Around the AFC North: Training Camp Position Battles

All of the teams in the AFC North have taken part in live practice with full gear on. There are quite a few training camp position battles going on in the division. Here is a team by team look at the most significant competition for significant playing roles:

Baltimore Ravens

Nickel Cornerback: Chykie Brown vs Asa Jackson

asa_jacksonThe Ravens defense is becoming a more athletic unit. The main goal for defensive coordinator Dean Pees is to reduce the number of big plays that they allowed last year. The NFL is becoming more and more of a passing league. As a result, more emphasis is being placed on the need to have at least three starting caliber corner backs.

Jimmy Smith and Lardarius Webb are both very solid cover corners but after them, there are some questions. The Ravens didn’t draft any corners this year. They instead opted to choose from their young corners that have been waiting for a chance to compete for a spot.

Chykie Brown and Asa Jackson are two mid round draft picks from the past that will compete for the nickel position. Brown has been dealing with a sore hamstring but returned to practice and performed well in front of a large crowd at the Ravens first open practice. Jackson took reps with the first team due to Lardarius Webb missing practice with a back injury.

It seems like as if Jackson has the inside track at this point and that’s despite coming into camp with Brown as the leader. Ravens defensive backs coach Steve Spanuolo spoke about the competition for the nickel spot during his presser last week.

“I’m going to talk about Asa first,” Spagnuolo said. “He has really jumped out there and impressed everybody – players, coaches. He’s doing a lot of things we knew he could do. He’s a feisty player, and people are going to knock him because of his lack of height, but he plays big. He’s been really good.”

Brown has struggled in camp as he has been beaten by Jacoby Jones and Steve Smith as well as missing some practice time due to injury. If he were to win the nickel spot, Brown would end up playing outside while Webb moves inside to cover the slot. Jackson on the other hand is a better slot corner that has to work on getting his press technique down before being able to comfortably line up outside. Pro Player Insiders caught up with him after practice and he shared some of the things that he has worked on to get ready for a bigger role.

“I worked real hard. Went back to the basics on some things and tried to get my technique totally sound. From there, I just worried about making plays. Did a lot of drills this off season to help with playing the ball. Working on press technique and doing the things that I need to play outside and in the nickel.”

Cincinnati Bengals

Short Yardage Back: Jeremy Hill vs Benjarvus Green-Ellis

green-ellisThere is no doubt what new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson wants to do with the Bengals offense. They already have the weapons that are needed to be a dangerous passing attack. Coach Jackson wants to establish a running game that will compliment Andy Dalton and the receiving core. “We still need to be a physical team. Get after it. Be tough. Be a mentally tough team. That’s what we’re trying to do,” Jackson said.

Jeremy Hill and Benjarvus Green-Ellis are essentially the same player, except one is a rookie and the other is a veteran. These kinds of pairings usually don’t fare well for the veteran player. Green-Ellis is doing everything that he can to remain in the running for the power running back option that will complement the explosive Giovanni Bernard.

Geoff Hobson of gave his take on the Bengals offense under Hue Jackson:

I don’t think you can say Jackson’s system is more run-oriented, but I think you can say his scheme is based on the run. It’s like Hue said after practice Tuesday, the goal is to play many different ways.

One of the biggest things that a rookie running back has to prove is that he can be reliable in pass protection. This was something that Hill was able to do very well at LSU and it has carried over to the NFL. The Bengals recently incorporated pass protection drills into their practices and reports from camp say that Hill excelled.

Coley Harvey of has been very impressed with Hill since he has seen him at training camp.

 He was good in blitz pickup and even better in some of the half-line drills the Bengals ran as they split up their weakside and strongside groups. Expectations are high for the second-rounder in this camp, and it’s important to coaches to see steady growth.

Harvey also spoke about how Green-Ellis is getting support from his teammates.

While some in the media, myself included, have said the writing seems to be on the wall for Green-Ellis and his stay in Cincinnati. It has been interesting to hear the type of support Green-Ellis has received from his teammates in practice this camp. Typically when he’s got the ball in his hands, offensive and defensive players are shouting more encouraging words to him than you hear for anyone else. If Green-Ellis’ spot on the roster came down to popular player opinion, it would appear that he would be overwhelmingly kept. Few players receive the type of support from the players standing on the sidelines than Green-Ellis has gotten so far.

The coaching staff is standing behind Green-Ellis, especially running backs coach Kyle Closkey. The thing that they like about him is that he is such a leader. The question will be can his leadership qualities alone be the factor that will allow him to maintain his role as a short yardage running back or will the role be taken over by the bigger, younger player in Hill?

