For all of the hype given the NFC East, the AFC North was the best division in the NFL in 2011. Three of the four teams made the playoffs last season, with only the Browns not playing into January. The Steelers and Ravens have masterfully turned over their rosters, remaining competitive while getting younger at key positions. The Bengals took a huge leap forward in 2011, led by Andy Dalton and A.J. Green. The Browns, well, at least they have a new owner.
A look at the 2012 AFC North’s preseason All-Star Team:
QB: Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh – Roethlisberger’s numbers are seldom in the category of guys like Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady, but there are few QB’s who are as good in the 4th quarter and who simply win as much Roethlisberger. Ben will be the premium QB in the division in 2012.
RB: Ray Rice, Baltimore – Coming off his best season and armed with a new contract, Rice is a monster who is not only the best RB in the division, he may be the best in the NFL. Rice has had over 2,000 yards from scrimmage in 2 of his 3 seasons as a starter.
WR: Mike Wallace, Pittsburgh – Provided he reports to camp, that is. Wallace tore through the NFL the first half of 2011 before tailing off over the final six weeks of the season, but there are few better deep threats in the NFL.
WR: A.J. Green, Cincinnati – Green burst onto the scene as a rookie in 2011, eclipsing 1,000 yards receiving despite missing nearly 2 full games with a knee injury.
WR: Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh – A tough call over Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin, Brown gets the nod after finishing 15th in the NFL in 2011 with 1,108 receiving yards and with 57 of his 69 catches going for 1st downs.
TE: Heath Miller, Pittsburgh – In a division lacking dynamic players at the TE position, Miller led all AFC North TE’s in receiving yards while being a force as a blocker. Jermaine Gresham could supplant Miller as the division’s best TE, but he’s not there yet.
T: Joe Thomas, Cleveland & Andrew Whitworth, Cincinnati – Thomas is a mauler who is far and away the best player on the Browns’ offense. Whitworth was up and down in 2011, but he’s the next best of a shaky bunch of tackles in the AFC North.
G: Marshall Yanda, Baltimore & David Decastro, Pittsburgh – A position in flux throughout the division, each of the four teams is breaking in at least one new starter at OG. Yanda anchors a Ravens line that could struggle without Ben Grubbs. Decastro has yet to take an NFL snap, but is the most polished OG to come into the league in a decade.
C: Maurkice Pouncey, Pittsburgh – Pouncey edges out Cleveland’s Alex Mack for the nod, although Pouncey’s recurring high ankle sprains are becoming concerning. Pouncey’s athleticism is nearly unequaled for the position, and the Steelers hope he and Decastro form a dynamic interior presence for the next decade.
DE: Carlos Dunlap, Cincinnati & Frostee Rucker, Cleveland – Another position that lacks elite playmakers throughout the division, Dunlap is certainly the standout with 14 sacks in 2011. Rucker moves from Cincinnati to Cleveland to bolster a young DL with DT Phil Taylor missing much of the season with an injury. Baltimore’s Terrence Cody and Pittsburgh’s Cam Heyward could break into this mix by season’s end.
NT: Haloti Ngata, Baltimore – For all the publicity that Ed Reed and Ray Lewis get, it’s Ngata that is truly the disruptive force in Baltimore’s defense. Ngata is simply the best interior defensive lineman in the NFL. Cincinnati’s Geno Atkins would be #1 on this list in many divisions
OLB: James Harrison, Pittsburgh & LaMarr Woodley, Pittsburgh – This position has been decimated by injuries already, with Baltimore’s Terrell Suggs and Cleveland’s Chris Gocong out for the season. Harrison may be slipping a bit due to age and back issues, but there are still few OLB as disruptive as he and Woodley. Cincinnati’s duo of Manny Lawson and Thomas Howard is very underrated as well.
ILB: D’Qwell Jackson, Cleveland & Ray Lewis, Baltimore – Pittsburgh’s Lawrence Timmons should be on this list, but his production has never reached his potential. After two injury-plagued seasons, Jackson had an absurd 158 tackles in 2011. Lewis is slowing and is not the player he was 5 years ago, but he’s still an impact player and the leader of the Ravens’ defense.
CB: Joe Haden, Cleveland & Ladarius Webb, Baltimore – The AFC North is loaded with quality corners, including Pittsburgh’s Ike Taylor, Cincinnati’s Leon Hall, and Baltimore’s up-and-coming Jimmy Smith. Haden is the best player on the Browns’ defense and has been everything he was expected to be coming out of Florida, while Webb came out of nowhere to become a true shutdown CB in Baltimore.
S: Troy Polamalu, Pittsburgh & Ed Reed, Baltimore – Two of the best safeties in the game, Polamalu and Reed can dominate games from the secondary in very different ways. Polamalu is most effective when attacking the line of scrimmage, while Reed is the best centerfielders in the NFL.
K: Mike Nugent, Cincinnati – Nugent made 33 of 38 FG’s in 2011 and also featured the second-lowest average kickoff return in the NFL.
P: Sam Koch, Baltimore – Koch averaged 46.5 yards a punt in 2011.
Cch: Mike Tomlin, Pittsburgh – Although Tomlin’s in-game strategy can make Steelers’ fans insane on Sunday’s, there is no coach in the NFL better at keeping his team on message and motivated.