NFL pre-camp previews: AFC North

BY Peter Schrager • July 13, 2010

Today's Pre-Camp Two-a-days: NFC North | AFC NORTH


Current Vegas Super Bowl Odds: 14-1

Training Camp: McDaniel College, Westminster, Md., July 28

The Looming Question: “What’s the latest on Ed Reed’s health?”

When Reed said he was just as likely to retire as return for the 2010 season earlier this year, the stomachs of Ravens fans from Pikesville to Cockeysville were turned upside down. Reed had doctors reconstruct his hip and repair his torn labrum in surgical procedures early this offseason. The six-time Pro Bowler was injured last season and only made matters worse by playing through the pain in the Ravens’ two playoff games. After Baltimore lost to Indy, Reed told reporters he was “50/50” on whether he’d retire or not.

Reed said recently he hopes he has at least one more season in him, that he's back to 35% of his mobility and that it may take several more months of rehab before he gets back on the field.

But he’ll be on the field. At some point.

The Ravens certainly need him. With Super Bowl aspirations and high-impact new additions across the roster, the defensive backfield seems to be the team’s lone position of concern. Corners Lardarius Webb and Fabian Washington are returning from 2009 injuries, while safety Haruki Nakamura is rehabilitating as well. There’s a lot of love for third-year safety Tom Zbikowski, but he hasn’t proven a reliable starter. The rest of the defensive backfield? It’s a never-ending list of average to slightly above-average veterans.

It’s a serviceable crew if Reed’s on the field leading the troops. If he’s not? The defensive backfield could end up being Baltimore’s Achilles' heel.

Key Camp Battle: No. 2 Cornerback: Ladarius Webb vs. Walt Harris vs. Fabian Washington

Domonique Foxworth and his $7 million salary will be starting at one corner spot. Who’ll be lining up next to him? Most Ravens fans hope to see the youngster Webb, but he’s still rehabbing from an ACL tear suffered last season. Harris and Washington (who also happens to be recovering from an injury) are veteran options. Harris, the healthiest and oldest of the three, could be the guy come opening day.

Early Edge: Walt Harris

New Veteran in Town: Anquan Boldin, WR

It’s tough not getting excited about the Baltimore offense with the additions of Boldin, Donte Stallworth and rookie targets Dennis Pitta, David Reed and Ed Dickson. In 14 years as an NFL franchise, the Ravens have never had a Pro Bowl receiver. At 29, Boldin is the first big-time wideout to suit up in Baltimore since Raymond Berry.

Young Gun to Watch: Sergio Kindle, OLB

A three-time All-Big 12 selection and an All-American at Texas last season, Kindle inexplicably slipped into the latter half of the second round of April’s draft. Baltimore gladly scooped up the pass-rushing terror when he fell in their laps. Any worries about Kindle’s maturity and ability to grasp the Ravens’ defensive scheme should be put to rest. Ray Lewis won’t let the young stud fail.


Current Vegas Super Bowl Odds: 26-1

Training Camp: Georgetown College, Georgetown, Ky., July 28

The Looming Question: “Are the defending AFC North champion Bengals even better than they were in 2009?”

On paper, absolutely. The Bengals, who finished with an unblemished 6-0 record vs. division opponents in ’09, return the bulk of last season's core and added a host of offseason acquisitions and draft picks. The problem? They’ll face a far more difficult road than they did in 2009.

This season the Bengals face the NFL’s top QBs against Tom Brady's Patriots, Peyton Manning's Colts, Drew Brees' Saints and Phil Rivers' Chargers, plus two meetings with both Joe Flacco and Ben Roethlisberger. Cincinnati’s final eight games include two with the Steelers, road trips against the Colts and Jets, dates with both the Chargers and Saints and a season finale at Baltimore. Not exactly an easy wintertime stroll into the postseason.

