When Mike Nolan was defensive coordinator a few years back, the Ravens were a 3-4 defense and Terrell Suggs played outside linebacker. Not surprisingly, he excelled as a pass rusher, but struggled in coverage. With Baltimore all but abandoning the 3-4, Suggs moved to defensive end and is unquestionably the best right defensive end in the AFC North. For all the grief the front office takes for drafting Kyle Boller in 2003, they used their first first-round pick that year on Suggs. One out of two ain't bad, I suppose. The Pittsburgh Steelers' Brett Keisel ranks second by default. He was a solid pass rusher a season ago, but remains unproven as a full-time starter. My favorite 2005 Alvin McKinley memory was watching him do his sack-inspired shimmy in the middle of that 41-0 drubbing from the Steelers. Nothing like a sack dance during a one-sided beat down to put everything in perspective.
Aaron Smith, by a mile. When Bill Belichick, a guy who utters maybe 100 words during a press conference – and hardly ever anything worth reporting – says he thinks Smith is one of the best defensive ends in the game, you take notice. If this were 2002, Trevor Pryce would probably top the list, but it's not. Pryce is mainly a pass rushing specialist at this point in his career, and he's battled injuries for parts of the past three seasons. If Justin Smith were more consistent, I might've ranked him ahead of Pryce. Too often last season I remember Justin Smith making a play early in a game only to watch him disappear the rest of the afternoon.
Whether you're playing a 3-4, 4-3, or 11-0, Casey Hampton is still the best defensive tackle in the AFC North. In my mind, there isn't much difference between Sam Adams and Ted Washington because they're both really, really old and really, really fat. Both players will help their new teams just by showing up, but that says more about the Bengals' and Browns' run defenses than it does about these dudes' abilities. Kelly Gregg reminds me a lot of Chris Hoke with the two exceptions: (1) Hoke has a goatee; and (2) Gregg wears his pants just under his armpits. Despite these two obvious physical differences, their games are virtually identical.
This list is sure to be the most controversial since two-time Defensive Player of the Year Ray Lewis is pulling up the rear. Hey, if this was 2001 Lewis would be first by a very wide margin. But a lot can change in five years and heading into 2006, Lewis isn't better than Farrior, Davis or even Thurman. Farrior's 2005 season wasn't quite as spectacular as 2004, but regressing to the mean had more to do with that than age, in my opinion. Either way, he's still the best inside linebacker in the division. Not many people know Andra Davis, but much of that has to do with him playing on a hapless Browns squad. He's a very good linebacker and Cleveland thought enough of him to sign him to a new deal last November. Odell Thurman is entering his second year in the league and he's still raw. His 2005 numbers were similar to Larry Foote's but most would agree that Thurman has a little more upside than Foote at this stage of their careers.
Again, no real contest here. Joey Porter leads the pack and Bart Scott is second based solely on his exemplary 2005 season, when he replaced Ray Lewis, and the rest of the competition. A year ago, Brian Simmons was an average linebacker on a decidedly average defense, and this past spring Kamerion Wimbley was a pre-draft workout warrior who has yet to play a down.
I could go either way on the top two guys here. Clark Haggans is younger and more mobile, but Willie McGinest is a beast against the run, a great pass rusher and surprisingly nimble in pass coverage. David Pollack held out for most of training camp and it slowed his development last season. Still, he showed glimpses of being very good. Adalius Thomas is a special teams ace, but nowhere near as effective as a linebacker.
Another no-brainer here. Ed Reed is, far and away, the Ravens' best defensive player and it's been the case since 2003. Madieu Williams can flash Reed-like ball skills but he's returning from a shoulder injury that caused him to miss the last half of the 2005 season. I admit to not having seen much of Ryan Clark in Washington, but I'm ranking him ahead of Brian Russell based solely on what I've see of Russell. Clark could have the range of a statue and that would still an upgrade over Russell. I should note that Sean Jones, Cleveland's second-round pick in 2004, could win the starting free safety job in training camp, but that wouldn't change the rankings because of his inexperience. Well, unless Kevin Kaesviharn somehow gets the nod over Williams, then everything gets thrown out of whack.
Who knows where Troy Polamalu – and the Steelers – would be if Dexter Jackson didn't back out of a deal in the 11th hour that would've landed him to Pittsburgh back in 2003. After a stint in Arizona and Tampa Bay, Jackson is now a Bengal, and a distant second to Polamalu on this list. He'll shore up a woeful Cincy run defense, but won't offer much help in passing situations. Brodney Pool is another young Browns player who could learn by doing in 2006. The Ravens cut Gerome Sapp two seasons ago and recently acquired him via a trade with the Colts. The fact that Baltimore traded for a guy they previously released should give you some indication about their depth at the strong safety position.
A year ago, Ike Taylor was mentioned in the same breath as Ricardo Colclough and Bryant McFadden: three young players who would compete for time while the old vets – Deshea Townsend and Willie Williams – held down the starting jobs. Williams got hurt early in the season and Taylor never looked back – unless it was to watch another potential interception clank off his hands and fall harmlessly to the ground. Other than his apparent aversion to catching passes thrown directly to him, Taylor had about as good a season as one could hope for a first-time starter. I like Chris McAlister a lot, but he's too inconsistent to be the top cornerback on the list. I know Deltha O'Neal had 10 picks in 2005, but I still wouldn't take him over Taylor or McAlister. Gary Baxter is coming back from an injury-plagued 2005 season, and until he proves he's better than he was in Baltimore, he's no better than fourth here.
You know, I contemplated giving Leigh Bodden the top spot based on his breakout 2005 season, but Samari Rolle is the still best No. 2 cornerback in the AFC North. Bodden came out of nowhere a few seasons ago (well, he actually came out of Duquesne University) and he could turn out to be better than Baxter. An argument can also be made for Deshea Townsend, but for as good as he is in coverage on short-to-medium routes, he struggles against speed receivers on balls thrown down the field. Tory James had a resurgent 2005, but I wouldn't take him ahead of Rolle, Bodden or Townsend.
So there you have it, my very subjective look at the All-AFC North defensive team. Please feel free to tell me I'm crazy. Or brilliant.