Print and Go Back ESPN.com: AFC North [Print without images]

Monday, February 28, 2011
AFC North mailbag: Fab 40 fallout

By James Walker
ESPN.com

Our second annual "Walker's Fab 40" drew a strong reaction from our community. Let's answer some questions about it from our division inbox and AFC North Twitter page.

Brian from Washington, D.C., writes: Did you forget Todd Heap? Heap had five TDs as opposed to Heath Miller's two, as well as more receiving yards.

James Walker: I didn't forget Heap, Brian. He made last year's list, but we listed him among 10 potential snubs for this year. In fact, Miller was the only tight end to make "Walker's Fab 40," with Heap, Ben Watson and Jermaine Gresham all in strong contention. That's just the way it turned out this year. There are 53 players on each team. So when you narrow down 212 AFC North players to 40, some good ones are going to be left off. Heap was definitely one of them. As far as Miller, you can't only look at this year's statistics. Miller remains the most complete tight end in the division, despite suffering injuries and not putting up great numbers. He also played a quarter of the season without starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who was suspended the first four games.


Potter_Law via Twitter writes: How do you put Ray Rice above Peyton Hillis and Rashard Mendenhall? Rice had a very mediocre year to be in your top 10.

Walker: Again, Potter, not everything is based on this past season's stats. But if you want to go there, Rice had 43 more rushing yards than Hillis and 40 more receptions than Mendenhall. All three tailbacks are very good. That is why they were all ranked in the top 13, which is impressive considering all the great players in the AFC North. But Rice gaining 1,776 total yards from scrimmage in what's considered a "down year" is proof of how dynamic a talent he really is.


Kovacs from Santa Monica, Calif., writes: I hate to criticize such an arbitrary list like the Fab 40, but you are wrong for having Joe Haden as the fourth best CB in the division.

Walker: Haden (No. 33) had a good rookie year, Kovacs, but he still has to prove it over a longer period. Haden was a second stringer for the first half of the season. His production took off once he replaced Eric Wright in the starting lineup. Veterans like Johnathan Joseph (No. 19), Ike Taylor (No. 20) and Leon Hall (No. 31) have been consistently good throughout their careers, and that's what I'm looking for from Haden in upcoming years.


Charlie from Chardon, Ohio, writes: What are the chances the Browns bring back my favorite player and best fullback in the league: Lawrence Vickers?

Walker: Vickers' future in Cleveland is definitely in question, Charlie. I talked with him shortly after the season and he didn't know if he was coming back with the coaching and scheme changes on offense. The Browns will do a lot more passing this year with a West Coast offense. So they have to determine if spending money on a top power fullback is worth it to them. Vickers will land somewhere, because he's a good player.


David from College Park, Md., writes: Do you see any chance the Ravens let Willis McGahee walk and resign Le'Ron McClain?

Walker: McGahee is more likely to return than McClain, David. Baltimore would love to have McGahee back at a reduced rate but don't want to pay $6 million for a backup tailback, which makes sense. It will be up to McGahee to decide if he wants to return for less or explore other opportunities. I don't think the chances of McClain coming back are great. The Ravens are fine keeping McClain in his same role as a blocking back, but that's not what he wants. McClain wants to carry the ball a lot more, which he did when he led the Ravens in rushing in 2008. That won't happen in Baltimore with Rice as the feature back.


WyllysInVA via Twitter wants to know if there's any chance the Steelers go after Joseph.

Walker: Pittsburgh does not go after other team's high-priced free agents. The Steelers are more focused on keeping theirs -- with LaMarr Woodley and Taylor being this year's priority -- while building through the draft. Plus it looks like the going rate for corners is shooting through the roof.


Algiff via Twitter writes: Do you think Joseph will be more expensive than Taylor in the free-agent market?

Walker: Yes, I do. Joseph is four years younger, and that alone could lead to more years and more money on the contract. In my opinion, Joseph also is a more dynamic playmaker in terms of intercepting the ball and creating big turnovers. There's a chance, too, that Taylor will take a hometown discount to stay with the AFC champion Steelers. Joseph likely won't do the same to remain with the downtrodden Bengals.


Mike from Ewa Beach, Hawaii, writes: Is it possible that the Steelers can extend the contracts of LaMarr Woodley, Ike Taylor, Willie Colon, Lawrence Timmons, and Troy Polamalu?

Walker: I don't believe all five players will be addressed in the offseason, Mike. The Steelers will definitely negotiate with Woodley and Taylor and see where that ends up. Colon's situation with Pittsburgh is more uncertain as he works to get back to 100 percent. Two players you mentioned -- Timmons and Polamalu -- are still under contract until 2012. The Steelers usually let draft picks play out their full contracts (see Woodley), so Timmons would have to wait. I wouldn't rule out a Polamalu extension, but only after the team's immediate needs are taken care of.


Comment and complaint department

Ben from Pensacola, Fla., writes: Ike Taylor in the top 20 AFC North players? Not buying it. The only reason he's not the worst starter on the Steelers' D is because Bryant McFadden is playing across from him. He's a solid corner overall, but he's also inconsistent and drops a lot of potential INTs. Him being ranked ahead of elite DLs like Brett Keisel and Aaron Smith is laughable.

Michael H from San Antonio writes: I had to read over your Fab 40 a couple times to make sure I wasn't missing it, but I think you skipped over someone. Cleveland's TE Ben Watson. Last season's 68 REC, 763 YDS, and three TDs are a monster stats for a TE. I think his career in New England shows his "culmination of career consistency" and should continue to succeed under a west coast offense.

Walker: Ben, Taylor had another solid season for Pittsburgh and has consistently been the team's No. 1 corner. He's not flashy because he doesn't make a lot of interceptions. But Taylor consistently does a good job against opposing No. 1 receivers, and it's noticeable the amount of times teams throw away from him in favor of testing McFadden and William Gay. Michael, on Saturday we wrote that Watson was our biggest Fab 40 snub. He was No. 41 and the first player out. It came down to Watson and Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff, who got the nod after a historic and Pro Bowl season.


Cooper from Baltimore writes: As a die-hard Ravens fan, this is excellent Carson Palmer wants out. Palmer has the ability every Sunday to beat top teams, as proven against the two best defenses in the Ravens and Steelers. Cincy's best option is to take him seriously and get what they can for him while he still has it.

Dzip11 via Twitter writes: As a Bengals fan, if they don't get Johnathan Joseph resigned it gets even harder to defend their moves.

Walker: Cooper, you bring up a good point. The Steelers and Ravens will not shed a tear over Palmer potentially leaving the division. Palmer had some success against both defenses, particularly Baltimore's. Dzip11, were you defending Cincinnati's personnel decisions before?


Kevin from Arlington, Va., writes: You can't label Brian Robiskie and Mohamed Massaquoi misses yet. They simply were not used properly by Eric Mangini and Brian Daboll! You can’t make plays when there’s very little emphasis on getting the ball to you! Let's see what happens next year, assuming there is a next year, before deciding these guys can't play.

Walker: Fair point, Kevin. I do have a hard rule that I will not label any player a draft bust after their rookie season. The NFL is too difficult for everyone to "get it" right off the bat. Polamalu is a great example. But after two seasons all bets are off. At that point I think you have a good idea about a player in most cases, especially if they received playing time like Massaquoi and Robiskie have. Occasionally a player will surprise and become a late bloomer. But from what I've seen over two seasons, I would be surprised if Robiskie and Massaquoi develop into Pro Bowl-caliber receivers.

If you have any questions, comments or complaints, please send them to our AFC North inbox.