AFC North News: All Division Linebackers

PITTSBURGH, PA - OCTOBER 30: Tom Brady #12 of the New England Patriots is sacked by LaMarr Woodley #56 of the Pittsburgh Steelers during the game on October 30, 2011 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

The All Division Preseason Team was chosen based on performance in 2011, projected success in 2012 and extraneous factors, such as potential, opportunity and overall talent. Positions are taken generally, meaning there won't necessarily be one right tackle and one left tackle, but there will be two offensive tackles.

The AFC North has the linebacker position basically trademarked. Different teams, different divisional alignments, it's still the division that's seen Jack Lambert, Ray Lewis and Jack Ham.

Defenses change with time, and we're seeing a shift to smaller but faster 'backers now. Even Lewis admitted this offseason the need for him to shed some weight and concentrate on getting faster. But guys coming off the edge - a position of prominence in the AFC North - still need to battle behemoth offensive tackles.

All AFC North: Offensive Tackle | Offensive Guard | Center | Running Backs| Wide Receivers | Tight Ends | Quarterbacks | Defensive Linemen

LB D'Qwell Jackson, Cleveland Browns

Quickly emerging as one of the best inside linebackers in football, Jackson had a monster season for the Browns. With 124 individual tackles, and an omnipresence for a Cleveland defense that fared well, considering their popgun offensive approach. Jackson added 3.5 sacks to his huge tackles total, and with injuries plaguing Cleveland's defense so far in 2012, he figures to be an even bigger factor in their plans, which should land him in the Pro Bowl.

LB LaMarr Woodley, Pittsburgh Steelers

Woodley missed roughly half the 2011 season with a hamstring injury, but he was among the NFL leaders in sacks (nine in the third quarter of Week 8, and he pulled his hammy en route to Tom Brady for what would have been his third sack of the game). If he's healthy, 2012 looks to be the year Woodley reaches the height of his potential.

LB Ray Lewis, Baltimore Ravens

This isn't an honorary pick. Lewis's savvy and craftiness make him a mainstay in a very good run defense. He may not be the player he was seven years ago, but his read-and-recognition skills are still very sharp, and he can fill running lanes with the best of them. It's not likely Lewis will play three downs, one part out of concern for a body that's been breaking down recently, one part because he just isn't as fast as he used to be (although his decision to lose weight may have an impact) but he'll still stuff the run as well as anyone.

LB James Harrison, Pittsburgh Steelers

Harrison's legendary fitness and conditioning may be the culprit for a back and knees that have been failing him the last two seasons. He suffered a broken orbital bone in Week 4 last year, which was half of one of the six games he got to play alongside Woodley in the 2011 season. The Steelers saw their takeaways and sacks plummet to mortal levels, and it's not a coincidence they didn't have their combination of OLBs on the field. If Harrison can stay on the field, he'll continue to be a beast against the run, and rack up somewhere close to double-digit sacks.

Honorable Mention

LB Lawrence Timmons, Pittsburgh Steelers

It's a make-or-break season for Timmons. Injuries have plagued the Steelers linebacking group for roughly the last year, and the absence of James Farrior next to him should serve as a wake-up call that the big contract guy needs to step up. Timmons has shown flashes of excellence in his surprisingly long career (he's only 27 and he's played six seasons in Pittsburgh), but the playmaking ability hasn't flashed for very long. He has the physical skill, and the Steelers are hoping he can put it together mentally this year.


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