Players You Should Watch For in 2009: The AFC North

Matt ShervingtonCorrespondent IIJuly 30, 2009

PITTSBURGH - JANUARY 11:  Lawrence Timmons #94 of the Pittsburgh Steelers takes the field during player introductions against the San Diego Chargers during their AFC Divisional Playoff Game on January 11, 2009 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Steelers won 35-24.  (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Joe Flacco, Baltimore Ravens

This one is simple. As a fan of a division rival, I want Joe Flacco to fail. Next season is going to be big because Mr. Flacco is either going to flop big time, or experience a Roethlisberger-like Sophomore season.

He’s not going to put up a 25 touchdown season, because that’s not the way that the team is built, but when the Ravens needed him in 2008, Joe Flacco showed up (the AFC Championship Game not withstanding).

If Joe Flacco can continue to be that guy then the Ravens will be a deadly team to watch out for—especially with Marc Clayton, Todd Heap, L.J. Smith, and the ever-wily veteran Derrick Mason as the premier receivers working with Flacco.

That said, Flacco could have a let down of elephantine proportions, and be another Boller. That’s what makes this season a must-watch season. It’ll cement whether he’s a top 15 quarterback (possibly top 10), or if he’s just another big-armed, one year wonder—like Boller.

Todd Heap/LJ Smith, Baltimore Ravens

This combination right here is the reason that I believe Joe Flacco will be a success this year as opposed to a flop. Everyone knows that a young quarterback’s best friend is a tight end. Flacco has two of them that, three or four years ago, were both top seven tight ends.

Unfortunately for the both of them, their careers have been riddled with injury since then. However, with the two working together, I believe they can help keep one another healthy, and as a result can, as a duo, produce what they used to when they were both elite.

They won't do it individually, but I believe between the two of them, if healthy, one could expect to see a 70 Reception, 1,000 Yard, eight touchdown season. Especially in a division in which, outside of Pittsburgh, the outside linebackers will be easy to pick on.

Brady Quinn, Cleveland Browns

This one is obvious. In the span of the past two years, Brady Quinn has seen turmoil within his organization that no quarterback should see...especially when that organization's football team was 10-6 the year prior, and had said quarterback waiting in the wings.

I almost wish Quinn was traded to the Broncos so that he could've excelled with that excellent supporting cast, but right now he'll just have to make do with the cast in Cleveland.

This cast will no longer "wow" anybody, but Quinn could—and should—look to make a connection with Braylon Edwards, who, if he stops drinking those 5-Hour energy drinks, should show us who he really is... which is somewhere between last seasons 15+ drop-per-game season, and 2007's touchdown-per-game season.

So why watch Quinn? Well, it's always exciting to watch a young quarterback develop.

Braylon Edwards, Cleveland Browns

As stated in Quinn's explanation, why shouldn't you pay attention to Braylon Edwards next year. Braylon Edwards will be like a bi-polar person—with one-half fighting for dominance on the football field next season. Edwards will waiver back and forth next season, flashing signs of last season’s 15+ drop-per-game season, and 2007's touchdown-per-game season.

While I think that his true potential and production lies more so with the former than the latter, look for Edwards to battle back to show that he is a first rounder, and not the guy who didn't want to show his face last year. Especially when Edwards is such a competitor, and there are so many great wideouts in today's NFL.

Chad Ochocinco, Cincinnati Bengals

Chad is on here because he is essentially doing the same thing that Braylon Edwards is doing—fight off the perception that the 2008 season is more indicative of his current skill level than the 2007 season was. But that's not the only reason you should watch Chad Ochocinco.

Chad Johnson—oops I mean Ochocinco—is desperate for attention more so than ever in his career because he had such a down year. Without longtime friend TJ Houshmandzadeh on the team, Johnson is resembling an outcast amongst the Bengals players because they're trying to be more about business.

Watch and see if Johnson can fall in line, or if he really will be the guy that tries to "tweet" during games.

Cedric Benson, Cincinnati Bengals

It's not wise to label a player as a bust when they haven't been in the league for more than four or five years, so I’ve tried to refrain from labeling Benson one...but I sure as heck have come close. However, last year Benson showed minor signs that he might be trying to revitalize his career in Cincinnati—rushing for 747 yards.

Sure the 3.5 yards-per-carry total was very unimpressive, but Benson was getting acclimated with an offensive line with only one true standout in Bobbie Williams.

Look to see if Benson can save his NFL legacy this year, or it will probably be the last time we see him on an NFL roster.

