The AFC North is one of the best divisions in the NFL, and there are plenty of storylines to focus on in 2022. The Pittsburgh Steelers have a new quarterback and so do the Cleveland Browns, the Cincinnati Bengals are the reigning AFC champions and the Baltimore Ravens are poised for a rebound season with Lamar Jackson back healthy.
The AFC North could again field multiple playoff teams in 2022, but there are some issues that must be addressed before we get to Sept. 11. Below, we will examine three questions each AFC North team must answer before the start of the new season. Whether it's a position battle or just how the rotation will work at a certain spot, there's plenty to think about. Let's go ahead and jump in.
The Ravens traded Marquise Brown to the Arizona Cardinals on opening night of the 2022 NFL Draft, and haven't made a move to replace him. It's possible Baltimore could add a veteran like T.Y. Hilton, Julio Jones or Will Fuller, but would anyone be surprised if the Ravens marched forward with what they currently have? Rashod Bateman appears to be the new No. 1, although he caught just 46 passes for 515 yards and one touchdowns in 12 games played in his rookie season. Everyone is expecting a big jump in 2022, but will that be enough for this offense? Baltimore has a couple of other young wideouts like Devin Duvernay and James Proche II, but it remains to be seen if they will be legitimate contributors, and how the depth chart shakes out.
One reason the Ravens probably aren't too worried about their wide receiving corps is because of Mark Andrews. His 1,361 receiving yards and 107 receptions in 2021 led all tight ends, as he set the Ravens' franchise record for most receiving yards in a single season. Baltimore also drafted two tight ends in the fourth round of the draft in Charlie Kolar and Isaiah Likely, and they should both play a role in Greg Roman's scheme when it comes to catching the football. Keep an eye on how the Ravens use the tight end position this year.
OL starters/depth chart
How important is the offensive line in Baltimore? General manager Eric DeCosta said this offseason that whenever he asks his quarterback how he can help, Jackson always responds with "offensive line." This unit as a whole should be better in 2022, but that doesn't mean all of the starters are set. There's a legitimate position battle at left guard, as Tyre Phillips, Ben Powers, Ben Cleveland and Patrick Mekari will likely fight for the right to start there. You should also keep an eye on right tackle. Morgan Moses is an underrated veteran who should start at that position, but the Ravens will have to make a tough decision if star left tackle Ronnie Stanley isn't ready for the season opener. Baltimore has an intriguing rookie in 6-foot-8 Daniel Faalele, and then a forgotten player in former first-round pick Ja'Wuan James, who has been hampered by injuries and has played in just three games over the last three seasons. This position group should be improved in 2022, but what will the depth chart look like?
Clarity on Lamar Jackson
By now, everyone understands that Jackson is up for a lucrative extension, but he hasn't exactly been champing at the bit for it. The Browns took a brick of C-4 to the quarterback market this offseason, gifting Deshaun Watson a fully-guaranteed $230 million deal. If a quarterback currently in the midst of off-field issues is worth that much, how much is a former NFL MVP worth?
I'm not saying the Ravens absolutely have to sign Jackson to an extension before the start of the season, but if I'm DeCosta or John Harbaugh, I want more clarity on this situation. Is Jackson going to hold out of training camp? Does he genuinely expect to play for the Ravens for the rest of his career?
Jessie Bates situation
Oh boy. The July 15 deadline for franchise-tagged players to sign long-term deals has come and gone, and according to CBS Sports NFL Insider Josina Anderson, Bates has no intention to report to training camp or play on the franchise tag in 2022. Will he force his way out of the Queen City? He basically has three options at this point: sign and play on the tag, sit out or request a trade. There's plenty of optimism surrounding this franchise entering 2022, but this is a rogue dark cloud lingering in otherwise sunny Cincy skies.
Defensive back playing time
There are a couple of position battles we could talk about when it comes to the Bengals, but it's hard not to be intrigued by the secondary. Speaking of Bates, is having Daxton Hill in the wings something that could end up helping facilitate a trade? Regardless, he's a first-round pick. Hill is going to get playing time somewhere, whether that's at safety or nickel.
