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Training Camp

AFC North training camp preview: Bengals rising; Steelers on mend

With training camps scheduled to begin this month, it's time to get up to speed on all 32 NFL teams. Below his intro, Nick Shook has the lowdown on position battles, strengths, weaknesses and newcomers in the AFC North.

The Baltimore Ravens won their second straight division title in 2019, and they did it in resounding fashion, seemingly tightening their grip on what is traditionally a bitter, two-team race to the top. Baltimore's main rival, the Pittsburgh Steelers, are ready for revenge in 2020 thanks to the return of Ben Roethlisberger, James Conner and JuJu Smith-Schuster, who each missed time due to injury last season. But two other hopefuls lie in the tall grass, waiting to pounce.

On paper, the Browns are stocked with talent, perhaps even more than they had during their disappointing 2019 season. They're riding into the new decade with yet another new coach (Kevin Stefanski) who might actually have a handle on things. Baker Mayfield is suddenly facing a make-or-break season in Year 3, and he'll start it armed with plenty of weapons. After playing through 2019 with injuries, Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry are also out for redemption as part of an offense that welcomed upgrades on the offensive line and in the tight end room, which they're hoping will mean more first downs and fewer wasted goal-line possessions (go back to Week 3 of 2019 if you need a refresher on those issues). Defensively, Cleveland revamped its back end by drafting Grant Delpit and signing Karl Joseph. Myles Garrett got paid. As is usually the case along Lake Erie, hope reigns in July. We'll see if it's still around in November.

Cincinnati is starting a new era by doing two things it hasn't done in quite some time: Draft a quarterback No. 1 overall, and spend legitimate money in free agency. The Bengals should be better than their league-worst finish in 2019, as long as newly anointed savior Joe Burrow can live up to the hype.

Most will expect this race to again come down to Baltimore and Pittsburgh, but there just might be another team or two with something to say after Thanksgiving instead of giving in to the tryptophan for a sleepy December. Let's take a team-by-team look at the division heading into training camp.

Baltimore Ravens
2019 record: 14-2

Most important position battle: Right guard. This competition might come down to D.J. Fluker vs. Ben Powers vs. Tyre Phillips vs. Ben Bredeson. Yes, there could be four players battling to fill the massive void left by Marshal Yanda's retirement. Fluker is the veteran who appears most likely to win the job, though there is some familiarity between Powers and right tackle Orlando Brown Jr. from their time playing together at Oklahoma. Phillips and Bredeson were middle-round draft picks in April, and it wasn't a surprise to see the team double down on the position. Baltimore's front office is focused on continuing to invest in the offensive line until it finds a legitimate replacement for Yanda. They might not find a long-term answer immediately, but this is where the search begins -- and it might begin with a veteran.

Biggest strength on roster: Running back. When it came time for Baltimore to spend its second-round pick, Dobbins was there for the taking. The rich got richer, it seemed, with the Ravens adding a stocky powerhouse of a running back to a group that already had one in Mark Ingram. Throw in the larger Gus Edwards and speedster Justice Hill, and you've got talent for days at running back in Baltimore. This is another long-term move by the front office, which is protecting against a future Ingram departure (or decline) by drafting someone who can pair well with Ingram now and eventually become the lead back. Depth never hurt anyone, and as we all saw in the Divisional Round last season, the Ravens could have used additional backfield depth. My sole concern with Dobbins is his mileage -- in three seasons at Ohio State, Dobbins rushed for 4,459 yards and 38 touchdowns on 725 carries, becoming the first OSU back to break 2,000 yards -- but he won't be needed to carry the load, at least initially, in Baltimore. The league's No. 1 rushing offense got better at running back, which is frightening.

Biggest weakness: Wide receiver. This could ultimately prove to be an inaccurate designation, but because Baltimore is relying on a corps that is extremely young -- Marquise Brown, Miles Boykin, Devin Duvernay and James Proche were all drafted either in 2019 or 2020 -- there are some questions about how well this group can perform for Lamar Jackson. Then again, the Ravens were just fine with a similarly unheralded group last season. It should be a very interesting Year 2 for Brown, who bulked up this offseason, and the rest of the young group as it shapes up with the continued development of Jackson. They could all take a step forward or the Ravens could decide to just pound the rock again, rendering the pass game less of a factor. Regardless, as of now, this is the weakest group.

Newcomer/player returning from injury to watch: Patrick Queen, linebacker. Another excellent draft class from the Eric DeCosta-led front office produced a few strong candidates for this choice, but since we already tackled Dobbins in our exploration of the running back position and because we're looking for the next linebacking anchor of the Ravens' defense, we're turning to Queen. AFC North rivals likely winced when the Ravens took Queen with the 28th overall pick, and for good reason: 2019 was the first time in a while that Baltimore didn't have a Pro Bowler lining up at inside linebacker. The Ravens are hoping that was a rare transitional year -- by the way, did you know Baltimore still finished 14-2? -- following the selection of Queen, a rangy linebacker who hits above his weight. He's one to watch because he can become a mainstay in the Ravens' defense.

