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Wednesday, November 16, 2011
AFC North rookie watch

By Jamison Hensley

Where the top rookies in the division stand heading into the final seven games of the season:

1. A.J. Green, wide receiver, Bengals: Green is the most athletically gifted rookie in the AFC North. If you don't believe this, go watch his 36-yard touchdown grab against Pittsburgh last Sunday. The fourth overall pick of the 2011 draft leads NFL rookies in receptions (41), receiving yards (635), receiving touchdowns (six) and highlight catches. The best compliment you can give is he makes catches when he isn't even open. He does need to cut down on his penalties and improve as a run blocker.

2. Andy Dalton, quarterback, Bengals: He wouldn't be the fifth quarterback taken if they held the draft today. Dalton won't wow anyone with his statistics or his arm strength. He just wins with poise and by knowing where to go with the ball. His ability to throw with pressure in his face was impressive last Sunday. Dalton, though, missed a major opportunity when he failed in the clutch against Pittsburgh.

3. Jabaal Sheard, defensive end, Browns: He's cooled off lately after getting off to a terrific start. The second-round pick made a strong first impression by consistently beating more experienced offensive tackles and getting to the quarterback. His speed coming off the edge has produced 2.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery.

4. Torrey Smith, wide receiver, Ravens: Great speed, questionable hands. The second-round pick has scored four touchdowns but has made three drops. Smith has shown flashes of being a star in the NFL from his three first-quarter touchdowns in St. Louis to his winning touchdown catch in Pittsburgh.

5. Marcus Gilbert, offensive tackle, Steelers: Many say that the Steelers offensive line has improved since the return of left tackle Max Starks. But it also has something to do with Gilbert developing at right tackle. The second-round pick is playing with confidence after a shaky start.

Others to watch: Phillip Taylor, defensive tackle, Browns; Greg Little, wide receiver, Browns; Pernell McPhee, defensive end, Ravens; Cameron Heyward, defensive end, Steelers.