Whatever your metaphor of choice – tables turning, a shifting landscape, the winds of change – it is clear that the 2012 season shook the foundations (I picked it for the AC/DC connection) of the AFC North. The Steelers missed the playoffs for the first time since 2009, the Bengals made their second straight playoff appearance, and the Ravens stormed their way through the playoffs to claim their second Lombardi Trophy. As for the Browns…let’s just say that my team has some work to do.
With this disturbance in the divisional hierarchy came similar shakeups in the battle for supremacy at a number of positions. With the 2013 season just around the corner, let’s take a look at who has established themselves at the top of the combined AFC North depth chart at each position. Maybe I’ll even get to mention a Brown or two.
The 2012 team can be found here.
(Note: I’ll be choosing more than 11 offensive players. I’m coaching this All-AFC North squad, and I want the flexibility to throw out three wide receivers on one play and 22 personnel (two tight ends, two backs) on the next. If you’ve got a problem with that, get your own divisional All-Pro team.)
The Contenders: Andy Dalton, Bengals; Joe Flacco, Ravens; Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers
Roethlisberger has long been the first choice amongst AFC North quarterbacks, but his battered body has made it impossible for him to keep his place at the summit. He has not played 16 games in a season since 2008. While the stats are still solid (3,265 yards on 63.3 completion percentage with 26 touchdowns against eight interceptions), I can’t pick him when I know that odds are he won’t be giving me a full season under center. While Dalton leading Cincinnati to the playoffs in each of his first two seasons is impressive and his numbers improved across the board in 2012, he is still a year or two away from actually competing for this position. Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco is the pick.
Flacco’s regular season stats are not anything close to mind-blowing, as his completion percentage was still just under 60% in 2012. Because of this inconvenient reality, many have virulently attacked the Flacco praise this offseason as being based on his incredible four game stretch during the Ravens’ playoff run. While that criticism is certainly true, when talking about quarterback, the most important and impactful position in all of sports, it makes sense to overvalue performances on the largest of stages. Flacco has proven that he can play well enough in the regular season to get a team to the playoffs – his five postseason appearances in five seasons, all as a starter, prove that – and once in the second season he lifts his play to another level. That’s good enough for me to pick him to lead my All-AFC North squad.
The Contenders: BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Bengals; Ray Rice, Ravens; Trent Richardson, Browns
The addition of Green-Ellis gave the Bengals their best backfield threat likely since the heyday of Corey Dillon. He racked up 1,094 yards on a mediocre average, but only made it to the endzone six times.
Richardson had a promising, if injury-plagued rookie season. In spite of missing the whole preseason after knee surgery, battling broken ribs for half the season and missing the final week of the regular season with a bum ankle, Richardson was still able to gain 950 yards on the ground and add 51 receptions for another 367 yards. Even more impressive, he found the endzone 13 times. While his 3.6 average wasn’t impressing anyone, he should improve now that he’s healthy for his sophomore campaign.
Ray Rice is still the class of AFC North backs. This season he was his usual dual threat self, totaling 1,143 rushing yards and nine touchdowns on a solid 4.4 average while also catching 61 passes out of the backfield for 478 yards and a touchdown. His most memorable play of the season actually came on a reception in Week 12 when he took a dump off from Flacco 30 yards to convert a miraculous 4th and 29 to spark a late fourth quarter comeback in San Diego. However you feel about Anquan Boldin’s possible block in the back that sprung Rice for the last few yards, you can’t argue with the choice of Rice to team with his backfield mate Flacco on the all-AFC North roster.
The Contenders: Vonta Leach, Ravens
My first draft of this piece said that this spot would go to Leach in a landslide if only he still played for Baltimore. I then spent another two paragraphs writing about the other three teams’ fullbacks, each of whom displayed either inconsistency or inexperience. When the three-time All-Pro and Pro Bowler resigned with the Ravens on July 29, my job in this section got immeasurably easier.
