The AFC North blog is beginning its rankings of each position for the next two weeks. This is a projection on how the group will fare this season. It's not an evaluation based on last year. First up, the quarterbacks.
1. Pittsburgh Steelers: I probably should put an asterisk by this that notes: only if Ben Roethlisberger stays healthy. When he's not limping around or grimacing in pain, he's an elite quarterback. While adjusting to Todd Haley's offense is still a work in progress, he was an MVP candidate for the first nine weeks of the season, throwing 17 touchdowns and four interceptions before getting injured. Roethlisberger is in the prime of his career at 31 and can earn a lucrative contract extension if he produces this season. Plus, the Steelers upgraded at backup quarterback by signing Bruce Gradkowski in free agency.
2. Baltimore Ravens: Joe Flacco has a Super Bowl ring. He also has a $120.6 million contract. So, putting the Ravens' quarterbacks at No. 2 will certainly draw some criticism. The Ravens would be atop these rankings if Flacco can play like he did in those four postseason games under offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell. But Flacco has never shown that type of high-end productivity over 16 games. He has never produced a Pro Bowl season. The Ravens also have a lower-tier backup in Tyrod Taylor.
3. Cincinnati Bengals: In two seasons, Andy Dalton has proven to be a solid quarterback. Will he take that next step this season? That's the big question facing the Bengals this year. He's good enough to take the Bengals to the playoffs. He may even good enough for them to win the division. I'm just uncertain whether he can take the Bengals deep into the playoffs. I like how he plays with a chip on his shoulder, but he has limitations as a quarterback. Dalton has to learn how to cut down on his 20 turnovers (16 interceptions, four fumbles) from last season. The Bengals downgraded at backup, going from Gradkowski last year to either Josh Johnson or John Skelton.
4. Cleveland Browns: This is a critical year for Brandon Weeden, who has to prove he can be the Browns' franchise quarterback. Weeden struggled in his rookie season, ranking 29th in passer rating (72.6), 27th in completion rate (57.4 percent) and tied for fifth for most interceptions (17). It's just too soon to label him a bust. He'll show improvement in the new offensive system run by Rob Chudzinski and Norv Turner. The amount of progress will determine whether the Browns have to take a quarterback in the first round in 2014. Weeden has the type of big arm that Turner needs in his passing attack, but he has to improve his instincts and ability to read defenses. Cleveland improved at the backup quarterback position this offseason. The Browns signed Jason Campbell and traded Colt McCoy to the 49ers.