All of the teams in the NFL will be in training camp by the end of this week. It is official, the off season is over. Training camp is here and there are some pretty interesting story lines that we need to pay attention to. Around the AFC North: Three Things to Watch at Training Camp will focus on some things to focus on as camp begins.
1. The Addition of Steve Smith adds toughness to the offense.
Steve Smith has already had an impact on the Ravens. His fiery style of play is something that the offense lacked after losing Anquan Boldin. Smith’s personality will help set the tone on offense and keep in line with the physical, intimidating attitude that the defense brings to the table. The intensity that Smith has resulted in a fight with veteran corner Lardarius Webb during OTAs. His competitiveness will show up every day because Smith has something to prove. He was released by the Carolina Panthers and will be out to show the NFL that the Panthers made a mistake in letting him go. He has always played with a chip on his shoulder but this season that chip has grown into a boulder.
2. Two Rookie Impact Players
There will be fierce competition at linebacker and safety as C.J. Mosely and Terrence Brooks will fight for starting spots. Brooks is very likely to be named the starter at free safety early in the season if not opening day. His do it all ability at safety will be on display in camp. He can cover a lot of ground in centerfield but also has the ability to make plays at the line of scrimmage as well.
Mosely will compete for the weakside linebacker spot. His ability to be a downhill tackler and roam from sideline to sideline will be something to watch. Mosely is also very good in coverage and can match up with tight ends. He’ll get the chance to go against some good ones in camp as Dennis Pitta, Owen Daniels and rookie Crockett Gilmore will be on the opposing side. Gilmore has very soft hands and is a big body that Joe Flacco will learn to enjoy as a target when they work together.
3. The Right Tackle Battle
Rick Wagner will be the starter when camp opens. He was the backup to Michael Oher last year. The Ravens coaching staff was impressed with Wagner in OTAs and mini camp but it’s hard to get a true read on an offensive lineman when they don’t have the pads on. That will change when camp starts. Practices will be live and Wagner will have to go against some top notch defensive lineman in Haloti Ngata and Chris Canty.
1. Will Andy Dalton Be Distracted By Contract Talks?
The story of the off season has been whether or not Andy Dalton will receive a contract extension. Dalton wanted to get a deal done before they reported to camp and not having that happen could be a distraction. He will have to answer questions about his contract in interviews after practice. Some players succumb to the pressure of playing for a new contract and end up trying too hard. This is especially bad for a quarterback. The last thing that a franchise wants is for their quarterback to force throws and try to make plays that aren’t really there. Those are the kinds of things that lead to interceptions. Will Dalton be a victim of the pressure or will the desire to get a new deal stoke the competitor in him and cause him to elevate his play?
2. More 12 Personnel
The Bengals drafted Tyler Eifert last year and used him in a number of packages. Jermaine Gresham is a big, athletic tight end that creates matchup problems against safeties and linebackers. Hue Jackson is the new offensive coordinator and he will surely try to find ways to take advantage of mismatches. Teams will have to focus on Marvin Jones and A.J. Green on the outside. Opposing defenses will have to leave Gresham in single coverage. Both of these tight ends have big frames and are very athletic. They will have a major factor in the Bengals scoring more touchdowns in the red zone.
3. The Running Back Competition
Jeremy Hill is a big running back that will come in and compete with veteran Benjarvis Green-Ellis. These two running backs have the same bruising running style so there may not be room for both of them. Usually when two players present the same skill sets, the more expensive veteran is the one that ends up getting released. That could definitely be the case with the Bengals. Giovanni Bernard is safe because of his change of pace ability. He is the lightning to the thunder of Hill/Green-Ellis. Hill will need to show that he can be trusted in pass protection and that he can be a legitimate receiving option out of the backfield.
