NFL Players With the Most To Prove in 2021: AFC North Edition
Continuing his series of articles travelling around the NFL, Nick Deal checks in on the AFC North today and singles out players and coaches for whom the 2021 season is of utmost importance.
By Nick Deal.
Whether it's ensuring themselves a bumper payday next Spring, proving to themselves and the doubters that they can remain injury free or simply needing to improve their output to stay on their current team, this series of articles will look at those who have the most to lose (and in some cases gain) in 2021.
Jump to: AFC West
Cleveland Browns – The Browns have been heralded by most as having one of the better off seasons and all of a sudden, they are being touted as one of the most talented rosters in the NFL; a case that is hard to argue against.
They added Troy Hill and John Johnson from the Los Angeles Rams to add to a secondary room that looks as heavily filled out as anywhere else in the league. They added D-Line veterans Takk McKinley, Malik Jackson and Jadeveon Clowney to lineup alongside one of the league’s elite pass rushers in Myles Garrett.
They have the league’s best backfield one-two punch in Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. The receiver group is incredibly talented as long as Odell Beckham Jr can stay healthy. The offensive line is incredibly solid. It’s all set up for success. It might be simplistic to say, but despite the strength of the roster elsewhere, it feels like the Cleveland Browns will go as far as Baker Mayfield will take them.
The expectation is that Mayfield and the Browns will agree to a long-term extension at some point this summer but there is also the lingering notion that they might wait a little while into the 2021 season to see what Mayfield brings to the field in the early weeks of the season. Mayfield is one of the league’s most frustrating quarterbacks to watch.
All the talent is there, and he produces some incredible highlight plays throughout the course of the season, but it’s the week-to-week production that has left some still wondering. He created a reputation for himself in the first two years of his professional career of giving up easy turnovers, reading the game poorly and attempting kamikaze throws as a result. He gave up 35 interceptions in his first two years, averaged 27th in the league for completion % and 25th in the league for QBR.
His 2020 season was a marked improvement though. He seemingly began to process the field a lot better and was able to cut out a lot of the mistakes that dominated his game in the earlier two years. It still wasn’t the type of season that makes his extension a sure-fire thing, he still sat at 30th for completion %, but he managed to drag himself up to sit comfortably in the middle of the pack from a statistical standpoint elsewhere.
Perhaps most importantly though, he led Cleveland to their first winning season since 2007 and first playoff appearance since 2002. The Browns and their fandom have long suffered as being the butt of the joke, but the 2020 season lifted a huge psychological barrier. The problem for the Browns and Baker Mayfield is that they share a conference with Josh Allen, Lamar Jackson and most notably, Patrick Mahomes.
Mayfield and the Browns came up against Mahomes in last season's Divisional round. In the third quarter, with over seven minutes left on the clock and with the Chiefs leading 19-10, Mahomes suffered a nasty concussion injury that ruled him out for the rest of the game. The Baker-led Browns could only muster seven more points and subsequently lost. It begs the question, if the Browns can’t beat the Chad Henne led Chiefs, is Baker ever going to lead them to a victory against the Mahomes-led Chiefs?
Mayfield has the perfect opportunity to silence the doubters and prove that he deserves that extension in a revenge game in week one of the 2021 season.
Others to Watch: Jadeveon Clowney entered the league as the first overall pick in 2014. Despite finishing his tenure in Houston with two great seasons, he and Houston couldn’t agree to terms on a long-term contract, and they tagged and traded him to the Seattle Seahawks in 2019. He played decently up in the northeast but not to the level that convinced Seattle to keep him around beyond a single season. Clowney didn’t find himself signed in free agency in 2020 as his valuation of himself seemingly didn’t match with the valuation that NFL front offices had on him. He eventually signed with the Tennessee Titans in September.
