NFL Nation: Davone Bess

The Cleveland Browns focused on improving their defense on the first day of free agency. By Day 3, the Browns received their first big addition to the NFL's 18th-ranked offense, although it will likely be their smallest as well.

Hawkins
Wide receiver Andrew Hawkins, all 5-foot-7 and 180 pounds of explosive speed, will likely join the Browns because the Cincinnati Bengals are not expected to match the offer sheet on the restricted free agent.

Not only does Hawkins replace Davone Bess, he brings an entirely different skill set to the slot receiver position. Bess was a possession receiver. Hawkins is a sparkplug. Bess averaged 8.6 yards per catch last season. Hawkins averaged 9.5 yards after the catch.

In three seasons with the Bengals, Hawkins proved he was a big play waiting to happen. He could take a pass on a screen or a shallow crossing pattern and turn it into a 20-yard play. Hawkins' size makes him elusive. His speed makes him dangerous.

In 2012, 57.2 percent of his yards gained came after the catch. According to ESPN Stats & Information, only four receivers in the league that year had more yards after the catch while playing in the slot.

Why would the Bengals let him go? The Bengals have so much depth at wide receiver that Hawkins' opportunities were going to be limited. This is why it's a good move for Hawkins as well as the Browns.

Joining the Browns means Hawkins has come full circle in his career. A three-year starter at the University of Toledo, Hawkins wasn't drafted but he received a tryout for the Browns rookie minicamp. He did well enough that he was told he would be signed. But the Browns later told him they were going in a different direction.

Hawkins' journey took him to the CFL's Montreal Alouettes for two seasons before he got another shot at the NFL in 2011. But he was cut by the St. Louis Rams at the start of training camp. The Bengals picked him up, and Hawkins went on to catch 86 passes for 995 yards and four touchdowns in three seasons.

He'll be a good fit to a Browns passing game that already has talent with two Pro Bowl targets in wide receiver Josh Gordon and tight end Jordan Cameron. But Hawkins represents just a small piece of the Browns' puzzle, which still has major question marks at quarterback and running back.
The Cleveland Browns surprised nobody by releasing Davone Bess on Wednesday. The move followed Bess' troubled offseason that included some bizarre tweets and being arrested at Fort Lauderdale Airport.

Bess also was a disappointment on the field, as he never lived up to the leadership role the team envisioned when it acquired him from Miami in the offseason.

Bess caught just 42 passes for 362 yards. He dropped nine passes, tied for the third-highest total in the league, according to ESPN Stats & Information. He also left the team prior to the 15th game. The team attributed it to a family issue, but when Bess started tweeting photos of himself with marijuana paraphernalia it was evident there may have been other issues. His tweets got more and more bizarre in the offseason, and word soon broke that prior to the trade from Miami, Bess had been hospitalized by his family for emotional issues.

Former Browns general manager Mike Lombardi, contacted shortly after he left the team, declined to comment on whether the team had done a background check on Bess.

The Browns gave Bess a new contract that was worth $5.75 million in guaranteed money, including $3.067 million in 2014. The Browns did not mention the guarantee in the release, but they could try to void the guarantee based on his behavior.

Bess' release confirms the need for a third receiver. The team recently made center Alex Mack its transition player, but also released inside linebacker D'Qwell Jackson. The Browns also have not been able to come to an agreement with free-agent-to-be safety T.J. Ward.

Emotions simmer after bad loss to Jets

December, 22, 2013
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It took 15 games, six consecutive losses and one real bad performance in a 24-13 loss to the Jets, but Cleveland Browns coach Rob Chudzinski broke his flatline postgame approach.

For the first time all season, Chudzinski showed some emotion -- and anger. It was nothing over the top, but it was there.

He called the effort unacceptable, said it was tough to swallow.

[+] EnlargeRob Chudzinski
Ed Mulholland/USA TODAY Sports"I'm the head coach of this team," Rob Chudzinski said. "So ultimately this is on me."
Of losing six in a row, nine of 10 and playing so poorly at this point of the season, he said: “You can’t imagine how I feel about that.”

During the week leading up to the game, the coach had talked about seeing things that made him believe in the long-term plan. After the game he admitted there weren’t a lot of good things to see against the Jets.

