2014 NFL Preview: Best of the AFC North

Last season, the AFC North was far from one of the dominant divisions in the NFL. Only one of the four teams, the Cincinnati Bengals, made the playoffs and even they made a quick exit in the post-season.

The 2012 Super Bowl Champion Baltimore Ravens finished the season 8-8 and missed the post season, while the Pittsburgh Steelers missed the playoffs for a second season in a row, they too displayed an 8-8 record. The Steelers nearly made the playoffs, but a game-winning kick from Kansas City kicker, Ryan Succop‘s kick flew wide right and the Chargers marched into the playoffs. The Cleveland Browns, well, they were the Browns and missed the playoffs, nothing out of the ordinary.

The AFC North has a lot to prove this season and each team has an interesting storyline for the 2014 season. They also boast a wide range of players. We’ll take a look at the best players from the AFC North and what kind of impact they will have on this NFL season.

Offense

Quarterback

The Contenders: Andy Dalton, Bengals; Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers; Joe Flacco, Ravens; and Brian Hoyer/Johnny Maziel, Browns.

While the Browns’ quarterback situation is still up in the air they never have an elite player under center. The Bengals seem confident Dalton is the right guy, as the team recently signed him to a contract worth $115 million dollars. Dalton, however, has seen success in the regular season, but he’s fizzled in the playoffs and has yet to live up to the big bucks he’s now warning. This leaves Flacco and Roethlisbrger. Flacco finally got over the hump after winning a Super Bowl, but last season he showed that it might have been the team surrounding him that lifted him to the top. Flacco needs to get back on track this season and until then, he isn’t the best of the AFC North.

Ben Roethlisberger is the best option.

Despite the Steelers recent struggles, Roethlisberger’s been far from the issue. Big Ben has been the team’s most consistent player and he’s earned the right to be paid like Flacco and Dalton.

Last season Roethlisberger was the glue that held the Steelers together. He throw for 4,261-yards, 28 touchdowns and 14 interceptions last season. He’s one of the few elite quarterbacks the NFL has right now. He’s in his prime and there’s no reason to believe he won’t be give a fat contract come 2015. As long as Roethlisberger’s at the helm, the Steelers are Super Bowl contenders every season.

Running Back

The Contenders: Giovanni Bernard, Bengals; Ray Rice, Ravens; Le’Veon Bell, Steelers; and Ben Tate, Browns.

The AFC North will feature two veteran backs and two up-and-coming backs. The Steelers’ Bell is poised for a solid year. He was the answer to the Steelers’ virtually nonexistent running game and should be continue to success in his sophomore season. The Bengals’ Bernard is the second up-and-coming back. Bernard showed a lot promise last season and like Bell, he’s poised for a solid season.

The veterans, Ben Tate and Ray Rice still have gas left in the tank, but Ray Rice is the best running back, right now, in the AFC North.

While his off the field situation has the league and media in a tizzy, his on the field play is still expected to be on point. He’s suspended for the first two games of the season, but when he returns he should be the routine Rice the league has come to know.

Full Back

The Contenders: Will Johnson, Steelers and Kyle Juszczyk, Ravens.

The full back position isn’t what it used to be. It’s more of a utility position where players bounce from full back to tight end to even a slot receiver if necessary. Johnson and Juszczyk both define that. Will Johnson, however, is just a cut above Juszcyk. He’s been a sure-handed target for Big Ben and can be the guy to move the pile when needed.

Wide Receiver

The Contenders: Torrie Smith, Ravens; A.J. Green, Bengals; Antonio Brown, Steelers; and Josh Gordon, Browns.

The AFC North has a great crop of wide receivers. Arguable the best in any division. Each team needs a pair of receivers, so we’ll pick two receivers to represent the best of the AFC North.

Gordon is facing a season-long suspension and it doesn’t seem likely he’ll avoid it. We’ll rule him out, even though he’s a fantastic wide receiver and maybe the Browns’ best player. This leaves Green, Brown and Smith. All three are respectful choices but the two best come in colors; Green and Brown.

