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Summer two-a-days: AFC North, NFC South

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Peter Schrager

Peter Schrager is the Senior NFL Writer for FOXSports.com and the national sports correspondent for FOX News Channel's "FOX Report Weekend." He's the co-author of Victor Cruz's New York Times' best-selling memoir "Out of the Blue" and lives in New York. Feel free to e-mail him at peterschrager@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter.

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Ah, July. In the world of NFL fandom, it's pure purgatory. The Draft and OTAs are in the rearview mirror, yet summer camps and actual preseason action aren't here yet. So you just hold your tongue and watch the calendar, feign interest in things like baseball and your family, but you're really just thinking football. Here are our final installments of our series tackling five early summer questions for each NFL division.

Today's two-a-days: AFC North | NFC South


AFC North

1. The Super Bowl champion Steelers got by with a less-than-stellar ground game in '08. What's in store for the Pittsburgh rush attack in '09? When you've got Ben Roethlisberger, two star receivers, a reliable tight end and the best defense in the league, your running game can slack here and there without costing you victories. The Steelers' running game, of course, did more than just "slack here and there" last season. It stunk. Pittsburgh finished an uncharacteristic 23rd in the league in rushing in 2008, averaging just under 106 rushing yards per game. Willie Parker, who at times made you think his nickname should have been "Slow and Banged Up" instead of "Fast," poked and prodded along through bouts of injuries all season, while rookie Rashard Mendenhall had his year ended prematurely with a shoulder injury vs. Baltimore. No other back made much of an impact. And then there was that offensive line. Oh, boy. Still, there were the Steelers on Feb. 1 in Tampa — hoisting their second Lombardi Trophy in four years. The Pittsburgh running game should be better in '09. The offensive line, as porous as it was Weeks 1 through 17, caught fire in the postseason and ended up being better than average when it mattered. Though Marvel Smith signed an offseason deal with San Francisco, the Steelers brought back tackles Willie Colon and Trai Essex with free-agent deals. Guard Chris Kemoeatu re-signed as well. Most importantly, the team signed tackle Max Starks to a long-term deal.
As for the running backs? It should be a different story this season. Parker's healthy. Entering the final year of his contract (yes, this matters), the seven-year veteran has been attacking his offseason training regimen like he never has before. After averaging a career-low 3.8 yards per carry last season, he's gone back to the callisthenic-heavy workouts he committed to during his first few years in the league. "I'm getting that speed back like I had two or three years ago," Parker told Scott Brown of the Tribune Review at Steelers camp last month. "I'm faster than I've been." Complementing Parker will be a healthy and hungry Mendenhall. Whereas fellow many of his fellow '08 rookie RBs burst