AFC North's future stars on defense


We're continuing to look at what the ESPN Insiders project as far as defensive rankings in 2016. These are Insider articles, so you'll need a subscription to view the whole piece. But I will let you know how the AFC North players stack up:


6. Geno Atkins, Cincinnati Bengals defensive tackle: This ranking is quite respectable considering he's the highest-ranked interior lineman on the list. In 2016, Atkins will be 28 and still in the prime of his career. Atkins has recorded 20 sacks over the past two seasons. The Browns' Barkevious Mingo and the Bengals' Michael Johnson were mentioned as those who just missed the cut.


10. Lawrence Timmons, Pittsburgh Steelers: The division that is known for producing Pro Bowl linebackers won't be as strong in three years, according to the ESPN Insiders. Timmons really came into his own as a defensive playmaker last season. One snub in the top 10 was the Bengals' Vontaze Burfict, who could be a Pro Bowl linebacker by that time if he can produce like he did last season as a rookie.


3. Leon Hall, Cincinnati Bengals: I believe Hall is very underrated right now. By 2016, Hall will be 31. I'm not sure if he'll be a top-five cornerback at that stage of his career.

4. Joe Haden, Cleveland Browns: He has the talent to be ranked this high, but he'll have to improve his work ethic. If the Browns don't find a quality starting corner at the other spot, no quarterback is going to throw Haden's way. Some might be surprised that the Ravens' Lardarius Webb was left off the top 10. But he'll turn 31 during the 2016 season and is playing on two surgically repaired knees.


The AFC North was shut out at this position. I thought the Browns' T.J. Ward might have a shot at cracking the top 10. He should be in that class if he can last a full season. Ravens first-round pick Matt Elam was an honorable mention.