Around the NFL  

 

Training camp previews: AFC North

Print

Cleveland Browns


Camp report date: Rookies: July 25; Veterans: July 28

Camp location: 76 Lou Groza Blvd., Berea, Ohio.

Offseason in a nutshell: With mountains of new data available, we have expected change to hit the straight edge NFL for the last five seasons to no avail. The closest we got was the promise of Chip Kelly, whose revolutionary ideas included health and nutrition standards employed by certain Olympic athletes since the early 1990s -- which were then blown incredibly out of proportion. But the Browns give us hope. Their draft trade-back performance, while not completely out of the ordinary, was one of the closest examples we've seen of a team following the work of Cade Massey and Richard Thaler, who produced a dynamic study about the overvaluing of first-round draft picks. This team needs to get better and more efficient in a hurry and if nothing else, the 2016 training camp should be fun to watch with a bevy of young, unproven talent on the field.

Stream the Amazon Original Series "All or Nothing: A Season with the Arizona Cardinals" on Prime Video.

Player to watch in camp: Robert Griffin III: We hate to be obvious, but this is one of the most fascinating reclamation attempts we've seen in the NFL over the past decade. For now, we'll take the reports of Griffin's underwhelming offseason with a grain of salt. Cleveland-area reporters and fans have been conditioned to expect meh over the past decade and absent of Griffin standing on his head and hurling a 90-yard touchdown pass between his legs, they were not likely to be impressed. Having seen Griffin in person late last season and having heard reports early this season about his size, strength and health, that seems to be the most important factor heading into training camp. In terms of how Griffin will be on the field when games actually count, we'll find out very early in August. Training camp is as much about bonding -- and for Griffin, developing the sort of humility that can help him gel with new teammates and leave the past behind -- as it is memorizing concepts and perfecting footwork. It is very easy to tell if things are not running smoothly over a three-hour practice.

Three burning questions

1. Will first-round pick Corey Coleman arrive in playing shape?

Coach Hue Jackson made it clear during organized team activities that his new wide receiver needed "to get into shape." It wasn't a knock on Coleman per se, but instead a blanket statement about the quick transition all rookies need to go through in the five weeks between mandatory minicamp and the start of training camp. However, Jackson seems to have decided that Coleman will earn extra special attention over the coming months, which should be a joy to watch up close given Jackson's style. While players at some positions struggle to make the leap, we've seen wide receivers come in and be difference-makers right away. Coleman is good enough to negate some of the deficiencies the team has on offense, but will he play that way?

2. What can we expect when Emmanuel Ogbah and Carl Nassib put the pads on?

Ogbah and Nassib are the near future of Cleveland's pass rush, with Nassib checking in on some offseason lists as a sleeper candidate to win Defensive Rookie of the Year. While that is wildly premature, there is no question that his first few one-on-one battles against the likes of Joe Thomas will be tracked breathlessly. Nassib, in a way, defines the new Browns regime. According to some scouts who tracked him throughout the draft, he's a player being judged on production above body type and athletic minutiae and could help usher in a brand of toughness that this defense has not seen in quite some time.

3. Can the Hue Jackson effect take hold early?

Even during the brief Believeland renaissance under Mike Pettine there was a feeling that the wheels would soon to fall off. The team was top heavy with star players at non-skill positions and saddled under an aging mish-mosh of talent. Cleveland seems to have eradicated some of this over the past few months and has surrounded itself with perennial underdogs; recently-fired, high-upside coordinators like Pep Hamilton and Ray Horton, draft picks and free agents with something to prove, a quarterback looking to save a promising career. This is all a powerful tool in the hands of a man known to some as a master motivator. If Jackson can make it work, perhaps the turnaround doesn't take as long as we expected.

Way too early season prediction: The Browns won three games a season ago, and aren't expected to win many more this season. Doubling that total would represent a massive success in Year 1 from Jackson -- along the lines of what Jackson's mentor Marvin Lewis did in Cincinnati during his first year (quadrupled the win total, from two to eight). At the moment, assuming Robert Griffin III can get to the point where he plays replacement-level football, we count 11 winnable games on Cleveland's schedule. Our guess is the Browns win between five and seven total.