1. Johnny Manziel
It is not possible to mention the Browns without any mention of Manziel. Incumbent quarterback Brian Hoyer is in a very awkward position to say the least. The backup quarterback is always the most popular guy on the team to the fans. Fans will always call for the head coach to insert the backup if the starter struggles. That is compounded when it comes to Manziel. All eyes will be on Johnny Football as he takes his first snaps in full gear as a pro. He will dazzle people with his ability to improvise and his vertical passing accuracy. The deep passing ability is an underrated part of his game but he can throw the deep ball with the best of them.
2. The Improved Secondary
Defensive coordinator Jim O’neil has said that he has been very impressed with rookie corner Justin Gilbert. The scheme that he and head coach Mike Petine employ calls for two corners to have the ability to function on an island with little help. Joe Haden is one of the best cover corners so Gilbert will get his share of attention on the other side. Gilbert’s elite coverage skills will be on display. He has the ability to get physical at the line of scrimmage and unlike his days at Oklahoma State, he will be able to truly get his hands on receivers during camp. Pierre Desir is another player that will be a delight to watch as he further adjusts to the pro game. Donte Whitner comes over to the Browns and according to O’Neil, Whitner will be the best safety in the game in O’Neil’s system. Buster Skrine will continue to fight to keep his nickel corner spot. Lastly, Tashaun Gipson is a hidden gem at free safety. He is a ball hawk that will get to make plays on the ball from his centerfield spot in single high coverage.
3. Who Will Step Up In Josh Gordon’s Absence?
Josh Gordon and Manziel were supposed to be the match made in heaven. As we all know, Gordon has to get his life back in order before he can worry about football. Training camp will give the Browns the opportunity to see who will take the role of being the number one receiver. If healthy, Miles Austin is the likely candidate. He occupied the top receiver spot for the Dallas Cowboys until Dez Bryant took that role. Austin has the ability to be a play maker that can take a short catch the distance for a touchdown. He is also a deep threat. The timing of Austin and the quarterbacks will be something to watch for. Keep an eye on Austin’s ability to move as well. He is an aging, injury prone player that still has some ability but will need to take extra measures to stay on the field.
1. Who Will Be a Threat on the Opposite Side of Antonio Brown?
The Steelers brought in free agents Darius Heyward-Bey and Lance Moore. They drafted Martavius Bryant and have Markus Wheaton playing in his second season as a pro. Those four players are the likely ones that will compete for the chance to lineup next to Brown. Moore and Wheaton are two similar players that are small in size but are shifty receivers that can get vertical in a hurry. Heyward-Bey has become somewhat of a journeyman as this is his third team in three seasons. Bryant is a big receiver that can not only catch the contested throw, he can catch the deep pass and run away from defenders. Ben Roethlisberger likes big receivers that can create separation down the field so watch how these two work on their timing and hook up for some big plays in camp.
2. Has Troy Polamalu Slowed Down?
Troy Polamalu is entering his 12th year in the NFL. That is a long time for any position especially defensive back. He seemed to have lost a step last year but still was able to put up 11 pass breakups. Time is running out for this aging veteran. Training camp is a time when the will to play gets tested for older players. The Steelers will want to see spurts of Polamalu still making plays and flying around like he used to. It’s more likely that he won’t go full tilt for most of camp in an effort to keep him fresh for the regular season. The amount of reps that free agent acquisition Mike Mitchell and second year safety Sharmarko Thomas get as a unit will be telling. If Thomas can show that he is a solid defender in camp, it may lead to less playing time for Polamalu during the season and eventually a phase out process for one of the most popular Steelers.
3. The Development of Jarvis Jones
Jarvis Jones is a player that Around the AFC North selected as a potential breakout candidate in a previous article. This will be his second go round and he has said that things have started to slow down for him already. Jones has the potential to be another one of the ferocious outside linebackers in Dick LeBeau’s defense. His progression will be on display as he works against the Steelers offensive line during inside drills and team periods. Jones is likely to have an integral part in the Steelers resurgence on defense. He will benefit greatly from having Joey Porter as his position coach. Porter was an elite player at outside linebacker during his playing days and will look to help Jones become a top notch pass rusher during camp.
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