Clowney had a bad season as part of a bad defense, failing to record a single sack in the eight games that he played, before being placed on injured reserve in November. Clowney has another fresh start in Cleveland this year and will be playing alongside arguably the best trenches talent that he has had since leaving Houston and could form a great tandem with Myles Garrett. Clowney will want to resurrect his reputation as one of the best and most explosive edge players and the 2021 season presents a great opportunity to do just that. If he struggles again, he may just have had his last sizable payday in the league.
Odell Beckham Jr has all the talent in the world but his career to date has been marred by a series of character questions and injuries. His 2020 season started off solidly before an ACL tear prematurely ended things but rumours surrounding Beckham’s level of happiness in Cleveland continue to swirl as he has so far seemingly struggled to form an effective working relationship with Baker Mayfield.
The iconic moment when he and teammate Jarvis Landry screamed towards the Arizona Cardinals bench to “come and get me” still lingers in the air and whilst the Browns hierarchy have been quick to put on record that there is a mutual level of content between the two parties under the new setup, the question about his future in Cleveland refuses to go away.
Firstly though, Odell needs to prove that he can stay healthy having missed 42% of games since 2017 and get back to the elite production that he produced early on in his career. It’s been four years and counting since he posted double digit touchdown numbers. High time that changed.
There’s a lot of pressure on Greedy Williams going into this year. As mentioned earlier, the Browns secondary room added a lot of talent in the off season. Williams missed the entirety of the 2020 season with a nerve injury and will need to hit the ground running in 2021 if he’s going to force his way into the starting lineup after a year out followed what many considered a distinctly underwhelming rookie season.
Baltimore Ravens – Despite showing flashes of being the player that Baltimore hoped would replace Terrell Suggs, Jaylon Ferguson has so far struggled to cement himself a place in the Ravens defence. Recording only 4.5 sacks in his first two seasons combined, it’s certainly not the level of production that the team were hoping to get out of him. Now that Matt Judon has moved to New England and Yannick Ngakoue to Las Vegas, there’s an opening for Ferguson to finally make that position his own. If he can’t, rookies Odafe Oweh and Daelin Hayes will be breathing down his neck.
The pass rush is one of the elements of the defense that really faltered in previous years and the team will need to see a considerable improvement if they are going to displace the top AFC teams and go deeper into the postseason this time around. Ferguson and his fellow members of the LB group will be being relied upon heavily to make that happen as there is not a lot of pressure coming from the front line either.
Calais Campbell will be 35 when the season starts and currently seems like the only player on the defense capable of beating a 1-on-1 matchup so the responsibility will fall to the likes of Ferguson, Tyus Bowser and Pernell McPhee to provide the pass rush that the team so desperately needs if it is to be successful. It’s going to be a joint effort from the entire group, and you could make an argument that there will be more eyes focused on Bowser as the leader of said group, but Bowser already has his contract extension in place. As a result, Jaylon Ferguson is the one with the most to prove and subsequently lose from an individual standpoint going into his third season with the team.
Others to watch: A lot of the drop in Baltimore’s offensive statistics from 2019 to 2020 feels like it could be placed at the feet of the offensive line. The team missed Marshal Yanda a lot and injury to Ronnie Stanley only made matters worse. The O-line has subsequently had to undergo further reconstruction ahead of the 2021 season, most notably by improving the RG position by bringing in Kevin Zeitler. Baltimore made the slightly baffling move of trading starting RT Orlando Brown Jr to conference rival Kansas City and replaced him with Alejandro Villanueva, who has played the majority of his career on the opposite side of the line.
Baltimore will need Villanueva to adapt very quickly to a new position and a new offensive scheme if they are going to help Lamar get back to his 2019 levels of production. Villanueva is as experienced as they come, but the pressure will be on him from day one. Poor offensive line play again in 2021 would in all likelihood lead towards another frustrating season for Baltimore as they finish short of where they want to be.
