National Football League

Grading the 2021 NFL Draft: AFC North report cards

May 5

By Rob Rang
FOX Sports NFL Draft Analyst

Every day this week, division by division, I’m taking a close look at each team’s rookie class, including a few of the undrafted free-agent signings I believe could surprise. 

On Monday, we covered the AFC East and NFC East. On Tuesday, we tackled the AFC West and NFC West. Here are my report cards for the four teams in the AFC North.

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Baltimore Ravens — Grade: A-

Even in an unprecedented year such as this one, the Ravens could be counted on to put together a strong draft.

Under the direction of longtime general manager Ozzie Newsome, the Ravens consistently produced strong classes, demonstrating a unique knack for coupling proven players with enough high-upside gambles to keep opponents guessing. That winning formula has not changed at all since Eric DeCosta took the helm.

First-round pick Rashod Bateman is the living embodiment of the first tier of the Ravens’ time-honored strategy. While not the biggest or fastest player on the field, he is a terrific football player, whose sharp route-running and sticky hands complement the speed and size Baltimore already boasts at receiver. It will not take long for him to become Lamar Jackson’s most reliable target.

Fellow first-round pick – edge rusher Jayson Oweh — is the polar opposite, boasting all of the traits to suggest that one day he’ll be an All-Pro. He was a steal with the second-to-last pick of the opening frame.

TJ Houshmandzadeh discusses Jayson Oweh's workhorse mentality.

Gambling on a talent such as Oweh makes sense only if the Ravens have the coaches to coax the talent out from him. Of course, DeCosta knows better than anyone that he does, with defensive coordinator Wink Martindale among the league’s absolute best at developing rushers.

DeCosta circled back with another productive and gritty receiver in Tylan Wallace when he slipped to the fourth round, as well as another twitchy rusher in Daelin Hayes, whose history of shoulder injuries caused him to slip to the late fifth. In between, the Ravens boosted their secondary with two of the bigger and more athletic cornerbacks in this class in Brandon Stephens and Shaun Wade.

DeCosta accomplished all of this while  investing in the most intimidating guard and fullback in the class, with Ben Cleveland and Ben Mason, respectively, while adding a former quarterback-turned-tight end still figuring out the nuances of the position in Tony Poljan and speedy (albeit undersized) safety in Ar’Darius Washington as part of a strong class of undrafted free agents.

Some clubs just get it. The Ravens are one of them – and they have been for a long time.  

Cincinnati Bengals — Grade: C+

Cincinnati took LSU receiver Ja'Marr Chase with the fifth overall pick, but Geoff Schwartz believes the Bengals should have taken an offensive lineman at that spot.

It will be fascinating to review the Bengals' draft three years from now and see if their decision to reunite Joe Burrow with star receiver Ja’Marr Chase at No. 5 instead of taking a generational talent such as Oregon left tackle Penei Sewell (who went seventh overall to Detroit) winds up being the smarter move. There is no denying Chase’s talent or his rapport with Burrow, but the drop-off between Sewell and the Bengals’ second-round pick – offensive lineman Jackson Carman — is notable.

That said, Duke Tobin, the Bengals’ director of player personnel, knows his coaches well, too. Zac Taylor’s offense asks Burrow to make quick decisions and get the ball out of his hands. Carman is absolutely massive and just scratching the surface of his potential, as is the smaller (but much quicker) D’Ante Smith, one of my favorites of the "second-tier tackles" in this class.

The beauty of Taylor’s up-tempo attack is that, at least theoretically, it lessens the need for dominant blockers. As such, the Bengals don’t necessarily need either to emerge as the second coming of Anthony Munoz if Chase makes Cincinnati’s already formidable receiving corps as dangerous as it looks on paper.

The Bengals’ switch to addressing their defensive line throughout the middle and later rounds won’t generate nearly as much attention, but it was necessary after they traded Carlos Dunlap to Seattle late last year and watched top pass-rusher Carl Lawson sign for big money with the Jets.

The Bengals stole blossoming pass-rusher Joseph Ossai in the third round, and Cameron Sample is slippery as well, with the size to play up and down the defensive line. Both play hard but not necessarily at the same pace as seventh-rounder Wyatt Hubert, who is simultaneously a coach’s dream due to his motor and instincts and a scouts’ nightmare, given his stubby, unathletic frame.

