Each week the staff at Pro Football Focus watches over a combined 400 hours of football to ensure we know who the best players are. At this point in the season we’ve hit a total tally of 3,600 man-hours of work going into our mid-season All-Pro teams. You won’t find many other places that can say likewise!
So let’s take a look deeper, naming a mid-season All-Division team. Here is the best team the AFC North has put out through half a season.
Quarterback: Ben Roethlisberger, PIT (+4.9)
If anything speaks to the issues in the AFC North so far this season it’s that Roethlisberger can still earn mid-season All-Division honors despite his rocky play. Andy Dalton has had stretches of fine play, but can’t seem to produce for more than two games on the bounce while Joe Flacco is presumably still distracted by counting his money.
Running Back: Giovani Bernard, CIN (+12.7)
If any player can give LeSean McCoy a run for his money when it comes to shifty quicks its Bernard. He doesn’t get the same workload of some backs, trapped in a split role with BenJarvus Green-Ellis, but when he does get the ball he can make things happen as both a runner and receiver. Only McCoy has a better PFF grade at the mid-point of the season.
Tight End: Jordan Cameron, CLE (+5.8)
The Browns finally unleashed Jordan Cameron in 2013! There had been calls for his workload to increase for some time and despite the carousel at QB this season Cameron has put up 600 receiving yards and six touchdowns on his 50 receptions. Simple math will tell you that Jordan is on pace for quite a season by anybody’s standards. Even his blocking, while far from a strength, hasn’t been the glaring problem most would have anticipated.
Wide Receivers: Antonio Brown, PIT (+13.1), A.J. Green, CIN (+5.2), Torrey Smith, BAL (+4.8)
While the Steelers struggle from week to week Antonio Brown continues to look excellent, justifying the faith the organization placed in him over Mike Wallace every time he steps onto the field. A.J. Green continues to keep pace with the league leaders in receiving yards, with 862 and five touchdowns and he is joined in the team by the first Raven, Torrey Smith. Smith has 36 receptions as the biggest weapon in the Ravens passing attack and is still averaging a huge 19.6 yards per reception, by far the most of any receiver with as many targets and receptions as he has.
Note: The AFC North is dropping the FB and running 3-wide for the purposes of the All-Division team to reflect the performance of both positions.
Tackles: Joe Thomas, CLE (+15.5), Andre Smith, CIN (+8.6)
Andrew Whitworth can count himself unfortunate to miss out on the LT spot by a narrow margin to Thomas. While Whitworth’s run blocking has been superior to the Browns blindside protector, Thomas remains the standard around the league for pass protecting at LT and has surrendered fewer than 20 total pressures on the season. At RT the standard isn’t quite as impressive, but Andre Smith is backing up his fine season in 2012 with a repeat performance, putting to rest the doubts that he could remain at that level long-term.
Guards: David DeCastro, PIT (+11.3), Marshal Yanda, BAL (+5.9)
David DeCastro was heralded as the best guard prospect since Steve Hutchinson when he came out, and though an injury put pay to hitting the ground running as a rookie, he has been pretty dominant in his first healthy season. He will be remembered by many as the guy who took out his own teammate’s knee, when an ugly cut block attempt ended Maurkice Pouncey’s season, but DeCastro right now is having a Pro-Bowl caliber year. The other spot is far less simple, with a trio of guards all around the same level. In the end Marshal Yanda gets the nod with the best run blocking grade of the three and a history of elite play that will mean Ravens fans have legitimate hope he can return to the top of the rankings by the season’s end.
Center: Alex Mack, CLE (+8.6)
Mack is another player that had very high expectations when he came out of college and it’s taken a while for him to really live up to them. He may never quite be among the very best in the league at his position but at the mid-way point of the season he is putting in a Pro Bowl caliber performance for the Browns with some fine run and pass blocking.
Each week we put forward a hybrid defense that features two edge rushers (4-3 defensive ends or 3-4 outside linebackers), three players on the “interior” of the defensive line (3-4 defensive ends or defensive tackles and two linebackers (all inside linebackers and 4-3 outside linebackers).We will stick with that formula for the All-AFC North Team.
