What We've Learned So Far From AFC North Training Camps
The MMQB team is making its way around the nation visiting NFL training camps this preseason. Up today we have a few observations and takeaways from visiting the AFC North teams, plus one lingering question for each team.
• With all the hype around the Browns and Steelers this summer, you’ll be forgiven if you forget that the Ravens were the lone team to make it to the playoffs out of the AFC North last season. In my trip to Owings Mills, Md., earlier this month—and in watching their 29-0 drubbing of the Jaguars in the first week of the preseason—I see a Ravens team that won’t give up the crown easily in 2019.
• Two things stand out about Lamar Jackson entering his second year with a 6-1 regular-season record. The first is you can tell he’s added muscle to his upper body. His legs are still slender, but he says he turned 7-10 pounds into muscle this offseason, and you can see it most prominently in his neck of all places. He’ll need that extra padding if offensive coordinator Greg Roman opts to run him as much as we all expect this season. Secondly, he looks far more comfortable making decisions and throwing the ball this camp than he did at any point last year. He’s making quick, accurate throws in short-to-intermediate routes, though his deep ball wasn’t sharp in the joint practice with the Jags I watched. He’ll have to stretch the field this season to keep defenses honest.
• It's unclear when Marquise Brown will be healthy or what the rookie first-rounder will be able to contribute in 2019. That said, I won’t at all be surprised if tight end Mark Andrews winds up leading the team in receiving yards. That’s no knock on Willie Snead and others, but Andrews and Jackson have a clear connection already. And with respect to other rookie receivers, Miles Boykin looks really impressive so far.
• Just four Ravens had more than three sacks last season, and only two of those players remain on the team in 2019. Matt Judon is the leading returning sack artist for the Ravens (seven last year) and Baltimore added Pernell McPhee. Once you get past those two, though, it’s unclear where the pass-rush production is going to come from. That’s been the biggest question about these Ravens all offseason and there was nothing so far this preseason that’s shown Baltimore has the answer ready for Week 1.
• The Ravens open the 2019 season at Miami and then home against Arizona. The early slate doesn’t get much softer than that. Will we see the real Baltimore in Week 1, or will the Ravens save their goodies for Week 3 against the Chiefs? — Jonathan Jones
• The Bengals feel very different. I visited camp on a day when the media didn’t get to watch practice because it was moved indoors due to lightning, but in conversations with offensive players, the influence of new head coach Zac Taylor and offensive coordinator Brian Callahan were front and center. While searching for words to describe their youth (Taylor is 36, Callahan is 35), rookie quarterback Ryan Finley, who’s competing with incumbent backup Jeff Driskel for the backup job, said it’s easier to communicate with the two because they can relate to players better. “They’re like in between my parents and me,” he says. “There is more understanding of the players. It’s just so evident amongst the whole team. Realizing that Zac just gets it. Zac and Brian are young and have a ton of energy, they are easy to relate to.”
• Center Billy Price says he’s noticed the youthful energy in the pop culture references and more modern comparisons now in their offensive playbook. Example: a quarterback keeper play is named after Taylor’s wife, Sarah, because she’s a keeper. Another keeper play is named after an actress, whose name Price wouldn’t reveal. Taylor, Callahan and quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt played quarterback in the last 15 years, which Callahan says helps them relate to players.
“I think there is a relatability where they know whatever we are saying is coming from a place of somewhat recent experience,” Callahan told me after practice. “We didn't play 30 years ago, not that there is something wrong with that if you did, but I just think there is something about that with players, especially younger players, they can relate to that and it makes more sense to them.”
• Taylor and Callahan have remade this offense in the general mold of Taylor’s former team, the Rams. Receiver Tyler Boyd raved to me about how much fun he’s having with an offense shaped in the model of the Rams, and the trendy NFL offenses of the day, which borrow spread concepts popular in the college game. “I run newer routes, different things I have never really ran in offenses that I’ve been in since college,” he said. “I’m on a lot of routes that I know once they call it, I’m the first read, deep routes, over routes, choice routes. I know it’s me. I just have to win, that’s what makes it more fun.”
