AFC North: Walker's Fab 40

AFC North mailbag: Fab 40 fallout

February, 28, 2011
2/28/11
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Our second annual "Walker's Fab 40" drew a strong reaction from our community. Let's answer some questions about it from our division inbox and AFC North Twitter page.

Brian from Washington, D.C., writes: Did you forget Todd Heap? Heap had five TDs as opposed to Heath Miller's two, as well as more receiving yards.

James Walker: I didn't forget Heap, Brian. He made last year's list, but we listed him among 10 potential snubs for this year. In fact, Miller was the only tight end to make "Walker's Fab 40," with Heap, Ben Watson and Jermaine Gresham all in strong contention. That's just the way it turned out this year. There are 53 players on each team. So when you narrow down 212 AFC North players to 40, some good ones are going to be left off. Heap was definitely one of them. As far as Miller, you can't only look at this year's statistics. Miller remains the most complete tight end in the division, despite suffering injuries and not putting up great numbers. He also played a quarter of the season without starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who was suspended the first four games.


Potter_Law via Twitter writes: How do you put Ray Rice above Peyton Hillis and Rashard Mendenhall? Rice had a very mediocre year to be in your top 10.

Walker: Again, Potter, not everything is based on this past season's stats. But if you want to go there, Rice had 43 more rushing yards than Hillis and 40 more receptions than Mendenhall. All three tailbacks are very good. That is why they were all ranked in the top 13, which is impressive considering all the great players in the AFC North. But Rice gaining 1,776 total yards from scrimmage in what's considered a "down year" is proof of how dynamic a talent he really is.


Kovacs from Santa Monica, Calif., writes: I hate to criticize such an arbitrary list like the Fab 40, but you are wrong for having Joe Haden as the fourth best CB in the division.

Walker: Haden (No. 33) had a good rookie year, Kovacs, but he still has to prove it over a longer period. Haden was a second stringer for the first half of the season. His production took off once he replaced Eric Wright in the starting lineup. Veterans like Johnathan Joseph (No. 19), Ike Taylor (No. 20) and Leon Hall (No. 31) have been consistently good throughout their careers, and that's what I'm looking for from Haden in upcoming years.


Charlie from Chardon, Ohio, writes: What are the chances the Browns bring back my favorite player and best fullback in the league: Lawrence Vickers?

Walker: Vickers' future in Cleveland is definitely in question, Charlie. I talked with him shortly after the season and he didn't know if he was coming back with the coaching and scheme changes on offense. The Browns will do a lot more passing this year with a West Coast offense. So they have to determine if spending money on a top power fullback is worth it to them. Vickers will land somewhere, because he's a good player.


David from College Park, Md., writes: Do you see any chance the Ravens let Willis McGahee walk and resign Le'Ron McClain?

Walker: McGahee is more likely to return than McClain, David. Baltimore would love to have McGahee back at a reduced rate but don't want to pay $6 million for a backup tailback, which makes sense. It will be up to McGahee to decide if he wants to return for less or explore other opportunities. I don't think the chances of McClain coming back are great. The Ravens are fine keeping McClain in his same role as a blocking back, but that's not what he wants. McClain wants to carry the ball a lot more, which he did when he led the Ravens in rushing in 2008. That won't happen in Baltimore with Rice as the feature back.


WyllysInVA via Twitter wants to know if there's any chance the Steelers go after Joseph.

Walker: Pittsburgh does not go after other team's high-priced free agents. The Steelers are more focused on keeping theirs -- with LaMarr Woodley and Taylor being this year's priority -- while building through the draft. Plus it looks like the going rate for corners is shooting through the roof.


Algiff via Twitter writes: Do you think Joseph will be more expensive than Taylor in the free-agent market?

Walker: Yes, I do. Joseph is four years younger, and that alone could lead to more years and more money on the contract. In my opinion, Joseph also is a more dynamic playmaker in terms of intercepting the ball and creating big turnovers. There's a chance, too, that Taylor will take a hometown discount to stay with the AFC champion Steelers. Joseph likely won't do the same to remain with the downtrodden Bengals.


Mike from Ewa Beach, Hawaii, writes: Is it possible that the Steelers can extend the contracts of LaMarr Woodley, Ike Taylor, Willie Colon, Lawrence Timmons, and Troy Polamalu?

Walker: I don't believe all five players will be addressed in the offseason, Mike. The Steelers will definitely negotiate with Woodley and Taylor and see where that ends up. Colon's situation with Pittsburgh is more uncertain as he works to get back to 100 percent. Two players you mentioned -- Timmons and Polamalu -- are still under contract until 2012. The Steelers usually let draft picks play out their full contracts (see Woodley), so Timmons would have to wait. I wouldn't rule out a Polamalu extension, but only after the team's immediate needs are taken care of.


Comment and complaint department

Ben from Pensacola, Fla., writes: Ike Taylor in the top 20 AFC North players? Not buying it. The only reason he's not the worst starter on the Steelers' D is because Bryant McFadden is playing across from him. He's a solid corner overall, but he's also inconsistent and drops a lot of potential INTs. Him being ranked ahead of elite DLs like Brett Keisel and Aaron Smith is laughable.

Michael H from San Antonio writes: I had to read over your Fab 40 a couple times to make sure I wasn't missing it, but I think you skipped over someone. Cleveland's TE Ben Watson. Last season's 68 REC, 763 YDS, and three TDs are a monster stats for a TE. I think his career in New England shows his "culmination of career consistency" and should continue to succeed under a west coast offense.