Aside from the pass rushers, another position group that needs to step up in 2021 is the Wide Receiver Group. The team drafted Tylan Wallace and Rashod Bateman in this year's draft as well as adding Sammy Watkins to a group that already included Marquise Brown, Devin Duvernay and Miles Boykin. As a group of six, and provided that the rookies (Bateman in particular) can start quickly, it’s as deep and as talented as anywhere else in the league.
Greg Roman needs to evolve his offense into a way that uses the most out of that group without limiting Lamar Jackson’s obvious ability with his feet, something that he was perhaps guilty of not doing enough last season after teams had a full season of tape of 2019 Lamar to pore over.
The discontent from the receiving group was clear last season when Marquise Brown tweeted out “What’s the point of having souljas when you never use them (Never!!)”.
Lamar Jackson did what all good leaders do and took the blame for Brown’s frustration, saying that he had to get the ball quicker to him. Brown led the team in targets but finished the season with just 100 of them, ranking him 42nd in the league. Baltimore’s next highest targeted receiver (ignoring TE Mark Andrews) was Willie Snead who ranked 134th in the league with just 48 targets.
For the team to commit so much capital to the position through either picks (they now have three first round WRs on the team in Watkins, Brown and Bateman) or contract money there’s a clear imbalance in the offensive scheme somewhere. As much as it is up to John Harbaugh and Greg Roman to scheme plays to incorporate the throwing game and for Jackson to be able find his receivers, it’s also up to one or two members of that group to step up and force themselves into the playbook otherwise a season of discontent and angry tweets awaits.
Pittsburgh Steelers – One of the most interesting situations at Pittsburgh ahead of the 2021 season is working out what the wide receiver depth looks like. Chase Claypool had an outstanding rookie season and has in all likelihood cemented himself into one of the starting positions for the foreseeable future, which leaves a battle to fill the remaining spots between Juju Smith-Schuster, James Washington and Diontae Johnson.
Washington and Smith-Schuster are both heading into the last year of their contracts (Johnson’s contract expires in 2023 but would be easily cuttable) and whilst Johnson led the team in yards in 2020, he also led the entire league in dropped passes with 14. If Johnson continues to post good numbers and being a productive part of the Steelers’ offense, his position probably seems the safest out of the three, but continued ball security issues will obviously and deservedly bring questions around a major extension to the forefront of everyone’s mind.
Smith-Schuster resigned with the Steelers during the 2020 off season despite receiving better financial offers from Kansas City and Baltimore. The key point though was that all the offers on the table for Juju were one-year deals, including his offer from Pittsburgh. Now, that could have been a result of the market and the lessened cap space for the 2021 season, but no team was willing to offer Juju a big, multi-year contract that was offered to others (Kenny Golladay and Corey Davies), something that he will no doubt be striving for in less than 12 months’ time.
Juju’s production has remained at a steady level, but his yards per reception dropped significantly from previous years meaning that 2020 was his least explosive to date. Coupled with his online presence on social media and a few more “traditional” front offices may be getting cold feet over a potential marriage with the wide receiver.
Out of the four receivers on the roster in 2020, Washington was comfortably bottom of the pile, receiving less than half of the targets as any of the other three. Washington will have to forge a pathway towards stealing some of his teammates’ targets in 2021 otherwise he seems like the easy man to miss out when it comes to contract time. However 2021 plays out, it’s extremely unlikely that all three of them will be back which means that it’s make or break for all of them in Pittsburgh.
Others to watch: Dwayne Haskins simply needs to prove that he can be both professional and responsible by keeping out of trouble and working hard over the next year otherwise he might find himself out of the league before the scheduled end of his original rookie contract.
For Haskins, a pathway to a starting spot lies ahead in Pittsburgh. Despite some writing him off already, he was talented enough to get drafted in the first round in 2019. Whether he can knuckle down and prove himself worthy of contention is up to him. Haskins of course finds himself for now playing backup to Ben Roethlisberger, who at the age of 39 could be entering his final season.
