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 off-season and are 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.
The AFC North has always been heralded as a defensive and gritty division but the offensive side of the ball is no slouch either. These are the best players on offense, by position, from the AFC North going into the 2019 NFL season.
2019 All-AFC North Team: Offense
Quarterback: Baker Mayfield (Browns)
Mayfield had a historic rookie campaign. The former Heisman Trophy winner had to wait a little while to get on the field but established himself as the franchise quarterback the Browns envisioned after picking him number one overall. Mayfield threw for 3,725 yards, leading an impressive rookie-quarterback class, and set a new rookie-record, throwing 27 touchdowns in 14 games. With his receivers getting another upgrade this off-season, Mayfield’s sophomore year is set up to be a huge step forward. As good as Ben Roethlisberger has been throughout his career, 2019 could be the season in which Mayfield surpasses him on the quarterback rankings chart. Lamar Jackson also has a chance to leapfrog both of them after a historical rookie season rushing the ball, but he needs to show more as a passer going forward.
Running Back: Nick Chubb (Browns)
The North is stocked with running backs but Chubb could be a monster in Cleveland for the next three seasons and beyond. Chubb came on immediately after Carlos Hyde was shipped to the Jacksonville Jaguars and will likely do more of the same this season. Though he’s been used in a committee the majority of college and pro careers, Chubb has shown he can continually pound the ball and is a threat to take it the length of the field on each carry. In the 10 games after the Hyde trade, he averaged 82.3 rushing yards per game as well as totaling eight touchdowns from scrimmage. Cleveland lost a very valuable run blocker in Kevin Zeitler but Cleveland’s running game is now completely centered around Chubb. Chubb was the highest graded NFL running back by PFF in 2018.
Wide Receiver: A.J. Green (Bengals)
Though Green has been hurt twice over the past three seasons, he is still one of the most elite receivers in the entire NFL. Since entering the league, Green has never had less than 1,000 yards in a single season in which he played more than 10 games. Last season was the first season Green missed the Pro Bowl — largely because he was limited to nine games. He is approaching 31 years old but still looked like vintage A.J. in a number of games in 2018. During the Bengals Week Two encounter with the Ravens, Green went against one of the best secondaries in football and still pulled in three touchdowns on five grabs over 69 yards. If Green can stay healthy, he is going to continue his dominance over NFL corners in his ninth season as a pro.
Wide Receiver: Odell Beckham Jr. (Browns)
Beckham is coming to a new team in 2019, and it could be just the change of scenery the 26-year-old needs to unlock his full potential. Despite playing only 12 games in 2018, Beckham was still able to finish 18th in receiving yards and tied for 22nd with 77 receptions. Mayfield at his current playability is arguably the best quarterback Beckham has ever played with and could even top the 1,500 yard plateau for the first time in his career. He has always had every tool needed to be a top receiver in the NFL. What OBJ will look like in Cleveland is unknown but he showed greatness besides a continually declining Eli Manning. A two-time second-team All-Pro, Beckham will be looking to make a debut on the 1st-team in 2019.
Slot Receiver: JuJu Smith-Schuster (Steelers)
Despite being listed here as the slot, Smith-Schuster is more than that going into his third NFL season. He was voted team-MVP by his Steelers teammates in 2018 and is now going to be the focal point of a relatively young receiving corps. Smith-Schuster was terrific last season racking up the fifth most receiving yards and tied for sixth in receptions. He also eclipsed the 100-yard mark in half of the games he played in. Similar to his former teammate Antonio Brown, JuJu doesn’t specialize in one specific area. However, he does everything you want from a receiver. Smith-Schuster has solid speed, good hands, and has the kind of swagger but professionalism required to be an NFL star. His numbers could get even better as an official number one receiver in 2019.
Tight End: David Njoku (Browns)
Tight end was the toughest position to choose a representative for in the North’s offense. Mark Andrews of the Ravens had a great rookie campaign and could become the runaway leader in the division at the end of the season. However, Njoku made strides from his rookie year to his sophomore. His receiving yards jumped from 386 to 639 and he grabbed 56 balls on 88 targets. His general manager has challenged him to improve his run blocking and if he can, could take another big step forward to becoming an elite NFL tight end.
Left Tackle: Alejandro Villanueva (Steelers)
For the past two years, it could be argued the Steelers have had the best offensive line in football, the anchor of which has been Villanueva. Villanueva has been to two straight Pro Bowls and has become one of the NFL’s best pass blockers since being signed by the Steelers in 2015. His transformation from defensive end to offensive tackle has been spectacular and perhaps means Villanueva still has room to improve as a player at 30 years old. He hasn’t missed a start over his last three seasons and barring injury, will be looking to continue his dominance in 2019.
Left Guard: Joel Bitonio (Browns)
One of the Browns most underrated units of the 2018 season was their offensive line. Stud rookies like Mayfield and Chubb got a lot of praise around the league but it was the Browns great offensive line that allowed for these players to break out. Specifically the interior of the O-line. Bitonio has been one of the best (or the best) players on the Browns offensive line since starting all 16 games his rookie season. He’s been a consistent run blocker and great pass blocker but had his best season yet in 2018. Bitonio was named to his first Pro Bowl and made his first appearance on the All-Pro second team. Among all guards with a minimum of 450 snaps in 2018, he allowed the third least pressures per snap. With Zeitler gone, Bitonio is now the anchor of the Browns most underrated position group.
Centre: Maurkice Pouncey (Steelers)
Though the Steelers offensive line is better known for its pass protection, their run blocking is still at an elite level. Behind Pouncey and the rest of Pittsburgh’s strong offensive line, almost every running back the Steelers have turned out has had success. Per Pro Football Focus, James Conner averaged 1.67 yards per contact, good for fifth amongst backs with over 200 carries. Le’Veon Bell also largely benefited from this efficiency during his time in Pittsburgh. Pouncey has spearheaded Pittsburgh’s solid run blocking for eight years and remains one of the NFL’s most consistent centers. He’s never missed the Pro Bowl in a season in which he played more than one game.
Right Guard: Marshal Yanda (Ravens)
Now about to enter his 13th season, it’s easy to forget just how dominant Yanda has been over his storied career. When news broke the 34-year-old was contemplating retirement, you could hear the inner voice of every Ravens fan screaming for help. Yanda has been the leader of Baltimore’s offensive line since Matt Birk‘s retirement and is the only starter left from the Ravens Super Bowl XLVII winning team in 2013. Still, he remains one of the best run blocking guards in the NFL entering 2019. Yanda has only missed first or second-team All-Pro twice over the last eight seasons and only missed the Pro Bowl once due to injury in 2017. No matter if Yanda lasts through his two-year contract extension or not, he will be in Canton in the near future.
Right Tackle: Orlando Brown Jr. (Ravens)
Similar to Mayfield, I’m projecting a little bit here. Brown has dealt with a lot of adversity since his last game at Oklahoma. He was labeled as having the worst Combine in draft history and slipped into the third round of the 2018 draft after being a projected first rounder out of college. Since getting his first start in Week Seven, Brown did not give up a sack the entire regular season. If Brown performed like this as a rookie, his ceiling moving forward is incredibly high. The youngster is going to play his entire NFL career with something to prove.