The AFC North is always an interesting division when trying to rank defenses or players who play within them.
With two teams in the division running a 4-3 and two running a 3-4, it is difficult to figure out and decipher which players fit a system and which players would stand out on any defense.
So, I decided to break the AFC North defensive lineman down into two categories. Those two categories were the d-linemen whom are invaluable to their defense and the defensive lineman who are just athletic freaks of nature.
Upon establishing those two categories, I cross referenced these players with their production on the football field in 2011.
From top to bottom, this is a division that is extensive with defensive line talent. In turn, picking the best of the best is not an easy task.
A little side note for Baltimore Ravens fans. Terrell Suggs did not make this list because the Ravens do not list the hybrid OLB/DE as a defensive lineman. I have nothing but respect for the former Arizona State star, and he was getting consideration for this list, even with his Achilles injury.
Without further ado, here is your best AFC North defensive lineman in no particular order heading into the 2012 season.
Carlos Dunlap is a physical freak. The 6’6’’, 289 pound defensive end ran a 4.71 second 40-yard dash at the combine.
His combination of power and speed has already made an impact on the Bengals’ defensive line.
In 24 games and only one start, Dunlap has recorded 47 combined tackles and 14 sacks.
Dunlap has all the tools to become a dominant edge rusher. It is easy to forget Carlos Dunlap is only 23-years-old and has yet to reach his full potential.
While dealing with a hamstring injury last season, Dunlap had his best season rushing the passer. Dunlap recorded 13 hits on the quarterback and 9.5 sacks in only 12 games.
His role on the Bengals in only expected to grow. In 2012, Carlos Dunlap is expected to be an every down defensive lineman. Dunlap will be replacing Frostee Rucker, who signed with the Cleveland Browns during free agency.
One of the scariest aspects of the Bengals’ defensive line is Carlos Dunlap is 23-years-old and Geno Atkins is 24. These two young d-line studs proved last season that they are only getting better together and can anchor a pass rush for the Bengals.
There was a little concern in 2011 when Cincinnati released Tank Johnson and moved Atkins into the starting lineup.
Atkins did not disappoint. He responded with 47 total tackles and 7.5 sacks. The 7.5 sacks led all of the NFL’s interior linemen.
Atkins was awarded for his surprising 2011 season, with his first Pro Bowl appearance.
Much like Carlos Dunlap, Geno Atkins has barely scratched the surface of the potential that lies within him. These two defensive linemen will continue to mature and grow together, while wreaking havoc within the AFC North in 2012.
At 6’4’’ and 330 pounds, Etuini Haloti Ngata is so athletic he plays both nose tackle and defensive end for the Ravens.
Ngata is an absolutely nightmare for opposing offensive linemen. He combines his immense size and strength with a speed, quickness and work ethic the NFL has rarely seen.
Ngata not disappointed Ravens fans since entering the NFL in 2006. Throughout his career, Ngata has totaled 311 combined tackles and 17 sacks.
Last season alone, Ngata had 64 combined tackles including 31 total tackles, five sacks, two forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries.
Ngata is the anchor of that stellar Ravens defense, and that will not change. With the additions of DeAngelo Tyson and Courtney Upshaw (with Upshaw assuming the hybrid OLB/DE role), Ngata should continue to dominate within 2012.
Jabaal Sheard was hands down the best rookie within the entire AFC North last season.
Sheard recorded 40 solo tackles with 8.5 sacks, five forced fumbles and seven stuffs. The 40 solo tackles tied Sheard for fourth among all defensive linemen for that category in 2011.
His 8.5 sacks had Sheard tied for fifth in the NFL among defensive linemen with Dwight Freeney of the Indianapolis Colts (Freeney could only record 19 total tackles with his 8.5 sacks).
The scariest part of Sheard is all those numbers were recorded with no real defensive end playing on the opposite side of him. Sheard should continue to develop as he heads into 2012, and should truly be scary for opposing quarterbacks.
Sheard’s on-field production should come much easier in 2012. The Browns signed Frostee Rucker and Juqua Parker via free agency, and added John Hughes and Billy Wynn through the NFL Draft. The addition of Frostee Rucker on the opposite end of Sheard and the added depth of Hughes, Wynn and Parker will only make the entire d-line unit better.
With better rotation should come more opportunities for Sheard to impact the Browns defense.
Much like many of the other young d-linemen mentioned, Sheard has only scratched the surface of what he is able to do within the NFL.
As the Browns defense gets better, Sheard and his on-field production will only continue to increase.
Ahtyba Rubin might be the most underrated defensive linemen in the entire NFL.
Rubin led all NFL defensive linemen in 2011 in combined tackles with 83 and total tackles with 56.
To accomplish those numbers from the defensive tackle position is impressive enough, but Rubin was not done there.
At 6’2’’ and 330 pounds, Rubin used his deceptive quickness to also contribute five sacks to the Cleveland defense. The five sacks tied him with Haloti Ngata for 20th among all defensive linemen.
The combination of Rubin and Jabaal Sheard will lead the Browns defense into 2012. At 25-years-old, Rubin will only continue to improve and become a well-rounded NFL defensive tackle.
Brett Keisel definitely gets my vote for best beard in the NFL.
The Diesel, as he is known, has continued to be a consistent contributor to the Pittsburgh defense. Even with injuries and a 3-4 scheme working against him, Keisel recorded impressive numbers in 2011.
Keisel contributed 48 total tackles, 3.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and six pass deflections for the Steelers last season.
His impressive 2011 numbers should improve even further as the Steelers defensive line continues to get healthier in 2012.
The continued maturation of Ziggy Hood and Cameron Heyward will only make Keisel more deadly within the Steelers defensive schemes. The added potential and athleticism of Hood and Heyward to the Steelers starting lineup should only help Keisel’s 2012 statistics.