By Ryan Mayer
You probably thought you had more time until you read your first article of the NFL offseason, didn’t you? But believe it or not, training camps around the NFL will be underway less than a month from today and there’s no shortage of juicy storylines for us to dive right into.
So – enough small talk, let’s get into three of the biggest burning questions surrounding each of the NFL’s 32 teams as we get ready to get ready for another NFL season.
Today, we take a look at the AFC North, where the rivalries run deep. The Bengals have looked like the class of the division the past couple years, but various injuries and poor play have kept them from advancing in the playoffs. Is this the year Marvin Lewis’ crew breaks through?
Training Camp: July 22nd (Rookies)/July 27th (veterans) in Owings Mills, Maryland
Will the defense rebound?
Last year’s Ravens defense experienced an off year to say the least in terms of points allowed, dropping to 24th in the league and allowing 25.1 points per game on the season. That happened despite the team ranking 8th in the league in yards allowed per game while giving up just 337.4 per contest. Part of the reason for that disparity is due to the pass defense. While the Ravens didn’t give up a ton of yards in the passing game (233.6) they did allow opposing QB’s to record the 6th highest passer rating in the league (99.6) and gave up 30 passing touchdowns (9th most) while picking up the fewest interceptions in the league with 6.
To try and improve upon a secondary that has been largely riddled with question marks over the past few years, the Ravens went out and signed safety Eric Weddle in free agency. Sure, Weddle is on the wrong side of 30 (31), but he can still provide a veteran presence at the safety spot that should stabilize the back end. As for the corner spot, the team will largely be hoping that Jerraud Powers can help to stabilize that group that includes Jimmy Smith and Kyle Arrington along with 4th round pick Tavon Young.
Adding a little more pressure to the QB would also help as the team was just below average with 37 sacks last season. The defensive line is fine with Brandon Williams, Timmy Jernigan, Carl Davis and the addition of draft pick Bronson Kaufusi to the group. It’s the edge rushers that the Ravens will hope they can get more from in Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs. That may be a lot to ask from guys who are 32 and 33, respectively, but the team did add an exciting young player in Kamalei Correa from Boise State who will be transitioning from playing mostly with his hand on the ground in college to more of the outside linebacker role with this team.
Will the running game improve?
The Ravens were 21st in the league in yards per carry last season (3.9). Part of that was due to the health of main back Justin Forsett, who missed six games due to injury. Another part of it was an offensive line that didn’t seem to generate a ton of push in the run game. The line was good in protecting the QB allowing the 3rd fewest sacks (24) and 10th fewest QB hits (81) in the league, but the running game left something to be desired.
This offseason the team decided to move on from veteran left tackle Eugene Monroe and with their top pick in the draft took Notre Dame tackle Ronnie Stanley, who will be expected to step into that void left by Monroe. Additionally, guard Kelechi Osemele departed in free agency for greener pastures in Oakland. That likely means that John Urschel will step into Osemele’s spot leaving the Ravens with an offensive line of Stanley, Urschel, Marshall Yanda and Rick Wagner with the question coming at who will play center. Ryan Jensen and Jeremy Zuttah provide options there as do undrafted free agents Matt Skura and Anthony Fabiano. Who emerges to take a stranglehold on that role will be something to watch in camp.
As for the running back spot, Forsett hit that decidedly not magical age of 30 this off season, which according to running back lore means he will be on the downside of his career. Javorius “Buck” Allen was decent in replacing Forsett when he was hurt last year, but a 3.8 yards per carry mark will need to improve. Another option came as a low risk-high reward play this spring when the team decided to sign “bust” Trent Richardson. Richardson is reportedly in better shape now, but we’ll see if that will translate to better production.
Which receiving weapons will step up?
The Ravens enter this season with a 37-year-old Steve Smith Jr. at the top of their depth chart. I will never doubt Smith’s abilities, but he’s coming off a torn Achilles. That’s a brutal injury to come back from at any age. Smith was contemplating retiring after last season but didn’t want an injury shortened year to be his last in the league so he’s back for one more go-round. The biggest question is, who will help him provide open targets for Joe Flacco?
Last year’s first round pick Breshad Perriman is a burner but he spent all of last season on the sidelines with an injury. It’s unclear what his timetable is for return after having arthroscopic surgery on that balky knee in late June. So the team can’t depend on him. Mike Wallace was brought in during the free agency period, but he was unproductive last season in Minnesota. Aside from him the receiving corps is uninspiring. Kamar Aiken, Chris Matthews, Michael Campanaro and rookie Chris Moore will all be fighting to take a starting spot.
There’s some interesting tight end options here with Maxx Williams, Crockett Gillmore and free agent signing Ben Watson. That trio should offer Flacco some good targets up the seams, but questions remain on the outside.
Training Camp: July 26th (rookies)/July 28th (veterans) in Cincinnati, OH.
Who steps up as the No. 2 receiver?
