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Friday, February 5, 2010
Walker's Fab 40: Nos. 5-8

By James Walker
ESPN.com

The AFC North blog continues to rank its top 40 players in the division.

Woodley
Woodley
No. 8: LaMarr Woodley

Team: Pittsburgh Steelers

Position: Outside linebacker

2009 stats: 62 tackles, 13.5 sacks

Analysis: Woodley has improved in all three seasons, and he's now a Pro Bowl player approaching his prime. Woodley has the ability to get sacks in bunches and plays his best in big games, particularly in the playoffs. Some in Pittsburgh already feel he's surpassed teammate and fellow outside linebacker James Harrison. I'm not ready to go there at this point. But Woodley's aggressive style and continual development has made Woodley vs. Harrison a respectable debate.

Rice
Rice
No. 7: Ray Rice

Team: Baltimore Ravens

Position: Running back

2009 stats: 1,339 rushing yards, 78 receptions, eight total touchdowns

Analysis: I cautioned to rank Rice this high after one year. But I'm convinced he's the real deal and will not be a one-hit wonder. Rice is a dynamic talent. Once he put on weight last offseason to increase durability and strength for running between the tackles, you'd be hard-pressed to find a weakness in his game. Rice can run inside and outside, go the distance, catch the football out of the backfield, and he doesn't fumble very often. If these rankings were based on just one season, he could make a strong case for the top spot. But I need to see Rice play at this level for more than one year before he's rated any higher.

Lewis
Lewis
No. 6: Ray Lewis

Team: Ravens

Position: Middle linebacker

2009 stats: 134 tackles, three sacks

Analysis: With the way Lewis, 34, thinks and sees the game, he may be able to play until he's 40 if he chooses. It's amazing to watch Lewis' smarts and film study keep him among the NFL's top linebackers at this stage of his career. There are younger and faster linebackers in the league. But they don't see the game the same way as Lewis, who has no false steps on the field. His quick reaction and recognition help him play faster than players 10 years younger. Also, Lewis' unquestioned leadership and love for the game add to his value.

Harrison
Harrison
No. 5: James Harrison

Team: Steelers

Position: Outside linebacker

2009 stats: 79 tackles, 10 sacks, five forced fumbles

Analysis: If 10 sacks mean an off year, every team would love to have a player with Harrison's "down" production. Harrison raised the bar extremely high for himself after recording 16 sacks in 2008 and earning defensive player of the year honors. Harrison wasn't as dominant but still had a Pro Bowl season in 2009. He is relentless to the quarterback despite constant double-teams. I believe he is another player who was hurt by the knee injury to safety Troy Polamalu.