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Friday, March 2, 2012
AFC North position rankings: Quarterbacks

By Jamison Hensley

The AFC North is running a series where every position will be ranked and what could change at that position.

QUARTERBACKS

1. STEELERS: Ben Roethlisberger remains the best quarterback in the division, and it's still not even close. Despite three injuries (sprained foot, broken right thumb and high ankle sprain), he threw 400 more yards than any other quarterback in the AFC North. Roethlisberger's highlights were throwing five touchdowns against Tennessee, out-dueling Tom Brady and beating Cleveland in the first meeting on one leg. He was the true most valuable player on the Steelers, even though Antonio Brown was named that by his teammates. When Roethlisberger hurt his ankle in early December, the Steelers offense was never the same. With a healthy Roethlisberger, the Steelers don't lose at Denver in the playoffs. In Charlie Batch's only start, the 37-year-old backup completed 15 of 22 passes for 208 yards against the Rams. What could change: The Steelers have to make a decision at backup quarterback. Batch, Byron Leftwich and Dennis Dixon are all unrestricted free agents. Leftwich is the favorite to get the No. 2 job.

2. RAVENS: The biggest frustration for the Ravens is that Joe Flacco can look like a championship quarterback one week and a confused one the next. Another uneven season included four games with 300 or more yards passing and seven with less than 200 yards passing. When Flacco was at his best, he threw three touchdowns in the first quarter at St. Louis, delivered a last-minute comeback at Pittsburgh and completed 79 percent of his passes in the regular-season finale at Cincinnati. His biggest moment came in the AFC championship game in New England where he threw the winning touchdown that sent the Ravens to the Super Bowl ... until the ball was stripped from Lee Evans. Rookie backup Tyrod Taylor threw one pass. What could change: The size of Flacco's contract. The Ravens have made it a priority to sign Flacco, who is entering the final year of his contract, to an extension. It should get done before the end of August because both sides don't want this issue to hang over their heads entering the regular season.

3. BENGALS: Andy Dalton was the best rookie quarterback in the AFC and would've been the top one in the NFL if not for that quarterback named Cam. A second-round pick in 2011, Dalton became the only rookie in NFL history to throw for 20 or more touchdowns passes while winning eight or more games as a starting quarterback. The most impressive part of Dalton's game is his anticipation. He gets rid of the ball before the wide receiver gets out of his break, which is quite a feat for a first-year passer. His biggest challenge is overcoming the best defenses in the division. In four games against Pittsburgh and Baltimore, Dalton had an 0-4 record with four touchdowns and five interceptions. Against the rest of the NFL, he was 9-3 with 16 touchdowns and eight interceptions. Backup Bruce Gradkowski replaced an injured Dalton in the season opener and led two fourth-quarter touchdown drives in rallying the Bengals to a 27-17 victory at Cleveland. What could change: The playbook is set to expand for Dalton in his second season. Dalton will progress as long as the Bengals improve his supporting cast. They need to upgrade the No. 2 wide receiver spot and find a more consistent starting running back.

4. BROWNS: No one questions Colt McCoy's leadership or toughness. It's his arm strength, accuracy, recognition of blitzes and ability to make plays in the pocket that are the question marks. You can argue that he doesn't have playmakers in the passing game and the Browns receivers were tied for the NFL lead in dropped passes. While all of that is correct, it's also true that McCoy is limited as a quarterback no matter who the Browns put around him. In his first full season as a starter, McCoy ranked 27th in completion percentage (57.2), 25th in passing yards per game (210.2), 33rd in yards per attempt (5.9), 27th in passer rating (74.6) and 25th in QBR (39.8). His season ended with a concussion that resulted in a vicious hit by Steelers linebacker James Harrison. Backup Seneca Wallace isn't the answer. He is 1-6 in seven starts for the Browns. Wallace didn't look like an experienced backup with his poor clock management at the end of the first half in Baltimore. What could change: The Browns need to find a franchise quarterback, whether it's signing Matt Flynn in free agency or trading up to draft Robert Griffin III, which is what I endorse. The fallback option is keeping McCoy as the starter for another season.

Feb. 20: Special teams; Feb. 21: Defensive line; Feb. 23: Linebackers; Feb. 24: Defensive backs; Feb. 27: Offensive line; Feb. 28: Wide receivers; Feb. 29: Tight ends; March 1: Running backs.