Cincinnati Bengals
2019 record: 2-14

Most important position battle: Wide receiver. While A.J. Green and Tyler Boyd are penciled in as starters, how will the competition for snaps between Tee Higgins and John Ross pan out? Ross, a first-round pick in 2017, was supposed to be a big-play machine with rare speed that made him the 40-yard-dash king at the NFL Scouting Combine. He was supposed to take the top off defenses and provide the perfect complement to Green. Instead, he's spent most of his career on the sideline, showing flashes of potential when on the field but too often finding himself off it due to injury or ineffectiveness. Ross seemed to start to figure things out a bit last season in the eight games he played in, posting the best yards-per-reception mark (18.1) of his career on a career-high 28 catches. He has 10 total touchdowns in three seasons, though. And if he loses reps to second-round pick Higgins, he might be a free agent in the spring, as Cincinnati declined to pick up his fifth-year option. 

That's what's at stake in a contract year for Ross, who could be a huge difference maker in a youth-infused Bengals offense that has a chance to become a middling unit, if not better. Higgins had some injury issues of his own while at Clemson, including a 2019 ankle surgery that left him with a decreased range of motion, so perhaps this will become a battle of availability. One competitor (Higgins) will be trying to establish his footing at the next level while the other will be battling for his territory before it's taken from him.

Biggest strength on roster: Wide receiver. Yes, you get more wide receiver talk! This was not the roster's biggest strength during the 2019 season, largely because of Green's injury-driven absence, but with Green's expected return and the selection of Higgins, Cincinnati suddenly has an intriguing corps. With good health, a quartet of Green, Higgins, Boyd and Ross would be pretty dangerous. If Ross ends up being the deep weapon the Bengals thought they were getting when they drafted him ninth overall, perhaps he'll earn a second contract from Cincinnati. There's a lot to like here (again, on paper). While a backfield powered by Joe Mixon and Giovani Bernard was an attractive option for the roster's biggest strength, we're going with the wideouts. Kudos to the front office for remaking the secondary, too.

Biggest weakness: Linebacker. This was an unavoidable fact in 2019, and the Bengals are counting on talent unproven at the NFL level to turn it around. Germaine Pratt could make a jump in Year 2, and the addition of 30-year-old Josh Bynes should help guide the group (especially if he can bring some of the Baltimore culture over to Cincinnati), but this is still a group that's going to depend on the contributions of its younger players (including third- and fourth-round draft picks Logan Wilson and Akeem Davis-Gaither). They could develop rapidly, but in an unusual offseason, the inexperience stands out.

Newcomer/player returning from injury to watch: Joe Burrow, quarterback. Low-hanging fruit, I know, but the No. 1 overall pick was handed the keys to the offense. Now it's up to him to prove it was worth removing Andy Dalton from his slightly-above-replacement-level seat. Burrow's final college season was spectacular, but the NFL is a different beast. Cincinnati's hope for success -- both now and for years to come -- rides on his arm.

Cleveland Browns
2019 record: 6-10

Most important position battle: Right guard. The Browns' underlying weakness heading into last season, as my colleague Aditi Kinkhabwala pointed out a year ago, existed on the ends of the line. Cleveland has since shored up the tackle positions, replacing RT Chris Hubbard with top free-agent tackle Jack Conklin, and LT Greg Robinson with first-round pick Jedrick Wills, who should be a Day 1 starter. Hubbard might have a shot to remain in the starting lineup, though. Think back to when Philadelphia desperately needed someone to step up in the place of injured tackle Jason Peters a few years ago. They went with Halapoulivaati Vaitai, who did a solid job and ended up earning himself a five-year, $45 million deal in Detroit in March. Hubbard can be that guy, a sixth lineman and swing tackle, but he could also slot in as a right guard if no one else emerges as the guy at the position. Wyatt Teller split reps with the since-departed Eric Kush at right guard last season after Austin Corbett didn't work out and was traded to the Rams in the middle of the season, so Teller has some experience playing alongside center JC Tretter. Drew Forbes -- a nice guy off the field but a nasty one on it -- might give him some legitimate competition. We could see Hubbard, Teller and Forbes get reps in camp before figuring out who will fill the spot, which is now Cleveland's greatest offensive weakness on a line that should be very strong elsewhere.

Biggest strength on roster: Wide receiver. I know there's a strong case to be made for running back here, and I agree with those of you who are pointing to your Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt jerseys right now. But listen: The Browns still have an elite receiver in Odell Beckham Jr. and a perennial Pro Bowler in Jarvis Landry. Rashard Higgins took a cheaper offer to stay in Cleveland because he likes playing with Baker Mayfield that much, and sixth-round pick Donovan Peoples-Jones could surprise some people. I also could have chosen tight end here after the team signed Austin Hooper and drafted Harrison Bryant this offseason, but there's some uncertainty about the future of David Njoku, who has requested a trade. This offense is pretty damn talented anywhere you look, but if I'm putting my chips on one group, I look to the best friends from LSU.