Cleveland Browns

Quarterback: Brian Hoyer vs Johnny Manziel

johnny-manziel-brian-hoyer-nfl-cleveland-browns-training-camp-850x560There is little doubt what the focus has been at Browns camp. The selection of Johnny Manziel spurred an instant quarterback competition. Ticket sales soared the day that he was drafted. General Manager Ray Farmer has already came out and said that Manziel is the backup quarterback. Head Coach Mike Petine has said that they have all of the confidence in the world in Brian Hoyer as the starter. The franchise has already had talks about extending Hoyer.

Brandon Howard is the Browns beatwriter for Pro Player Insiders. He has been at Browns training camp and offered his take on the quarterback competition:

On Hoyer: For the moment Brian Hoyer appears to have a much better command of where the football is supposed to go, and has done a good job of getting it there quickly. At this juncture, the offense has greater synergy and cohesiveness with Hoyer.

On Manziel:  He is enduring the typical ups and downs of a rookie quarterback. Occasionally Manziel appears to be thinking entirely too much instead of hitting his back foot on a three-step drop and getting the ball out of his hands. He’s also drifting instead of stepping into throws in the face of pressure causing him to push the football as opposed to throwing it with velocity. As a result, the nose of the football is elevated over the back end causing the ball to sail and lose steam.

Hoyer has waited for this opportunity throughout his career. He finally got the chance to show what he could do last year and he offered a glimpse of the player that he could be if given a shot. Unfortunately, that stretch was cut short due to injury. Now he finds himself in competition with one of the most polarizing rookies to come into the NFL.

The offense could have two different but similar identities with each of these quarterbacks. Kyle Shanahan had a similar situation when he was the offensive coordinator with the Washington Redskins. He had the pocket passer in Kirk Cousins and the mobile, electrifying quarterback in Robert Griffin III. The offense saw more play action off of the zone running scheme with Cousins. This is what we can expect with Hoyer as the starter.

When Griffin was the quarterback, there was more read option and bootleg passes. This is what would happen with Manziel. The good thing about the read option and bootleg passes is that it makes the reads a lot easier for the young quarterback. The bootleg passing attack will cut the field in half and give Manziel an easy high-low read. The only problem is that it will expose the small quarterback to some big hits and risk him getting injured.

The Browns players have said that they are excited about both quarterbacks. Head coach Mike Petine is said to have a goal of naming his starting quarterback by week three in the preseason. He knows that more practice time will be good not only for the rookie,but for the veteran coming back from injury as well.

“I think anybody coming off (an ACL injury), it’s just human nature, may be a little flighty early with lots of big bodies flying around,” said Pettine about Hoyer’s improvement from day one to day two. “I think he’ll only get more comfortable as we go.”

Pittsburgh Steelers

Final WR Spot: Justin Brown vs Darius Heyward Bey

Darrius Heyward-BeyMarkus Wheaton and Antonio Brown are the starters while Lance Moore has taken on the third receiver spot. The competition for the final roster spot as far as receivers are concerned will be a close battle between 2013 sixth round pick Justin Brown and former Oakland Raiders first round pick Darius Heyward Bey. It is very interesting how this battle for a roster spot is between a top pick and a late round player. That is just the way things go in the NFL sometimes. This is proof that the NFL draft is never an exact science.

Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley said last month that “some good wide receivers are not going to make the team because of a numbers crunch.” Brown and Heyward Bey will need to show that they are worthy of a roster spot to keep from being released.

According to reports, Brown is said to be catching everything that is thrown his way in practice. He showed off his catching ability right from the start when he made a sweet leaping catch on a fastball from Ben Roethlisberger. Heyward Bey has been plagued by dropped passes throughout his career but he made a nice over the shoulder catch on a deep pass from Roethlisberger in the Steelers first 7 on 7 period in training camp.

Roethlisberger likes to throw the deep ball to his speed receivers and Heyward Bey has shown that he hasn’t lost a step. Receivers coach Richard Man knows that they need to take advantage of his speed. has noticed a difference in Brown now that he has one year of experience under his belt.

“I think Justin is a totally different guy (this season). He has made a transition and is very confident. He has matured and understands the concepts. He is smoother. He has a different look about him physically. He has a different look in his eye. His body language has changed, he’s matured a lot. His attitude is different. What we are doing with Darius is get his confidence up. He has speed and talent. We just have to put him in position to do what he needs to do and take advantage of what he does best.”

Brown talked about what he has done this off season to get ready and credits Roethlisberger with helping him get more comfortable in his second year. “Ben took us to California to work out. It speaks a lot about what his leadership. It has an impact as far as being more comfortable and building trust with my quarterback. I talk to all of the receivers and take advice from each of them.”

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