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The countdowns to the beginning of the NFL season have begun in earnest, but before then is the little matter of training camp. Starting jobs are there to be won and lost, as, potentially, are championships. This is where the NFL season begins, and we have a round-up of what to look out for around the league.
The Super Bowl champions went into the 2013 offseason with one goal prioritized above all others; to improve the spine of their defense. Baltimore were uncharacteristically poor against the run last season, and whilst they had to endure significant injuries on the defensive side of the ball, there were some obvious weaknesses in the usually vaunted Ravens defense. Fast forward five months and that issue has been thoroughly addressed.
Rookies Matt Elam (safety), Arthur Brown (inside linebacker) and Brandon Williams (nose tackle) were taken with the Ravensâ€™ first three picks of the NFL Draft, whilst Chris Canty, Daryl Smith, and Michael Huff were also all signed in free agency, giving Baltimore a new look spine to their defense. Eyes will be fixed firmly on this group throughout training camp, although particular attention will be paid to both Elam and Brown, who face the daunting task of filling the rather large shoes of Ed Reed and Ray Lewis. The likes of Terrell Suggs, Haloti Ngata, Elvis Dumervil and Lardarius Webb will all also be watched carefully, with each player expected to step up and fill the leadership void left by Lewis and Reed.
Offensively, there has been far less transition in Baltimore, but the entire wide receiver corps faces arguably the biggest training camp of their careers thus far. With the departure of Anquan Boldin to San Francisco, Torrey Smith, who has impressed in his first two seasons, needs to show he has all the skills required to be a number one receiver, whilst Jacoby Jones, Tandon Doss, David Reed, LaQuan Williams, Deonte Thompson, Tommy Streeter and Aaron Mellette will all compete for the number two and three spots. Jones is expected to make the second spot his own, whilst Doss and Thompson have been mentioned as early front-runners for the third spot, but Reed, who was one of the few players to earn a new contract in Baltimore this year, should not be overlooked. This battle will likely continue throughout training camp, and is potentially the most vital to the Ravensâ€™ hopes of repeating this coming season.
The arrivals of both Andy Dalton and A. J. Green have been a great cause for optimism in Cincinnati over the last two years, but two consecutive losses in the Wild Card round of the Playoffs, has dented the optimism slightly, and left Bengalsâ€™ fans hungry for more. Two of the men charged with helping the Bengals over the hump, are the offensive duo of Tyler Eifert and Giovani Bernard.
With two very proficient pass-catching tight ends now on the roster, it will be interesting to see how many two-tight end sets the Bengals run in camp, and Eifertâ€™s battle with Jermaine Gresham for the number one tight end spot in the more orthodox formations will also be intriguing. Running back Bernard arguably has less chance of displacing the current starter, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, than Eifert does at tight end, but will instead look to emulate Bernard Pierce, whose spelling of Ray Rice for the Ravens last season was vital in their run to the Super Bowl. If Bernard can prove his durability in training camp, and that his strength belies his smaller frame, he could earn himself a significant amount of carries this season.
All eyes are on the linebackers in Cleveland, particularly with the transition to a 3-4 defense, under new defensive coordinator Ray Horton. Rookies Barkevious Mingo and Tank Carder will both hope to feature, as will big money acquisition Paul Kruger, and transitioning defensive end Jabaal Sheard.
Although Kruger may have been used as a situational pass rusher in Baltimore, itâ€™s highly unlikely that the Browns would have given him a five-year deal, worth $40 million, if they didnâ€™t have him penciled in as a starter. This leaves the spot opposite him open for competition between Mingo and Sheard, and will most likely come down to whomever transitions most efficiently from their former position on the defensive line. Given Krugerâ€™s proclivity as a pass rusher, Mingo and Sheardâ€™s ability in coverage and against the run could come under extra scrutiny, and potentially win them a starting spot.
A case could be made that Pittsburghâ€™s training camp offers the least intrigue in the AFC North, although the Jarvis Jones vs Jason Worilds competition promises to be a great contest. The Steelers are never a team to hurry a rookie into a startersâ€™ role, and given Worilds improvement over the last couple of seasons, the veteran seems the logical choice to start, but if Jones can impress during training camp, he has the kind of ability which would be hard for Head Coach Mike Tomlin to ignore.
Rookie running back Leâ€™Veon Bell could also buck the Steelersâ€™ trend of not starting rookies, as he looks to be the front-runner in that competition, whilst the offensive line, a thorn in Pittsburghâ€™s side of late, will also draw a lot of attention. If Mike Adams, David DeCastro, Maurkice Pouncey, Ramon Foster and Marcus Gilbert can all stay healthy, then the Steelersâ€™ have one of the most exciting young offensive lines in the league, but fans will want to see tangible signs of this groupâ€™s development in training camp, particularly from Adams, who will most likely be protecting Ben Roethlisbergerâ€™s blindside this season.
Photo Courtesy of Ashley Halsey Hemingway