Preseason Watchlist - AFC North
By Jason Wood
July 27th, 2012

Baltimore Ravens

  • Link: http://www.baltimoreravens.com/Ravenstown/2012_Training_Camp.aspx
  • Location: Under Armour Performance Center (Owings Mills, MD)
  • Dates: July 24 August 19
  • Open to the public? Limited (See Website)
  • The Ravens were a dropped pass away from the Super Bowl so this year's training camp is more about tweaking than major changes. Offensively the team returns all the key pieces including Ray Rice, who avoided a potential holdout by signing a long term extension. Joe Flacco is also looking for a new contract but won't let the lack of progress be a distraction. On defense there are larger questions as the team welcomes Dean Pees into the coordinator role and must find a way to replace the injured reigning Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs.

    Preseason Game Schedule

  • Thu, Aug 9 - @ Atlanta - 7:30 PM
  • Fri, Aug 17 - vs Detroit - 8:00 PM
  • Thu, Aug 23 - vs Jacksonville - 7:30 PM
  • Thu, Aug 30 - @ St. Louis - 8:00 PM
  • What We're Watching

  • Another year, another defensive coordinator The Ravens replace defensive coordinators more often than John Madden says "boom!" Luckily Pees was promoted from within and has prior experience as an NFL coordinator. Expect few if any changes to the long-standing defensive system.

  • Does QB Joe Flacco warrant the payday he's asking for? Joe Flacco believes he should be paid Top 5 quarterback money, which doesn't pass the eyeball test particularly for star focused fantasy owners. The truth is Flacco has played well enough to win big games and yet makes enough questionable decisions to suggest he will never have a season like the ones we've seen from the likes of Eli Manning and Philip Rivers. Fantasy owners view Flacco as a backup, but the Ravens may have no choice but to pay him like a top dog.

  • Who backs up Ray Rice? Ray Rice is the Ravens offensive engine, but the team needs a reliable backup to keep Rice fresh and step into the lineup in event of injury. The top options in camp are 2nd year Anthony Allen and rookie Bernard Pierce.

  • Is Torrey Smith ready to become a consistent #1? Torrey Smith wasn't considered a likely starter as a rookie, but he quickly stepped into the role, started 14 games, and ended up as the Ravens best receiver. Smith has much to learn, but his deep speed (16.8 yards per reception) and strength were enough to make him Joe Flacco's top outside threat. With the advantage of a full training camp, expectations are for Smith to overtake Anquan Boldin and become a quality fantasy starter to boot.

  • Replacing Ben Grubbs In a game of free agent dominoes, the Ravens lost Ben Grubbs (who signed with New Orleans to replace Carl Nicks), and now the team must rely on free agent Bobbie Williams or rookies Kelechi Osemele and Gino Gradkowski to anchor the guard spot opposite Marshall Yanda.

  • Dealing with the loss of Terrell Suggs You don't replace the Defensive Player of the Year easily, and the Ravens will have to be creative with their schemes in Suggs' absence. Baltimore used its 2nd round pick on Courtney Upshaw, who will be asked to play a big role right away. Upshaw has polished pass rush moves and a big motor.
  • Cincinnati Bengals

  • Link: http://www.bengals.com/team/training-camp.html
  • Location: Paul Brown Stadium (Cincinnati, OH)
  • Dates: July 27 August 19
  • Open to the public? YES (free of charge)
  • Staying at home for camp this year, the Bengals find themselves in the unusual position of entering camp coming off a winning, playoff-bound season. Last year rookies Andy Dalton and A.J. Green helped legitimize the offense, which finally made enough plays to compliment a top 10 defense. This year, which will be the first full offseason for Green, Dalton and OC Jay Gruden, it's about trying to elevate the offense to the next level with an eye on a top 10 ranking.

    Preseason Game Schedule

  • Fri, Aug 10 - vs New York - 7:30 PM
  • Thu, Aug 16 - @ Atlanta - 8:00 PM
  • Thu, Aug 23 - vs Green Bay - 7:00 PM
  • Thu, Aug 30 - @ Indianapolis - 7:00 PM
  • What We're Watching

  • How much better can Jay Gruden's offense execute? The Bengals decision to hire Jay Gruden last offseason was considered a masterstroke, and managing nine wins with a rookie quarterback, a rookie receiver, and few other elite talents backed up the hype. Yet, the Bengals ranked 18th in points scored and 20th in yards last year. There's plenty of room for improvement, particularly as the young players mature, the roster gets better acclimated to Gruden's system, and more pieces are added to the puzzle.