The Contenders: Davone Bess, Browns; Antonio Brown, Steelers; Josh Gordon, Browns; A.J. Green, Bengals; Emmanuel Sanders, Steelers; Torrey Smith, Ravens
AJ Green is an incredible talent and easily one of the top five receivers in the whole league. Unfortunately, the exodus of two proven pass catchers (Anquan Boldin and Mike Wallace) from the division has left the AFC North devoid of solid depth at wideout. That, combined with a good number of prolific tight ends (who we’ll get to shortly) and pass catching backs, leaves us with slim pickings to line up across from Green.
Brown had a respectable 66 catches last season, but may struggle without Wallace, as he will now be facing the opponent’s top corner each week. Gordon, who at 21 was one of the league’s youngest players last season, put together a rookie season that left Browns fans salivating for more. However, he now faces questions about his maturity, as he will face a two game suspension to begin the season for a violation’s of the NFL substance abuse policy. Sanders is still unproven as well, as his 44 receptions in 2012 represented a career high in his three seasons.
The best choice looks to be Torrey Smith. While he only caught 49 passes a season ago, those catches went for a 17.4-yard average and included eight touchdowns. With Boldin’s departure and the injury to Ravens tight end Dennis Pitta, Smith should see even more than the 110 targets he got last year. He’ll have to improve on that reception number, but his elite speed and ability to stretch a defense are the best choice to pair with Green’s all-around talent.
For my third receiver, I’ll take Browns offseason acquisition Davone Bess. As his five seasons in Miami proved, if you stick Bess in the slot he’ll give you 60 catches and a number of key third down conversions.
The Contenders: Jermaine Gresham, Bengals; Heath Miller, Steelers; Dennis Pitta, Ravens
I mentioned the division’s glut of talented tight ends. The group above doesn’t even include Benjamin Watson, who left the Browns for the New Orleans Saints in March after three productive seasons in Cleveland. Unfortunately, Miller tore his ACL and MCL in Week 16 last season, and he will miss at least the beginning of the season. He looks like he will start the regular season on the Reserve/ Physically Unable to Perform list, making him ineligible to be activated until after Week 6. Meanwhile, Pitta dislocated and fractured his hip on the opening days of training camp, knocking him out for the entire year. I’m giving Miller one spot on the team both for his proven performance over many seasons and the chance that he is able to return for at least some of this season.
While he works back, we’ll roll with Jermaine Gresham. He’s improved his receptions, yardage, and yards per catch in each of his three seasons while also amassing 15 touchdowns. Combine that with his performance in the Oklahoma Drill scene featured in the first episode of this season’s Hard Knocks and he’s a very worthy choice as the All-AFC North tight end, even if Miller and Pitta were fully healthy.
The Contenders: Marcus Gilbert, Steelers; Michael Oher, Ravens; Mitchell Schwartz, Browns; Andre Smith, Bengals; Joe Thomas, Browns; Andrew Whitworth, Bengals
For this exercise I won’t worry about making sure I take one left and one right tackle. Joe Thomas is a lock for the left tackle spot. He is one of the best tackles in the whole league, and he has been for almost the entirety of his career. While he’s not considered a mauler in the run game, he’s more than serviceable and his pass protection skills are second to none.
For the other spot, we have a number of solid choices. Oher is a nice player, but he has never fully lived up to the reputation that comes with having a feature film made about your life. Schwartz had a promising rookie campaign, but that small sample size isn’t enough to earn him the second tackle spot. Gilbert flies somewhat under the radar, but either of the Bengals are better choices. Horrific shirtless combine photo aside, Smith is a good tackle adept in both run blocking and pass protection. Andrew Whitworth, his counterpart on the left in Cincinnati, may be lesser known (largely because of the aforementioned picture), but he is even more effective. While he isn’t listed among the elite run blockers in the league, he is superb in pass protection, and that is why he’s the pick to line up opposite Thomas.
The Contenders: Clint Boling, Bengals; Kelechi Osemele, Ravens; Marshal Yanda, Ravens; Kevin Zeitler, Bengals
Marshal Yanda has been a stalwart on Baltimore’s frontline for six seasons. He is still listed on Active/Physically Unable to Perform on the Ravens website, but he recently returned to practice so he’s got one guard spot.
