2018 Preseason All-AFC North Team: Steelers offense, Ravens defense dominate roster
Steelers and Ravens dominate AFC North roster
Over the next two weeks here at CBSSports.com, we'll be unveiling our annual preseason All-Division teams. We began Monday with the, and will continue the rest of this week with the AFC North (below), AFC South (Aug. 8), and AFC West (Aug. 9). Starting next Monday, we'll run through the NFC, starting first with the NFC East (Aug. 13) and continuing on through the NFC North (Aug. 14) and NFC South (Aug. 15 before finishing up with the NFC West (Aug. 16). Enjoy.
The AFC North is usually one of the NFL's most competitive divisions, but last year the Steelers ran away with things. The Ravens were up and down, the Bengals struggled, and the Browns were ... not good. The 2018 season should be somewhat different. Baltimore added a lot of talent. The Bengals' young core players on defense are a year older, and they should get better contributions from some of their offensive players now that they've improved their offensive line. The Browns have a real quarterback and real talent on both sides of the ball. Pittsburgh is still the most talented team in the division but having to play the entire season without Ryan Shazier will have a deleterious effect on the defense. So, thing should be a bit more competitive this season.
But we're not here to evaluate each team in one of the NFL's toughest divisions. Instead, we're here to build the toughest team possible by combining each of those teams' players. Let's get to the roster.
Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers
There was, admittedly, not much of a competition for this spot. Joe Flacco will enter the season as the Ravens' starter, but with the team drafting Lamar Jackson in the first round, his time as QB1 in Baltimore is running out. Andy Dalton is Andy Dalton. And the Browns haven't had a quarterback who would seriously factor into a "best in the division" race since, like, Bernie Kosar. Still, though, we should expect Ben to play at a high level in 2018, what with his having an impressive arsenal of weapons to throw to and one of the NFL's best offensive lines in front of him. As long as he's healthy, he's the best the AFC North has to offer.
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Le'Veon Bell is in the midst of a contract holdout and will likely not report to the Steelers until the week before the start of the regular season. That was also the case last year, though, and he still racked up 406 touches for 1,940 yards and 11 total touchdowns. There is no reason to not expect a repeat of his high-volume, high-total-yardage, high-touchdown campaign in 2018. Bell is smack-dab in the prime of his career at 26 years old, and figures to be better than ever this year.
Outside of Pittsburgh, the AFC North has some intriguing candidates to man the second running back spot. Duke Johnson is one of the league's best pass-catching backs. Carlos Hyde should see a lot of work in Cleveland considering the contract the Browns gave him. And second-round pick Nick Chubb was a second-round pick for a reason. Alex Collins looked excellent in Baltimore last year. Gio Bernard has been an efficient passing-game weapon for the Bengals for a while; but the team just drafted Mark Walton, who is a similar player, and that could be a sign they'll look to move on from Bernard after this season. In either case, it's Mixon who figures to see much of the early-down work, and if he excels, he could take over the entire backfield.
Antonio Brown is the best receiver in the NFL until further notice. Look at these season-long stat lines: 110-1,499-8 (2013); 129-1,698-13 (2014); 136-1,834-10 (2015); 106-1,284-12 (2016, 15 games); 101-1,533-9 (2017, 14 games). The man is ridiculous. The 2018 season will be his age-30 campaign but there is no reason to expect him not to continue dominating opposing corners.
Also entering his age-30 season: A.J. Green. Green is just quietly remarkable every single year. I'd say there's nothing flashy about him, but that would be a lie because he makes spectacular plays all the time. He's just on the Bengals, who are pretty boring for the most part. (Sorry, Bengals fans, but you know it's true.)
Landry is a newcomer to the division and had some tough competition for the third spot here with second-year Steelers wideout JuJu Smith-Schuster and teammate Josh Gordon, but (a) Landry is apparently totally dominating Browns camp; and (b) somebody has to be the consistent top target for Tyrod Taylor in Cleveland, and Landry seems like a better bet than Gordon or tight end David Njoku, given his stellar track record of health and high-volume pass-catching. The bet here is on a big year for the Browns' big-money slot man.
Jesse James, Steelers; David Njoku, Browns
The Ravens drafted two tight ends this season and the Bengals have Tyler Eifert, but here we roll with the Steelers and Browns' options. The guys with the Ravens could play a big role in the future ... but they're rookies, and they have Joe Flacco throwing to them. Eifert seemingly cannot stay healthy.
And so, we end up with Jesse James and David Njoku. James is 24 years old and is coming off back-to-back seasons with 60-plus targets. He's turned that role into 82 catches for 710 yards and six scores. With more volume, he can be a really nice piece for the Pittsburgh offense.
Njoku played a rotational role in Cleveland last year but he should be the No. 1 tight end from the jump in 2018. He's a monster athlete with great size, athleticism, and body control, and he's got a quarterback (Tyrod Taylor) who made his tight end his No. 1 target almost every year in Buffalo. He's a first-round pick with high-level talent. He should be in for a big jump in Year 2.
Let's pour one out for Joe Thomas, one of the all-time greats.
