Insiders

Players Ready to Breakout in the AFC North

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As we continue our players ready to breakout series, it’s time to shift our focus to the AFC North. Although the Cincinnati Bengals won the division this past season, this is a division where anyone besides the Cleveland Browns is capable of winning.

Having said that, there are four players in this division that are ready to give their team an extra boost.

Markus Wheaton, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers – With Martavis Bryant being suspended for the entire 2016 season, this is a prime opportunity for fourth year wide receiver Markus Wheaton to take his game to another level.

During this past season, Wheaton hauled in less catches than he did in 2014, but he still managed to have more yards (749) and touchdowns (5).

Many thought Wheaton would’ve produced much more during Bryant’s four game suspension last year, but he didn’t gain good chemistry with Ben Roethlisberger until later in the season. Four of Wheaton’s five touchdowns came in Pittsburgh’s last six games.

So, with Bryant out for the year and Heath Miller walking away from the game, expect for Wheaton to burst onto the scene.

Giovani Bernard, RB, Cincinnati Bengals – When it comes to talent on the offensive side of the ball, you’ll be hard pressed to find an unit more talented than the one in Cincinnati.

However, this franchise has been absolutely snake-bitten in the playoffs.

The Bengals haven’t won a playoff game in 25 years.

Yes, 25 years and counting.

Nonetheless, one player that could help turn the tide is running back Giovani Bernard.

Sure, Jeremy Hill is more of a traditional every down back, but he isn’t as versatile as Bernard. The fourth year player out of North Carolina is not only capable of going the distance every single carry, but he’s also a threat in the passing game.

Bernard finished fourth on the team in receptions with 49.

Also, Bernard averaged a career-high 4.7 yards per carry, which resulted in 730 yards. Keep in mind that Hill totaled just 64 more yards on nearly 70 more carries than Bernard.

Maxx Williams, TE, Baltimore Ravens – Yes, Benjamin Watson is now on the roster and with him coming off a career-year, it would be a safe assumption that he’ll be featured a lot in Baltimore.

With that being said, it’s important to note that Drew Brees and the Saints system greatly infatuated Watson’s numbers last year.

While second round pick Maxx Williams didn’t live up to expectations in his rookie season, no one within the organization has lost hope on his upside. 

“I’m a Maxx Williams guy,” head Coach John Harbaugh stressed. “I really think Maxx is going to be a good player. Maxx isn’t always the prettiest athlete – and I think some people like Maxx and some people don’t, athletically – but the guy can run routes. The guy can catch the ball.”

Williams finished the season with 32 catches for 268 yards and one touchdown, which are better numbers than what Todd Heap hoisted after his rookie campaign.

“I feel like I finished with my best game and played maybe my most plays I did all year,” Williams said. “I’ll just take that into the offseason and do the best I can until we get back and try to improve my game as much as I can.”

In that final game against Cincy, Williams totaled six catches for 53 yards, which were both season highs.

Christian Kirksey, LB, Cleveland Browns – By your third year in the NFL, you’re no longer considered a newbie.

Iowa product, Christian Kirksey, is entering his third season and he’s seeking an expanded role under defensive coordinator Ray Horton. 

“For me, coming into my third year and being an experienced player with the Browns, it’s a good feeling,” Kirksey stated. “It’s kind of like one of those ‘It’s my turn, it’s next man in.’ So I’m really excited to see how I’ll do, how this defense will do.”

Kirksey has appeared in all 32 games during his first two seasons in Cleveland.

Standing at 6-foot-2, 235 pounds, Kirksey has the ability to disrupt things in the backfield, while being able to drop back in coverage at times.

Horton had this to say about Kirksey and the direction he wants his defense to head in.

“He’s going to be probably a starter for us. We’ll continue to show them film of other players on other teams. ‘This is what we want,’” he said. “One of the things that we are going to try to impart with our players is ‘This is how champions do it.’ This is how champions do it. There is a way on the field and off the field to do things.”


About Mark Gunnels

Mark Gunnels

Mark Gunnels is an NFL columnist for Football Insiders. He has several years of experience covering the NFL and NCAA football. He's the radio color commentator for Lincoln University football. Mark's work has been featured on Sports Illustrated, Fox Sports and Yard Barker.