The AFC North blog continues to rank the top 40 players in the division.
No. 24: Brett Keisel, defensive end
Team: Pittsburgh Steelers
2010 stats: 33 tackles, three sacks, one interception
Last year's ranking: N/A
Analysis: The player with the most famous beard in the NFL also had a very good season in Pittsburgh's 3-4 defense. Keisel stepped up to become Pittsburgh's top defensive end when teammate Aaron Smith went down for the season in October with a triceps injury. Keisel recorded 33 tackles, three sacks and even scored a touchdown on his interception return against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Similar to Ziggy Hood (No. 38) and Casey Hampton (No. 28), Keisel didn't put up huge numbers but was instrumental in Pittsburgh's No. 1-rated run defense. He qualified for the Pro Bowl as an alternate this past season.
No. 23: Cedric Benson, running back
Team: Cincinnati Bengals
2010 stats: 321 carries, 1,111 rushing yards, seven touchdowns
Last year's ranking: No. 11
Analysis: Benson recorded back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons for the first time in his career. But Benson's year wasn't nearly as good as 2009. His yards-per-carry average went down from 4.2 to 3.5, and he also had fumbling issues, losing five this past season after not losing any the year before. Benson didn't get along with former offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski and often complained about the team's play calling. But Benson received 321 carries this past season, and I think being a pending free agent contributed to some of his complaints. Benson was playing for a new contract on a losing team, and at 28 this may be his last chance to cash in big as a running back. The Bengals are looking to retain the soon-to-be unrestricted free agent.
No. 22: Hines Ward, wide receiver
2010 stats: 59 receptions, 755 yards, five touchdowns
Last year's ranking: No. 15
Analysis: Ward didn't put up big numbers this past season, recording just 59 receptions. He's now 34 and didn't have starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for the first four games of the season. But Ward's leadership and toughness helped get Pittsburgh to its third Super Bowl since the 2005 season. He's also one of the smartest players in the NFL, who continues to get open despite his age and lack of speed. Much of what Ward does for Pittsburgh cannot be measured by statistics. The future Hall of Famer remains a devastating run blocker and also tutored second-year receiver Mike Wallace to become arguably the most dangerous deep threat in the NFL and Pittsburgh's new No. 1 receiver.
No. 21: Heath Miller, tight end
2010 stats: 42 receptions, 512 yards, two touchdowns
Last year's ranking: No. 22
Analysis: Miller's statistics also were down after missing two games with a concussion and playing four games without Roethlisberger at quarterback. But Miller remained a consistent blocker for Pittsburgh tailback Rashard Mendenhall, and Miller remains one of the NFL's most well-rounded tight ends. He has great hands, is tough running after the catch and always falls forward for extra yards. Roethlisberger often calls Miller the best at his position, although the quarterback is clearly biased. But with a healthier season in 2011 and a full year playing with Roethlisberger, Miller's numbers should be up again next season.