AFC North survey: Smartest and best all-around

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

Both are versatile safeties.

The two also are perennial Pro Bowlers and unique talents.

And according to their peers, Baltimore Ravens safety Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu of the Pittsburgh Steelers are the best all-around player and smartest player, respectively, in the division.

During the offseason, ESPN.com's AFC North blog surveyed 32 players and granted them anonymity -- eight from each team in the division -- on topics that will be revealed periodically during July. The players surveyed could not vote for themselves or their teammates.

This week we take a look at Reed, who was voted best all-around player, and Polamalu, who was selected the division's smartest player. As evidence of their dominance, both safeties finished second in the other category too.

Best All-Around Player: Ed Reed

When it came to choosing the top all-around player in the AFC North, Reed and Polamalu accounted for 21 votes -- more than two-thirds of the 32 players surveyed.

But Reed (14) still received twice as many votes as Polamalu (7), who was tied with teammate James Harrison (7) for second place in this category.

"I feel he's just a great player," one opponent said of voting for Reed. "You have to be aware of him at all times."

Reed received multiple votes from players of the Cleveland Browns, Cincinnati Bengals and Steelers.

Most AFC North players agreed on the top three of Reed, Polamalu and Harrison -- who accounted for 87.5 percent of the total tally. But what slightly separated Reed in the eyes of opponents was that he's made more spectacular plays for a longer period than his Pittsburgh counterparts.

"The guy is just good," one rival player said. "And he probably still doesn't get the credit he deserves."

Other players to receive votes included Pro Bowl linebacker/defensive end Terrell Suggs of the Baltimore Ravens and a trio of Browns -- defensive lineman Shaun Rogers, safety Brodney Pool and return specialist Joshua Cribbs. Quarterbacks were left out of this category, because it overlapped with another portion of our survey, which examines the top quarterback in the AFC North. That answer will be addressed later in the month.

Smartest Player: Troy Polamalu

The smartest player in the AFC North was one of the closest votes in the entire player survey. Polamalu edged Reed, 14-11, and the pair combined for an amazin
g 78 percent of the total vote.

Many players paused and thought long and hard before deciding between the two safeties.

"Smartest player? I have to go with Troy," one opponent said. "But it's close."

Reed and Polamalu are arguably the top defensive playmakers in the NFL. Their smarts, instincts and immense film study allow coaches to provide certain freedoms not awarded to most defensive players, and they use it to their advantage. Reed and Polamalu combined for 16 interceptions in 2008.

Players who were surveyed seemed to have trouble deciding whether to vote for the player who positioned himself to make the most routine plays (Polamalu) or the player who takes the most risks in exchange for the spectacular plays (Reed).

In the end, a majority of players went with Polamalu by a narrow margin.

"Troy is never out of position," one player said of the difference between Polamalu and Reed.

Only two other players received votes for smartest player in the AFC North: Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis (5) and Steelers receiver Hines Ward (2).

One veteran rival felt particularly strong about his endorsement of Lewis.

"It's hands down," the player said. "Watch him. Ray is flowing to the football before the play develops."

With Pittsburgh's Polamalu and Ward and Baltimore's Reed and Lewis, this was the only survey question in which the results involved players from just two AFC North teams. Next week, the AFC North blog will reveal the survey results for this year's breakout player in the division.