onto the scene last year, Mendnhall was a non-factor because of the injury. Now fully recovered, he is ready to contribute. The Steelers have a long tradition of hard-nosed football anchored by a punishing run game and a suffocating defense. They found a way to win without the run game last season. They shouldn't have to do that in '09. Everyone's got the Patriots as the favorites in the AFC this season. With a dominant defense returning most of its starters and a re-charged rushing attack, the Steelers are just as dangerous as New England. They just might not be as pretty. Well, no one said it's a beauty contest. 2. The Ravens wideouts and tight ends appear to be a mix of banged up and inexperienced. What's the story there?
If the Redskins receivers of the '80s were "The Posse" and the late-'80s Broncos wideouts were "The Three Amigos," the '09 Ravens receivers and tight ends are some twisted combination of "M*A*S*H" and "Hannah Montana." They're either hurt, injury-prone or Disney Channel young. Yes, despite being mentioned in every Anquan Boldin trade rumor before the draft and being pegged to a host of first-round caliber wide receivers with the 23rd overall pick in April, the Ravens enter the '09 season with a mediocre stable of targets for quarterback Joe Flacco. Again. It's not like these guys can't play; they certainly can. It's just that ... well, they're not exactly healthy. Or good. Or experienced. Case in point: Throughout the Ravens' offseason minicamps, the team's top two receivers — Mark Clayton and Demetrius Williams — saw only limited action because of nagging injuries. Veteran Derrick Mason, who is 35, announced that he is retiring in an interview with the sports blog jocklife.com. He wanted a new deal and an extension and was coming off pretty serious offseason surgery. Mason told the Web site, "After 12 years, I have seen it all and done it all. Right now, I am content with the decision I am making. All good things come to an end, and I am ready to see what else life has to offer." So that leaves Clayton and Williams — two nice enough No. 2 or 3 options — as the go-to guys in Baltimore? Blech. The team's top two tight ends, Todd Heap and L.J. Smith, weren't much busier at Ravens camp. Both players, who have been in and out of starting lineups over the past few seasons because of a sampling of ailments, also were limited because of injuries. The fourth, fifth and sixth options at wideout — return man Yamon Figurs, free agent pickup Kelley Washington and second-year man Marcus Smith — have yet to prove any semblance of starting wideout capabilities. Fortunately for Baltimore, they have a fantastic young quarterback, one of the best rushing attacks in the game, and a strong offensive line. The additions of rookie Michael Oher and the offseason signing of Matt Birk, a six-time Pro Bowl center, only makes that unit stronger. The defense — even without coordinator Rex Ryan, linebacker Bart Scott and safety Jim Leonhard — is still one of the very best in the league. Baltimore could very well give the Steelers a run for their money in the AFC North this season. I'm just concerned about the receivers and tight ends. 3. Is Ravens rookie Michael Oher ready to contribute right away?