Cincinnati Bengals


Camp report date: Rookies: July 26; Veterans: July 28

Camp location: Paul Brown Stadium, Cincinnati

Offseason in a nutshell: The Bengals' offseason was really defined by loss. The team saw gifted offensive coordinator Hue Jackson move up a rung on the NFL coaching ladder, taking the head job with the Cleveland Browns. They saw Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu depart for a combined 10 years and $72.5 million, which reflected their ability as potentially team-leading receivers, but also the laughable market for quality wideouts this offseason. They lost former No. 6 overall pick Andre Smith, who started 14 games at right tackle in 2015 and they lost star linebacker Vontaze Burfict for three games due to suspension. We still do not know the extent of star tight end Tyler Eifert's injury, though conventional wisdom sees him missing at least one game thanks to offseason ankle surgery -- a difficult hill to climb at the beginning of a season without much work in training camp. What remains, thanks to head coach Marvin Lewis, is consistency. Lewis has been the head coach of the Bengals since 2003, and the man he tapped to replace Jackson, Ken Zampese, has been Lewis' loyal quarterbacks coach since then. As we've seen in Green Bay, Pittsburgh, New York, Carolina, New England and elsewhere, stability is the bedrock of so many championship teams. Cincinnati has that going for them.

Player to watch in camp: Wide receiver Brandon LaFell. The 29-year-old was a bit of an underwhelming replacement for Sanu and Jones, and it wouldn't be surprising to see fans quickly clamoring for more of second-round pick Tyler Boyd out of Pittsburgh. However, the Cincinnati Enquirer noted that LaFell had more targets during spring ball than any Bengals pass catcher outside of A.J. Green thanks in part to Eifert's surgery. LaFell struggled with drops during his final season as a Patriot and early on during organized team activities but does have a 74-catch, 953-yard season under his belt. Theoretically, he should field some single coverage early in the season, especially once Eifert returns and LaFell has proven that he can do damage man-up against certain corners. We will see if Cincinnati's coaching staff can help correct some of his catch process deficiencies and turn him into a huge value signing.

Three burning questions:

1. How much fun will joint practices with the Vikings be?

Marvin Lewis and Mike Zimmer go way back -- even beyond their days on the Bengals' coaching staff together. The two are good friends and have seen many players cross pollinate between Minnesota and Cincinnati since Zimmer took over the head coaching job there in 2014. Joint practices are losing a bit of their en vogue status, but these should be a good time.

2. What imprint, if any, will Zampese have on the Bengals' offense?

The scheme is not expected to change significantly at all, but then again, everything could change with Jackson out of the picture. Every NFL team has essentially the same set of plays at their disposal, yet certain playcallers tend to end up in the playoffs more often than others. The reason? Timing, feel and guts. Jackson had all of those qualities, which helped elevate players like Sanu and Jones in the first place. Luckily, Zampese has a fantastic run game at his disposal, which is invaluable for someone taking the reins in this kind of situation.

3. Which rookies will make camp interesting?

A name to watch right away: Third-round pick Nick Vigil out of Utah State. Vigil drew some lofty praise from defensive coordinator Paul Guenther during mandatory minicamp and could be in the mix to start at linebacker despite the team adding veteran Karlos Dansby this offseason. Also of note, Guenther said that first-round pick William Jackson will play early on, which means something has to give in the secondary. Adam Jones was just locked in on a long-term extension, with Dre Kirkpatrick the assumed starter on the other side and Darqueze Dennard in the slot. Could Jackson beat out Kirkpatrick or Dennard? It would likely have to be the former, as Jackson was a solid press cover corner in college who excelled on the outside. He has future franchise corner potential and the team knows it.

Way too early season prediction: This has the makings of a 10-6 season with Pittsburgh being their only major concern in the division. A lot can go wrong in a year's time, but Andy Dalton's stable of running backs is good enough to overcome the loss of two role-playing wide receivers to free agency.

Pittsburgh Steelers


Camp report date: Rookies: July 27; Veterans: July 28

Camp location: Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania.

Offseason in a nutshell: The Steelers have a unique ability to simultaneously appear incredibly deep at key positions and threadbare at the same time. Kelvin Beachum departed for Jacksonville and Steve McLendon became Damon Harrison's replacement in New York. Otherwise, all is seemingly well. The addition of Ladarius Green at tight end might be a game-changer for an offense that could be layered with playmakers, and the team is optimistic Le'Veon Bell could let it rip by the third preseason game. Luckily for them, Ben Roethlisberger, the bedrock of this team, is in a place creatively and physically that could propel him to another Super Bowl title. As long as he is healthy, not much else matters.

Player to watch in camp: Wide receiver Sammie Coates. My fascination with Coates began at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama, back in 2015. In pads, he has the build of a young Terrell Owens minus an inch or two -- but it was readily apparent how much work was going to be required to turn him into something similar. Coates has been pegged as a Martavis Bryant replacement, but in reality the offense is set on auto pilot and can move on with or without him thanks to Markus Wheaton and Darrius Heyward-Bey. Coates started to reach out and grab opportunities during the playoffs last year, though, and flashed during a loss to the Denver Broncos. Getting him in the open field would be downright destructive to defenses, but that would require a light going on and staying on this August.

