This week, the writers at Last Word On Pro Football will be selecting starting lineups consisting of the best players from each division. In this article, the AFC North defense is the focus. Since most teams in the division run a 3-4, that’s the format we’ll be using.
2017 AFC North All-Division Team: The Defense and Special Teams
Defensive End: Cameron Heyward
Pittsburgh’s Cameron Heyward is in his physical prime, and man, is it showing. At 6’5″, 295 pounds, Heyward is definitely a physical presence on the defensive line. That’s especially the case with the rest of the defensive line about to be put around him, Heyward would be downright feasting on blockers and running backs.
Defensive Line: Geno Atkins
As for our man in the middle on this defensive line, Cincinnati’s Geno Atkins seems like a great fit. Atkins enjoyed a huge year in 2016, collecting nine sacks and 21 total tackles. That’s a pretty great year, but something tells me that Atkins will be even better in 2017. One way or another, Atkins is a great tackle to anchor this defensive line. But who’s at the other end?
Defensive End: Carlos Dunlap
Originally, the plan was to put Cleveland’s Emmanuel Ogbah on this list. However, after mulling over the decision, Carlos Dunlap clearly deserved the spot more. With eight sacks and 49 tackles, Dunlap definitely ate it up on the defensive end this year. Additionally, he forced three fumbles from opposing teams. Although Ogbah might be worthy of this spot in the future, Dunlap snags it up for 2017.
Outside Linebacker: Terrell Suggs
This is where the AFC North’s defense starts to get absolutely dominant. Honestly, this linebacking corps might be the best of all the divisions, and we start it off with Baltimore’s Terrell Suggs. Suggs has been the Ravens main man since 2003, and he continues to produce to this day. We’re starting off the linebackers with a great one, and it only stays consistent from here.
Middle Linebacker: Jamie Collins
Last year, the Browns made a blockbuster trade for New England linebacker Jamie Collins. Now, Collins is turning into their franchise player. He definitely got franchise money in the off-season. If he can produce for the Browns as much as he did for the Patriots, Cleveland will finally have a hero on the defense.
Middle Linebacker: Ryan Shazier
He might only be 24 years old, but Ryan Shazier is already an incredibly productive member of the Steelers defense. The Ohio State product has already become one of the NFL’s top linebackers. Without a doubt, he’ll be a centerpiece of the Steelers for years to come, which is great news for the black and yellow.
Outside Linebacker: James Harrison
Yet another Steelers linebacker, James Harrison plays like he’s 25 years old. Of course, he’s actually 39. But honestly, that’s just more respect to Harrison. In NFL terms, Harrison is ancient. However, he can play with the best of them, and looks like he actually still has a few good years in him. Good for you, James Harrison. Good for you.
Cornerback: Artie Burns
Starting off the secondary, we have Pittsburgh’s Artie Burns. In 2016, Burns broke out and had a great year. Recording 65 tackles and three interceptions, Burns really came on strong. The best part: he’s only 22 years old. Using any and all logic, Burns is becoming the AFC North’s new top cornerback.
Free Safety: Eric Weddle
Baltimore’s Eric Weddle does it all. In 2016, he grabbed four interceptions, forced a fumble, and recorded 89 total tackles. By all measurables, he’s the second-best safety named Eric in the entire NFL. The top honor at that position goes to Kansas City’s Eric Berry, but maybe someday Weddle will have a chance.
Strong Safety: Tony Jefferson
Baltimore’s top free agency signing in this off-season is ready to make an impact right now. Safety Tony Jefferson is primed and ready for a career year, especially working alongside Eric Weddle. At the end of the day, the Ravens have their safety tandem all set. Weddle and Jefferson will be wreaking havoc on receivers and quarterbacks for years to come.
Cornerback: Adam Jones
If he wasn’t a total head case, Adam Jones could be the AFC North’s overall best cornerback. But every rose has its thorns, and Jones’s just happens to be his attitude. In terms of pure talent, “Pac-Man” could be the best corner in the division. As for right now though, he’ll have to clean up his act a bit before he can take the top spot.
Punter: Britton Colquitt
One thing’s for sure; the Browns special teams unit is actually incredibly sound. Now, that’s not meant to be sarcastic or jaded in the slightest. Britton Colquitt really is one of the league’s best punters. After trading Andy Lee to the Panthers last year, the Browns signed the Super Bowl-winning Colquitt, and he’s been a wizard for them. Hopefully for Cleveland, he continues his Super Bowl winning ways on the punting end.
Kicker: Justin Tucker
Most accurate kicker in the NFL? Check. Biggest leg in the NFL? Check. Overall best kicker in the NFL? Well, check. Justin Tucker makes the list as a shoe-in.
Returner: Antonio Brown
The only man to make the all-division team twice is Antonio Brown. Not only is Brown a dynamic receiver, but he’s just as dynamic on the kick and punt returning end. Had he not gone into free agency, Devin Hester would absolutely be here. However, the lightning quick and deceptively powerful Brown takes the returner spot for 2017.
Now that the defense has been discussed, check out the AFC North All-Division offense.