AFC North: 2012 Camp Watch

Bengals Camp Watch

July, 25, 2012
7/25/12
1:15
PM ET
NFC Camp Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Dates

Three thoughts as training camps open around the NFL:

One thing I'm certain of: The Bengals are a much better team than the one that surprisingly made the playoffs last season. Whether this translates into more wins is uncertain. The Bengals haven't put together back-to-back winning seasons since 1981-82. But you have to be impressed with what the Bengals accomplished this offseason. Few teams had a better draft and free-agency period.

Cincinnati has more dependability and a bigger red zone punch with running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis. The Bengals addressed the guard position, which was their weakest spot, by drafting Kevin Zeitler in the first round and signing Panthers free agent Travelle Wharton. Cincinnati added defensive depth by signing five former first-round picks in free agency: Adam Jones, Terence Newman, Jason Allen, Derrick Harvey and Jamaal Anderson. The big question is whether the Bengals have done enough to close the gap between them and the Ravens and Steelers.

One thing that might happen: Leon Hall suits up for camp and Dre Kirkpatrick sits for most of it. This isn't how most envisioned the Bengals' cornerback situation. Kirkpatrick was the one who was supposed to step up in the starting lineup if Hall hadn't recovered from an Achilles injury. The roles are apparently reversed. Kirkpatrick, the 17th overall pick of the 2012 draft, reportedly injured his leg and could miss most of training camp.

The Bengals remain hopeful that Hall will be able to take the field Friday, the first practice of training camp. Hall, who was held out of spring workouts, has yet to be cleared to play. If Hall and Kirkpatrick are both sidelined, Cincinnati will lean heavily on Jones, Newman, Allen and Brandon Ghee.

One thing we won't see: A major veteran free-agent addition to the wide receiver group. The Bengals took some heat for not addressing the loss of two of their top three wide receivers when Jerome Simpson (Vikings) and Andre Caldwell (Broncos) left in free agency. Cincinnati didn't sign a wide receiver in free agency and didn't draft one in the first two rounds. Head coach Marvin Lewis came away very impressed with his wide receivers this spring, which is a good indication that the Bengals won't be making any moves for someone like Braylon Edwards, barring injury or a meltdown by this group.

Heading into camp, Brandon Tate, Mohamed Sanu and Armon Binns are battling to start opposite A.J. Green. Tate is the early favorite after an impressive spring. 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. The Bengals are equally as high on Sanu, a third-round pick who has drawn comparisons to T.J. Houshmandzadeh. Quarterback Andy Dalton said his receivers are "going to surprise a lot of people."

Browns Camp Watch

July, 25, 2012
7/25/12
12:30
PM ET
NFC Camp Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Dates

Three thoughts as training camps open around the NFL:

One thing I'm certain of: Brandon Weeden will come out of camp as the starting quarterback. In fact, he could have the job won earlier than that. The Browns' quarterback competition is viewed as a charade because hardly anyone believes Colt McCoy will beat out Weeden. It doesn't make any sense for the Browns to make Weeden wait. A team doesn't draft a 28-year-old quarterback to bring him along slowly.

Besides his age, Weeden stands out because of his arm strength and maturity. He throws a better deep ball than McCoy and he's more accurate. Weeden simply gives the Browns a better chance to win now and in the future. Teams are less scared to throw rookie quarterbacks into games after the recent success of Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco, Mark Sanchez, Cam Newton and Andy Dalton. Pressure doesn't seem to faze a quarterback like Weeden, who has already said he wants to win a Super Bowl before he's done playing.

One thing that might happen: Wide receiver Josh Gordon gets a crack at starting. It doesn't matter that Gordon wasn't on the team until 13 days ago, when Cleveland selected him in the second round of the supplemental draft. He instantly improves a Browns wide receiver group that ranks among the worst in the NFL and was virtually ignored in free agency and the draft. In the perfect scenario, Gordon would be brought along slowly because he hasn't played a game since 2010. This is far from a perfect scenario with receivers like Mohamed Massaquoi, Josh Cribbs, Travis Benjamin and Carlton Mitchell.

One NFL executive told ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter that Gordon has "Randy Moss-like" talents. The problem is, Gordon has Moss-like problems off the field. He was kicked off the Baylor football team after testing positive twice for marijuana. The Browns, though, had to take this risk if they wanted an immediate improvement in their passing game. Pairing Gordon with Greg Little would give the Browns a young and promising wide receiver duo.

One thing we won't see: Defensive tackle Phil Taylor lining up this summer. Taylor, a 2011 first-round pick, is expected to miss the start of the season after having surgery to repair a torn pectoral muscle. The Browns have expressed confidence that Taylor will return this season. Recovery can take four to six months, depending on the severity of the tear, so Taylor could return sometime in the first half of the regular season.

The Browns went with Scott Paxson in Taylor's spot during spring workouts, but don't be surprised if John Hughes ends up with the job coming out of camp. Hughes, a third-round pick in this year's draft, is 320 pounds and can take up a lot of space inside. But losing Taylor hurts the Browns' chances of improving the NFL's 30th-ranked run defense from a year ago.

