|ESPN.com: NFL Nation||[Print without images]|
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
In a division filled with quality defenses, it was only fitting that a young, up-and-coming linebacker caught the most attention of his AFC North peers.
In the closest vote of the entire player survey, Cincinnati Bengals second-year linebacker Keith Rivers edged linebacker Lawrence Timmons of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cleveland Browns quarterback Brady Quinn by one vote to become the 2009 pick for breakout player.
This offseason, ESPN.com granted anonymity to 32 players -- eight from each AFC North team -- on select topics that will be revealed throughout July. The players surveyed could not vote for themselves or their teammates.
Rivers led an extremely diverse group of breakout players with six votes, while Timmons and Quinn received five votes apiece. An astounding 14 different players were selected, which was the most of any survey question. They ranged from all different positions such as receivers linebackers, tailback, and even a fullback (Carey Davis of Pittsburgh).
But in the end, Rivers stood atop the list.
"It means a lot," Rivers told ESPN.com after learning of the results recently in Bengals minicamp. "I think it means players felt I was doing well, even though it was only through seven games. It's great to know that I had an effect on the guys in this league that I play against, and I just hope to build on that."
So far, defensive players have dominated this year's AFC North survey. In addition to Rivers, Baltimore Ravens safety Ed Reed and Pittsburgh's Troy Polamalu were voted by opponents as the best all-around and smartest player in the division, respectively.
The definition of a breakout player can vary. So ESPN.com did not preclude anyone from being chosen for this particular category. For instance, if a player surveyed thought Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger could be considered a breakout player, despite two Super Bowl victories, he went on the list.
|Tom Hauck/Getty Images|
|Cincinnati linebacker Keith Rivers had his rookie season cut short by a broken jaw.|
This explains several votes for players such as Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, who broke through last year in leading his team to the AFC title game, or Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Santonio Holmes, who was the Super Bowl XLIII MVP in February. But minus those two exceptions, AFC North players were pretty unified across the board on what they considered a breakthrough season.
In 2008, Rivers broke his jaw in the seventh game, which ended his first NFL season. At the time of his injury, Rivers was a candidate for defensive rookie of the year honors and finished with 37 tackles, one interception and one forced fumble.
Rivers got to play every team in the division once last season, which was enough to earn the respect of his peers.
"He's solid," said one rival player who voted for Rivers. "I think this could be a good year for him."
Other notable players who received multiple votes included another young linebacker in Cleveland's D'Qwell Jackson (2), who led the NFL in tackles last season, and a pair of receivers in Brian Robiskie (3) and Chris Henry (2).
Said one future opponent of the rookie Robiskie: "He's a polished receiver and his dad [Terry] being a coach will help his learning process."
Another AFC North player had an even bigger projection for Henry.
"I bet he gets 1,000 yards this year," the player said confidently.
Overall, every division team had at least one representative. The Browns had the most players selected for this particular category with five. But the fact that 14 players total were chosen for this survey question also highlights the depth of young players in the AFC North.
"It's great because I think it brings more competition to our division," Rivers said. "I think this is one of the toughest divisions in the NFL, and with the continued young, great players that we're getting in this division it makes it that much better."