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Preseason Watch List: AFC North

A detailed look at the key questions facing each team in the preseason

BALTIMORE RAVENS

John Harbaugh made the playoffs in each of his first five seasons as Ravens head coach, culminating in the Super Bowl XLVII victory. The Ravens have since missed the playoffs three of four seasons including the last two. The root of the problem is on the offensive side of the ball. Baltimore was never an offensive juggernaut under Harbaugh, but the team ranked 12th in points scored over his first five seasons. Over the last four seasons, the Ravens have averaged 20th in points scored, including three seasons outside the Top 20. The defense may not be a Top 3 unit as it was in the early days, but was Top 10 in both points and yards allowed in 2016. The key this preseason will be forging a new offensive identity under veteran coordinator Marty Mornhinweg and establishing a pecking order at running back, wide receiver, and tight end. 

Camp Details:

  • When: 7/19 (Rookies) / 7/26 (Veterans)
  • Where: Under Armour Performance Center (Owings Mills, MD)
  • Open to Public: Limited (See Website)

Preseason Game Schedule:

  • Aug 10 -- Washington 7:30 pm EDT
  • Aug 17 -- @Miami 7:00 pm
  • Aug 26 -- Buffalo 7:00 pm
  • Aug 31 -- @New Orleans 8:00 pm

What We're Watching:

  • Marty Mornhinweg's offense -- As mentioned, the Ravens need to bring the offense back to league average, or better. Mornhinweg was promoted from quarterbacks coach in-season commensurate with Marc Trestman's firing, but this will be the first preseason Mornhinweg can implement his preferred offense. Mornhinweg is a West Coast offense disciple and has called plays in four prior cities (San Francisco, Detroit, Philadelphia, and New York) with varying degrees of success. Expect the team to continue to throw the ball; his offenses have ranked 10th or higher in passing attempt in 10 of 15 seasons. By contrast, his offenses have only ranked in the Top 10 in rushing attempts four times. 
  • Sorting out the crowded new-look backfield -- In an NFL defined by running back committees, the Ravens lack star power but have options. Depth took a hit at the start of camp when Kenneth Dixon's torn meniscus ended his season before it began. Dixon's injury gives Javorius Allen a chance to stick. Terrance West led the team with 774 yards rushing and returns as the likely workhorse on first and second down. Veteran Danny Woodhead joins the team after a few seasons of PPR dominance in San Diego. He can be a fantasy factor even if he shares touches. 
  • Mike Wallace versus Jeremy Maclin versus Breshad Perriman -- The Ravens lost their 2nd, 3rd and 5th leading receivers in the offseason, which leaves plenty of targets to go around. Veteran Jeremy Maclin enjoyed his breakout season under Mornhinweg in Philadelphia and reunites in Baltimore. Mike Wallace quietly led Baltimore with 72 receptions for 1,017 yards last season. Last, but not least, 23-year old Breshad Perriman is finally healthy and flashed star potential last year. The Ravens offense can't support three fantasy-relevant receivers; the question is whether one of the trio will be consistent enough to be an every week fantasy asset? 
  • Who starts at tight end? -- Dennis Pitta missed 41 games from 2013-2015, but returned last year and led all NFL tight ends with 86 receptions. Unfortunately, Pitta suffered another injury in the preseason, and his career is over. A quarter of tight ends want the starting job, but all have questions. Ben Watson is 36 years old and coming off an Achilles injury. Crockett Gillmore is oft injured and hasn't been explosive when given playing time. Maxx Williams had knee surgery in the offseason. Finally, Nick Boyle is young, raw and already in the league's substance-abuse program. 
  • Defensive starting roles up for grabs -- Starting roles will be decided in camp at cornerback, defensive end, defensive tackle and outside linebacker. The linebacker battle is worth watching, in particular, as Tyus Bowser, Matt Judon, Albert McClellan and Za'Darius Smith all want the job. 

CINCINNATI BENGALS

The Bengals' 5-year playoff run ended last year with a 6-9-1 season and 3rd place finish in the competitive AFC North. The heat is on second-year offensive coordinator Ken Zampese after the offense fell to 24th in points scored last season after ranking 7th in Hue Jackson's final year calling plays. Zampese must be more innovative, but his coaches also have to piece together a more effective offensive line. The team could also use a bit of luck, as three of the team's premier players: A.J. Green, Tyler Eifert and Giovani Bernard, all missed significant time last season. 