Brown has stepped up as the Steelers main receiver and in a year where the receiving corps has changed, he’s the only consistent receiver the team has got. Last season, Brown snagged 110 catches for 1,499-yards and eight touchdowns. His success with carry on into 2014 and he’ll be represent the AFC North more than well.

Green is another receiver who has made a name for himself. Considered a top five receiver in the entire NFL, Green reeled in 98 grabs for 1,426-yards and 11 touchdowns. He’s one of the best in the league and will be a major threat within the division. As long has he’s a weapon for Dalton the Bengals can succeed through the air.

Tight End

The Contenders:  Tyler Eifort, Bengals; Heath Miller, Steelers; Dennis Pitta, Ravens; and Jordan Cameron, Browns.

The tight end selection within the AFC North is far from slim. Each team has a solid tight end in place. Tyler Eifort still has some ways to go and same can be said for Cameron, but he has a jump on Eifort. Miller is one of the most underrated tight ends in the NFL and will continue to be a key contributor to the Steelers’ offense, but Pitta is the best of the bunch.

Pitta suffered a season-ending injury last year and this year he’ll look to rebound. Should he be back in top form he’ll be a main target for Flacco and help the Ravens’ offense get things in order.

Offensive Tackle

The Contenders: Andrew Whitworth, Andrew Smith, Bengals; Joe Thomas, Mitchell Schwartz, Browns; Eugene Monroe, Ricky Wagner, Ravens; and Kelvin Beachum, Marcus Gilbert, Steelers.

The best tackles in the AFC North are Thomas and Whitworth. Between the two, however, Thomas is a cut above the rest. He’s been a huge asset for the Browns. At 6-foot-6, 313 pounds, he’s a for to be had. The 8-year player is the kind of tackle a team dreams of and he’s been one of the best ever since he entered the NFL.

Whitworth is a worthy second to Thomas. He excels in pass blocking as he’s a valuable piece to the Bengals protection. Keeping their new mega-contract quarterback protected should be a priority and Whitworth is more than capable of getting the job done.

Guard

The Contenders: Clint Boling, Kevin Zeitler, Bengals; Joel Bitonio, John Greco, Browns; Kelechi Osemele, Marshal Yanda, Ravens; and Ramone Foster, David DeCastro, Steelers.

Yanda is a guard worthy of deeming best of the AFC North. He suffered a shoulder injury that hindered his play last season, but early signs indicate that he’s going to be healthy heading into the 2014 season. He’s a player with high intensity and if he remains healthy, he’ll be a strong piece in the Ravens’ offensive line.

Center

The Contenders: Russell Bodine, Bengals; Alex Mack, Browns; Jeremy Zuttah, Ravens; and Maurkice Pouncey, Steelers.

Mack is a top center and a crucial player in the Browns offensive line, but Pouncey is the best in the division. His recent off the field blunders have given his name a bad rep, but his on the field play has been top-notch. Last season he missed the entire season after tearing his ACL in the first game of the season. The Steelers were left reeling at center and with his return and heft contract — making him the highest paid center in the NFL — the Steelers should be sound from the center position.

Defense

Defensive Tackle

The Contenders: Geno Atkins, Bengals and Haloti Ngata, Ravens.

Both Atkins and Ngata are great defensive tackles. Each have had a respectful career thus far. Both, veterans of the game, but of the two, Atkins is the best choice. Atkins tore his ACL late last season and a full recovery will be the key for him in 2014. If he’s at 100 percent, expect Atkins to be a productive player on the Bengals defense.

Defensive End

The Contenders: Wallace Gilberry,Bengals; Billy Winn, Desmond Bryant, Browns; Chris Canty, Ravens; and Cam Heyward and Cam Thomas, Steelers.