Then he said the team’s results and play falls on him.

“I bear all the responsibility,” Chudzinski said. “I’m the head coach of this team. So ultimately this is on me, and I’m committed to get it right.”

With all due respect to his professional approach, it’s on a lot more than the coach. While the present regime can blame the previous one because it doesn’t like the players it inherited, this team has regressed as the season has gone on. The team has left salary-cap space unspent even though several positions could be upgraded while at the same time making a great effort to build for 2014 and beyond.

The constant tension between a front office building for the future and a coaching staff wanting to win now was never more apparent than during the past few days, as the coach and offensive coordinator Norv Turner tried to explain where the team is headed and why decisions are made.

The Browns added two receivers in the offseason, Davone Bess via trade and David Nelson via free agency. Bess is done for the season due to personal issues after a very disappointing season.

Nelson spent much of preseason with the Browns while recovering from knee surgery. He played fairly well in the preseason finale, then was cut.

Sunday he caught two touchdowns against the Browns -- the first two of his season and the first two-touchdown game of his career. In the same game, Greg Little and Josh Gordon dropped two touchdown catches, and Jason Campbell was throwing passes to Brian Tyms, Josh Cooper and MarQueis Gray -- a college quarterback playing tight end.

There are a lot of reasons to explain the Browns' 4-11 record, beginning with team starting three different quarterbacks and having no real running game.

The defensive meltdowns -- they had no hits or sacks of Jets rookie quarterback Geno Smith -- are harder to explain, other than the defense is simply not what it was touted to be.

But NFL players have 16 opportunities to play hard and play well. On this particular Sunday the Browns did neither.

What was left was for Chudzinski to respond this way when asked what he’d say to the fans: “Hang in there. We’ll get it right.”

Which is tough for fans to hear when the team has won 27 games over the past six seasons (with one left).

Chudzinski just happens to be the guy who speaks after games. But the team’s owner, CEO and GM have not had a lot to say.

Losing to the Patriots and Bears, two teams competing for the playoffs, is one thing.

Losing with a half-hearted, sloppy and uninspired effort against a team that’s playing for nothing but pride is quite another.

If Jacksonville was rock bottom for the Browns, this effort had them looking for rocks to hide under.
Cornerback Joe Haden was on the practice field for the first time this week for the Cleveland Browns, but Haden said he’s still a game-time decision against the Jets because of a deep hip bruise.

Haden
“I just tried to do warm-ups,” Haden said. “Individual drills. It felt pretty good. We’re still working day by day.”

Tight end Jordan Cameron was ruled out with a concussion.

Haden said he feels better than he did two days ago, but the issue is pain tolerance and being able to move well enough that the injury doesn’t prompt another problem like a muscle pull or strain.

“If I’m going to be able to go, it (the decision) will be Sunday,” Haden said.

Haden is listed as questionable.

In addition, receiver Davone Bess missed the past two days of practice with a personal issue. The Browns did not say more than that; Bess is also listed as questionable.

Charles has drawbacks as receiver, too

November, 20, 2013
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KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Jamaal Charles leads the Kansas City Chiefs in pass receptions, but he's also well out in front in another receiving category, this one not as positive.

Charles
According to the fine folks at Pro Football Focus, Charles has dropped nine passes. That not only leads the Chiefs and NFL running backs, but it's second in the league to the 10 drops credited to Cleveland Browns wide receiver Davone Bess.

One of Charles' two drops in Sunday night's loss to the Denver Broncos was an easy throw that would have been a touchdown had he caught it. The play didn't cost the Chiefs as they scored a touchdown on the next play on Alex Smith's pass to Dwayne Bowe.

But with the Chiefs struggling to get their passing game going, it's a problem spot for them. Donnie Avery dropped a pass in Denver for what should have been a long gain. Dwayne Bowe also had a drop against the Broncos.

Charles, though, leads the way.

Two Browns take stand against one word

November, 6, 2013
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As the Miami Dolphins situation unravels, two Browns players were clear about one element of the story.

The ugly racial epithet Dolphins guard Richie Incognito reportedly used to refer to Jonathan Martin (the N-word) is not appropriate. Even if it’s used as slang or in a purportedly friendly manner.