Roy Williams, Cincinnati Bengals

Roy Williams is a classic case of an NFL player who casual fans have way too much say about. Playing under Mike Zimmer, Roy Williams was a damned good safety in his first four or five seasons in the NFL...and then came the night in which Aaron Glenn was beat for two fourth quarter touchdowns by Santana Moss.

The casual fan saw Roy Williams in the picture frame, and thought it was his fault—when really, with the called coverage, the responsibility belonged to Glenn. Ever since then he just seemed to free-fall, almost as if he said “it doesn‘t matter, because the fans believe it“. However, I believe he can pull a “Sean Taylor”, since he is reunited with Mike Zimmer.

When I say a “Sean Taylor” I am referring to the fact that Sean Taylor had one of the worst seasons ever for a safety in 2006—missing the most tackles at the position, and giving up an astronomical amount of touchdowns—only to turn it around and play at an All-Pro level in 2007.

Williams, as of late, has been a horrible tackler, and has become the liability in coverage the fans made him out to be.

I expect Williams to bounce back like Taylor did and play at a high level, though not an All-Pro one.

Carson Palmer, Cincinnati Bengals

Carson Palmer is an enigma. The question surrounding Palmer is “how good is he exactly?!”

Palmer displayed an excellent penchant for the “x’s and o’s” of football during the Bengals majestically 2005 season, but ever since then he’s bordered on “average” to “slightly above good”...leading some to question whether or not he was a product of his receivers and offensive line during that amazing season.

Since the aforementioned season, he has suffered two season-ending injuries. So how can Palmer perform with his injury history and a less-talented offense than usual? Is he really a Peyton Manning-type quarterback with a thorough understanding of the game, or is he a Derek Anderson-type quarterback who needs immense talent around him to succeed?

Chris Henry, Cincinnati Bengals

Chris Henry is one hell of a receiver, and a lot of people do not know about him. Henry has the skill-set to be a No. 1 wide receiver in the NFL, but unfortunately he is dumb as bricks, and didn’t understand the immense opportunity he was given by being selected by an NFL team.

Henry runs excellent (if not perfect) fly and post routes, and has some silky smooth hands that can come down with the ball in traffic like Larry Fitzgerald. When he’s in the slot he’s the best in the league at it—and that includes Wes Welker. There are four Bengals offensive players listed here, but Henry is the biggest x-factor of them all.

Lawrence Timmons, Pittsburgh Steelers

If you don’t know who Lawrence Timmons is than I suggest you find out immediately. Timmons is on pace to becoming a superstar.

The Steelers easily have the league’s best linebacking corp, and I don’t feel as if any other units are close. This is because the Steelers have a top 12 player at both outside linebacker positions, and a top 10 inside linebacker in James Farrior.

Not one of those three guys has a much talent as Lawrence Timmons, however. Timmons ran with wide receivers last year, then turned around and replaced Harrison and Woodley when they were injured—and he pass-rushed just as effectively as they did.

Timmons won’t make a bid for the best linebacker in the league, but he’ll make a push for the biggest playmaker at the position next year.

Santonio Holmes, Pittsburgh Steelers

The question with Holmes is which guy will show up next year. Either way, you get a very interesting specimen. If the good Holmes shows up than you have something truly special.

The good Holmes posted 1,763 yards receiving in just 17 starts in his first two seasons. The good Holmes lead the NFL in yards per reception for all significant receivers in 2007. Finally, the good Holmes is already amongst the best “big game” wide receivers in the league in just his third year.

However, as good as the good Holmes is, the bad Holmes is conversely as bad.

The bad Holmes gives up on routes, doesn’t make extra attempts on balls, and doesn’t care about football. If the good Holmes shows up, look for a guy with top-12 numbers next season. If the bad Holmes shows up, look for some drama in Pittsburgh as somebody brings him down to reality.

Rashard Mendenhall, Pittsburgh Steelers

This one is mainly for me. Be assured that I’ll be watching all players on this list for my stated reasons, but none more so than Mendenhall. When the Steelers announced they were drafting him, I nearly broke my suitemate’s television. I felt no need for him, and still hold such a feeling—despite Kevin Colbert’s great ability to find talent in the draft.

That said, I continue to hear people saying that Mendenhall will usurp Parker this year, and that he’ll be special. I’m proposing the exact opposite. I believe that by season’s end, Rashard Mendenhall will be the third back on the depth chart behind Parker and Frank Summers.

Like the “Good Holmes/Bad Holmes” scenario, this one is an interesting one to watch for as well.



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