Three burning questions

1. Will we see a 2-point conversion period during camp?

If Pittsburgh is going to go for two more than the 11 times it did last year (it led the NFL in tries, and converted on eight attempts), it might need to be a facet of camp alongside staples like inside runs and 7-on-7s. Of course, it could get folded into short-yardage work, but the parameters are so much different than your typical third-and-2. The issue of play volume -- can someone come up with 50 different 2-point conversion plays or rotate enough of them to be effective? -- came up during the spring ball period and still lingers. Pittsburgh could provide a window into fixing it.

2. Will Bell be kept in bubble wrap?

The opening of Steelers camp will commence the longstanding tug of war that has occurred between star skill position players and trainers for decades. Bell is working out this offseason in Miami and could arrive in Latrobe with the ability to start cutting, planting and running without much of a problem. We will see how eager the Steelers are to have that happen before it's a necessity. Bell, who injured both his MCL and PCL, plans on speaking with Vikings running back Adrian Peterson about Peterson's recovery from a torn ACL.

3. Will Bud Dupree earn more playing time?

The Steelers have some difficult decisions to make. Jarvis Jones and James Harrison are holding down one side of the ball, while Bud Dupree and Arthur Moats will compete on the other. Moats is clearly the better option against the run, but if the Steelers are not confident with their cornerback play, they might want Dupree to stay on the field more often to increase the heat.

Way-too-early season prediction: If all goes according to plan, and Bell and Brown are around for 16 games, this is a 12-win football team that reaches the Super Bowl.

Baltimore Ravens


Camp report date: Rookies: July 22; Veterans: July 27

Camp location: Under Armour Performance Center, Owings Mills, Maryland

Offseason in a nutshell: The next great Ravens defense is on its way -- at least that is what we're led to believe. For the moment, though, fans of coordinator Dean Pees and his extensive blitz library need to hold their breath this offseason and early into training camp hoping that no one else gets injured. The Ravens have two of the best pass rushers of the 2000s -- Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil -- still on the roster. Both are unfortunately coming off serious injuries and surgeries. Suggs has not spoken since tearing his Achilles in 2015, and outside of a few tidbits left behind by John Harbaugh, we don't exactly know how Suggs will be used, when he'll return and how long he plans on playing.

Player to watch in camp: Za'Darius Smith and Kamalei Correa. These are Baltimore's younger outside linebackers (Correa is a rookie second-round pick). While camp is not normally a concrete indication of playing time, we will see just how many reps Smith and Correa are getting, which should give us an indication of just how multiple Baltimore's defense will be this season. Realistically, it's hard to imagine the unit thriving if Suggs and Dumervil are trapped on the field for long periods of time. Both are incredibly well-conditioned and effective for their age, but it is going to take a village. One potential solution? The Ravens tinkered with Correa at inside linebacker next to star C.J. Mosley, which would be an excellent trial by fire and open up multiple pressure possibilities.

Three burning questions:

1. Will Ronnie Stanley stand up to the early-camp physicality?

The Ravens desperately needed to address their offensive line during the draft, and did so with the Notre Dame left tackle. Then, the team parted ways with Eugene Monroe which means that, for better or worse, Stanley will be the Day 1 option. Of late, we have seen a lot of first- and second-round offensive linemen struggle to acclimate right away and that typically starts in training camp. With contact limited, there are precious few windows into Stanley battling at full speed against professional talent. Will Harbaugh plan on extended reps into the second quarter during preseason games? Will he try to integrate more one-on-one drills early?

2. What will Breshad Perriman look like?

Like so many of his star players, including fellow wide receiver Steve Smith, Ravens head coach John Harbaugh doesn't know exactly when Breshad Perriman will hit the field. The 2015 first-round pick narrowly avoided reconstructive knee surgery this offseason, but will still have a steep hill to climb this offseason as he works his body back into playing shape. The Ravens are thankfully deep at tight end, which could negate the fact that Smith and Perriman could just be getting up to speed right before the Ravens start playing meaningful football. Seeing Odell Beckham's rookie training camp firsthand, it's easy to get lost in the minutiae of day-to-day injury updates and forget that there is a smart, talented player waiting to cut loose. The Ravens are hoping for a similar jolt once they can get Perriman back on the field.

3. Will Dennis Pitta make it through training camp?

It's easy to root for Pitta, who is working his way back from a hip injury that could have forced him into retirement. The sentiment from beat writers at OTAs and minicamp was that Pitta produced well above expectations. Harbaugh went as far as saying that he looked like the player who once caught 61 balls in a season.

Way-too-early season prediction: Health provides a wild variance here, but at the moment, this is a team lucky to win eight games in 2016. Fountain-of-youth seasons from Suggs, Smith and Dumervil could change our minds.

Print

Fan Discussion