• The Bengals staff thinks their offense will take a big leap this year. “We certainly want to be held in the same regard as some of those [high-scoring] offenses across the league,’ Callahan said. “We have a really strong group of players, that because they play in Cincinnati, don’t get as much attention as some people do, but we have really good players here. We have a chance to be good. We're always going to be trying to push the envelope.”
• The offense will have to adjust to the absence of A.J. Green, who will miss the first few games of this season with an ankle injury. Fellow starting receiver John Ross has also been dealing with a hamstring injury and has yet to participate in training camp. The oft-injured Ross has just 21 receptions for 210 yards in the two years of his career, so returning from this hamstring is important for the mostly unproven first round pick. — Kalyn Kahler
• I’ve watched two Browns practices this training camp—one in the first week and one this week—and Odell Beckham Jr., who’s dealing with a hip injury, didn’t practice in either. According to Mary Kay Cabot of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Wednesday marked at least the sixth time in 15 practices that Beckham was held out of all or most of the 11-on-11 periods. He also sat out the preseason opener and missed one full day with an illness. The last time he participated in a team drill in pads was Aug. 6. Beckham also missed most of the Browns offseason program, but head coach Freddie Kitchens is confident Beckham will be ready to go come Week 1.
• Kareem Hunt will miss the first eight games of the season, but the Browns are still putting him to work in practice. On Wednesday while practicing against the Colts in team period, Hunt had two runs in double-digit yardage. He also had one-handed catch off a screen.
• Fourth-year receiver Rashard Higgins has stood out this camp. He and Antonio Callaway were competing for the No. 3 receiver position behind Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry until Callaway received a four-game suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. Higgins and Mayfield continue to build on the strong chemistry they first developed last year in training camp, when Tyrod Taylor was the Browns starter, and Mayfield worked mostly with Higgins and the rest of the second string offense. On Wednesday, he had an impressive catch down the sideline against Colts cornerback Kenny Moore tight coverage. Higgins also had a great preseason showing last week, with five catches for 98 yards and a touchdown on this impressive play:
• It should be noted that Prospect X, Drew Forbes, saw action with the first team offensive line. On Wednesday night in Indianapolis, he lined up at right guard, replacing Eric Kush, in red zone series with Mayfield at quarterback. The coaches also rotated Kendall Lam into the position for a snap, and Kitchens said they have not settled on a starting right guard yet. — KK
• The Steelers missed the playoffs and failed to get at least 10 wins for the first time since 2013 last season. There was plenty of blame to cast around after cratering from a 7-2-1 mark at Thanksgiving, but Pittsburgh hopes its buried some of those ghosts from a year ago.
• I’ll have more on the Steelers backfield in the coming weeks, but suffice it to say that I believe James Conner and Jaylen Samuels can survive in the backfield together. I don’t see Samuels siphoning off Conner’s 55 receptions from last year like some do. Yes, Samuels is the better receiver, but I expect to see Samuels catching a bulk of his passes lined up as a receiver rather than coming out of the backfield.
• The Steelers reworked their secondary in the offseason after getting just eight picks last year, ranking 28th in the league. Safety Morgan Burnett barely made it a year into his three-year deal before Pittsburgh released him, and first-rounder Terrell Edmunds takes over at strong safety there. Artie Burns, who’s likely in his last year in town, had every opportunity to get the starting job opposite Joe Haden and couldn’t, so enter Steven Nelson. The backend has to get the ball to the offense more in 2019.
• In my one trip to St. Vincent College, the Steelers were in shells so I didn’t get a great feel for the team on the field that day. What I know, though, is the Steelers really want second-year quarterback Mason Rudolph to take that next step this preseason. He’s been behind Josh Dobbs on the depth chart but made an impression in last week’s win against the Bucs when he went 5-for-8 for 91 yards and two touchdowns. Pittsburgh has historically kept three QBs on the 53-man roster, so it’s not do-or-die for either Dobbs or Rudolph. But they picked the Oklahoma State standout in the third round last year to backup Ben Roethlisberger, not Dobbs.
• The question about these Steelers is the obvious one: Will all the noise gone now clear the way for a return to glory? The last five months have shown just how great an ego-manager Tomlin is. Everyone says the Steelers must be happy to not have to deal with the headaches of Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown, but will that happiness translate to on-field success? — JJ
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