The departure of both Ray Lewis and Ed Reed means the Super Bowl champions will look a whole lot different on defense this season. The Ravens also waved goodbye to Paul Kruger, Dannell Ellerbe and Bernard Pollard, among others. With plenty of new faces in Baltimore, the spotlight burns brightest on rookie linebacker Arthur Brown and first-year safety Matt Elam.
Brown, taken in the second round of April's draft, should be ready for the start of camp on the heels of hernia surgery in May. Brown's sideline-to-sideline speed makes him a strong candidate to play all three downs and produce right away in Ray Ray's old inside linebacker spot. Elam, Baltimore's first-round draft pick, was praised for rapidly picking up the defense during offseason practices. He's taking over for Pollard at strong safety, with Michael Huff penciled in at Reed's free safety spot. Still, it's Elam who's seen as the future star in the secondary.
Cincinnati's offense was, at its worst, a sleep-inducing outfit last season. The Bengals hit rock bottom in their 19-13 wild-card loss to the Houston Texans. With only 80 yards on the ground and 127 through the air, the offseason to-do list was clear: Find new weapons for quarterback Andy Dalton. Not a team prone to spending big bucks in free agency, the Bengals mined the draft to add running back Giovani Bernard and versatile tight end Tyler Eifert.
Bernard's speed has wowed coaches, leaving Hue Jackson to suggest that the Bengals could have the runner split out wide as a pass-catcher this season. Meanwhile, Eifert was seen lining up all over the place this offseason. My two biggest problems with Cincy's attack last season: 1) When A.J. Green wasn't open deep, too many plays fell apart. 2) BenJarvus Green-Ellis was a limited presence in the backfield.
Rookie backs and tight ends are asked to produce immediately in today's NFL. If Bernard and Eifert make a successful transition to the pros, this Dalton-led offense could be fun to watch in 2013.
Whispers that Richardson could miss all of August appear overblown, with more recent reports suggesting he'll be ready for the start of camp. With receiver Josh Gordon suspended for the first two games of the year, it's critical that Richardson be at or close to 100 percent out of the gate to keep this offense churning. Maybe the new haircut will help.
Antonio Brown has the tools of a No. 1 wide receiver, but there's no proven deep threat here. Wallace wasn't as productive after the catch as some believe, but Wallace produced 32 touchdowns in four seasons in Pittsburgh, whereas Brown has only seven scores since 2010. Emmanuel Sanders emerged as a reliable target in 2012, but he has only 94 receptions for 1,290 yards over the past three seasons.
The addition of rookie Markus Wheaton is a plus. The former Oregon State star has a chance to see plenty of playing time on passing downs. Our very own Daniel Jeremiah said after the draft that Wheaton has the "kind of toughness Hines Ward had." Wheaton, according to Jeremiah, is "capable of doing everything" and will serve as a "huge chess piece" for Ben Roethlisberger.