Preseason Watch List: AFC North

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

BALTIMORE RAVENS

The Ravens return to camp seeking to build off last year's 10-6 record and playoff win of division rival Pittsburgh Steelers. The Ravens fielded Top 10 units on both sides of the ball, but that doesn't mean the team enters camp without questions. On offense (8th in points, 12th in yards) the team is dealing with yet another new offensive coordinator -- Marc Trestman -- and a new system, not to mention quite a few rookie additions. On defense (6th in points allowed, 8th in yards)  It's hard to believe this team won the Super Bowl two seasons ago, and the team is going to need a lot of things to fall into place in order to re-establish itself as a playoff team much less a title contender. The defense (12th in both points and yards allowed) was solid but is no longer elite. Meanwhile, the offense struggled (25th in points scored 29th in yards gained) and faces questions at both running back and receiver. 

Preseason Game Schedule

  • Aug 13 -- New Orleans 7:30 pm
  • Aug 22 -- @Philadelphia 7:00 pm
  • Aug 29 -- Washington 7:30 pm
  • Sep 3 -- @Atlanta 7:00 pm

What We're Watching

  • How will Marc Trestman's offense differ from Kubiak's? -- Gary Kubiak was one-and-done at Baltimore's offensive coordinator (he got the Broncos head coaching job), so the Ravens turn to Trestman -- who spent the last two seasons as the Bears' head coach. Trestman has promised continuity in the ground game, but prefers two-tight end sets and a more vertical passing attack. Joe Flacco has a strong arm but isn't exactly a gunslinger, and the team will need young players to step in immediately for Trestman's playbook to be fully realized.
  • Who starts at receiver? -- Steve Smith Jr. is back for another season, but the rest of the depth chart is a cavernous glob of uncertainty. Rookie Breshad Perriman is viewed as the eventual #1 and replacement for Torrey Smith, but he battled inconsistency in college and needs a sharp camp to earn the coaches' trust for Week One. In the meantime, unheralded veterans Marlon Brown and Kamar Aiken are set for key roles, almost by default.
  • Can "Buck" Allen make noise in his rookie season? -- Justin Forsett is a popular fantasy pick this year given the propensity for Marc Trestman's offenses to throw to the running back (many think Forsett could catch 70 or 80 balls this year). Yet we have to remember that Forsett's breakout season was unusual given his age and pedigree. If Forsett regresses or gets hurt, the Ravens won't abandon the run. Buck Allen is the more intriguing prospect than Lorenzo Taliaferro and fantasy owners should take note if Allen secures the #2 role with a strong preseason.
  • Should we care about Maxx Williams? -- Williams was the top rated rookie tight end prospect, and landed in an ideal situation given the Ravens needs at the position. Yet, most tight ends -- even the best of all time -- struggle in their rookie seasons. Williams needs a dominant preseason to be worth consideration in redraft leagues.

CINCINNATI BENGALS

The Bengals finished 10-5-1 and made the playoffs, but in many ways 2014 was a disappointment. Cincinnati regressed offensively (15th in points scored vs. 6th in 2013) and defensively (12th in points allowed vs. 5th in 2013) and lost in the first round of the playoffs yet again. Head coach Jay Gruden  and field top 10 units on both sides of the ball (6th in points scored, 5th in points allowed). Unfortunately the team fell short in the playoffs with a 27-10 drubbing by the San Diego Chargers. As Cincinnati heads to Paul Brown Stadium, head coach Marvin Lewis will have two new lieutenants by his side as Jay Gruden (Washington) and Mike Zimmer (Minnesota) both accepted head coaching positions. 

Preseason Game Schedule

  • Aug 14 -- N.Y. Giants 7:30 pm
  • Aug 24 -- @Tampa Bay 8:00 pm
  • Aug 29 -- Chicago 7:30 pm
  • Sep 3 -- @Indianapolis 7:00 pm

What We're Watching

  • Is Jeremy Hill the workhorse? -- Hill was one of the league's best backs in the second half of the season, and expectations are high entering 2015. Yet, Gio Bernard is a talent in his own right and it would be odd to relegate him to a pure backup role. Look for clues in the preseason about the workload balance.
  • Is Marvin Jones Jr back? -- Jones missed all of last season and the Bengals weren't the same without his big-play capabilities opposite A.J. Green. This offseason it looked like Jones would be back with a vengeance, but Jones has missed a week of practice at the start of camp with 'sore muscles.' There's no question the Bengals passing attack is better with Jones, but counting on him may be foolhardy.
  • Is the 3rd time the charm for Tyler Eifert? -- Eifert enters his third season defined by unfulfilled potential. A solid rookie season (39 for 445 and 2 touchdowns) was offset by an injury-shortened sophomore season (1 game played). By all accounts, Eifert looks healthy and explosive, and may finally become the focal point of the Bengals short- and intermediate passing attack.
  • What are the team's plans for their new rookie linemen? -- The Bengals used their 1st (Cedric Ogbuehi) and 2nd (Jake Fisher) round picks on linemen but neither are expected to compete for starting roles his year. Whitworth and Smith are one of the better tandems in the AFC, and the Bengals also signed Eric Winston as the swing tackle.