Amazing Grace

Michael Oher Kriegel: From living on the streets to a coveted prospect in the NFL draft, Michael Oher's life gives us all a reason to cheer.
When Oher, an expected top 10 pick, slipped all the way to 23rd, the word at Radio City Music Hall was that he wasn't capable of playing right away. As dominant as he was in college at Ole Miss, Oher wasn't ready for the complexities of the NFL. He'd need some time to learn and adjust. Thus far, Oher is proving his critics — and 22 NFL teams — wrong. The subject of Michael Lewis' The Blind Side has been a star in Ravens camp. Because of injuries to Oneil Cousins and Adam Terry, Oher has been serving as the first-team right tackle. He made a concerted effort to meet with coaches and teammates before Ravens camp and came prepared and focused. He learned the playbook and excelled with the first-team offense. He looks ready for Week 1. Oher, however, won't be a typical under-the-radar rookie lineman. He's going to get his publicity — on and off the field. Whereas the film version of Lewis' Moneyball stalls and hiccups, the big screen version of Oher's story just wrapped up 47 days of filming. Sandra Bullock and Tim McGraw play Leigh Anne and Sean Tuohy and there are cameos by Houston Nutt, Nick Saban, Lou Holtz, Phil Fulmer and Ed Orgeron. The movie will hit theaters in November — prime time for some late-season Ravens football. Oher is played by up-and-coming actor Quinton Aaron. The Ravens rookie does not appear in the film. He was too busy studying another kind of film this summer — game tape. 4. Who the heck is Brian Daboll and what can he do for the anemic Cleveland Browns offense?
A summer ago, the Browns were all the rage. They were coming off an impressive 10-6 season, featured 2007 Pro Bowlers at quarterback, receiver, left tackle and tight end, and were expected to make a run at the AFC North title. The defense, with Shaun Rodgers clogging the middle, was supposed to be much improved. Fast forward 12 months and the Browns have a new head coach, GM, defensive coordinator and offensive coordinator. They also don't have nearly the same expectations for '09. How could they after the way 2008 turned out? That explosive offense was a nightmare in '08. Though there were highlights (a win vs. the previously unbeaten Giants on Monday Night Football, ummm, well, that's it, really), the season ended with ineptitude and embarrassment. The Browns finished the '08 campaign with a bizarre six-game stretch in which they didn't score a single offensive touchdown. Brady Quinn and Derek Anderson each started games. So did Ken Dorsey and Bruce Gradkowski. In the season finale against Pittsburgh, the Browns had 126 yards of total offense. Gradkowski threw for a mere 26 yards in the 31-0 loss ... to a team resting its starters throughout the second half. Eric Mangini's in as the new head coach, and with him comes Brian Daboll as the offensive coordinator. Kellen Winslow's gone, Cleveland's now entering the third year of a never-ending quarterback controversy between Anderson and Quinn, and the receivers not named Braylon Edwards are a bunch of no-names. Good luck, sir. So who is Daboll? He actually has an eerily similar career track as Mangini. He started his coaching career as a "restricted volunteer" at William & Mary, then bounced to Michigan State where he served as a graduate assistant. After serving some time as a defensive assistant in New England, he transitioned to the offensive side of the ball under Charlie Weis. He then joined Mangini in New York, where he coached the quarterbacks. Small college, big college, pro, defense, offense — in 12 years, Daboll's seen, learned and taught a lot. In his decade of pro coaching experience, he's learned from Weis, Bill Callahan, Brian Schottenheimer, and worked with Josh McDaniels. "Our offense is kind of a conglomeration of a lot of different things. They are the things that we believe in as coaches on this staff to make up the Browns offense," Daboll told The Morning Journal last week. Yep, he even sounds like Mangini. Vague and close to the cuff. As for whether it will be Quinn or Anderson in Week 1 vs. the Vikings? We might not know the answer to that one until the day before. 5. Do the Bengals have the most entertaining mix of characters on any one NFL team? Yes. And you will get to know all of them this summer. In what should be the most entertaining HBO series since "The Sopranos," the guys at NFL Films have set their sights on the most eclectic cast of characters in the NFL and will focus on the Bengals for this year's season of "Hard Knocks." The program, which gives fans an inside look at the training camp and preseason process, is one of the best pieces of sports television you'll ever see. Players getting cut by "The Turk," coaches in the film room and off-day retreats to the mall — it's everything you've ever wondered about the NFL preseason. And with that cast of characters in Cincy? Wow. The Bengals have lots of great subplots this August: rookies Andre Smith and Rey Maualuga both adjusting to the NFL and new positions (Smith at right tackle, Maualuga at the SAM linebacker spot), Chris Henry emerging from a series of suspensions, Carson Palmer returning from yet another devastating season-ending injury, former Cowboys Tank Johnson and Roy Williams fighting to earn starting spots on the Bengals D and Laveranues Coles proving he's got some good football left in the tank. If you're not an HBO person, there's Dhani Jones, the star of Travel Channel's "Dhani Tackles the Globe." Jones is using the hiatus between minicamp and training camp to film episodes. If you're not into either of those shows, there's the one starring Chad Ochocinco all summer long. In minicamp, No. 85 celebrated a touchdown by scaling a wall and giving love to the fans in attendance. When he's not celebrating minicamp scores, he's on Twitter. When he's not on Twitter, he's up to something. Love it or hate it, Ochocinco is always on. That sure is a lot of "entertainment" for one team. Alas, "entertainment" doesn't always equal wins.

