Eight in the Box: AFC North camp issues

July, 19, 2013
7/19/13
12:00
PM ET
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

What are the three key camp issues facing each AFC North team?

BALTIMORE RAVENS

Offense: Wide receiver
After trading Anquan Boldin due to salary-cap constraints, the Ravens opted not to invest in a veteran replacement. That leaves Torrey Smith as the top wideout for Joe Flacco, but the Ravens have substantial questions behind him. Jacoby Jones had a standout postseason but has never recorded more than 562 receiving yards in a single season. He must prove himself capable of replicating his postseason success in order for Baltimore to transition beyond Boldin’s absence.

Defense: Replacing leadership
GM Ozzie Newsome did a formidable job of replacing departed veterans Ray Lewis and Ed Reed with younger talent this offseason, but finding new leadership on defense will be no easy task. Terrell Suggs is a veteran voice who can absorb an even larger leadership role, but it will be more than a one-man job to account for what Lewis and Reed brought to the table. Offensively, the Ravens have Flacco and Ray Rice to steer the ship.

Wild card: Potential inside linebacker depth
The Ravens have three players who seem likely to compete for starting inside linebacker jobs, but two of them, Arthur Brown and Jameel McClain, are dealing with medical issues. McClain (back) is waiting for clearance from medical staffers to return to contact work, while Brown underwent sports hernia surgery after the team drafted him. A delayed return from either, or both, would put stress on the defense to find a replacement for Lewis. Daryl Smith, limited to just two games in 2012, is another candidate to start.

CINCINNATI BENGALS

Offense: Dalton’s ascension
Give QB Andy Dalton this: He’s led his team to the playoffs in each of his first two seasons, an impressive accomplishment early in his career. The question is, does he have what it takes to move the Bengals past their recent destinations and win a playoff game? Dalton has no touchdowns and four interceptions in a pair of playoff contests, and 2013 is a critical year to decide his long-term future with the franchise. The Bengals have a playoff-caliber defense and some excellent offensive pieces, but the NFL is a quarterback-driven league. Dalton must make strides.

Defense: Middle linebacker play
Many surmised the Bengals would replace Rey Maualuga this offseason, but the team instead inked him to a new two-year deal. That’s a sign of confidence in the 26-year-old, but there are still questions about whether he has the range to be a consistent playmaker in the middle of the defense. He didn’t force a single turnover in 2012, though his 122 tackles were second best on the defense. Despite the new contract, 2013 is still another year for the USC product to prove he’s the man for the long haul in the middle.

Wild card: Finding space for two tight ends
This is a good issue to have. The Bengals have an incumbent starter at tight end -- who was named to the Pro Bowl last year -- in Jermaine Gresham, and he will be pushed by rookie Tyler Eifert. Simply put, the Bengals need to find ways to use the rangy Eifert, whose ball skills and length make him a superior red zone target. It may not be long before he’s recognized as the best tight end on the roster.

CLEVELAND BROWNS

Offense: T-Rich’s health
The Browns need Trent Richardson to be a workhorse, much as he was during his rookie season in 2012. Richardson admirably fought through injuries last year and has spent much of the offseason banged up with a shin issue. The Browns are hopeful he’ll arrive to training camp at 100 percent, but if he doesn’t, it’s a concern that will linger. With question marks surrounding the quarterback position, the Browns need a security blanket in the backfield to tote the heavy load. A healthy Richardson is the answer and more.

Defense: McFadden ready?
Alabama (and now Jets) cornerback Dee Milliner seemed like a sound candidate for the sixth pick in the draft, but the Browns stockpiled another pass-rusher in Barkevious Mingo instead. The team eventually filled its need for a cornerback to play opposite Joe Haden by taking Leon McFadden in the third round, a candidate to start as a rookie. Should McFadden win the job, it’ll be a test for the San Diego State product. Nonetheless, the second cornerback position is one worth monitoring in training camp.

Wild card: Accounting for Gordon’s absence
For two games, the Browns will be without top wide receiver Josh Gordon, who has been suspended for violating the league's substance abuse policy. An already unproven wide receiving corps took a hit, and the Browns will be counting on a hot early start from players like Greg Little and veteran addition Davone Bess. Bess, acquired for draft picks in April, is a talented slot presence who will slide in nicely when Gordon returns but may be called upon for a bigger role early in the season.

PITTSBURGH STEELERS

Offense: Left side protection
It appears Marcus Gilbert will take over blindside duties for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, a tall order for the 25-year-old. From a skill-set perspective, Gilbert has the frame, but he’ll be tested coming off an ankle injury and making a position switch from last year. Roethlisberger has long been able to extend plays with his in-pocket mobility, but he too is coming off a knee issue and will need proficient support from his line this season.

Defense: Pass rush
Just two seasons ago, the Steelers paced the NFL with 48 sacks in the regular season. That number dipped to 35 the year after and 37 in 2012, due in part to a lack of a consistent edge threat. No Steeler had more than six sacks in 2012, and although first-round rookie Jarvis Jones looks ready to take on a starting role, he’ll need to show he can be an immediate impact player as a disrupter in opposing backfields.

Wild card: Secondary depth
The projected starting quartet for the Steelers in the secondary is capable of taming opposing offenses, but it also features three players who are at least 32 years old (Troy Polamalu, Ryan Clark and Ike Taylor). If any of those players is forced to miss time (Polamalu was limited to seven games last year), the depth chart is less certain, with rookies and unproven youngsters to be counted on to replace them.
Field Yates has previous experience interning with the New England Patriots on both their coaching and scouting staffs. A graduate of Wesleyan University (CT), he is a regular contributor to ESPN Boston's Patriots coverage and ESPN Insider.

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