Osemele showed a lot of promise last season, especially through the Ravens’ Super Bowl run. The only problem is that he was playing right tackle for the regular season. I can’t give him a guard spot until we see more than a four game sample of his ability. Boling and Zeitler were both rated as top-25 guards last season, and both will enter their second year as a starter. Boling has more experience – he’s entering his third season – but Kevin Zeitler allowed only four sacks last season, so he’s the pick for the other guard spot.
The Contenders: Alex Mack, Browns; Maurkice Pouncey, Steelers
Now that Baltimore’s Matt Birk has retired, these two are the only competition for best center in the division. Pouncey – hat choices aside – is above average as an NFL center, but Alex Mack is one of the best the league has to offer. He has great size (6-foot-4, 311 pounds) and excels in both run blocking and pass protection. He’s our starter for the all-divisional team.
The Contenders: Geno Atkins, Bengals; Desmond Bryant, Browns; Haloti Ngata, Ravens; Phil Taylor, Browns
Including Bryant here is somewhat disingenuous since he is playing defensive end in Cleveland’s new 3-4 scheme, but it doesn’t matter because he’s not cracking the All-AFC North squad. Taylor will be manning the middle in new defensive coordinator Ray Horton’s system. He is a very good player, and will continue to be even if his stats decline in his new role. However, this position is an embarrassment of riches so he’s not going to be one of the selections either.
Ngata’s stats aren’t as impressive due to Baltimore’s base 3-4 defense, but he has consistently been one of the top performers in the NFL throughout his seven seasons. Atkins might be even better. He racked up 12.5 sacks last season and has grown into one of the league’s most feared tackles. I’m picking them both to be safe and either lining them up next to each other in a 4-3 or having Ngata play the nose and putting Atkins at one of the ends if I want to show a 3-4 front.
The Contenders: Carlos Dunlap, Bengals; Ziggy Hood, Steelers; Michael Johnson, Bengals; Brett Keisel, Steelers
This is one of the harder positions to examine because it requires comparing 3-4 ends from the Browns, Ravens, and Steelers who don’t necessarily rack up huge sack and tackle for loss numbers – the numbers most commonly used to compare defensive ends – with 4-3 players in Cincinnati. Baltimore has a new arrival in Chris Canty, but it remains to be seen how he will perform after transitioning from the 4-3 he played in with the Giants to the 3-4 used in Baltimore. The same goes for Desmond Bryant and Ahtyba Rubin in Cleveland – two guys who have previously played defensive tackle and will now be asked to move to end as Ray Horton installs the 3-4.
Hood is 26 to Keisel’s 34, but Keisel has been more productive throughout his career and sports a better beard, so I’m taking him at one end. More casual fans will recognize Dunlap’s name, but Johnson has accumulated better numbers than him to this stage in their careers. While Dunlap is young at 24 and could have a breakout year, Johnson is only two years older (he’s played one season more) so I’ll take the added production and pick Johnson as the AFC North team’s other defensive end. Dunlap would be the next man up if either Keisel or Johnson go down.
The Contenders: Larry Foote, Steelers; D’Qwell Jackson, Browns; Jameel McClain, Ravens; Lawrence Timmons, Steelers
McClain has been a consistently serviceable player for Baltimore, but he will likely struggle this year as he steps into the retired Ray Lewis’s old role alongside new Raven Daryl Smith (formerly of Jacksonville). He can’t make this team when it’s very possible that Lewis, who will be working at ESPN this season, could still be just as effective as McClain.
Jackson has always racked up absurd tackle numbers on some bad Browns defenses (including unfathomable totals like 154 in 2008 and 158 in 2011). He only registered 118 combined stops last year, but added value in other ways with three and a half sacks, two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, seven passes defended, and two interceptions – one of which he took back for a touchdown. That kind of stellar all-around season earns Jackson one inside backer spot. It will be interesting to see how he transitions to his new role in the 3-4, but don’t anticipate too many problems.
For the second spot at inside linebacker, we need to choose between two Steelers stalwarts. Almost any team would love to start Foote in the middle of their defense, but I’m giving Timmons the nod for the same reasons I just cited with Jackson: all-around excellence. Timmons added six sacks, three interceptions (including one touchdown return), five passes defended, two forced fumbles, and one recovery to his 106 tackles. That stat sheet-stuffing season earns him the spot next to (or backing up) Jackson.
