By the end of this month, training camps will open across the NFL. Where are the looming position battles to keep tabs on? Who are the critical players to watch? We'll provide each team's keys in this division-by-division series. Today, Tom Blair examines the AFC North:
Training camp report dates: rookies (July 17) and veterans (July 24).
Location: Under Armour Performance Center in Owings Mills, Maryland.
Most important position battle: pass rusher. Baltimore ranked first in yards allowed, second in points allowed and fifth against the pass last season despite finishing 11th in sacks (43). And no individual player reached double-digits in sacks in 2018. But the exits of Za'Darius Smith (8.5 sacks) and Terrell Suggs (7) leave the team pretty much starting from scratch in terms of pass-rushing production. Linebacker (and future Pro Bowler?) Matt Judon (7 sacks in 2018) seems locked in as the leader of the pass rush, but who will step up around him? Will holdovers Tim Williams and Tyus Bowsermake a leap? Can veterans Shane Ray (looking to make good on the promise that enticed the Broncos to make him a first-round pick) or Pernell McPhee (returning to the team with which he broke into the league and recorded 17 of his 31 career sacks) jump-start their careers? Perhaps most intriguing is third-round pick Jaylon Ferguson, who set the FBS record for career sacks (45).
Newcomer/player returning from injury to watch: Marquise Brown, wide receiver. The Ravens haven't had a 1,000-yard receiver since Mike Wallace in 2016. They will likely continue to lean heavily on the ground game with running threat Lamar Jackson under center, but the speedy Brown has the potential to form an electrifying connection with his athletic quarterback. Even if he's not given as many touches in Baltimore as other premier receivers around the NFL, the Oklahoma product -- who racked up 18.3 yards per catch and 17 total touchdowns in two seasons with the Sooners -- could make his mark as Charm City's first legitimate star receiver since Steve Smith. Observers will be eagerly anticipating their first real look at the first-round pick, who hasn't been able to take the field since undergoing Lisfranc surgery.
Looming camp question: What's next for Lamar Jackson and the offense? This question is one of the most compelling of the 2019 season. The Ravens' mid-year offensive reinvention after Jackson replaced the less-versatile Joe Flacco at quarterback paid off in a division title, but the Chargerssolved Baltimore in the playoffs. This year, new coordinator Greg Roman was given the chance to completely reimagine the offense to fully capitalize on Jackson's abilities, starting "from square zero." We won't see the complete picture in July or August. But if the Jackson era is to truly take hold in Baltimore, this transformation must be successful.
Training camp report dates: rookies (July 24) and veterans (July 26).
Location: Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati.
Most important position battle: left guard. This is one of the most frustrating kinds of position battles, in that it was not supposed to be a position battle, with veteran Cordy Glenn sliding over to make room for first-round pick Jonah Williams at left tackle. But Williams is likely done for the season thanks to a torn labrum, meaning Glenn will move back to his old spot. Veteran Clint Boling, meanwhile, is retiring. New head coach Zac Taylor told Tyler Dragon of the Cincinnati Enquirer (and formerly of NFL.com) that he's "excited to see what happens" with the battle at the position, naming Christian Westerman (16 games and two starts in three seasons), veteran John Jerry (101 career starts in eight seasons) and Trey Hopkins (30 games and 21 starts in four seasons) as possibilities. These are nice words from a new coach facing a situation that few in his shoes would likely call "exciting."
Newcomer/player returning from injury to watch: A.J. Green, wide receiver. When Green was healthy last season, the Bengals had a chance (5-4 in his nine games). When he wasn't, well, they didn't (1-6 the rest of the time). This team mostly stood pat in terms of major roster additions, meaning one of the most impactful changes will be the return to health of one of the best receivers in the game. Green, whose 2018 season was cut short by a toe injury, took it easy during minicamp, though he's expected to fully participate at training camp. He's also entering the final season of his current contract. Until the ink dries on an extension, it would be prudent to at least be aware of the possibility that this could mark the last go-around in Cincinnati for the seven-time Pro Bowler. While there's been no hint otherwise, confirming that Green will be able to operate at full throttle once more will be crucial to the team's chances in the division.
Looming camp question: Will Zac Taylor be able to reanimate the offense? The pieces are there for Cincinnati, between Green, running back Joe Mixon and quarterback Andy Dalton, who should be competent at worst and can actually be kinda good at best. It is surely not a coincidence that the last time the Bengals made the playoffs (2015) is also the last time they ranked in the top 10 in points scored (Cincinnati finished seventh at 26.2 points per game). Taylor is part of Rams coach Sean McVay's impossibly young coaching tree. Can the 36-year-old snap the Bengals out of the funk that has kept them right around the six-win mark for the last three seasons? Or will a full rebuild be necessary in the near future? Getting off to a smooth start in camp will be a step in the right direction.
Training camp report dates: rookies and veterans (July 24).
