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Best of the North? QB, RB, WR, TE
By Mike Frazer | June 9th, 2008

After taking a look at the teams in the AFC north, it seemed like the proper thing to do to break down each position in the division and take a stab at who is the best in the division at their respective spots. Teams win championships, but players make plays. Here’s a look at the best players in the AFC North.

Quarterback: Ben Roethlisberger (Carson Palmer, Derek Anderson)
Ben Roethlisberger has been impressive three of his first four years in the league. Coming into the game as a relief pitcher for Tommy Maddox in game 2 of the 2004 season, Roethlisberger lit up his opponents to go undefeated as a starter. His victories included a come-from-behind win in Dallas, rallying from a 10-point deficit to win the game 24-20. The next season, he led his team to a Super Bowl victory the hard way, carrying the team and the entire city of Pittsburgh on his back through three playoff games on the road. While he had a dismal performance in the Super Bowl itself, he nearly single-handedly got them there in the first place with truly inspired play. We’ll give him a mulligan for the 2006 season because it’s hard to tell if it was a Super Bowl hangover, a slump, or maybe putting his face through the windshield of a Chrysler that made him play like a pom-pom girl in pads. In 2007, all he did was score an efficiency rating over 100, second only to Tom Brady and his season that can only be described as friggin’ sick.

As for the other guys? Derek Anderson may be a one-season wonder; we can’t tell yet. He could be the second coming of Joe Montana, or the second coming of Kordell Stewart. As for Palmer, who was drafted ahead of Roethlisberger in 2004, until he can show that he can be a true leader of his team, and carry the team to victory when everyone else is trying to lose, he won’t supplant a Super Bowl champion at the top of the heap.

Running Back: Willie Parker (Willis McGahee, Rudi Johnson, Jamal Lewis)
Parker was leading the league in rushing yards until he broke his leg with just less than two games left in the season. The little guy, behind a shaky line, has proven all critics wrong who said he was too small to be effective, especially in a town that lives and dies by power running. The additions of Rashard Mendenhall and Mewelde Moore will only help matters.

McGahee had a fine season in 2007, nearly mirroring Parker. The difference is that Parker has been steady from his first start, putting up more than 100 yards in the 2004 season finale against Buffalo. Johnson and Lewis are both explosive runners, but they are both the definition of hot-and-cold players. The fact is that Parker was simply the top running back in the league through the first 15 weeks of the season, and could very well have maintained that position had he not been hurt. The fact that he was that close to being the first Steeler in decades to win the rushing title, even with the list of guys who have run in this town over the years, is a testament to how good he can be.

Wide Receiver: Hines Ward/T.J. Houshmanzadeh (Chad Johnson, Braylon Edwards, Santonio Holmes)
This one is too close to call, so I won’t try. Some may scream at me for picking Housh over Johnson out of the Bengals’ stable, but a large part of this game comes down to attitude: simply put, Housh has a better one than Johnson. He has quietly put up some of the best cumulative numbers in the league over his time in Cincy, and is far less of a sore thumb than the self-righteous Johnson. Ward, on the other hand, is a different kind of receiver. if we based this on statistics alone, he wouldn’t be in the ballpark. But he’s the only one on this list who can go deep, go across the middle, and lay down a crushing block when called upon to do so. it’s his completeness as a receiver, not his stats, that ties him with Housh.

Edwards had a great 2007, but he needs more than one fine season to be considered the best in the division. Likewise with Holmes, even though he did lead the NFL in yards per catch in 2007.

Tight End: Todd Heap (Heath Miller, Kellen Winslow)
Going counter to my decision to split the decision on wide receiver, Todd Heap wins this one on his own simply because of his consistent ability, year-in and year-out, to destroy solid defenses by getting open deep along the seams. Winslow was good last season at the same thing, but I’m not ready to crown him the best receiving tight end in the division until he does it more than once. Miller is far-and-away the best blocker of the three, and has shown he is probably the best of the three in the red zone when properly utilized. He doesn’t have quite the speed of the other two, though, so his threat is limited. And that’s what keeps him out of the top spot.