AFC North Defensive Position Group Rankings

Scott Halleran

After completing his AFC North offensive position rankings, ESPN blogger Jamison Hensley moved onto the defensive side of the ball, handing out ranks for each unit in the division.

On Monday, we posted an overview of ESPN AFC North blogger Jamison Hensley's offensive position rankings. While most of his rankings were spot on, some--like the wide receiver ranking that put the Bengals behind the Steelers--made us scratch our heads.

Today, we shift our focus to Hensley's defensive rankings. Here is what he had to say about the division's vaunted defensive units.

Defensive Line:

1. Cincinnati Bengals: When it comes to defensive lines in the AFC North, it's the Bengals and then there's everyone else. Geno Atkins is the NFL's best interior defensive lineman. Michael Johnson looked like Jason Taylor during his breakout year last season. Carlos Dunlap's production could finally meet his potential this year. And Domata Peko is one of the more underappreciated nose tackles in the game. Plus, there's talented depth with Robert Geathers, Wallace Gilberry, Devon Still, Brandon Thompson and Margus Hunt.

2. Cleveland Browns

3. Baltimore Ravens

4. Pittsburgh Steelers

The Bengals' defensive line has been one of the strongest units on the team over the last couple of years, so it's no surprise to see them take top honors here. Best of all, after the re-signing of Micheal Johnson, Wallace Gilberry, and Robert Geathers, as well the drafting of promising players like Devon Still, Brandon Thompson, and Margus Hunt, the Bengals' d-line appears to be poised to reach even greater heights in 2013. The unit set a club record for sacks in 2012 and has a great chance to break the record again next season.

Linebackers:

1. Pittsburgh Steelers

2. Baltimore Ravens

3. Cincinnati Bengals: Coach Marvin Lewis said Rey Maualuga will remain at middle linebacker even though the Bengals may be better suited moving him to the outside and shifting Vontaze Burfict to the middle. Burfict was the biggest surprise in the division, leading the Bengals in tackles as an undrafted rookie. He's an explosive tackler who has Pro Bowl potential. Maualuga will be better than last year, when he seemed distracted throughout his contract year. The Bengals gained some attitude when they signed James Harrison. I'm not concerned with the transition to a 4-3 defense as much as his durability. The 35-year-old linebacker has missed seven games because of injury the past two seasons. Still, this was a solid addition to a rising defense.

4. Cleveland Browns

Alright, I get it. The Steelers have been known for their strong linebacker player seemingly forever and the Ravens have the potent combo of Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil. But third? In Hensley's defense, his ranking was published before the surprise retirement of Rolando McClain, which would probably have given the Bengals an edge over the Ravens. After all, the Ravens will be attempting to replace two veterans in Ray Lewis and Dannell Ellerbe with largely unproven players, while the Bengals only major addition to their linebacker corps is a former defensive player of the year. If Harrison can make the transition to Mike Zimmer's 4-3 defense and second-year players like Emanuelle Lamur and Vontaze Burfict keep making strides in their development, the Bengals' unit could challenge Pittsburgh as the best group in the division in 2013.

1. Pittsburgh Steelers

2. Baltimore Ravens

3. Cincinnati Bengals: The Bengals have a proven cornerback in Leon Hall, who finished last season strong, and a top free safety in Reggie Nelson. The other cornerback spot will go to either veteran Terence Newman or Dre Kirkpatrick, a first-round pick from a year ago. Adam Jones provides quality depth at corner. The question mark is at strong safety, which has been the weak spot on the defense for two years. Rookie third-round pick Shawn Williams will have a shot to start but he'll have to beat out Taylor Mays, Jeromy Miles and George Iloka.

4. Cleveland Browns

On the surface, this ranking seems uncharacteristically low. After all, the Bengals have at least three starting-caliber cornerbacks, one above-average safety, and a slew of young players that could contend for increased playing time. Once you get past the argument of potential and examine the reality of the situation though, it starts to make a little more sense. That said, Hensley's reasoning for putting Pittsburgh and Baltimore at one and two is a little shaky. Most of the big name players in both secondaries have either moved on or have been in decline recently. Their high rankings appear to have more to do with reputation than actual play.

Special Teams:

1. Baltimore Ravens

2. Cincinnati Bengals: Kevin Huber was the best punter in the AFC North last year. He led the division in net average (42.0) and punts inside the 20-yard line (33). Mike Nugent slipped to 82.6 percent conversion rate, but he was perfect inside 40 yards. The biggest concern with Nugent is durability. He has finished two of the past three seasons on injured reserve. The Bengals have some options at returner with Brandon Tate, Adam Jones and Onterio McCalebb, the fastest player at this year's NFL scouting combine.

3. Pittsburgh Steelers

4. Cleveland Browns

Finally we come to special teams. Unlike the previous two categories, Hensley's special teams rankings are pretty cut and dry. The Bengals' punting situation has been solidified by the resurgent play of Kevin Huber, but the health status of kicker Mike Nugent and the instability in the return game (outside of Adam Jones) holds them back from the top spot. Meanwhile, the Ravens sport two solid kickers in Sam Koch and Justin Tucker and also boast one of the best returners from 2012 in Jacoby Jones. Until Nugent can prove himself to be sturdy enough for a full season of kicking duties, Baltimore's special teams unit will remain entrenched as number one in the AFC North.

So there you have it, Bengals fans. Agree? Disagree? Where would you rank the Bengals in each of these categories?

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