Bill Polian, former NFL general manager and current ESPN Insider, made a list of 10 players that will most affect their respective teams' success. Three of them came from the AFC North. It's an Insider article, so you'll need a subscription to view the entire piece. But here are the players from the division who received recognition:
Polian's comment: The Bengals face heightened expectations in 2013, with some believing a deep postseason run is a possibility. For that to happen, Atkins must shine once again. If he falls off from his 2012 level of play or if he were to get hurt, Cincinnati wouldn't be as effective on defense, especially on third down.
Jamison Hensley's comment: Atkins is one of the best defensive players in the NFL, and he will get paid handsomely for it, whether it's this year or next year. But you can't discount the talent and athleticism that the Bengals have in edge rushers Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson or the key addition of James Harrison.
Polian's comment: Over the past three seasons Dumervil has averaged 12.5 sacks. If he can put up a double-digit sack count opposite a presumably healthy and revitalized Terrell Suggs, I think the Ravens' D takes a step forward.
Hensley's comment: I really want to see how teams go about blocking both Dumervil and Suggs. And, if you put too much attention on them, Haloti Ngata and Chris Canty will collapse the middle of the offensive line. Suggs and Dumervil have a great chance to be the most productive pass-rush tandem in Ravens history.
Polian's comment: If the Browns would like anything beyond a developmental year, though, Richardson will need to be one of the best running backs in the league. Based on his potential, that's not out of the question. And if he makes an Adrian Peterson-esque jump in Year 2, the ceiling for the Browns' season gets a lot higher.
Hensley's comment: Even with the improved play of quarterback Brandon Weeden, the Browns will go nowhere without a productive and healthy Richardson. He's the most consistent playmaker and he's the biggest weapon in the red zone. Offensive coordinator Norv Turner hasn't hidden the fact that Richardson will be the Browns' workhorse this season. The expectations are 300 carries and 60 receptions. Of all the AFC North players on this list, Richardson is the most pivotal to his team.