Right off the bat, I'm straddling the fence. As a Pittsburgh Steelers fan I'm obviously partial to Ben Roethlisberger, but it's hard to argue with Carson Palmer's 2005 season. Ultimately, a team's offensive philosophy determines which player best fits the system. Looking for a pocket passer with a strong arm and pinpoint accuracy? Palmer's your guy. Want a QB who can create something out of nothing, has great mobility and field vision, and can squeeze passes into tight spots? Meet Mr. Roethlisberger. Another way to think about this is to ask the following question: Would Carson Palmer have led the Steelers to the Super Bowl? (I have no idea, I'm just asking.)
Steve McNair takes third place by default since Charlie Frye has less than a half dozen career starts and plays on a team that won six games last season. And yes, if McNair was still in Tennessee and Kyle Boller was the starter in Baltimore, he'd rank last on this list.
Like him or not, Chad Johnson is the best pure wideout in the AFC North. If you can get past the gold fronts, crazy touchdown celebrations and nonstop smack talking, it's hard not to have him at the top of the list. The Steelers shut him down three times in 2005 – the last time led to Johnson passing out halftime headlocks like he was giving out candy at Halloween – but Pittsburgh was the exception last season. Hines Ward is still the most complete receiver in the game and continues to play at a high level even though Pittsburgh's offense starts with the running game. In all probability, Derrick Mason would've been ranked higher if he didn't have Lloyd and Harry throwing him passes all season. Braylon Edwards had a promising start to his career, but a knee injury – one that will see him miss the first part of the '06 season – slowed his development.
Yep, more love for the Bengals here. T.J. Houshmandzadeh is the prototypical No. 2 receiver, racking up over 950 yards in each of the past two seasons and providing Palmer with a solid option if teams choose to double-team Chad Johnson. Joe Jurevicius is in his first season in Cleveland, but he's a sure-handed target whose experience should prove valuable on a young Browns team. It pains me to put Cedrick Wilson fourth, but let's be honest; Wilson had a pretty crappy regular season. Clayton started slow, but improved nicely over the course of his rookie year, and if he played in Pittsburgh, I'm guessing his numbers would've been better than Wilson's.
This is a no-brainer. Rudi Johnson might be the most underrated running back in the league. I envision this is what Verron Haynes would be like if he could stay healthy. It's almost comical to look at this list and see Jamal Lewis bringing up the rear, but a stint in the clink, a lackadaisical approach to his job in his walk year, and really suspect run-blocking all conspired against him. Reuben Droughns was the first Browns running back to gain 1,000 yards on the ground since Ernest Byner and Kevin Mack both did it in 1985, but he wore down late in the season. Willie Parker is closer to third place than first place on this list, but if you're the Steelers that's a good problem to have with a player entering his third year in the league.
Jeremi Johnson might be the highest paid fullback in the game, but Dan Kreider's made a living steamrolling Ray Lewis. That alone gets him to No. 1.
If Todd Heap and Heath Miller were both five-year vets, things might shake out a little differently. As it stands, Heap has 243 career receptions for 2,893 yards and 20 touchdowns. Not bad for a guy playing on a team that hasn't had a real quarterback since Bernie Kosar back in the mid-1990s. Miller had a great rookie season, but it will be interesting to see how the Steelers utilize him this year. Kellen Winslow ranks third simply because the Bengals think so much of the position that they let their starter, Aaron Schobel, walk and chose to sign Ravens backup, Darnell Dinkins, as his replacement.
I take no joy in putting Marvel Smith third here, but for as much focus as Johnson brings to the Bengals' wide receiving corps, their offensive line goes virtually unnoticed … and they are arguably the better unit on this team. In 2005, the O-line only gave up 22 sacks, good for second in the league. Levi Jones was a big part of their success, and Palmer will attest to as much. Jonathan Ogden has been around since 1996 and he's undoubtedly lost a step, but he's still a top-5 left tackle. If the Ravens didn't have to play the Colts and Dwight Freeney the last two seasons, nobody would even raise concerns about Ogden's abilities. Marvel Smith is a very steady player and does a good job of protecting Roethlisberger's blind side, but it's hard to argue that he's better than either Jones or Ogden.
Alan Faneca. Well, that was easy. And honestly, I don't know enough about Steinbach or Andruzzi to comment intelligently about their abilities (I know, I know, right now you're asking yourself, "Not knowing anything didn't slow you up before now, why the sudden change of heart?"), but I have seen enough of Ed Mulitalo to know that he is very deserving of last place.
LeCharles Bentley was the best center heading into the off-season so there is no reason to think otherwise before training camp starts. In fact, some Steelers fans were hoping the front office would make a run at Bentley as Jeff Hartings' replacement. Obviously, that didn't happen, but Hartings is still the second best center in the AFC North, even if he probably only has one season left in him. Again, I haven't seen enough of Rich Braham to really form an opinion of his abilities, but just like Mulitalo, I have seen enough of Mike Flynn to know that he must have some naughty pics of Brian Billick because there is no other explanation for him being in the starting lineup. None.
Bobbie Williams probably isn't that well known outside of Cincinnati and Williams family reunions, but he's the best right guard in the division. Kendall Simmons had an up-and-down 2005 season, and there is a chance he could lose his job to Chris Kemoeatu in training camp, but when the competition consists of Cosey Coleman and Keydrick Vincent, it's easy to understand his second place ranking.
And my crush on the Bengals' offensive line is officially complete. Willie Anderson is the top right tackle in the AFC North and I just can't emphasize enough how well this unit pass-blocked for Carson Palmer a season ago. Max Starks ranks behind Anderson, but again, a lot of that has to do with the lack of talent on the Browns and Ravens.
Okay folks, let me have it. Next up: the defense.