AFC North: 2012 NFL hidden treasure

AFC hidden treasures: West | North | South | East NFC: West | North | South | East

Examining a position group that could exceed its preseason expectations:

No one can say the Pittsburgh Steelers ignored the offensive line in the past three drafts. The Steelers selected center Maurkice Pouncey in the first round in 2010 and tackle Marcus Gilbert in the second round in 2011. Then, for the first time since 1968, Pittsburgh drafted offensive linemen in the first two rounds, taking guard David DeCastro (first round) and tackle Mike Adams (second round). This is the year when the Steelers cash in on their investment.

The Steelers' line has long been considered a weakness of the offense. No quarterback has been sacked more than Ben Roethlisberger since 2006. If these young linemen live up to expectations, the offensive line could become a strength. Pouncey is a two-time Pro Bowl center, and Gilbert improved throughout the season at right tackle. Willie Colon should make an easy transition from right tackle to left guard as long as he stays healthy.

The key to the offensive line going to that next level is the development of the rookies. DeCastro was the consensus top guard in the draft and should be a fixture at right guard for the foreseeable future. There are more doubts about Adams, who is penciled in to protect Roethlisberger's blind side. His strength is considered a concern after he managed 19 reps in the 225-pound bench press at the combine, a low number for an offensive lineman. If Adams isn't ready to start immediately, the Steelers could bring back Max Starks, as they did last season.
AFC hidden treasures: West | North | South | East NFC: West | North | South | East

Examining a position group that could exceed its preseason expectations:

The Baltimore Ravens made a risky move when they decided to cut Todd Heap last season and went with two inexperienced tight ends. The result: Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta more than held their own. Dickson exceeded Heap's 2010 receptions total by 14, and Pitta matched it.

The problem is, no one outside of the division really noticed what Dickson and Pitta did. That's what happens when New England is putting up big numbers with its tight end combination of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, who were both taken in the same draft as Dickson and Pitta. While no one is saying Dickson and Pitta will become as prolific as the Patriots' tight ends, there's a sense that the Ravens only scratched the surface with their duo.

Dickson and Pitta both finished strong, combining for seven touchdowns in the second half of the season. Dickson has great athleticism and can stretch the field, and Pitta has a chance to be a weapon in the red zone. Quarterback Joe Flacco looked to them in pressure situations last season. Dickson and Pitta both ranked in the AFC's top 15 in third-down catches. Now, Baltimore has to get them more consistently involved the rest of the time.
AFC hidden treasures: West | North | South | East NFC: West | North | South | East

Examining a position group that could exceed its preseason expectations:

The Cleveland Browns finished with the second-ranked pass defense in the NFL last season. The Browns will be even stronger in the secondary this year, even though there could be as many as three different starters from last season.

The one starter who will remain is Joe Haden, the most talented cornerback in the division, who broke up 37 passes in his first two seasons. He held his own against some of the best receivers in the NFL, from Larry Fitzgerald to Brandon Marshall. The cornerback who will start opposite Haden is up in the air right now. Sheldon Brown, last season's starter, ran with the first team this spring, but Dimitri Patterson is ready to take over the starting job. He excelled in the nickelback role, breaking up 12 passes and making 26 tackles.

Strong safety T.J. Ward is primed to have a breakout season. He was among the top 10 safeties in the NFL before a foot injury sidelined him for the final eight games of the season. Ward's physical presence should make an impact on Cleveland's porous run defense. The free safety spot is open after Mike Adams signed with the Denver Broncos in free agency. Eric Hagg is the leading contender after his strong showing this spring. A seventh-round pick from a year ago, Hagg looks like he's the most improved player on the Browns this season.
AFC hidden treasures: West | North | South | East NFC: West | North | South | East

Examining a position group that could exceed its preseason expectations:

The Cincinnati Bengals had the AFC North's best defensive line last season, and this group has the potential to be even better despite losing two key contributors. Carlos Dunlap is expected to be an every-down lineman and replace Frostee Rucker, who signed with the Cleveland Browns in free agency. Dunlap can become a dominant edge rusher if he stays healthy. It's easy to forget that he's only 23 and has yet to reach his ceiling.

The real "hidden treasure" on the Bengals' defensive line is tackle Geno Atkins. There was some concern last year when Cincinnati released Tank Johnson and moved Atkins into the starting lineup. He responded with eight sacks, which led all NFL interior linemen, and a Pro Bowl season. Two underrated players, defensive tackle Domata Peko and Robert Geathers, round out an impressive starting defensive front.

The line took a hit when it lost Jonathan Fanene to the New England Patriots in free agency. Fanene was a backup, but he was the lineman who had the best motor. The Bengals, though, have bulked up in terms of overall depth. In free agency, they signed two former first-round picks in ends Jamaal Anderson and Derrick Harvey. In the draft, the team selected Penn State defensive tackle Devon Still, the Big Ten's Defensive Player of the Year, in the second round, and Clemson defensive tackle Brandon Thompson (who did 36 reps in the bench press) in the third round. This group could become the backbone of another tough Cincinnati defense.

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