AFC North training camp battles

July, 3, 2012
7/03/12
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An early look at the biggest training camp position battles:

CINCINNATI BENGALS

No. 2 wide receiver: Brandon Tate versus Mohamed Sanu

Actually, there's a battle at every spot in this wide receiver group except for the top one (A.J. Green). Experienced veterans Jerome Simpson (Vikings) and Andre Caldwell (Broncos) both left in free agency, and the Bengals didn't sign a wide receiver in free agency or draft one in the first two rounds.

The Bengals believe Sanu can be their No. 2 wide receiver as a rookie third-round pick. He is a competitive receiver with size who isn't afraid to go across the middle. Perhaps the biggest plus is his route running, which was a weak spot among the Bengals' wide receivers last season.

Tate, however, has been one of the more pleasant surprises of the spring workouts. He didn't catch a pass last season, when he signed a week before the season opener, but he has picked up the Bengals' offense in his first full offseason with the team. Tate has been running as the No. 2 wide receiver in most team drills after being the No. 5 receiver and returner in 2011. Armon Binns and Ryan Whalen also could figure into this competition.

CLEVELAND BROWNS

Free safety: Eric Hagg versus Usama Young

There was speculation that the Browns would move veteran cornerback Sheldon Brown to safety when they let Mike Adams sign with the Broncos in free agency. Others thought the team would give the job to Young, who started eight games for the injured T.J. Ward last season. Instead, Cleveland decided to have an open competition for that spot on a pass defense that ranked second in the NFL last season.

The leading candidate for the job coming out of minicamps is Hagg, a seventh-round pick from a year ago. He's running with the first team, and isn't close to losing that spot by the way he's playing. Hagg has been the most improved player on the Browns' defense, and is constantly around the ball.

Young might not have the same upside as Hagg, but he has more experience. He was fourth on the team last season with 66 tackles, which led all Cleveland defensive backs. Still, it looks like Young will have to play some catch-up to come out of training camp as the starter.

BALTIMORE RAVENS

Cornerback: Jimmy Smith versus Cary Williams

The expectation last season was Smith would become a starter at some point as a rookie. That is, until Smith hurt his ankle on the opening kickoff of the 2011. That allowed Williams to establish himself at a spot he never relinquished.

Now, the roles are reversed. Williams couldn't participate in team drills this spring after having hip surgery, which provided the opening for Smith to work with the starting defense all offseason. Williams is hoping to be at full strength when training camp opens this month.

It looks as if this is Smith's job to lose in training camp. The 2011 first-round pick has prototypical size and speed to be a shutdown cornerback. Williams, though, has surprised before. He finished last season as the Ravens' third-leading tackler (77), and ranked second in passes broken up (18).

PITTSBURGH STEELERS

Cornerback: Keenan Lewis versus Cortez Allen versus Curtis Brown

The Steelers didn't sound devastated when they lost starting cornerback William Gay to the Cardinals in free agency, because they have confidence they can replace him. Who exactly will replace him is up in the air right now. Filling that spot will be a three-player race in training camp, although Lewis is expected to get the first snaps with the starting defense.

Lewis, a third-round pick in 2009, has shown flashes of being a playmaker, but he has a history of being undisciplined. He doesn't lack confidence. Lewis predicted a Pro Bowl season for himself in May. But he doesn't have a great deal of experience with one career start.

Allen, a fourth-round pick, played on the Steelers' nickel defense like Lewis did last season. Brown, a third-round pick, is considered a favorite of the coaching staff and the dark horse candidate to win this battle. He's a tenacious defender who led the Steelers in special teams tackles last season.

Jamison Hensley

ESPN Ravens reporter

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