AFC North 2020 preview: One homegrown player still on a rookie contract who is key for each team’s success

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Any conversation about the AFC North starts in Baltimore where the Ravens not only have the division’s best offense, but this group, led by Lamar Jackson, is one of the most explosive offenses in football. And the defense, which started the 2019 season slow only to get better each week, also remains a top unit.

In Pittsburgh, the Steelers anxiously await the return of Ben Roethlisberger, who until two games into the ’19 campaign, had served as the top quarterback in AFC North going back a decade. Now the hope is that his right elbow will allow him to be close to the player he was before the injury last September.

Meanwhile, the Browns and Bengals will look to their young QBs to lead them out of mediocrity — or worse. The roster is stacked in Cleveland but the constantly changing faces in both the front office and on the coach staff has led to a lot of underachievement. Perhaps that changes with new general manager Andrew Berry and new coach Kevin Stefanski. In Cincinnati, Andy Dalton is gone, replaced by No. 1 overall pick Joe Burrow, who is coming off the most productive college season in human history. The expectations are high for Burrow and second-year coach Zac Taylor, but this is also a team coming off just two wins; a six-win season in 2020 would be considered a huge step in the right direction.

While a team is only as good as its quarterback, the surrounding cast is almost just as important. Knowing that, here are homegrown talents still on their rookie deals whose impact could be the difference between treading water during the regular season and a deep playoff run.

Baltimore Ravens: Miles Boykin

Drafted: No. 93 in 2019Final year of rookie deal: 2022

Boykin started 11 games last season as a rookie but was targeted just 22 times and finished with 13 catches for 198 yards and three touchdowns. Those numbers aren’t necessarily surprising; Boykin arrived in Baltimore from Notre Dame as a raw prospect that would need time to grow into the job. We saw glimpses of his athleticism in 2019 but what makes him so interesting is that he gives Lamar Jackson a huge downfield target. At 6-foot-3, he’s five inches taller than 2019 first-round wideout Marquise Brown, but Boykin also blazed a 4.42 40-yard time at the 2019 combine. When he puts it all together, an already ridiculous offense will somehow be even better. 

The Ravens are stocked up with speedy-but-undersized playmakers at wide receiver. When healthy, Brown is a terror and the team selected Devin Duvernay and James Proche in the 2020 draft, undersized slot receivers who excel after the catch. But Boykin’s game is down the field where he can beat up smaller cornerbacks and win at the high point. Imagine being a defensive coordinator trying to figure out how to stop Jackson. Then add in Brown, one of the league’s most underrated tight ends in Mark Andrews, and then throw in Boykin, who has the talent to win down the field. (And we haven’t even mentioned the run game which now includes rookie second-rounder J.K. Dobbins, who joins Mark Ingram in the backfield.)

If Boykin emerges in 2020, the Ravens will be able to consistently threaten defenses at every level — short, intermediate and deep. This will be in addition to owning the league’s best run game, as well as a top-10 defense.

Cincinnati Bengals: Drew Sample

Drafted: No. 52 in 2019Final year of rookie deal: 2022

When Tyler Eifert was healthy, he was quietly one of the league’s best tight ends. In fact, in 2015 he ranked No. 1 in value per play and total value among all tight ends, according to Football Outsiders. Unfortunately, his career in Cincinnati was marred by injuries and one of Andy Dalton’s favorite targets missed 53 games over his seven seasons with the Bengals.

But Dalton is now in Dallas and Eifert is in Jacksonville. And new face of the franchise Joe Burrow will be thrown into the fire without the benefit of OTAs, and it’s safe to assume he’ll be looking for a reliable tight end to ease his transition from college to the NFL. That brings us to Drew Sample, an underutilized target at the University of Washington, where he caught just 25 passes as a senior in 2018, for 252 yards and three touchdowns. Sample excels as a run blocker but the expectation is that he becomes much more than that; after all, you don’t take a blocking tight end with the 52nd overall pick.

Here’s what Mike Potts, the Bengals director of college scouting, said shortly after the team drafted Sample.

