Tuesday, May 22, 2012
AFC North newcomers to watch
By Jamison Hensley
Offseason training activities for veterans and rookies kick off today for the Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns, Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers. Here's a look at the newcomers to watch for each team:
BENGALS: Running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis. The prize of the Bengals' free agency was Green-Ellis, the New England Patriots free agent who signed a three-year, $9 million contract. The focus for the Bengals' offense is to get Green-Ellis in rhythm with the team's new-look line. He's an improvement over Cedric Benson, who upgrades the Bengals in the red zone and provides a dependability factor.
Green-Ellis never fumbled in his four seasons in New England. Benson, meanwhile, fumbled five times in two December games last season. Green-Ellis' ability to hammer the ball across the goal line won't show up in non-contact drills this offseason, but it will be appreciated during the season. He led the Patriots with 24 rushing touchdowns over the past two seasons. As a team, Cincinnati totaled 18 rushing touchdowns over that same span.
BROWNS: Defensive end Frostee Rucker. All eyes will remain on the Browns' two first-round picks, running back Trent Richardson and quarterback Brandon Weeden. Both will be instrumental in how the Browns revive the NFL's 29th-ranked offense. What shouldn't go overlooked is the addition of Rucker, the former Bengals lineman who will be pivotal in turning around another weak area -- the league's 30th-ranked run defense.
Rucker, 28, was the Browns' big target in a low-key free agency period for the team. A full-time starter for the first time in his career last season, he signed a five-year, $21 million contract that includes $8 million guaranteed. The hope is he can have the same impact with the Browns as he did for the Bengals, who ranked 10th in the league in run defense last season. The statistic that jumps out with Rucker is his 11 tackles for loss, which led the Bengals.
RAVENS: Offensive lineman Kelechi Osemele. The biggest question mark on the Ravens' offense is left guard. Osemele needs to beat out Jah Reid in order to become the first Ravens rookie offensive lineman to start a season opener since Michael Oher in 2009. Baltimore tried to address that spot in free agency but was unable to re-sign Ben Grubbs and failed to lure Evan Mathis from the Philadelphia Eagles.
The lack of success in free agency forced the Ravens to use a second-round draft pick on Osemele. There's no doubt that Osemele will be able to hold up physically, considering he's 6-foot-5, 333 pounds. The challenge for him is adjusting to a new position. An offensive tackle at Iowa State, Osemele has to show he can fit in next to veterans Matt Birk and Bryant McKinnie. There will be a drop-off at this spot since a Pro Bowl player like Grubbs is gone, but the development of Osemele will determine if it is a major or minor one.
STEELERS: Offensive tackle Mike Adams. The Steelers showed their commitment to Adams starting right away when team officials phoned Willie Colon after the draft to let him know he was moving to guard. Now, it's up to Adams to show he's capable of doing so. He's a first-round talent who fell to the second round because of off-field issues. The uncertainty with Adams on the field is whether he's strong enough to play in the NFL as a rookie.
There's no such doubts with first-round pick David DeCastro, who is expected to be an eventual Pro Bowl player at right guard. As the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review pointed out, the Steelers have started a rookie up front to open the season three times since the 1970 merger. Pittsburgh could have two in the starting lineup in Week 1 at Denver. Of course, it's up to Adams to show he's ready.