AFC North Pre-Preseason What to Watch
What is the preseason? What is it’s value? For the fan, it is the sign of things to come. It’s the wonderful embrace of a new NFL season. Best of all, nobody knows how things will work out when the regular season kicks off. During the preseason, every team has hope and every team has a chance at the ultimate price; the Super Bowl. Yeah, it’s mainly because backups play most of the game and general team depth is really what decides these games, but it also, more specifically, is a time where players must prove themselves. While the starters sit, the bench players fight for playing time, recognition, or a roster spot. These roster battles go well into the 4th Quarter and even the most die-hard fans struggle to remain focused. To counter that, I am providing what I will watch this preseason, as our beloved sport makes it’s way to the regular season.
What to Watch: The Ravens defense – Yeah, I’m referring to the starters primarily (who will only play a couple possessions outside of that critical warmup 3rd game). However, their defense throughout the games will be worth watching. They are traditionally very strong defensively, but they are currently preparing for the season without reigning Defensive Player of the Year, OLB Terrell Suggs and they are working with their 3rd Defensive Coordinator in as many years. Is there a fall off? I doubt it, but it’s worth watching to see.
Short Term Question: Who is going to replace Terrell Suggs? – Replace is a strong word… nobody on the Ravens roster will “replace” the special talent who is Terrell Suggs, but if they can find someone who can do a solid job of solidifying that OLB position, they are in good shape. Their options, at this point, are rookie Courtney Upshaw from Alabama (2nd Round pick) and the other OLB Paul Kruger. Both of which will need to somehow account for Suggs’ 14 sacks from last season. That starts in the preseason where former 2nd rounder, Sergio Kindle will also get his fair share of opportunities to show that he is ready to fill in.
Long Term Question: Will the Ravens offense finally find that consistency that they need? – QB Joe Flacco gets a lot of criticism about how he cannot be considered one of the top quarterbacks in the league. I agree, at this point, but there is no disputing that Flacco actually outperformed Patriots QB, Tom Brady, in the AFC Championship game this past season. In fact, he was a dropped touchdown pass (on a throw that Flacco threw perfectly) and/or a missed field goal away from the Super Bowl. Flacco has talent, but his consistency has always been called into question. That goes for the entire offense, which has skill players who can make plays. But now with questions surrounding an offensive line that was relying on OT Bryant McKinnie, and WR Torrey Smith still unproven as a true #1 or #2 receiver, there are some concerns. Look for Baltimore to try and get their offense into a rhythm this preseason.
Rookie to Watch: WR Tommy Streeter – I already mentioned Courtney Upshaw, who has a monster of task filling in for Suggs, but Streeter is the guy you will see more often this preseason. He is 6’5″, 220 lbs and he ran a 4.40 sec 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine. That combination of size and speed could make him dynamic. He still has a lot to work on before he becomes a major contributor, but he could be a guy that fans get excited as the regular season approaches. Plus, you should see plenty of him as the preseason games go on. Another guy to watch is the quality RB, Bernard Pierce from Temple. He’s not taking Ray Rice’s job, but he may show his value as a 3rd round pick.
Veteran to Watch: Torrey Smith – No, he won’t play much this preseason, but he should play enough for him and Joe Flacco to get into a rhythm for the regular season. Smith will be playing a more prominent role this year as he is improving his route running. Last year he was a pure deep threat and you can bet Baltimore would love to add to his role.
What to Watch: The new faces – RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis, CB Terrence Newman, CB Jason Allen and all 10 draft picks are new to Cincinnati and all are in positions where they will need to contribute. Green-Ellis is replacing former Bengal, Cedric Benson, and Newman and Allen are attempting to help solidify a secondary that was anything but at the end of last season. Two draft picks (Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones) and one standout from last years practice squad (Armon Binns) are fighting for the second WR position. The other picks will have their roles this preseason as well. They will all be worth watching leading into the regular season.
Short Term Question: Who is the 2nd WR? – The competition is completely up in the air at this point. Armon Binns spent last season on the practice squad, but was so impressive that he was considered the number one option at 2nd WR (behind A.J. Green of course) early this summer despite not playing a NFL game in his career. Sanu and Jones are very intriguing prospects who could make immediate impacts, especially in this WR competition. Sanu is considered a very solid receiver who lacks dynamic speed and has drawn comparisons from Cincinnati observers to T.J.Houshmandzadeh. Jones has drawn comparisons to a guy many Bengal fans recognize… Chad Johnson (without the Ochocinco alter ego). Then there are veterans Brandon Tate, who is a burner, and Jordan Shipley, who is almost guaranteed the 3rd WR spot to work the slot. All this will be decided in the coming weeks of the preseason.
Long Term Question: Is the Bengals offense better? – They have new faces in at WR and RB. They even signed OG Travelle Wharton to improve their offensive line and drafted Wisconsin OG, Kevin Zeitler, in the first round to fill in at RG. QB Andy Dalton and WR A.J. Green, who led the offense last season, are now entering their second year and they have an offseason this time around. This combined with one of the better drafts in the league and you would imagine that Cincinnati could only have improved. On paper, yes they have, but on the field, nobody knows. Only time will tell.
