With the unified start to training camp right around the corner on Tuesday, July 27, it's time to get up to speed on all 32 NFL teams. Below, Nick Shook has the lowdown on position battles, key players and notable subplots across the AFC North.
Most important position battle: Linebacker. First off, there is pressure on former first-rounder Patrick Queen to be a better coverage defender than he was as a rookie in 2020. That's undeniable. Having gotten that out of the way, we must look at the position next to Queen, which appears to be at least somewhat up for grabs between L.J. Fort and Malik Harrison. The latter logged just two regular-season games in which he played at least 50 percent of the defensive snaps last season, but as a 2020 third-round pick, he'll be expected to take a larger role before long. The Ravens' system of drafting to replace key players has worked out more often than not, and Harrison is next in line to be tested to see if he can follow in the footsteps of other productive defenders. While Lamar Jackson and Baltimore's running backs carry the offense, the Ravens have remained competitive because they've fielded a top-10 defense in each of the last three seasons. Linebacker play is a key component of this success, and it might just be time for Harrison to ascend.
Newcomer to know/key player returning from injury: Rashod Bateman, receiver. It's no secret the Ravens simply haven't been good enough through the air. Folks trying to decode this puzzle have pointed to a lack of weapons at receiver, and the Ravens responded by selecting Bateman with the 27th overall pick, teaming him with Marquise Brown, Devin Duvernay and new veteran arrival Sammy Watkins. That means expectations for Bateman's first training camp will be high -- but if minicamp served as any indicator, Bateman could be more productive than recent additions out of the gate. After Jackson publicly said opponents "know what we're doing" on offense, the Ravens will need to be more versatile than they've been in recent years if they hope to regain the AFC North crown. Bateman could significantly figure into this necessary evolution.
Other subplots to track:
- Baltimore had a tough time replacing eight-time Pro Bowler Marshal Yanda at right guard last season, but the team shouldn't have to worry about the position in 2021, thanks to the arrival of veteran Kevin Zeitler. The Ravens will, however, need to be shown they can trust the center. Bradley Bozeman is moving there, and hopefully he'll be able to deliver snaps more consistently than Matt Skura was able to in 2020. They'll also have to figure out who's starting at left guard. August should help them establish a necessary rapport among the trio of blockers.
- A massive question mark exists at tackle. Ronnie Stanley is still on his way back from a severe ankle injury, and Orlando Brown forced his way out of town. That leaves one position to address, and perhaps two, at least temporarily. Alejandro Villanueva should fill the void on the right side, but Baltimore will be hurting if Stanley isn't back in time. That might mean an early appearance from 2020 third-rounder Tyre Phillips.
- Two quick notes to point out: Safety remains ho-hum for the Ravens. Chuck Clark and DeShon Elliott are serviceable (Clark being the better of the two), but Baltimore doesn't have the kind of playmaking, game-changing type it once consistently pursued. And the Ravens haven't been as effective as they once were at tight end since trading Hayden Hurst last March. The offseason didn't see significant additions at either position, so if you're looking for an area of need, there are two candidates.
Location: Paul Brown Stadium, Cincinnati
Most important position battle: Guard. With Cincinnati drafting a toy instead of a protector in the first round, the pressure is now on multiple Bengals linemen. First, 2019 first-rounder Jonah Williams, who has just 10 games on his ledger, needs to prove he can stay healthy for a full season. Perhaps more importantly, the Bengals need to figure out who will start at both guard positions. Xavier Su'a-Filo could be penciled in as a starter at this point, but he only played six games last season. Michael Jordan returns after appearing in 14 games (10 starts). Veteran Quinton Spain, a mid-season arrival who served as a solid blocker, is back, but Jackson Carman looms as a contender for a starting spot on either side; earning the gig would immediately justify Cincinnati's decision to select him in the second round this year. Veteran signee Riley Reiff also arrives from Minnesota with the expectation that he'll hold down what's been a problematic right tackle position for the Bengals in recent years. There's still a lot to figure out up front, even if the Bengals appear to be in a better position than they were a year ago.
