AFC North training camp storylines to watch

The AFC North never sees too much change, and that includes training camp in 2021. The division operates in the present but has the attitude of the 1980s brand of the NFL. The fans hate one another, and the players still seem to as well. It’s modern football with the same blue-collar, smash-mouth style the AFC North has boasted forever. It makes for the most compelling football of any division, year in and year out.

AFC North training camp storylines

The Cleveland Browns have an incredible roster on paper. The Baltimore Ravens appear strong once again. The Cincinnati Bengals look to get their franchise quarterback back to pair with their top draft pick. And the Pittsburgh Steelers might be looking for one final hoorah with Ben Roethlisberger.

Baltimore Ravens camp storylines

The biggest training camp story for the AFC North division favorites should surround their wide receiving corps. Is 2021 the year they finally find production on the outside? Sammy Watkins, Marquise Brown, and rookie Rashod Bateman feels better than what the Ravens put on the field in 2020. Miles Boykin, Devin Duvernay, Tylan Wallace, and James Proche provide an intriguing camp battle for the final spots on the roster.

Greg Roman and Lamar Jackson must team up to produce a more high-powered passing attack next season. Jackson certainly doesn’t need to throw for 300+ yards per game, but he must be able to produce when the rushing attack falters. Roman is responsible for that passing attack as well. There must be an improvement in their efficiency.

What happens at running back might be equally intriguing. J.K. Dobbins looked great in the rotation last season. Is there a chance he becomes the featured back for the Ravens? And can the offense survive with Jackson running less?

Cincinnati Bengals camp storylines

The Bengals made a ton of moves in the offseason. But the AFC North cellar dwellers from 2020 have their biggest training camp story come from their quarterback. Joe Burrow’s rehab appears on schedule for a Week 1 return. He’s even hinted about wanting to get some preseason reps. Burrow is the type to make everything into fuel for improvement. He received some comparisons to Tom Brady as a prospect, and an early-career ACL tear could add to that lure.

Head coach Zac Taylor could be on the hot seat if the team doesn’t show improvement in 2021. As many believed he was unqualified for the position, the young head coach has a lot to prove. In 2020, he used empty formations a lot, which Burrow excelled in during his magical run at LSU. It’s a good sign that Taylor will do everything possible to make his young QB comfortable.

The Bengals added Trey Hendrickson in free agency and allowed Carl Lawson to sign with the New York Jets. Hendrickson enjoyed a breakout season in 2020 with the New Orleans Saints. Can he replicate that production playing in a more full-time role?

Cleveland Browns camp storylines

Curiously, the Browns aren’t the favorite to win the division. Their team, on paper, is possibly the best in the league. So this AFC North powerhouse all comes down to the quarterback play, which will be a big story during training camp. Can Baker Mayfield elevate his game enough to lead this roster past the Kansas City Chiefs and into the promised land?

The thing is, this 11-5 roster was actually outscored in 2020 — making them a serious statistical outlier. Their defense, not Mayfield, was the Browns’ sore spot in 2020. They were bad from a scoring and efficiency perspective. Still, they made multiple significant upgrades during the 2021 offseason.

They added Greg Newsome and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoa in the first two rounds of the NFL Draft. Newsome is a high-upside pick that should complement Denzel Ward nicely. Owusu-Koramoah is a do-it-all linebacker who should be great in coverage out of the gates as he develops against the run.

The additions of S John Johnson and CB Troy Hill are immediate upgrades at their respective positions. Also, getting Grant Delpit and Greedy Williams back healthy provides incredible upside and depth on the back end. Furthermore, the Browns took swings on free agents Jadeveon Clowney and Takk McKinley. Could one or both of them provide some help opposite Myles Garrett?

Pittsburgh Steelers camp storylines

This might be the biggest training camp story in the AFC North. How far will the Pittsburgh Steelers fall in 2021? They’re projected to win nine games in 2021 — however, their schedule projects as the second-toughest in the league. After having the fourth-most efficient defense in 2020, they lost Mike Hilton, Steven Nelson, and Bud Dupree in free agency.

Fortunately, T.J. Watt, Stephon Tuitt, and Cam Heyward still exist. That trio of terror should help keep this inexperienced and undermanned secondary afloat. It also doesn’t hurt to have one of the best safeties in the NFL in Minkah Fitzpatrick roaming the back end.

The questions are more on the offensive side of the ball. The Steelers lost a lot on the offensive line. How much will the team’s defensive line dominate the offense during training camp?

Does Ben Roethlisberger have enough left in the tank?

Yet, the biggest question is — what does Roethlisberger have left in his right arm? He already gets rid of the ball like it’s a hot potato, averaging a league-low 2.3 seconds per throw. Additionally, his average depth of target was just 6.9 yards in 2020. It’s difficult to see how that improves with what appears to be a depleted front five.

Dwayne Haskins was irresponsible and just unimpressive in Washington. But he’s the only thing we can even gesture towards as possibly being the future in Pittsburgh. With that said, could we see improvement from him in training camp?

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