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AFC North 2022 NFL Draft Preview: Current projected starting lineups, biggest remaining needs and ideal draft fits

Clemson, South Carolina, USA; Clemson Tigers cornerback Andrew Booth Jr. (23) celebrates after a Clemson fumble recovery against the Florida State Seminoles during the fourth quarter at Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ken Ruinard-USA TODAY Sports

If it wasn't for the AFC West additions this offseason, the AFC North would be labeled the best division in the NFL. 

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The Pittsburgh Steelers, who haven’t recorded a losing season since Mike Tomlin took over as head coach 15 seasons ago, are the comfortable favorite to finish last. Having said that, they have arguably improved from the team that earned a playoff berth in 2021 due to the potential return of an impact defensive player such as Stephon Tuitt, offensive line reinforcements in free agency and a likely upgrade at quarterback. 

It’s going to be a weekly battle in the division, which is why it's important for each team to find impact players in the 2022 NFL Draft. Therefore, let's preview each team’s starters stand right now and where they could look to upgrade early in the draft. 

All salary cap data and 2022 cap hits are from Over the Cap

Cincinnati Bengals

Effective cap space remaining (Over the Cap): $16.2 million
Picks in the 2022 NFL Draft: 31, 63, 95, 136, 174, 210, 227, 253

Projected starters on offense
Position Player 2021 PFF grade rank 2022 cap hit
QB Joe Burrow 1/32 $9.9M
RB Joe Mixon 14/62 $11.4M
WR Ja’Marr Chase 7/115 $7.0M
WR Tee Higgins 9/115 $2.4M
WR Tyler Boyd 48/115 $10.1M
TE Hayden Hurst 59/70 $3.5M
LT Jonah Williams 18/38 $5.6M
LG ?
C Ted Karras 7/36 (at LG) $5.0M
RG Alex Cappa 10/39 $6.8M
RT La’el Collins 8/44 $4.2M

The Bengals’ mission this offseason was to rebuild the offensive line, and that mission is largely accomplished with three new veteran starters from center to right tackle. Hurst returns to the AFC North to fill C.J. Uzomah‘s shoes at tight end, who is now in New York. 

The only real starting question remaining on offense is at left guard. The Bengals are hoping 2021 second-round pick Jackson Carman makes a second-year leap and wins that job, but Cincinnati could be looking to bring in competition through the later waves of free agency or the 2022 NFL Draft. The Bengals also have the flexibility to add a center and kick Karras to left guard, where he started for New England in 2021, though it looks like he’s expected to play center as things stand right now. 

Projected starters on defense
Position Player 2021 PFF grade rank 2022 cap hit
DI D.J. Reader 9/110 $13.7M
DI B.J. Hill 26/110 $8.3M
EDGE Trey Hendrickson 27/107 $14.5M
EDGE Sam Hubbard 44/107 $7.2M
LB Logan Wilson 31/87 $1.3M
LB Germaine Pratt 47/87 $2.8M
CB Chidobe Awuzie 14/116 $7.3M
CB ?
SCB Mike Hilton 26/116 $5.0M
S Vonn Bell 21/92 $7.5M
S Jessie Bates III 37/92 $12.9M

There aren’t many glaring starting holes for the Bengals on the defensive side of the ball, either. Their biggest offseason question was answered in the form of a franchise tag extended to Bates. Hill was also brought back on an extension to start next to Reader at defensive tackle. 

Cincinnati’s top priority in the first few rounds of the draft will likely be to add competition at the second outside cornerback position after re-signing Eli Apple. He has all the physical tools to be an above-average starter outside, but that player has yet to materialize six years into his NFL career. Apple earned a 60.5 PFF grade in 2021. 

Ideal draft fit for biggest need: CB Andrew Booth Jr., CLEMSON

There’s a decent chance that Booth isn’t there for the Bengals at No. 31 overall. His expected draft position (EDP) on Grinding the Mocks currently sits at No. 27, but news that he’ll have core muscle surgery and not work out at either the combine or Clemson’s pro day could push him slightly down boards. 

Booth has excellent feet and a versatile skill set that can fit nearly any scheme. He earned a 78.4 PFF grade with a 70.0 passer rating allowed in his lone season as a full-time starter with Clemson in 2021. 

It would be big for Cincinnati to add a potential rookie starter such as Booth at cornerback on a defense that has largely been built through free agency over the last two seasons. 

Pittsburgh Steelers

Effective cap space (Over the Cap): $13.3 million
Picks in the 2022 NFL Draft: 20, 52, 84, 138, 209, 226, 242

Projected starters on offense
Position Player 2021 PFF grade rank 2022 cap hit
QB ?
RB Najee Harris 30/62 $3.0M
WR Diontae Johnson 39/115 $3.1M
WR Chase Claypool 65/115 $1.8M
WR ?
TE Pat Freiermuth 9/70 $1.4M
LT Dan Moore Jr. 34/38 $1.0M
LG ?
C ?
RG ?
RT Chukwuma Okorafor 31/44 $4.3M

All of these question marks aren’t areas where Pittsburgh needs to add someone in the draft. The three interior offensive line starters should already be on the roster after signing James Daniels and Mason Cole in free agency, but it remains to be seen where they fit in with Kevin Dotson, Kendrick Green and J.C. Hassenauer fighting for starting spots, as well. 

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