Newcomer to know/key player returning from injury: Ja'Marr Chase, receiver. Joe Burrow's buddy from their LSU days has reunited with him in Cincinnati via the fifth overall pick in April's draft, and Chase will have eyes on him from Day 1. The Bengals could have spent that pick on a top tackle and ensured protection for Burrow for years to come, but they opted instead to raise their scoring potential by adding a weapon with whom Burrow teamed to put up plenty of points in college. Chase's arrival made it easier to say goodbye to A.J. Green. He's also just one part of an impressive receiving trio (Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd being the other two). But if Chase doesn't produce quickly, Bengals fans will be quick to lament the pick.
Other subplots to track:
- The Bengals' linebacking corps has been a weak spot for the last few years, but Cincinnati seems content to run it back with the trio of Germaine Pratt, Akeem Davis-Gaither and Logan Wilson. The team attempted to counter this by beefing up its defensive front, but on paper, it's clear that the second level is Cincinnati's worst area on the defensive side of the ball.
- The team made strides in free agency with multiple additions to its secondary (Chidobe Awuzie, Mike Hilton), and it will be interesting to see how it shakes out. Hilton was one of my favorites for his performance in Pittsburgh last season -- he always seemed to be near the ball, making plays -- and while he projects to play slot corner, the final depth chart will be intriguing. Above all, one thing is clear: The Bengals won't have to scramble to find replacements when needed.
- Year 2 of the Burrow era is accompanied by a caveat: He's coming off a significant knee injury. When healthy, Burrow showed all of the qualities of a franchise quarterback, but he has a new health hurdle to clear in 2021, that's often more than just a physical challenge. The Bengals will rise or fall with him.
Most important position battle: Linebacker. It's no secret that the Browns need to be better at the second level than they were in 2020. They acknowledged this when they signed former Colts linebacker Anthony Walker, then selected Notre Dame standout Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah. Once viewed as a likely first-round selection, the slightly undersized Owusu-Koramoah (6-foot-1, 215 pounds) fell to Day 2, and the Browns happily traded up to grab him at 52nd overall. When I appeared on the team's daily radio show, hosts Nathan Zegura and Beau Bishop told me they're already blown away by what they've seen from the former Fighting Irish linebacker. He has a great opportunity in front of him, joining a defense that is desperate for help at his position and still needs to be sold on the long-term bonafides of vets Sione Takitaki and Mack Wilson. Owusu-Koramoah's athleticism could make him into a weapon for defensive coordinator Joe Woods -- as long as the size concerns prove to be overblown.
Newcomer to know/key player returning from injury: Odell Beckham Jr., receiver. Take a moment to consider this: The Browns won seven of their final 11 games of 2020 (including playoffs) after losing Beckham to a season-ending ACL injury. The anti-Beckham camp points to this as reason to ship him out for assets, but those who are truly plugged in see this as a bright sign for what's ahead. If Cleveland found a way to put up 41-plus points twice last year (and three times, if you include the 48-point postseason drubbing of the Steelers) without Beckham, imagine what they might be capable of doing with him in Year 2 of the Kevin Stefanski era. He'll need to be healthy, of course, but if we learned anything from the time Cleveland has spent with Beckham on the field, it's that he can singlehandedly drive a dagger into the hearts of opponents. A full season of this capability should have the Browns optimistic.
Other subplots to track:
- Year 4 isn't exactly a turning point for QB Baker Mayfield, but it can be an information-gathering season for the Browns. They've already picked up his fifth-year option. If he can replicate his 2020 performance, Cleveland will have another strong reason to work on a long-term deal with the former No. 1 pick. If he doesn't, well ... let's circle back in 2022.
- Cleveland returns with two new defensive starters on the inside: veteran Malik Jackson, who replaces Sheldon Richardson, and Andrew Billings. The latter was on the roster last year but opted out because of COVID-19, and he's come back to an opportunity to win a starting job. 2020 third-rounder Jordan Elliott will also be involved, and rookie Tommy Togiai might see some snaps. There's potential, but for now, a subsection that was underrated last season enters 2021 unproven.