Most important position battle: right guard. Many of Cleveland's roster spots are in better shape than they've been in for as long as a lot of the players filling them have been alive. Right guard is not one of those spots. Kevin Zeitler is gone, having been sent to the Giants as part of the trade that landed the BrownsOdell Beckham Jr. and Olivier Vernon, which means now is the time for 2018 second-round pick Austin Corbett to step up. Corbett appeared in just 11 games (one start) last season, and was splitting reps at right guard this spring with Kyle Kalis and Eric Kush. As Browns staff writer (and former NFL.com colleague) Nick Shook pointed out, there is plenty of time for this situation to be settled in camp. And yet, the stakes would seem to be relatively high for Corbett and the Browns, who could use a stabilizing force on the line.
Newcomer/player returning from injury to watch: Odell Beckham Jr., wide receiver. This is no time to get cute. Olivier Vernon's acclimation will be key for Myles Garrett and the defense, but Beckham being in brown and orange is why the Browns are potential playoff heavies after so many fruitless attempts to jar this franchise to life. Other than some additional hints about his chemistry with Baker Mayfield and further confirmation that he is over the quad injury that hampered him in 2018, I wouldn't expect to glean much from the preseason preparations of a sixth-year pro in his prime. But that doesn't mean all eyes shouldn't be glued to one of the most important acquisitions in the last 20 years of this franchise's history.
Looming camp question: Will the Browns be swallowed up by the hype? It is not Cleveland's fault that the six-month gap between March (when the Beckham trade was made) and September (when wins and losses start to count) provides ample time for waves of offseason anticipation to build, crash and build again. This franchise has won 4.75 games per season since its rebirth in 1999. And yet, between Mayfield's emergence last season and Beckham's arrival, it feels as if anything short of a Super Bowl win will be counted as a massive failure. (OK, that's a bit dramatic, but you get the point.) In addition to the expectations facing Cleveland, there are a lot of big personalities. Freddie Kitchens has seemed unflappable in his public-facing appearances, but he's also never been a head coach before. So far, running back Duke Johnson's apparent discontent around his role with the team in the wake of the addition of Kareem Hunt has caused minor ripples, briefly popping onto the public radar as a locker-room flashpoint thanks to comments made by Mayfield, but it has mainly simmered in the background. If Kitchens and his charges can get through the preseason without the Johnson issue or any other potential drama knocking them off the rails, it will be a sign that they can handle the curveballs that will inevitably come their way once the regular season begins.
Training camp report dates: rookies (July 24) and veterans (July 25).
Location: Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania.
Most important position battle: No. 2 receiver. No one pops out as an obvious candidate to replace JuJu Smith-Schuster, set to assume Antonio Brown's old mantle as the No. 1 man. Of course, the Steelers have a real and demonstrated history of unearthing receiving talent. (Remember back when Mike Wallace was the premier receiver in Pittsburgh and Brown was a sixth-round rookie buried on the depth chart behind Wallace, Hines Ward, fellow rookie Emmanuel Sanders and, uh, a 31-year-old Antwaan Randle El?) Donte Moncrief has experience (69 games, 346 targets and 200 catches in five seasons), but he's still chasing the career year he posted in 2015 (105 targets, 64 catches, 733 yards and six touchdowns). Second-year pro James Washington had just 16 catches for 217 yards and a score as a rookie, but he's also earned the enthusiastic backing of none other than Smith-Schuster. Rookie Diontae Johnson (a third-round pick out of Toledo) and veterans Eli Rogers and Ryan Switzer (striving to be more than a returner) also figure to be in the mix.
Newcomer/player returning from injury to watch: Devin Bush, linebacker. Since 2000, the Steelers have drafted five players 15th overall or higher: Plaxico Burress (No. 8 in 2000), Ben Roethlisberger (No. 11 in 2004), Lawrence Timmons (No. 15 in 2007), Ryan Shazier (No. 15 in 2014) and Bush (No. 10 in April). The defense has fared well enough over the past few seasons, but there is still a need for someone to fill the role of leader at inside linebacker left vacant by Shazier's catastrophic injury in 2017. Enter Bush, who landed on Lance Zierlein's Defensive Rookie of the Year watch list. The comparisons will only be encouraged by Bush's revelation that he and Shazier communicate "daily," and that he considers Shazier "like my big brother."
Looming camp question: What will life be like with just one Killer B? Brown is on one coast. Le'Veon Bell is on the other. This is Ben Roethlisberger's show alone once again. To find a season in which neither Brown nor Bell played a significant role, you'd have to go back to 2010, when Bell was a freshman at Michigan State and Brown was (as mentioned above) an afterthought on the roster. That was also the last time the Steelers reached the Super Bowl. I tend to think that better players make for better teams, and the relative lack of postseason success over the Bell-Brown years had more to do with injuries and bad luck than anything else. But it can also be true that, for various reasons, this group had gone as far as it was going to go together. There is reason to think Smith-Schuster and James Conner will thrive in place of Brown and Bell, but both players face questions. Smith-Schuster has never been the primary target in Pittsburgh over a full season, while Conner's promising 2018 ended on a downward slope in terms of production, with an ankle injury throwing a wrench in the gears. An added wrinkle: Jaylen Samuels, who played well in his own right while filling in for Conner last season, has said he and Conner will be on the field at the same time. Will we get any glimpses in August of what makes Roethlisberger jazzed about this offense?