Heyward, last season, had a breakout year for the Steelers. He’s a beast on the line and barring an injury it seems the only move for Heyward is up. While Canty is a solid veteran to the game, Heyward is still young and on the rise. The Steelers have to be happy with the production they saw out him last season and have to believe he will improve further in 2014.

Inside Linebacker

The Contenders: Karlos Dansby, Browns; C.J. Mosely and Daryl Smith, Ravens; and Ryan Shazier and Lawrence Timmons, Steelers.

Both the Ravens and Steelers have been known for their stout defenses, the Steelers especially with some if the most famous linebackers to play the game, but out of this crop, Dansby gets the nod.

Mosley and Shazier have all the potential to be studs in the NFL, but they’re still unproven. Dansby, the former Arizona Cardinal is an 11-year veteran who hd 6.5 sacks last season. He’s new to the Browns’ system but should be a spark at the linebacker position. His age will be a question, but if Dansbys still got it, then expect good numbers from him.

Outside Linebacker

The Contenders: Jason Worilds and Jarvis Jones, Steelers; Terrell Suggs, Ravens; and Paul Kruger, Browns.

Worilds and Jones should be on the verge of a very productive season, but it’s hard to not name Suggs the best outside linebacker in the AFC North.

Suggs was the perfect complement to Ray Lewis, and now that he’s retired, this is Suggs’ defense. Suggs, last season, tallied 10 sacks. He’s one of the best linebackers in the game and he’s always a threat for quarterback facing the Ravens. Suggs should post the same kind of numbers this season, if not higher.

Cornerback

The Contenders: Leon Hall, Bengals; Joe Haden, Browns; Lardarius Webb, Ravens; and Ike Taylor, Steelers.

Hall, Haden and Webb are all excellent corners while Taylor has been the Steelers’ best for a long-time, he’s a lost step or two. The best, however, is Haden.

Haden had four interceptions last season, but has provided the Browns’ secondary with Pro-Bowl-play. He should record ever better numbers this season. He’s not only the best in the division, but should be acknowledges as one of the rising, best corners int he entire league.

Free Safety

The Contenders: Reggie Nelson, Bengals; Tashaun Gipson, Browns; Darien Stewart, Ravens; and Mike Mitchell, Steelers.

Nelson is the best among the contenders for free safety. He doesn’t have the most jaw-dropping numbers but, he’s a solid safety who can make plays and be counted on for productivity in the Bengal’s secondary.

Strong Safety

The Contenders: Troy Polamalu, Steelers; George Iloka, Bengals; Donte Whitner, Browns; and Matt Elam, Ravens.

When you think of safeties in the AFC North, Polamalu has to come to mind. He’s arguably one of the best safeties to ever play the game. Polamalu’s unorthodox style of play has allowed him to come up with some of the most incredible plays in recent seasons.

No doubt Polamalu has lost some of his pizzazz, but he still has some gas left in the tank. If he’s able to play at a “Polamalu-level” then he’s always a dangerous secondary player and highlight reel waiting to happen.

Special Teams

Kicker:

The Contenders: Shaun Shuisham, Steelers; Justin Tucker, Ravens; Billy Cunduff, Browns; and Mike Nugent, Bengals.

Shuisham and Nugent are solid kickers and both get the job done for their respectful teams, but Tucker has been something to watch as of late. Last season, he gave the Ravens a spark at times and if a kicker is able to do that it’s worth giving him some praise. He’s still has some way to go, but he’s on the right path and should be considered the top kicker in the division.

Punter:

The Contenders: Kevin Huber, Bengals and Sam Koch, Ravens.

The nod goes to Koch. A nine-season punter has established himself as a reliable toe for the Ravens. In a game of field position having a dependable punter is a must.

Kickoff returner:

The Contender: Jacoby Jones, Ravens.

Even Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin tried to stop Jones once. He’s one of the best return man in the game and he’s certainly the best in the AFC North. He posses great acceleration and can be shifty when necessary. If it weren’t for the kickoffs being moved back, no doubt Jones would have more return touchdowns each season.