Defensive Interior – Ends: Geno Atkins, CIN (+20.5), John Hughes, CLE (+9.6)
Not quite the dominant force of 2012, and with some teams certainly doing their best to nullify his presence, Geno Atkins was still having a fine season and will be a massive loss to the Bengals going forward. Even with an ugly game in Week 3 and playing just 15 snaps before injury most recently he is still comfortably the best-graded interior lineman in the division. John Hughes was a 3rd round pick for the Browns in 2012 and has a good claim to being the most improved lineman in the league in his second season. He has been a consistently impressive force against the run and narrowly edges Pittsburgh’s Cameron Heyward for the spot.
Defensive Interior – Nose: Phil Taylor, CLE (+5.5)
Another position where the division has seen little dominance, Taylor’s grade looks reasonable enough, but a +6.3 grade against the Chiefs accounts for all of the positive and then some. In the eight other games he is actually netting out at slightly below average. Taylor remains at this stage a tale of unfulfilled potential. What will we see from him the rest of the season?
Edge Rushers: Michael Johnson, CIN (+19.3), Elvis Dumervil, BAL (+15.7)
Heading into this season Michael Johnson was the definition of a ‘prove it’ player. He had an excellent 2012, but it was in a contract year and a huge amount of his positive grade came from one outing against a disastrous Washington pass blocking unit. So far this season he has been impressive. He was largely shut down against Buffalo and Cleveland, two teams with tough left tackles, but otherwise has been very much proving it. Earning the spot beside Johnson is Elvis Dumervil. With a new team thanks to Faxgate, Dumervil has been Baltimore’s most consistent pass rusher, notching six sacks, seven knockdowns and 18 hurries in his snaps and defending the run pretty well in addition.
Linebackers: James Harrison, CIN (+7.4), Vontaze Burfict, CIN (+3.5)
Once one of the most feared pass rushers in the NFL, James Harrison has been reborn in a new position and new specialty as a two-down run-stuffing thumper at strongside linebacker in the Bengals base defense. He is joined in the team by his teammate who would be much higher up the rankings if he could cut out the penalties, sitting as he does with 7, more than twice the number of any other player at his position in the league.
Cornerbacks: Leon Hall, CIN (+8.7), Joe Haden, CLE (+4.2)
Hall joins fellow Bengal Geno Atkins as a player in excellent form that is now lost for the season. Another huge blow for the Bengals, Hall is arguably the best slot cornerback in football, and ably defends on the perimeter as well. He was allowing a passer rating of just 59.1 into his coverage and just 50% of targets to be caught for 8.5 yards per carry. Haden has perhaps not been quite as consistent or spectacular, but nonetheless remains a formidable corner, notching 9 passes defensed to go with his solitary interception.
Safeties: T.J. Ward, CLE (+11.7), James Ihedigbo, BAL (+5.9)
At this point it isn’t a stretch to say that T.J. Ward is the best strong safety in football. A guy who rarely gets much press, he is a consistent force against the run in the box like few other safeties, and has become a more rounded player in coverage. He is joined by James Ihedigbo from the ‘Who saw that coming?’ file. Though he still has his share of troubles in coverage, Ihedigbo has performed well against the run for the Ravens this year, ranking second only to Ward among safeties in defensive stops.
Kicker: Justin Tucker, BAL (+20.8) Continuing his fine rookie form without missing a beat for the Ravens.
Punter: Kevin Huber, CIN (+14.7) Our revamped punter grading has seen Huber enjoy the benefits of his directional punting, having just one punt end up in the end zone for a touchback.
Returner: Tandon Doss, BAL (+3.6) It was close between Doss and Browns return man Benjamin, but with 19 punt returns Doss leads the NFL in return average at 17.8
Special Teamer: Robert Golden, PIT (+4.5) Positively graded on both kickoffs and punts Golden has registered six special teams tackles without a miss.
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