When I think of the AFC North, a certain brand of football comes to mind. Gritty, tough, and nasty, this division is packed with rivalries. Ravens/Steelers is arguably the best in the NFL. The “Hines Ward Rule,” Vontaze Burfict’s hit on Antonio Brown. Myles Garrett and the helmet swing. The list goes on. There is no love lost between these four teams.
In the last six years, the Steelers, Ravens, and Bengals have each won the AFC North twice. The long-suffering Browns have even returned to relevance, making the playoffs in 2020 where they knocked off Pittsburgh. 2023 will be Deshaun Watson’s first full season as a Brown and this could very well turn into an even tighter race for the AFC North crown.
For now, the Cincinnati Bengals certainly appear to be the team to beat. Coming off a Super Bowl loss in Joe Burrow’s second season in the NFL, they have again entered the playoffs hot, rattling off eight straight wins.
2023 NFL Draft: Cincinnati Bengals
Make no mistake; the Bengals window is now. With Joe Burrow, Ja’Marr Chase, and Tee Higgins on their rookie deals, the Bengals are hyper-competitive but still maintain the financial flexibility to add pieces where needed. It will be crucial that the Bengals continue to draft well.
Young, elite players eventually come off of their rookie deals and expect to be paid market value. The Bengals will need to grapple with that in the coming offseasons. Having good, young talent waiting in the wings helps when weighing those free agency decisions. The real skill is in balancing the franchise’s current needs, with consideration for future needs. Because of this, the Bengals could go in a several different directions in the 2023 NFL Draft.
Top Draft Needs: CB, SAF, OT
The Bengals play in the AFC. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you realize that the AFC is loaded with several elite passing offenses. The Bengals finished with the fifth-best passing attack (265 ypg). Of the four teams ahead of them, three of them (Chiefs, Chargers, Dolphins) play in the AFC. In order to maintain a level of relevance in this conference, adding playmakers to your secondary is vitally important.
At cornerback, Eli Apple and Tre Flowers will be free agents this offseason. The Bengals may re-sign one or the other, but depth at the position will be on the radar regardless. On top of that, Chidobe Awuzie may not be ready for Week 1 after suffering a knee injury in Week 8. At safety, Jessie Bates III and Vonn Bell are both set to hit free agency in the offseason. This is one of the best safety duos in the NFL and replacing either guy is going to be challenging. I believe the Bengals will address both corner and safety in the NFL Draft.
Outside of the secondary, the Bengals may also look to bolster their offensive line. Despite the makeover in 2022, the position group remains a weakness. Protecting Joe Burrow is a must, and this is the year to need offensive line help (specifically at OT).
I could also see a world where the Bengals draft a pass catcher. Though the receiver room is a strength, Tee Higgins is going to want WR1 money when he hits free agency next offseason and the Bengals may decide to let him walk. Tight end Hayden Hurst will be a free agent this offseason and while he’s had a solid season, the Bengals may need to look to the draft if they choose not to retain him in free agency.