The AFC North was arguably the most competitive division in football last season, and it has been that way for the past several years. Cleveland was the only team that didn’t make the playoffs, while Cincinnati and Baltimore took wild card sports with 10 wins apiece. Pittsburgh edged out their rivals with 11 wins to take the division title. As far as this season is shaping up, the division seems to be destined for a close finish and once again multiple playoff teams is not far-fetched.
Each team does have some holes to be filled, so let's take a look at a player for each AFC North team that needs to step up in 2015 (teams listed in order of 2014 finish):
Shamarko Thomas, Strong Safety, Pittsburgh Steelers (1
After future Hall of Famer Troy Polamalu’s retirement a few months ago, the Steelers were left with a void at strong safety position for the first time in over a decade. Thomas, a fourth-round pick in 2013, has played in 25 games, but has made just two starts. He has yet to have any significant impact on the field. Polamalu was one of the most feared players in the NFL, and thus it is up to Thomas to fill some very big shoes for head coach Mike Tomlin's defense. Teams facing the Steelers now know this weakness in the secondary, and Thomas must adjust quickly to a larger role for a position that has been a consistent strength for Pittsburgh.
Another player to watch: wide receiver Martavis Bryant
Geno Atkins, Defensive Tackle, Cincinnati Bengals (2
After two dominant seasons in his second and third years in the league, Atkins tore his ACL in 2013, missed seven games, and didn't look to be back at 100 percent in '14. He certainly has the skill and ability to be one of the league’s top defensive tackles and has proven it before. However, he’ll need to step up from last season’s performance if the Bengals want to finally get past the wild card round of the playoffs. The coaching staff had nothing but good things to say about Atkins during the recent OTAs, which is a promising sign for the three-time Pro Bowler.
Another player to watch: linebacker A.J. Hawk
Brandon Williams/Timmy Jernigan, Defensive Tackles, Baltimore Ravens (3
The departure of long-time defensive tackle Haloti Ngata appears to be a huge blow from a distance, until one looks at his replacements. Both Jernigan and Williams have been very productive early on in their respective careers, but replacing an all-time great is still a challenge. Offensive lines will not fear this duo as much, as Ngata often drew double teams and added attention in order to stop him. However, neither Williams nor Jernigan is a pushover, and the Ravens need this duo to really step up and continue their productive play in expanded roles.
Another player to watch: strong safety Matt Elam
Johnny Manziel, Quarterback, Cleveland Browns (4
Without a doubt, Manziel has the most to prove in the entire NFL after his incredible college career and off-the-field antics. The Browns' biggest question remains at quarterback, one that has been ongoing since their re-introduction to the league in 1999. This year seems to be the make-it-or-break-it campaign for Manziel, who still must battle with Josh McCown for the starting job. Cleveland needs strong play from a quarterback badly, especially in a division with three well-established starters. Manziel certainly has the talent, but the question is will it click in his second year?
Other players to watch: running backs Terrance West/Isaiah Crowell