Rookie to Watch: S George Iloka – Yeah, he isn’t one of the high profile draftees that Cincinnati brought in, but he is one to check out. He is a player that, according to NFL.com, “needs to play with more urgency and toughness”. However, as I previously mentioned, Cincinnati needs secondary help. They resigned FS Reggie Nelson and released SS Chris Crocker this offseason leaving the SS position an open competition. Taylor Mays is the frontrunner at this point, but if he makes mental mistakes like he has through his first years in the league, Iloka could push himself into contention, assuming he plays smarter than Mays of course. Also, I’d pay attention to MLB Vontaze Burfict who was once considered a 1st round pick before his stock was derailed by maturity issues.
Veteran to Watch: DE/OLB DeQuin Evans – Bear with me here… there are plenty of veterans to keep an eye on. WR Armon Binns, SS Taylor Mays or any of the CBs, but I remember that Cincinnati was very high on Evans following the preseason last year. He is an obscure name, but he is a solid pass rusher who can play OLB and DE in the 4-3 defense. If you’re wanting to follow a guy who will play a majority of the game and is worth following, it’s DeQuin Evans.
What to Watch: The Rookies – If you’re a Browns fan, you have been looking for hope over the past couple years and finally you have it with RB Trent Richardson and QB Brandon Weeden. You even have a very intriguing rookie player in WR Josh Gordon who was selected in the 2nd round of the supplemental draft. This infuse of talent is something that is worth following as they get their legs under them and adjust to the NFL game.
Short Term Question: Is Brandon Weeden Cleveland’s savior? – Weeden is very talented and should provide an upgrade to Colt McCoy, but I’m not sure if it will be the quick jump to respectability that some hope for. Weeden is still a rookie after all, no matter how old he is (28 years old) and will need time to adjust. If that is taken into account and he is allowed to struggle, then things may pay off down the road. If not, and impatience could be a problem.
Long Term Question: Does Weeden have enough help? – The ongoing discussion surrounding Cleveland is that they don’t have the WRs to fairly judge their QBs. After all, if the guys you’re throwing the ball to can’t get open, how can your team find any success? Cleveland has kind of dealt with this to this point, but nothing is set in stone. They have WR Greg Little and the rookie from Baylor/Utah, Josh Gordon. Little is entering his second year and he has some potential to be a solid player. Gordon has the physical tools that have drawn comparisons to Cincinnati WR A.J. Green, but Gordon also has his fair share of off field issues. He was dismissed from the team at Baylor in 2010, transferred to Utah and, ultimately, didn’t play at all during the 2011 season. We will see plenty of the Browns’ receivers this preseason as they try to workout their long term solution.
Rookie to Watch: RB Trent Richardson – Really any of the three I mentioned earlier are ones to watch. I doubt Richardson will play too much, but when he does it will be interesting to see how effective he can be. After all, he is the best RB prospect since Adrian Peterson. Richardson has a different skill set, but nonetheless, it will be interesting this preseason and on into the regular season.
Veteran to Watch: QB Colt McCoy – Everyone has already put Weeden in as the Browns starter, but what happens if Weeden struggles here in the preseason while McCoy puts up very impressive numbers and performs very well in his playing time? A lot has to happen for this to even become a scenario, but it is a scenario that makes McCoy an interesting piece to this Cleveland team this preseason. I would also throw Montario Hardesty, who has lost his starting spot to Richardson.
What to Watch: The new and improved OL – Pittsburgh drafted OG, David DeCastro, out of Stanford and OT, Mike Adams, from Ohio State. They were picked early in the draft in an attempt to finally shore up the offensive line that has plagued them for years (plagued is relative – they still have found a heck of a lot of success). Again, like most starting units, you probably won’t see much of them until the 3rd preseason game, but this is the time where the OL works on continuity.
Short Term Question: What now Mike Wallace? – Pittsburgh has very, very little salary cap space to sign much of anybody and they have their star WR, Mike Wallace, asking for a long-term deal. Pittsburgh’s response? Sign WR Antonio Brown for a 5-year, $42.5 million contract. Rumors have begun swirling about Wallace being traded, or simply continuing his current holdout into the season. Either way, the Mike Wallace situation will be playing itself out in the coming weeks.
Long Term Question: Is age really a factor? – For the past couple years, analysts have felt that Pittsburgh was going to struggle because of the age of their defense. Most of their starters are still old for NFL standards and are just getting older. While every year prior to this has ended with Pittsburgh having the last laugh, eventually father time will catch up to them. Some even felt it did last postseason when then Broncos QB Tim Tebow knocked Pittsburgh out in overtime of the Wild Card game. While you can be sure that the defensive veterans will be taking it pretty easy this preseason, it is yet to be seen if they can, once again, dominate as they have for years.
Rookie to Watch: RB Chris Rainey – Why Rainey? From a football standpoint, Pittsburgh has some big question marks in their run game. From a fan perspective, I just want to see this guy play. He is very, very fast and is very explosive with the ball in his hands. He won’t be a starting RB come September, but he will be a lot of fun to watch in the meantime.
Veteran to Watch: ILB Stevenson Sylvester – The Utah alum has spent his first couple years in the pros as a backup, but this may be the year that he breaks into a more prominent playing role. As I said above, the Steeler defense is facing a bit of an aging problem and Sylvester is the next linebacker up for a franchise that always seems to have a great one waiting in the wings. Especially in the preseason, Sylvester will be worth watching. He has the talent to contribute.