2013 PFF All-AFC North Team
As you’ll have seen from our All-AFC East edition earlier today, we’re rolling out our All-Division Teams this week, highlighting the best players in every division around the NFL.
We now move on to the AFC North which saw just one team with a winning record in 2013.
The Cincinnati Bengals won the division but, for the third straight year, fell at the first hurdle in the playoffs, while the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers found very different paths to 8-8 records and the Cleveland Browns had an all too familiar year despite a regime change in the offseason.
Still, despite the relative disappointment in terms of how the teams finished the year, there were plenty of high performing players in the division. So, with that in mind, here is your 2013 AFC North All Division Team.
Quarterback: Ben Roethlisberger (PIT)
In a down year for quarterbacks across the league, no AFC North signal-caller finished among the Top 10 highest graded players at the position. Roethlisberger was just outside at 11, though, with a strong middle of the season making up for a fairly pedestrian beginning and end. Not his strongest season by any stretch, but still far better than any of his divisional counterparts.
Running Back: Giovani Bernard (CIN)
In a year in which rookie running backs were prominent throughout, it’s fitting that the first back selected in April’s NFL Draft was one of the positions best performers. Playing 627 snaps as a rookie, he made so many highlight reel plays that we were all left craving more. Dangerous as a runner and a receiver, he forced a whopping 44 missed tackles from 226 offensive touches. Electric with the ball in his hands, an increase in snaps, and opportunities to make big plays, is expected in 2014 and beyond.
Running Back: Le’Veon Bell (PIT)
With no standout fullback to speak of in the North, we’re going with another rookie running back in our All-AFC North Team in Pittsburgh’s Bell. He missed the first three weeks of the season through injury, but really impressed as the season went on, 28 of his 36 missed tackles forced as a runner came from Week 11 onwards. Giving the Steelers the type of player they can feel confident handing the ball to 20 times a game for the first time in a few years Bell, like Bernard in Cincinnati, gives his team plenty of reason to feel confident about the running game going forward.
Wide Receivers: A.J. Green (CIN), Antonio Brown (PIT) and Josh Gordon (CLE)
Like fullback, there wasn’t much reason to get excited about a tight end in the AFC North in 2013 and, with a plethora of options at wide receiver it made too much sense to opt for a three wide receiver set instead. All three finished in the Top 5 in receiving yards in the NFL last year, with Green’s 1,426, incredibly, the lowest of the three. Brown saw his targets increase with Mike Wallace gone from Pittsburgh, and did his best to make the most of all of them, finishing in the Top 15 among all wide receivers with a Drop Rate of 6.78.
Gordon lead the league in receiving yards despite missing the first two games through suspension, including an incredible 498 yards in Weeks 12 and 13 alone. All three are young enough that we’ve probably not even seen the best of them yet, but their 2013 season were each fantastic in their own way.
Left Tackle: Joe Thomas (CLE)
The more things change the more they stay the same and, despite all the constant upheaval in Cleveland, Thomas has remained one of the best left tackles in football throughout. 2013 was no different, with his +29.8 Pass Blocking grade the best in the league for the second time in the last three years. Regardless of which quarterback the Browns have on the field, they can at least feel safe in the knowledge that there’s no better pass protector on the left side.
Left Guard: Andrew Whitworth (CIN)
How good was Cincinnati’s Whitworth in 2013? Well, good enough that he finished as our 13th-highest graded left tackle and as our fifth-highest graded left guard. Switching positions late in the year without missing a beat Whitworth added to his overall value as he showed the versatility to go with his overall dominance.
Center: Alex Mack (CLE)
Like Thomas at left tackle, Mack has been a pillar of consistency at center for the Browns. 2013 was the second-highest graded season of his career and saw him finish as our fourth-highest graded player at the position. Solid as a pass blocker, impressive against the run and penalised just three times in the regular season, there’s a lot to like about how Mack played in 2013.
Right Guard: David DeCastro (PIT)
Showing himself as the player we were sold when the Steelers drafted him in the first round a year ago, DeCastro rebounded from a rookie season where he played in just three games due to injury, to be the best right guard in the division. Three rocky performances in the second half of the season brought his overall grade down, but he was generally impressive throughout, particularly as a run blocker.
Right Tackle: Andre Smith (CIN)
There was some doubt as to whether the Bengals would bring back Smith this past offseason but, after a 2013 season that saw him finish as our seventh best right tackle, they’ll be glad they did. Particularly impressive in pass protection, just 12 offensive tackles finished the year with a higher Pass Blocking Efficiency rating than Smith’s 95.6.
