Let’s Go AFC North Campin’!

Let’s Go AFC North Campin’!
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If you’re like me, your parents offloaded you to summer camp at least once when you were a kid.


Whether this was their not-so-subtle attempt at garnering some peace and freedom is another debate entirely, but I enjoyed it.  For two summers, I basked in my own freedom, and indulged in such life-shaping activities as skipping rocks, building fires, tying knots, eating grade D “meat”, climbing ropes, swimming, and the like.  I made a few friends, none of which stuck with me, but for that time, we were tight, and to be sure, that iron-clad bond was forged mostly through our shared experiences.


Welcome to NFL Training Camp 2016.  Here, we’ll engage in such life-shaping activities as holding out for more money as a rookie, starting needless fights with teammates, hazing rookies, faking chronic injuries, importing personal chefs, and trying to shed six months worth of waistline in a few weeks.  The bonds you make here may or may not be permanent, but you can guarantee they’ll last as long as week three of the preseason schedule, more commonly known as “final cut-down day”.


There’s little drama involved in NFL camps anymore.  Despite the finest efforts of HBO’s “Hard Knocks” to inspire deep, somber emotion, the hierarchy and chemistry in locker rooms is pretty well established.  Fights happen on the practice field because, well, football is a violent game. Injuries, sometimes catastrophic ones, happen regularly, because players are generally not in shape when they report.  Many veterans slack off and do little, because they’re veterans and figure they’ve earned it.  Of more importance, at least to die-hard fans, are the issues and roster questions facing every team.  Who’s going to start?  How’s the depth at this or that position?  Will the rookies pan out?


In the AFC North, there’s a lot to figure out.  The Steelers are debating running back depth in the wake of starter Le’Veon Bell’s latest flirtation with the NFL’s drug-testing policies (more on this later).  The Ravens are or aren’t rebuilding, depending on who you talk to, but there’s obvious work to do.  The Bengals are hoping their offseason additions can be more productive than their departures.  And the Browns are eyeballing their “numbers” approach in the event that it might actually work.


With that, here’s a very early AFC North opinion piece laced with a few facts.  Note:  This is written for entertainment purposes only.


Baltimore Ravens


Key Losses:  LT Eugene Monroe, LB Daryl Smith, DE Chris Canty, FS Will Hill

Key Additions:  LT Ronnie Stanley (R), S Eric Weddle, WR Mike Wallace, TE Benjamin Watson


Overall assessment:

Confusion, thy name is the Ravens.  After a poor showing in 2015, the Ravens, who experienced an inordinate amount of close losses despite a roster decimated by injuries, seem to have forgotten one important fact:  they lost.  A lot.  This indicates a severe lack of organizational depth, especially at quarterback, where the Ravens were forced to rely on clearly-spent Matt Schaub and never-was Jimmy Clausen.  The fact that they redeemed themselves for a few games with perennial backup Ryan Mallett means little, as he began showing signs of his trademark disinterest in his last couple of starts.


Are they rebuilding?  Yes…and no.  The Ravens clearly drafted for depth at linebacker and wideout in this years’ draft, yet inexplicably didn’t address the secondary until the fourth round, which was clearly their weakest area.   While Ronnie Stanley may indeed prove to be a credible tackle in the NFL, passing on blue-chipper Laremy Tunsil with the sixth pick may prove to be a fatal mistake, as Tunsil is still earmarked to be a Pro Bowler for years to come.  They have youth, but it’s a mixed bag of mid-round draft choices, most of which are probably a year or two away from being full time contributors.


The Ravens will improve based on the return of several key veterans and this infusion of youth, but the questions is…how much?  There’s no accurate gauge for this team.


