Tuesday, June 25, 2013
AFC North's future stars on offense
By Jamison Hensley
Seeing that teams don't report to training camp until next month, there's plenty of time to think about the future. Three years in the future, to be exact. ESPN's Insider staff projected the top players in the NFL in 2016. You'll need an Insider subscription to view the entire pieces, but I can let you know how the players in the division fared:
The AFC North was shut out in this category, even though the Baltimore Ravens' Joe Flacco will only be 31 and the Pittsburgh Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger will be 34. One point of contention is ranking Matt Ryan, who has nearly identical stats as Flacco but fewer playoff wins, at No. 4. Putting Ryan Tannehill at No. 9 will also raise some eyebrows.
1. Trent Richardson, Cleveland Browns: Staying healthy is the biggest hurdle for Richardson. Even when he was injured last season, he still ran for 950 yards and was a force in the red zone. He ranked ahead of LeSean McCoy and Doug Martin.
6. Giovani Bernard, Cincinnati Bengals: He'll be brought along slowly because the Bengals will go with BenJarvus Green-Ellis as the starter this year. When Bernard gets a majority of the touches, which could come as early as 2014, he'll prove to be a dynamic playmaker. The Steelers' Le'Veon Bell, the other prominent rookie running back in the division, didn't crack the top 10.
4. A.J. Green, Bengals: This was lower than I expected for Green, who is already one of the best downfield targets in the game. I wouldn't have put him behind Julio Jones (No. 2) and Dez Bryant (No. 3). It's hard to argue with Calvin Johnson being No. 1. The Steelers' Antonio Brown and the Browns' Josh Gordon just missed the cut. The Ravens' Torrey Smith wasn't even mentioned.
4. Dennis Pitta, Ravens: Some might think this is high for Pitta, but you could see his rapport with Flacco last season. He's only getting better. Pitta could end up being higher on this list by 2016 if injuries continue to limit Rob Gronkowski (No. 3).
9. Tyler Eifert, Bengals: It's hard to judge players who haven't caught a pass in a game that counts in the NFL. But, if Eifert lives up to expectations, this ranking will be on the low end. By 2016, Eifert should be an established starter.
1. Maurkice Pouncey, Steelers center: Not surprised that he is on this list, although I didn't expect him to be at the top of it. Pouncey will be 26 and working on his sixth Pro Bowl season at this point. Still, offensive tackles usually garner more attention than centers.
7. Alex Mack, Browns center: Mack usually flies under the radar when it comes to national attention, so this is also a surprise. It's also well deserved. Not many centers are as durable and quick as Mack. The biggest shock for me was the exclusion of Bengals guard Kevin Zeitler from this list. He'll be a Pro Bowl lineman by 2016.