“It’s not appropriate for anybody,” said wide receiver Davone Bess said.

“Not at all [appropriate],” linebacker D'Qwell Jackson said. “I don’t say the word myself. It should not be used at all.”

Jackson and Bess are both veterans and team leaders, and both are African-American.

Bess shows why being a pro matters

November, 4, 2013
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CLEVELAND -- Losing a college scholarship and spending 15 months in a detention center will put a bad day on the football field in perspective.

And help a person forget said day pretty quickly.

Which is just what happened with Browns receiver Davone Bess, a pro’s pro who rebounded from a tough day in Kansas City to catch two touchdown passes and a crucial fourth-down throw in the Browns' win over Baltimore.

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Bess
“It’s a journey,” Bess said after the Browns’ 24-18 win over Baltimore. “Me personally, I had a journey a long time ago.”

Which is why he could put what happened a week ago behind him. Then, Bess dropped two passes and saw a fourth-down catch that could have kept the Browns' hopes for a win over the Chiefs alive bounce off his chest.

He thought of that as another fourth-down throw was headed his way in the win over Baltimore.

“I didn't want to make the same mistake again,” Bess said.

Bess somehow made a sliding catch on a vital play as the Browns went for the first down on fourth-and-1, a catch that kept a six-plus-minute drive alive as the Browns secured their first win over the Ravens since 2007.

“I was hoping not to drop the ball,” Bess said. “That’s all I was worried about.”

Bess was acquired to be a veteran presence on the receiving corps. He was also going to be a third-down guy who made important catches to keep drives moving.

He didn’t do that against the Chiefs, talked about being a pro and bouncing back and told quarterback Jason Campbell to trust him the day after the loss. Campbell did. Two of Bess’ catches were on fourth down, one for a TD, and the other TD was a third-down catch that led to a nice run after catch.

“He knew what he had to do and he handled his business,” cornerback Joe Haden said of Bess, who was implicated in a theft scheme in high school in Oakland when friends put a hefty amount of stolen goods in his car.

“I’m still on [the journey],” Bess said. “We all are. Just gotta keep swinging.”

“You get to know people and you get to trust people ...” coach Rob Chudzinski said. “Davone is one of those people.”

The Browns have not had many players like Bess in recent years. He turned his life around and has dedicated himself to helping other with his foundation. He also brings a certain attitude and approach that the team needs. He’s a professional, and while he may not be Calvin Johnson, few are.

What Bess provides, the Browns need.

And like.
CLEVELAND -- Rob Chudzinski told his team on his first day as the Cleveland Browns coach that they should expect a certain approach.

He wanted to be aggressive, and he wanted his team to be aggressive.

“He hasn’t disappointed,” left tackle Joe Thomas said.

No, he has not. Twice in the 24-18 win over the Baltimore Ravens Chudzinski called for his team to go for the first down on fourth-and-1. Both were important moments in a close game. Both went the Browns' way.

[+] EnlargeDavone Bess
AP Photo/David RichardDavone Bess came up big on both of Cleveland's fourth-down conversion attempts.
That makes it 19 times this season that Chudzinski has gone for the first down on fourth down, a league high. (The Browns have made it 10 times.) Some coaches might not go for it on fourth down twice in a season; Chudzinski is doing it twice a game.

“That’s his mindset,” said wide receiver Davone Bess. “That’s his mentality.”

The Browns knew they’d have an attacking defense, but Chudzinski’s attacking approach on offense goes against the grain of almost every NFL coach. In a league where most talk about “managing the game” and “having a chance” to win, Chudzinski goes after it. That it came in a division game against the Super Bowl champions was even more noteworthy.

“We’ve been a kid brother in this division for a long time,” Chudzinski said. “You have to go play, and if you want to change that then you have to go do things to change it.”

Players love a coach who has faith in them -- especially when he’s not afraid to show that faith. Over time, the aggressive message seeps in and players start to believe as much as their coach.

Chudzinski shows this aggressiveness with a team that has not won six games in any of the previous five seasons, but heads into the bye week two games behind the Bengals in the AFC North with a 4-5 record -- a mark in Cleveland worth smiling about.

