OPEN CAMP: July 28, St. Vincent College, Latrobe, Pennsylvania.
LAST YEAR: Steelers shook off underwhelming first half to win seven straight and clinch second AFC North title in three years. Two more playoff wins followed before lopsided loss at New England in AFC championship game. RB Le’Veon Bell established himself as one of NFL’s best, averaging over 150 yards from scrimmage after returning from suspension for violating league’s substance abuse policy. WR Antonio Brown went over 100 receptions for fourth straight season, thriving despite serious depth issues following injuries to Markus Wheaton and Sammie Coates, and Martavis Bryant’s year-long suspension. Defense improved in large part due to rapid development of DT Javon Hargrave, CB Artie Burns and S Sean Davis. Still, they were exposed – as was everyone else – by Tom Brady, who threw for 384 yards and three scores in dominant 36-17 AFC title victory.
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IMPORTANT ADDITIONS: Rookie LB T.J. Watt, rookie WR Juju Smith-Schuster, rookie DB Cameron Sutton, rookie QB Josh Dobbs, rookie RB James Conner, RB Knile Davis, DE Tyson Alualu.
IMPORTANT LOSSES: LB Lawrence Timmons, RB DeAngelo Williams, TE Ladarius Green, WR Markus Wheaton, CB Justin Gilbert, LS Greg Warren, LB Jarvis Jones.
CAMP NEEDS: Wide receiver position is pretty crowded, a good thing. Bryant is back and arrival of Smith-Schuster should give QB Ben Roethlisberger plenty of options to take pressure off Brown. Running back is wide open behind Bell, Davis and rookies fighting for primary backup spot. More vital questions are on defense: Steelers drafted Watt 30th overall, tasking him to do what predecessor Jarvis Jones could not and take playing time away from seemingly ageless James Harrison. Secondary filled with questions behind Burns, Davis and veteran Mike Mitchell. Senquez Golson was 2015 second-round pick only to miss all of last two seasons due to separate injuries. Ross Cockrell is still around as is Will Gay, but both will come to camp fighting for jobs.
EXPECTATIONS: Steelers have taken sequential steps each of last three seasons, losing in wild-card round, divisional round and conference championship. Super Bowl berth is next logical step and Pittsburgh will be as well-equipped as anyone to challenge Patriots. Bell, playing under franchise tag , motivated to show he’s worth massive long-term deal. If defense can play as it did over much of second half of last season, Pittsburgh should be playing well into January, if not into February.
BALTIMORE RAVENS (8-8)
OPEN CAMP: July 26, Owings Mills, Maryland.
LAST YEAR: Opened with three straight wins, then faltered and finished .500 to miss playoffs for third time in four years. Though Ravens improved upon 5-11 record of 2015 and took second place in AFC North, that didn’t ease pain of unsatisfying finish to season in which offense and defense alternatingly sputtered. Baltimore was 7-5 before allowing 87 points over three-game stretch, including three fourth-quarter touchdowns in pivotal 31-27 loss at Pittsburgh on Christmas. Joe Flacco threw for career-high 4,317 yards, but his 15 INTs were second most in his nine years in NFL.
IMPORTANT ADDITIONS: WR Jeremy Maclin, CB Brandon Carr, S Tony Jefferson, RB Danny Woodhead.
IMPORTANT LOSSES: OL Rick Wagner, FB Kyle Juszczyk, DT Timmy Jernigan, LB Elvis Dumervil, WR Steve Smith, C Jeremy Zuttah, LB Zachary Orr.
CAMP NEEDS: Ravens bolstered passing attack by adding Maclin, but offensive line needs depth and ample replacements for starters Zuttah and Wagner. Another area of concern is tight end; it appears unlikely Dennis Pitta will return from another hip injury, Darren Waller is serving one-year suspension, Benjamin Watson is coming off Achilles tendon injury, Maxx Williams is back from knee surgery. Training camp will also be used to find successor to Orr, who retired for health reasons.
EXPECTATIONS: Ravens hope improved secondary and Maclin as deep threat for Flacco will push them back into playoff mode. Emphasis in offseason was to improve defense, and general manager Ozzie Newsome appears to have, especially in secondary with addition of Carr and Jefferson. But Newsome still has work on offensive side, and without some protection for Flacco this could be another mediocre year for coach John Harbaugh’s squad.
