AFC North position rankings: Linebackers

February, 23, 2012
2/23/12
4:30
PM ET
The AFC North is running a series where every position will be ranked and what could change at that position.

LINEBACKERS

1. RAVENS: Terrell Suggs was the most dominant player in the division and was named NFL Defensive Player of the Year. He recorded 14 sacks, two interceptions, seven forced fumbles and six passes defensed. Inside linebacker Ray Lewis had his most uneven season, and Jameel McClain is a liability in coverage. But both inside linebackers were the leading tacklers for the NFL's second-ranked run defense. Outside linebacker Jarret Johnson is as solid and dependable as they come in this league. What could change: Half of the starters could be gone because McClain and Johnson are unrestricted free agents. McClain could get a nice-sized contract elsewhere, which would force the Ravens to promote underachieving Dannell Ellerbe or draft a replacement. Johnson could get lured to Indianapolis, where former defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano is now the head coach. The Ravens would turn to Paul Kruger to step in for Johnson because Sergio Kindle has failed to develop.

2. STEELERS: This would have been the top group in the division if not for injuries. Outside linebackers LaMarr Woodley (hamstring) and James Harrison (eye) only started five games together. But they still had strong seasons considering teams focused on the one when the other was out. Woodley and Harrison led the team with nine sacks each. Lawrence Timmons, who led the Steelers' linebackers with 91 tackles, was solid at inside linebacker but didn't live up to the $50 million contract he signed last year. James Farrior is wearing down at inside linebacker and rotated with Larry Foote throughout the season. What could change: The Steelers have to make a decision at inside linebacker, where they might have to cut Farrior, Foote or both. The loss of Farrior would hurt because is the unquestioned leader on that defense.

3. BENGALS: This group fared well against the pass but lapsed against the run in the second half of the season. Rey Maualuga was a disappointment in his first season as an NFL middle linebacker. He missed too many tackles for that position. In his first season with the Bengals, outside linebacker Thomas Howard was the most consistent player in this group, leading the team in tackles. Outside linebacker Manny Lawson was expected to provide a strong pass rush, but he had more of an impact in coverage. He had more passes defensed (three) than sacks (1.5). What could change: Lawson is a free agent and the Bengals could get him back at a reasonable price. But, among the list of priorities, he would rank behind kicker Mike Nugent, safety Reggie Nelson and defensive end Frostee Rucker.

4. BROWNS: Honestly, is there anyone outside the division who could name the Browns' outside linebackers? If you need help, they were the ones who got blocked to the ground on the long runs given up by the Browns. There were few positives with this group beyond the return of D'Qwell Jackson, who finished second in the NFL in tackles after missing 26 games the previous two seasons. He had 58 more tackles than anyone else in the AFC North. But the Browns finished 22nd in run defense because of those playing beside Jackson. Scott Fujita looked slow before going on injured reserve for a second straight season. Kaluka Maiava, who stepped into the starting lineup after Fujita was done for the season, was overmatched at 230 pounds. Chris Gocong played better when he switched from the weak side to Fujita's spot on the strong side. What could change: Jackson is a free agent, but he's not going anywhere. The Browns will either sign him to a multiyear deal or put the franchise tag on him. If Gocong is going to remain on the strong side, the Browns have to find someone on the weak side who can stop the run. Cleveland needs to address the inadequate lack of depth at this position.

Monday: Special teams

Tuesday: Defensive line

For tomorrow: Defensive backs

Jamison Hensley

ESPN Ravens reporter

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