After ranking the top players in the AFC North all week, here are the best of the best:
No. 4: Joe Thomas
Team: Cleveland Browns
Position: Left tackle
2009 stats: 16 starts
Analysis: You can go weeks -- and sometimes months -- without hearing Thomas' name called during the course of a season. That is the greatest tribute to his abilities. Thomas rarely gets penalized and seldom gives up sacks, which is exactly what you want from a left tackle. The three-time Pro Bowler is quick on his feet and not susceptible to the bull rush, which leaves defenders with few options. Thomas also is self-motivated. He has continued to play at an elite level despite Cleveland's 9-23 record the past two seasons.
No. 3: Ed Reed
Team: Baltimore Ravens
2009 stats: 50 tackles, three interceptions
Analysis: Reed, 31, is considering retirement. But if he returns, Reed is still one of the NFL's elite defenders, particularly in pass coverage. Tremendous athleticism and constant film study often allow him to stay one step ahead of quarterbacks. Reed has soft hands and is a threat to take it to the house every time he makes an interception. Various injuries to his groin, foot and neck limited him to 12 games this season. The nerve condition in his neck is the most serious of his ailments and has caused some limitations in Reed's game the past two seasons with tackling and run support.
No. 2: Ben Roethlisberger
Team: Pittsburgh Steelers
2009 stats: 4,328 yards, 26 touchdowns, 12 interceptions, 100.5 passer rating
Analysis: There is a lot of debate on where Roethlisberger ranks among the elite quarterbacks in the NFL, but he is undoubtedly one of the top players in the AFC North. Roethlisberger, 27, already has two Super Bowl rings and has yet to experience a losing season in the NFL. "Big Ben" can make all the throws, has good mobility in the pocket and put up career numbers in 2009. His backyard style is unconventional. Roethlisberger takes a lot of sacks. But he still doesn't get enough credit for his ability to shrug off would-be defenders while making big plays downfield.
No. 1: Troy Polamalu
2009 stats: Five games, 20 tackles, three interceptions
Analysis: Surprised? You shouldn't be. Not only is Polamalu the best player in the AFC North, but I feel he's the best defensive player in the entire NFL. No defender in the league combines world-class athleticism, smarts, fundamentals, natural football instincts and the knack for big plays better than Polamalu. Reed and Polamalu are in the same class, but Reed's aforementioned neck injury provides physical limitations Polamalu doesn't have. In five games Polamalu had three interceptions. Yes, he was injured (knee) most of last season. But Pittsburgh's performance on defense, particularly late in games, only strengthens Polamalu's case for the top spot in the debut of "Walker's Fab 40."