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Tuesday, July 13, 2010
AFC North roster bubbles

By James Walker

Every year teams have tough decisions to make to trim their rosters to 53 players. Sometimes the coaching staff and front office can't agree on who stays and who goes, and the debates get pretty heated.

With training camp approximately two weeks away, here are eight AFC North players who could be heavily debated and on the roster bubble this summer:

1. Adam Jones, CB, Cincinnati Bengals

Jones
Bengals cornerback Adam Jones looked good in training camp.
Case for: There is no denying Jones' talent. The former first-round pick looked quick and athletic playing cornerback and returning kicks during last month's mandatory minicamp. What's interesting is Jones is still working himself back into football shape after sitting out the 2009 season. The Bengals lacked a reliable third cornerback to go with starters Johnathan Joseph and Leon Hall. So there is a role available.

Case against: Jones sat out last season for off-field reasons. He has said and done the right things so far in Cincinnati, but he's on a very short leash with the league office. One mishap and Jones could be off the team and out of the league for the rest of the year. But if he stays clear of trouble, he has enough ability to make the team and contribute.

Chances of making team: 80 percent

2. Matt Jones, WR, Bengals

Case for: Jones has good size and experience. The former first-round pick had 166 career receptions and 15 touchdowns during his stint with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Outside of starters Chad Ochocinco and Antonio Bryant, Cincinnati has a pretty young group of receivers. That could give Jones a chance to earn roster spot if he's polished enough to contribute now for the defending AFC North champs.

Case against: After sitting out all of 2009 because of off-field issues, Jones appears to have lost a step. This spring he hasn't looked nearly as explosive as the freakish athlete who impressed at the NFL combine in 2005. Similar to Adam Jones, it's possible that Matt Jones can regain some of his form in the process of a grueling training camp. Jones also has an inexpensive, team-friendly contract, which the Bengals can easily terminate if they don't like what they see.

Chances of making team: 40 percent

3. Jerome Simpson, WR, Bengals

Case for: Despite a lack of production, Simpson has stuck around for two reasons: draft status and lack of receiver depth. It's hard for teams to give up on second-round picks. The Bengals invested a lot in Simpson and still want to get a return on their high pick, even if it means an extended wait. In the past, the Bengals haven't had a lot of receiver depth, which has allowed Simpson to make the 53-man roster. But that has changed this year, as Cincinnati's receiving corps has a lot of competition.

Case against: The Bengals appear tired of waiting on Simpson, who has one reception in two seasons. They drafted two rookie receivers to compete for roster spots, Jordan Shipley and Dezmon Briscoe. This is a make-or-break training camp for Simpson. He showed occasional flashes in practice but not nearly enough to earn the trust of the coaching staff when it matters in the regular season. Entering his third NFL season, there are no more excuses for Simpson not to produce.

Chances of making team: 50 percent

4. Demetrius Williams, WR, Baltimore Ravens

Demetrius Williams
Ravens receiver Demetrius Williams could be the team's deep-threat option.
Case for: With his speed and athleticism, a case can be made that Williams potentially is Baltimore's most dangerous deep threat. Anquan Boldin and Derrick Mason are more savvy, consistent receivers, while Donte' Stallworth is trying to get his legs under him after sitting out a year. Williams has averaged an impressive 16 yards per catch in his career, including two touchdown receptions of 70 yards or more. There is an open role for someone to get deep in Baltimore's high-powered offense, and Williams has a chance to be that player.

Case against: Health has always been an issue for Williams. He has played in 16 games once in his four-year career. Baltimore has kept Williams because of his potential, but at some point the Ravens would like to see consistency. To do that, Williams must stay healthy to find a role on a Ravens team with very high expectations.

Chances of making team: 70 percent

5. John Beck, QB, Ravens

Case for: Beck knows offensive coordinator Cam Cameron's system well from their days together with the Miami Dolphins. Beck's future in Baltimore could come down to Troy Smith's situation. There have been rumors of interest in Smith from the Philadelphia Eagles. Quarterback injuries in training camp and preseason could also increase Smith's trade value this summer, which would gift wrap the No. 3 quarterback job for Beck.

Case against: If nothing happens on the trade front, the Ravens have an interesting decision to make between Smith and Beck. With Joe Flacco, Marc Bulger and Smith, Beck is probably the team's fourth quarterback right now, which naturally makes him the odd man out. If Smith is still on the roster, Beck will have to make up ground the old-fashioned way and outperform Smith in the preseason to win a roster spot.

Chances of making team: 40 percent

6. Bobby Engram, WR, Cleveland Browns

Case for: The Browns have little depth and little experience at receiver. Engram potentially could provide both. The 14-year veteran played for Cleveland president Mike Holmgren when both were with the Seattle Seahawks and knows what to expect. Engram recently had a big year in 2007, when he had 94 receptions for 1,147 yards and six touchdowns. He also can serve as a mentor to young receivers such as Mohamed Massaquoi and Brian Robiskie.

Case against: It's questionable what Engram, 37, has left. Last season he had only five receptions in five games for the Kansas City Chiefs. Holmgren is hoping Engram has one more decent year left in him to help Cleveland's struggling offense, which finished last in the NFL in 2009. But if there's any team Engram can make this year, it's the Browns.

Chances of making team: 60 percent

7. James Davis, RB, Browns

Case for: Davis was arguably Cleveland's biggest rookie surprise last summer when he led the team in rushing during the preseason. But high expectations were crushed when a season-ending shoulder injury limited Davis to only two games. Now he's back for his second season and looks healthy.

Case against: Cleveland's situation at running back is very crowded. One of the best things Holmgren and new general manager Tom Heckert did this offseason was put together a solid group of rushers. The Browns traded up to draft tailback Montario Hardesty in the second round and got Peyton Hillis from the Denver Broncos in the Brady Quinn trade. Last year's leading rusher, Jerome Harrison, also returns to make for a versatile group of ball carriers. All three running backs are ahead of Davis on the depth chart. So barring injury, Davis looks like a strong candidate for the practice squad.

Chances of making team: 35 percent

8. Jonathan Dwyer, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers

Jonathan Dwyer
Pittsburgh sixth-round pick Jonathan Dwyer might be headed to the practice squad.
Case for: Despite being a sixth-round pick, Dwyer has a chance to contribute early for the Steelers. He displayed strong legs and good power in college, and that could translate into a short-yardage option for Pittsburgh. The Steelers struggled in the red zone and in short-yardage situations. If Dwyer proves he can move the chains, that would be more than enough to earn a roster spot.

Case against: Although the Steelers may end up with a bargain, no team is afraid to put a sixth-round pick on the practice squad. Dwyer played in a triple-option offense at Georgia Tech, which means he may need some time to learn a pro-style offense. But Dwyer could pan out in a limited role.

Chances of making team: 75 percent