Run blocking is the best thing that he does but what kept coming up in our draft meetings was do we want a guy that tested better that can take the top off the coverage or really stretch the seam and maybe you get two or three big plays a game out of that guy but you feel like you have to take him off the field in certain instances,” he told the Cincinnati Enquirer at the time. “We always talk about playtime percentages. Maybe that guy only ends up playing 30-40 percent of the snaps. Whereas, this guy, if you want to be in 11 or 12 personnel, whatever you want to be in, he conceivably doesn’t need to come off the field because he’s not a liability in the pass game.”

Sample managed just five receptions for 30 yards in nine games as a rookie, but the quarterback situation was also in flux. Now with Burrow under center, Sample has a chance to emerge as something more than a blocker, and if everything goes well, remind folks of those Dalton-to-Eifert connections back when the Bengals were regularly making the playoffs.

Cleveland Browns: Jedrick Wills

Drafted: No. 10 in 2020Final year of rookie deal: 2023

This is pretty easy: The Browns’ offensive line took several steps backs when Joe Thomas retired following the 2017 season. Desmond Harrison and Greg Robinson weren’t the answer, and 2018 free-agent signing Chris Hubbard struggled at right tackle after arriving from Pittsburgh. Taken together, the lack of consistency complicated quarterback Baker Mayfield’s development and the Browns, who were 0-16 in 2017, limped to 7-8-1 in 2018 and 6-10 last season.

On paper, Cleveland has enough firepower to play with anyone in the league. That has rarely been the case in real life, usually because of some self-inflicted wound that should’ve been altogether avoided. Wills, who was the most dominant offensive tackle in the 2020 draft class, was a no-brainer selection, and the all that aforementioned firepower will now have a chance to shine because the offensive line will be much-improved from a year ago.

The Browns signed right tackle Jack Conklin in free agency. He arrives from Tennessee where he helped protect Ryan Tannehill and create holes for Derrick Henry to run throw. Wills, who played right tackle at Alabama, will be tasked with moving to the left side. And while that seems like a nontrivial issue — it’s not often a college right tackle moves to left tackle to begin his NFL career — there are reasons for optimism too.

“[Wills] was the left tackle for us by playing right tackle because Tua [Tagovailoa] was left-handed,” Alabama coach Nick Saban told’s Mary Kay Cabot shortly after the draft. “But he always played right tackle. He played right tackle in high school, he’s always played right tackle here. He has all the physical abilities to be able to play left tackle. He’s got the feet, he can pass-block well enough, he’s smart, he can do all the things he needs to do to be a left tackle.”

Wills will now be tasked with protecting Mayfield’s blindside, and if he’s successful this could be the year we’ll have to take the Browns seriously.

Pittsburgh Steelers: James Washington

Drafted: No. 60 in 2018Final year of rookie deal: 2021

The Steelers will go as far as Big Ben takes them. Their defense is a top-3 unit but unless Minkah Fitzpatrick accounts for two touchdowns a game, Pittsburgh’s offense will have to get back on track. The organization seems sold that Roethlisberger will look a lot like himself once he’s back on the field, which will be great news for a wide receivers corps that had few opportunities a season ago.

And while JuJu Smith-Schuster and Vance McDonald saw their production fall off a cliff, rookie Diontae Johnson (59 catches, 680 yards, five touchdowns) and James Washington (44 catches, 735 yards, three touchdowns) put up impressive numbers. And it’s Washington, who is entering his third year, that has the most to prove.

Big Ben called him out during his rookie season after dropping a ball in a game the Steelers lost, but Washington played with a lot more confidence in Year 2. His 16.7 yards per catch ranked ninth among all NFL receivers, and he was 22nd in value per play among all wideouts, despite catching passes from Mason Rudolph and Duck Hodges.

In ’20, Washington will likely be the No. 3 receiver behind Smith-Schuster and Johnson, which means he’ll be facing nickel corners and safeties. You might point out that that was the case during his rookie season too. Now, however, Washington is playing with much more confidence, and if that translates onto the field the Steelers offense could again be the high-powered group we saw prior to 2019.

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