Walker: Ben, Taylor had another solid season for Pittsburgh and has consistently been the team's No. 1 corner. He's not flashy because he doesn't make a lot of interceptions. But Taylor consistently does a good job against opposing No. 1 receivers, and it's noticeable the amount of times teams throw away from him in favor of testing McFadden and William Gay. Michael, on Saturday we wrote that Watson was our biggest Fab 40 snub. He was No. 41 and the first player out. It came down to Watson and Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff, who got the nod after a historic and Pro Bowl season.


Cooper from Baltimore writes: As a die-hard Ravens fan, this is excellent Carson Palmer wants out. Palmer has the ability every Sunday to beat top teams, as proven against the two best defenses in the Ravens and Steelers. Cincy's best option is to take him seriously and get what they can for him while he still has it.

Dzip11 via Twitter writes: As a Bengals fan, if they don't get Johnathan Joseph resigned it gets even harder to defend their moves.

Walker: Cooper, you bring up a good point. The Steelers and Ravens will not shed a tear over Palmer potentially leaving the division. Palmer had some success against both defenses, particularly Baltimore's. Dzip11, were you defending Cincinnati's personnel decisions before?


Kevin from Arlington, Va., writes: You can't label Brian Robiskie and Mohamed Massaquoi misses yet. They simply were not used properly by Eric Mangini and Brian Daboll! You can’t make plays when there’s very little emphasis on getting the ball to you! Let's see what happens next year, assuming there is a next year, before deciding these guys can't play.

Walker: Fair point, Kevin. I do have a hard rule that I will not label any player a draft bust after their rookie season. The NFL is too difficult for everyone to "get it" right off the bat. Polamalu is a great example. But after two seasons all bets are off. At that point I think you have a good idea about a player in most cases, especially if they received playing time like Massaquoi and Robiskie have. Occasionally a player will surprise and become a late bloomer. But from what I've seen over two seasons, I would be surprised if Robiskie and Massaquoi develop into Pro Bowl-caliber receivers.

If you have any questions, comments or complaints, please send them to our AFC North inbox.

Walker's Fab 40 snubs?

February, 26, 2011
2/26/11
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The AFC North blog completed its second annual "Walker's Fab 40" and there was a lot of debate with very good players left off the list.

Here are 10 snubs who just missed the cut:

Baltimore Ravens: Todd Heap, TE; Jared Gaither, OT; Le'Ron McClain, FB; Jarret Johnson, LB

Analysis: There were a lot of good players left off this year and many were with the Ravens. Role players like Johnson, McClain and Heap are all important to Baltimore's success. Some would have made the top 50 players in the AFC North. Gaither was a really tough call. When healthy, he's certainly a top 40 player in the division. He came in a No. 28 last year. But a full year of inactivity dropped him off this year's list.

Pittsburgh Steelers: Emmanuel Sanders, WR; Ryan Clark, S

Analysis: Sanders is an emerging young receiver who isn't afraid of big games, and Clark is a good fit for Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau's scheme. Both are solid players and have a chance to make next year's list. But there were 16 Steelers total who made "Walker's Fab 40," which is by far more than any other team. So not everyone from Pittsburgh is going to make the cut.

Cincinnati Bengals: Jermaine Gresham, TE; Carlos Dunlap, DE

Analysis: I anticipate both of these rookies to make our third annual "Walker's Fab 40" in 2012. Gresham proved to be a good fit in Cincinnati’s offense but only one tight end -- Pittsburgh's Heath Miller (No. 21) -- made the list. Dunlap was a non-factor for half the season before exploding down the stretch. But we want to see more consistency for a full 16 games from Dunlap next season.

Cleveland Browns: Ben Watson, TE; Lawrence Vickers, FB

Analysis: Watson was definitely a tough player to leave off. He had a great season in Cleveland, and I thought hard about where he would fit on this list. Truth be told, Watson was No. 41 on "Walker's Fab 40." The last choice came down to Watson and Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff, and I thought, with the historic Pro Bowl year Cundiff had he deserved it more. Vickers is one of the best at his position. But similar to McClain, no fullbacks made this year's list.

Here is a complete breakdown of "Walker's Fab 40" for 2011:

Walker's Fab 40

1. Troy Polamalu, S, Steelers

2. Ben Roethlisberger, QB, Steelers

3. Ed Reed, S, Ravens

4. Haloti Ngata, DL, Ravens

5. James Harrison, LB, Steelers

6. Terrell Suggs, LB/DE, Ravens

7. LaMarr Woodley, LB, Steelers

8. Joe Thomas, OT, Browns

9. Ray Rice, RB, Ravens

10. Mike Wallace, WR, Steelers

11. Ray Lewis, LB, Ravens

12. Rashard Mendenhall, RB, Steelers

13. Peyton Hillis, RB, Browns

14. Joe Flacco, QB, Ravens

15. Maurkice Pouncey, C, Steelers

16. Lawrence Timmons, LB, Steelers

17. Anquan Boldin, WR, Ravens

18. Carson Palmer, QB, Bengals

19. Johnathan Joseph, CB, Bengals

20. Ike Taylor, CB, Steelers

21. Heath Miller, TE, Steelers

22. Hines Ward, WR, Steelers

23. Cedric Benson, RB, Bengals

24. Brett Kiesel, DE, Steelers

25. Eric Steinbach, G, Browns

26. Michael Oher, OT, Ravens

27. Chad Ochocinco, WR, Bengals

28. Casey Hampton, DT, Steelers

29. Terrell Owens, WR, Bengals

30. Alex Mack, C, Browns

31. Leon Hall, CB, Bengals

32. Josh Cribbs, WR, Browns

33. Joe Haden, CB, Browns

34. James Farrior, LB, Steelers

35. Derrick Mason, WR, Ravens

36. Andrew Whitworth, OT, Bengals

37. Aaron Smith, DE, Steelers

38. Ziggy Hood, DE, Steelers

39. T.J. Ward, S, Browns

40. Billy Cundiff, K, Ravens

Walker's Fab 40 by team

Steelers: 16 (highest Polamalu No. 1)