I loved the Antonio Bryant signing and think both Jordan Shipley and Jermaine Gresham will make immediate impacts on offense. In Johnathan Joseph and Leon Hall, Cincy’s got arguably the top cornerback duo in football. Adam “The Artist Formerly Known as Pacman” Jones is an intriguing addition, too. The three linebackers — Rey Maualuga, Dhani Jones and Keith Rivers — make up one of the top units, as well. Carlos Dunlap is a rookie everyone is excited about and if Andre Smith is healthy, the second-year man out of Alabama can solidify a tremendous O-line. On paper, this team is damn good.

But that schedule ... yikes.

Key Camp Battle: Kicker: Dave Rayner vs. Mike Nugent

Longtime Bengals placekicker Shayne Graham is in Baltimore this season, leaving a hole in Cincy. Nugent, an Ohio State grad, is a six-year vet with career stops in New York, Tampa Bay and Arizona. Rayner’s also a six-year vet whose football passport is filled with stamps from Green Bay, Kansas City, San Diego, Miami, Detroit, Cincy and Washington. May the best journeyman win.

Early Edge: Mike Nugent

New Veteran in Town: Adam Jones, CB

Jones’ all-world talent and playmaking ability have never been questioned. He’s just been one off-the-field incident after another since he was drafted No. 6 overall by the Titans in 2005. Early reports out of Bengals minicamp revealed Jones is as fast as he ever was with the look of a man who’s both changed and matured. Of course, we’ve heard that before.

Young Gun to Watch: Jermaine Gresham, TE

There’s never been a tight end quite like Gresham in Bengals history. At 6-foot-5 with tremendous speed and hands, the former Oklahoma Sooners star should serve as a reliable over-the-middle target for Carson Palmer. Gresham’s recovered from an injury that kept him sidelined during the 2009 college season and is ready to make a splash at the next level. Don’t be shocked if he plays a prominent role in the offense right out of the gates.


Current Vegas Super Bowl Odds: 80-1

Training Camp: Browns Training Facility, Berea, Oh., July 23

The Looming Question: “Enough about LeBum. Is it okay to be even a little excited about the Browns?”

The Browns, though certainly not AFC North favorites, have nothing but positive vibes coming out of Berea this summer, and Cleveland fans have reason to be kinda-sorta-maybe optimistic.

New QB Jake Delhomme, released by the Panthers after seven years, told reporters last week, “This Browns team started 1-11 last year and won its last four games. Are you kidding me? I've been around long enough to know when teams pack it in, and the Browns didn't do that. Somehow, someway, they got it done."

Delhomme, Seneca Wallace and third-round pick Colt McCoy make up an intriguing depth chart at QB, while Jerome Harrison, Chris Jennings, James Davis and second-rounder Montario Hardesty could all end up handling the rock out of the backfield. The offensive and defensive lines are solid, while the linebacker spot — led by vets D’Qwell Johnson, Chris Gocong and Scott Fujita — should be much improved. In Josh Cribbs, rewarded with a handsome contract extension over the offseason, you have one of the NFL’s top playmakers on offense and special teams. The wide receiver and defensive back positions could be the Browns’ biggest weaknesses, but both should be improved.

The Browns' locker room, once toxic, is now made of team-first guys and players hungry to prove themselves. The veterans all are on board with Coach Eric Mangini’s game plan, while the rookies are poised to get on the field and make a difference. With games against lowly Tampa Bay and Kansas City in the first two weeks, there’s a good chance the Browns start 2-0.

This Browns team? I’m not sure how many wins they’ll notch, but I can promise you they’ll be downright likeable. The same cannot be said about LeBum.

Key Camp Battle: Running back: Jerome Harrison vs. Montario Hardesty

Harrison rushed for 570 yards in the Browns' final four games last year, but Cleveland spent a second-round pick on Hardesty, a 6-foot, 225-pound between-the-tackles back out of Tennessee. Both players should see plenty of action, but there’s been a lot of buzz about Hardesty in camp. Making matters perhaps even more interesting (and heated) is the fact that both Hardesty and Harrison are represented by the same agent. Hardesty will be starting by opening day.

