By Matt Citak
The time has come. With NFL training camps underway, there will officially be football on every weekend from now until February. With the most glorious time of the year finally here, we are going to take a look at each division around the NFL and break down the best player at each position. Now it is time to check out the AFC North’s top players on offense.
AFC: East | North | South | West
QB: Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers
Roethlisberger has had quite the career, winning two Super Bowls and earning a career 123-60 regular season record. Despite his age beginning to creep up (turned 35 in March), Big Ben was solid in his 13th NFL season, throwing for 3,819 yards, 29 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions in 14 games. Throughout his time in the NFL, Roethlisberger, who stands in at 6-foot-5, has enjoyed throwing the deep ball. But in 2016, the veteran quarterback led the league in touchdowns on deep passes (20+ yards) with 13, narrowly beating out Matt Ryan and Andrew Luck. With Martavis Bryant now reinstated, that number could get even higher in 2017. Roethlisberger’s performance last season sent him to his fifth Pro Bowl and got him No. 22 on the NFL Top 100 Players of 2017. If he can avoid the injury bug, Big Ben could be in for another Pro Bowl season.
RB: Le’Veon Bell, Pittsburgh Steelers
The second player in Pittsburgh’s “Killer Bs” offensive attack is Bell, who is widely considered one of the NFL’s top two running backs (along with David Johnson). Although he missed four games last season, Bell still finished the season as the league’s fifth-leading rusher with 1,268 yards on 261 carries (4.9 yards per carry). He also added 75 receptions for 616 yards, and finished the season with the most yards from scrimmage in the league at 157, which was also the third-best clip in NFL history for a running back. Bell was unstoppable once the ball was in his hands, gaining 786 yards after contact when running the ball (third among 58 qualifying RBs) and 680 yards after the catch (first among RBs). Bell was named a second-team All-Pro for his play in 2016, and received the highest overall grade at his position from Pro Football Focus. Playing on the franchise tag this year, don’t be surprised if Bell puts up his best season yet.
WR: Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh Steelers
Brown will be chasing history this season, looking to become the first receiver in NFL history to catch 100 passes in five straight seasons. The final major piece of the Steelers’ “Killer Bs,” Brown has proven himself as the best route runner in the league over the last few years, as well as having some of the best hands. Over the last two seasons, Brown has dropped just seven passes on a league-high 294 catchable targets thrown his way. This gives the NFL’s highest-paid receiver a drop percentage of 2.8 percent, the best among receivers with at least 100 catchable targets. Brown was named to his third consecutive first-team All-Pro last season, and NFL.com ranked him the fourth-best player in their list of Top 100 Players of 2017. With Bryant back to relieve some of the defensive pressure, AB might be in for another jaw-dropping season.
WR: A.J. Green, Cincinnati Bengals
Green tore his hamstring in the first quarter of Week 11, an injury that forced him to miss the remainder of the season. Even with him sitting for six and a half games, Green still managed to catch 66 passes for 964 yards and four touchdowns, all while receiving the fourth-highest grade among 115 qualifying wide receivers from PFF. His 2.86 yards per route run were second in the NFL behind only Julio Jones, and his 50 percent catch rate on deep balls was also second-best in the league among receivers who got 20 or more deep targets. Green has been one of the most talented wide receivers since he entered the league six years ago, evidenced by his six Pro Bowl nods. Entering the 2017 campaign fully healthy, Green looks primed for a monster season.
WR: Martavis Bryant, Pittsburgh Steelers
Injuries and suspensions have limited Bryant to just 21 games since being drafted in the fourth round of the 2014 draft. But during those 21 games, especially in his rookie season, Bryant showed just how special of a receiver he can be. In 10 games in 2014, the 6-foot-4 receiver caught 26 passes for 549 yards and eight touchdowns. His 21.1 yards per catch was very solid, but his 2.76 yards per route run was truly impressive, finishing third among 90 qualifying wide receivers (behind only Green and Demaryius Thomas). Bryant’s numbers dipped a bit the following season, but he still showed flashes of greatness. In the Wild Card Round playoff game against the Bengals, while in the process of making a catch for a touchdown, Bryant did a front flip and maintained control of the ball while holding it on the back of his leg. It was insane. Bryant’s presence on the field should help free up space for Brown, which will do wonders for Pittsburgh’s offense.
