AFC North: Jason Taylor

Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Jacoby Jones became the latest NFL player to have success on "Dancing With The Stars," finishing third on the ABC television series this month. Jones is back practicing with the Ravens and is looking to avoid following in his predecessors' footsteps.

Jones
The four active NFL players to participate on DWTS before Jones -- Jason Taylor, Chad Johnson, Hines Ward and Donald Driver -- failed to play a full season in the year they competed on the show and all were either on different teams or retired by the following season.

Does Jones worry about suffering a similar fate?

“I’m on the younger side,” Jones told the team's official website. “I’ll be fine.”

Jones does have youth on his side. At 28, Jones is the youngest NFL player in "Dancing With The Stars" history (according to DWTS Stats & Information).

Taylor, who was 33 when he went on the show in 2008, finished with 3.5 sacks for the Washington Redskins after recording 11 the previous season. He was released in 2009 and signed with the Miami Dolphins.

Johnson, who was 32 on DWTS and had the last name Ochocinco in 2010, managed 67 catches for 831 yards, the second-lowest during his nine seasons as a starting receiver for the Cincinnati Bengals. He was traded to the New England Patriots in 2011.

Ward, who was 35 on the show in 2011, caught 46 passes for 381 yards and two touchdowns, his lowest numbers in more than a decade. He was released in 2012 and later retired with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Driver, who was 37 on DWTS in 2012, had eight receptions for 77 yards, his worst season since his rookie year. He retired with the Green Bay Packers in 2013.

The Ravens can't afford for Jones to decline this season. He has a chance to become a starting receiver for the Ravens after the team traded Anquan Boldin this offseason. At the very least, Jones will be Baltimore's primary returner, which earned him Pro Bowl honors last season.

Jones only missed one week of on-field workouts because of the show. But he hasn't been part of the team's offseason conditioning program, which began April 15.

“My conditioning is good and I’m not sore,” Jones said. “I’ve just got to get my legs back under me, football-wise. It’s not like dancing. I still don’t feel like me. In a week, I’ll feel like me.”
The AFC North blog will conclude its rankings of each position this week with defense. This is a projection on how the group will fare this season. It's not an evaluation based on last year. For Friday, let's look at the defensive line.

1. Cincinnati Bengals: When it comes to defensive lines in the AFC North, it's the Bengals and then there's everyone else. Geno Atkins is the NFL's best interior defensive lineman. Michael Johnson looked like Jason Taylor during his breakout year last season. Carlos Dunlap's production could finally meet his potential this year. And Domata Peko is one of the more underappreciated nose tackles in the game. Plus, there's talented depth with Robert Geathers, Wallace Gilberry, Devon Still, Brandon Thompson and Margus Hunt.

2. Cleveland Browns: The Browns' best addition this offseason was Desmond Bryant. an under-the-radar free agent from Oakland who can become a game-changer up front in the Browns' new 3-4 defense. Phil Taylor will benefit if he moves to nose tackle. He's a powerful big body who can hold up against double teams in run defense and push the middle when rushing the passer. Ahtyba Rubin, who didn't make the same impact in 2012 as he did the previous season, has shed some pounds in anticipation of moving to end.

3. Baltimore Ravens: This could end up being the most improved defensive line from a year ago, when the Ravens' defensive line was the weakest spot on the team. Haloti Ngata is primed for a bounce-back season after playing out of position last season. He is expected to line up more inside (perhaps replacing Terrence Cody at nose tackle), where he's more comfortable playing. The free-agent addition of Chris Canty will boost the pass rush and the signing of Marcus Spears will significantly upgrade the run defense. Art Jones got better as the season progressed, starting six of Baltimore's final 10 games.

4. Pittsburgh Steelers: The only certainty on the line is Brett Keisel, and he showed his age at times last season. This is likely the last season for Keisel, who turns 35 in September. This is also the last season for Ziggy Hood to prove he deserves a second contract. He hasn't been a bust, but he hasn't lived up to expectations of a first-round pick. The Steelers are banking on Steve McLendon to replace Casey Hampton. This is a tough ranking considering the Steelers' run defense has ranked in the top three for eight of the past nine seasons. But there's a lot of question marks with this group this year.

In case you missed the other AFC North position rankings this week, you can click here for quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, tight ends and offensive line.
Here are selected comments from ESPN analysts on Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, who announced Wednesday that he will retire at the end of the year:

Lewis
Lewis
Trent Dilfer, who won a Super Bowl with Lewis: "He was the best defensive player on the field every game he played in. Off the field he was the best. He had this unique ability to resonate with every single person in the locker room. And that's hard to do. In the NFL, unfortunately, sometimes the guy who is most productive has the loudest voice and that messaging is wrong. Well, that's not the case with Ray. He is the most productive player but his messaging within the locker room is always right. There's an intensity to him. That intensity is authentic. It's genuine and it's always directed at making the football organization better. ... When I say he's the best, really in my experience in the National Football League, I've never seen a person better than him at those three layers: preparation, leadership and play."

