Training camp and the 2021 NFL Preseason are already underway, with the opening slate of games in the books. All thirty-two clubs were in action this past weekend. With on-field opportunities for the competitors, the battles for roster spots and job openings across the league are bound to intensify. The AFC North division is not any different.
In the first part, at the center of attention were the biggest questions and stories regarding the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Cincinnati Bengals. Now, the Baltimore Ravens and the Cleveland Browns are set to be our focus. The timing of this article provides an even more detailed perspective on the two teams’ issues as both were in action on Saturday night. Baltimore snatched its 18th consecutive preseason victory against the New Orleans Saints. Meanwhile, the Browns defeated the Trevor Lawrence-led Jacksonville Jaguars.
With two more matchups and less than a month to go before the 2021 NFL season’s kickoff stretch, the two teams will have to make a few crucial decisions. As they are also amongst the fiercest contenders for the divisional crown, their precision in that field will have deep ramifications within the AFC playoff picture.
Here are the most important storylines for the Browns and the Ravens.
Cleveland Browns: Final Defensive Touches
Not many teams around the NFL are in such a favorable position heading into training camp as the Browns. Cleveland has one of the most balanced rosters, as well as one of the deepest squads, in the league. The team’s wildly productive ground-game stable is back in full force with Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt while Baker Mayfield has all weapons intact for his fourth year as a pro. Moreover, the Browns’ notorious offensive line, which allowed just 26 sacks last year, eight-fewest league-wide, underwent no changes during the offseason.
Therefore, Cleveland’s offense can be expected to turn in big numbers over the upcoming season. Furthermore, the club’s defense can be described in a similar manner. Browns general manager Andrew Berry made high-profile acquisitions in each group within the unit.
Firstly, former No.1 overall pick Myles Garrett has been provided some noticeable reinforcements. Berry added free agents Jadeveon Clowney and Malik Jackson on one-year contracts. On the one hand, neither pass-rusher has put on a double-digit sack total in sixteen combined seasons. On the other hand, their deals are worth a little under $12 million in combined remuneration. That is quite team-friendly for a club that signed nine other free agents for more than $1 million per year. Yet, their underwhelming turnout continues to be concerning. Jackson has averaged around three sacks in the past three campaigns whereas the 2013 top pick has not posted more than six in all but two seasons.
Nonetheless, they represent welcome additions to the Browns pass-rush. The unit ranked in the middle of the pack in 2020 but no longer has the services of Olivier Vernon on its side. Also, the aforementioned three players are set to be in charge of a front line that also includes former Bengals draftee Andrew Billings. Currently, there do not seem to be any virtual question marks or battles as regards that group.
The situation at the linebacker spots and in the secondary is a bit more different. Both units received significant boosts. Anthony Walker became the newest starter within the linebacker trio, joining after spending four campaigns in Indianapolis. Walker has three straight years with more than 60 solo tackles despite costing the Browns just $3 million. At the same time, Troy Hill and John Johnson were vital incoming assets to the secondary after dominant respective 2020 turnouts.
That leaves realistic competition at two spots. Firstly, Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah might be able to give starter Mack Wilson a run for his money at one of the LB posts, though he has little leverage. Before starting just eight games throughout an injury-ridden 2020, Wilson had 15 starts in his debut year on the professional level. This regular role was accompanied by 57 solo tackles and more than 80 total tackles.
However, his injury issues seem to have carried onto the 2021 NFL campaign. In his first preseason showdown, Wilson departed with shoulder problems. In contrast, Owusu-Koramoah lived up to the reputation of a 2021 second-round selection. The Notre Dame alum led the Browns’ defense with seven tackles, adding to that a sack and three tackles for loss.
The level of the preseason matchups is not high and Mack Wilson is probably lined up for the spot if healthy. Yet, Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah is in the driving seat if Wilson has to miss significant time. Not only that but he could also turn into a positive surprise across the forthcoming campaign.
Secondly, Ronnie Harrison is confidently positioned in front of Grant Delpit on Cleveland’s depth chart as the staring strong safety. Similarly to Wilson, Harrison missed five games and failed to start in nine due to injuries. However, the fourth-year Alabama product has kept his allowed passer rating in coverage under 90.0 in each of his last three seasons. One of those years saw him start fourteen games in his final season for the Jaguars. That means the chances of Delpit jumping out as a more attractive option are slim. Nonetheless, his name as a 2020 second-rounder could win him supporters should Harrison disappoint throughout training camp.
Baltimore Ravens: A Worthy Judon Replacement
Throughout the 2021 NFL offseason, edge-rusher Matt Judon became a free-agent asset, leaving the Ravens after five seasons in Maryland. Judon has been the most consistent performer on Baltimore’s pass-rush. He had a higher sack total than any other Raven not named Za’Darius Smith in each of the last three seasons.
Since becoming a regular starter within the front part of the Ravens defense, Matt Judon has not turned in less than six sacks in a single season. Moreover, his career-high thus far is nine and a half, achieved in 2019, the first of two Pro Bowl campaigns in a row. Before that, Judon put on eight and seven sacks, respectively. Also, over that four-year span, he has failed to start in just 15 games and has missed out on only two appearances.
Therefore, the high grades he got from front offices around the NFL should not come as a shock. Neither should the pricey contract he signed with the Patriots in March. Matt Judon joined New England on a four-year deal worth $13.65 million per season as one of two departures from the Ravens’ front D-Line, alongside Yannick Ngakoue.
That provides a notes-worthy opening upfront alongside the likes of Brandon Williams, Derek Wolfe, and Calais Campbell. Much of the core is imminently returning but the once-improved Baltimore pass-rush has been shaken. In Judon and Ngakoue, the Ravens lose nine of their 39 sacks in 2020. Reversely, the three certain 2021 starters combined for five last winter.
However, the Eric DeCosta-led front office took this department as one of its top priorities in the search for the assets to maintain the unit’s productivity. Firstly, DeCosta brought back former second-round pick Tyus Bowser on a five-year deal worth $22 million. Bowser has only started two games during his four-year NFL tenure so the value of the contract seems beyond eye-catching. Yet, Bowser was featured on 51 percent of all Ravens defensive snaps and the team could be seeking to use him even more frequently.
However, Baltimore was quick to clarify that the last post upfront is not his yet, plugging him in a competition with a first-class contender. And few things could be more first-class than a first-round draft pick, which happened to be Penn State outside linebacker Jayson Oweh with the 31st overall pick.
At first sight, Oweh’s collegiate career looks neither impressive nor promising. His best year was 2019, which saw him put on five sacks and complete five tackles for loss. He followed that up with a zero-sack 2020 campaign, which was accompanied by career-high 6.5 sacks in four games less than the previous year. Jayson Oweh has appeared in more than ten games just once, failing to prove the sustainability of his situational brilliance. That, in turn, does not raise the bar very high entering his inaugural year in the professional game.
Nonetheless, Eric DeCosta’s decision to go for an edge-rusher on the first day of the 2021 NFL Draft could prove indicative of a low opinion when it comes to Bowser, despite the extension. It is also likely that these moves were made with an open battle that would unveil during training camp in mind. Bowser’s experience might place him in the pole position. Yet, a scenario where both pass-rushers are featured regularly until one breaks out should not be ruled out either.
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