The Bengals lost both Marvin Jones and Mohammed Sanu in free agency this spring. Those two combined for 98 catches, 1,210 yards and 4 touchdowns. That’s a lot of production to replace. We know that AJ Green will get his usual 80-90 catches and Tyler Eifert will likely haul in another 50 or so if healthy. But, who becomes that secondary option for the Bengals is a big question heading into camp.
They brought in Brandon LaFell in free agency and re-signed Brandon Tate (though Tate is largely used as a kick returner) in addition to drafting Tyler Boyd (2nd round) and Cody Core (6th round). Lafell is likely good for somewhere between 35-50 catches and 450-600 yards judging from his career numbers. Therefore, it looks like Boyd and Core will be depended on to have contributing roles in the offense from jump street this season. Boyd looks and plays like more of a slot receiver while Core is built (6’3″ 205) like an outside guy to play opposite Green.
Andy Dalton lost a couple of proven targets this off season. How quickly the rookies can develop trust and build a rapport with him will be crucial.
How does the offense look with a new coordinator once again?
Jay Gruden moved on from the Bengals two seasons ago to become the head coach in Washington. That led to Hue Jackson stepping into that role and the Bengals didn’t really miss a beat. The offense dipped to middle of the pack (15th) in points and yards in Year 1 under Jackson before rebounding into the Top 10 (7th) in points scored last year while remaining 15th in the league in yards despite missing their starting QB in Dalton for the final three games and the playoff game against the Steelers.
After that performance, Jackson earned his chance to rejoin the head coaching ranks as the new head man in Cleveland. That means that Ken Zampese steps into the offensive coordinator role. There’s continuity here as there was with the transition from Gruden-Jackson. Zampese has been the QB coach for the entirety of Dalton’s time in Cincy. That continuity would seem on the surface to be a positive for Dalton in not having to necessarily learn a brand new offense.
That said, each coordinator brings their own style to the position and how Zampese manages moving the pieces he has around Dalton certainly bears watching this season.
Can the defense repeat its strong 2015 performance?
The Bengals had plenty of decisions to make when it came to re-signing and letting go of guys this spring. We already covered the offensive side of the ball, but the defensive side lost a key contributor in Reggie Nelson (8 interceptions) and a couple of good depth guys in Emmanuel Lamur and Wallace Gilberry to free agency. This from a defense that was 2nd in the league in points allowed and 11th in yards. They’ve also yet to re-sign CB Leon Hall, who played in 14 games for them last season making four starts.
The good news in the secondary is that the Bengals have been prepping to lose some corner depth for a few years now. In the past three drafts they’ve taken at least one corner in the first four rounds including using their top picks on corners in Darqueze Dennard (2014) and William Jackson (2016). That doesn’t include another former first round pick in Dre Kilpatrick. There’s plenty of talent and capital invested in the corner spot and now it’s a matter of those guys realizing their potential. The safety spot is interesting though. George Iloka is back on a 5-year deal. Shawn Williams will likely step into Nelson’s role with Taylor Mays as a back-up option.
Meanwhile on the defensive line, the threesome of Carlos Dunlap, Michael Johnson and Geno Atkins is still terrifying to opposing QBs. That trio combined for 29.5 sacks last season. Add in their line-mate Domata Peko who had five sacks and the front four is scary. With Paul Guenther returning to helm the defense so once again that continuity word comes into play. Plugging in some young guys into those spots where the team lost some depth will be interesting to watch.
Training Camp: July 25th (Rookies), July 28th (Veterans) in Berea, OH
Can “QB whisperer” Hue Jackson revive RGIII’s career?
Robert Griffin III came into the NFL like a hurricane in the 2012 season. He then got hurt, largely annoyed and ignored two separate coaching staffs and watched as Kirk Cousins took his starting job while he rode the bench most of last season. He was then released this off season and found himself a new landing spot with an opportunity to once again be the starter.
He finds himself with paired with a head coach who has been lauded for his ability to develop QB’s in Hue Jackson. Jackson is credited with helping to further develop Andy Dalton over the past two seasons in Cincinnati. However, we saw Griffin clash with another “QB whisperer” in Jay Gruden in Washington. Has he learned from that experience? Is he willing to listen to the insights of Jackson in Cleveland? Will he even be the starter? All questions that need to be answered in training camp.
Which rookies establish themselves as key contributors?
Let’s face it. This is a rebuilding year for the Browns. New coach, new staff, many of the old guard of players allowed to walk in free agency and 14 draft picks coming into the fold. That’s a recipe for a young team trying to find its core building blocks for what Cleveland fans hope will be the final rebuild they have to go through for awhile.
The draft was particularly interesting for the Browns this year as they traded down not once, but twice, in the first round and picked up a bunch of picks this year and in future years in those deals. Their draft strategy seemed to be largely focused on guys with big production in college first and fit second. Corey Coleman, Emmanuel Ogbah, Carl Nassib, Derrick Kindred and Scooby Wright are all names that college football fans have gotten to know quite well the past few years.
