AFC North: Defensive Player of the Year

Earlier this month, we put an end to the "Troy Reed" debate between Troy Polamalu and Ed Reed. But another set of Power Rankings this week brought the topic back to the surface -- albeit with similar results.

On Tuesday, Polamalu also was voted the NFL's top defensive player by ESPN.com's expert panel. As with the safeties rankings, Polamalu was the unanimous No. 1 choice, which is impressive for a safety because it's not often considered a glamour position. Reed finished No. 10 in the voting.

Polamalu, the reigning defensive player of the year, has a unique set of abilities that I've never seen from the safety position. He has the aggressiveness and instincts of a middle linebacker but the coverage skills, hands and acceleration of a cornerback. This also was Pittsburgh's fourth consecutive week at the top of the Power Rankings. The Steelers were No. 1 for safeties, owners, helmets and now top defensive player.

The AFC North, as expected, was well-represented in this voting. Four players in the division made the top 10, including Steelers linebacker James Harrison (No. 6), Baltimore Ravens defensive lineman Haloti Ngata (No. 9) and teammate Reed (No. 10).

In particular, it was good to see Ngata get some recognition. Covering him the past three seasons, I've seen Ngata mature before my eyes and develop into arguably the league's most dominant interior defensive lineman. It's at the point now where Ngata is nearly unblockable in one-on-one situations.

Harrison remains one of the top pass-rushers and impact defenders in the NFL. He's recorded double-digit sacks for three consecutive seasons for the Steelers. Reed, who led the NFL in interceptions, is still the best ball-hawking safety in the league.

Here was the final tally:

ESPN.com's defensive Power Rankings

1. Troy Polamalu, S, Steelers

2. DeMarcus Ware, LB, Cowboys

3. Darrelle Revis, CB, Jets

4. Patrick Willis, LB, 49ers

5. Clay Matthews Jr., LB, Packers

6. James Harrison, LB, Steelers

7. Nnamdi Asomugha, CB, Raiders

8. Julius Peppers, DE, Bears

9. Haloti Ngata, DL, Ravens

10. Ed Reed, S, Ravens

Walker's defensive Power Rankings

1. Troy Polamalu, S, Steelers

2. DeMarcus Ware, LB, Cowboys

3. Darrelle Revis, CB, Jets

4. Patrick Willis, LB, 49ers

5. James Harrison, LB, Steelers

6. Nnamdi Asomugha, CB, Raiders

7. Clay Matthews Jr., LB, Packers

8. Ed Reed, S, Ravens

9. Haloti Ngata, DL, Ravens

10. Charles Woodson, CB, Packers

Top Steelers drafts since 2000

March, 7, 2011
3/07/11
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This week we kick off our series on the top draft classes in the AFC North of the past decade.

We will hit one team each day, starting Monday with the Pittsburgh Steelers. On Friday, we will compile the best of the best and rank the top draft classes overall in the division.

Let's get it started.

No. 3: Class of 2003

Best picks: S Troy Polamalu (first round) and CB Ike Taylor (fourth round)

Polamalu
Analysis: The Steelers had a limited number of picks in this draft, because they traded up to get a player they really liked in Polamalu. Pittsburgh was confident Polamalu was special, and it was the right call. Polamalu, the NFL's reigning Defensive Player of the Year, is putting together a Hall of Fame career and already has led Pittsburgh’s defense to three Super Bowl appearances and two titles. That pick alone makes this class worthy of consideration. But the Steelers also landed No. 1 cornerback Taylor in the fourth round, making this draft the hallmark of the team’s secondary for years to come. Pittsburgh only had five picks in 2003 and hit home runs on two.

No. 2: Class of 2002

Best picks: G Kendall Simmons (first round), WR Antwaan Randle El (second round), S Chris Hope (third round), LB Larry Foote (fourth round), DE Brett Keisel (seventh round)

Keisel
Keisel
Analysis: This class lacks the star power, but has a ton of depth with five starters. Arguably the best player to come out of this draft is Keisel, who was the final pick for Pittsburgh in 2002 and No. 242 overall. Keisel, 32, remains a longtime starter for the Steelers, and qualified for his first Pro Bowl as an alternate this past season. Hope and Simmons were both good players who eventually bolted for free agency. Hope has started for the Tennessee Titans the past five seasons. Randle El and Foote won three combined Super Bowl rings with the Steelers, and remain role players on the team.

