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Friday, May 31, 2013
Eight in the Box: Playing for a contract

By Jamison Hensley

» NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

A look at the players on each AFC North team entering a contract year who must deliver in 2013:

Baltimore Ravens: Offensive tackle Michael Oher. He has failed to become a franchise left tackle, and the fact that the story of his life was chronicled in a book titled "The Blind Side" only increased such expectations. In 16 regular-season games last season, Oher allowed 10 sacks (tied for third-most in the NFL) and committed nine penalties (tied for 11th among tackles) at left tackle, according to Pro Football Focus. When Bryant McKinnie was made the starting left tackle in the playoffs, Oher only gave up one sack in four postseason games after moving to right tackle. While Oher would make more money as a left tackle, his best position is clearly on the right side. With the Ravens re-signing McKinnie, Oher will have a shot at establishing himself as one of the better right tackles in the league.

Cincinnati Bengals: Defensive end Carlos Dunlap. He's the most physically gifted defensive lineman on the Bengals, even though he doesn't have the big statistics to back that up. This could be the season where Dunlap's production meets his potential. Injuries have primarily slowed down Dunlap. He missed four games in 2011 with a hamstring injury and sat out the first two games in 2012 with a knee sprain. Dunlap has still been able to manage 20 sacks in 38 games. He knows what a breakthrough season can do for a player in a contract year after watching defensive end Michael Johnson receive an $11 million franchise tag this offseason. Dunlap will make $630,000 in the final year of his rookie contract.

Cleveland Browns: Strong safety T.J. Ward. The Browns need another big season out of Ward because he is one of two established starters in the secondary. There's no question about Ward's ability to tackle. He's one of the top run-supporting safeties in the league. Ward, one of the more underrated players in the division, also allowed just 12 receptions in coverage, according to Pro Football Focus. What Ward has to prove he can stay on the field. A second-round pick in 2010, Ward has finished the past two seasons on injured reserve. A sprained right foot sidelined him for the final eight games in 2011, and a bone bruise in his knee kept him out for the final two games last season. Still, the Browns know Ward value and could sign him to an extension before the season.

Pittsburgh Steelers: Defensive lineman Ziggy Hood. He's a solid run defender, but he hasn't made the expected impact of a first-round pick. Pro Football Focus had him rated 31st among 3-4 defensive ends last season. Hood played better toward the end of last season, and the hope is that he'll continue the progression. He finished with a career-high 42 tackles with three sacks and two fumble recoveries. There has been talk that Cameron Heyward will compete with Hood for the left defensive end spot, but the Steelers are likely thinking Heyward will replace Brett Keisel, who is also in the final year of his contract, in 2014. The Steelers need Hood to deliver this season because there is not much proven depth at defensive end beyond Heyward.