The first fourth down against Baltimore came in the first quarter, at the end of the Browns' second drive. The Browns got to the Ravens 1, and on fourth down Chudzinski went for the touchdown.

“I felt good about what we had game-plan wise to be able to score,” Chudzinski said. “I think it was important in this game for our guys to have the mentality to play to win.”

Jason Campbell was able to thread a pass to Bess for a touchdown.

In the fourth quarter, the Browns led by three and had a fourth-and-1 from the Baltimore 43 with 3:12 left. Again, the conventional thinking would be to punt, pin the Ravens deep and play defense. But often, that conventional thinking prevents a win. Chudzinski again went for the first down.

“We had the opportunity to take the game at that point,” he said.

Campbell had to scramble and throw back across his body, but he again found Bess for a sliding catch and a first down. Eight plays later the Browns kicked the game-securing field goal with 17 seconds left.

“It’s not just a matter of being reckless,” Chudzinski said. “But it’s a matter of being aggressive. Sometimes it’s going to work; sometimes it’s not going work, and I understand that.

“Fortunately it paid off today.”

Chudzinski has set the tone with his decisions, which have included fake punts and field goals. And he’s been consistent all season.

His attitude is aggressive, it’s determined -- and it’s refreshing.

Locker Room Buzz: Cleveland Browns

November, 3, 2013
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CLEVELAND -- Observed in the locker room after the Cleveland Browns' 24-18 win against Baltimore:

Campbell
X-Rays for Campbell: Browns quarterback Jason Campbell went immediately to the X-ray room next to the locker room to have his injured ribs checked. Campbell said he had trouble breathing after Haloti Ngata landed on him, and that continuing to play was difficult -- but he was not leaving a game he called a “must-win.” Campbell said he didn’t think he had broken ribs, but asked if he could play in a week if the Browns were not off, he said: “Who knows?”

Also hurt: Wide receiver Greg Little never made it into the locker room after the game, presumably because he needed treatment on an injured shoulder. Little had one of his best games as a Brown, with seven catches for 122 yards, but left the game in the fourth quarter after hurting his right shoulder.

Confident crew: The Browns seemed almost arrogant heading into the game, but after they simply seemed confident. The defense has been a completely different crew since receiving a tongue-lashing from the coaching staff at halftime in Kansas City, and the Browns now are in second place in the AFC North. It’s been a long time since the Browns beat the Ravens (since 2007), but this win was complete, efficient and impressive.

Confused by the Ravens: Brown defensive tackle Phillip Taylor said it seemed like the Ravens changed their entire offense form a year ago. He said it seemed like fullback Vontae Leach only was in for a couple plays, then added: “Who knows what’s going on over there?”

Reaching out: Owner Jimmy Haslam reached into the huddle around Davone Bess to shake the wide receiver’s hand after his two-touchdown game. Haslam then turned around and crossed paths with Campbell and offered the quarterback a greeting -- two guys who played key roles in the win.
Jason Campbell didn’t give the Cleveland Browns a win, but he did give them a little glimmer of hope. And hope was something that was missing a week ago.

Against the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday, Campbell survived a brutal first quarter (two three-and-outs), righted himself and the team in the second and gave the Browns just what they hoped for in the fourth: a chance to win.

“I can still play the game,” Campbell said with a smile after the Browns had come close to an upset of the unbeaten Chiefs before losing 23-17.

[+] EnlargeJason Campbell
David Welker/Getty ImagesJason Campbell threw for 293 yards and two TDs, and had the Browns competing in the second half.
“We can win with Jason,” said defensive lineman Phil Taylor.

The Browns are the living embodiment of a sort of theory of relativity, meaning that a quarterback’s play is relative to the other guys the Browns played this season. Campbell didn’t provide the spark of Brian Hoyer, but he did offer a much better feel for the game than Brandon Weeden, the guy Campbell replaced.

Campbell felt the rush, avoided it and finished with 293 yards and a passer rating of 105.4. He completed 22 of 36 passes, threw for two touchdowns, with no interceptions, and perhaps most important had the ball four times in the second half with the Browns down only three.

