AFC North Report: Players to Watch

Who to keep an eye on in each team's training camp this year, as the Cleveland Browns, Cincinnati Bengals, Baltimore Ravens, and Pittsburgh Steelers gear up to do battle in the AFC North. Get insight from each city as training camps gear up...


Offensive tackle Jared Gaither: The second-year player from Maryland will have the first shot to replace future Hall of Famer Jonathan Ogden at left tackle. Gaither, who was selected in the fifth round of last year's supplemental draft, started two games at left tackle as a rookie when Ogden was hurt. He was has the size of Ogden at 6-9, 350, but it's unknown whether he has the same commitment. Gaither has missed some workouts this offseason, drawing questions about his work ethic. It was this attitude that caused problems late in his college career.

Tight end Todd Heap: A torn left hamstring forced Heap to miss two-thirds of last season. Heap was limited to 23 receptions, fewest since his rookie season. Although he wasn't fully recovered in offseason camps, Heap is primed for a career year. He is excited about offensive coordinator Cam Cameron and his new offense. When Cameron was the offensive coordinator of the San Diego Chargers from 2002-06, the passing game was built around tight end Antonio Gates. If Heap stays healthy, he could put up similar numbers to Gates, especially in the red zone.

Running back Ray Rice: It was a mild surprise that the Ravens used a second-round pick on Rice just one season after trading for Willis McGahee. But Rice proved this offseason that he is a solid fit in the offense, perhaps even more than McGahee. Rice is a threat to hit the edge as well as break a long run after catching a pass in the flat. McGahee struggled with being an every-down back last season and skipped several minicamps this year. So, Rice could play a bigger role than what many expect. With his size and ability, Rice has been likened to Jaguars' running back Maurice Jones-Drew.

Positional battle: Quarterback.
After Steve McNair abruptly retired before this year's draft, the Ravens are left with having an open competition in training camp between the inexperienced Troy Smith, the inconsistent Kyle Boller and the young Joe Flacco. The Ravens eventually want Flacco to take over the starting quarterback job, but they are hesitant to rush the University of Delaware star after Boller flopped as a rookie starter in 2003. Still, Flacco impressed the Ravens coaching staff this offseason with his strong arm and great poise. If Flacco isn't the starter for the opener, he could be eased into the role during the Ravens' midseason bye.

Neither Smith nor Boller truly distinguished themselves during the offseason, but Smith seems to have the edge because he makes fewer critical mistakes. Smith, a fifth-round pick from a year ago, lacks size but plays with more confidence than Boller. In his two starts last season as a rookie, the former Heisman Trophy winner immediately gained the support of the locker room. Boller has the size, arm strength and athleticism that teams want in a quarterback. But the former first-round pick often throws an interception or fumbles at the wrong times. Boller has played his best recently when coming off the bench.


Linebacker Dhani Jones: Signed as a street free agent in September 2007, Jones provided veteran stability to a struggling defense beset by injuries, especially at linebacker. He finished with nine starts in 14 games and was second with 11 tackles. He was the only Bengals defender to twice register double-digit solo tackles in a game, which he did twice.

Jones re-signed with the Bengals and earned the starting role at middle linebacker in first-year coordinator Mike Zimmer's defense. Jones is expected to wear the defensive communication device in his helmet and will be counted on to nurture first-round pick Keith Rivers, who is expected to start at one of the outside linebacker spots. The starter on the other side is Rashad Jeanty, entering just his third season in the NFL, and the backups are young, too.

Defensive end Antwan Odom: The former Tennessee Titans defender was the one big outside splash the Bengals made in free agency this past offseason. He had eight sacks for the Titans last season and is expected to team with fellow end Robert Geathers (10.5 sacks in 2006) to bolster the NFL's worst pass rush. The Bengals had just 22 sacks in 2007.

A consistent pass rush from Odom on the right end should help Geathers and tackle Domata Peko, who can put pressure on the passer from the middle. A better pass rush, even if it doesn't amount to sacks, will help the young secondary in coverage and possibly contribute to more interceptions. The Bengals have invested heavily in first-round cornerbacks Johnathan Joseph and Leon Hall in 2006 and 2007.

Right tackle Stacy Andrews: The Bengals' franchise player, who will play this season for the $7.5 million tender, heads into training camp as the starting right tackle. For the time being, at least, Andrews has supplanted Bengals legend Willie Anderson in the starting lineup.

Anderson is attempting to come back from knee and foot injuries that forced him to miss nine games in 2007. Andrews filled in for Anderson, but the Bengals run offense was not as effective as in previous seasons.

Of course, tailback Rudi Johnson's hamstring injury contributed to the poor run game, but coach Marvin Lewis said the line played its part in the inconsistent performance, as well. Andrews needs to block well in the power run game to hold off Anderson, who is healthy determined to get back on the field. Andrews also can play either guard position.

Positional battle: Rookies Jerome Simpson (second round) and Andre Caldwell (third round) are among the candidates for the third wide receiver role behind starters Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh.

Veterans Antonio Chatman, Glenn Holt and Marcus Maxwell are in the mix, too, to replace the spot held by Chris Henry for the past three seasons. Henry was released in April after his fifth arrest since he was drafted by the Bengals in the third round in 2005.

The Bengals figure to use fewer three-wide receiver sets this year because of the addition of Ben Utecht as a restricted free agent from Indianapolis. Utecht and starter Reggie Kelly will be used in more two-tight end sets.


Quarterback Derek Anderson: Anderson was one of the biggest surprises in the NFL last season. He lost a quarterback battle to Charlie Frye in training camp and preseason and then after Frye was sacked five times in just over a quarter of the opener, Anderson took over. He tossed 29 touchdown passes and led the Browns to 10 victories.