  • Is A.J. Green ready to cement himself as one of the league's best? A.J. Green lived up to the billing with 65 receptions for 1,057 yards and 7 touchdowns as a rookie. This year, many believe he'll ascend into the very top tier at the position. Fantasy owners have no doubts, as Green is being drafted 7th among receivers and 26th overall.

  • Who else lines up at wide receiver, and is it relevant for fantasy owners? Jerome Simpson had his moments last year but is now in Minnesota. The receiver depth chart is undefined entering camp, with two rookies Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones, competing against the likes of Armon Binns, Jordan Shipley and Brandon Tate. Fantasy owners are favoring Sanu, but his ADP of WR71 (212th overall) is hardly a strong endorsement.

  • Deciphering the RB roles BenJarvus Green-Ellis signed with the Bengals and, perhaps, has the opportunity to be the feature back. Yet nothing is set in stone as the coaches continue to speak highly of Bernard Scott, Brian Leonard and rookie Dan Herron. Green-Ellis is being drafted 23rd among RBs, so it's important to see that he's in line for more than a committee role as camp unfolds.

  • Figuring out the starting safeties The Bengals fielded a top 10 defense in spite of having questions in the secondary. The cornerback position is unbelievably deep, but the safety positions are less secure. Can Taylor Mays finally put it all together? Will Reggie Nelson maintain the strong play he showed in 2011? If younger players like George Iloka aren't ready, will the Bengals look to add a veteran as the preseason progresses?
  • Cleveland Browns

  • Link: http://www.clevelandbrowns.com/schedule-and-events/training-camp/
  • Location: Cleveland Browns Training Facility (Berea, OH)
  • Dates: July 28 August 22
  • Open to the public? YES (free of charge)
  • Cleveland was a tale of two sides of the ball in 2011. The defense played with confidence, and finished 5th in points allowed and a respectable 10th in points allowed. That was in spite of being near the bottom of the league in sacks and takeaways. The offense, on the other hand, struggled in all facets. The team ranked near the bottom in points scored (30th) and yards (29th). This year Pat Shurmur will have help in the addition of Brad Childress, who has a ton of experience as a coordinator with the Eagles and head coach with the Vikings. They're also turning the page on the Colt McCoy experiment. It should be an intense camp with quite a few jobs up for grabs.

    Preseason Game Schedule

  • Fri, Aug 10 - @ Detroit - 7:30 PM
  • Thu, Aug 16 - @ Green Bay - 8:00 PM
  • Fri, Aug 24 - vs Philadelphia - 7:30 PM
  • Thu, Aug 30 - vs Chicago - 7:30 PM
  • What We're Watching

  • Can OC Brad Childress make a difference? Pat Shurmur opted against an offensive coordinator in his first season, and that was a mistake. He underestimated the enormity of being a head coach and an offensive coordinator it was sub optimal. Childress will bring discipline and attention to details and in spite of coaching under Andy Reid, Childress has a preference for a powerful ground attack.

  • Is QB Brandon Weeden the answer? Rookie Brandon Weeden is 28 years old, and the Browns have no plans to make him intern for the job. While we know he's mature, it's no guarantee that he's ready to handle the complexities of an NFL offense, particularly a classic West Coast offense. Fantasy owners want no part of the Browns QB situation as Weeden is being drafted 30th among passers.

  • Just how good is RB Trent Richardson? Fantasy owners appear undaunted by struggles of rookie RBs in recent seasons, as well they should. Richardson has the total package and will be one of the few NFL running backs that is all but guaranteed to handle the lion's share of his team's carries. The question is whether Richardson's natural talents can overcome frequent stacked fronts.

  • Who starts at wide receiver? Greg Little was not an immediate rookie sensation, but that doesn't mean he can't emerge this year. He needs to improve his consistency, avoid the costly drops, and re-establish his ability to make plays in the open field. What's not clear is who starts on the other side. Mohamed Massaquoi has been mentioned as a possible camp casualty by some beat writers, and listed as a starter by others. Supplemental pick Josh Gordon has the talent to start, but is a high risk option given his substance abuse issues.

