AFC North: 2012 training camp battles

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- In stark contrast to Ray Rice's awkward news conference in May, the Baltimore Ravens running back showed Thursday that he finally understood the weight of his actions from the alleged altercation with his then-fiancée in February.

He delivered the correct message, one the NFL failed to do last week with the two-game suspension, by not only apologizing to his wife, Janay Palmer, but also expressing a desire to become an advocate for domestic-violence causes.

Rice was compelling in his contrition, calling it the biggest mistake of his life. He stood in front of the microphone alone, without his wife standing by his side, and took full responsibility for the incident. Perhaps more importantly, Rice actually said the words "domestic violence," which weren't heard in his statement two months ago.

"My actions were inexcusable," Rice said. "That's something I have to live with the rest of my life."

Before anyone pats Rice on the back, this is what he should have said the first time when he broke his silence in May. Instead, Rice nervously fumbled through notes on his phone and apologized to team officials and his sponsors. That debacle of a news conference came across as damage control to his image.

His 17-minute news conference Thursday hit the right tones. He apologized to all women affected by domestic violence. He accepted the blame for losing the respect of fans. Rice came across as genuinely sorry.

"I let my wife down, I let my daughter down, I let my wife's parents down, I let the whole Baltimore community down," Rice said.

Rice's biggest misstep was not talking about what happened in the elevator. He was asked twice about it and declined to answer both times. His stance against domestic violence would have resonated stronger if he had explained his transgressions.

"I'll be honest: Like I said, I own my actions," Rice said. "I just don't want to keep reliving the incident. It doesn't bring any good to me. I'm just trying to move forward from it. I don't condone it. I take full responsibility for my actions. What happened that night is something that I'm going to pay for the rest of my life."

The only way Rice can move forward from this incident and show he's truly sincere is through his actions. It's not by his words. It's not by a hefty donation, which is merely a gesture. It's by proving this will remain a "one-time incident" and by supporting domestic-violence causes.

Thursday represented a small step forward for Rice. But it was an important one.
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An early look at the biggest training camp position battles:


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.


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.


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).


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.