A guy who played poorly a year ago in his only start with Chicago, and who last held a starting job in 2011 with Oakland, played an efficient game — and as effective a game as a guy can play and lose.

“From the time the game started until the game ended, as far as what we were trying to do offensively, none of that was a problem,” Campbell said.

Campbell did this against a relentless pass rush and an excellent defense. He was sacked just once, and that didn’t happen until the fourth quarter.

“He played a tremendous game,” linebacker D’Qwell Jackson said. “He didn’t turn the ball over and he looked poised.”

Again, it’s relative. The flip side of the argument would be that Campbell and the Browns had those four chances in the second half and didn’t come through. But after trailing 13-0 early in the second quarter and 20-10 at halftime, Campbell found Fozzy Whittaker on the opening drive of the second half to cut the deficit to 20-17.

“You got to weather the storm,” Campbell said. “You can’t get impatient.”

The Browns last chances began with 3:55 remaining. Campbell and the Browns took over at the their 16-yard line, and he converted on a third-and-9 to move them to the 28. A holding penalty on Joe Thomas on second down put the offense in a bad spot, but on fourth down Campbell again gave the Browns a chance, rolling right and spotting Davone Bess near the first-down marker.

But Bess dropped the pass, ending a tough day for him that included three drops and a fumble.

Though it didn’t work out, the moment was not too big for Campbell. Which is a lot more than could be said about the Browns' quarterbacks the previous two weeks.

“Truth be told,” he said, “it’s kind of exciting. Everybody’s into it and the stadium’s going crazy and you can win the game in those crucial moments.”

The cynical view would be that Campbell proved he’s the same guy who started the game with a 31-40 record as a starter, a guy who can play a little but not win. But the relative view says that Campbell was giant strides better than Weeden.

“Jason has faith in me,” receiver Josh Gordon said. “And I have faith in him.”

If the Browns take nothing else from this game, they at least found reason to believe in their quarterback, something they could not do the last two weeks.

“The team we have now,” Jackson said, “we can win with this team.”

Miscues by Davone Bess hurt the cause

October, 27, 2013
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KANSAS CITY -- Davone Bess probably could not wait to get out of town.

Acquired by the Browns to be a veteran leader and trusted possession receiver, Bess had three drops and a crucial fumbled punt in Cleveland’s 23-17 loss to the Chiefs on Sunday.

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“I had a bad game,” Bess said in quotes distributed by the team. “Gotta look at the tape and go through it. You can’t make critical mistakes in critical situations.”

Bess spoke only to a few reporters before leaving the locker room while most of the local media was talking to coach Rob Chudzinski.

As far as critical mistakes go, Bess had some doozies (official football term there).

The biggest was when he fumbled a punt with 7:02 left. The Browns defense had forced the Chiefs to kick from their 10, and if Bess merely fair-catches the ball the Browns only need 25 yards to try a makable field goal that could have tied the game.

Bess caught the ball on the run, only to see it squirt out of his hands.

The Chiefs didn’t score on the turnover, but it cost the Browns four minutes in clock time and two timeouts as coach Rob Chudzinski chose to use them early.

“No excuse,” Bess said. “I got to catch it.”

He had two drops early in the game, one on the first pass thrown to him (the third game in a row he’s dropped the first pass thrown to him). He also dropped the Browns last pass, a sliding catch right at the first-down marker on fourth-and-7 from the Browns 31.

“Everyone has those days in the NFL,” said quarterback Jason Campbell. “You play the game long enough, you’re going to have a day like that. I sill have all the confidence in the world in him.”

The Browns simply are not good enough to overcome those key mistakes.

“There is no excuse for it,” Bess said. “I pride myself on catching the ball.”
Say this for the Cleveland Browns: They should be used to working with a new quarterback.

"This is our third time with a different quarterback, so I think we're ready for it," receiver Josh Gordon said after Jason Campbell was named the starter Wednesday over Brandon Weeden.

Some teams start three quarterbacks in 10 seasons. The Browns will start their third in eight games. It's the fifth time since 1999 the Browns have used three quarterbacks in a season.