Defensive Interior: Arthur Jones (BAL) and Haloti Ngata (BAL)
Though he was some distance off the top and second tier at 3-4 defensive end, Jones still had a stellar season as he heads towards free agency. Just three players at the position had a higher Run Stop Percentage than Jones’ 10.0%, with 26 tackles that resulted in a defensive stop from 260 snaps against the run. He was solid as a pass rusher too, with 25 total pressures from 238 pass rushing snaps. Ngata spent more time at nose or defensive tackle this year and, like Jones, he may not have been one of the best at his position, but was no slouch either. He too had 26 tackles resulting in a defensive stop which, coming from 309 snaps against the run gave him a RSP of 8.4%, tied for 12th amongst all defensive tackles.
Edge Defenders: Elvis Dumervil (BAL) and Michael Johnson (CIN)
Two fairly different players fill the edge defenders spots on this team with Cincinnati’s Johnson playing a full time role that saw just eight 4-3 defensive ends play more snaps in the regular season. Solid as a pass rusher, where he got plenty of pressure but also saw more pass rushing snaps than all but four defensive ends, Johnson’s real strength was against the run. His RSP of 8.4% was tied for fifth at the position, but his overall play saw only New England’s Rob Ninkovich finish with a higher grade against the run.
Baltimore’s Dumervil was used much more in passing situations, with just 176 snaps against the run, but his overall play probably warranted more than that. There was certainly nothing wrong with his play against the run but he thrived as a pass rusher, where his Pass Rushing Productivity Rating of 15.1 was second among outside linebackers.
Linebackers: Vontaze Burfict (CIN), Lawrence Timmons (PIT) and Daryl Smith (BAL)
The AFC North’s linebackers are headed by Cincinnati’s Vontaze Burfict who took a big leap forward this past season. Particularly in coverage, where he had an interception and four pass breakups to go along with some nice work bringing down receivers quickly after they’d caught the ball, he was one of the best 4-3 outside linebackers in the league. The one negative in his game you’d like to see less of is the number of penalties, with 14 in 2013, but his overall level of play kept him above the rest in the division.
Smith saw his overall grade fall with some poor games down the stretch, but his work in coverage and as a pass rusher was amongst the best in the league. Timmons (-3.4) might seem like a strange selection given his overall grade, but he was let down by three really poor performances, and showed some really good work in between. With 44 tackles resulting in a defensive stop from 410 snaps against the run, his RSP of 10.7% was ninth amongst all inside linebackers.
Cornerbacks: Joe Haden (CLE) and Adam Jones (CIN)
Haden seems to split opinion around the league, with some viewing him as more of a shutdown corner than others. What shouldn’t be up for debate, however, is the fact that he is coming off an impressive 2013 season. Giving up just 557 yards through the air all year, he gave up just six receptions for 44 yards, with two interceptions and two pass breakups when lined up opposite A.J. Green in two contests against the Bengals. Jones continued his career revival in Cincinnati with another solid year under then defensive co-ordinator Mike Zimmer. Used almost exclusively as the team’s right cornerback, he allowed a reception once every 11.4 snaps in coverage.
Free Safety: George Iloka (CIN)
The Day 1 starter in Cincinnati in his second year, Iloka was tied for eighth among all safeties with five pass breakups in the regular season. Allowing just 53.8% of the passes thrown into his coverage to be caught, he also allowed the eighth-fewest yards through the air. All in all a very solid second year and the best in a division that lacked a true standout at the position.
Strong Safety: T.J. Ward (CLE)
As good a strong safety as there was in the NFL in 2013, Ward’s play against the run in particular was something to behold. His 29 stops against the run were five more than the next highest safety with a RSP of 7.2% on running plays where he was lined up within eight yards of the line of scrimmage. Having to fight off the challenge of Pittsburgh’s Troy Polamalu for this spot, it was that strength against the run which saw Ward win out.
Kicker: Justin Tucker (BAL)
Tied with New England’s Steven Gostkowski for the most attempts and field goals made, Tucker finished the year making more than 90% of his field goals for the second straight year. The Ravens won the game against Detroit on Monday Night Football on his leg alone, including that incredible 61-yard game winner.
Punter: Sam Koch (BAL)
No punter in the AFC North ranked in the Top 10 at the position, but Koch was the best of the bunch at 14. His 29 punts inside the 20 were tied for 12th most by a punter in 2013.
Returner: Brandon Tate (CIN)
Unlike at the punter spot, there were plenty of impressive returners in the division this year, with both Antonio Brown and Jacoby Jones putting up a fight. We’ve gone with Tate however, with the Bengals return man making more out of what he was given and averaging 26.1 yards per kick return.
Special Teamer: Robert Golden
Fans of our weekly Third Phase article will have seen PFF’s Neil Hornsby talking up Golden already, with the Steelers’ special teamer grading positively in both punt and kick coverage. His overall special teams grade was second only to Arizona’s Justin Bethel, and there’s certainly no shame in that.
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