Coleman has an opportunity to be the No. 1 receiver out of the gate in a group that features just two players with more than four years in the league in Andrew Hawkins and Marlon Moore. Nassib will feature quickly in a d-line group that is similarly inexperienced outside of Desmond Bryant. Ogbah adds to a group of edge rushers fighting for spots with former first-round pick Barkevious Mingo, last year’s 2nd round pick Nate Orchard, and veteran Paul Kruger. Kindred joins a secondary that has a lot of uncertainty outside of Joe Haden and Scooby Wright will join the mosh pit for a spot in the inside linebacker corps.
Which of the rookies steps up to grab a starting/contributing role will be interesting to watch come camp time.
What will the offensive line look like?
As part of the wave of free agents that the Browns let walk this spring, two starters on last year’s line left. Center Alex Mack and right tackle Mitchell Schwartz. That leaves two spots up for grabs on a unit that gave up the 2nd most sacks in the league (53) and the most QB hits in the league (123) last season. Additionally, there’s some question as to whether or not the team will keep veteran left tackle Joe Thomas. They reportedly tried to trade him last season but declined a deal from the Broncos. Thomas has two years left on his deal but at age 31 and he likely won’t be effective any more when the Browns are ready to contend.
The team did address the line in the draft by taking Auburn tackle Shon Coleman (3rd round) and Baylor guard/tackle Spencer Drango (5th round). That adds to young left guard Joel Bitonio and 2nd year player Cameron Erving. There’s options here for the Browns, but it’s truly a question as to who will solidify starting spots and we should find that out as training camp progresses.
Training Camp: July 27th (Rookies)/July 28th (Veterans) in Latrobe, PA
Have they done enough to improve the pass defense?
The Steelers were awful last year against the pass. They were 30th in the league in opponents passing yards per game (271.9), 18th in yards per attempt (7.5), 12th in passing touchdowns allowed (29), and right about league average in allowing a 90.9 QB rating (16th). The secondary was known as a major need heading into the draft and the Steelers immediately attempted to address that need by taking Miami corner Artie Burns in the first round and Maryland corner/safety Sean Davis in the 2nd round.
For Burns, he will be in the mix for a starting job opposite of William Gay. Ross Cockrell, Mike Mitchell and Senquez Golson (injured all last season) will all likely be in the mix at the corner spot as well. Gone are Antwon Blake and Brandon Boykin who both appeared in all 16 games for the team last season. Burns was one of the top corners in the draft and he’ll likely be expected to come in and contribute right away.
As for Davis, he will pair with either Mitchell or Shamarko Thomas on the back end. The Steelers here will largely be relying on young players to come in and hopefully immediately make an impact. A way to take some pressure off the secondary would be to give opposing QB’s as little time as possible to be able to pick apart the coverage, which leads us to the next point.
Can the pass rush keep up the 2015 performance?
The Steelers were 3rd best in the league last season with 48 sacks. That production came from a variety of players as opposed to one dominant sack master. The team had seven players with four-plus sacks last season and all but one of those players (safety Will Allen) is back. Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt combined for 13 sacks last season, which is impressive from a pair of defensive linemen in a 3-4 scheme where you normally find the highest sack totals coming from the outside linebacker spot. They’re both back, but the question is who will be between them on the line.
From the edge rusher spot, the Steelers have multiple options with Bud Dupree, Arthur Moats, the immortal James Harrison, and Jarvis Jones. The team will be looking for more production particularly out of Dupree and Jones, two former first round picks who haven’t given the expected level of production in comparison to where they were drafted. They also added Travis Feeney and Tyler Matakevich to the linebacker group who combined for 12.5 sacks and 33 tackles for loss in their final college seasons last year.
There are plenty of returners and good options here, so how first year defensive coordinator Keith Butler decides to use these chess pieces to try and maximize the terror they inflict on QB’s will be important to watch.
Who takes Kelvin Beachum’s spot?
Beachum played in just six games last season, which forced the Steelers to shuffle around their offensive line plans during the course of the season. Despite that, the unit finished right about middle of the pack in sacks allowed (33) and allowed just 60 QB hits which was 2nd only to division rival Cincinnati. After that performance they decided to allow Beachum to walk in free agency and instead signed veteran tackle Ryan Harris to compete for the starting job with Alejandro Villanueva.
The rest of the offensive line is intact. Marcus Gilbert, David DeCastro, Maurkice Pouncey and Ramon Foster combine to make for four of the better protectors in the league and should be able to help whoever steps into that vacant left tackle spot. The battle for the left tackle spot (though Harris is the likely starter) will be something to watch for as camp opens.
Ryan Mayer is an Associate Producer for CBS Local Sports. Ryan lives in NY but comes from Philly and life as a Philly sports fan has made him cynical. Anywhere sports are being discussed, that’s where you’ll find him.