TE: Tyler Eifert, Cincinnati Bengals
Eifert has struggled to stay on the field over the last three years, missing a whopping 26 games since 2014. But it is quite clear when he’s playing that the talent is there. In 13 games in 2015, Eifert caught 52 passes for 615 yards and an incredible 13 touchdowns. Even with missing half of the 2016 season, the tight end still looked impressive. Eifert finished 2016 with the fourth-highest overall grade among tight ends, and his deep pass catch rate of 80.0 percent was the top mark at the tight end position. But the 6-foot-6, former Notre Dame tight end can do more than just catch; he finished with the third-highest run-blocking grade of all tight ends last year, finishing behind only Anthony Fasano and Nick O’Leary. Entering a contract year, if Eifert can prove he can play through a full season without getting hurt, he should be in for a massive payday next offseason.
OT: Joe Thomas, Cleveland Browns
It can be argued that Joe Thomas has been the most consistent player in the NFL over the last 10 years. Let’s look at what he’s done since being drafted third overall back in 2007. Thomas has had an absolute perfect bill of health in his 10 NFL seasons, not missing even a single game. The veteran left tackle has made the Pro Bowl in each of the 10 years he’s been playing in the NFL, in addition to seven first-team All-Pro selections and two second-team All-Pro selections. WOW. Despite turning 32 in December, Thomas still had one of the best seasons of all offensive tackles. His overall grade of 89.1 was the fourth among tackles, and his pass-blocking grade of 89.9 finished in fifth, according to PFF. Keep in mind that Thomas had to deal with blocking for six different quarterbacks in the first seven weeks of the season, none of whom made life easier for Thomas and the rest of the offensive line.
OG: Marshal Yanda, Baltimore Ravens
Yanda has established himself as the best guard in football over the last two seasons, but last year he performed on another level. He allowed just six hurries in 612 snaps for a 99.2 pass-blocking efficiency, the highest rate by a guard since PFF was started in 2006. Yanda has not allowed a sack or hit in 1,014 consecutive pass-blocking snaps (dating back to 2015), a streak he will take with him into the 2017 season. Similar to Thomas, Yanda has been incredibly consistent over the last few years. He has gone 52 regular and postseason games without having a poor overall performance, and 41 of those contests he graded above-average or better by PFF. The NFL analytics site named Yanda the Best Offensive Lineman of 2016, and the veteran guard will continue to anchor Baltimore’s offensive line this year.
C: Maurkice Pouncey, Pittsburgh Steelers
Pouncey is another veteran that has seen injuries derail what otherwise would be very strong career. Pouncey has missed 31 games since 2013, but managed to remain healthy for 15 contests last season, showing that the athleticism that differentiates him from other centers is still there. His ability to get to the second level to make blocks and pull to either side of the offensive line is impressive after all of the injuries he has suffered. But it’s his talent in pass-blocking that earns him the spot on this list. Pouncey allowed just 13 total quarterback pressures last season, which was the fewest of all centers within the AFC North. This earned him his fifth trip to the Pro Bowl. Pouncey remains the heart of the Steelers’ offensive line, a unit that was ranked as the third-best offensive line in 2016 by PFF.
OG: Kevin Zeitler, Cleveland Browns
Zeitler was Cleveland’s big splash in free agency, stealing him away from the Bengals by signing the guard to a five-year, $60 million contract in March. His performance over the last three seasons shows he’s worth it. Zeitler has earned a top-10 overall grade among guards in each of the last three years by PFF, and has proven successful as both a run and pass blocker. He has allowed only one sack in the last two seasons, and finished the year with the fifth-highest pass-blocking efficiency of all guards. Zeitler was also named to PFF’s All-Pro second team as his 2016 campaign earned him the seventh-best overall grade at the guard position. Zietler did not miss a single snap all year, playing 100 percent of the team’s 1,087 snaps on offense, and will be a welcome addition to the Browns’ offensive line.
OT: Marcus Gilbert, Pittsburgh Steelers
Gilbert had by far and away the strongest season of his career in 2016. The 6-foot-6 lineman allowed only 20 total QB pressures on 472 snaps in pass protection. His 96.7 pass-blocking efficiency was the highest among all right tackles, and the fifth-highest at the tackle position. Gilbert had 10 games in 2016 where he allowed either zero or one pressure, and in those games, Pittsburgh went 9-1. In fact, from Week 4 through the rest of the season, Pittsburgh’s offense line gave up only 87 total pressures. No other team had fewer than 96. Gilbert’s transformation from a young and inexperienced tackle to a Pro Bowl-level talent over the last four years has been a sight to watch. With this much talent on the offensive side of the ball, the Steelers have the pieces to make a deep playoff run this season.
Matt Citak is a producer for CBS Local Sports and a proud Vanderbilt alum. Follow him on Twitter or send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.