Best-case scenario:  8-8


Cleveland Browns


Key Losses: QB Johnny Manziel, LB Karlos Dansby, S Donte Whitner, WR Brian Hartline

Key Additions: QB Robert Griffin III, WR Corey Coleman (R), QB Cody Kessler (R), DE Carl Nassib (R)


Overall Assessment:

Lotsa rookies, eh?  The Browns are undergoing their most extensive rebuilding project since they returned to the NFL in 1999, and this one has a different look than the others, as there seems to be an almost Darwin-esque approach to roster management.  The Browns drafted 14 players this year, including five wideouts – a real position of need – and it seems likely that this camp is a proving ground for most of them to prove they belong in the NFL at all.  Most teams enter camp with this sort of Draconian mindset, but I suspect it will be even more cutthroat with the Browns, who are trying to build a team, not just a roster.


New head coach Hue Jackson has a lot of decisions to make, including whether to start pocket-challenged quarterback Robert Griffin III over veteran holdover Josh McCown or rookie Cody Kessler.  Kessler is a project to be sure, but what better time to get him some playing time and experience than a season that’s basically dedicated to establishing continuity?  Of real interest will be the defense, who have eschewed a lot of experience in the departures of LB Karlos Dansby and S Donte Whitner in favor of a beefed up defensive line featuring rookies Emmanuel Ogbah and Carl Nassib.


Rebuilding?  Yes.  That’s a mild way of putting it, but it will pay dividends in the years to come, provided they build and keep a core.


Best-case scenario:  6-10


Cincinnati Bengals


Key Losses:  WR Marvin Jones, WR Mohamed Sanu, RT Andre Smith, CB Leon Hall

Key Additions:  CB William Jackson III (R), WR Tyler Boyd (R), LB Karlos Dansby, WR Brandon LaFell


Overall Assessment:

Despite some pretty extensive offseason defections, the Bengals still tout one of the more talented rosters in the league, and it’s still largely one that should contend for the AFC North crown and a playoff berth.  The receiving corps still sports front line talents in WR A.J. Green and TE Tyler Eifert, and the addition of WRs Brandon LaFell and Tyler Boyd via the draft should be enough to offset the losses of Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu.  The running game should be solid again, and the Bengals should expect a bounce-back year from RB Jeremy Hill.  As always, it all falls on the shoulders of QB Andy Dalton, who (oddly enough) cannot be blamed for last season’s failure to advance in the playoffs.


Speaking of which, ignoring the questionable play that led to last season’s playoff ouster is difficult, but it’s assumed that as professionals, the Bengals will be able to focus on the upcoming season.  The early loss of rookie first-round CB William Jackson stings, and it’s apparently led to discussion of resigning longtime Bengal Leon Hall, who remains a free agent.


Can they overtake Pittsburgh?  Finally?  Maybe?


Best-case scenario: 11-5


Pittsburgh Steelers


Key Losses:  TE Heath Miller, OT Mike Adams, OT Kelvin Beachum, NT Steve McLendon

Key Additions:  TE Ladarius Green, DT Javon Hargrave (R), CB Artie Burns (R), S Sean Davis (R)


Overall Assessment:

The Steelers remain the favorites in the AFC North, if not the NFL, based primarily on the strength of their offense.  While they’ve suffered some head-scratching personnel depletions in the year-long suspension of WR Martavis Bryant and probable four-game suspension of RB Le’Veon Bell, their depth remians solid enough to complement stalwart QB Ben Roethlisberger and star wideout Antonio Brown.  The Steelers invested five draft picks in the defense this season, and expended their first-rounder on CB Artie Burns, who very well may start week one, given the need for depth in the secondary  Expect rookie S Sean Davis to impress, as he was a quiet steal in the second round and should immediately add the deep coverage that this team sorely needs.


Regarding Bell, he’ll have a lot to prove when he returns from his suspension, as he’s missed a number of games due to injury and offseason stupidity in his career.  With impending contract negotiations, he would be well served to turn in an excellent year and stay off of Twitter, let alone his budding rap career.


Establishing ball control will be more difficult with Bell out, but not impossible, provided they can glean one more productive year from backup RB De’Angelo Williams.


Best-case scenario:  12-4



So there you have it.  Let’s just get through all this unscathed, shall we?


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