AFC North: Position battles

AFC North position battles

May, 20, 2009
5/20/09
11:21
AM ET
 
  Joe Robbins/Getty Images
  Brady Quinn and Derek Anderson will compete for the starting quarterback job during Cleveland's training camp.

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

As the weather heats up, it's time to start looking ahead to this summer's NFL training camps.

The AFC North should be very interesting as several key position battles could make or break a team's 2009 season. Here is a look at the seven most intriguing competitions from around the division:

  Gay

7. Cornerback: William Gay vs. field

Team: Pittsburgh Steelers

Why it's important: With a veteran-laden team that returns 20 of 22 starters, Gay is the only projected starter in any real danger of losing his job in training camp. All indications are that the job is his to lose. The Steelers signed veteran cornerback Keiwan Ratliff and drafted rookies Keenan Lewis and Joe Burnett to provide depth and possibly be there in case Gay falters. But the organization has shown a lot of confidence in Gay since last season when he filled in for former Steeler Bryant McFadden, who signed a two-year deal with the Arizona Cardinals. Gay worked exclusively with the first team in Pittsburgh's full-squad minicamp.

Early favorite: Gay

 Hauschka
 Gano

6. Kicker: Steve Hauschka vs. Graham Gano

Team: Baltimore Ravens

Why it's important: According to Ravens coach John Harbaugh, this kicking competition in Baltimore is going to be "very interesting." Perhaps Harbaugh, a former special-teams coach, is overhyping this battle. But what is interesting is Baltimore is looking for just its second full-time kicker in franchise history. The position was held since the Ravens' inception in 1996 by veteran kicker Matt Stover. But Stover's age (41) finally started to show last season and opened the door for Hauschka and Gano to compete this year. Both young kickers have strong legs, but so far this offseason Hauschka and Gano haven't displayed Stover-type accuracy. If neither kicker comes into his own this summer, things might get "very interesting," as Harbaugh promised.

Early favorite: Even

 Mack
 Fraley

5. Center: Alex Mack vs. Hank Fraley

Team: Cleveland Browns

Why it's important: This is a classic battle between a first-round pick and an experienced veteran who's started for winning teams and played in the postseason. Mack comes to Cleveland with lofty credentials and expectations. He's strong, smart and expected to be a starter from Day 1. The only person standing in his way is Fraley, 31, who's done a solid job in his two stops with the Browns and Philadelphia Eagles. That Cleveland's new regime, led by coach Eric Mangini, took a center in the first round is a sign that Mack is the favorite to win the job. But if Fraley finds a way to hold the rookie off in training camp, Mack has the versatility to play guard, most likely on the right side.

Early favorite: Mack

 Maualuga
 Johnson

4. Linebacker: Rey Maualuga vs. Brandon Johnson

Team: Cincinnati Bengals

Why it's important: Cincinnati's defense, which was ranked No. 12 in 2008, is trying to take another step forward. In order to do this, dynamic linebacker play will be crucial. Maualuga fell to the Bengals in the second round because of several off-the-field questions surrounding the former USC linebacker. But no one questions that Maualuga is a first-round talent on the field. The issue with the Bengals is that Maualuga, a natural middle linebacker, cannot supplant leading tackler and defensive leader Dhani Jones this year. So Maualuga needs to supplant Johnson, the outside linebacker, if he wants to play right away as a rookie. Johnson is no slouch, either. He recorded 83 tackles, two interceptions and came on late last season. Rashad Jeanty, who started 15 games last year, also is a possibility at the other outside linebacker spot. Regardless, the trio of Jones, Keith Rivers and Maualuga/Johnson/Jeanty should make for a solid group of linebackers in Cincinnati.

Early favorite: Even

3. No. 2 receiver

Team: Browns

Why it's important: Someone needs to help No. 1 receiver Braylon Edwards. The long list of candidates includes veterans David Patten, Mike Furrey, and rookies Brian Robiskie and Mohamed Massaquoi. Donte' Stallworth also remains on the roster. But based on Cleveland's roster moves, it appears the Browns expect Stallworth's legal situation to keep him out this season. With the loss of former Pro Bowl tight end Kellen Winslow Jr., Edwards is Cleveland's only real receiving threat and he likely will see a lot of double teams. That will provide plenty of opportunities for Patten, Furrey, Robiskie or Massaquoi to make plays. But it remains to be seen if these players have the ability to step up.

Early favorites: Patten and Robiskie

 Gooden
 McClain

2. ILB: Tavares Gooden vs. Jameel McClain

Team: Ravens

Why it's important: The "bodyguard" role in Baltimore's defense is underrated but very important. There is a reason safety Ed Reed and linebackers Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs are able to fly around the field and make plays. It's because the inside linebacker opposite Lewis, formerly the ultra-physical Bart Scott, takes on fullbacks and pulling offensive linemen at every chance. Now the Ravens are looking at Gooden or McClain as Scott's replacement. Both young players have good athleticism. But ultimately, the player who is the most physical will win this job. Gooden opened veteran minicamp as the starter, so you have to give him the edge heading into this summer.

Early favorite: Gooden

 Quinn
 Anderson

1. QB: Brady Quinn vs. Derek Anderson

Team: Browns

Why it's important: The Mangini era in Cleveland, in large part, will depend on his decision at quarterback. An antsy fan base in Cleveland is tired of waiting for a winner and will not give Mangini four years to turn it around. Therefore, the best thing Mangini can do is figure out quickly which player is the better quarterback. It's been three seasons and the Browns still haven't settled this debate. Anderson showed flashes with his Pro Bowl campaign in 2007, but his struggles last year left many questions. Quinn, a former first-round pick, looked up and down in limited playing time. Ironically, the two never directly competed against each other -- until now. According to the coaching staff, both players will be given a fair opportunity. But Cleveland's offensive system under Mangini is being built around a power running game and an efficient and conservative passing game, which seems to favor Quinn.

