Less than two months until NFL Opening Weekend 2014, the AFC North is as unpredictable of a division as any in the NFL.
The reigning champion Cincinnati Bengals are reloaded for another run at the division crown, while the Baltimore Ravens, Pittsburgh Steelers and Cleveland Browns have made their fair share of offseason moves to make a run at dethroning the reigning champs.
No team stands out as the worst, no team stands out at the best (although it’s Cincinnati’s division until further notice).
But what if one team was made from all four?
If you could form a team using a pool of every player in the AFC North, how would yours look?
The crop is a talented one to choose from, and making an All-AFC North team isn’t easy, but it’s doable.
-If a player is in the AFC North right now, he is eligible. Rookies, free agent additions, any player. This team is based on the best players in the division heading into 2014, not solely (but for a good portion) based on 2013 performances.
-One notable omission is Browns receiver Josh Gordon. He isn’t playing in the NFL any time soon, and it’s hard to even consider him an NFL player at this point, let alone a member of the AFC North.
Ben Roethlisberger – His relevance may be fading as the Steelers have struggled to make the playoffs in recent years, but his talent certainly isn’t. Pittsburgh’s failure to finish above .500 last season overshadowed the fact that Roethlisberger had one of the best seasons of his NFL career, which is saying something.
Playing in all 16 games for the first time since 2008, Roethlisberger completed over 64 percent of his passes, had a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 2-to-1 (28 touchdowns, 14 interceptions) and was his usual escape artist self.
The division’s younger crop of quarterbacks – Joe Flacco, Andy Dalton, Johnny Manziel – all have the potential to establish themselves as the division’s best sometime soon, but until further notice, Roethlisberger has been and is still undoubtedly the division’s best quarterback.
Gio Bernard – As the saying goes, the NFL is a copycat league, and that was evident when the Bengals drafted Bernard in the second round of the 2013 NFL draft. Small, quick, above average receiver, a.k.a. everything Ray Rice is/was. The Bengals likely saw the success the Ravens had with Rice in his prime and looked for a Rice of their own in Bernard.
In his first NFL season, Bernard proved himself as a versatile threat, averaging 4.1 yards per attempt on the ground while catching 56 passes. For years AFC North foes feared Rice on a play-by-play basis. Bernard is quickly approaching that status.
Le’Veon Bell – Bernard headlines the gifted young talent pool of running backs in the division, and after a strong rookie season, Bell asserted himself near the top of that list. The Steelers desperately needed help at running back heading into 2013 and Bell did the job in his first year.
A patient runner with desirable between-the-tackles vision, Bell is also a valuable commodity in the passing game as he caught 45 passes in just 13 games last season.
Jordan Cameron – Once just an athlete with potential at the position, Cameron burst onto the scene in exciting fashion in his third NFL season, displaying himself as a complete tight end while catching 80 passes in the process.
He’ll be just 26 years old when the regular season kicks off with his best years still ahead of him.
A.J. Green – Well, hello! Three seasons in and Green is already one of the NFL’s premier wide receivers, with back-to-back near-100 catch seasons to back up his case. He’s established himself as Andy Dalton’s go-to man and hasn’t disappointed.
Two 11 touchdown seasons to his name and almost 4,000 receiving yards in just three seasons.
Antonio Brown – Quietly one of the most productive receivers in the NFL last season, Brown and Green stand alone in their own tier atop the division when it comes to receivers.
Brown amassed 110 catches and nearly 1,500 yards in his fourth NFL season, and at just 25 years old, it’s hard not to think he’ll get even better.
Joe Thomas/Eugene Monroe – We’ll keep it short and to the point here. There are only two above average offensive tackles in the division, and Thomas and Monroe are both in the upper tier of left tackles in the NFL.
Marshal Yanda – He had a down year for Marshal Yanda standards last season, but overall he was still one of the best guards in the division. Offseason shoulder surgery slowed down his 2013 season, but it’s a safe bet to say Yanda will return to pre-2013 form this year.
David DeCastro – For a few years Yanda was in a class of his own when it came to AFC North guards, and DeCastro may be the next one to carry the torch.
His rookie year was halted by an early-season knee injury, but in 2013, DeCastro displayed the qualities that made him a top offensive line prospect in the 2012 NFL draft.
Alex Mack – Year in and year out Mack is in a class of his own as the AFC North’s premier center, and is consistently in discussion among the NFL’s top players at the position.
Mack returned to the Browns on a five-year deal this offseason and will continue to be the anchor of Cleveland’s interior offensive line.
Geno Atkins – His 2013 season was cut short due to a torn ACL, but if he can return to pre-injury form, Atkins will go back to being one of the NFL’s most disruptive interior defensive linemen.
With fellow AFC North tackle Haloti Ngata transitioning out of his prime, Atkins has emerged as the top defensive tackle in the division.
Haloti Ngata – As mentioned, Ngata is nearing the end of the prime of his career, and his 2013 was a bit of a disappointment compared to previous years.
Nonetheless, Ngata is still a disruptive run defender who offers pass rush ability when needed, and his versatility to play either tackle or end still makes him a top defensive lineman in the AFC North.
