While the seemingly endless period between the NFL Draft and the beginning of the preseason can be a boring time for many NFL fans, it is never too early to analyze the best players in the league. This week, the Last Word On Sports NFL department will be compiling a list of the ten best players in each division heading into the 2017 season. The focus of this article is the AFC North.
Top Players of the AFC North Heading into 2017
It can be argued that Roethlisberger is not even the most talented player on his own team. However, it cannot be argued that Roethlisberger is easily the most valuable player not only on his own team but in the entire division. Quarterback is the most important position in the NFL, and with a good one, your team’s ceiling gets a lot higher. Roethlisberger is easily one of the elite quarterbacks in the league, and his team is never out of a game in which he is starting. Last season his deep ball accuracy became a major strength to his game and with the ability he has to extend plays and complete passes all over the field, there is a very short list of players better or more valuable than him in the league.
In terms of pure talent, Brown may not only be the most talented player in the division but in the entire NFL. Brown comes in at 5’10”, 180 pounds. He is not a very strong athlete either. However, Brown wins with precision, execution, and pure will.
Brown can do everything. He wins jump balls, can stiff arm defenders, and can juke them out of their shoes after short and intermediate passes. Brown has quick and precise feet to create space immediately and has some of the surest hands in the NFL. Heck, Antonio Brown is still the Steelers starting punt returner. Brown is one of the more complete wide receivers in NFL history. With a few more seasons like his past four, he will start climbing the ranks and will soon be considered one of the best of All-Time.
3. Le’Veon Bell
The Steelers most likely have the best wide receiver and running back currently playing. Bell is a complete game changer and put up over 1,884 yards from scrimmage last season in just 12 games. As a running back, his style is unmatched. He plays with a rare patience that has been compared to frogger trying to cross the street. He combines that patience with a combination of burst, finesse, and power to hit small holes quickly, wiggle between defenders and put his shoulder into opponent’s to finish off runs.
What makes Bell even better is that if he were a wide receiver, he would be one of the ten best in the game as well. He has a huge catch radius, sure hands and the feet to make route running look easy. Bell has never finished a season healthy and has a suspension history which hurt his value, but his peak is MVP status.
4. A.J. Green
Now that the Steelers are out of the way, it is the Bengals star wide receiver coming in as the next best player. Green was hurt last season, but it showed in the team’s last six games how valuable he was. The team sputtered down the stretch without him and Andy Dalton looked like the playoff Andy Dalton that everybody knows, rather than his typically strong regular season self. Green put up almost 1,000 yards in those ten games and had the best catch rate of his career. The Bengals drafted John Ross, and that should help Green as much as any player. Green is a threat down the field, and with Ross, a known speed quantity demanding safety attention, it will make life much easier for Green to destroy single coverage.
5. Joe Thomas
Thomas has been one of the best offensive linemen in the NFL since 2007. What is wild about Thomas is that he has still yet to miss a start in his career. The Browns have gone 48-112 since drafting Thomas and have finished in last in their division eight of his ten NFL seasons. It is a testament to his play that the Browns will get themselves a player into the Hall of Fame on this type of team.
6. Eric Weddle
When the Chargers moved on from Weddle last season, many expected that it meant the end for the superstar safety being an elite playmaker. Those who expected that were wrong. Weddle was superb last season putting up 99 tackles, intercepting four passes defending a career high 13 passes. Weddle has always been a combination safety, and his play against the run was just as good as his play as a center fielder. Pro Football Focus rated him as the top safety in the NFL last season. He ranked fifth against the run, and second in coverage. Weddle is going to be 33 next season, but his game acumen and precision, combined with a revamped Ravens secondary should give him the chance to put in another strong season.
7. Geno Atkins
Geno Atkins missed some time in the middle of his career but has been a force in the middle in each of the past two seasons. Atkins game is getting into the backfield in a hurry and he has put up 20 sacks over the past two years. However, he is also an above average run defender, putting up 13 tackles for loss, ranking at 14th in the league in the stat. Last season Pro Football Focus rated Atkins as the sixth best interior defender in the NFL behind Aaron Donald, Calais Campbell, Kawann Short, Ndamukong Suh and Fletcher Cox. That is one mighty list to be on, but the play of Atkins warrants being in the same discussion as these elite linemen.
8. Marshall Yanda
It feels like the ridiculous level of consistency from Joe Thomas has overshadowed that Yanda has also been one of the best offensive linemen in the past decade. Injury has affected Yanda more than Thomas, but Yanda at his peak is in the same tier of player as Thomas. Yanda has been named to five All-Pro teams, including being named to the second team All-Pro last season despite missing three games. If he had played those games he would have easily been first team All-Pro, as Pro Football Focus rated him the best guard in the NFL last season. He is not quite the legend that Thomas is, but in terms of position, no one has played guard better than Yanda since his emergence in the NFL.
Collins is a new addition to the AFC North and has only played in eight games with the Browns. However, he is a true threat and a chess piece that may start the Browns revolution into becoming a good team. Collins has the range to roam sideline to sideline and defend anyone from slot wide receivers, running backs and tight ends. He also has the strength and recognition to avoid traffic and make big tackles in the box. His size, versatility, and athleticism are major threats that will dramatically improve the Browns defense. Last season Collins had a contract on his mind, and it seemed to affect his play in both New England and Cleveland. Now that he has his money, if he can be the same player he once was, he may be down too low on this list.
10. Tony Jefferson
Jefferson may be the most underrated signing of the 2017 off-season. With his addition to Weddle, the Ravens may have the best safety duo in the NFL. Jefferson, like Weddle, is a great combination safety. He has played in the box and has defended the slot, running backs and tight ends. He has also lined up as a hybrid linebacker in the box.
On top of that Jefferson has the skills and range to play centerfield. identifying where the Ravens safeties are next year will be a tremendous task on its own. We have yet to see it on the field, but the duo on paper is a great fit and you tend to trust the Ravens when it comes to free agent signings. Jefferson should be able to hold up his ranking this season and turn the Ravens back into an elite defense.