Early favorite: Quinn

Bengals position battles

July, 24, 2008
7/24/08
10:00
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

Here is a look at key position battles for the Bengals:

 Marvin White Chinedum Ndukwe

 White

 Ndukwe

Safety: Marvin White vs. Chinedum Ndukwe

There was a reason the Cincinnati Bengals felt comfortable letting Madieu Williams sign with the Minnesota Vikings this offseason. Cincinnati should have a nice battle with two up-and-coming second-year players in Marvin White and Chinedum Ndukwe, who were selected in the fourth and seventh round in 2007, respectively. Both started during the final month of the season and played well. Former Super Bowl MVP Dexter Jackson will start at strong safety.

Intensity index: Hot

Willie Anderson  Stacey Andrews

 Anderson

 Andrews

Right tackle: Willie Anderson vs. Stacy Andrews

What's interesting is this hasn't been labeled as a competition by Cincinnati's coaching staff, but it kind of is. Former Pro Bowler and longtime right tackle Willie Anderson has played hurt or missed games for the better part of three years, and he will have to prove that he's healthy enough (he's obviously good enough) to hold the job this year. If not, the Bengals have a much younger, more athletic Stacy Andrews waiting to take Anderson's place. Is that considered a competition? I'm not sure. But the team will find a place in the lineup for Andrews eventually. He signed a one-year franchise tag and is expected to get a long-term extension after the season.

Intensity index: Mild

(A bonus honorable mention for Bengals fans!)

No. 3 receiver

The race to replace Chris Henry has been lukewarm so far, and the Bengals are hoping things heat up in training camp. The third receiver is important in Cincinnati's offense because of all the attention drawn by Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh. Rookies Jerome Simpson and Andre Caldwell didn't overwhelm in minicamp but that's expected in their first taste of the NFL. Glen Holt and Antonio Chatman aren't considered long-term solutions but look out for Marcus Maxwell, who did have a good spring and could be a sleeper.

Intensity index: Mild, but expected to heat up soon.

Ravens position battles

July, 24, 2008
7/24/08
9:30
AM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

Ravens logoHere is a look at key position battles for the Ravens:

Quarterback: Kyle Boller vs. Troy Smith vs. Joe Flacco

The Baltimore Ravens are just one of two teams in the entire league faced with a three-way quarterback race. Miami also is in a similar spot this summer. But what makes Baltimore's group interesting is that all three quarterbacks have different strengths and weaknesses, so the Ravens will have to decide which skill set they want to mold into Cam Cameron's attacking offense. Will they take the more mobile quarterback in Smith, who also is very undersized? Or will Baltimore choose the experienced Kyle Boller, whose poor decision making over the years has left much to be desired? Hot-shot rookie Joe Flacco has the look and the strongest arm, but can he read NFL defenses at this early stage? The Ravens have about six weeks to answer these questions.

Intensity index: Hot

Cornerback: Samari Rolle vs. Fabian Washington

This is only a competition because of questions about Samari Rolle's health. Rolle is the starting cornerback in Baltimore when he's available, but complications from epilepsy caused Rolle to miss 10 games last season. Baltimore's defense finally displayed a glaring weakness in 2007 with a banged-up secondary, so the team went out and got Fabian Washington, a former first-round pick, to provide depth. Washington will see a lot of action early in camp because Rolle also will be a late arrival following the sudden passing of his father.

Intensity index: Mild

Browns position battles

July, 24, 2008
7/24/08
9:15
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker 

Here is a look at key position battles for the Browns:

KasperWilsonCribbs

No. 3 receiver: Kevin Kasper vs. Travis Wilson vs. Joshua Cribbs

The offense is stacked, so this is really the only skill position up for grabs on that side of the football. No. 3 receiver Joe Jurevicius is currently on the training camp physically unable to perform list and likely will be put on the regular season PUP at a later date. There are three candidates in Kevin Kasper, Travis Wilson and Joshua Cribbs looking to fill in. Kasper and Wilson had solid spring workouts, and Cribbs is always up for any challenge that's asked of him. The good news for Cleveland is the team only needs one of these three players to step forward.

Intensity index: Hot

McKinneyHadnot

Right guard: Seth McKinney vs. Rex Hadnot

A fractured hip for starting guard Ryan Tucker this spring opened this spot for veterans Seth McKinney and Rex Hadnot to compete. Tucker is expected to return sometime in August, but this is arguably Cleveland's deepest position as both reserves have extensive starting experience. Hadnot may have a slight edge over McKinney at this point but it's very close. It may not matter anyway if Tucker quickly returns to form.

Intensity index: Mild

Steelers position battles

July, 24, 2008
7/24/08
9:00
AM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

Here is a look at key position battles for the Steelers:

StarksColon

Right tackle: Max Starks vs. Willie Colon

The right tackle spot will be an interesting race between Max Starks and Willie Colon. Both players were part of an offensive line that struggled mightily with pass protection in 2007. Therefore, the player that best demonstrates that they have improved in that area likely will win the job.

Intensity index: Hot

TownsendMcFadden

Cornerback: Deshea Townsend vs. Bryant McFadden

Bryant McFadden has been solid as a reserve and part-time starter for the Steelers, and now he believes he's ready to take the next step. The problem is long-time starter Deshea Townsend is in McFadden's way. Townsend, 32, is aging and McFadden, 26, is entering his prime. But Townsend usually plays just well enough every year to keep potential challengers at bay. So expect Townsend again to make it tough for McFadden to crack the starting lineup.

Intensity index: Hot

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