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AFC North training camp preview: Key players to watch

Training camp is quickly approaching, which means it's time to preview the most exciting part of the summer. With camps opening later this month, Jeremy Bergman, Herbie Teope, Nick Shook and Marc Sessler are examining the key issues for each team in this division-by-division series. Here's the AFC North camp primer:

Baltimore Ravens

Training camp report dates: rookies (July 11) and veterans (July 18).

Location: Under Armour Performance Center in Owings Mills, Maryland.

Most important position battle: Wide receiver. The assumption here is that rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson is not a candidate to overtake Joe Flacco in August. Later in the year? Perhaps, but everyone from ownership on down has emphasized their faith in Flacco heading into the campaign. Who Flacco will be throwing to, however, remains a subject of intrigue. The front office did a commendable job of reimagining the roster of pass catchers, signing Michael Crabtree, John Brown and Willie Snead in free agency to do battle with Chris Moore and the enigmatic Breshad Perriman. Crabtree meshed well with Flacco this offseason, leading the quarterback to call him "the guy." He enters camp as the clear lead dog. Brown hopes to rebound from two down seasons in Arizona, while Snead is angling to produce the way he did in 2015 and '16 for the Saints. Perriman, despite his first-round pedigree, looms as a cut candidate, barring a sizzling late summer.

Newcomer to watch: QB Lamar Jackson. Who else were you expecting? While Flacco's job appears safe, Jackson looms as must-watch material all summer. A supreme athlete with electricity flowing through the bloodstream, Jackson is the kind of player who could make life tough for this coaching staff. In a perfect world, Flacco bounces back with all the new weapons around him and gives the club no reason to mull his place in the pecking order. If Flacco struggles, though -- and this is more of a regular-season issue -- the cries for Jackson will grow in volume. The Ravens knew all of this when they drafted Jackson 32nd overall, making him a fascinating figure in what could be Flacco's last season in Baltimore.

Looming camp question: Can Alex Collins double down on last year's heroics? I love Baltimore's defense, a unit stocked with young talent and veteran leadership at every level. I don't expect a regression from that group. But what about Collins? The running back is critical to Baltimore's mission on offense and enters camp as the clear starter. Will we see the same hard-charging, violent runner from a year ago? The Ravens also have Buck Allen and Kenneth Dixon in-house -- a decent group -- but Collins is being leaned upon to deliver his meaty 4.6 yards per carry from a year ago.

Cincinnati Bengals

Training camp report dates: rookies (July 23) and veterans (July 25).

Location: Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati.

Most important position battle: Wide receiver. The Bengals can count on A.J. Green to operate as a top-five wideout, but questions abound behind him. Brandon LaFell returns after finishing last season as the only receiver outside of Green to catch 50-plus passes. Problem is, LaFell turns 32 in November. Cincy is counting on a pair of young pass catchers -- Tyler Boyd and John Ross -- to play larger roles come September. Boyd was saddled with a sprained MCL last season and managed just 22 catches over 10 appearances. He's arguably the best talent after Green and could take over slot duties with a good camp. Ross was massively hyped as a rookie last summer, but he played just 17 snaps due to knee issues and the after-effects of shoulder surgery. He's drawn praise from teammates for his offseason conditioning, but is under pressure to make good on his first-round draft status.

Newcomer to watch: LT Cordy Glenn. Predictably, Cincy's inexperienced and patchwork offensive line was a disaster last season. Losing left tackle Andrew Whitworth to the Rams was a primary reason Andy Dalton took 39 sacks after being downed 41 times the year before. You're going nowhere with a mezzanine-level passer like Dalton taking that brand of punishment. The Bengals swapped first-round picks with the Bills to acquire Glenn, the reliable bookend who serves as a massive upgrade over Cedric Ogbuehi. Glenn ended last season on injured reserve and has missed 15 games over the past two campaigns, but he's back and ready to restore order for the Bengals.

Looming camp question: Will Joe Mixon turn into the whirlwind we expected? There were moments last season where you saw it: the elusive wizardry and yards-after-the-catch magic that made Mixon such a unique prospect when he was picked in the second round of the 2017 NFL Draft. Still, the 6-foot-1, 228-pound runner finished his rookie year with just 3.5 yards per carry for a ground game that struggled to make a difference. With Jeremy Hill out the door, this is Mixon's backfield. Bengals executive Duke Tobin is calling him the club's "bell cow" runner. Veteran RB Gio Bernard isn't going away, but Mixon is a three-down talent on paper. We'll know soon enough if he's ready to lead the way for this AFC North contender.

Cleveland Browns

Training camp report dates: rookies and veterans (July 25).

Location: Cleveland Browns Training Complex in Berea, Ohio.