At cornerback, is it possible second-round pick Cam Taylor-Britt starts over Eli Apple? He struggled in the Super Bowl, and allowed both of Cooper Kupp's touchdowns -- including the game-winner late in the fourth quarter. There's competition all over the secondary for the Bengals, which is a good thing.
How will Zac Taylor up the ante?
The Bengals' 2021 campaign was magical, but last year was last year. It's now about what you do moving forward, and Cincinnati will have to prove that its Super Bowl run wasn't simply this franchise catching lightning in a bottle. The Bengals have all the talent necessary to make another run, but it's up to Zac Taylor and this coaching staff to further establish the culture they want for this group.
Super Bowl hangovers can be a real thing -- for the winning or losing side. The San Francisco 49ers lost the Super Bowl a couple years ago, and then went 6-10 the next year. The Kansas City Chiefs lost the Super Bowl just last year, and got off to a terrible start before rebounding later in the regular season, only to blow a lead to the Bengals in the AFC Championship game. It certainly was not their most successful campaign.
All 32 NFL teams deal with adversity at some point in the season. What's coach Taylor going to do in the preseason to prepare this team for heightened expectations?
Adding a defensive tackle
The Browns have two star defensive ends in Myles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney, but the defensive tackle position isn't exactly a strength. Jordan Elliott and Taven Bryan are probably the two favorites to start, but there are conflicting reports about the Browns expressing interest in former Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. Adding Suh, or a veteran like him, could be a good idea.
Exploring options at wide receiver
Cleveland's wide receiver depth chart has some nice talent with Amari Cooper, Donovan Peoples-Jones and rookie David Bell, but the rest of the group is filled out by young talent with some veteran reserves thrown in. The Browns probably aren't the dream location for a veteran wide receiver with Watson expected to miss time due to suspension, but no one has more available cap space than the Browns at this point. They can afford any receiver they want on a one-year deal if there's mutual interest. Jacoby Brissett went 2-3 as a starter for the Miami Dolphins last year, but the Browns could make their offense better as a unit just by adding established talent at wide receiver. Maybe Odell Beckham Jr. isn't on their list, but T.Y. Hilton, Julio Jones, Will Fuller, Cole Beasley and Emmanuel Sanders are some names that could perk up fans' ears.
Adding a QB
We are all expecting Watson to be suspended for a certain amount of games, but we aren't sure about that number yet. If Watson were to miss a significant amount of time, Cleveland could sign a quarterback to back up Brissett, according to Cleveland.com. This isn't an incredibly pressing issue, but it does make for an intriguing situation for Joshua Dobbs. Why wouldn't the Browns just move forward with Brissett and Dobbs? Who would Cleveland sign? Maybe someone like A.J. McCarron? Could Jimmy Garoppolo find himself in Cleveland? Probably not, but general manager Andrew Berry has some decisions to make.
This is an obvious one. The Steelers will conduct the most interesting quarterback battle this offseason between Mitchell Trubisky and Kenny Pickett. Mason Rudolph is in the mix as well. If I had to predict a winner, I'm going to go with Trubisky. Pittsburgh clearly targeted him, agreeing to terms with the former No. 2 overall pick on a two-year deal about an hour into the league's legal tampering period back in March. But here's the thing: Even if Trubisky starts Week 1, the battle isn't over. He's going to have to perform well, or Mike Tomlin will go to the rookie. Coach Tomlin has never fielded a sub-.500 team, and he isn't going to start now.
JuJu Smith-Schuster is no longer with the team, but the Steelers still have some intriguing wide receivers on roster. Chase Claypool and Diontae Johnson will be the top two, but how will things shake out behind them? George Pickens and Calvin Austin III are two rookies who could make immediate impacts, but the Steelers also have some veterans in Miles Boykin and Anthony Miller among others. All eyes will be on these wide receivers in training camp, as they jockey for position on the depth chart.
Left guard starter
The offensive line is going to be important for the Steelers this year. They have a new center in Mason Cole and a new right guard in James Daniels, but the left guard starter hasn't been decided just yet. Kevin Dotson is probably the favorite, but he played just nine games last season before an ankle injury landed him on injured reserve. Kendrick Green, who played center last season for the Steelers, is the other contender. The third-round pick out of Illinois had a tough rookie season, but he's just 23-years-old and is probably better suited as a guard.