Ravens: 10 (highest Reed No. 3)

Browns: 7 (highest Thomas No. 8 )

Bengals: 7 (highest Palmer No. 18)

Walker's Fab 40 by position

Receivers: 7

Defensive backs: 7

Defensive linemen: 6

Offensive linemen: 6

Linebackers: 5

Running backs: 4

Quarterbacks: 3

Tight ends: 1

Kicker: 1

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!

Walker's Fab 40: Nos. 9-12

February, 24, 2011
2/24/11
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We are getting to the very best, as the AFC North blog continues to rank the top 40 players in the division.

No. 12: Rashard Mendenhall, running back

Mendenhall
Mendenhall
Team: Pittsburgh Steelers

2010 stats: 1,273 yards, 23 receptions, 13 touchdowns

Last year's ranking: No. 27

Analysis: Mendenhall showed growth by doing a good job of carrying Pittsburgh's offense while franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger served a four-game suspension. He kept the momentum going and had a career year. Mendenhall improved in two key areas this past season that often go unnoticed. First, he finished runs inside the goal line a lot better and was among the best tailbacks at getting in the end zone from inside the 5-yard line. Mendehnall nearly doubled his touchdown total from 2009. Second, Mendenhall's ball security (two fumbles in the regular season) improved, although prior struggles with fumbles came back to haunt him with a big turnover in Super Bowl XLV.

No. 11: Ray Lewis, linebacker

Lewis
Lewis
Team: Baltimore Ravens

2010 stats: 139 tackles, two sacks, two interceptions

Last year's ranking: No. 6

Analysis: The fact that Lewis, 35, is still one of the top players in the division is a testament to his longevity, ability and dedication to the game. The future Hall of Famer led the Ravens in tackles again with 139 and played in his 12th Pro Bowl. Lewis remains the heart and soul of the Ravens and his leadership is unmatched. He is not as athletic as he once was, but Lewis makes up for much of it with the mental ability to see plays before they develop. Tremendous film study and staying healthy has helped Lewis extend his career at the very physically-demanding position of middle linebacker. Lewis is trying to get one more ring before he retires but doesn't have many years left.

No. 10: Mike Wallace, receiver

Wallace
Wallace
Team: Steelers

2010 stats: 60 receptions, 1,257 yards, 10 touchdowns

Last year's ranking: No. 38

Analysis: Wallace made the biggest jump in this year's "Walker's Fab 40," improving 28 spots after going from a rookie second-stringer in 2009 to Pittsburgh's No. 1 receiver a year later. There were some concerns in Steeler Nation after Pittsburgh traded former Super Bowl MVP Santonio Holmes to the New York Jets following off-the-field issues. Entering just his second season, Wallace replaced Holmes in the starting lineup and took full advantage of the opportunity. Wallace is arguably the NFL's most dangerous deep threat, averaging an astounding 21 yards per reception. His ability to blow the top off the defense kept teams honest and opened things up for the running game and other receivers underneath. Wallace also improved his short and intermediate routes, which is his next step to becoming a complete receiver.

No. 9: Ray Rice, running back

Rice
Rice
Team: Ravens

2010 stats: 1,220 yards, 63 receptions, six total touchdowns

Last year's ranking: No. 7

Analysis: Rice is one of the NFL's most dynamic talents, although he didn't get to show it as much as he wanted to in 2010. Last season was considered a down year for Rice. He only had two 100-yard games but still rushed for more than 1,200 yards. Baltimore's offense was rarely in sync and lacked an identity. Good things usually happened when Rice touched the ball, but too many weeks went by when he didn't get enough opportunities. A lack of a deep threat at receiver and struggles on the offensive line also made it tough for Rice to break free for big gains. Baltimore has some tweaking to do on offense, and if the Ravens cure some of their issues, Rice could have the monster year next season that many expected from him in 2010.

Check out the AFC North blog Friday for the conclusion of "Walker's Fab 40," where we will have the top eight players in the division in 2011. Here's who has made the "Fab 40" so far.

Walker's Fab 40: Nos. 13-16

February, 24, 2011
2/24/11
12:30
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The AFC North blog continues to rank the top 40 players in the division.

No. 16: Lawrence Timmons, linebacker

Timmons

Timmons


Team: Pittsburgh Steelers

2010 stats: 135 tackles, three sacks, two interceptions

Last year's ranking: No. 37

Analysis: Timmons made a monumental jump in "Walker's Fab 40," up 21 spots from a year ago. The former first-round pick really came into his own in his second full season as a starting inside linebacker. Timmons originally was drafted to play outside linebacker. But teammate LaMarr Woodley developed faster in that role and left Timmons searching for a new position. It took a while to learn the intricacies of playing inside, particularly against the pass. But things finally clicked this year as Timmons led the Steelers with 135 tackles. With the mental part of the game catching up to his tremendous athleticism, Timmons has Pro Bowl potential.

