Introducing the All-AFC North Offense, Offseason Edition
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The AFC North isn't lacking for talent, which is one of the challenges when trying to put together a full offensive and defensive roster of its best players. Here, I try to do so on offense. Yes, the division is best known for its hard-hitting defense, but it's none-too-shabby on the offensive side of the ball, either.
In the following 10 slides, I break down the players who would, at this moment, make up the AFC North's All-Division offense. Did I miss anyone? Leave your suggestions in the comment section below.
QB: Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers
In 2011, Roethlisberger passed for 4,077 yards, completed 63.2 percent of his passes and had 21 touchdowns against 14 interceptions.
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Among the reasons why Ben Roethlisberger is the All-AFC North starting quarterback: Three Super Bowl appearances and two rings; the ability to seemingly play through (and play well) a number of injuries; having the most passing yards of any quarterback in the division, season after season.
Roethlisberger has been successful practically from the moment he took the field as the Pittsburgh Steelers' starter. While the players around him have contributed to this, he's certainly quite the talent in his own right.
He can scramble from pressure like few others in the game, throwing on the run accurately. He has a big arm, admirable durability considering the hits he's constantly taking and has shown considerable improvement in every consecutive season. And he's just hitting his prime now. Clearly, he's the division's top passer.
RB: Ray Rice, Baltimore Ravens
Ray Rice gave the Ravens 2,068 reasons to pay him last season, and 2,068 reasons why he made the All-AFC North Team.
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Ray Rice led all non-quarterback offensive players in yards from scrimmage last year with 2,068 (1,364 rushing and 704 receiving), and scored 15 total touchdowns along the way.
There are few running backs who mean as much to their offense as Rice does to the Baltimore Ravens, which is why he's currently holding out for a long-term contract rather than sign the franchise tender the team offered him.
A number of backs in the league are good, to be sure, but Rice is decidedly great. At this point, there's no other back in the AFC North close to his level of production. The All-AFC North Team was meant for him.
WRs: Mike Wallace, Pittsburgh Steelers; A.J. Green, Cincinnati Bengals
A.J. Green is just starting out his second season in the league and he already looks like an elite receiver.
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The Pittsburgh Steelers' Mike Wallace had the most receptions of any AFC North wide receiver last year, catching 72 passes for 1,193 yards and eight touchdowns.
His Cincinnati Bengals counterpart, A.J. Green, had the second-most catches of all AFC North receivers, hauling in 65 receptions for 1,057 yards and seven scores, all while navigating his rookie season with a rookie quarterback throwing to him.
With numbers like those, it's clear that Green and Wallace are the division's top two receivers and deserve roster spots on the All-AFC North Team offense.
The sky's the limit for Green now that he's had experience in the league. Wallace continues to improve his route running, indicating that he's still going to be a major threat despite being destined for endless double-coverage situations.
Slowly but surely, the AFC North is becoming more of a passing division, and it's because receivers like Green and Wallace are leading the way.
FB: Vonta Leach, Baltimore Ravens
If more fullbacks were like Vonta Leach, there'd be more fullbacks in the NFL.
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Not every team in the NFL employs a fullback—the Steelers are trying it out this year for the first time in forever, it seems—but there can't be an All-AFC North Team without the NFL's hands-down best fullback making the roster.
The Baltimore Ravens' Vonta Leach has one of the most important jobs on that team—blocking for Ray Rice. Rice is an astounding talent, without question, but he also has some serious holes to run through, thanks to Leach.
Leach simply hands the Ravens' rushing yards and allows them to score rushing touchdowns. He can also step up to carry the ball and catch passes as well. Though his 12 carries for 35 yards and 15 receptions for 69 more is not much to write home about, it's good to know he's versatile and can do more than simply block like a beast.
TEs: Jermaine Gresham, Cincinnati Bengals; Heath Miller, Pittsburgh Steelers
Simple: Jermaine Gresham catches, Heath Miller blocks for the All-AFC North Team.