- The secondary looks significantly better on paper. Now it's time to put these improvements into practice. Will first-round pick Greg Newsome win the second starting cornerback job? Can Grant Delpit return from the torn Achilles that cost him his rookie year to be an effective safety? How often will Woods roll out the three-safety look? It's far from reliable at this point, but if absolutely everything goes right, the Browns could enjoy one of the most significant year-to-year defensive turnarounds in recent memory.
Location: Heinz Field, Pittsburgh
Most important position battle: Backup quarterback. We can spend this entire section talking about Ben Roethlisberger, but while this choice directly relates to the status of the 39-year-old QB, this is more about Pittsburgh trying to straddle both sides of the contention fence. The Steelers want to finish the Big Ben era strong by throwing together the best roster they can within cap constraints in 2021, but if Roethlisberger were to suffer an injury like the one that cost him most of 2019, their chances of success decrease significantly. Mason Rudolph was a decent backup in his one start last season but was largely underwhelming a year earlier, when the Steelers truly had to rely on someone not wearing No. 7. The savvy addition of ex-first-rounder Dwayne Haskins could figure into Pittsburgh's future, and it might even begin to influence the Steelers this summer. Haskins is more talented than Rudolph, but he needs to learn how to prepare like a pro, something he couldn't do in Washington. Should Haskins gain this skill in Pittsburgh, the Steelers might have added their quarterback of the future at a bargain-basement price. And if Haskins can turn it around in an especially quick fashion, they might have a decent backup option behind Roethlisberger to protect against potential disaster this season.
Newcomer to know/key player returning from injury: Najee Harris, running back. Pittsburgh's ground game has been ineffective at best in the last three seasons, finishing 32nd, 29th and 31st in rushing yards in 2020, 2019 and 2018. With an increasingly immobile quarterback in Roethlisberger, this can't continue if the Steelers want to truly contend for a title in 2021. Enter Harris, the top-drafted running back and Pittsburgh's first-round selection in April. The 24th overall pick is just as explosive as he is bruising, and while he has a decent amount of mileage on him from his Alabama days, he's clearly the Steelers' No. 1 back entering this season. Turning around Pittsburgh's punchless rushing attack is a significant ask for a rookie, but that's his reality. If Harris proves to be a standout rusher, the Steelers will have significantly better chances of repeating as AFC North champions. If not, even more pressure will shift to the shoulders of Roethlisberger.
Other subplots to track:
- The Steelers' front office acknowledged it would like to improve up front ahead of the draft, but they ended up addressing running back first, waiting until Round 3 (Kendrick Green) and Round 4 (Dan Moore Jr.) to add any linemen. Fans will trumpet the play of Kevin Dotson while downplaying the concerns related to the rest of the offensive line, and Pittsburgh did add Trai Turner, but there's no overlooking the truth when looking at a depth chart that no longer includes Maurkice Pouncey, Alejandro Villanueva or David DeCastro. The unit didn't get significantly better, and the Steelers will instead pin their hopes for better ground performance on Harris and a cast made up mostly of reshuffled holdovers.
- Again, Roethlisberger isn't exactly fleet of foot at this stage of his career, and it sure feels like this is a last hurrah for the 39-year-old. After taking a stunning loss to the Browns squarely on the chin, there's no better time than the present for Roethlisberger to lead a revenge tour.
- Having said that, where do we see these Steelers? Standout pass rusher T.J. Watt lost his running mate (Bud Dupree) to free agency, and the Next Gen Stats tell us Watt was significantly less effective after Dupree went down with a knee injury in Week 12. How much does the newly signed Melvin Ingram, who hasn't reached double digits in sacks since 2017, have left in the tank? Can the Steelers adjust and remain intimidating up front? Can Roethlisberger do enough to turn their offense back into the productive unit it was before things fell apart?