AFC North: 2011 back to work FYI AFC

Bengals back-to-work FYI

July, 25, 2011
7/25/11
1:59
PM ET
NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Unrestricted FAs

Readiness factor: The Bengals will have continuity on defense under Mike Zimmer, but the offense probably will face a learning curve with a new system and a lot of young skill players to deal with. Offensive coordinator Jay Gruden is bringing his brand of the West Coast offense to Cincinnati but hasn't had any practice time with the players. For the Bengals to be successful, the defense needs to play at the same level it did during the 2009 season -- at least early on -- until the young offense is able to catch up.

Biggest challenge: Cincinnati needs clarity and a distraction-free training camp at quarterback. Rookie second-round pick Andy Dalton is expected to take over for veteran Carson Palmer, who has threatened to retire. His threat won't stop the constant questions and speculation about whether the Bengals will trade Palmer, though. There is also a remote chance Palmer could have a change of heart and return to the team, because he remains under contract. It will be up to Dalton and the Bengals' coaching staff to remain focused on the task at hand and not worry about the dark cloud the Palmer situation has created.

Second-year standouts: One key to Cincinnati's success will be the progress of second-year players coming off strong rookie seasons. Starting tight end Jermaine Gresham, defensive end Carlos Dunlap and receiver Jordan Shipley all performed well in 2010. They made their share of rookie mistakes last season, but if they improve and make solid strides this season, they will be huge for the Bengals.

Key players without contracts for 2011: Bengals starting tailback Cedric Benson will be an interesting case after a recent arrest on assault charges. He was the team's biggest free-agent priority. But the Bengals may rethink their strategy, especially if Benson is facing a suspension to start the 2011 season. Cornerback Johnathan Joseph is more difficult to predict. The Bengals like Joseph but have given no indication they want to pay market value for good cornerbacks, which ranges between $8 to $10 million per season. Receiver Terrell Owens is another big name, but he will not return. The Bengals are going younger at the position, and Owens had a major knee injury in the offseason.

Browns back-to-work FYI

July, 25, 2011
7/25/11
1:59
PM ET
NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Unrestricted FAs

Readiness factor: The Browns are by no means ready and are arguably the team hardest-hit by the lockout. They have a new offense to install, a new defense and a rookie head coach who still needs to learn his players. On top of that, Cleveland still has a lot of holes to fill in free agency and should be out to sign several key players as soon as possible. The Browns need to get to work immediately on all of these things if they want to avoid a slow start and contend in the AFC North.

Biggest challenge: Getting second-year quarterback Colt McCoy and the rest of the West Coast offense in sync is Cleveland's biggest task. The West Coast offense is primarily based on timing and precision, and Cleveland may lack both early. This is a huge year for McCoy, and he must quickly learn his second offense in two NFL seasons. McCoy is put in a tough spot, but he knows there will be no excuses if he doesn't turn out to be the long-term solution in Cleveland this year.

Rookie watch: The Browns are lacking talent compared with other teams in the division, so they are hoping for an immediate impact from their rookie class. Defensive linemen Phil Taylor and Jabaal Sheard are expected to start in Week 1, and the Browns have high expectations for second-round receiver Greg Little, who missed all of 2010 because of suspension. The lockout hurts all of these rookies, but this year's class will be given every chance to earn significant roles during training camp.

Key players without contracts for 2011: The Browns have already made most of their decisions on which in-house free agents they want to keep, but there were a few surprises. Fullback Lawrence Vickers, one of the best at his position, is set to hit the open market. Former starting cornerback Eric Wright has a better chance of returning but may garner interest. Veteran kicker Phil Dawson was offered the franchise tag but hasn't signed it, which leaves his future in Cleveland up in the air.

Steelers back-to-work FYI

July, 25, 2011
7/25/11
1:58
PM ET
NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Unrestricted FAs

Readiness factor: The Steelers should be fine. Coming off a Super Bowl appearance, they are well-rested and running the same offense and defense as in recent seasons. For years the Steelers have thrived on continuity, and that should come in handy this fall. Pittsburgh will not be a major player in free agency, so that's not an issue. Like the Ravens, if the Steelers had to line up and play a game next week, they could.

Biggest challenge: The Steelers were fine up until recently, when receiver Hines Ward and linebacker James Harrison both made headlines in separate incidents. Ward was arrested for driving under the influence in Georgia, and Harrison made controversial remarks about many people, including NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and running back Rashard Mendenhall. Pittsburgh, which has been a model organization for years, has had its share of controversies the past three seasons. This is another example of the team having to band together and handle its issues internally before they get worse.

Who's the kicker? Pittsburgh will need to find a kicker for the 2011 season. Shaun Suisham is a free agent after filling in last season for Jeff Reed, who was cut. Reed was one of the few kickers who did well in Heinz Field, which is one of the hardest stadiums to kick in. The Steelers didn't draft a kicker, which means they have a short time to search for a solution in free agency.

Key players without contracts for 2011: Starting cornerback Ike Taylor is the only big name for the Steelers. He is an unrestricted free agent and is looking for market value, which could price him out of Pittsburgh. The Steelers have several younger and cheaper alternatives at cornerback, such as Carlos Rogers and Richard Marshall. Offensive lineman Willie Colon is another interesting name. He's been a versatile starter for Pittsburgh at guard and tackle. Tailback Mewelde Moore will probably test the market as the Steelers look to get more carries for backup Isaac Redman this season.

Ravens back-to-work FYI

July, 25, 2011
7/25/11
1:58
PM ET
NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Unrestricted FAs

Readiness factor: The Ravens don't have any major issues. The personnel and offensive and defensive schemes are pretty much the same, with the exception of new defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano's adding some wrinkles. Baltimore's roster is already stacked, and the team will focus primarily on taking care of its own (Haloti Ngata, Marshal Yanda) in free agency before signing a few outside players. If the Ravens had to line up next week and play a game, they could.

Biggest challenge: The Ravens-Steelers rivalry is usually reserved for later in the season, but Baltimore will host a rare Week 1 showdown against its biggest rival -- and it comes after a lengthy lockout. Pittsburgh has won most of the key games in this series the past few years, including the past two playoff meetings. Pressure is mounting on the Ravens to start winning again in this rivalry, and they have to do it with little time to prepare for the Steelers this summer.

Competition at right tackle: Despite a veteran roster, Baltimore's right tackle spot is wide open. It was a revolving door last season and one of the major reasons the Ravens struggled with pass protection. This year Baltimore has a rookie draft pick (Jah Reid) and several holdovers (Oniel Cousins, Ramon Harewood) competing for a key spot. You also can't rule out adding another tackle to the mix in free agency.

Key players without contracts for 2011: Yanda, Baltimore's starting guard, is the biggest name without a contract. Yanda will test the market, but the Ravens also will make a strong push to re-sign the versatile lineman. Cornerbacks Chris Carr and Josh Wilson, who both started last season, also will garner interest. Look for the Ravens to bring back the cheaper of the two players, with rookie Jimmy Smith, Lardarius Webb and Domonique Foxworth listed as possible starters. Former starting left tackle Jared Gaither also is a free agent, and Baltimore is expected to part ways with him after a tumultuous and injury-filled 2010 season.

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