We are getting to the very best, as the AFC North blog continues to rank the top 40 players in the division.
No. 12: Rashard Mendenhall, running back
Team: Pittsburgh Steelers
2010 stats: 1,273 yards, 23 receptions, 13 touchdowns
Last year's ranking: No. 27
Analysis: Mendenhall showed growth by doing a good job of carrying Pittsburgh's offense while franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger served a four-game suspension. He kept the momentum going and had a career year. Mendenhall improved in two key areas this past season that often go unnoticed. First, he finished runs inside the goal line a lot better and was among the best tailbacks at getting in the end zone from inside the 5-yard line. Mendehnall nearly doubled his touchdown total from 2009. Second, Mendenhall's ball security (two fumbles in the regular season) improved, although prior struggles with fumbles came back to haunt him with a big turnover in Super Bowl XLV.
No. 11: Ray Lewis, linebacker
Team: Baltimore Ravens
2010 stats: 139 tackles, two sacks, two interceptions
Last year's ranking: No. 6
Analysis: The fact that Lewis, 35, is still one of the top players in the division is a testament to his longevity, ability and dedication to the game. The future Hall of Famer led the Ravens in tackles again with 139 and played in his 12th Pro Bowl. Lewis remains the heart and soul of the Ravens and his leadership is unmatched. He is not as athletic as he once was, but Lewis makes up for much of it with the mental ability to see plays before they develop. Tremendous film study and staying healthy has helped Lewis extend his career at the very physically-demanding position of middle linebacker. Lewis is trying to get one more ring before he retires but doesn't have many years left.
No. 10: Mike Wallace, receiver
2010 stats: 60 receptions, 1,257 yards, 10 touchdowns
Last year's ranking: No. 38
Analysis: Wallace made the biggest jump in this year's "Walker's Fab 40," improving 28 spots after going from a rookie second-stringer in 2009 to Pittsburgh's No. 1 receiver a year later. There were some concerns in Steeler Nation after Pittsburgh traded former Super Bowl MVP Santonio Holmes to the New York Jets following off-the-field issues. Entering just his second season, Wallace replaced Holmes in the starting lineup and took full advantage of the opportunity. Wallace is arguably the NFL's most dangerous deep threat, averaging an astounding 21 yards per reception. His ability to blow the top off the defense kept teams honest and opened things up for the running game and other receivers underneath. Wallace also improved his short and intermediate routes, which is his next step to becoming a complete receiver.
No. 9: Ray Rice, running back
2010 stats: 1,220 yards, 63 receptions, six total touchdowns
Last year's ranking: No. 7
Analysis: Rice is one of the NFL's most dynamic talents, although he didn't get to show it as much as he wanted to in 2010. Last season was considered a down year for Rice. He only had two 100-yard games but still rushed for more than 1,200 yards. Baltimore's offense was rarely in sync and lacked an identity. Good things usually happened when Rice touched the ball, but too many weeks went by when he didn't get enough opportunities. A lack of a deep threat at receiver and struggles on the offensive line also made it tough for Rice to break free for big gains. Baltimore has some tweaking to do on offense, and if the Ravens cure some of their issues, Rice could have the monster year next season that many expected from him in 2010.
Check out the AFC North blog Friday for the conclusion of "Walker's Fab 40," where we will have the top eight players in the division in 2011. Here's who has made the "Fab 40" so far.