No. 1: Class of 2007

Best picks: LB Lawrence Timmons (first round), LB LaMarr Woodley (second round), TE Matt Spaeth (third round), P Daniel Sepulveda (fourth round), CB William Gay (fifth round)

Woodley

Woodley


Analysis: The 2007 draft has stars and depth, making it Pittsburgh's best class of the past decade. The Steelers are never shy to draft linebackers, and they took Timmons and Woodley with back-to-back picks, building their foundation for years to come. Both are now starters entering their prime. Woodley already has one Pro Bowl and became the second Steeler to record three consecutive years of double-digit sacks. After hitting big in the first two rounds, Pittsburgh landed three role players in the middle rounds with Gay, Spaeth and Sepulveda. They each contributed to Pittsburgh's past two Super Bowl runs to varying degrees, although Sepulveda has mostly battled knee injuries in his career.

On Tuesday we will take an in-depth look at the draft classes of the Cincinnati Bengals.

Walker's Fab 40: Nos. 1-4

February, 25, 2011
2/25/11
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Here is the best of the best. This is the final installment of "Walker's Fab 40" for 2011.

No. 4: Haloti Ngata, defensive lineman

Ngata
Team: Baltimore Ravens

2010 stats: 63 tackles, 5.5 sacks

Last year's rankings: No. 10

Analysis: Ngata moves up six spots this year after posting his second consecutive Pro Bowl season. He recorded 63 tackles and a career-high 5.5 sacks. A case can be made that he is the NFL's best defensive lineman, and he likely will become the highest-paid player at his position by Baltimore this offseason. Ngata has a rare combination of size, strength, good feet and agility. He commands double-teams and keeps offensive linemen off Baltimore's linebackers. And when Ngata is blocked by a single player, he usually shrugs them off and stops the ball carrier or gets to the quarterback. If Ngata continues to improve, he has the potential to be one of the NFL's most dominant players on defense.

No. 3: Ed Reed, safety

Reed
Team: Ravens

2010 stats: 33 tackles, eight interceptions

Last year's ranking: No. 3

Analysis: Who else can spend the first six games on the physically unable to perform list and still lead the NFL with eight interceptions? Reed continues to be a quarterback's worst nightmare. No one is better at reading a quarterback's eyes, anticipating passes and then picking them off. Often his picks come in bunches. The future Hall of Famer had three multi-interception games this season. The Ravens do a great job of allowing Reed, 32, to stay on the back end as the last line of defense. A nerve injury in his neck has prevented Reed from making a lot of big hits. But occasionally Reed will come up and remind people that he can still dish out punishment. In Week 16 against the Cleveland Browns, Reed knocked tailback Peyton Hillis (No. 13) out the game with a hard shot to the ribs. Reed also had another big hit in the wild-card win against the Kansas City Chiefs.

No. 2: Ben Roethlisberger, quarterback

Roethlisberger
Team: Pittsburgh Steelers

2010 stats: 3,200 yards, 17 touchdowns, five interceptions

Last year's ranking: No. 2

Analysis: Offseason turmoil turned into in-season triumph for Roethlisberger. He overcame a four-game suspension for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy to lead the Steelers to Super Bowl XLV. Roethlisberger, who was never considered a workout warrior, worked extremely hard in the offseason and during his suspension in an effort to make it up to his teammates and the Steelers organization. Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Bruce Arians said Roethlisberger has never been better than this season, and we agree. Roethlisberger threw for 3,200 yards and 17 touchdowns in 12 games. But a key area where he has improved is reducing turnovers. Roethlisberger plays a backyard style but his five interceptions were by far the lowest of his career. At 28, Roethlisberger is now entering his prime and is really building a strong case for the Hall of Fame.

No. 1: Troy Polamalu, safety

Polamalu
Team: Steelers

2010 stats: 63 tackles, seven interceptions, one sack

Last year's ranking: No. 1

Analysis: The top three didn't change in this year's "Walker's Fab 40." Polamalu finished in the top spot for the second year in a row after winning the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year award with another great season. Polamalu solidified his spot as the best defensive player in the league. There is no player like Polamalu in the NFL. He blitzes and hits like a linebacker and covers like a corner, making him the ultimate chess piece for Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. Not only does Polamalu make big plays, but he makes them to close out games, and that's what separates him from other good players. His sack and forced fumble against Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco (No. 14) gave the Steelers the AFC North division title and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Health concerns are the only Achilles' heel (no pun intended) for Polamalu. His physical and reckless style often results in injuries, as Polamalu was hampered by ankle and Achilles issues at the end of the season.

That is the conclusion of our second annual "Walker's Fab 40" in the AFC North blog. For a recap, check out the full thread here and let the debate begin!

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