Player survey: Top QB and toughest player

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

Coming off a thrilling Super Bowl XLIII victory and two titles in the past four seasons, it is no surprise that the Pittsburgh Steelers were the dominant team among their peers in the 2009 AFC North player survey.

In our final installment of the series, a pair of Steelers once again reigns supreme for the categories of top quarterback and toughest player.

Best QB: Ben Roethlisberger

When it comes to quarterbacks, it was clear that winning matters most when gaining respect among players in NFL locker rooms.

"You can't argue with two Super Bowls," said one rival when voting for Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger as the division's best quarterback.

Said another opponent, "It's not even a question."

According to AFC North players, the only real question in this category turned out to be who is the second-best quarterback in the AFC North.

Most opponents were split nearly down the middle between Carson Palmer of the Cincinnati Bengals and Joe Flacco of the Baltimore Ravens. Palmer edged Flacco by a 7-5 vote to earn second place.

But it was telling that Flacco earned considerable respect from his peers after a stellar rookie season in which he led the Ravens to the AFC Championship Game. During that run, Flacco became the first rookie quarterback in NFL history to win two road playoff games, against division champions Miami and Tennessee.

"I like the kid," one division rival said of Flacco. "He's poised."

But in the process of doing the survey, it also became apparent that some are still taking a wait-and-see approach with Flacco as he enters his second season.

"[The Ravens] didn't put Flacco in a lot of tough positions," one player said. "They protected him."

Also, when it came to deciding between Flacco and Palmer, there seemed to be a divide between veterans and younger players, who appeared to base their opinions more on last season as opposed to Palmer's overall career.

Palmer suffered two major injuries (knee, elbow) in the past four seasons and started only four games in 2008.

"These young guys haven't seen Palmer when he's healthy," said one veteran, shaking his head.

Surprisingly, Cleveland Browns quarterbacks Derek Anderson and Brady Quinn also received one vote apiece, which means every team was represented in this category. Quinn and Anderson both saw playing time in 2008 and are competing for the starting job this season.

But perhaps the most telling aspect of this survey question was that Roethlisberger more than doubled the tally of the second-place quarterback.

A year or two ago, Roethlisberger versus Palmer may have been a valid debate. But Roethlisberger's addition of another Super Bowl victory to his resume in February clearly puts him over the top, according to his AFC North peers.

Toughest Player: James Harrison

There are a lot of tough opponents in the AFC North, as evidenced by the 11 different players who received votes. But in the end, Harrison of the Pittsburgh Steelers beat out Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis in a very close vote.

The reigning defensive player of the year received 10 of 32 votes while Lewis, a future Hall of Famer, was second with eight votes. The two linebackers combined for more than half (56 percent) of the total tally.

"Harrison's tough," one player said. "People forget he is a beast on special teams too."

Said another rival, "He's nasty to deal with for four quarters."

Meanwhile, an interesting subplot developed while surveying the division on the toughest player: It became clear what player was the most disliked in the AFC North.

At least one person each in the lock
er rooms of the Browns, Bengals and Ravens considered voting for Steelers receiver Hines Ward in this category. But they couldn't bring themselves to do it, mostly because they disagreed with the way Ward plays the game.

"I really don't want to vote for Hines," said one rival, who voted for someone else. "But he's definitely a tough player."

In the end, Ward finished tied for third with three votes.

Players from three of the four AFC North teams received votes, including Baltimore defensive end/linebacker Terrell Suggs (3), Browns return specialist Joshua Cribbs (1) and defensive end Aaron Smith (2) of the Steelers. No one from the Cincinnati Bengals was selected for toughest player in the division by their peers.