Punt returner:

The Contenders: Jacoby Jones, Ravens and Antonio Brown, Steelers.

Brown is the Steelers number one wide receiver and shouldn’t be fielding punts. While he’s had his fair share of returns, he’s too valuable to be in this spot. Jones, while valuable also, he’s a an excellent returner and like kickoffs, he excels in the role.

The Final Tally:

1. Baltimore Ravens: 8

The Ravens will be an interesting team to watch this season. Missing the playoffs last season and finishing 8-8 left a lot of people wondering just what happened. Even though Rice will not be around for the first two games, the Ravens still have the ability to compete for the division. Worst case, they claim a wild card spot. They’ll bounce back, they’re good enough to.

2. Pittsburgh Steelers: 6

The Steelers have miss the post-season two years in a row, finishing 8-8 both times. Tomlin isn’t on the hot seat, the Rooneys have patience with their coaches, but Steeler Nation is becoming very impatient. The Steelers, like the Ravens, have a chance to claim the division. They’ve cut times with the “old and slow” and have shifter to “young and fast.” The team is in the hands of up-and-coming stars and of course, Roethlisberger.

3. Cincinnati Bengals: 4

The Bengals have been the leader in the division as of late, but have sputtered in the playoffs. With Dalton’s big-money contract, there’s added pressure to both he and the team to take that next step. They’ll contend once more, but it will be more difficult with the Steelers and Ravens bouncing back.

4. Cleveland Browns

The Browns will continue to be the bottom feeder of the AFC North. Unless Johnny Football can give this organization a super-duper-franchise-spark, then the Brown will keep searching for an identify and finish in last place once more.

The Best Players in the NFL by Division

 

  • Bradyn R

    Mr. Petrovich, this article is Piss Poorovich. How was Burfict not even listed in the discussion? I guess he retired, huh. And Rice had some down years, but may be productive, but, is not arguably the best in the division now. Some good points on positions, but this article will deservedly get annihilated.

  • djlouey

    Your ignorance of football is exceeded only by your complete inability to form a coherent thought using the basic structures of the English language.

  • Maurice Jezus Venkman

    Ummmm, again VONTAZE BURFICT! Been spending a lot of time under rocks the past couple seasons?

  • Guest

    Ummmm, again VONTAZE BURFICT! been spend a lot of time under rocks the past couple seasons?

  • Michael

    Terrible article Ray Rice is washed up and if Bernard Pierce can stay healthy he’s their starter. Where’s Vontaze Burfict? He’s by far the best lb in the entire division and a top 10 in the league. And what about Carlos Dunlap, you need to know your subject matter before you attempt to do any type of analysis.

  • Philip Wischmeyer

    This list is terrible. Where is Vontaze Burfict? He is easily the best in the AFC North, and arguably in the whole NFL. And you didn’t even say who you picked at WR. Again, not even close with Green being the obvious choice. Mitchell and Elam are the best safeties. And how can you say Rice is the best RB when he didn’t even have 1,000 yards from scrimmage last year. Everyone believes he is on the decline.

    • John Smith

      Yeah, this is written by a Steelers fan, read the author’s bio. His credibility goes out the window. You’re correct on every point.

      • Philip Wischmeyer

        Only a Steelers fan would try to say that Antonio Brown is on the same level as A.J. Green.

        • Kick

          I would take ab over green any day of the week and twice on Sunday. When it comes to working hard to be better green can’t hold browns jock.

          • Philip Wischmeyer

            Well my friend, you are just simply wrong and that’s all there is to it. Your reasoning is clouded by your fandom. Just the fact that you made that statement proves that you actually do not know anything about A.J. Green or his work habits.

          • Kick

            We will see this year, Ben and AB will have a better year than dalton and green.

          • Philip Wischmeyer

            Alright buddy. Good luck with that.