CINCINNTI BENGALS (6-9-1)
OPEN CAMP: July 27, Paul Brown Stadium, Cincinnati.
LAST YEAR: Offensive line struggled and defense sagged significantly in first half of season, setting Bengals on course to snap streak of five straight playoff appearances – all of which ended in first-round losses. WR A.J. Green (hamstring) and RB Giovani Bernard (knee) suffered season-ending injuries at midpoint, depleting offense. RT Cedric Ogbuehi did so poorly he was benched, but is slated to take over for departed Andrew Whitworth at LT this season. QB Andy Dalton had another impressive season despite poor pass protection. First-year coordinator Ken Zampese never got offense into flow. K Mike Nugent struggled and was released, leaving Bengals without proven kicker. Coach Marvin Lewis remains without playoff win during 14-year career in Cincinnati, and failed to get extension on contract that ends after 2017 season. Cornerback Adam ”Pacman” Jones was arrested for altercation at hotel soon after season ended and eventually pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charge.
IMPORTANT ADDITIONS: Rookie WR John Ross, rookie RB Joe Mixon, OL Andre Smith, rookie K Jake Elliott, LB Kevin Minter, DE Chris Smith.
IMPORTANT LOSSES: LT Whitworth, RG Kevin Zeitler, DT Domata Peko, LB Rey Maualuga.
CAMP NEEDS: Must solidify three areas: offensive line, running back and kicker. Smith returns and moves into Zeitler’s spot at right guard, while both tackles – Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher – lack NFL experience. For first time in seven years, Bengals have genuine kicker competition. Elliott was drafted in fifth round, giving him advantage over journeyman Randy Bullock, who replaced Nugent at end of last season and missed potential winning field goal in Houston. Running game struggled along with line last season, prompting Bengals to take Mixon, who comes with baggage, in second round. He’ll compete with Jeremy Hill for starting job during camp.
EXPECTATIONS: Lack of experience on offensive line could overshadow additions of playmakers Ross and Mixon. Bengals have decided to go with youth on defense as well, leaving several roles up for grabs. Lewis enters pivotal season in career. If Bengals don’t get back to playoffs, organization that hates significant change will have to consider it.
CLEVELAND BROWNS (1-15)
OPEN CAMP: July 27, Browns Training Facility, Berea, Ohio.
LAST YEAR: Coach Hue Jackson’s first season started with 14 straight losses and finished as worst in franchise history. Once again, Browns were decimated by costly injuries, forcing them to shuffle through quarterbacks and offensive linemen. With one of league’s youngest rosters, Browns were barely competitive, and while front office insisted it wasn’t throwing away season, team was able to stockpile draft picks to build with.
IMPORTANT ADDITIONS: OL Kevin Zeitler, rookie DE Myles Garrett, DB Jason McCourty, rookie QB DeShone Kizer, OL JC Tretter, QB Brock Osweiler, WR Kenny Britt, rookie TE David Njoku, rookie DB Jabrill Peppers.
IMPORTANT LOSSES: WRs Terrelle Pyror and Andrew Hawkins, TE Gary Barnidge, QBs Robert Griffin III and Josh McCown, DB Tramon Williams.
CAMP NEEDS: Browns still don’t have long-term answer at quarterback, but Kizer, drafted in second round, could be closest team has to solution. Former Notre Dame QB made strides during minicamp and could push way past Cody Kessler and Osweiler on depth chart. WR Cory Coleman struggled with injuries as rookie last season and Browns need him to take major step forward as playmaker. Defense has chance to be much better with No. 1 overall pick Garrett and Desmond Bryant, back after missing last season, as primary pass rushers. Cornerback Joe Haden has to stay healthy.
EXPECTATIONS: Browns have upgraded talent throughout roster, but it’s still going to take time to be threat in AFC North. Resolving quarterback issue – Cleveland has started 26 QBs since 1999 – still biggest issue facing team. Until that’s done, Browns can’t make major move forward. Owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam are preaching patience, which should give Jackson and analytics-driven front office more time. However, team needs to show drastic improvement in 2017 or there could be more changes.
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