Biggest weakness: Linebacker. Mack Wilson and Co. will not be happy to read this, but on paper, it's true. Cleveland lacks experience in the second level of its defense, where 2019 draft picks Wilson and Sione Takitaki (who are close friends, by the way) and rookie Sam 'backer Jacob Phillips are penciled in as the starting group. The only linebacker with significant experience is B.J. Goodson, who wasn't exactly a big free-agent fish. It was a little surprising that the Browns didn't make greater investments in the position this offseason, but it also wasn't the strongest market, so it makes some sense. To Wilson, I say: Prove this selection wrong with your play in 2020. He's already on his way to outperforming his draft slot (fifth round) after starting 14 games as a rookie.

Newcomer/player returning from injury to watch: Grant Delpit, safety. If you'd scouted Delpit off his 2018 tape alone, you'd have spent your first-round pick on him. However, a 2019 regression that was likely the result of a bad ankle saw him slide into the second round, where the Browns happily scooped him up to fill a void left by the departure of Damarious Randall. Delpit was nicknamed "Baby Mal" at LSU thanks to a playing style reminiscent of former Tigers safety/Jets All-Pro Jamal Adams, and if the Browns scored Jamal Adams Lite in the second round, they won't have much to worry about in the back end of their defense. With an offseason to heal, we'll see how quickly Delpit adjusts to the pro game.

Pittsburgh Steelers
2019 record: 8-8

Most important position battle: Tight end. In case you have averted your eyes from any Steelers-related football information in the last four months, we're here to blow your mind with this revelation: Pittsburgh expects grand things from the pairing of Eric Ebron with Ben Roethlisberger. That doesn't mean that Ebron's competition with Vance McDonald doesn't matter, though. As with all important things, we must follow the money. Ebron signed a two-year, $12 million deal with Pittsburgh in March, a bargain for the Steelers that can essentially become a one-year rental if Ebron doesn't achieve to their expectation. Pittsburgh could move on from Ebron after 2020 and carry just $2.5 million in dead money. Meanwhile, McDonald is also signed through 2021 and would carry a similar amount of dead money if the team parted with him after this season. Essentially, this is a battle to be the Steelers' TE1 of the next couple seasons. Ebron, who is three years younger, might have a leg up -- but he'll have to prove it on the field, starting with training camp.

Biggest strength on roster: Linebacker. Pittsburgh's defense is strong, bottom line, but it's strongest (and most exciting) at the second level. Devin Bush and Vince Williams make an excellent interior pair, while All-Pro T.J. Watt and franchise tag recipient Bud Dupree -- who finally lived up to expectations in 2019 -- cause plenty of problems on the outside. I'm intrigued by rookie OLB Alex Highsmith, too. The Steelers just might be getting back to dominating on the defensive side of the ball.

Biggest weakness: Quarterback depth. If Ben Roethlisberger were to go down again, it appears Pittsburgh would be turning to the same backups that weren't up to the task in 2019. Credit Mike Tomlin and a revitalized Steelers defense for keeping Pittsburgh in contention for much of last season with their QB1 sidelined, but if Big Ben isn't under center, we might as well stop here. As of now, the Steelers are heading into camp with five quarterbacks: Roethlisberger, Mason Rudolph, Devlin "Duck" Hodges, Paxton Lynch and J.T. Barrett. None of those listed after Roethlisberger inspire confidence. Steeler Nation will have to hope and pray Roethlisberger can play a full season without leaving a game in a walking boot or jamming a swollen foot into an oversized cleat (clearing the way for 500 close-ups of said cleat on TV) just to gut out another game.

Newcomer/player returning from injury to watch: Chase Claypool, wide receiver. We most definitely are not running back the aforementioned Eric Ebron is going to score 50 touchdowns with Ben Roethlisberger storyline. If they can establish a rapport like Ebron had with Andrew Luck in 2018, then it might produce solid numbers, but that topic is old hat by this point in July. Instead, let's look at a receiver who might suddenly fill out Pittsburgh's receiving corps.

The Steelers had their eye on Claypool from the start of the draft, patiently waiting until they were finally on the clock with the 49th pick to select him out of Notre Dame. The 6-foot-4 pass catcher recorded a highly impressive 40-yard-dash time of 4.42 seconds at the NFL Scouting Combine, improving his draft stock as a matchup nightmare for opposing defensive backs. While he needs to refine parts of his game (route running, for example), I'm getting Plaxico Burress vibes. If Claypool develops into that type of target, the Steelers will suddenly have a very strong group at the position.

As I mentioned earlier, I'm also interested to see how Highsmith will fit into Pittsburgh's defense, which is already set on both edges with Watt and Dupree. Highsmith is a long, smooth, fluid player with excellent bend. He has legitimate potential to be a problem for offenses off the edge, though he might need some time to add strength and find his place in this group.

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