The Contenders: Vontaze Burfict, Bengals; Elvis Dumervil, Ravens; James Harrison, Bengals; Paul Kruger, Browns; Jabaal Sheard, Browns; Terrell Suggs, Ravens; LaMarr Woodley, Steelers
This position is an obvious strength within the division, due largely to the presence of three teams playing the 3-4, where the outside linebackers are frequently called upon to rush the quarterback and put up impressive numbers in the sack column. With so many options, we need some way to cut the list down. I need a consistent and proven performer, so let’s cut Burfict, who is only entering this second season. Same goes for Sheard (who is transitioning from defensive end to outside backer) and Kruger. Those three could all find themselves on this team in coming seasons, but it’s too early to anoint them now.
Dumervil will also make the switch from end to linebacker as he comes east after spending his first seven years with the Broncos. He has averaged almost eight sacks a season over his six campaigns (he missed the 2010 season with an injury), but his transition from a 4-3 end to a 3-4 linebacker makes it hard to choose him. Woodley has missed nine games over the past two seasons and his stats have taken a predictable hit. I would like to see him play one healthy season and return his numbers to 2008-10 levels before I trust him as a starter on the divisional squad. Harrison has also missed eight games over the last two years and makes the transition from Pittsburgh’s 3-4 to the 4-3 in Cincinnati. However, he is still, for my money, the most feared hitter in all of football, and that has to count to something. I’m taking him at one outside linebacker spot in spite of his advanced age at 35. For the other starting spot, give me Suggs. He only played eight regular season games after tearing his Achilles in the 2012 offseason, but I expect him to make a quick return to the numbers he was putting up before that injury. As backups, I would take Woodley and Dumervil.
The Contenders: Cortez Allen, Steelers; Joe Haden, Browns; Leon Hall, Bengals; Terence Newman, Bengals; Ike Taylor, Steelers; Lardarius Webb, Ravens
Taylor and Newman are both good, not great players who have been consistent NFL performers for over a decade. However, both have experienced statistical dips in recent seasons and seem to be on the downside of their careers.
At their ages (Newman is 34, Taylor 33), both are still above average corners, but there are better options amongst this group. Hall, while not as old at 28, is likewise an established player whose numbers have fallen off a bit in the last couple of seasons.
Allen had a promising second season, but needs to show improved and consistent performance before he makes a legitimate challenge to Haden and Webb, who are clearly the best two cornerbacks in the division. Both players missed games last season, but they are still the top performers in the AFC North and two of the best in the whole NFL. Webb’s 2011 campaign was nothing short of spectacular, as he made 67 tackles, grabbed five interceptions (returning one for a touchdown), and defended an insane 20 passes. Haden has only had three picks since the six he recorded in his rookie season, but that is because teams no longer throw at him. In 2011, he defended 19 passes, made 65 tackles, forced a fumble, and recovered another. Haden and Webb are the division’s best cornerbacks, and there’s really no one else close to them.
The Contenders: Ryan Clark, Steelers; Michael Huff, Ravens; Reggie Nelson, Bengals
Huff enters his first season in Baltimore after leaving the Raiders in the offseason. He had a solid 2012 in pass coverage with 13 passes defended, but only registered 56 tackles, a considerably lower number than the other two candidates.
Clark has had consistently high tackle numbers for a free safety, but is not as proficient in coverage as Nelson. While Nelson doesn’t make as many tackles as Clark, he is still solid in run support and is also 29 to Clark’s 33. His balance between run support and coverage skills, as well as his relatively young age, make Nelson my pick at free safety. While this spot was Ed Reed’s for years, Nelson is more than adequate as a replacement, as exemplified by his selection in Pro Football Focus’s Top 101 of 2012 (number 99).
The Contenders: Troy Polamalu, Steelers; T.J. Ward, Browns
Everyone knows Troy Polamalu at this point in his career. He’s giving you a ton of tackles, solid pass coverage, commercials for hair products, and a few plays that absolutely take your breath away. However, he played just seven games last season, bringing his total for missed time to 22 games in the past four seasons. At age 32, can you still rely on a player who relies so much on his athleticism to cash the checks that his acute football instincts write?
