For years the AFC North has been heralded as maybe the most competitive division in the NFL. It has never been short of winners, with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens both having multiple Super Bowl victories since the turn of the century, as well as a plethora of star players. This year the North has the NFL’s most intriguing team in the Cleveland Browns. The Browns have made a ton of big-splash moves this offseason and are widely regarded as a darkhorse Super Bowl contender going into 2019. Mix in the Cincinnati Bengals and you get a division that has only had one repeat winner since 2008.
Defense has always been the strong side of the ball in the AFC North, making the field during divisional matchups resemble closer to a battlefield than a football field. These are the best players on defense, by position, from the AFC North going into the 2019 NFL season.
2019 All-AFC North Team: Defense
Scheme: Multiple 3-4
Nose Tackle: Michael Pierce (Ravens)
Pierce may not be the most versatile player but he is damn great at stuffing the run. An undrafted free agent out of college, he has turned into one of the NFL’s best interior lineman and is only getting better. Pierce specializes as a run stuffer while improving every year as an overall player. His numbers do not jump off the page, with just 11 tackles for loss over his three-year career. However, he is deadly at attacking any running back the second he enters his crosshairs. 2018 was Pierce’s highest graded season from both a run stopping and pass rushing perspective. He finished the year grading out as the fifth best interior defensive lineman per PFF. The Ravens’ Brandon Williams was named to his first Pro Bowl in 2018 but Pierce was debatably the more dominant player all season. Pierce is an upcoming unrestricted free agent next March and if he continues to ball, he could become one of the highest paid defensive linemen in football.
Defensive Tackle: Geno Atkins (Bengals)
At 31 years old, it’s easy to forget how dominant Atkins has been over the last half-decade. He made his second first-team All-Pro in 2015 and during the four seasons since (including 2015), has averaged 9.8 sacks per year. Atkins has been the picture of consistency from the interior of the defensive line, finishing 2018 with the sixth most sacks (10.0) amongst defensive interior players. His unique mix of quickness at 6’1″ and sheer power, make him one of the hardest players in the league to block from the inside. Though Atkins is getting a bit older, he should still dominate once again in 2019. Since entering the NFL in 2010, Atkins has the most sacks amongst defensive tackles with 71.0
Defensive End: Cameron Heyward (Steelers)
For the past couple of years, the strongest defensive line in the North has been a position group led by Heyward. He deservedly earned All-Pro status in 2017 after recording 12.0 sacks from the interior and followed it up in 2018 with 8.0 more. Heyward has consistently been one of the most disruptive players from the inside of the defensive line since establishing himself as a starter and should continue to have success playing off of a still relatively young Stephon Tuitt. After making back-to-back Pro Bowls the last two seasons, Heyward is finally cementing himself as a top-10 interior pass rusher in the NFL.
Pass Rush/Outside Linebacker: Myles Garrett (Browns)
Garrett is a 4-3 defensive end in Cleveland but he needs to find a way into this team as maybe the best pass rusher in the division. Entering the NFL as a first-overall pick, Garrett had high expectations straight out of college. At this point, it’s fair to say he’s lived up to the hype. Over Garrett’s first 27 games in the NFL, he has registered an impressive 20.5 sacks, 47 quarterback hits, 21 tackles for loss and four forced fumbles. Maybe the most impressive stat of Garrett’s was also that he only went five games in 2018 without recording 0.5 sacks or more. Exactly the kind of production and consistency you want out of a young player and aspiring leader. Teaming up with Olivier Vernon and Sheldon Richardson in 2019 could take Garrett’s game to even greater heights next season. Garrett was named to his first Pro Bowl in 2018 and if his game keeps improving the way it did from year-one to year-two, he is about to turn into a perennial All-Pro.
Sam Linebacker: T.J. Watt (Steelers)
Similar to Garret, Watt also saw a great improvement in production from his first NFL season to his second. The two both registered 7.0 sacks in 2017 and then followed up with 13 (.5 for Garrett) the following season. Watt may not be as consistent a pass rusher as Garrett but he is still able to use an arsenal of moves to beat offensive lineman. Over the 2018 season, Watt had multiple three-sack games and looked more refined as the season wore on. The speed rusher continues to improve at just age 24 and is looking to reach elite status in year-three.