Pittsburgh has one of the best offensive lines in the league, and it's got two nice bookends on either side of the line. Villanueva is coming off his first career Pro Bowl appearance and will be entering his age-30 campaign, and he should continue to play at a high level. Gilbert will also be 30 this season but he's coming off an injury-shortened 2017. He's been a strong right tackle for years, though, and there's no reason to expect that he won't continue to play well if he's healthy.
Yanda played just two games last year and had shoulder surgery in January, but he is arguably the league's best overall offensive lineman when healthy and he's expected to be ready for the start of the season. He was a shoo-in here. So was DeCastro, really. He's made three consecutive Pro Bowls and has been named a First Team All-Pro twice in the last three seasons, and he's only 28 years old.
Maurkice Pouncey, Steelers
Pouncey is coming off a bit of a down season, thanks mostly to his underperformance as a run blocker. (Hence Le'Veon Bell's drop to just 4.0 yards per carry.) But even during said down season, he was still a Pro Bowler at the position. He's a high-level performer on the interior offensive line pretty much every season, and that should continue in 2018.
Myles Garrett did not ultimately win Defensive Rookie of the Year but he did have a very strong season. He racked up seven sacks in just 11 games, and 31 tackles as well. He graded extremely well in both run defense and pass rush over at Pro Football Focus, as he showcased the kind of elite talent that made him the No. 1 pick in last year's draft. His coaches expect him to come close to doubling his sack total in 2018, and that's not remotely out of the question.
Heyward is coming off the best season of his career, during which he made both the Pro Bowl and the All-Pro First Team, coming down with 12 sacks and 45 tackles. He once again was a strong force in the run game, and given his size/athleticism combination, that should continue to be the case next season. If he keeps up his pass-rush productivity, he's got a good shot at a repeat Pro Bowl appearance.
Interior Defensive Lineman
It looked like Atkins' career might have to change back when he tore his ACL in 2013, but all he's done since then is come back perfectly healthy and make four consecutive Pro Bowls. He's an excellent run defender and maybe the best interior pass-rusher this side of Aaron Donald, with 29 sacks over the past three seasons. Only Donald (30) has more.
Williams would make an excellent linemate for Atkins, were he to switch teams, as he is possibly the best interior run-defender in football. (Only Damon Harrison has a claim to being definitively better.) Williams is a run-stuffer extraordinaire, such a force on the inside that the Ravens paid him big money despite the fact that he is almost a complete non-factor in the passing game.
In what's becoming something of a theme with this division, Collins is coming off an injury-limited season during which he played just six games. But during his previous four years with the Patriots and Browns, he was one of the most versatile linebackers in the league, excelling against the run and in both aspects of the passing game -- coverage and attacking the quarterback. With the Browns having more defensive talent around him this season, he should be unleashed to make plays all over the field.
Terrell Suggs is turning 36 later this year and has been seeing his snap-share decline in recent seasons but the man just keeps getting to the quarterback. After tearing his Achilles for the second time back in 2015, he returned and put up 19 sacks over the past two years. The Ravens are nothing if not consistent on the defensive side of the ball, and while Suggs could experience some age-related drop-off in 2018, we don't feel strongly enough about that happening to keep him off this team.
C.J. Mosley, Ravens; Preston Brown, Bengals
Both of these players are absolute tackle machines. Mosley has made the Pro Bowl and the All-Pro second team during three of his four NFL seasons and is right in the prime of his career. He flows to the ball against the run, covers well in the passing game (he has 31 pass-breakups and eight picks in four years), and has even shown pass-rushing talent in his career. He's a full-field playmaker on one of the NFL's best defenses.
Brown is coming to Cincinnati from the Buffalo Bills, and like Mosley he is a versatile playmaker in the prime of his career. He's not quite as good in the passing game as Mosley, and he doesn't get his hands on the ball quite as often as his divisional counterpart. But he's a good player joining a defense with more talent up front than the last one he played on, and that should serve him well in 2018.
Jackson flew a bit under the radar as Marshon Lattimore and Tre'Davious White sucked up all the oxygen in the Defensive Rookie of the Year race. It didn't help that Jackson wasn't actually a rookie, but he was playing his first NFL season, having missed all of 2016 with a torn pectoral. Jackson had a marvelous debut season, though. He did a better job on Antonio Brown than almost anyone in the league, for example. He allowed a 34.9 percent catch rate, per Pro Football Focus, and just a 36.1 opponent's passer rating. He should have a larger role right away in 2018 and should excel once again, if last season is any indication.
We had E.J. Gaines in one of the other two spots before remembering how horribly he played for Browns defensive coordinator Greg Williams when the two were together with the Rams back in 2016. Instead, we're rolling with the Steelers' top corner and their slot man, both of whom fit their roles in the Steelers defense perfectly.
This is not a great division for safeties, but even if it were, the Ravens duo would have been a fairly easy selection here. It still boggles the mind that the Chargers gave up on Weddle a couple years ago, but it was to Baltimore's benefit that they did. Jefferson joined him in Baltimore last year and they were a seamless fit. That should continue to be the case in 2018.
The Ravens might have the best punter-kicker tandem in the league. Tucker is the most accurate kicker in NFL history and he's got more range than just about anybody. Koch has a huge leg and consistently ranks among the best in the league in terms of net yards per punt. Peppers did OK with his returns last season but he showed at Michigan he's got explosive capabilities in the return game. If he gets more chances, he should do well with them.
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