CLEVELAND BROWNS

The Browns didn't have a winning record (7-9) last year but in many respects it was a successful season for first year head coach Mike Pettine. The Browns improved by three games and established an identity on defense (9th in points allowed). In spite of playing in the toughest division in football, there is modest hope that Cleveland can contend for a playoff spot this season. In order for that hope to become reality, the team will need to improve by leaps and bounds offensively (27th in points scored). No team underwent more of a roster overhaul than the Browns this offseason, which makes this one of THE teams to watch in the preseason.

Preseason Game Schedule

  • Aug 13 -- Washington 8:00 pm
  • Aug 20 -- Buffalo 8:00 pm
  • Aug 29 -- @Tampa Bay 7:00 pm
  • Sep 3 -- @Chicago 8:00 pm

What We're Watching

  • John DeFilippo's offense -- DeFilippo has big shoes to fill in Kyle Shanahan, although admittedly the Browns offense (27th in points) didn't match up with Shanahan's reputation. DeFilippo is going to keep the zone-blocking concepts because he believes the offensive line can be dominant. In terms of the passing game, expect the Browns to use a 2-TE formation as the base look. DeFilippo also wants to utilize the running backs more in the passing attack; something that bodes well for rookie Duke Johnson Jr (if he's healthy).
  • Johnny Manziel vs. Josh McCown -- The Browns ranked dead last in touchdown passes (12) last year and, like any NFL franchise, need at least competent quarterback play. Manziel has been humbled after last season (and a rehab stint) and is getting some first team reps in early camp practices; but the consensus expects McCown to start the season. We know McCown is a league average passer, at best, which means the Browns have to hope Manziel wins the job in the preseason.
  • Crowell vs. Johnson vs. West -- The Browns enter the preseason with three young backs: Isaiah Crowell, Terrence West and Duke Johnson Jr. What was supposed to be a spirited camp battle has turned into a one-man show thanks to hamstring woes for West and Johnson. Crowell looks set as the starter, at least initially. Johnson still has an opportunity for a major role, particularly as the pass-catching back -- provided his hamstring issues don't linger.
  • Who is going to play the "F" position? -- DeFilippo said he's comfortable with Jim Dray and Gary Barnidge as his blocking tight ends but his offense needs a dynamic pass catcher for the "F" position. Since the Browns didn't re-sign Jordan Cameron, that means Rob Housler is going to be given the shot at the role. Housler did little in Arizona, but is more of a pass-catcher than a blocker.
  • Is there a silver lining in the receiving corps? -- If Dwayne Bowe and Brian Hartline don't excite you, you're not alone. Yet, they are the most credible bets to start in Cleveland. The X-factor is converted quarterback Terrelle Pryor; who has been the star of early camp. Andrew Hawkins, Travis Benjamin, Taylor Gabriel and rookie Vince Mayle are also vying for snaps.

PITTSBURGH STEELERS

The Steelers bounced back from consecutive 8-8 records to finish 11-5 and win the AFC North. Unfortunately, the success didn't persist into the playoffs as they were dispatched in the Wild Card round by division rival Baltimore. Entering camp, most of the key questions are on the defensive side of the ball, as the team ushers in the Keith Butler Era -- saying goodbye to long-time assistant (and future Hall of Famer) Dick LeBeau.

Preseason Game Schedule

  • Aug 9 -- @Minnesota 8:00 pm
  • Aug 14 -- @Jacksonville 7:30 pm
  • Aug 23 -- Green Bay 1:00 pm
  • Aug 29 -- @Buffalo 4:00 pm
  • Sep 3 -- Carolina 7:30 pm

What We're Watching 

  • How does DeAngelo Williams look? -- Le'Veon Bell is suspended for the first two games, assuring veteran free agent DeAngelo Williams two starts. If Williams looks sharp in the preseason, he should be more than a run-of-the-mill fantasy handcuff on draft day.
  • Martavis Bryant vs. Markus Wheato-- Bryant took over for Wheaton down the stretch in 2014 and most assumed Bryant would become the starter this year; as a result he's been a popular breakout choice among fantasy owners. Yet, Ben Roethlisberger called Wheaton -- not Bryant -- the Steelers "breakout player of the year." As if that weren't confusing enough, it's been Wheaton lining up with the first team offense through the first week of camp. If Wheaton continues to hold onto the starting role, expectations for Bryant need to be ratcheted back.
  • Keith Butler's system -- Many think Butler will maintain the status quo, but don't be surprised if Butler makes substantive changes. He recognizes this as a chance to make a name for himself after coaching under LeBeau, and let's be honest -- the Steelers system wasn't yielding great results of late.
  • Are the young defenders ready to make an impact? -- The Steelers are counting on as many as five young players to make an impact on a rebuilding defense. Stephon Tuitt (2nd year) needs to hold down one of the defense end spots, Ryan Shazier (2nd year) is a starter at insider linebacker, Jarvis Jones (rd year) has a make-or-break season on the outside, and Sharmako Thomas is expected to start at safety. 1st round pass rusher Bud Dupree should be a situational player, but could be pressed into action if Jones falters.

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