LAST YEAR: Won AFC North and made playoffs for third year in row, only to lose opening game once again. Haven’t won playoff game since 1990 season, streak of futility tied for sixth longest in NFL history. Coach Marvin Lewis got one-year extension through 2015. Andy Dalton had best regular season, becoming only fifth starting QB during Super Bowl era to reach playoffs each of first three seasons.
IMPORTANT ADDITIONS: Hue Jackson promoted to offensive coordinator, Paul Guenther promoted to defensive coordinator; S Danieal Manning; OT Marshall Newhouse; CB Darqueze Dennard; RB Jeremy Hill.
IMPORTANT LOSSES: Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, offensive coordinator Jay Gruden; DE Michael Johnson; OT Anthony Collins; C Kyle Cook.
CAMP NEEDS: Focus will be on several injured players’ recoveries. DT Geno Atkins tore ACL on Oct. 31 and couldn’t participate in June minicamp. CB Leon Hall is ahead of schedule (torn Achilles tendon). Punter Kevin Huber returns from broken jaw and cracked neck vertebra. Hill, second-round pick from LSU, will challenge BenJarvus Green-Ellis for starting job. C Russell Bodine, fourth-round pick, will get chance to take over for Kyle Cook. Jackson is installing more up-tempo approach.
EXPECTATIONS: No mystery here: Bengals have to not only reach playoffs but win at least one game to consider season a success. With two new coordinators, lots of attention on whether either unit drops off. Zimmer known for excellent in-game adjustments; can Guenther do same? Also pivotal year for Dalton, who fell apart in playoff losses.
PITTSBURGH STEELERS (8-8)
OPEN CAMP: July 25, Latrobe, Pennsylvania.
LAST YEAR: Limped to 2-6 start on way to second straight .500 finish. Offensive line took two months to recover from loss of center Maurkice Pouncey (knee) in opener. Defense spent eight games getting pushed around, finishing outside top 10 in yards allowed for first time in more than a decade. RB Le’Veon Bell proved durable after some early injures, Antonio Brown developed elite wide receiver, catching 110 passes.
IMPORTANT ADDITIONS: WRs Lance Moore and WR Martavis Bryant; DT Cam Thomas; RB LeGarrette Blount; S Mike Mitchell; LB Ryan Shazier; DE Stephon Tulloch; RB/WR Dri Archer; offensive line coach Mike Munchak.
IMPORTANT LOSSES: WRs Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery; RB Jonathan Dwyer; LB Larry Foote; S Ryan Clark; running backs coach Kirby Wilson.
CAMP NEEDS: Youth movement almost over, it’s time to find out if kids can play. Biggest battles figure to be at receiver – 6-foot-4 rookie Bryant will battle second-year wideout Markus Wheaton for No. 2 spot. Questions remain on defensive line. Thomas will try to unseat Steve McLendon. Pittsburgh bet big on OLB Jason Worilds, signing him to transitional tag while cutting LaMarr Woodley. Worilds (hamstring) missed almost all offseason activities and minicamp.
EXPECTATIONS: Steelers haven’t missed playoffs three straight years since 1998-2000. They’ve retooled around quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who believes offense will be as explosive as any in his 10 NFL years. Pittsburgh flourished after coordinator Todd Haley gave Roethlisberger more freedom in no-huddle. Expect those powers to be expanded during camp. Young defense adds Shazier, first-round pick expected to play right away alongside veteran ILB Lawrence Timmons.
BALTIMORE RAVENS (8-8)
OPEN CAMP: July 22, Owings Mills, Maryland.
LAST YEAR: Coming off Super Bowl win, Ravens lost many key players to retirement or free agency. They dropped six of first 10 games before winning four in row. Then they lost final two and missed postseason for first time in six years
IMPORTANT ADDITIONS: Offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak; WR Steve Smith; TE Owen Daniels; LB C.J. Mosley; C Jeremy Zuttah; S Darian Stewart.
IMPORTANT LOSSES: DL Arthur Jones; OT Michael Oher; CB Corey Graham; S James Ihedigbo.
CAMP NEEDS: Ravens need right tackle after losing inconsistent Oher. Ricky Wagner stands atop depth chart, which might not be good enough for team with playoff aspirations. GM Ozzie Newsome may also be on lookout for secondary help.
EXPECTATIONS: Despite being relatively young, Ravens have high hopes of getting back to postseason. QB Joe Flacco, RB Ray Rice and WRs Smith and Jacoby Jones have plenty of experience. But starting safeties might end up being rookie Terrence Brooks and second-year man Matt Elam. Still, Baltimore fully expects to compete for AFC North crown and intends to play deep into January.
CLEVELAND BROWNS (4-12)
OPEN CAMP: July 26, Berea, Ohio.
LAST YEAR: Browns dropped 10 of last 11 for sixth straight season of at least 11 losses. Coach Rob Chudzinski was fired immediately, front office was dismissed in February. Cleveland started 3-2, but QB Brian Hoyer’s season-ending knee injury sent team into spiral. Positives were six Pro Bowlers, and WR Josh Gordon led league in yards receiving.
IMPORTANT ADDITIONS: Coach Mike Pettine; offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan; QB Johnny Manziel; RBs Ben Tate and Terrance West; WRs Miles Austin, Nate Burleson and Andrew Hawkins; LB Karlos Dansby; Ss Donte Whitner and Justin Gilbert; OLs Paul McQuistan and Joe Bitonio; TE Jim Dray.
IMPORTANT LOSSES: LBs D’Qwell Jackson and Quentin Groves; S T.J. Ward; WRs Greg Little and Davone Bess; QBs Brandon Weeden and Jason Campbell; G Shawn Lauvao.
CAMP NEEDS: Hoyer will try to hold off Manziel, a first-round pick, for starting job. Hoyer left spring minicamp with lead, but Pettine warned his advantage wasn’t ”insurmountable” for Johnny Football. Browns still awaiting clarity from league on Gordon, who could be facing one-year ban for substance abuse. Hard to imagine Cleveland’s offense without him.
EXPECTATIONS: Pettine has to prevent first camp from turning into circus. Wildly popular Manziel will draw big crowds and constant questions about QB competition. If Gordon is suspended, Browns have to hope Austin can return to form with Dallas before assorted leg injuries.
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