  • Is OT Mitchell Schwartz ready to start? The Browns offensive line returns four starters, and is one of the team's strengths. The only question mark is right tackle, as rookie 2nd rounder Mitchell Schwartz is being slotted into the starting role immediately. If Schwartz struggles, the team may have to look outside of the roster for a veteran alternative.

  • Will DT Phil Taylor be a factor in 2012? Phil Taylor, the mammoth defensive tackle that should anchor the Browns line for years to come, tore a pectoral muscle a few months ago and is going to miss games. The question is whether he can make a return this year, at all. In his stead, the Browns need to figure out if Scott Paxson, John Hughes or Billy Winn are up to the challenge.
  • Pittsburgh Steelers

  • Link: http://www.laurelhighlands.org/laurel-highlands/pittsburgh-steelers-training-camp.asp?
  • Location: St. Vincent College (Latrobe, PA)
  • Dates: July 25 August 17
  • Open to the public? YES (free of charge)
  • For the 47th year, the Steelers will head to Latrobe, PA (St. Vincent College) for training camp. The team won a hotly contested AFC North last season (12-4) but lost a heart-breaking playoff game to the Tim Tebow-led Denver Broncos. The defense which ranked 1st in points and yards allowed has few questions, but the offense was inconsistent (21st in points scored). That inconsistency may have played a role in the push to replace long-time offensive coordinator Bruce Arians with Todd Haley. In any event, although the key pieces return for another Super Bowl run, there are a fair number of questions that need to be answered over the next few weeks.

    Preseason Game Schedule

  • Thu, Aug 9 - @ Philadelphia - 7:30 PM
  • Sun, Aug 19 - vs Indianapolis - 8:00 PM
  • Sat, Aug 25 - @ Buffalo - 7:00 PM
  • Thu, Aug 30 - vs Carolina - 7:30 PM
  • What We're Watching

  • Will Todd Haley's "Rosetta Stone" offense befuddle? Haley's offense has been nicknamed the "Rosetta Stone" because it's complex and hard to decipher. Whether that's a fair assessment or not, it's imperative that he and Ben Roethlisberger get on the same page and that we see at least glimpses of precise execution in preseason game action.

  • Can the rookie additions stabilize the offensive line? Ben Roethlisberger was sacked on 7.2% of his dropbacks last year, and has been taking a pounding for several seasons. The team must find a better way to protect their franchise quarterback, and they are turning to rookies Mike Adams (left tackle) and David DeCastro (right guard) for help. If Adams and DeCastro live up to their billing, the line should be far better than it's been in years.

  • Is Mike Wallace ready to play without a new deal? Mike Wallace is unhappy with the restricted tender (understandably so) and appears ready to hold out in protest. Normally this wouldn't be a huge issue as long as he shows up for the regular season, but Wallace's discontent comes in a year when the Steelers are implementing a complex new system. Wallace is a risky bet at his current ADP (37th overall, WR13) if he doesn't report to camp soon.

  • Can Antonio Brown become the top receiver? Brown emerged as a 1,000-yard receiver in his 2nd season, and is entrenched as a full-time starter now that Hines Ward has retired. With Mike Wallace potentially holding out, Brown will be the focal point of the new offense during early sessions. At an ADP of WR26, is Brown being overlooked? If he plays well in early preseason games, expect his ADP to shoot higher.

  • Are the Steelers ready to give RB Isaac Redman a workhorse role? Rashard Mendenhall is going to miss time as he recovers from a torn ACL, and some believe he may start the season on the PUP list. In spite of his injury, the Steelers didn't focus on adding RB talent this offseason, which opens the door for Isaac Redman to become the main ball carrier. Can Redman handle the full playbook, and flourish in a heavier role?

  • Filling the openings on defense Casey Hampton is the starting nose tackle when he's healthy, but that could be awhile. Steve McLendon and Alameda Ta'amu are both hoping to secure the spot in Hampton's absence. The most intense battle should be for the starting cornerback position opposite Ike Taylor; three players: Cortez Allen, Curtis Brown and Keenan Lewis all have their eyes on the prize. The other question for camp is whether Stevenson Sylvester and rookie Sean Spence can push Larry Foote for his starting ILB spot.
  • Questions, suggestions and comments are always welcome to wood@footballguys.com.

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