No. 15: Maurkice Pouncey, center

Pouncey

Pouncey


Team: Steelers

2010 stats: 16 starts

Last year's ranking: N/A

Analysis: Speaking of Pro Bowls, Pouncey pulled off quite a feat by qualifying after his rookie season. The Steelers hit a home run in the first round by selecting Pouncey, who missed the Super Bowl with an ankle sprain but started every other game for Pittsburgh. Pouncey moves well, is great at finishing blocks and had no issues making the line calls as a rookie. At 21, Pouncey can still add weight and get stronger, and that will be the next step in his maturation process. But to already be one of the top centers in the NFL as a rookie and ranked No. 15 in "Walker's Fab 40" are impressive.

No. 14: Joe Flacco, quarterback

Flacco

Flacco


Team: Baltimore Ravens

2010 stats: 3,622 yards, 25 touchdowns, 10 interceptions

Last year's ranking: No. 20

Analysis: Flacco set career-highs in passing yards (3,622), touchdowns (25) and passer rating (93.6) in his third season. But another poor outing in the playoffs by Flacco and failed expectations of reaching a Super Bowl have dominated the offseason headlines in Baltimore. Flacco is a good quarterback who still has room to grow. Showing up in big games will be key, particularly against quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and the rival Steelers. But Flacco is 26 and will only get better. The Ravens could also do Flacco a favor by getting a speedy deep threat to take advantage of his strong arm next season. Adding the deep ball to Baltimore's passing game will open some things up for Flacco and make the game easier.

No. 13: Peyton Hillis, running back

Hillis

Hillis


Team: Cleveland Browns

2010 stats: 1,177 rushing yards, 61 receptions, 13 total touchdowns

Last year's ranking: N/A

Analysis: It's scary to think where Cleveland's struggling offense would be without Hillis, who was acquired last offseason in a trade with the Denver Broncos for quarterback Brady Quinn. Hillis was the Browns' leading rusher and second-leading receiver. The team only won five games, but Hillis probably accounted for three or four of the wins. The bruising running back punished defenders and often got stronger as the game wore on. But his style also results in injury, and Hillis played hurt late in the year. Cleveland needs to get Hillis more help so he be effective for 16 games. Hillis also has to prove that his career year in 2010 wasn't a fluke.

Here's who has made the "Fab 40" so far.

Walker's Fab 40: Nos. 17-20

February, 23, 2011
2/23/11
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We now enter the top half of "Walker’s Fab 40" in the AFC North.

Let's get to it!

Taylor
No. 20: Ike Taylor, cornerback

Team: Pittsburgh Steelers

2010 stats: 66 tackles, two interceptions

Last year's ranking: No. 29

Analysis: With linebacker LaMarr Woodley getting the franchise tag, Taylor is now Pittsburgh's biggest in-house free agent. Pittsburgh's best corner had another good season for the NFL's No. 2-rated defense, but he also will be 31 in May. Taylor stays in position and is a solid tackler, but he's not an elite game-changer at the position. Taylor's biggest weakness is his hands, which often prevents him from creating big turnovers. Taylor has 99 career pass defenses and just 11 interceptions in eight seasons. He averages only 1.4 interceptions per year.

Joseph
No. 19: Johnathan Joseph, cornerback

Team: Cincinnati Bengals

2010 stats: 42 tackles, three interceptions

Last year's ranking: No. 16

Analysis: Joseph is Cincinnati's top cornerback and its biggest priority in free agency. He recorded nine interceptions the past two seasons for the Bengals. Joseph had an ankle injury that forced him to miss four games in 2010, and the pass defense noticeably suffered without him. Teammate Leon Hall (No. 31) is great as Cincinnati's No. 2 corner but didn't play as well filling in Joseph's role. The Bengals have to decide if they are going to pay big money to keep Joseph. As a 26-year-old cornerback approaching his prime, Joseph could get a lot of interest if he hits the open market.

Palmer
No. 18: Carson Palmer, quarterback

Team: Bengals

2010 stats: 3,970 yards, 26 touchdowns, 20 interceptions

Last year's ranking: No. 12

Analysis: Palmer was one of the hardest players to rank in this year's "Walker’s Fab 40." He played his worst football in years for the 4-12 Bengals but still nearly threw for 4,000 yards. There were times when Palmer looked like a rookie quarterback, throwing into triple coverage and making mind-numbing turnovers. But Palmer also had several big games last season that showed he can still be effective. Bengals coaches also defend Palmer, saying his receivers were often not on the same page. Palmer created major headlines by recently demanding a trade from Cincinnati and threatening to retire. At 31, Palmer is on the downside of his career and only has a few good years left. The Bengals are rebuilding again but say they're not budging, creating an offseason standoff.

Boldin
No. 17: Anquan Boldin, receiver

Team: Baltimore Ravens

2010 stats: 64 receptions, 837 yards, seven touchdowns

Last year's ranking: N/A

Analysis: Boldin was Baltimore's major offseason acquisition last year and showed flashes with three 100-yard games. He also displayed toughness and leadership in his first season with the Ravens. But Baltimore's offense for the most part underachieved and Boldin disappeared from the passing game for long stretches. That's probably more of an indictment of the Ravens' inconsistent play calling last season than it was Boldin. The team lacked a speedy deep threat, which made Baltimore's offense easier to defend. Entering his second season with the Ravens, expect Baltimore to be more consistent with finding ways to get Boldin the football.

Walker's Fab 40: Nos. 21-24

February, 23, 2011
2/23/11
12:30
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The AFC North blog continues to rank the top 40 players in the division.

