draft pick from a year ago and should be starting at one of the safety positions. He was an absolute playmaker in college, but there were concerns about his size coming into the league. He’s a bit of a tweener, he’s too small to play linebacker but doesn’t have the ball skills or instincts to be a typical safety. The Browns decided to take a shot on a gifted athlete with the hopes of coaching him up to be a true starter. He’ll be tested this year even more than he was a year ago. Next to him will be Demarious Randall, who the Packers drafted in the first round of 2015 as a cornerback. Randall flashed some playmaking ability and solid hands in Green Bay before being traded to Cleveland this off-season. The Browns are hoping a move to safety brings out the best in Randall, who is an early favorite to lead the team in interceptions. The Browns also have Derrick Kindred as a depth option. He’s better as a run defender than a coverage guy, but could see action in substitution packages throughout the year. They’ve also converted cornerback Briean Boddy-Calhoun to safety. If Randall or Peppers prove to be disastrous for whatever reason the Browns are likely comfortable with inserting Kindred as the starter again, but the 2 of them have the potential to be special, and if everything clicks they could become an exciting duo to watch.
3. Bengals: To be honest with you, I’m not sure who has the worst safety group between Cincinnati and Pittsburgh. They both have a potentially huge hole here, so what it essentially came down to is which of the rookie starters I liked more. Jessie Bates may have been drafted a full round earlier, but I think he’s a more complete player overall. He should be able to hang with the slot receivers while also providing decent run coverage. He plays hard every play, and when he gets the ball in his hands he’s electric. That said, he’s a bit slim, and I’d be worried about injury potential if he doesn’t bulk up or start hitting smarter. His college tape is fun to watch, but with everyone in the NFL being much bigger and faster it’ll be interesting to see how he adjusts to the pro level. Next to him will be Shawn Williams who is evidently rising as a “leader” for the Bengals defense. Take that for what it is (not much). He hasn’t particularly proven himself thus far, but he’ll get a chance to quickly. He’s being thrusted into the starting role after the Bengals released long-time starting safety George Iloka seemingly out of nowhere.
4 Steelers: Not great. The Steelers used a first round draft pick on Terell Edmunds, who appears to have won the starting job for now. If nothing else, he’ll be splitting time and rotating with Morgan Burnett. Edmunds would be best utilized covering bigger receivers or playing man coverage on tight ends. He’s a liability as a tackler, but his coverage skills make up for it for the most part. He’s quick, fast, and an all-around decent athlete. The consensus leading into the draft was that he’d be a late 3rd – early 4th round talent, so it was a pretty big stretch for Pittsburgh to take him in the first. Maybe they see something no one else does. Sean Davis is starting at Free Safety. He’s coming off of a good season, where he recorded over 100 total tackles and picked the ball off 3 times. He’s heading into his 3rd season and if he continues to improve he could develop into one of the league’s better safeties. Terell Edmunds and Sean Davis certainly have the potential to grow together and become a great duo, but I don’t think that happens immediately and expect a lot of growing pains in 2018.
1. Ravens: I’ll keep these short now. Justin Tucker is the easy winner, he may be the best kicker in NFL history and has just about every stat to back that claim up. He’s struggled in the preseason, so that might be something to keep an eye on, but he’s been automatic inside of 55 yards for as long as I can remember.
2. Steelers: Chris Boswell was selected as the AFC’s pro bowl kicker a season ago. I think he got there from the Steelers’ overall popularity and not because he was better than Tucker, but that doesn’t take away from the great season he put up. He’s up there as one of the most accurate kickers in NFL history and is technically within striking distance of Tucker, but his average length of kick is a lot shorter. Boswell seems to struggle on easy field goals and extra points, but has no problem with longer kicks for whatever reason. He’s one of the best in the league today for sure.
3. Bengals: Randy Bullock is pretty average, which makes him look awful in comparison to the 2 ahead of him. He has a career FG percentage of just over 80% which is good enough, and has missed only 6 of his 134 extra point attempts. Nothing about Bullock particularly stands out, which I guess isn’t bad for most kickers.
4. Browns: Zane Gonzalez is entering his second season in the league. He wasn’t horrendous last year, but he was definitely far from great. He was 15/20 on field goals and 25/26 on extra points. It’d be pretty tough to put a second-year kicker anywhere but last on this list, but as long as Gonzalez doesn’t do anything awful this should be his job throughout the season.
1. Ravens: If you thought the kicker section was exciting you’ll love this one. Sam Koch is the best punter in the division and one of the most underrated in the league today. He’s a pioneer of some of the techniques that are catching on today, particularly the backward spin. Kicking the front of the football causes it to roll back towards the punter when it makes contact with the ground, and has become a popular technique in the recent years. It has helped Koch place punts inside the 20 with regularity as well. He combines a strong foot with coffin corner accuracy. He also sports a perfect completion percentage, which is a useless fun fact you could tell someone at the bar. 4 for 4, 48 yards. Have at it.
2. Browns: Yeah, at this point things get jumbled up again. Britton Colquitt has moderately better overall stats compared to the rest of the list, and he has a decently long playing career. He led the league in punt yards in 2011, and if the Browns manage to play at the same level they have the past 2 seasons he’ll have a chance to do it again. This will be his 3rd year with the team, and they don’t have any complaints about him yet. The punter they had before him, Spencer Lanning, once got kicked in the face by Antonio Brown on a return, so as long as Colquitt can continue to avoid that he’s probably in the clear.
3. Bengals: Kevin Huber has been in the league for 10 years now and has even been to a pro bowl. His main tool is his kick power, he’s launched a ball over 70 yards on 3 separate occasions. He has a career average of 45.2 yards per punt, and that’s actually been steadily increasing over the past handful of years. I didn’t dock him for this but I figured it was interesting enough: Huber has 3 career rushes for a total of -1 yard and 2 fumbles. Not positive if that coincides with the 4 times he’s had a punt blocked, but if not they should never run whatever trick play that is again.
4. Steelers: Jordan Berry isn’t bad at all, he just hasn’t proven himself compared to the others on the list. This is only his 4th year, so we’ll have to see what his longevity is like. He has a career-long punt of 79 though, which is a really long kick. Before Berry, the Steelers had Brad Wing as their punter, and he looked like a complete tool. Berry doesn’t and he’s Australian which is a moderately cool story.
And there it is, the complete list is done! The season for the AFC North officially begins tomorrow, so it’s only a matter of time before I look either really smart or really dumb with these ranks. Regardless of the outcome, thank you for taking the time to read and stay tuned in to the website for more great Ravens coverage.