Around the AFC North: Long-Term Outlook for the Division

071921-AFCN
Left: QB Ben Roethlisberger; Right: Coach Mike Tomlin

The AFC North will be one of the best divisions in the NFL this season, but how does it look over the next three years?

A panel of ESPN experts – Jeremy Fowler, Louis Riddick, Seth Walder and Field Yates – rated every team's quarterback situation, remaining (non-QB) roster, drafting ability, front office and coaching staff. They weighted each category and used it to judge how well that team is set up for the future.

The Ravens came in at No. 3 on the list, only trailing the Kansas City Chiefs and Tampa Bay Buccaneers (last year's Super Bowl teams). Here's a look at the rest of the division:

Pittsburgh Steelers: Win-Now Mode With Big Ben

The Steelers haven't had a losing record since Mike Tomlin became their head coach in 2007. But with a ranking of No. 17 on ESPN's list, there are questions about how much longer they will be contenders.

With a ferocious defense, the Steelers delayed their offensive rebuild by another year by bringing back future Hall of Famer Ben Roethlisberger on a reduced contract, hoping the 39-year-old quarterback can still produce at a high level.

Though he doesn't have the same mobility and magic to escape pressure that he once did, Roethlisberger played well over the first half of last year, getting rid of the ball fast and commanding the offense. But teams adjusted and Roethlisberger's arm wasn't the same down the stretch.

"It wouldn't be a surprise if 2021 is [Roethlisberger's] final season in the NFL, which begs the question of what's next for the Steelers under center in the years of 2022, 2023 and beyond," Yates wrote. "The current pipeline is led by Mason Rudolph and Dwayne Haskins, both of whom have much to prove."

The Steelers' other big long-term question mark is the future of General Manager Kevin Colbert, who is "year to year at this point" in deciding when he will retire. He's in the middle of an offensive line rebuild that Pittsburgh needs to help Roethlisberger extend his career and get a struggling running game off the ground.

But with Tomlin and a defense featuring young stars T.J. Watt and Minkah Fitzpatrick, "Pittsburgh should stay dangerous," Walder wrote.

Cleveland Browns: Good, Young Roster Has Created a Contender

Last year, the Browns ended a 17-year playoff drought. Now they look like a team that should contend for years to come, as they came in at No. 5 on ESPN's list.

ESPN's panel ranked the Browns' roster (outside of quarterback) as the second-best in the NFL. They also gave the Browns, who long struggled with front-office turnover, the second-best front office ranking (behind the Ravens).

"Years of drafting near the top of the order were painful for Browns fans, but the payoff has provided cornerstones of the roster that are now augmented by a deep and talented mix," Yates wrote. "GM Andrew Berry and coach Kevin Stefanski are two leaders with a shared vision of how to marry the organizational needs of the future with the roster of the present in team building."

The Browns are finally going to feel the strain of keeping good young players. Riddick wrote that the toughest evaluation is on quarterback Baker Mayfield, who had a resurgent third season after a tough sophomore campaign. Cleveland already inked pass rusher Myles Garrett to a mega-deal, but probably can't keep all of Mayfield, running back Nick Chubb, cornerback Denzel Ward and guard Wyatt Teller.

Cincinnati Bengals: Building Around Their Quarterback

The Bengals are ranked No. 29 overall because of grades near the bottom of the league in coaching, drafting and front office.

However, the most important piece to the puzzle is often the quarterback, and the Bengals may finally have their long-term solution to build around in Joe Burrow. ESPN ranked Cincinnati's quarterback situation as 13th-best in the league.

"Reasons for optimism in Cincinnati center around second-year quarterback Joe Burrow and a trio of receivers that reasonably could emerge as one of the best in the NFL," Yates wrote.

"But the offensive line has been troublesome for several years, and this team has been devoid of defensive playmakers for too long. There are several roster holes that need to be addressed in a hurry to maximize the window of Burrow's contract."

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