No. 24: Brett Keisel, defensive end

Keisel
Keisel
Team: Pittsburgh Steelers

2010 stats: 33 tackles, three sacks, one interception

Last year's ranking: N/A

Analysis: The player with the most famous beard in the NFL also had a very good season in Pittsburgh's 3-4 defense. Keisel stepped up to become Pittsburgh's top defensive end when teammate Aaron Smith went down for the season in October with a triceps injury. Keisel recorded 33 tackles, three sacks and even scored a touchdown on his interception return against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Similar to Ziggy Hood (No. 38) and Casey Hampton (No. 28), Keisel didn't put up huge numbers but was instrumental in Pittsburgh's No. 1-rated run defense. He qualified for the Pro Bowl as an alternate this past season.

No. 23: Cedric Benson, running back

Benson
Team: Cincinnati Bengals

2010 stats: 321 carries, 1,111 rushing yards, seven touchdowns

Last year's ranking: No. 11

Analysis: Benson recorded back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons for the first time in his career. But Benson's year wasn't nearly as good as 2009. His yards-per-carry average went down from 4.2 to 3.5, and he also had fumbling issues, losing five this past season after not losing any the year before. Benson didn't get along with former offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski and often complained about the team's play calling. But Benson received 321 carries this past season, and I think being a pending free agent contributed to some of his complaints. Benson was playing for a new contract on a losing team, and at 28 this may be his last chance to cash in big as a running back. The Bengals are looking to retain the soon-to-be unrestricted free agent.

No. 22: Hines Ward, wide receiver

Ward
Team: Steelers

2010 stats: 59 receptions, 755 yards, five touchdowns

Last year's ranking: No. 15

Analysis: Ward didn't put up big numbers this past season, recording just 59 receptions. He's now 34 and didn't have starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for the first four games of the season. But Ward's leadership and toughness helped get Pittsburgh to its third Super Bowl since the 2005 season. He's also one of the smartest players in the NFL, who continues to get open despite his age and lack of speed. Much of what Ward does for Pittsburgh cannot be measured by statistics. The future Hall of Famer remains a devastating run blocker and also tutored second-year receiver Mike Wallace to become arguably the most dangerous deep threat in the NFL and Pittsburgh's new No. 1 receiver.

No. 21: Heath Miller, tight end

Miller
Team: Steelers

2010 stats: 42 receptions, 512 yards, two touchdowns

Last year's ranking: No. 22

Analysis: Miller's statistics also were down after missing two games with a concussion and playing four games without Roethlisberger at quarterback. But Miller remained a consistent blocker for Pittsburgh tailback Rashard Mendenhall, and Miller remains one of the NFL's most well-rounded tight ends. He has great hands, is tough running after the catch and always falls forward for extra yards. Roethlisberger often calls Miller the best at his position, although the quarterback is clearly biased. But with a healthier season in 2011 and a full year playing with Roethlisberger, Miller's numbers should be up again next season.

Walker's Fab 40: Nos. 29-32

February, 22, 2011
2/22/11
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The AFC North blog continues to rank the top 40 players in the division.

No. 32: Josh Cribbs, WR/KR

Cribbs
Cribbs
Team: Cleveland Browns

2010 stats: 23 receptions, 292 yards, one touchdown

Last year's ranking: No. 9

Analysis: Cribbs took a huge fall in "Walker’s Fab 40." Maybe Cribbs was overrated last year or he's being underrated some this year. But Cribbs came in at No. 32 after an abysmal season. He played most of the season with dislocated toes, and didn't show any explosiveness. Cribbs didn't contribute much on offense and added 982 total return yards on special teams. But Cribbs averaged just 20.4 yard per kick return, and his longest return was for 37 yards. He also put the ball on the ground five times. Next season will be a big year for Cribbs to prove 2010 was merely a down year. When healthy, he can be one of the division's most dynamic players.

No. 31: Leon Hall, cornerback

Hall
Hall
Team: Cincinnati Bengals

2010 stats: 44 tackles, four interceptions

Last year's ranking: No. 18

Analysis: Hall is another player who took a dip in this year's ranking. The Bengals' cornerback dropped 13 spots to No. 31 after a down year. Hall struggled when teammate Johnathan Joseph was hurt last season. Hall is perfect for the role as Cincinnati's No. 2 cornerback. But he was beat too many times for big plays when trying to guard the opposing team's best receiver. Hall remains a physical corner and a solid tackler. He recorded four interceptions in 2010. But with Joseph potentially becoming a free agent, Hall might have to step his game up and take over the No. 1 corner role in Cincinnati in 2011.

No. 30: Alex Mack, center

Mack
Mack
Team: Browns

2010 stats: 16 starts

Last year's ranking: N/A

Analysis: Mack barely missed the cut last year and was one of several Fab 40 snubs. But this was the first time the second-year pro put together a full season of great football, and he made his first Pro Bowl as an alternate for the AFC. Combined with teammates Eric Steinbach and Joe Thomas, who are both higher on this list (hint, hint), the Browns have one of the NFL's strongest offensive lines on the left side. The trio helped pave the way for Browns tailback Peyton Hillis to have a breakout season. Mack also worked closely with rookie quarterback Colt McCoy, helping him get comfortable and show flashes in his first NFL action.

