AFC North position rankings: Receivers

February, 28, 2012
2/28/12
4:00
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The AFC North is running a series where every position will be ranked and what could change at that position.

1. STEELERS: There is no debate here. The Steelers clearly had the best wide receiver duo in the division. Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown each caught 69 or more passes, produced 1,000-yard receiving seasons and averaged over 16 yards per catch. They are the third Steelers receiving tandem to each register at least 1,100 yards receiving in the same season. Wallace had a career-high 72 catches or 1,193 yards and eight touchdowns. He became the first Steelers wide receiver to start in the Pro Bowl since since John Stallworth in 1985. Brown delivered a breakout season with 69 receptions for 1,108 yards and two touchdowns. The Steelers used a receiver-by-committee approach for the No. 3 spot with Hines Ward, Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery, all of whom combined for 84 catches. What could change: I'm not sure if you heard but Wallace is a restricted free agent. He could get pursued by the New England Patriots or San Francisco 49ers if the Steelers are unable to put the franchise tag on him. A decision has to be made on Ward, who is scheduled to make $4 million this season after his lowest catch total since his 1998 rookie season.

2. BENGALS: Cincinnati is the runner-up here solely on the strength of A.J. Green. The fourth overall pick in the 2011 draft made an immediate impact as a deep threat. His 11 receptions in 2011 of 35 or more yards tied Detroit’s Calvin Johnson and the N.Y. Giants’ Victor Cruz for most in the NFL. It was the most by an NFL rookie since 1998, when Minnesota’s Randy Moss had 14. The Bengals get the nod over the Ravens because of their depth. Jerome Simpson (50 catches for 725 yards and four touchdowns) and Andre Caldwell (37 catches for 317 yards and three touchdowns) were disappointments because of their drops and route-running, but they did provide flashes -- and somersaults. The receiver who shows intriguing promise is Andrew Hawkins, who finished with 23 catches for 263 yards. And don't forget that the Bengals lost Jordan Shipley to a season-ending knee injury in the second game of the season. What could change: Simpson and Caldwell are both unrestricted free agents, and the Bengals have to upgrade the No. 2 spot significantly. That would allow Shipley and Hawkins to battle for the No. 3 receiver job.

3. RAVENS: The Ravens were the only team in the AFC North whose leading receiver was not a wide receiver. Running back Ray Rice caught 76 passes, which was 19 more than anyone else. Anquan Boldin finished with 57 receptions, which was one shy of his career low. He also had three touchdowns, which were his fewest since 2004. For whatever reason, Boldin and Joe Flacco have never clicked as expected. Torrey Smith exceeded expectations as as second-round pick, recording 50 receptions for 841 yards (16.8-yard average) and a team-leading seven touchdown catches. Five of Smith's touchdowns went for at least 25 yards. But no other Ravens wide receiver made more than four catches. The Ravens traded a fourth-round pick for Lee Evans, and he delivered four catches in the regular season and the biggest drop in Ravens history when he failed to hold onto the ball in the end zone in the AFC championship game. What could change: The Ravens need to find a third target for Flacco after failing to do so with Evans last year and T.J. Houshmandzadeh the previous season. Evans is due a $1 million roster bonus on March 18, which likely signals his exit unless he takes a pay cut.

4. BROWNS: Cleveland's wide receiver group is among the worst in the NFL. The Browns lack speed at this position and can't stretch the field. Cleveland produced 32 receptions over 20 yards (tied for second-fewest in the league) and six catches over 40 yards (which was tied for fourth-fewest). According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Browns also were tied for most drops in the NFL with 33, although several came from running back Montario Hardesty. Greg Little had his share of drops, but the rookie second-round pick led the team with 61 catches. This came after he didn't play last season at North Carolina because he was suspended by the NCAA. He could develop into a solid No. 2 receiver in this league. Josh Cribbs plays with a lot of emotion and had the team's most receptions over 20 yards with 10. Mohamed Massaquoi, who was limited because of a concussion, has watched his play level off. He also lacks toughness. What could change: The Browns need to find a big-play receiver, preferably one with speed. Cleveland could draft one as high as the fourth overall pick (Justin Blackmon) or sign a veteran in free agency (Pierre Garcon would be a good fit).

Feb. 20: Special teams; Feb. 21: Defensive line; Feb. 23: Linebackers; Feb. 24: Defensive backs; Feb. 27: Offensive line.

For Wednesday: Tight ends

Jamison Hensley

ESPN Ravens reporter

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