AFC North inside intel: Vital rookies, key position battles

Charley Casserly spent three decades in the NFL, starting as an unpaid intern and ultimately serving as general manager of the Washington Redskins and Houston Texans, snagging three Super Bowl rings along the way. During his rise up the scouting ranks and eventual entry into the front office, Casserly made connections across the league -- lasting connections that extend to this day and provide rare access to the team-building process.

In the Inside Intel series, our resident GM mines his sources across the league to relay the inside word on impact rookies, prominent position battles and remaining questions. You'll find the AFC North intel below.

Baltimore Ravens
Baltimore Ravens
2019 record · 14-2

IMPACT ROOKIES


Patrick Queen, inside linebacker: Look for Queen to become one of the team's starting inside linebackers at some point in 2020. His athletic ability will allow him to match up with running backs and tight ends in coverage. And though he is undersized, his instincts and speed -- coupled with the ability of offseason additions Calais Campbell and Derek Wolfe to tie up blockers at the line -- will allow Queen to run free and be a factor against the run, too.


J.K. Dobbins, running back: The former Ohio State star will mix into the rotation with Mark Ingram. However, Dobbins is a more explosive runner than Ingram and can provide big gains, especially with dual threat Lamar Jackson creating big holes in the defense. Dobbins will be especially valuable if Ingram gets injured or slows down in his age-30 season.


Malik Harrison, linebacker: He could very well start at the other inside linebacker position opposite Queen. Harrison, a true run stopper and physical presence at the point of attack, is a different style of player than Queen.

KEY POSITION BATTLES

Table inside Article
Position
RG/LG Bradley Bozeman Ben Powers D.J. Fluker Andre Smith Tyre Phillips
ILB1/ILB2 Patrick Queen L.J. Fort Otaro Alaka Malik Harrison

Bozeman will most likely start at left guard, leaving the other four players to compete at right guard.

ONE ADDITIONAL STORYLINE

Which wide receiver will step up? Thanks to the Ravens' dynamic rushing attack, the team's wide receivers are often left in one-on-one situations downfield. The issue is that they don't have a true No. 1 receiver or one that demands double coverage. The Ravens do have a diverse collection of skill sets among their group of young receivers, but they need someone to step up and be an outside force. Who will it be? Marquise "Hollywood" Brown has bulked up this offseason while recovering from foot surgery and could be even faster this year, but his durability is a concern. At 6-foot-4, Miles Boykin can be a vertical threat and showed flashes as a rookie. He'll need to be more consistent in his catching and route running. Rookie Devin Duvernay is a versatile player with speed, so look for the Ravens to get creative with how they get him the ball (i.e. quick throws, screens, reverses, etc.). Jaleel Scott (6-5, 210 pounds) is another receiver to watch as a big target for Jackson.

Cincinnati Bengals
Cincinnati Bengals
2019 record · 2-14

IMPACT ROOKIES


Joe Burrow, quarterback: Burrow will be the starter from Day 1. He's expected to grasp the offense from a playbook and mental standpoint. The question is how quickly can Burrow begin to play productive football without the benefit of minicamps and OTAs this spring?


Tee Higgins, wide receiver: The Clemson product will compete for a starting job and is expected to play a lot with A.J. Green and Tyler Boyd in three-receiver packages -- at the minimum. Look for coach Zac Taylor to get him plenty of deep targets because of the rookie's size and downfield ability.

KEY POSITION BATTLES

Table inside Article
Position
RG/LG Michael Jordan Billy Price Xavier Su'a Filo Alex Redmond Hakeem Adeniji
RT Bobby Hart Fred Johnson Hakeem Adeniji
LB1/LB2/LB3 Germaine Pratt Josh Bynes Jordan Evans Logan Wilson Akeem Davis-Gaither Markus Bailey

There will be heavy competition between three veterans and three rookies for the three starting spots at linebacker.

ONE ADDITIONAL STORYLINE

Joe Burrow's progression as QB1. The rookie must master the playbook quickly and get on the same page with his receivers. But there is more to it than that when it comes to progressing at the quarterback position. He must also gain the respect of the players and become a leader in training camp. There will be a lot of eyes on him this year watching whether he can match the rookie success of Andy Dalton, who threw for almost 3,400 yards and 20 TDs in 2011 despite having offseason prep wiped out by a lockout.

Cleveland Browns
Cleveland Browns
2019 record · 6-10

IMPACT ROOKIES


Jedrick Wills, left tackle: Although he played right tackle at Alabama, Wills has the feet and athletic ability to start at left tackle, which is where he's expected to line up. 


Grant Delpit, safety: Delpit is very versatile and good in coverage, whether he's asked to play zone or man. Look for him to start at free safety even though he has the goods to play either safety spot or linebacker in a nickel defense. 

KEY POSITION BATTLES

Table inside Article
Position
RG Wyatt Teller Drew Forbes Nick Harris
LB1/LB2/LB3 Mack Wilson Sione Takitaki B.J. Goodson Jacob Phillips
FS/SS Grant Delpit Karl Joseph Andrew Sendejo

ONE ADDITIONAL STORYLINE

Can Baker Mayfield make the leap in Year 3? Everything the Browns did this offseason was designed to help the QB. They changed the head coach and play-caller, solidified the O-line with two new starting offensive tackles in Wills and Jack Conklin, and added weapons at tight end in Austin Hooper and Harrison Bryant. Kevin Stefanski's offense emphasizes the run game and the pass plays that come off it will feature play-action and bootlegs, setting up easy throws for Mayfield. One of the issues in Cleveland last season was that there were too many options for the quarterback in the passing game. Stefanski will simplify the offense to help Mayfield become more successful, and Mayfield must take advantage of his situation.

Pittsburgh Steelers
Pittsburgh Steelers
2019 record · 8-8

IMPACT ROOKIE


Chase Claypool, wide receiver: The 6-4, 238-pound wideout gives the Steelers the deep threat they needed. Claypool is also a physical blocker who can help in the run game, which will be where he makes the biggest impact initially. He will likely see more looks in the passing game as the season progresses.

KEY POSITION BATTLES

Table inside Article
Position
WR2 James Washington Diontae Johnson
RT Matt Feiler Chukwuma Okorafor Zach Banner
LG Matt Feiler Stefen Wisniewski Kevin Dotson
NT Daniel McCullers Carlos Davis

Feiler will be the starter at either right tackle or left guard for the Steelers this fall.

ONE ADDITIONAL STORYLINE

How does Ben Roethlisberger fare in his return from injury? The Steelers think the veteran will be even better than he was before he suffered the elbow that ended his 2019 season in Week 2. He'll need to show he can make all the throws without any issues, and rust could be a factor early on. But expect a high level of engagement from Roethlisberger, who will want to prove he can still play well after missing nearly a full season.

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