No. 29: Terrell Owens, receiver

Owens
Owens
Team: Bengals

2010 stats: 72 receptions, 983 yards, nine touchdowns

Last year's ranking: N/A

Analysis: At 37, T.O. still proved he has something left in the tank. After signing a one-year contract right before training camp, Owens led the team in receptions (72), receiving yards (983) and touchdowns (nine). He had several big games, but it didn't translate into victories for the last-place Bengals (4-12). Cincinnati lost six more games than it did from a year ago, when the Bengals won the division. Now Cincinnati is rebuilding and will go with younger receivers such as Jerome Simpson, Andre Caldwell and Jordan Shipley. The Bengals won't re-sign Owens. But after his production last season, another team might give him a shot.

Walker's Fab 40: Nos. 33-36

February, 21, 2011
2/21/11
4:00
PM ET
The AFC North blog continues to rank the top 40 players in the division.

Whitworth
Whitworth
No. 36: Andrew Whitworth, left tackle

Team: Cincinnati Bengals

2010 stats: 16 starts

Last year's ranking: No. 36

Analysis: Whitworth is Cincinnati's best offensive lineman. He is underrated but versatile and received some Pro Bowl consideration this year. Whitworth helped pave the way for Bengals tailback Cedric Benson to have his second consecutive 1,000-yard season. Whitworth also took over the leadership role from the Bengals when longtime offensive tackle Willie Anderson left the team. The Bengals could use more veteran leaders and players like Whitworth, but they're in very short supply in Cincinnati, which finished fourth in the division at 4-12. Whitworth is durable and started all 16 games three of the past four seasons.

Mason
Mason
No. 35: Derrick Mason, receiver

Team: Baltimore Ravens

2010 stats: 61 receptions, 802 yards, seven touchdowns

Last year's ranking: No. 30

Analysis: Mason is 37 but continues to be productive for the Ravens. Despite sharing the spotlight last season with weapons like Anquan Boldin and T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Mason still recorded 61 receptions for 802 yards and seven touchdowns. Mason is quarterback Joe Flacco's security blanket. The two have solid timing on short and intermediate routes. Baltimore's offense as a whole didn't live up to expectations. The Ravens could use another deep threat to go with Mason and Boldin next year, which could make Baltimore an early contender. Mason is only playing for championships at this stage of his career and hopes to get one next season with the Ravens.

Farrior
Farrior
No. 34: James Farrior, linebacker

Team: Pittsburgh Steelers

2010 stats: 109 tackles, six sacks

Last year's ranking: No. 24

Analysis: Farrior, 36, is another aging player who continues to be productive for Pittsburgh. He was solid against the run this year (109 tackles) and also recorded six sacks. But the Steelers had their issues against the pass, particularly against very good teams. Opponents attacked the middle of Pittsburgh's defense by spreading the Steelers out, and Farrior is not as athletic in space as he once was. Pittsburgh has to find a way to mask this weakness. But Farrior's leadership is extremely valuable and he's good enough against the run that he remains an important member of the Steelers' defense. He said after Pittsburgh's Super Bowl XLV loss that there's still plenty of good football left in the team. The Steelers are counting on veterans like Farrior to prove the critics wrong again next season.

Haden
Haden
No. 33: Joe Haden, cornerback

Team: Cleveland Browns

2010 stats: 64 tackles, six interceptions, one sack

Last year's ranking: N/A

Analysis: Haden led all rookies with six interceptions. Haden always relied on his natural athleticism, but former Browns defensive coordinator Rob Ryan did a good job of teaching him proper technique. Once Haden combined the two, he really took off in the second half of the season. Haden continued to show improvement, eventually worked his way into the starting lineup and quickly established himself as Cleveland's No. 1 cornerback. He's a solid, fundamental tackler with very good ball skills.

We will continue "Walker’s Fab 40" on Tuesday and throughout the week in the AFC North blog.

Walker's Fab 40: Nos. 37-40

February, 21, 2011
2/21/11
11:00
AM ET
As we mentioned this weekend, it's that time again.

This week the AFC North blog will rank the division's top 40 players in 2011. This is a culmination of career consistency, last year's performance and how good these players project entering next season.

It should be a fun week. So let's get it started.

Cundiff

Cundiff


No. 40: Billy Cundiff, kicker

Team: Baltimore Ravens

2010 stats: 26 of 29 field goals, 40 touchbacks

Last year's ranking: N/A

Analysis: No kicker had a more complete season in 2010 than Cundiff. Not only was he nearly automatic with field goals, but Cundiff also tied the NFL record for touchbacks with 40. Cundiff represented the AFC in the Pro Bowl after his stellar season. A case can be made that no player made a bigger improvement. In training camp, Cundiff's roster spot was in jeopardy, as he competed with veteran kicker Shayne Graham. But recently Cundiff got long-term security with a five-year extension with Baltimore.

Ward

Ward


No. 39: T.J. Ward, safety

Team: Cleveland Browns

2010 stats: 123 tackles, two interceptions

Last year's ranking: N/A

Analysis: Ward made a name for himself in his rookie season. With the Browns lacking playmakers, it didn't take long for the second-round pick to establish himself as an enforcer for Cleveland's defense. Ward led the Browns in tackles and made numerous big hits. He has good athleticism and is constantly around the football. Ward will only get better as the Browns continue to add more talent around him.

