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Tuesday, March 8, 2011
Who has the most to prove in 2011?

By James Walker

Peyton Hillis, Joe Flacco and Andre Smith are among the AFC North players with the most to prove.
The offseason is a time to reflect and evaluate. The NFL remains a constant proving ground. These seven AFC North players -- who face questions ranging from consistency to becoming a franchise quarterback -- have the most to prove this upcoming season:

No. 7: Joe Flacco, QB, Baltimore Ravens

2010 stats: 3,622 yards, 25 touchdowns, 10 interceptions, 93.6 passer rating

Proving point: Flacco is a unique case, because he doesn't have much to prove in the regular season. The third-year quarterback has improved every year and won an average of 10.7 games per season in Baltimore. But Flacco's proving ground starts in the playoffs, and that is the next step in his maturation process. Fans in Baltimore expected better postseason play right away from Flacco and now are voicing their displeasure. Despite his putting up career highs in yards, touchdowns and passer rating last season, Baltimore's second-round loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers still stings for a Ravens team many expected to get to the Super Bowl. Flacco has a 4-3 postseason record, which isn't bad. But he's only played great football in one of his seven career playoff games. Is Flacco going through the normal growing pains of a young quarterback? Or is he simply not clutch? Next season will go a long way toward answering that question.

No. 6: Ziggy Hood, DE, Steelers

2010 stats: 20 tackles, three sacks

Proving point: Hood took advantage of a luxury not many first-round picks have in the NFL. He was a backup for about a year and a half and was allowed to learn in Pittsburgh before being forced into the starting lineup. Hood became a starter after Pittsburgh veteran defensive end Aaron Smith was lost for the season with a triceps injury. The 2009 first-round pick stepped in admirably, and the Steelers finished with the NFL's No. 2 defense and top-rated run defense. Can Hood be a full-time starter? With Smith returning, it will be interesting to see how the Steelers handle this. Smith, 34, is the prototypical 3-4 defensive end and is still a good player when healthy. But Hood also is a budding talent who looks ready to step up.

No. 5: Michael Oher, LT, Ravens

2010 stats: 16 starts

Proving point: Is Oher a left tackle or right tackle? After two seasons, the Ravens are still trying to figure that out. Oher followed up a stellar rookie campaign on the right side with a so-so 2010 season at left tackle. Baltimore had contract and health issues last offseason with Jared Gaither and decided to make the switch, which is often challenging. Oher had issues protecting Flacco's blind side (no pun intended) at times and suffered too many pre-snap penalties. But Oher remains Baltimore's best offensive lineman. So there is potential to improve on the left side in his third year. Chances are, Oher will get another shot to prove that in 2011 if the Ravens cannot find a better option via the draft or free agency.

No. 4: Jerome Simpson, WR, Cincinnati Bengals

Jerome Simpson
Can Jerome Simpson keep the momentum going from the end of last season?
2010 stats: 20 receptions, 277 yards, three touchdowns

Proving point: After three mostly uneventful seasons, Simpson ended the final two weeks with a bang by posting back-to-back 100-yard games and three total touchdowns. Was the late surge a fluke or a sign that Simpson has finally turned the corner? Injuries to veterans Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens gave Simpson an opportunity to play. Now the Bengals have to figure out if Simpson is worthy of a larger role -- perhaps as a starter -- in 2011. Outsiders have their doubts. Most mock drafts have Cincinnati taking Georgia receiver A.J. Green with the No. 4 overall pick. If the Bengals take Green, that would show a lack of confidence in Simpson and their current group of receivers. Ochocinco also could become trade bait this offseason.

No. 3: Peyton Hillis, RB, Cleveland Browns

2010 stats: 1,177 rushing yards, 61 receptions, 13 total touchdowns

Proving point: Is Hillis a one-year wonder? Following a breakout 2010 season, that is the question Browns fans want answered. Hillis exploded on the scene by leading the Browns in rushing and receiving last year. He was by far the team's MVP. But Hillis needs another great season for the Browns to have a chance in the AFC North. His numbers dipped toward the end of the season, as teams keyed on Hillis and he suffered through some nagging injuries. Expect defenses to be more aware of Hillis from the start next season. It will be interesting to see whether Hillis gets the same number of opportunities. Browns rookie head coach Pat Shurmur is changing to a West Coast offense. So Cleveland is expected to pass the ball a lot more than it did under former coach Eric Mangini. Hillis has good hands and could fit in the system. He's always been productive when given the opportunity, and posting back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons for the first time would be a solid achievement for Hillis.

No. 2: Andre Smith, RT, Bengals

2010 stats: Four starts

Proving point: After two years, many have already written Smith off as a draft bust. Cincinnati took Smith No. 6 overall, despite many red flags and have gotten little out of its investment thus far. The Bengals had high hopes for Smith in his second season but injuries and inconsistent play led to just four starts. Now Cincinnati is considering moving Smith to guard to see if his play improves. The Bengals also have to decide on Smith's contract later this offseason. Cincinnati has to decide whether to keep his contract at four years or pay him for two additional years, which included a $4.75 million option bonus. Based on the first two seasons, it would be surprising if the Bengals paid Smith the additional money.

No. 1: Colt McCoy, QB, Browns

2010 stats: 1,576 yards, six touchdowns, nine interceptions, 74.5 passer rating

Proving point: There is no player in the AFC North with more to prove next season than McCoy, who received a surprising amount of playing time as a rookie. Cleveland intended for McCoy to learn from the sidelines last season. But injuries to veterans Jake Delhomme and Seneca Wallace led to early playing time. McCoy then performed better than expected and secured the job after eight starts. The quarterback of the future is now the quarterback of the present. The Browns' front office and coaching staff are 100 percent behind McCoy as he tries to become Cleveland's first legitimate franchise quarterback since Bernie Kosar. There is a long list of failures at the position over the past dozen years. If the Browns have any chance of turning the franchise around and competing in the AFC North, McCoy has to be the answer.