Ward has quietly become one of the league’s top strong safeties, earning him the 97th spot in the Pro Football Focus list. He allowed just 12 receptions in his coverage last season and missed just one tackle for every 17.5 he attempted, the second best mark among all safeties. He has had his own injury concerns (10 missed games in two seasons), but with Polamalu’s age, I have more trust in Ward’s ability to stay healthy and will take him for the All-AFC North team.
The Contenders: Mike Nugent, Bengals; Shaun Suisham, Steelers; Justin Tucker, Ravens
Longtime Browns kicker – and probably their best player since the team’s 1999 reformation – Phil Dawson is gone to San Francisco. Both Nugent and Suisham are established as solid NFL kickers. However, Tucker turned many heads in his rookie season, nailing 30 of his 33 attempts, including four field goals of 50 yards or longer. Furthermore, he did the little things as well, not missing a single extra point. Finally, he is great on kickoffs, where he adds a ton of value when compared to the other two candidates. Tucker booted touchbacks on 49 of his 88 kickoffs last season, the fifth best total in the league and a considerable amount more than either Suisham (29 touchbacks on 75 kickoffs) or Nugent (21 of his 65 kickoffs). That power combined with the placekicking accuracy earns the young Tucker this spot.
The Contenders: Kevin Huber, Bengals; Sam Koch, Ravens
These two had very similar stats last season. Koch has been around longer, but his stats have been subject to a decent amount of year-to-year fluctuation. Huber meanwhile has improved his net average each of his four previous seasons in the league. That, along with his stellar 43.4 inside 20 percentage from a season ago give him the spot as the division’s best.
The Contenders: Jacoby Jones, Ravens
With Josh Cribbs gone from Cleveland’s roster, Jones has a stranglehold on this spot. He led the league with a 30.7-yard return average last season. He also took two kicks back for touchdowns in the regular season and then added another in the Super Bowl. He is the class of the division without any real competition.
The Contenders: Travis Benjamin, Browns; Jacoby Jones, Ravens
Jones is a decent option and did take one punt back for a touchdown last season, but he can’t compare to the diminutive speedster Benjamin. While he was stuck behind Cribbs on the depth chart last season and only got three chances to return punts, he did take one back for a 93-yard touchdown. He added a 91-yard touchdown against the Rams in the first preseason game, and looks primed to be a key special teams weapon for the Browns this season.
The Final Tally
Baltimore Ravens: 10 (Joe Flacco, Ray Rice, Vonta Leach, Torrey Smith, Marshal Yanda, Haloti Ngata, Terrell Suggs, Lardarius Webb, Justin Tucker, Jacoby Jones)
Cincinnati Bengals: 9 (A.J. Green, Jermaine Gresham, Andrew Whitworth, Kevin Zeitler, Geno Atkins, Michael Johnson, James Harrison, Reggie Nelson, Kevin Huber)
Cleveland Browns: 7 (Davone Bess, Joe Thomas, Alex Mack, D’Qwell Jackson, Joe Haden, T.J. Ward, Travis Benjamin)
Pittsburgh Steelers: 2 (Brett Keisel, Lawrence Timmons)
I’ll surely be accused of anti-Pittsburgh bias, but these results are mostly in line with my expectations for the division this season. The Browns should surprise some teams and hover around .500. I expect Cincinnati and Baltimore to battle for the division title, but Baltimore’s departures (Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Anquan Boldin, Paul Kruger) and the injury to Dennis Pitta should severely hamper them on both sides of the ball, making the Bengals to favorites to dethrone the Super Bowl Champions atop the division. I expect the Steelers to struggle as many of their key players grow older and they struggle to surround Ben Roethlisberger with offensive threats after Mike Wallace’s departure and Heath Miller’s injury that will keep him out for the beginning of the season.
What do you think? Am I a talentless hack who doesn’t actually watch any team except the Browns or is this team the best the AFC North has to offer? Let me know in the comments.