NFC South

1. Is it crazy to consider the Falcons the NFC favorites for 2009?
Crazy? No, not at all. After a storybook season last year, the Falcons didn't lose anything on the offensive side of the ball this winter and add the best tight end in the game in Tony Gonzalez. But let's not get ahead of ourselves just yet. The Browns were everyone's hot team last summer, the 49ers the year before that, and the Cardinals every year since 1992. So as pristine and rosy as things seem in Flowery Branch this offseason, the Falcons' 2009 success is not a sure thing. I don't mean to be a Debbie Downer, I just have my concerns. The Falcons caught lightning in a bottle last season, defying the odds and making the playoffs with a rookie head coach, first-year general manager, rookie quarterback, rookie offensive tackle and a first-year starter at running back. They were healthy, fortunate, and at times even a bit lucky (why the squib kick, Bears?). The health thing was paramount to the Falcons' success. Matt Ryan, Michael Turner and Roddy White were all injury-free, and the defense stayed relatively intact. They were the complete opposite of the 2009 New York Mets. No guarantee the team can stay so healthy in '09. What about the defense? It wasn't exactly the 2000 Ravens. The Falcons D ranked 24th in the league last year. The unit lost five starters this offseason and must now fill in the holes. The Falcons used their first five draft picks in April on defense. They expect contributions from all five rookies — especially from defensive tackle Peria Jerry. Don't get me wrong; the Falcons are legit. Ryan, now almost mythically, was in the film room the day immediately after last season's playoff loss in Arizona. He's a franchise quarterback who should be immune to a sophomore slump. But we've seen this happen time and time before. Before labeling the Falcons the favorites in the NFC South, let's see how they look in September. 2. Why isn't anyone talking about the Carolina Panthers? Every Panthers conversation comes back to the same thing: Julius Peppers' contract situation. But after signing a one-year tender in June, it appears that Peppers will be on the field for the Carolina in '09. And he'll join 20 other starters from last year's NFC South champs. In fact, the only starter from last year's team not returning is Ken Lucas, who was released during the offseason. The team adds Everette Brown, a touted defensive lineman from Florida State, and shifty rookie running back/wide receiver Mike Goodson out of Texas A&M. Goodson should see significant playing time in Jeff Davidson's offense. So where's the buzz? Good question. Did the football world sour on the Panthers after they forgot to show up for their playoff game, a 33-13 home loss to Arizona? Is it the departure of the defensive coordinator and defensive line coach? Their difficult 2009 schedule? After all, the Panthers play 15 games against teams that finished with records of .500 or better last year, seven of them against playoff teams. But they return 21 of 22 starters! No one's talking about Carolina in 2009. We probably should be. 3. What's the latest with that horrendous Saints defensive backfield?
Should we expect the same old French Quarter song and dance in New Orleans this season? Great offense, below average defense, and another mediocre .500 season? There's reason to think that won't be the case. For years, the Saints' defensive backs have been their Achilles' heel. It looks like the unit has finally been addressed. Hopefully looks aren't deceiving. The Saints went ahead and drafted the top-rated cornerback in the draft in Ohio State's Malcolm Jenkins (Jenkins reportedly showed up to camp with a solid handle of the playbook).Chip Vaughn is another rookie from which the team is expecting a lot. He'll see time at safety this season. The Saints also signed former Bills cornerback Jabari Greer and veteran safety Darren Sharper. Sharper will serve as the senior voice on a relatively young, but talented unit. New defensive coordinator Gregg Williams will make a difference as well. Randall Gay, Tracy Porter and Jason David all return, while the lightning fast Usama Young makes the move from corner to safety. Can the front seven hold up their end of the bargain? Time will tell. 4. Lots of changes to the Tampa Bay offense. What are the biggest trouble spots? When you fire the longtime GM and head coach, release your defensive captain and lose your top quarterback and wide receiver to free agency in the same offseason, there are bound to be questions. Derrick Brooks, Ike Hilliard and Warrick Dunn — veteran contributors — are