Camp Details:

  • When: 7/25 (Rookies) / 7/27 (Veterans)
  • Where: Paul Brown Stadium (Cincinnati, OH)
  • Open to Public: Yes (See Website)

Preseason Game Schedule:

  • Aug 11 -- Tampa Bay 7:30 pm EDT
  • Aug 19 -- Kansas City 7:00 pm
  • Aug 27 -- @Washington 4:30 pm
  • Aug 31 -- @Indianapolis 7:00 pm

What We're Watching:

  • Is Joe Mixon the workhorse? -- Beat writers cannot stop praising Mixon after his dominance in rookie camp and OTAs. With Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard already in place, Mixon has to be stellar, particularly as a pass blocker, to earn starter's reps. If Mixon shines in the early preseason, fantasy owners will vault him into the second or third round.
  • Giovani Bernard versus Jeremy Hill -- Bernard is coming back from a torn ACL, but his skill set is complementary to Mixon's whereas Hill is more of a direct competitor for Mixon's role. Bernard is a gifted receiver and open field runner and would be a perfect fit as the 3rd down back. Hill is more of a short-yardage hammer; something Mixon can likely do well. It's hard to imagine both Hill and Bernard having fantasy relevance, so the preseason will shine a light on who has late round value. 
  • Who starts opposite A.J. Green? -- A.J. Green is healthy after missing a handful of games with a bad hamstring at the end of last season. Veteran Brandon LaFell is the odds-on starter opposite Green, but LaFell's one skill -- deep ball tracking -- is something rookie John Ross has in spades. Ross, a first rounder with Olympic speed, was banged up in the early preseason but should push for a starting role quickly. 
  • Is Tyler Eifert healthy? -- Tyler Eifert has missed more games (26) than he's played (22) in the last three seasons and has suffered a litany of injuries (elbow, shoulder, back, concussion, ankle, and back again). Offseason back surgery poses a risk and Eifert needs to get back on the field before the start of the regular season to justify his current ADP. 
  • Rebuilding the offensive line -- Andy Dalton was sacked 41 times last year, and the line may have gotten worse in the offseason. Kevin Zeitler and Andrew Whitworth departed in free agency, leaving Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher at tackle, with Andre Smith returning as an interior lineman. If the Bengals can't dramatically improve the line's play, expectations for an offensive resurgence will be foolhardy. 

CLEVELAND BROWNS

What's the adage, one step forward, two steps back? The Browns fired Mike Pettine after a 3-win season in 2015 and hired Hue Jackson to rebuild the once proud franchise. If Jackson and his staff have the answers, it wasn't readily apparent last year. The Browns won a single game (1-15) and ranked 31st in points scored, 30th in points allowed, 30th in yards gained and 31st in yards allowed. You quite literally can't get much worse. The team will have a handful of new starters on offense and defense, but will it be enough to move out of the AFC North basement? 

Camp Details:

  • When: 7/23 (Rookies) / 7/26 (Veterans)
  • Where: Cleveland Browns Training Complex (Berea, OH)
  • Open to Public: Yes (See Website)

Preseason Game Schedule:

  • Aug 10 -- New Orleans 8:00 pm EDT
  • Aug 21 -- New York Giants 8:00 pm
  • Aug 26 -- @Tampa Bay 7:30 pm
  • Aug 31 -- @Chicago 8:00 pm

What We're Watching:

