The AFC North produced three playoff teams last season, largely thanks to young players stepping up their production. As one of the most talented divisions in the NFL, the North consistently generates breakout stars. In 2020, two new All-Pros emerged along with several developing safeties.
Let’s set a few rules before we start. Rookies weren’t included in the selection process because they only have one season under their belts. While I’m only planning on selecting one player per team, I reserve the right to mention two names.
This article is the second edition in an eight-part series covering each division, so check back regularly for more content.
Baltimore Ravens- DeShon Elliott, S
When the Ravens selected Elliott in the sixth-round of the 2019 NFL Draft, they never envisioned the Texas product starting in 2020. Baltimore added Elliott as an insurance pick after his highly productive junior year with the Longhorns, but the franchise felt secure with Chuck Clark and Earl Thomas in the secondary.
Thomas’ situation in Baltimore went spiraling out of control last summer, and the Ravens cut him weeks before the 2020 season. After playing fewer than 60 defensive snaps in his six appearances as a rookie, Elliott started every game and played over 1,000 snaps on defense this past year. He wasn’t a dominant player, but Elliott proved he could hold down a starting job.
Cincinnati Bengals- Jessie Bates III, S
While Minkah Fitzpatrick and Derwin James are the most well-known members of the 2018 safety class, Bates outperformed both stars this past season. After a stellar first year that earned him a spot on the All-Rookie Team, the Wake Forest product wasn’t as consistent in 2019. He was still above average but did not indicate that a massive third-year leap was on the way. Now, football fans should view Bates as a top-three safety in the NFL.
Bates started all 16 games for Cincinnati this past season. He intercepted three passes and had over 100 tackles for the third consecutive year but set a career-high with 15 passes defensed. According to Pro Football Reference, quarterbacks only completed 54.3% of their throws for a 70.7 passer rating when targeting Bates.
Cleveland Browns- Jack Conklin, OT & Wyatt Teller, G
The Buffalo Bills are probably kicking themselves for trading Teller for low-round draft picks two years ago. Buffalo originally selected Teller in the fifth-round in 2018, but the franchise shipped him to Cleveland after just one season. The Virginia Tech product only started nine of his 15 appearances for the Browns in 2019 before an unexpected breakout campaign vaulted him to the top of the NFL.
While Teller only started in 11 games this past season because of injuries, he was a Second-Team All-Pro for the Associated Press (AP) and a First-Team All-Pro for Pro Football Focus (PFF). Teller’s 92.9 PFF grade ranked first among all qualified guards.
Conklin burst into the NFL as the eighth overall pick in 2016. The right tackle was a First-Team All-Pro as a rookie and seemed destined for a great career. However, he suffered declining play over his next four seasons in Tennessee. The Michigan St. product arrived in Cleveland last offseason and made an immediate impact. He earned First-Team All-Pro honors and posted the highest PFF grade of his career.
Pittsburgh Steelers- Terrell Edmunds, S & Stephon Tuitt, DE
I maintain that drafting Edmunds at 28th overall in 2018 was one of Pittsburgh’s worst first-round decisions in the past 20 years. However, Pro Football Reference credits the 24-year-old with only allowing a 70.8 passer rating when targeted in 2020. That’s a massive improvement on the horrendous 131.6 rating he allowed in 2019 and the 83.0 rating from his rookie season.
Like Cameron Heyward, Tuitt has consistently produced for Pittsburgh since joining the team and is getting better with age. He’s experienced significant growth over the past three seasons. After injuries cut a promising 2019 campaign short, Tuitt set career-highs with 11 sacks (eight-most in the NFL) and ten tackles for loss this past season. Pro Football Reference credits him with 36 pressures.