Mark Schlereth, a three-time Super Bowl champion: "I know he has lost a step. I know he's not the player that he once was. I still look at him as a great player and emotional leader, and all the different things that he brings to an organization. ... There's just something about Ray Lewis. You expect Sundays to see 52 out there - pregame, getting everybody going. Then during the course of the game just flying around making plays. I was actually shocked to hear this announcement."

Jason Taylor, a former NFL defensive player of the year: "It's always shocking when a great player leaves the game. Unfortunately, it happens to everybody. We understand that. It is a tough emotional time. The timing of it is interesting. He will provide an emotional boost for the team. He's not completely healthy, but he is still Ray Lewis. He is still going to bring energy. He's still going to bring leadership. He's going to bring passion. That place will be electric on Sunday."

Tom Jackson, former NFL linebacker: "One of the top five guys, maybe, to play the position. ... When you look at his career, what he was able to accomplish over the years, the longevity, the excellence, you start doing a shell game with those top five guys to play the game, Ray Lewis is somewhere in there. ... As a player, his skill set was outstanding, but emotionally, in terms of inspiring guys around him to be a better player in your own right, I think there is no one who has ever been better at that than Ray Lewis."

Why is Lewis rated so low?

June, 26, 2009
6/26/09
12:30
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

Lewis
Ray Lewis of the Baltimore Ravens will go down as arguably the greatest defensive player of his generation. But according to ESPN.com's player rankings Friday, he's only the ninth best player of this decade.

Something is missing here.

Lewis dominated throughout the past nine seasons. He won a Super Bowl in 2000 in additional to seven Pro Bowl appearances that spanned from the 2000 season to just last February.

Michael Strahan (four Pro Bowls since 2000) is a great player but doesn't have Lewis' credentials overall or in the past decade. Neither does Jason Taylor, who did next to nothing last year and never won a Super Bowl. Champ Bailey meanwhile has played the full 16 games just once since 2005 and also never won a championship.

Overall, Lewis has been a consistently great player from the beginning to the end of the decade. That should have put Lewis in the top 3-5 players with more elite company such as quarterbacks Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, instead of barely cracking the top 10.

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
The Cowboys' Zach Thomas, who spent 12 seasons with the Dolphins, was voted the smartest defensive player in a poll of 31 NFL coaches.Baltimore Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis was voted the second smartest defensive player in a ESPN poll of 31 NFL coaches.
James Lang/US Presswire Kevin Terrell/Getty Images

It's no surprise that a pair of middle linebackers topped ESPN.com's survey of NFL head coaches for smartest defensive player. With six votes, Zach Thomas of the Dallas Cowboys edged the Baltimore Ravens' Ray Lewis (four votes).

Middle linebackers are often the quarterbacks of a defense. They usually take care of the play-calling responsibilities and are required to know the assignments of teammates. Add in exceptional instincts, ability and countless hours of film study and there's the rare mix you get with Thomas and Lewis.

Three safeties -- Ed Reed, John Lynch and Corey Chavous -- also were in the top five. That position is the last line of defense and usually reserved for some of the smartest players on the team as well.

In addition, there were five votes for defensive linemen and one for a cornerback. Those positions normally rely on beating your opponent with brute strength for linemen, or tremendous athleticism as a cornerback. But the players at those positions on this list are extremely savvy and bring the complete package.

Thirty of 32 NFL head coaches answered the question. Here are the results:


PlaceNamePositionTeamVotes
1.Zach ThomasLBDallas Cowboys6
2.Ray LewisLBBaltimore Ravens4
3. (tie)John LynchSDenver Broncos3
3. (tie)
Ed Reed
S
Baltimore Ravens
3
5. (tie)
Corey Chavous
S
St. Louis Rams
2
5. (tie)
Warren Sapp
DT
Retired
2
5. (tie)
Michael Strahan
DE
Retired
2
8. (tie)
Ronde Barber
CB
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
1
8. (tie)
Derrick BrooksLB
Tampa Bay Buccanners
1
8. (tie)
Nick GreisenLB
Baltimore Ravens
1
8. (tie)
Rodney Harrison
S
New England Patriots
1
8. (tie)
Antonio Pierce
LB
New York Giants
1
8. (tie)
Brian Russell
S
Seattle Seahawks1
8. (tie)
Jason TaylorDE
Miami Dolphins
1
8. (tie)
Mike Vrabel
LB
New England Patriots
1

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