Can Anderson repeat the performance against superior opponents? The Browns are confident he can -- so confident they rewarded him with a three-year, $24 million contract.

Anderson will have a target on his chest this season, but he has the benefit of playing behind an offensive line that allowed only 19 sacks in 2007, and Frye was the one tagged on five of them. The praise the line receives is well-earned, but Anderson gets rid of the ball quickly, and that isn't going to change.

The Browns are using the same offense they used last season. Their goal is to be more consistent than in 2007 when they scored 402 points. Anderson was part of that inconsistency, because along with his 29 touchdown passes he also threw 19 interceptions. The Browns want that number decreased.

Middle linebacker Andra Davis: Davis has been a starting middle linebacker for the Browns since 2003, but this will be his final season in Cleveland unless he plays better than he has the last couple years. Management isn't expecting it; in 2005, Davis signed a five-year contract extension through 2010. This offseason the Browns re-worked his contract in a way that makes him a free agent after this season.

Davis begins training camp as the starter inside next to D'Qwell Jackson. Davis will have to fight off a challenge from Leon Williams to hold onto the starting job.

Judging Davis from the last two seasons might not be fair. The Browns have been looking for a nose tackle since trading Gerard Warren in 2005. They believe they finally have one in Shaun Rogers, but Rogers might be arriving too late to save Davis' job.

Tight end Kellen Winslow Jr.: The Browns need Winslow healthy and in the right frame of mind if the team is to make the playoffs for the first time since 2002. The reason both factors are question marks is because Winslow is coming off a fourth operation on his right knee and he was not granted his wish to have his contract renegotiated. He has three years remaining on his current contract.

His knee should be a bigger concern than his attitude. His agent, Drew Rosenhaus, has promised Winslow will be in training camp and the Browns fully expect him to be right there when the season starts. And once that happens, Winslow is such a fierce competitor he is likely to put the contract issue out of his mind.

Winslow looked quick in minicamp, but the Browns are likely to give him time off in training camp. When a two-a-days are scheduled Winslow will get one of the practices off.

Winslow caught a total of 171 passes the last two seasons. If he has another 80-plus season the Browns might be more willing to tear up his current contract.

Position battle: Joe Jurevicius was to be the third receiver until a knee operation July 1 sidelined him indefinitely. It was the fourth time since January doctors had to operate. The first was a routine clean-up in January. The last three were related to a staph infection that developed. According to a published report, Jurevicius could be headed for the physically unable to perform list.

Now the job of third receiver is a wide-open battle between Travis Wilson and Kevin Kasper. Joshua Cribbs should not be ruled out, either.

Wilson was a major disappointment in his first two years, but during OTAs and minicamp he caught the ball much better. If he performs as well with pads on, the job could be his.

Kasper adds an element of speed Wilson lacks. Kasper also caught the ball well. He is a well-traveled young veteran looking to latch onto a team. The Browns are thin at receiver after Braylon Edwards and Donte Stallworth -- at least with Jurevicius out they are. The third receiver might not catch more than 20 passes, but the Browns need someone dependable in that role.

As skillful as Cribbs is on specials teams, he has not proven to be as reliable as a receiver. He has dropped passes that should be caught. He will have to prove himself to beat out Wilson and Kasper.


OLB LaMarr Woodley: Woodley was the most productive pass-rusher the Steelers had last season when he was a rookie. Problem is they didn't use him much. He played 80 of the team's 933 defensive snaps in the regular season and had four sacks. He added two more in their playoff game. Those six sacks ranked third on the team. Now he's the starting left OLB, replacing departed Clark Haggans, and double-digit sacks are not just within reason but expected by some.

"I definitely expect double digits from him," defensive end Brett Keisel said.

Lord knows, the Steelers can use them. They slipped from 47 sacks in 2005 to 39 in 2006 and 36 last season. They were reluctant to use Woodley more as a rookie because he did not know the defense as well as Haggans. That won't be a problem in 2008.

Running back Rashard Mendenhall: To paraphrase and old comment made by former Steelers boss Tom Donahoe, the Steelers did not use their first-round draft pick to lead the band at halftime. Even though Willie Parker was the NFL's leading rusher entering week 16 last season, Mendenhall will get his chances. He will replace Parker on some series and may even join him in a "pony" backfield at times. Mendenhall also will get a chance to show he can convert the short-yardage stuff, something they've lacked since Jerome Bettis retired after the 2005 season.

Left guard Chris Kemoeatu: Kemoeatu has built up quite a reputation in Pittsburgh for a guy who has started only two games in his first three seasons, played little and enters the final year of his contract. However, they like him enough that they did not push hard to keep seven-time Pro Bowl Alan Faneca from leaving as a UFA.

"It's a big step, some big shoes to fill," said Kemoeatu, who is 6-3 and is listed at 344 pounds, or two inches shorter and 37 pounds more than Faneca. "He's a big, powerful man," coach Mike Tomlin said. The Steelers drafted him on the fifth round in 2005 from Utah. On-field college temper tantrums may have hurt his draft stock, but he's kept it under control in the pros - although with little chance in games to display any anger.

Positional battle
: Larry Foote vs. Lawrence Timmons at inside linebacker: Originally drafted as an outside 'backer, Timmons was quickly moved inside and was placed behind Foote in the spring. Few believe Timmons won't win this job, even Foote.

"I really think it's just a matter of time until they throw him in there, just because of the politics of the game -- and it looks like he can play," said Foote, their starting "Mac" linebacker the past four seasons. Only one Steelers first-rounder hasn't started in either his first or second season since 1992. Timmons has great quickness and speed, attributes that suit him more to the "buck" linebacker position that James Farrior will hold down at least one more season. Foote remains a solid veteran -- he started every game the past four years and led the Steelers in tackles in 2005. Still, he said, "My time might be winding down at that position."

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