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I'm getting modern with the All-AFC North Team and giving them two tight ends this year. The Cincinnati Bengals' Jermaine Gresham is primarily a receiving tight end (though he also can block) who caught 50 of the 104 passes lobbed at him for 725 yards and four scores last season.
Heath Miller of the Pittsburgh Steelers is one of the most consistent tight ends in the NFL. A prodigious blocker, he also serves as a well-used, reliable safety valve for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, catching 51 of the 75 passes thrown his way last year for 631 yards and two scores.
With both men on the field in this hypothetical All-AFC North roster, they represent one of the most balanced and dynamic tight end tandems in all the league.
LT: Joe Thomas, Cleveland Browns
There are few better left tackles in the AFC North let alone the NFL than Joe Thomas.
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It was a down year for offensive tackles around the league last year, the AFC North no exception, but clearly the best left tackle in the division is the Cleveland Browns' Joe Thomas.
Thomas himself gave up just 3.5 sacks and 21 quarterback pressures last season while playing 654 pass-blocking snaps. That's pretty impressive on a Browns' offensive line that otherwise struggled in 2011.
Left tackle is an incredibly important position, especially in the pass-heavy NFL of today, and few do their jobs better than Thomas. He's obviously earned himself a roster spot in the All-AFC North roster.
LG: Willie Colon, Pittsburgh Steelers
Primarily by default, Willie Colon gets the nod as the All-AFC North Team's left offensive guard.
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In the AFC North, it's hard to point to the division's best left guard right now. The position is still graded at incomplete around the division.
The Ravens are still trying to determine just who their starter will be this year after Ben Grubbs left in free agency; the Browns plugged in Jason Pinkston last year as an injury replacement but has since won the job; the Bengals currently have a battle of their own at the position.
By default, therefore, the Pittsburgh Steelers' Willie Colon wins the All-Division roster spot, though he's a bit of an unknown quantity as well. Colon is being moved to left guard this year after being the team's right tackle since 2006.
The move seems like it will suit him, but again, it's still quite the unknown. Colon, because he's settled into his position had the most starting experience of any of the candidates on their respective teams, backs onto the AFC North roster.
C: Matt Birk, Baltimore Ravens
Matt Birk gave up an impressive three sacks last year.
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No, Pittsburgh Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey doesn't get the roster spot at center; he had a good 2011, to be sure, but ended the year a bit on the overrated side.
Baltimore Ravens center Matt Birk gave up just three sacks and 15 total quarterback pressures last year (playoffs included)—and only one sack until Week 17.
Birk is a multi-year Pro Bowler who could very well be in the last year of his professional career. But he's never missed a beat as he's aged and should again keep quarterback Joe Flacco upright in 2012. Without a doubt, he's the AFC North's best center and deserves being on the All-Division team.
RG: Marshal Yanda, Baltimore Ravens
Just one penalty for Marshal Yanda last year—one.
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Baltimore Ravens right guard Marshal Yanda was simply the best right guard in the AFC North and makes quite a case for himself being the best in the entire NFL.
Despite playing through injuries in 2011, he gave up just two sacks and was penalized only once—something nearly unheard of from an offensive lineman.
Last offseason, Yanda received a five-year, $32 million deal and has proven he's worth every penny. At full health, he should have yet another incredible season and likely another roster spot in the AFC North's All-Division team.
RT: Andre Smith, Cincinnati Bengals
Andre Smith is a bust no more.
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At one time, Cincinnati Bengals right tackle Andre Smith was considered a bust. Now, he's earned himself a spot on the All-AFC North roster.
Like I mentioned when discussing Joe Thomas, 2011 was a rough year for offensive tackles. Smith did have some bad games as well as eight penalties, but still managed to outperform all the other right tackles in the division.
He allowed just three sacks last season and went penalty-free from Week 12 through the Wild Card Round of last year's playoffs. He's the division's most-improved offensive lineman, and for now, its best right tackle.