Most important position battle: Running back. The Browns house a new-look backfield after waving farewell to Isaiah Crowell and signing ex-Niners runner Carlos Hyde in free agency. Cleveland handed Hyde a three-year, $15 million deal, only to turn around and nab Georgia's Nick Chubb in the second round of the draft. What appeared to be Hyde's job to lose has evolved into an outright camp tussle for early-down snaps. Hyde is coming off a solid campaign in San Francisco (1,288 total yards), but Chubb offers an enticing, punishing style of play powered by his 5-11, 227-pound frame. The oft-underused Duke Johnson remains one of the game's best passing-down assets -- he'd be a household name on the Patriots -- but he's obviously not seen as a three-down runner by team brass. Johnson can be used all over the field and gives the Browns a marvelous chess piece, but can this coaching staff figure out how to maximize him?

Newcomer to watch: QB Baker Mayfield. With a thousand new faces in Berea, there's no shortage of options. Tyrod Taylor, Jarvis Landry, first-round cover man Denzel Ward and fourth-round boom-or-bust wideout Antonio Callaway. All figures of intrigue, but when "Hard Knocks" lights up HBO, it's first overall pick Baker Mayfield who will take center stage. Coach Hue Jackson remains adamant that Taylor will march into the season as the starter, but Mayfield is bound to play this autumn. Taylor has never logged 16 games in a campaign. With one of the league's more brutal schedules and a coaching staff planted firmly on the hot seat, turning to Mayfield at some stage feels inevitable.

Looming camp question: Is the two-decade-long nightmare finally over? This year's waltz into training camp feels imbued with more hope than almost any season since Cleveland's return in 1999. The question is whether all the new talent collected by general manager John Dorsey can mesh in time for September. The defense alone has an entirely rebuilt secondary and a new linebacker in Mychal Kendricks. The offense looks strong on paper -- despite a concerning void at left tackle in a post-Joe Thomas universe -- but will all the parts operate in unison? Will head coach Hue Jackson last the season? There's reason to believe the Browns can be a seven-win team, but you can also see a scenario in which a major coaching change happens midseason. The Browns are nothing short of a mysterious, intriguing entry in the North.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Training camp report dates: rookies (July 24) and veterans (July 25).

Location: Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania.

Most important position battle: QB2. The Steelers have competitions brewing at inside linebacker, wide receiver and cornerback. Still, I'm going with the signal-caller showdown behind Ben Roethlisberger. Pittsburgh's No. 2 isn't bound to play much in 2018, but careers hinge on who prevails between Landry Jones, Josh Dobbs and third-round pick Mason Rudolph. Praised heavily by play caller Randy Fichtner -- "Mason's been everything we've asked, for sure," he told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette -- Rudolph ostensibly has a legitimate shot to unseat a run-of-the-mill reserve in Jones. With Big Ben nearing the end of his career, the Steelers must think about what's next. Rudolph -- more than anyone else -- feels like the answer.

Newcomer to watch: WR James Washington. The Steelers are hunting for a third wideout to pair with Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster after parting ways with lightning-quick-but-troubled Martavis Bryant. A second-round pick by a team that knows how to draft pass catchers, Washington gives the Steelers a deep-threat option who put up big numbers at Oklahoma State. His 4.54 speed is something of a concern, with one scout telling longtime beat writer Bob McGinn: "In college, he used his body against a lot of people to get separation. He's not going to do that. They're going to cover him up ... blanket him in the NFL. It won't translate. He can be a No. 4, or maybe a No. 3 on a bad team." Another scout offered more hope, saying: "He's got a chance. I think I see Chris Chambers a little bit. I know he didn't run as fast, but he's got good length (32 3/8-inch arms). He can track it. Plays faster than he ran. Good timing, leaping (vertical of 39 inches). He's not dynamic after the catch."

Looming camp question: Who will replace Ryan Shazier? Off the field, Le'Veon Bell's contract status and potential holdout loom, with Bell and the team failing to agree to a long-term contract extension before Monday's deadline to do so for franchise-tagged players. But that story has been analyzed to death. On the field, the Steelers must find stability at inside linebacker after losing Ryan Shazier to last year's devastating spinal injury. Tyler Matakevich and Jon Bostic will battle for the role next to Vince Williams. First-rounder Terrell Edmunds -- a safety -- is viewed as a player who could also wind up playing the role. Matakevich was lost to injury in the same game as Shazier, but he ran with the first team this offseason. Bostic and L.J. Fort offer veteran experience, too, leaving the Steelers confident they'll find an answer. "We don't have another Ryan Shazier on our team," Williams told ESPN's Jeremy Fowler. "But we do have very capable, starter-ready middle linebackers."

Follow Marc Sessler on Twitter @MarcSesslerNFL.

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