[+] EnlargeJason Campbell, Brian Hoyer and Brandon Weeden
Ron Schwane/USA TODAY SportsThis will be the fifth time since 1999 that the Browns use three quarterbacks in a single season.
The move is for performance reasons. Weeden started the first two games before being replaced by Brian Hoyer. Hoyer hurt his knee in Week 5 and was replaced by Weeden. But Weeden has played so poorly that he's been replaced by Campbell.

The Hollies sang about being "On a Carousel." The Browns have perfected it.

"I feel like that's what the coaches wanted, the front office wanted," Gordon said. "If that's what they feel is right, that was the right move."

Gordon conceded that three starters in eight games is "a little different."

"But I think we can definitely overcome it if it's a big problem," he said. "I don't see it as a big problem. I think we'll be fine."

"It can be [tough]," Davone Bess said. "That's the nature of this business. Obviously you want consistency at the quarterback position, knowing who's gonna be there every week. But that's [life in] the NFL."

Weeden was in the locker room, but declined (cordially) to speak with the media. His future now is in serious limbo. He's 30, he was given two opportunities to lead the Browns and he's lost his chance. A year after being welcomed as a first-round draft pick and strong-armed starter, he seems to have lost his confidence and his nerve. It seemed, midway through his rookie season, he'd have a future. But he struggled late in 2012, and this season never seemed to take hold of the starter's role.

"It's not about one person," Campbell said. "I know everyone wanted to say it's about Brandon. But it really wasn't about one person. We all as a collective group have to do a better job, day in and day out, of doing a better job."

Coach Rob Chudzinski said the team will evaluate the quarterback spot week by week, and said one of the reasons Campbell is starting was that he fit the need for Sunday's game against Kansas City. A lot can happen, and Campbell understands as well as anyone. Two years ago he was playing his best when he started in Oakland and had the Raiders on their way to a 4-2 start. In a game against the Browns, he scrambled but separated his shoulder when tackled by Chris Gocong and Scott Fujita.

That was the last time Campbell was a full-time starter.

Now he returns as the starter for the team that put an end to his last best chance to succeed.

QBs Tannehill, Weeden under spotlight

September, 5, 2013
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Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill played against Cleveland Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden several times in college. However, Tannehill only views his record as 0-1 against Weeden.

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Tannehill
“The other times I was playing receiver,” Tannehill said this week. “It was a good game. We lost by two points, I think.”

Tannehill (Texas A&M) and Weeden (Oklahoma State) played in the Big 12 conference for four years together from 2008-11. But as Tannehill mentioned, he started his college career as a wide receiver and transitioned to quarterback for his final year and a half. Weeden’s Cowboys beat Tannehill’s Aggies, 30-29, in their only meeting in 2011 -- Tannehill was off by one point -- and both quarterbacks were drafted in the first round one year later.

Tannehill and Weeden are the forgotten quarterbacks of the famed 2012 draft class. They didn’t put up the same numbers as Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III or Russell Wilson as rookies. But Miami and Cleveland’s quarterbacks both showed flashes.

They will face off for the first time in the NFL when the Dolphins travel to play the Browns on Sunday. If both players develop into franchise quarterbacks, this could be the first of several meetings in the pros.

“Brandon is a great guy, got to know him a little bit after we were done playing,” Tannehill said. “I think it was in New York and at the Manning Camp. He’s a great guy, a lot like me, and I know he wants to be good.”

A lot will be on the shoulders of both quarterbacks. The front seven on defense is a strength for Cleveland and Miami, which means Tannehill and Weeden must make plays with their arms at some point to be successful.

Former Dolphin and current Browns slot receiver Davone Bess caught passes from Tannehill and Weeden in the past year and sees potential in both players.

“They are two different players, and a big part of that is they’re in two different systems,” Bess said this week in a conference call. “I would say from a mental standpoint they are both sharp players, very poised and don’t get too high and too low. Those are great attributes to win in this league. I wouldn’t say one is better than the other in any particular category.”

Tannehill and Weeden will both be under the spotlight on Sunday. The Dolphins and Browns hope they have the right quarterbacks, and a good performance right away in Week 1 would be a step in the right direction.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

What are the three key camp issues facing each AFC North team?

