A new group of young, talented superstars-to-be have emerged in the AFC North and are poised to take the reins as the next generation of dominant players in the division.
The era that has seen the likes of Ray Lewis, Ben Roethlisberger, Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu as the elite players is coming to an end. Enter A.J. Green, Rey Maualuga, Torrey Smith and Joe Haden—among others.
Let's take a look at the next generation of studs in the best division in football—the AFC North.
A.J. Green burst onto the scene as a rookie last season. He led the Bengals in every significant receiving statistic including receptions, receiving yards, touchdowns, yards per catch and yards after the catch. His contributions helped the Bengals to a 9-7 record and a playoff berth.
There was no doubt that the fourth overall pick in the 2011 draft would succeed, but not many people expected him to immediately become the Bengal's No. 1 receiver.
His 65 receptions, 1,207 yards and seven touchdowns led all rookie receivers and earned Green a spot in the Pro Bowl—becoming the first rookie-wide receiver to accomplish the feat since Anquan Boldin in 2003.
Green is already one of the best receivers in the game and will only get better as he and Andy Dalton develop together. Expect him to have an elite career in Cincinnati.
If A.J. Green was the best rookie receiver last season, the award of second-best has to go to Torrey Smith of the Baltimore Ravens. Smith's performance was even more surprising than Green's considering he was a second-round draft pick of the Ravens.
Baltimore was even surprised by his outbreak—he recorded zero receptions in the first two weeks of the season. Then he came out in Week 3 against the Rams and scored on his first three receptions of the game.
The former Maryland Terp was the perfect deep threat for Joe Flacco and the run-heavy Ravens offense. He opened up the field for Anquan Boldin, Ed Dickson and even Ray Rice—who led the team with 76 receptions.
Smith ranked third on Baltimore with 50 receptions and second with 841 yards. However, Smith outshined his teammates when it came to TDs, leading the squad with seven.
He will once again be one of Flacco's favorite targets in this upcoming season and the seasons beyond.
It's hard to talk about A.J. Green without mentioning his fellow rookie, quarterback Andy Dalton. Dalton probably would have been the rookie of the year last season if it wasn't for Cam Newton and his record-breaking season.
Nevertheless, the Bengals should be extremely pleased with how Dalton has played thus far. They should also be praising their GM Mike Brown for selecting Green and Dalton with their first two picks of the 2011 draft. With those two moves, Brown has helped set the Bengals up for a prosperous future.
Dalton's numbers from last season—3,398 yards, 58 percent completion percentage and 20 touchdowns—aren't mind-blowing, but they are extremely solid for a rookie quarterback. It's even more impressive considering he put up these numbers playing in the toughest division in football where all four teams were in the top 10 in passing yards allowed.
Beyond the numbers, Dalton is just a winner. He did so in college at TCU and has done so thus far in the NFL. Bengals fans should be excited about their future, as they have one of the best young teams in the league.
As mentioned, the AFC North is the best division in football. Not surprisingly, it houses some of the best defenses in the league. This is evidenced by the fact that the Bengals defense ranked seventh overall but was still ranked third in the division behind the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens.
The best player on this young Cincinnati defense is linebacker Rey Maualuga. In his third year out of USC, he set a new career-high in tackles with 88. He would have easily led the team in tackles if he hadn't missed three games, but he still finished second.
Maualuga is one of the most intense players in the league and is seemingly always flying around on defense. Sometimes, his aggressive, all-out style of play backfires—including last season when an ankle injury forced him to sit out three games.
Still, Maualuga won't be taking it easy any time soon. His energy and aggressiveness are what have helped him become the player he is today and one of the top linebackers in football.
Another young, premier player on the defensive side of the ball in the AFC North is Cleveland Brown's cornerback, Joe Haden.
The Browns were second in the league in passing yards allowed—giving up just about 185 yards per game through the air. And Haden was one of the key reasons.
After a rookie campaign that included six interceptions, opposing quarterbacks took notice of the former-Gator. Haden recorded zero picks last year, in large part to the lack of balls thrown his way. The luxury of having a cornerback who can essentially cut the field in half is absolutely huge, and the Browns have a great one in Haden.
The success is not exactly surprising—Haden was selected seventh overall in 2011—but the fact that in just his second year, Haden has become one of the premier cornerbacks is extremely impressive.
Haden has claimed his place as an elite player, not only in the AFC North, but in the entire NFL.
The Pittsburgh Steelers field one of the best receiving corps in the league in Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown. Not to mention the fact that they are just 26 and 24 years old, respectively.
The Steelers were the 10th-best passing team in the NFL last season, in large part thanks to the Wallace-Brown combination. Not surprisingly, Wallace and Brown finished first and second, respectively, on the Steelers in receptions, yards and touchdown.
While Wallace is holding out for a new contract, the Steelers decided to pay Brown this offseason, to the tune of $42.5 million. Despite Wallace's unhappiness with the organization's lack of willingness to pay him, he is still considered one of the best young receivers in football.
If the Steelers can hammer out a deal to keep Wallace around, they will have a top-tier receiving duo for many years to come.
Webb's five interceptions were the third-most in the league and a new career-high. After just three seasons in the NFL and at just 26 years of age, Webb should continue to develop into one of the better cornerbacks in football. Obviously the Ravens agree—they agreed to a six-year $50 million deal in April.
Not bad for a third-round pick out of Nicholls State.
If Webb continues to have seasons anything close to his 2011 year, the Ravens should be satisfied. On a defense that includes two future-hall-of-famers in Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, it's tough to stand out—but that's exactly what Webb has done and will continue to do going forward.