Early Edge: Montario Hardesty

New Veteran in Town: Jake Delhomme, QB

After what seems like a decade of shaky young QB play in Cleveland, the 12-year veteran Delhomme comes to town with Super Bowl credentials and a wealth of big-game experience. Though he’s coming off the worst year of his career, Delhomme brings a veteran presence under center for one of the league’s youngest squads. His experience alone should make an upgrade.

Young Gun to Watch: T.J. Ward, S

In Hardesty, first-round pick Joe Haden, Nebraska standout Larry Asante and third-round selection Colt McCoy, there are certainly bigger names in the Browns' draft class. But Ward, a punishing free safety out of Oregon, could make the biggest impact right away. Ward missed some of Cleveland’s OTA workouts because of injury, but has bounced back in recent weeks. There’s a good chance he’ll starts ahead of Abram Elam at the free safety spot on opening day.


Current Vegas Super Bowl Odds: 20-1

Training Camp: Saint Vincent College, Latrobe, Pa., July 30

The Looming Question: “Who will replace injured Willie Colon at right tackle?”

Santonio Holmes and Willie Parker are gone, Limas Sweed is out with a torn Achilles and Ben Roethlisberger will be suspended for the first four games.

But there’s no bigger question mark on the Steelers' roster than the one at right tackle. Colon, one of the league's top right tackles, underwent surgery for an Achilles tear he suffered last month. He’ll miss the entire season. His replacement?

Eek. It’s anybody’s guess.

The Steelers brought ex-Cowboys left tackle Flozell Adams in for a look in June, but it’s unlikely the free-agent veteran will be signed anytime soon. Rookie offensive tackle Chris Scott, a fifth-round pick out of Tennessee who the Steelers were excited about in April, broke his foot while practicing in Knoxville last month. He’ll be out until at least October. Former Bills reserve Jonathan Scott (no relation to Chris) was signed for depth but has never been an opening-day starter.

Some of the other possibilities are Trai Essex, their current starting right guard and a former backup tackle, and Tony Hills, a three-year veteran with little game experience. First-round pick Maurkice Pouncey, primarily a center and guard at Florida, could get a look at right tackle in training camp, but that’s not his natural position. Ramon Foster, an undrafted free agent addition last year, may be an option, too. Perhaps even Kraig Urbik is given a shot.

The Steelers' O-line wasn’t all that great with Colon last year. Roethlisberger was sacked 50 times (nine in a nationally-televised loss to the Browns), and the one-time power running team finished in the bottom half of the league in rushing yards (19th) for the second straight year.

Without Colon in the lineup? Things could be even worse.

Key Camp Battle: Right tackle: Trai Essex vs. Jonathan Scott vs. Tony Hills vs. Ramon Foster

Scott got significant action at tackle when Buffalo’s starters went down with injuries last year. He comes to Pittsburgh with his old offensive line coach from Buffalo, Sean Kugler. At 6-foot-6 and 320 pounds, Scott could have the inside edge on Colon’s job.

Early Edge: Jonathan Scott

New Veteran in Town: Byron Leftwich, QB

Everything old is new again in Pittsburgh. Leftwich, receiver Antwaan Randle El, linebacker Larry Foote and cornerback Bryant McFadden — all former Steelers with Super Bowl rings from their first stints in the Steel City — return to Pittsburgh. Of the four veterans, no player will have more eyes on him than Leftwich, the expected starting quarterback for Weeks 1-4.

Young Gun to Watch: Jason Worilds, OLB

Pro Bowl outside linebackers LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison combined for 23.5 sacks last year, but that didn’t stop the Pittsburgh front office from drafting Worilds, a 3-4 outside linebacker. An undersized defensive end in college, he fits the Steelers' outside linebacker mold and will apply pressure on quarterbacks in spot situations. Worilds will get his feet wet here and there in 2010 and contribute on special teams. In 2011 and 2012? Watch.