BALTIMORE RAVENS

Offense: Wide receiver
After trading Anquan Boldin due to salary-cap constraints, the Ravens opted not to invest in a veteran replacement. That leaves Torrey Smith as the top wideout for Joe Flacco, but the Ravens have substantial questions behind him. Jacoby Jones had a standout postseason but has never recorded more than 562 receiving yards in a single season. He must prove himself capable of replicating his postseason success in order for Baltimore to transition beyond Boldin’s absence.

Defense: Replacing leadership
GM Ozzie Newsome did a formidable job of replacing departed veterans Ray Lewis and Ed Reed with younger talent this offseason, but finding new leadership on defense will be no easy task. Terrell Suggs is a veteran voice who can absorb an even larger leadership role, but it will be more than a one-man job to account for what Lewis and Reed brought to the table. Offensively, the Ravens have Flacco and Ray Rice to steer the ship.

Wild card: Potential inside linebacker depth
The Ravens have three players who seem likely to compete for starting inside linebacker jobs, but two of them, Arthur Brown and Jameel McClain, are dealing with medical issues. McClain (back) is waiting for clearance from medical staffers to return to contact work, while Brown underwent sports hernia surgery after the team drafted him. A delayed return from either, or both, would put stress on the defense to find a replacement for Lewis. Daryl Smith, limited to just two games in 2012, is another candidate to start.

CINCINNATI BENGALS

Offense: Dalton’s ascension
Give QB Andy Dalton this: He’s led his team to the playoffs in each of his first two seasons, an impressive accomplishment early in his career. The question is, does he have what it takes to move the Bengals past their recent destinations and win a playoff game? Dalton has no touchdowns and four interceptions in a pair of playoff contests, and 2013 is a critical year to decide his long-term future with the franchise. The Bengals have a playoff-caliber defense and some excellent offensive pieces, but the NFL is a quarterback-driven league. Dalton must make strides.

Defense: Middle linebacker play
Many surmised the Bengals would replace Rey Maualuga this offseason, but the team instead inked him to a new two-year deal. That’s a sign of confidence in the 26-year-old, but there are still questions about whether he has the range to be a consistent playmaker in the middle of the defense. He didn’t force a single turnover in 2012, though his 122 tackles were second best on the defense. Despite the new contract, 2013 is still another year for the USC product to prove he’s the man for the long haul in the middle.

Wild card: Finding space for two tight ends
This is a good issue to have. The Bengals have an incumbent starter at tight end -- who was named to the Pro Bowl last year -- in Jermaine Gresham, and he will be pushed by rookie Tyler Eifert. Simply put, the Bengals need to find ways to use the rangy Eifert, whose ball skills and length make him a superior red zone target. It may not be long before he’s recognized as the best tight end on the roster.

CLEVELAND BROWNS

Offense: T-Rich’s health
The Browns need Trent Richardson to be a workhorse, much as he was during his rookie season in 2012. Richardson admirably fought through injuries last year and has spent much of the offseason banged up with a shin issue. The Browns are hopeful he’ll arrive to training camp at 100 percent, but if he doesn’t, it’s a concern that will linger. With question marks surrounding the quarterback position, the Browns need a security blanket in the backfield to tote the heavy load. A healthy Richardson is the answer and more.

Defense: McFadden ready?
Alabama (and now Jets) cornerback Dee Milliner seemed like a sound candidate for the sixth pick in the draft, but the Browns stockpiled another pass-rusher in Barkevious Mingo instead. The team eventually filled its need for a cornerback to play opposite Joe Haden by taking Leon McFadden in the third round, a candidate to start as a rookie. Should McFadden win the job, it’ll be a test for the San Diego State product. Nonetheless, the second cornerback position is one worth monitoring in training camp.

Wild card: Accounting for Gordon’s absence
For two games, the Browns will be without top wide receiver Josh Gordon, who has been suspended for violating the league's substance abuse policy. An already unproven wide receiving corps took a hit, and the Browns will be counting on a hot early start from players like Greg Little and veteran addition Davone Bess. Bess, acquired for draft picks in April, is a talented slot presence who will slide in nicely when Gordon returns but may be called upon for a bigger role early in the season.

