The AFC North is a division that has been known for their defenses over the years, but they do have some good offensive weapons amongst them. Last week we ranked the top four starting quarterbacks in the division; this time around, it is time to breakdown the wide receivers in the AFC North. Rankings are based on the three main wide receivers on each team, and their potential for the up-coming season.Pittsburgh Steelers: Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders. Everyone across the league knows that Wallace is a game changer and will continue to build on an already solid resume in 2012 (even with his contract status at this writing). Last season, he finished first in the division with 72 catches and 1,193 yards receiving. Sure, his last seven games were not his best, averaging only 46.4 yards per game and recording only two touchdowns down the stretch. Some of that drop-off can be put on the injuries to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, but Wallace must improve. While he is the Steelers main offensive weapon in the passing game and teams are really starting to game plan against him now, he must show that he is not only a one trick pony in 2012.
Next to Wallace, Brown may be option 1A. A more polished receiver than Wallace, he is blessed with a sound combination of speed, elusiveness and is a fearless route runner over the middle. Now, with the retirement of Hines Ward, he is also entrenched as the Steelers second option in the passing game. In 2012 (three starts), he recorded 69 catches that led to 1108 yards and two touchdowns; solid numbers for a former sixth round pick.
Following Wallace and Brown on the depth chart will be an interesting battle between Sanders and veteran Jerricho Cotchery, one that Sanders should win. When healthy, he has shown flashes of ability. A solid route runner with good hands, he could be perfect option in Todd Haley’s new offense. Over his two-year career, he has been recorded 50 catches for 664 yards with four touchdowns, numbers he may possibly be able to match in 2012.
2. Baltimore Ravens: Anquan Boldin, Torrey Smith, and Jacoby Jones. While some Ravens fans may view Boldin as an underachiever since arriving in Baltimore, but honestly much of that is the result of the offense. Yes, they do not compare to his career numbers in Arizona (57 catches for 887 yards and 3 touchdowns in 2011.), but Joe Flacco is not Kurt Warner. Boldin is a physical weapon on the outside and has solid hands, and more importantly is a gritty leader for the offense. While he may be slowly losing his number one status with the Ravens, he has a lot of football ahead of him.
Last season, Smith burst onto the scene as a rookie and produced even more than the Ravens expected. Blessed with blazing speed on the outside, he is still raw as a route runner and must develop a more refined route tree in his second season. He does have a tremendous chemistry with Flacco on the deep ball, with five of his seven touchdowns covering over 25 yards, and that is something the tandem should improve on in 2012.
The Ravens signed Jones after the Houston Texans released him. Jones looks to fill the role as the teams slot receiver as he searches for answers to improve a lackluster career. Entering his sixth season in the league, he has recorded only 11 touchdowns and 1,741 yards receiving. As a third receiver, he should face less pressure and possibly build on those numbers this season.
3. Cincinnati Bengals: A.J Green, Mohamed Sanu and Jordan Shipley. Green was the Bengals top draft choice in 2011 and out-performed all expectations. Honestly, when as a wide receiver, the only knock on you is that you’re just a little too thin, you are doing something right. Green has the potential to be the best wide receiver not only in the AFC North, but also in the NFL. During his rookie campaign, he averaged 16.3 yards per reception and scored seven touchdowns, as well as earning a Pro Bowl birth. He is the total package as a receiver with the hands, speed and size to be great, but what could hurt his sophomore season is the lack of wide receiver depth on the Bengals.
The next two receivers for the Bengals are somewhat a question mark at this point, but have the potential to develop into something special. While Sanu has yet to play a down in the NFL, he already has some pressure on him to perform opposite to Green. Sanu is big, physical target with sneaky speed, more importantly he has the ability to develop into a perfect compliment in the offense. During his career at Rutgers, he caught 210 passes for 2,263 yards and scored 19 touchdowns (3,019 all-purpose yards and completed 8 of 18 passes for 207 yards for four touchdowns).
In the slot, the Bengals hope that Shipley can return to form after battling injuries early in his career, including last season’s ACL and MCL tears. When healthy, Shipley has been a prototypical slot receiver, with the ability to torture defenses in the middle of the field.
4. Cleveland Browns: Greg Little, Mohamed Massaquoi, and Josh Cribbs. The Browns offseason decisions in their wide receiving corps have been a bit perplexing. While the upgraded at running back and possibly even quarterback, they did next to nothing at wide receiver. With that in mind, Little should return as their top wide out. In 2011, he led the Browns in catches (61) and receiving yards (709). Unfortunately, he did not get much help in the passing game from either the quarterbacks or wide receivers in 2011. A positive sign for Browns fans, he has already been hard at work with 2012 first round pick quarterback Brandon Weeden on building chemistry.
Massaquoi has never tapped into the potential that he demonstrated in college. A solid but unspectacular receiver, he is not a number one option, but he has the ability to be a effective compliment to Little in the passing game. In three NFL seasons, he has recorded 101 receptions for 1,491 yards and 7 touchdowns, number that could all improve this season with better production from the quarterback position.
While the Browns drafted a couple of young receivers, Cribbs still may be their best option as a number three wide out. While he has improved as a wide receiver over his career, he is still a return specialist masquerading as a receiver. Last season was his best at the position recording 41 receptions for 518 yards. Yes, decent numbers for a third option, but nothing mind-blowing.
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