Hood

Hood


No. 38: Ziggy Hood, defensive end

Team: Pittsburgh Steelers

2010 stats: 20 tackles, three sacks, 10 starts

Last year's ranking: N/A

Analysis: There were a lot of concerned people in Steeler Nation when starting defensive end Aaron Smith went down for the season with a triceps injury Oct. 24. In the past, that has spelled doom for the Steelers. But this year was different. Pittsburgh had been grooming Hood since drafting him in the first round two years ago. He held up well for the AFC champions and played a major role in Pittsburgh's No. 1 run defense. Hood also showed the ability to occasionally get to the quarterback, which is what made Smith the prototype 3-4 defensive end. Now with starting experience, Hood has a bright future.

Smith

Smith


No. 37: Aaron Smith, defensive end

Team: Steelers

2010 stats: 15 tackles, six starts

Last year's ranking: No. 25

Analysis: Smith remains a solid player but had another injury-plagued season. The Steelers were hoping to get limited snaps out of him for the postseason, but Smith could not recover in time from triceps surgery. Now Smith, 34, has the entire offseason to heal and get back on track. He has been instrumental in helping Hood develop and play the very difficult role of defensive end in Pittsburgh's 3-4 defense.

Preview: Walker's Fab 40

February, 20, 2011
2/20/11
9:00
AM ET
It's that special time again! Now the that the 2010 season is officially over, the AFC North blog will rank the top 40 players in the division.

The second annual "Walker's Fab 40" countdown will start Monday and culminate with the very best player in the AFC North by the end of the week.

Who will be No. 1 this year? Stay tuned to find out.

But for now, feel free to debate who should make the cut.

Weekend mailbag: Fab 40 reaction

February, 6, 2010
2/06/10
12:00
PM ET
"Walker's Fab 40" drew strong reactions this week in the AFC North inbox.

So let's answer some questions.

Dennis from De Pere, Wis., wants to know my "methodology" for these rankings.

James Walker: Thanks for asking, Dennis, because I noticed there was some confusion. I'm surprised how many people didn't understand the project. "Walker's Fab 40" was the AFC North blog's ranking of the top 40 players in 2010--in other words heading into the 2010 season. I took into account last year's performance. I took into account career performance. I took into account age, injuries, skills, position value and potential. With all of these things factored in, I asked myself, "Who are the top 40 players going into next season?" Next time I will probably wait until the start of training camp or the regular season to avoid further confusion. I think doing it immediately after the 2009 season threw a lot of people off.


Kovacs from Santa Monica writes: For 38 of the 40 players you abide very strictly to your "for 2010" criteria. Then you get down to the first and third ranked players in your criteria and go 100% based on reputation. Very simply put, Troy Polamalu and Ed Reed were not the first and third best players in the division THIS YEAR.

Walker: For starters, 2010 means 2010, not the 2009 season. Again, I'm baffled why that went over so many people's heads, because I never mentioned these rankings were solely based on last year’s performance. Second, there were plenty of players who made the top 40 who were injured and/or had down years in 2009. Terrell Suggs (No. 14), Shaun Rogers (No. 19), Aaron Smith (No. 25), Ike Taylor (No. 29) and Antwan Odom (No. 35) just to name a few. Yes, Polamalu and Reed were both injured. But according to "Walker's Fab 40," they are the No. 1- and No. 3-rated players in the division heading into the 2010 season.


Justin from Bagram, Afghanistan, believes it's "a joke" that I rated Baltimore Ravens tailback Ray Rice (No. 7) ahead of Cincinnati Bengals tailback Cedric Benson (No. 11).

Walker: I respect your opinion, Justin. Both are great players who were not rated far apart. But what separated Rice for me was his versatility to catch passes out of the backfield and the ability to make long runs and receptions. If you noticed, Benson often was replaced on third downs by Brian Leonard or rookie Bernard Scott, because Benson is very limited as a receiver. Rice plays every down and is the more complete running back.


Dustin from Pittsburgh writes: You put Michael Oher (No. 23) above Aaron Smith (No. 25) on the Fab 40? Walker, you almost always know what you're talking about, but this is egregious.

Walker: Dustin, I got a lot of e-mails like these weighing the rankings of this player and that player, and it gets really tricky when you're comparing two different positions. Believe it or not, some non-Steelers fans believe Smith was rated too high. I took into account his age (33) and injury history, but I also believe he's proved over the years that he’s a quality player who is reliable. That's why I have him at No. 25. Oher, 23, is young. But all the skills that I've seen lead me to believe he's a star in the making. Heading into the 2010 season, I'm confident in ranking Oher as the No. 23 player in the division. In fact, I predict he will be rated even higher in 2011.


Anthony Mangione from Cincinnati thinks Cleveland Browns linebacker D'Qwell Jackson and punter Dave Zastudil should have made "Walker's Fab 40."

Walker: Not everyone can make the list, Anthony. I like Jackson and I think he's a good player, but I'm confident in all the linebackers I have rated ahead of him. As far as Zastudil, no kickers or punters made the cut.

Fab 40 snubs?

February, 5, 2010
2/05/10
4:34
PM ET
Not everyone can make "Walker's Fab 40" in 2010.

Here are several quality AFC North players who didn't make the cut:

Cincinnati Bengals: LB Keith Rivers, LB Rey Maualuga

Reason: Both are good, young linebackers who are still growing into the position. Rivers and Maualuga, who were college teammates at USC, should help raise each other's level of play next year in their second NFL season together.

Cleveland Browns: FB Lawrence Vickers, C Alex Mack

Reason: Vickers is a good fullback, but that position doesn't rate high in my book or in NFL circles. I would take a good tailback or a good receiver over a good fullback every time. That showed as no fullbacks made this year's list. Mack had a good second half to his rookie year, but that wasn't enough.