PITTSBURGH STEELERS

Offense: Left side protection
It appears Marcus Gilbert will take over blindside duties for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, a tall order for the 25-year-old. From a skill-set perspective, Gilbert has the frame, but he’ll be tested coming off an ankle injury and making a position switch from last year. Roethlisberger has long been able to extend plays with his in-pocket mobility, but he too is coming off a knee issue and will need proficient support from his line this season.

Defense: Pass rush
Just two seasons ago, the Steelers paced the NFL with 48 sacks in the regular season. That number dipped to 35 the year after and 37 in 2012, due in part to a lack of a consistent edge threat. No Steeler had more than six sacks in 2012, and although first-round rookie Jarvis Jones looks ready to take on a starting role, he’ll need to show he can be an immediate impact player as a disrupter in opposing backfields.

Wild card: Secondary depth
The projected starting quartet for the Steelers in the secondary is capable of taming opposing offenses, but it also features three players who are at least 32 years old (Troy Polamalu, Ryan Clark and Ike Taylor). If any of those players is forced to miss time (Polamalu was limited to seven games last year), the depth chart is less certain, with rookies and unproven youngsters to be counted on to replace them.
Patrick Peterson and Sidney RiceNorm Hall/Getty ImagesArizona's Patrick Peterson has Seahawks WR Sidney Rice covered during their Sept. 9, 2012 game.
Patrick Peterson should become the best cornerback in the NFC West and beyond. The talent is obviously there. Coaches and teammates rave about Peterson's commitment.

"If we have this discussion in a year, he is top three in the league and if not, No. 1," ESPN.com NFL scout Matt Williamson predicted Monday.

Peterson's ability shined through in Cian Fahey's recently published game-by-game analysis using the all-22 coaches' video made available to the public last year.

Some background: Last week, Fahey came away impressed after taking an in-depth look at Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman. When I expressed an interest in seeing something similar for Peterson, Fahey said on the spot he'd put one together within a week. Here we are.

Fahey's analysis showed Peterson at his best against wide receivers such as Sidney Rice, Julio Jones and Roddy White. Peterson struggled some against smaller, quicker wide receivers such as Steve Johnson, Danny Amendola and Davone Bess. Michael Crabtree's physical play around the goal line was also a problem. Physical play is one area where Sherman in particular excels among corners.

"There is no shame in spending time as a prince learning the role of the king before you take his seat," Fahey concluded. "For most, it is a necessary step. Peterson is an exceptional talent and athlete, but he is no exception when it comes to developing as a pro. He must refine his talent, but once he does he may have no equal."

Unlike Sherman, Peterson often tracked the opponent's best wide receiver all over the field, play after play. That made Peterson's job tougher than Sherman's job, a key distinction when evaluating the best cornerbacks. Darrelle Revis, widely regarded as the NFL's top corner before suffering a knee injury last season, has set the standard recently for eliminating opponents' top wideouts.

"Peterson can be a Hall of Fame corner," Williamson said. "In a league full of superb athletes, he is in the top 1 percent. He is not yet half the technician of Revis, but he is learning and his upside is higher than the upside for any corner in the league."

Peterson's relative difficulties against slot-type receivers might not be a problem to the same extent in the future. One, Peterson will most likely continue to improve. Two, Arizona added slot corners Javier Arenas and Tyrann Mathieu to match up with some of those smaller, shiftier wideouts.

"Slot corner is really its own position," Williamson said. "A slot receiver like Wes Welker has a two-way go and there's no sideline as the helper for the corner. I could see Peterson being a bit of a fish out of water against some of those guys."

Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald said last offseason he thought Peterson was quickly on his way to becoming the best cornerback around.

"From a physical standpoint, he has no weaknesses at all," Fitzgerald said. "Most guys you go against, bigger guys, I can manipulate them on the field or physically. Patrick is just so different. He has the game-changing speed. He can run with anybody in the league. His ball skills are like playing with another receiver. He can tackle you in the run game. He knows what’s going on, is a student of the game.

"You want to draft a guy to carry the torch for your team, Patrick Peterson epitomizes that. Just his maturity. He’s 22 years old [now 23]. He just got married. His outlook on life, the way he carries himself, the way he performs, it’s like a 30-year old. He just gets it. To get it at that young of age, that is a scary combination when you couple that with elite talent."

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