Can Browns build on last year’s success?

The NFL is back, and Sportsnet is breaking down everything you need to know about each of the 32 teams in the lead-up to kickoff on Thursday, Sept. 9.

Today, we look at the AFC North. (Teams are listed in the order in which we believe they’ll finish in the 2021 standings.)


2020 record: 11-5, third in AFC North; lost to Chiefs in Divisional Playoffs heartbreaker.

Roster additions: S John Johnson III, DE Jadeveon Clowney, DE Takk McKinley, DT Malik Jackson, CB Troy Hill, LB Anthony Walker, CB Greg Newsome (drafted 26th overall), LB Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah (52nd)

Roster subtractions: S Karl Joseph, S Andrew Sendejo, DE Olivier Vernon, DE Adrian Clayborn, CB Terrance Marshall, CB Kevin Johnson, DT Sheldon Richardson, DT Larry Ogunjobi, LB B.J. Goodson

The good news: That depleted defence of last year now has plenty of reinforcements — especially in the secondary, as GM Andrew Berry brought in several upgrades with a smart, targeted approach in free agency and the draft. The additions of former Rams Johnson and Hill give this young squad proven leadership off the hop, setting up versatile youngsters like Grant Delpit (who missed his rookie year with an Achilles injury) and rookies Newsome and Owusu-Koramoah for success.

Offensively, not a lot has changed — and that’s probably the best news of all. (It’s pretty telling that one of the biggest changes to this group of starters on offence is that Odell Beckham Jr. is back.) Finally, the return of 2020 coach of the year Kevin Stefanski brings something Baker Mayfield and this young core haven’t previously had in Cleveland: consistency.

The bad news: The Browns are now a playoff team! Yes, that is good news, of course, but with that statement comes… not hope, not hype, but legitimate, valid expectations. That’s a new feeling in Cleveland, and it could bring a bit of a learning curve. We’ve seen Mayfield struggle with the ups and downs of the NFL — he fought through a challenging sophomore season after putting up remarkable numbers as a rookie, and while Year Three brought a return of the dynamic playmaker Cleveland drafted, Browns fans should probably learn to get comfortable on the edge of their seats.

2021 prediction: 12-5, lose in AFC Championship Game.


2020 record: 11-5, second in division; rolled over against Bills in Divisional Playoffs.

Roster additions: WR Sammy Watkins, G Kevin Zeitler, OLB Justin Houston, TE Josh Oliver, OT Alejandro Villanueva, OT Ja’Wuan James, G Michael Schofield, WR Rashod Bateman (drafted 27th overall), DE/OLB Jayson Oweh (31st), WR Tylan Wallace (131st)

Roster subtractions: OLB Matthew Judon, OLB Yannick Ngakoue, OT Orlando Brown, OT D.J. Fluker, C Matt Skura, RB Mark Ingram, WR Willie Snead

The good news: As long as Lamar Jackson is your QB, you’re going to be a good team. Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s talk about defence. Yes, they lost two strong pass-rushers in Judon and Ngakoue in free agency, but that cornerback trio of Marcus Peters, Marlon Humphrey and Tavon Young is still intact and ready to make life tough on opposing offences. There are many reasons to believe sophomore linebacker Patrick Queen will thrive in the spotlight, too.

The bad news: The injury bug has already struck in a big way. The most devastating setback for this squad is the loss of running back J.K. Dobbins, who suffered a torn ACL that will keep him sidelined the entire season. The impact of Dobbins’ injury will be felt even more with the absences of wide receivers Rashod Bateman and Miles Boykin to start 2021.

2021 prediction: 10-7, lose in Wild Card Round.


2020 record: 12-4, crowned division champion; lost to Browns on Wild Card Weekend.

Roster additions: OT Joe Haeg, G Trai Turner, OLB Melvin Ingram, RB Najee Harris (drafted 24th overall)

Roster subtractions: C Maurkice Pouncey, G David DeCastro, OLB Bud Dupree, RB James Conner, TE Vance McDonald, OT Alejandro Vilanueva, G Matt Feiler, LB Avery Williamson, LB Vince Williams, CB Mike Hilton, CB Steven Nelson

The good news: This defence? Yeah, it’s still pretty elite — especially if they can put pen to paper on that T.J. Watt extension everyone in Pittsburgh is anticipating. The Steelers showed everyone last year that you can hide a lot of offensive flaws with a sharp secondary and a suffocating defensive line, and while some departures will hurt — Dupree is now in Tennessee, for example, and cornerbacks Hilton and Nelson are out, too — there’s reason for optimism there.

The bad news: This could be a really long season — and we’re not just talking about the NFL extending the schedule to 17 games. The Steelers have the toughest strength of schedule in 2021, with opponents putting up a combined 2020 record of 155-115-2 for a win percentage of .574. (They’re one of just two teams, along with the Ravens, facing a combined win percentage above .550.) There’s really no room for error here. Add when you’ve got a 39-year-old quarterback with a questionable offensive line in front of him and two unproven backups behind him, well … we can probably expect some errors.

2021 prediction: 8-9, miss playoffs; Big Ben officially hangs up the cleats.


2020 record: 4-11-1, missed playoffs for fifth straight year.

Roster additions: RT Riley Reiff, DE Trey Hendrickson, DT Larry Ogunjobi, CB Trae Waynes (opted out in 2020), CB Chidobe Awuzie, WR Ja’Marr Chase (drafted fifth overall)

Roster subtractions: DE Carl Lawson, WR A.J. Green, WR John Ross, DT Geno Atkins, QB Ryan Finley, RB Giovani Bernard, OT Bobby Hart, DT Christian Covington, CB Mackensie Alexander, CB William Jackson, K Randy Bullock.

The good news: After a torn ACL sidelined him for the final six games of 2020, Joe Burrow is back and he’s got some fun (and familiar) weapons. Reconnecting him with his old LSU pal, wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase, should make for some fun offensive outbursts — that is, if Chase can ditch the drops he’s struggled with this pre-season.

The bad news: When your team has struggled in as many areas as the Bengals did in 2020, it can be tough to really focus efforts on one area of need. That being said, priority No. 1 this off-season was crystal clear: repair the porous offensive line to keep Burrow on his feet after 2020 saw him take 32 sacks in 10 games as a rookie. And while Bengals brass did revamp the front five, it’s tough to say if the new crew is really much of an upgrade.

One of the biggest head-scratchers of last spring’s draft was the Bengals’ decision to select Chase over sure-thing offensive tackle Penei Sewell. No disrespect to Chase — he’s capable of being a WR1, and his presence is clearly going to boost the offence — but this team goes nowhere if Burrow goes down again.

2021 prediction: 5-12, and Zac Taylor’s time as head coach runs out.

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