Given their investment in divisional rival nose guard Larry Ogunjobi in the offseason and the presence of massive run stuffers DJ Reader and Josh Tupou (who together weigh nearly 700 pounds), the fourth-round pick of LSU’s Tyler Shelvin felt like a bit of a luxury pick, though stuffing the run is paramount in this division.

And if the 6-foot-2, 350-pound Shelvin was maybe a little over the top for a team that finished with four wins a year ago, the fifth-round investment in kicker Evan McPherson could be seen as even more so, especially with 24-year-old Austin Seibert and his respectable 81.6% career accuracy on field goals already on the roster.   

I’m higher on the Bengals’ pair of sixth-rounders — center Trey Hill and running back Chris Evans — than many seem to be, though, admittedly, these should already be positions of strength for the Bengals, given the talent already on the roster. Undrafted free agent Pooka Williams is another back who could help fill the void left by Giovanni Bernard.

Cleveland Browns — Grade: B-

Having "earned" so many early draft picks over the years, Cleveland fans are used to "winning" the draft. This year’s class isn’t one likely to generate as many headlines as those of past years filled with picks from the top of each round, yet GM Andrew Berry did a nice job  complementing one of the league’s best young teams with splashy talent.

The Browns added depth to their defensive back group by selecting Greg Newsome II from Northwestern.

Top picks Greg Newsome II and Jeremiah Owusu-Koromoah are exactly the type of athletes needed on defense to combat clubs attempting to keep pace with the Browns’ dominant running game. Newsome is buttery smooth in coverage and highly confident, which is required, given that he’ll be playing opposite a star in Denzel Ward. Similarly, the speed to the flanks by both JOK and fifth-rounder Tony Fields is the boost in the arm the Browns still needed at linebacker, especially given the versatile runners (including at quarterback) and pass-catchers out of the backfield and at tight end in the AFC North.

I like the blue-collar element that relatively local products James Hudson (Cincinnati) and Tommy Togiai (Ohio State) provide, though both could have a hard time seeing much playing time as rookies.

Similarly, speedy Anthony Schwartz and utility player Demetric Felton have a lot of talent playing ahead of them at receiver in Cleveland, but I do like their unique skill sets as complements to Odell Beckham, Jr. (who is, of course, coming off a torn ACL) and Jarvis Landry, giving opponents plenty to think about before committing too much at the line of scrimmage in an effort to slow down the Browns’ dominant running game.

Pittsburgh Steelers — Grade: C+

If the Steelers had worries about the immediate future of Ben Roethlisberger, they did not show it in 2021 NFL Draft, doubling down on Big Ben with the selection of Alabama running back Najee Harris in the first round and ignoring one of the best quarterback classes this century, including in undrafted free agency.

It is difficult to guess at this point if it will be Steelers or fantasy football fans who will love the powerful, elusive and pass-catching Harris more. 

Pittsburgh drafted Alabama running back Najee Harris, but Geoff Schwartz thinks the Steelers still have holes upfront.

The analytics crowd, on the other hand, probably didn’t like the selection of Harris in the opening frame, and they were  quick to criticize the selection of Penn State tight end Pat Freiermuth in the second round. Although certainly not in the same stratosphere athletically as the top talent at his position – No. 4 overall pick Kyle Pitts – the burly and soft-handed Freiermuth is the one true all-purpose "Y" tight end in this class and a plug-and-play candidate, as is the underrated Kendrick Green, whom I expect to take over at center for this club with Maurkice Pouncey announcing his retirement last year.

Pittsburgh’s Day 3 was like a lot of the drafts constructed by Kevin Colbert – heavy on physical, dependable players who fit nicely in the scheme but lacking dynamic athletes. Quincy Roche could help a pass rush that will miss free-agent defection Bud Dupree. Buddy Johnson doesn’t play friendly at all, making him perfectly suited to this so-called "black and blue" division.

One of the most recognized names in the industry, Rob Rang has been covering the NFL Draft for more than 20 years, with work at FOX, Sports Illustrated, CBSSports.com, USA Today, Yahoo, NFL.com and NFLDraftScout.com, among others.


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