Whilst last season started with the Steelers going 11-0, things quickly descended into chaos, culminating in a thumping defeat at the hands of their bitter rivals in the playoffs as Roethlisberger’s play had many pointing fingers in his direction. By all accounts, it’s now or never if Roethlisberger wants to add any silverware to his mantlepiece or weight to his HoF claim.
The depth at the cornerback position suddenly looks quite shallow in 2021. With Mike Hilton and Steven Nelson no longer on the team, it’s time for Justin Layne to fulfill the potential that a lot in Pittsburgh think he possesses and cement his position as a capable starter for the franchise going forward. A side note - it’s not a make-or-break situation for his future, but watch out for an unwanted piece of record breaking from Mike Tomlin this season. He has never led his team to a losing record during his tenure, something I’m sure he and his staff are very proud of. That record feels more at risk this year than it has done in a long time.
Cincinnati Bengals – In Zac Taylor’s debut year, he oversaw the worst start in franchise history in the 2019 season when his Bengals team went 0-11 before beating the Jets in December to record his first ever win. A season of pain in 2019 all seemed like it was worth it when Bengals fans got to watch Roger Goodell call out Joe Burrow’s name from the depths of his basement during the 2020 draft. A shiny new quarterback was finally theirs and so began an off season of optimism tinged with a heavy dose of realism.
Despite this, Taylor was only able to add four more wins to his record with the team and another season of disappointment was chalked up in the record books. Taylor has already received the dreaded vote of confidence from owner Mike Brown when he came out and said that Taylor would remain in position for the 2021 season.
Admittedly, Taylor has never had a fully healthy team to work with but the blame for that, at least in part, falls at both his feet and that of Duke Tobin/Mike Brown and it’s a subject that is dancing on more people’s tongues this year given their draft strategy in April. Despite Taylor’s poor win record and his sometimes-questionable play calling, he is regarded by most as an excellent coach and whilst Joe Burrow continues to show signs of progression on the field, Taylor will be able to point at his quarterback as a reason to keep his job.
If Taylor is going to be able to keep his job, there will have to be a redressing of that balance between player progression and on-field results. Despite that, the Bengals are somewhat notorious as being considered a “safe” franchise when it comes to decision making so even if results are poor for a third season in a row, maybe Taylor will continue to cling onto his job for a little while longer.
Others to watch: As unfair as it sounds, the eyes of everybody will be on rookie receiver Ja’Marr Chase this season. The Bengals passed on the opportunity to secure long term protection for Burrow by drafting Oregon’s Penei Sewell. The fans will be wanting to see immediate production from their new star to placate any lingering complaints about the team’s decision.
If Burrow does find himself on the surgery table again this season it will likely be because Jonah Williams and Riley Reiff have failed to keep him upright. Since Andrew Whitworth left for Los Angeles in 2016, the team has used nine different players at left tackle. Jonah Williams started 10 games at the position in 2020 and by all accounts played well (he was attributed with three of the 48 sacks that the team allowed) but recurring injury problems means that he’s missed the other 22 games of his professional career to date. If Burrow is going to stay healthy, Jonah Williams has to stay healthy.
Riley Reiff played well last season, only letting up one sack and he has nowhere near the same endurance issues as Williams (Reiff has never missed more than three games in a season throughout his professional career). Joining a team as a one-year stop gap option is notoriously difficult though, and Reiff will have to play well from the very start and the eyes of the entire league will be upon him to see if he’s capable of keeping Burrow’s knee intact.
A lot of expectations will be placed on Trey Hendrickson ahead of the new season. He was the team’s biggest offseason acquisition off the back of an impressive breakout year in New Orleans. Hendrickson’s 2020 season was something of an outlier though, as his production prior to that was less than impressive. Hendrickson will need to become an immediate leader of the defence to justify his new price tag and prove that last year's numbers can be replicated. Bengals fans should expect no less.