all gone. Joey Galloway will be suiting up for New England this season. Currently, Tampa Bay has more salary cap money available than any other team in the league at roughly $30 million. They're not exactly breaking the bank on player personnel. The Bucs did bring in some new names on offense — running back Derrick Ward, tight end Kellen Winslow and quarterbacks Byron Leftwich and Josh Freeman. But overall, the Bucs are relatively thin (and cheap) across the depth chart. The biggest trouble spot should be the wide receiver position. Michael Clayton and Antonio Bryant appear to be the starters, but who else will be catching balls? The third wide receiver, as of now, could be relative unknown Brian Clark. Who? Clark, who started his career in Denver and has spent the past two seasons bouncing back and forth between the Bucs' active roster and practice squad, has made quite an impression in Buccaneers camp this summer. At 6-2, 205 lbs, Clark is the rare package of size and speed. He's ready to contribute in '09. Battling him for the No. 3 wideout spot are even greater unknowns. Seventh round pick Sammie Stroughter, a guy I loved at Oregon State, should get a chance to prove himself. Former Vikings burner Kelly Campbell, 2008 second-round pick Dexter Jackson, ex-Notre Dame star Maurice Stovall and six-year veteran Cortez Hankton could be in the mix as well. Leftwich to Clark? It's not exactly Garcia to Galloway. Then again, the Bucs haven't won a postseason game since their Super Bowl victory in 2002. Who knows, maybe a little change-up — on the cheap, no less — might actually be the cure for the drought. 5. Where is Derrick Brooks? We're less than two weeks away from the start of NFL training camps and Derrick Brooks — arguably the greatest linebacker of his generation — is not on an NFL team. For the past 14 years, Brooks manned the outsirde LB spot in Tampa Bay, racking up 11 Pro Bowl appearances and nine All-Pro honors. With all apologies to Ray Lewis, you can make the argument that Brooks has been as consistently, if not better, over the past decade and a half. He's certainly in the conversation. Even at age 35, Brooks had a decent enough 2008. No, he wasn't the Brooks of 2002. But he was good enough to make a difference. The whole defense collapsed in the final month of the season. Monte Kiffin announced he was leaving, the line suddenly stopped tackling, and the Panthers and Falcons surged past Tampa Bay in the standings. Surely, that collapse can't be pinned on No. 55. So why is Brooks not on an NFL roster? Great question. By my count, there are still 23 teams that employ the 4-3 defense. Could Brooks not play some sort of role on one of them? Take the Giants, for example. Yes, New York brought in Michael Boley and Clint Sintim during the offseason. But Brooks might be willing to join a sure-fire Super Bowl contender for what I'd imagine would be not exuberant money. How about the Colts? Brooks couldn't compete for playing time with that unit? You can play mix and match for days, but that does us no good. As of now, it appears as though Brooks won't be in an NFL locker room this season. And that's a damn shame. If this is the end of the road for Brooks, let's recognize his career for what it was — one of the best we've ever seen.
Tagged: Falcons, Bills, Bears, Bengals, Browns, Cowboys, Broncos, Lions, Colts, Raiders, Vikings, Patriots, Saints, Giants, Jets, 49ers, Seahawks, Buccaneers, Redskins, Panthers, Ravens, Cardinals, Steelers, Texans, Chad Johnson, Joey Galloway, Darren Sharper, Derrick Mason, Tony Gonzalez, Matt Birk, Dhani Jones, Ike Hilliard, Laveranues Coles, Marvel Smith, Ken Lucas, Derrick Brooks, Todd Heap, Ray Lewis, Antonio Bryant, Julius Peppers, Michael Lewis, Bart Scott, Kelly Campbell, Anquan Boldin, L.J. Smith, Kelley Washington, Carson Palmer, Byron Leftwich, Chris Johnson, Cortez Hankton, Kellen Winslow, Ben Roethlisberger, Michael Clayton, Max Starks, Derrick Ward, Jason David, Michael Turner, Jabari Greer, Willie Parker, Mark Clayton, Roddy White, Adam Terry, Chris Henry, Trai Essex, Braylon Edwards, Chris Kemoeatu, Derek Anderson, Michael Boley, Jim Leonhard, Maurice Stovall, Bruce Gradkowski, Demetrius Williams, Willie Colon, Brian Clark, Usama Young, Yamon Figurs, Brady Quinn, Marcus Smith, Joe Flacco, Felix Jones, Rashard Mendenhall, Tracy Porter, Matt Forte, Ray Rice, Matt Ryan, Darren McFadden, Vernon Gholston, Kevin Smith, Steve Slaton, Sammie Stroughter, Mike Goodson, Andre Smith, Malcolm Jenkins, Josh Freeman, Michael Oher, Peria Jerry, Rey Maualuga, Everette Brown, Clint Sintim

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