Ravens Camp Watch

July, 25, 2012
7/25/12
11:45
AM ET
NFC Camp Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Dates

Three thoughts as training camps open around the NFL:

One thing I'm certain of: The Ravens' run defense will miss veteran outside linebackers Terrell Suggs and Jarret Johnson. Suggs was a very underrated run defender, and Johnson did the thankless job of setting the edge. Now, Baltimore has to figure out how to maintain its dominance against running backs after Johnson left for San Diego in free agency and Suggs injured his Achilles tendon (he's hoping to return in the second half of the season). It would be tough to replace one. It's a major challenge to fill the void at both outside spots.

Baltimore's plan is for underachieving second-round pick Paul Kruger to replace Suggs and for Courtney Upshaw, the team's top pick in the 2012 draft, to take over for Johnson. There's a legitimate concern about if Kruger is strong enough to hold up for an entire game and an entire season. He showed that he can rush the passer (a career-high 5.5 sacks last season), but he has never been known as a physical run-stopper. Unlike past seasons, teams will test the Ravens' run defense in the fourth quarter.

One thing that might happen: Torrey Smith assumes the role of the Ravens' No. 1 wide receiver. The Ravens had repeatedly failed in developing a drafted wide receiver from Travis Taylor to Mark Clayton. That drought appears to be over after Torrey Smith made a splash after being selected in the second round in 2011. He finished only behind the Bengals' A.J. Green and the Falcons' Julio Jones in receiving yards by a rookie last season.

If Smith continues to grow, he has a chance to become the Ravens' top wide receiver this season. He clicked with Joe Flacco downfield, covering at least 25 yards on five of his seven touchdowns. There were times when it looked like Smith had more chemistry with Flacco than Anquan Boldin. Flacco's strong arm meshes better with speed receivers. And there's no receiver faster on the Ravens than Smith.

One thing we won't see: Players talking about how a trip to the Super Bowl slipped through their grasp. Six months removed from that nightmarish AFC Championship Game, the Ravens believe they have moved past Lee Evans' failed catch in the end zone and Billy Cundiff's missed field goal in the final minute. This is probably true because Baltimore has had enough recent distractions (Suggs' injury in addition to the absences of Ray Rice and Ed Reed this spring) to take the organization's mind off that loss in New England.

If there is a lingering effect, it will be seen in Cundiff. He insists that he hasn't lost any confidence, but he will have to prove that by making kicks. Scott Norwood and Gary Anderson struggled mightily after critical misses in the postseason. The Ravens didn't bring in any veteran competition for Cundiff in camp, but they might have to do so if Cundiff is off the mark this summer.

Steelers Camp Watch

July, 25, 2012
7/25/12
11:00
AM ET
NFC Camp Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Dates

Three thoughts as training camps open around the NFL:

One thing I'm certain of: The Steelers' offense is in much better hands with new coordinator Todd Haley. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger might not have been a fan of getting rid of Bruce Arians, but he will be happier with the results under Haley. There was really no excuse for the Steelers to rank 21st last season with a top-notch quarterback like Roethlisberger (albeit injured) and receivers like Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown.

Haley has shown the ability to adapt his offense to the personnel, whether it was throwing the ball all over the field in Arizona or running it down a defense's throat in Kansas City. Haley's biggest contribution will be protecting Roethlisberger. In Haley's two seasons as offensive coordinator in Arizona (2007-08), the Cardinals ranked in the top 11 in fewest sacks allowed. They gave up a total of 52 sacks in those two years, which is 12 more than Roethlisberger got sacked all of last season. A healthier Roethlisberger will lead to a healthier Steelers offense.

One thing that might happen: A new long-term deal for Wallace. Of course, a holdout by Wallace could come before the Steelers and their speedy wide receiver reach an agreement. There has been speculation that Wallace, who has yet to sign his $2.7 million restricted free-agent tender, will not report to training camp until he gets his multiyear deal. Roethlisberger, however, has said that he expects Wallace to show up on time.

Recent reports indicate the sides have made progress in talks, which has triggered optimism that a deal will be struck before the regular season. It's in everyone's best interest to get Wallace into camp as soon as possible. He has received Haley's new playbook, but he still would benefit by suiting up and running the routes. Based on what the top receivers have received this season, Wallace should sign a deal that will pay him around $20 million in the first two years.

One thing we won't see: The annual teeth-gnashing over a marginal offensive line. The rest of the league gave the Steelers a big draft-day gift when David DeCastro fell to the Steelers at the 24th overall pick. DeCastro, who is considered one of the top guard prospects over the past decade, is a major upgrade over Ramon Foster. He's a Steve Hutchinson-plow guard who fits the Steelers' system perfectly.

There's a chance that another rookie could be starting on the offensive line. Second-round pick Mike Adams has to prove he's strong enough to hold down the left tackle job. If he struggles, recently re-signed Max Starks remains a trusted insurance policy there. Pittsburgh's line will also be improved because Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey is healthier and right tackle Marcus Gilbert is entering his second season.

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