- James Walker, ESPN Staff Writer
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You would be hard-pressed to find a division with more offseason intrigue and drama this year than the AFC North.
Whether it was the suspension of a star quarterback in Pittsburgh, controversial signings in Cincinnati, new leadership in Cleveland, or Super Bowl hype in Baltimore, this division remained in the headlines.
Three AFC North teams finished with winning records last year and enter 2010 with even bigger aspirations. Now it's time get on the football field and get the pads cracking in training camp, as each team has issues to address.
FOUR BIG QUESTIONS
Baltimore Ravens: Will the secondary get healthy this summer?
Reed is coming off major hip surgery and is unsure if he will start the regular season on the PUP list, which would require him to miss the first six games. Webb and Washington are rehabbing knee injuries and also are possible PUP candidates for the regular season. Baltimore's secondary is one of the team's few questionable areas, and the Ravens would benefit greatly if any of these players are ready by Week 1.
Cincinnati Bengals: Can T.O. and the passing game jell?
The Bengals' downfall at the end of last season was due to their inability to pass effectively. Cincinnati became predictable and relied heavily on tailback Cedric Benson to move the offense. As a result, Cincinnati placed a huge emphasis on improving its passing game this offseason.
The Bengals paid receiver Antonio Bryant $28 million and most recently added receiver Terrell Owens with a one-year, $2 million deal. They also spent three draft picks on first-round tight end Jermaine Gresham and receivers Jordan Shipley and Dezmon Briscoe. With so many new faces, can everyone coexist and quickly find their roles? Training camp and the preseason will be key for Cincinnati to put it all together.
Whether you're Browns president Mike Holmgren, the coaching staff or a fan of the team, no one is exactly sure what Cleveland will get out of Delhomme this year.
The Browns started over at quarterback and invested $7 million in a veteran coming off the worst season of his career. Delhomme threw only eight touchdowns and 18 interceptions in 2009 before being benched by the Carolina Panthers.
The Browns are quietly confident that last year was an aberration. But a strong performance in training camp and the preseason would go a long way to ease concerns. If Delhomme, 35, doesn't have anything left, backup quarterback Seneca Wallace and rookie Colt McCoy are waiting for their opportunity.
Pittsburgh Steelers: How will coach Mike Tomlin divide quarterback reps?
This is an interesting issue facing Pittsburgh's coaching staff. The Steelers need to find the best quarterback option between Leftwich and Dixon because Roethlisberger will not be available for the first four to six games of the regular season. Yet, training camp and the preseason are the only times "Big Ben" can get practice reps and playing time, because he will be banned from the facility during his suspension. How do the Steelers properly balance short- and long-term preparation at quarterback simultaneously?
Ravens: Terrell Suggs. The three-time Pro Bowler raised the stakes for himself this offseason by saying his sub-par performance in 2009 will "never happen again." The Ravens certainly hope so, because Suggs did not live up to standards (he had a career-low 4.5 sacks) in the first season of his new contract. Baltimore needs more of a pass rush this year, and Suggs is the most capable to help in that area.
Bengals: Carson Palmer. Cincinnati's aforementioned struggles passing the football have raised questions about its franchise quarterback. Is Palmer, 30, past his prime? Have knee and elbow injuries caught up to him? Can Palmer get back to his 4,000-yard form of 2006-07? This is a very important year for Palmer. It's the deepest team he's had in Cincinnati, and added weapons in the passing game leave no excuses for not performing well.
Browns: Eric Mangini. Perhaps no person in the entire AFC North is on a hotter seat than Mangini. He must be successful this year to keep his job, and it's not going to be an easy task getting Cleveland out of the basement in the division. As a former head coach, Browns president Mike Holmgren believed Mangini deserved more than one year to implement his program. Cleveland won five games last season under Mangini and will have to do better in 2010 to impress "The Big Show."
Steelers: Bruce Arians. Pittsburgh's offensive coordinator was on the hot seat even before Roethlisberger's suspension. Now Arians really has to be on top of his game for the Steelers to be successful early in the season. Arians has been a lightning rod with Steeler Nation. Despite Pittsburgh having a 4,000-yard quarterback, a 1,000-yard tailback and two 1,000-yard receivers last year, Arians still has a lot of detractors. He can prove many of his critics wrong by helping lead Pittsburgh to victories without the team's best offensive player.
Steelers WR Mike Wallace: Pittsburgh is showing a tremendous amount of confidence that Wallace, a second-year receiver, can step up for the departed Santonio Holmes. The No. 2 receiver opposite starter Hines Ward is an important position in Pittsburgh’s offense. It's reserved for the receiver who consistently makes big plays, which Wallace is certainly capable of with his speed.
Wallace had 39 receptions for 756 yards and six touchdowns last season. He averaged an impressive 19.4 yards per catch, quickly gaining the trust of Roethlisberger by making plays when his number was called. Now in the starting lineup, expect Wallace's number to be called more this year and for him to post better numbers, especially in the second half of the season once Roethlisberger is back in the groove.
FEARLESS CAMP PREDICTIONS
Ravens: Expect a closer kicking competition than expected between free agent Shayne Graham and Billy Cundiff. Graham will eventually win the job, but Cundiff was solid for Baltimore last year and won't go away without a fight.
Bengals: Adam Jones will win the third cornerback spot in training camp. After sitting out an entire year, he's had enough time to get his football legs back and his natural athleticism will help keep him ahead of the competition.
Browns: Rookie receiver Carlton Mitchell will be a pleasant surprise this summer for Cleveland. Mitchell, a sixth-round pick, comes to the Browns with few expectations. However, he has a nice combination of speed and size and will get plenty of opportunities at a thin position for the Browns.
Steelers: Look for second-year cornerback Keenan Lewis to raise some eyebrows in this training camp. Ike Taylor and Bryant McFadden are the starters, but Lewis' size, athleticism and second year in the defense will earn him a role with the team in sub packages.