We are down to the last two groups Friday, as the AFC North blog ranks the top 40 players in the division.
No. 8: Joe Thomas, left tackle
ThomasTeam: Cleveland Browns
2010 stats: 16 starts
Last year's rankings: No. 4
Analysis: Thomas dropped four spots in this year's "Walker’s Fab 40" but still comes in a No. 8. He was not the dominant, impenetrable left tackle he’s been in the past, but was still good enough to make the Pro Bowl. Thomas spent the early part of the season dealing with an elbow injury that was never made public because he never complained about it. But it did impact his performance. Thomas was great once again in the running game and helped Cleveland tailback Peyton Hillis (No. 13) have a breakout year. But Thomas got beat a few times in pass protection and, in fact, Cleveland’s entire offensive line took a step back as all three quarterbacks were injured this season.
No. 7: LaMarr Woodley, outside linebacker
WoodleyTeam: Pittsburgh Steelers
2010 stats: 50 tackles, 10 sacks, three forced fumbles, two interceptions
Last year's ranking: No. 8
Analysis: Woodley was arguably the NFL's best bargain. He made just $550,000 in the final year of his rookie contract and became just the second Steeler to record double-digit sacks for three straight seasons. Woodley played even better in the playoffs and recorded a sack in all three playoff games. A part of Woodley's game that goes unnoticed is his ability to set the edge against the run. Rarely do you see running backs get outside for huge gains and Woodley and teammate James Harrison are the two main reasons. Woodley has earned the right for a huge pay raise and will get it next season, either in the form of a contract extension or his franchise tag, which is worth $10.2 million this season.
No. 6: Terrell Suggs, defensive end/linebacker
SuggsTeam: Baltimore Ravens
2010 stats: 68 tackles, 11 sacks, two forced fumbles
Last year's ranking: No. 14
Analysis: Suggs was true to his word in 2010. He said his down year in 2009 would never happen again, and a motivated and in-shape Suggs was on a tear all season for the Ravens, making his fourth Pro Bowl. Despite a bad 2009 by Suggs' standards, he came in at No. 14 in last year's "Walker's Fab 40" because we knew he was still a dominant player. Suggs proved us correct this past season by registering 11 sacks and making the Pro Bowl. Suggs also stepped up in big games and got stronger as the year went on. Including playoffs, he was unblockable at times in three exciting games this year against the AFC North champion Steelers. Suggs recorded 5.5 sacks in this season's trilogy with Pittsburgh.
No. 5: James Harrison, outside linebacker
2010 stats: 100 tackles, 10.5 sacks, two interceptions
Last year's ranking: No. 5
Analysis: Harrison is 32 but is showing no signs of slowing down after another Pro Bowl year. He recorded 100 tackles and had 10.5 sacks. Because of his late start, Harrison doesn't have as much wear and tear as most linebackers his age. Harrison is relentless to the quarterback and finishes plays. He is perhaps the league's best defender at forcing fumbles (six in 2010). Harrison is one of the NFL's hardest hitters and paid for it this season. With the league increasing its enforcement on big hits, Harrison was the most fined player in the NFL in 2010. He briefly contemplated retirement during the season but returned for Pittsburgh’s Super Bowl run.
The second annual "Walker’s Fab 40" will come to a conclusion next with the very best players in the AFC North. Here is the list so far.