  • Finding a starting quarterback -- Cody Kessler is the safe choice after the rookie started eight games and completed 66% of his passes. Kessler is also the uninspired choice given his physical limitations and uber conservative mindset. The rookie lost all eight of his starts, threw just six touchdowns in eight games, and averaged 150 yards passing per game. Brock Osweiler was acquired in a glorified salary dump, but the coaches insist he has an opportunity to win the starting job. Rookie DeShone Kizer is the enticing option, but even his ardent supporters believe he's better served learning on the sidelines for a season or two. 
  • Is Isaiah Crowell ready for greatness? -- Isaiah Crowell led the Browns with 1,271 yards and seven touchdowns last year and is poised for a breakout if he can stay healthy. Hue Jackson has indicated Crowell needs more touches, which means he'll see more than last year's 55% snap count. With improvement on the offensive line (Kevin Zeitler and J.C. Tretter), the sky is the limit for the 24-year old tailback. 
  • Corey Coleman's progress -- The Browns opted not to re-sign Terrelle Pryor and instead gave big money to Kenny Britt. Britt is a known commodity, but it's second-year receiver Corey Coleman that's worth watching in the preseason. Coleman has to overcome nagging injuries to win over his coaches, but the talent that made him worth a 1st round pick in the 2016 draft remains. 
  • Can David Njoku win the starting job? -- Seth DeValve is not a household name, but the Browns staff is high on the second year player. Rookie first rounder David Njoku is one of the best two-way tight end prospects in years, and will be the starter soon, but can he earn the role immediately? If not, does DeValve have fantasy value in deeper leagues? 
  • Installing Gregg Williams defense -- The Browns replaced Ray Horton with Gregg Williams, and with that comes an aggressive, blitz-happy defensive scheme. Williams benefits from the additions of 1st overall pick Myles Garrett and fellow 1st rounder Jabrill Peppers, and veteran Calvin Pryor. 

PITTSBURGH STEELERS

The Steelers are coming off a division title (11-5, 1st in the AFC North) and a trip to the AFC Championship Game. Although Pittsburgh fell short against the Patriots, enthusiasm is high for another title run considering the team returns all the key pieces from last year's unit. Ben Roethlisberger toyed with retirement but is back for another season. Le'Veon Bell won't be suspended to start this season. Martavis Bryant was reinstated. Barring injuries, the offense will assuredly be among the league's best. On defense, the team is giving a few younger players a shot at starting, including Bud Dupree, Vince Williams, Russ Cockrell and Artie Burns. Rookie T.J. Watt won't start over James Harrison, but he should spell him in pass rushing situations. 

Camp Details:

  • When: 7/27 (Rookies and Veterans)
  • Where: Saint Vincent College (Latrobe, PA)
  • Open to Public: Yes (See Website)

Preseason Game Schedule:

  • Aug 11 -- @New York Giants 7:00 pm EDT
  • Aug 20 -- Atlanta 4:00 pm
  • Aug 26 -- Indianapolis 7:30 pm
  • Aug 31 -- @Carolina 7:30 pm

What We're Watching:

  • How does Ben Roethlisberger look? -- Roethlisberger enters his 14th season with little to prove; his only goal is competing for another Super Bowl. In spite of talking retirement, Roethlisberger returns and will helm one of the league's most experienced, productive offenses. Assuming, of course, he took his conditioning seriously this offseason. If Roethlisberger looks fit and practices regularly in the preseason, fantasy owners can be excited about the entire offense. If he's out of shape, things could go awry. 
  • Will Le'Veon Bell's contract situation be a distraction? -- Le'Veon Bell is the league's best running back, or at least one of the best. He racked up nearly 1,900 yards from scrimmage in 12 games last year and is healthy and motivated to prove his worth after failing to come to terms on a long-term extension this offseason. Bell will play this season under the franchise tag, which is not what Bell nor his agent expected. Will the lack of long-term security impact Bell's attitude or the locker room? 
  • Martavis Bryant's maturation -- Martavis Bryant has flashed elite play-making skills in his first two seasons, before missing last season on a suspension for repeated violations of the league's substance abuse program. Bryant is back in the fold and hasn't lost a step. His play has been characterized as "awe-inspiring." Can Bryant keep his head on straight? If so, the sky is the limit for the passing game. 
  • Is Jesse James capable of a major role? -- James caught 39 passes for 338 yards and three touchdowns in his second season, but has an opportunity to double those numbers if he can work into the role once held by Heath Miller. If James plays well in the preseason, his fantasy ADP will skyrocket. 
  • Are the kids ready to dominate on defense? -- The Steelers started integrating younger players into the lineup last season, and still finished as a Top 10 unit. This year the defense will be even younger and arguably field the most speed we've seen since the Bill Cowher days. Javon Hargrave (24), Stephon Tuitt (24), Ryan Shazier (25), Bud Dupree (24), Artie Burns (22), Sean Davis (23), Russ Cockrell (25), and T.J. Watt (22) are all expected to play major snaps.