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Friday, April 8, 2011
Five underrated players in the AFC North

By James Walker

From top to bottom, the AFC North is full of talented players.

Everyone knows household names such as Ray Lewis, Troy Polamalu, Ed Reed and Chad Ochocinco. But the division also has solid, under-the-radar players who have important roles without the spotlight.

In no particular order, here are five underrated players in the division from last season.

1. Sam Koch, P, Baltimore Ravens

2010 stats: 81 punts, 43.6 average, 39 inside 20

Analysis: Koch's stellar year was overshadowed by Baltimore kicker Billy Cundiff's record-setting season. But Koch joined Cundiff to become the 12th and 13th men on defense with Cundiff's 40 touchbacks, which tied an NFL record, and Koch's 39 punts downed inside the 20. Ravens head coach John Harbaugh, who is a former special-teams coach, takes the third phase of the game very seriously, and Koch is a big part of that.

2. Scott Fujita, LB, Cleveland Browns

2010 stats: 51 tackles, 3.5 sacks

Analysis: Fujita was a solid free-agent signing for the Browns and played nine games last season. But as soon as he got injured in Week 10, the defense lost its toughness and went downhill. The Browns are going through a lot of transition under first-year head coach Pat Shurmur, which includes a switch to a 4-3 defense. But Fujita played much of his career in a 4-3 and should be comfortable going back to that scheme. He's expected to start, along with fellow linebackers Chris Gocong and D'Qwell Jackson.

3. Isaac Redman, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers

2010 stats: 52 carries, 247 yards, two total touchdowns

Analysis: Two years ago, Redman was a player who would do well in practice and training camp but never got the opportunity in games. Last season the Steelers finally used their best-kept secret, and the undrafted running back was productive in a limited role. Redman averaged 4.8 yards per carry last season while spelling workhorse Rashard Mendenhall. Redman is a very tough runner who moves the chains. He likely will have an increased role in 2011, as Pittsburgh tries to do a better job of keeping Mendenhall (324 carries) fresh.

4. Josh Wilson, CB, Ravens

2010 stats: 40 tackles, three interceptions

Analysis: Last summer's trade to acquire Wilson from the Seattle Seahawks didn't garner many headlines. But the move turned out to be solid for Baltimore. Wilson got better as the season progressed and eventually replaced Fabian Washington to start nine games. There were some highs, such as Wilson's interception for a touchdown in overtime to beat the Houston Texans, and some lows, such as getting beat on the late touchdown to Roddy White in a loss to the Atlanta Falcons. But overall Wilson was Baltimore's steadiest corner in the second half of last season. The Ravens will attempt to re-sign Wilson, who is a free agent.

5. Jordan Shipley, WR, Cincinnati Bengals,

2010 stats: 52 receptions, 600 yards, three touchdowns

Analysis: Shipley was taken one spot ahead of friend and former Texas teammate Colt McCoy last year, and both had productive rookie seasons. Shipley is a smart player who, despite his size, is fearless going across the middle. He quickly became a favorite of Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer and caught 52 passes. The Bengals may have a new quarterback next season, but Shipley should remain productive in the slot.