Print and Go Back ESPN.com: NFL Nation [Print without images]

Tuesday, July 21, 2009
AFC North training camp preview


Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

Baltimore Ravens/McDaniel College: Westminster, Md.

 
  Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images
  Baltimore running back Le'Ron McClain might not get as many carries this season.
Campfires: Coming off an appearance in the AFC Championship Game, Baltimore is a veteran-laden team set at a lot of positions. So there aren't many training camp battles to look forward to.

One of the few open competitions is the battle to replace Bart Scott, involving young linebackers Tavares Gooden and Antwan Barnes. Gooden, with his energy and athleticism, is the early favorite but will have to solidify the starting job with a good camp this summer.

Although the Ravens' coaching staff has downplayed it this offseason, there seems to be a shift in the backfield toward giving more carries to the tailbacks -- Ray Rice and Willis McGahee -- and fewer carries to Le'Ron McClain, who is a natural fullback. McClain was the hot hand last year and led Baltimore in rushing with 902 yards, while Rice and McGahee were in and out of the lineup with injuries. But McClain only averaged 3.9 yards per carry and it appears Baltimore is hoping for more big rushing plays from its tailbacks. But similar to last year, all three components of the "three-headed monster" will get their share of opportunities.

Division Camp Previews
Tuesday: NFC North | AFC North
Wednesday: NFC East | AFC East
Thursday: NFC South | AFC South
Friday: NFC West | AFC West

MORE
Camp battles: AFC | NFC

Schedule: Training camp dates

Camp will be a downer if ... the Ravens fail to find a replacement for retired receiver Derrick Mason. Baltimore already had the tall task of finding a young receiver to fill the No. 3 option. Mason's surprise announcement this month leaves the team in search of a top receiver. The team also plans to meet with Mason to see if it's possible he could have a change of heart.

Baltimore could stay in-house and hope Mark Clayton develops into a No. 1 receiver this season, which is a risky proposition. Or the Ravens could look outside at a veteran free agent such as Marvin Harrison, who is similar to Mason in terms of skills. Making a trade for a receiver such as Anquan Boldin or Brandon Marshall doesn't appear likely.

The Ravens have high aspirations this year and a starting lineup of Clayton and possibly Demetrius Williams isn't good enough to win a Super Bowl this season. Baltimore doesn't have many glaring weaknesses, but the hole at receiver could become a major issue if it is not addressed.

Camp will be a success if ... rookie right tackle Michael Oher adjusts to the NFL game quickly. Oher has a major responsibility of protecting one of the edges for second-year quarterback Joe Flacco.

Baltimore traded up in the first round to draft Oher, which shows how much the team likes the rookie from Mississippi. Barring injury, Oher will be the Week 1 starter at right tackle. So the Ravens coaching staff would love to see continual progress from the rookie during training camp.

Getting a kick: This year could mark the first time in franchise history that Matt Stover is not Baltimore's kicker. The 18-year veteran who has been with the team from its inception in 1996 was not re-signed by the Ravens because of declining leg strength on kickoffs.

The Ravens kept an additional kicker on their roster for most of last season to help with kickoffs, while Stover handled field goals and extra points. But Baltimore doesn't want to do that again, so they have Steve Hauschka and rookie Graham Gano battling it out for both duties.

Neither kicker got off to a great start this offseason. So Stover remains on call in case Hauschka or Gano do not perform well in the preseason.


Cincinnati Bengals/Georgetown College: Georgetown, Ky.

 
  AP Photo/David Kohl
  Cincinnati linebacker Rey Maualuga will be given every opportunity to compete for a starting job.
Campfires: When a team is coming off a four-win season, naturally there are a lot of interesting camp battles to look forward to the following year.

Perhaps the most compelling battle will be at outside linebacker between incumbent Rashad Jeanty and hotshot rookie Rey Maualuga, whom the Bengals were thrilled to land in the second round. Maualuga is a natural inside linebacker, but that position is already filled by team leader Dhani Jones. So Cincinnati's coaching staff is giving the former USC linebacker every opportunity to see the field, and Maualuga's best chance is to beat out Jeanty in training camp.

Also look for an interesting three-way competition at center between Kyle Cook, Dan Santucci and rookie Jonathan Luigs, and an interesting battle at safety between veteran free-agent signing Roy Williams and the underrated Chinedum Ndukwe.

Camp will be a downer if ... the offensive line fails to get it together. There are expected to be four players at new positions on the offensive line this season. That means developing continuity will be vital during training camp.

First-round pick Andre Smith comes in with a gaudy résumé and is expected to start at right tackle. The Bengals also will have a new center between the aforementioned Cook, Santucci or Luigs. Andrew Whitworth is moving from left guard to left tackle this season, and Nate Livings probably will take Whitworth's place at guard. That is a lot of new faces in new places for Cincinnati.