Middle Linebacker: Joe Schobert (Browns)
The middle linebacker position has been a traditionally strong position in the AFC North but over the past few years, it has dampened. The only real standouts since the declines of Lawrence Timmons and Rey Maualuga have been Schobert, Ryan Shazier, and C.J. Mosley. Mosley is now with the New York Jets and Shazier may never play football again after his life-threatening spinal injury. None of this should take away from Schobert as he has become one of the best tacklers in pro football. In his third NFL season, Schobert ranked 35th in tackles despite missing three games after tying for the league lead in 2017. However, there is a position scarcity in the North right now. Maybe Kenny Young or rookie Devin Bush can become great soon.
Will Linebacker: Patrick Onwuasor (Ravens)
That lack of great interior linebackers carries onto the Will Linebacker position. Onwuasor had a great end to his 2018, coming up with clutch plays all over the field. He forced game-clinching fumbles Week 16 against the Los Angeles Chargers and Week 13 against the Atlanta Falcons. These were part of his diverse but impressive 2018 stat line. The undrafted linebacker had his best year yet totaling 59 tackles, 5.5 sacks, 12 quarterback hits, three passes defended and two forced fumbles. He also had a monster Wild Card game against the Chargers. Onwuasor now needs to prove he can be consistent as well as lead after Mosley left a gaping hole in the middle of the Ravens defense.
Left Cornerback: Denzel Ward (Browns)
Ward took the league by storm the first few weeks of the 2018 season. In his first five games, Ward had a tackle for loss, six passes defended, picked off three balls, forced and recovered his own fumble and blocked a kick. Not a bad first stretch as a rookie. Ward showed less flash as the season moved on but proved he has the tools to be an elite corner as a rookie. Never the less, he was still named to his first Pro-Bowl as a rookie. Cleveland will be hoping he is the anchor of their secondary for years to come.
Right Cornerback: Marlon Humphrey (Ravens)
Since entering the league two years ago, Humphrey has established himself as one of the league’s best corners in a very short amount of time. One of the most impressive games of his career came week 13 of 2018, where he and his partner Jimmy Smith held Julio Jones to two catches and 18 yards on eight targets. He’s someone who continues to learn with every passing game. Humphrey could (but maybe already is) be a top-5 corner in the NFL at the end of 2019.
Slot Cornerback: Tavon Young (Ravens)
Young entered the 2018 season with incredibly high expectations. A standout rookie in 2016, Young missed the entirety of the 2017 season due to a torn ACL. He would then return in 2018 to have a decent campaign, mainly playing from the slot. This led to Young signing a three-year(s)/$29 million contract at the end of the season, making him the highest paid slot corner in the entire NFL. Young was good in 2018 but given the contract he received, the Ravens expect greatness from him. The 25-year-old had a solid season with five pass defenses and two scoop-and-score touchdowns but perhaps wasn’t as impactful as his rookie year. The slot is still a relatively new position for Young but if he grows a bit more and continues his consistency from last season, will live up to the contract he was awarded. He’s just another reason why the Ravens secondary may be the best at its position group in the NFL.
Strong Safety: Shawn Williams (Bengals)
This was a tough decision between Williams and the Ravens’ Tony Jefferson but Williams had a great 2018 that was tough to ignore. The 28-year-old had a career season, finishing the year with the third most tackles and second most interceptions amongst NFL strong safeties. Williams and his teammate Jessie Bates III are perhaps the most underrated safety duo in the entire NFL.
Free Safety: Earl Thomas (Ravens)
Despite coming off of a severe injury in 2018, Thomas is still the best safety of his generation and will have all the time to prove it again with his new team in 2019. He is also now part of a better secondary than the ones he was part of his last few years in Seattle. His last Pro Bowl appearance was just one year ago in 2017 and could very well end up there again in 2019. Thomas was leading all qualifying PFF graded safeties before his injury Week Four. At just 29, Thomas only trails nine other active players in career interceptions. Don’t overthink Thomas’ injury, he’s still great.