Carlos Dunlap – Getting better and better every year, Dunlap’s fourth season in the NFL saw him fully emerge as a complete 4-3 end with a full repertoire capped off by the ability to seal the edge in the run game.
Throw in his length to affect the passing game either as a rusher or as an obstacle at the line of scrimmage and the 25-year-old Dunlap should take over for Michael Johnson as Cincinnati’s top defensive end.
Cameron Heyward – His third NFL season finally saw him take on a full-time role in Pittsburgh’s defense, and Heyward began to show what made him a first-round pick in 2011.
As a disruptor in the passing game, Heyward can become a staple along Pittsburgh’s defensive front.
Vontaze Burfict – What’s not to like about Burfict? He’s a complete 4-3 outside linebacker with a violent demeanor to his game and the type of player that opposing teams get annoyed with real quick.
He’s gone from an undrafted player with plenty of off-field concerns to an emerging defender in the division who we haven’t heard a peep from off the field in two seasons. A true steal for the Bengals.
Elvis Dumervil/Terrell Suggs – Since three of the four defenses in the division run forms of 3-4 defenses, choosing just one more linebacker after Burfict – a 4-3 outside linebacker – wouldn’t have done the job. Both Dumervil and Suggs proved in 2013 that they had the makings of a dominant duo as pass rushers, although both – particularly Suggs – finished last year in slightly disappointing fashion given their fast starts to the season.
Dumervil is much more of a threat than Suggs in the pass rush department, while Suggs’ run-defending prowess combined with his impact against the pass still makes him a top outside linebacker.
Karlos Dansby – Easily one of the best offseason moves in the division. The Browns dumped declining veteran D’Qwell Jackson, replacing him with a veteran whose career is anything but declining.
Think Daryl Smith had a great year for a veteran linebacker over 30? Check out Dansby’s 2013 season.
C.J. Mosley – Yeah, yeah. The Bengals and Steelers don’t have any inside linebacker worthy of being on this list, and after Dansby, we turn to Baltimore for the second selection. Daryl Smith had a superb year for his age, but by season’s end younger linebackers Mosley and Arthur Brown could unseat Smith.
Brown brings more to the defense than Mosley in the versatility department, but Mosley likely ends up with more playing time than Brown this year, giving him more opportunities to showcase his ability and allowing him (and likely Brown, too) to assert himself as one of the division’s young stars at inside linebackers.
Joe Haden – He’s been one of the most consistent players in coverage for years in the division, and thanks to Leon Hall’s injuries, Haden hasn’t had much competition to be in the discussion for best cornerback in the division. He’s only 25 with four years of NFL experience to his name, so the stock arrow is still pointing up for Haden.
Jimmy Smith – Partially due to 2013 success, partially due to potential heading into 2014. After two disappointing seasons to start his NFL career, Smith finally emerged in 2013, being Baltimore’s best cover corner in the second half of the season, and playing well against the likes of Josh Gordon and Brandon Marshall.
He displayed the potential the Ravens saw in him when they selected Smith in the first round of the 2011 draft, and the 2014 season could be Smith’s full season of sustained success.
Troy Polamalu – Sure he’s 33 years old, and sure he may not be the game-changing threat he once was, but Polamalu is still a diverse safety whose skill set can be utilized all over the field even in the later stages of his career. That was no more evident than in 2013, when the Steelers compensated for his coverage skills by using him closer to the line of scrimmage – almost like an extra linebacker – creating less ground to cover and allowing him to excel against the pass and the run.
He isn’t the type of player who can shift the momentum of a game on one play anymore, but he’s still a player who can make an impact in several aspects.
Donte Whitner – The Browns lost one of their best defenders T.J. Ward in free agency, but the replacement – Whitner – is no slouch himself. Hailing from the vaunted San Francisco 49ers defense in which Whitner played the role of back end enforcer, his presence in the division should prevent the Browns from skipping a beat in the post-Ward era.
He’s a strong safety like Polamalu, but Whitner is still one of the best safeties in the division, and the soon-to-be 29-year old should make an early impact for Cleveland’s defense.
Justin Tucker – An easy choice; in just two NFL seasons, Tucker has already established himself as one of the NFL’s premier kickers, and his 38 made field goals on 41 attempts in 2013 back up his case. Combine the pinpoint accuracy with one of the strongest legs in the NFL and Tucker is the complete package.
Sam Koch – Although he may be on the decline, Koch is still the most consistent punter in the division, and in 2013, the veteran managed to down 27 punts inside the 20, with an average of 46.0 yards per punt. It didn’t hurt his cause that Baltimore’s poor offense led to a career-high 90 punts.
Jacoby Jones – The award for better punt returner might go to Antonio Brown, but Jones’ ability in both return games gives him the advantage. After a 2012 season in which he returned four kicks for touchdowns, Jones was unable to replicate that feat in 2013, taking just one back for a score.
Nonetheless, Jones still averaged 28.8 yards per kick return and 12.5 yards per punt return, and is still in the upper tier of return men in the NFL.