Camp will be a success if ... quarterback Carson Palmer returns to form and remains healthy. It sounds simple, but two of the past four years Palmer has suffered season-ending injuries.

Last year alone, Palmer had his nose broken in the preseason and later suffered an elbow injury that forced him to shut it down for the year. With Palmer approaching 30 in December and Cincinnati's poor performance on the offensive line the past couple of seasons, getting Palmer to the regular season without a scratch should not be taken for granted.

Show and prove: Cincinnati's defense finished 12th in the NFL last season despite little help or points scored from its offense.

Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer has done a tremendous job with this scrappy group, and now that the Bengals expect to score points again, there is some talk of Cincinnati's defense becoming a top 10 group. With good, young players such as linebacker Keith Rivers, defensive tackle Domata Peko and cornerback Johnathan Joseph, Cincinnati's defense will be out to prove that last year was not a fluke.


Cleveland Browns/Team training facility: Berea, Ohio

 
  Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
  Cleveland coach Eric Mangini has a big decision to make at quarterback.
Campfires: The hottest training camp battle in the division is in Cleveland between quarterbacks Brady Quinn and Derek Anderson. This is the pair's third season together, but it's the first open competition between the two.

New Browns coach Eric Mangini has come in with no preconceived notions on either player in terms of draft status, who made it to the Pro Bowl, etc. So Quinn and Anderson legitimately have a clean slate this summer.

Quinn began offseason practices with a slight lead in this competition and probably didn't do anything to lose that advantage heading into training camp. But don't expect this battle to be decided until late in the preseason.

Camp will be a downer if ... neither quarterback emerges. The quarterback controversy between Anderson and Quinn has been a cloud hanging over the Browns for two seasons and the team needs to have a firm answer by the start of the regular season.

Mangini said he's going to be as diligent as possible in his evaluation, so when he does make a decision he plans to stick to it. The last thing a new coach needs is a divided locker room that doesn't know which leader to get behind for the regular season.

Camp will be a success if ... everyone buys into the system. There is some early skepticism with the Browns because many disagreed with the way Mangini came in and instantly changed the culture.

Players had to quickly learn that Mangini is a disciplinarian who doesn't care too much about feelings. If his players buy into his way of doing things, Cleveland has a much better chance for success in 2009. If not, it could negatively impact the product on the field.

Contract watch: The pending contract situations of Browns kicker Phil Dawson and return specialist Joshua Cribbs remain unresolved.

Cribbs sat out a portion of offseason workouts but eventually returned. Dawson didn't show up until mandatory minicamp and didn't have much to say when he finally arrived. If there continues to be zero progress with either player, this may be something to keep an eye on this summer.


Pittsburgh Steelers/St. Vincent College : Latrobe, Pa.

 
  AP Photo/Jim Mone
  Pittsburgh running back Rashard Mendenhall needs to impress in training camp.
Campfires: After returning 20 of 22 starters, there are few starting jobs open for the defending Super Bowl champions entering training camp.

The biggest battles involve reserve roles, where a pair of 2008 draft picks will be trying to earn playing time. Second-year player Limas Sweed is battling veteran Shaun McDonald for the No. 3 receiver role, which is an important staple of Pittsburgh's offense. Former first-round pick Rashard Mendenhall also will be looking to impress the coaching staff so he can get more carries in a crowded backfield that includes starter Willie Parker and solid backup Mewelde Moore.

Camp will be a downer if ... the Steelers suffer injuries. Although the coaching staff won't admit it, few teams need training camp and the preseason less than Pittsburgh.

Nearly all of its starters are back, and the two players filling in -- linebacker Lawrence Timmons and cornerback William Gay -- have been in Pittsburgh's program for a few years. As expected with a championship team, the Steelers already have very well-defined roles across the board and don't need exhibition games to figure that out. They just need to stay healthy.

Camp will be a success if ... the offensive line improves. Instead of spending money in free agency, the Steelers are counting on continuity up front.

It's risky considering the beating $100-million quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has taken in recent years. He has been sacked a whopping 139 times the past three seasons. As with any franchise quarterback, the offensive line keeping Roethlisberger upright and healthy is vital to Pittsburgh's chances of repeating.

Special delivery: Perhaps the most under-the-radar weakness for Pittsburgh during its title run last season was the lack of quality special teams. The Steelers struggled both with punts and in the return game.

The return of Daniel Sepulveda this year from a knee injury should be a nice, quiet addition to the Steelers. The team also drafted several players with return ability, such as rookies Mike Wallace and Joe Burnett, in hopes to get a boost in returns.

Qadry Ismail and Darren Woodson preview the AFC North.