Baltimore Ravens: FB Le'Ron McClain

Reason: Someone had to get shortchanged, and McClain was the biggest snub this year, in my opinion. If I were doing 41 players he probably would be on the list. But similar to Vickers, it came down to position value. I chose to put good receivers, running backs and linebackers, for example, ahead of a great fullback because of that player's impact in games. Still, I wouldn't argue against the opposing view that McClain deserves recognition.

Pittsburgh Steelers: DE Brett Keisel, K Jeff Reed

Reason: Keisel is a solid veteran in Pittsburgh, but he was another player who was just on the outside looking in. For Reed, kickers are in the same boat as fullbacks in terms of positional value. No kicker made this year's "Walker's Fab 40," but Reed would be the first if the list was expanded.

Walker's Fab 40 for 2010

1. Troy Polamalu, S, Steelers
2. Ben Roethlisberger, QB, Steelers
3. Ed Reed, S, Ravens
4. Joe Thomas, OT, Browns
5. James Harrison, LB, Steelers
6. Ray Lewis, LB, Ravens
7. Ray Rice, RB, Ravens
8. LaMarr Woodley, LB, Steelers
9. Josh Cribbs, KR/WR, Browns
10. Haloti Ngata, DE, Ravens
11. Cedric Benson, RB, Bengals
12. Carson Palmer, QB, Bengals
13. Chad Ochocinco, WR, Bengals
14. Terrell Suggs, DE/LB, Ravens
15. Hines Ward, WR, Steelers
16. Johnathan Joseph, CB, Bengals
17. Santonio Holmes, WR, Steelers
18. Leon Hall, CB, Bengals
19. Shaun Rogers, DT, Browns
20. Joe Flacco, QB, Ravens
21. Casey Hampton, DT, Steelers
22. Heath Miller, TE, Steelers
23. Michael Oher, RT, Ravens
24. James Farrior, LB, Steelers
25. Aaron Smith, DE, Steelers
26. Eric Steinbach, OG, Browns
27. Rashard Mendenhall, RB, Steelers
28. Jared Gaither, OT, Ravens
29. Ike Taylor, CB, Steelers
30. Derrick Mason, WR, Ravens
31. Jarret Johnson, LB, Ravens
32. Domata Peko, DT, Bengals
33. Dhani Jones, LB Bengals
34. Ryan Clark, S, Steelers
35. Antwan Odom, LB Bengals
36. Andrew Whitworth, OT, Bengals
37. Lawrence Timmons, LB, Steelers
38. Mike Wallace, WR, Steelers
39. Jerome Harrison, RB, Browns
40. Todd Heap, TE, Ravens

Walker's Fab 40: Nos. 1-4

February, 5, 2010
2/05/10
1:30
PM ET
After ranking the top players in the AFC North all week, here are the best of the best:

Thomas
Thomas
No. 4: Joe Thomas

Team: Cleveland Browns

Position: Left tackle

2009 stats: 16 starts

Analysis: You can go weeks -- and sometimes months -- without hearing Thomas' name called during the course of a season. That is the greatest tribute to his abilities. Thomas rarely gets penalized and seldom gives up sacks, which is exactly what you want from a left tackle. The three-time Pro Bowler is quick on his feet and not susceptible to the bull rush, which leaves defenders with few options. Thomas also is self-motivated. He has continued to play at an elite level despite Cleveland's 9-23 record the past two seasons.

Reed
Reed
No. 3: Ed Reed

Team: Baltimore Ravens

Position: Safety

2009 stats: 50 tackles, three interceptions

Analysis: Reed, 31, is considering retirement. But if he returns, Reed is still one of the NFL's elite defenders, particularly in pass coverage. Tremendous athleticism and constant film study often allow him to stay one step ahead of quarterbacks. Reed has soft hands and is a threat to take it to the house every time he makes an interception. Various injuries to his groin, foot and neck limited him to 12 games this season. The nerve condition in his neck is the most serious of his ailments and has caused some limitations in Reed's game the past two seasons with tackling and run support.

Roethlisberger
Roethlisberger
No. 2: Ben Roethlisberger

Team: Pittsburgh Steelers

Position: Quarterback

2009 stats: 4,328 yards, 26 touchdowns, 12 interceptions, 100.5 passer rating

Analysis: There is a lot of debate on where Roethlisberger ranks among the elite quarterbacks in the NFL, but he is undoubtedly one of the top players in the AFC North. Roethlisberger, 27, already has two Super Bowl rings and has yet to experience a losing season in the NFL. "Big Ben" can make all the throws, has good mobility in the pocket and put up career numbers in 2009. His backyard style is unconventional. Roethlisberger takes a lot of sacks. But he still doesn't get enough credit for his ability to shrug off would-be defenders while making big plays downfield.

Polamalu
Polamalu
No. 1: Troy Polamalu

Team: Steelers

Position: Safety

2009 stats: Five games, 20 tackles, three interceptions

Analysis: Surprised? You shouldn't be. Not only is Polamalu the best player in the AFC North, but I feel he's the best defensive player in the entire NFL. No defender in the league combines world-class athleticism, smarts, fundamentals, natural football instincts and the knack for big plays better than Polamalu. Reed and Polamalu are in the same class, but Reed's aforementioned neck injury provides physical limitations Polamalu doesn't have. In five games Polamalu had three interceptions. Yes, he was injured (knee) most of last season. But Pittsburgh's performance on defense, particularly late in games, only strengthens Polamalu's case for the top spot in the debut of "Walker's Fab 40."

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