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NFL training camp 2018: AFC North preview

Omnisport
NEWS
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93   //    24 Jul 2018, 00:59 IST

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Le'Veon Bell (26) and Antonio Brown

The Pittsburgh Steelers have maintained their status as the kings in the North, but could their hopes of a fourth straight division title be dashed by an unexpected contender?

Pittsburgh are likely preparing to enter their final season with the "Killer B" trio intact as contract issues with running back Le'Veon Bell linger, potentially opening the door for another team to take control after major changes across the division.

Here's the outlook for the AFC North:

Team on the rise

Browns

The Browns might not be the team to beat, but they're certainly the squad with the most to gain after going 0-16 last year.

Despite their winless 2017, the Browns have garnered plenty of hype after selecting Baker Mayfield with the first overall pick in April's draft and completely overhauling the roster to give the rookie a ton of options. The Browns signed Jarvis Landry to a five-year extension and got Josh Gordon back while also adding running back Nick Chubb in the draft. Cleveland also named Todd Haley offensive coordinator in January after he parted ways with the Steelers.

But is the hype surrounding Cleveland real or is the bar just that low?

Team on the decline

Bengals

The Bengals finished 7-9 last season and improved their offensive line in the offseason, which should help Andy Dalton, A.J. Green and Joe Mixon to have more success. However, in a division where defense often makes the difference, the Bengals are inferior to the Steelers and Baltimore Ravens on that side of the ball. Coach Marvin Lewis bought himself some time to make things right as he earned a two-year contract extension, but another letdown could spark a rebuild in 2019.

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Rookies to watch

Baker Mayfield, QB, Browns

Browns coach Hue Jackson already has pegged Tyrod Taylor as the team's starter, but that doesn't mean Mayfield won't see any action. He's expected to get first-team reps in the preseason before backing up the seven-year veteran who was acquired in March from the Buffalo Bills.

Mayfield led Oklahoma to their third straight Big 12 championship and ranked second in the NCAA FBS with 4,627 passing yards en route to winning the Heisman Trophy in 2017. The learning curve from college to the pros can be tricky, but the Browns are betting on Mayfield making a smooth transition.

Lamar Jackson, QB, Ravens

Jackson, Baltimore's second of two first-round picks this year, racked up 5,261 combined yards and 45 touchdowns at Louisville last season but was off to an inconsistent start on Thursday as training camp kicked off early for the Ravens. Still, the lacklustre first impression is no reason to doubt Joe Flacco's intended replacement, described by Ravens offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg as "ahead of the curve." After all, there's a reason the dual-threat quarterback won the Heisman Trophy in 2016.

Hayden Hurst, TE, Ravens

The former South Carolina tight end will address a significant need at the position this season after being selected 25th overall by Baltimore. Hurst boasts a pass-catching ability and speed that is sure to help the Ravens improve a passing attack that ranked 29th in the league last season.

Player on the spot

Antonio Brown, WR, Steelers

The star wideout is set to appear on the "Madden NFL 19" cover,  but don't think he'll be the latest victim of the infamous "Madden" curse.

Business is expected to continue to boom for the four-time All-Pro as he looks to produce another high-octane season after leading the league in receiving with 1,533 yards and ranking second on the NFL's list of its top 100 players behind Tom Brady last season.

But he can't do it alone.

Brown's goal for this season is to win the Super Bowl, and he also acknowledges the "window of opportunity is getting smaller and smaller" given Ben Roethlisberger's age (36) and Bell's financial dispute with the team. Could it be 2018 or bust for Brown and the Steelers?

Key injuries

Tyler Eifert, TE, Bengals

Eifert was expected to miss four to six months after undergoing a season-ending third back surgery in October. He also had a cyst removed from his knee. Despite missing 22 of 32 games over the past two seasons, Eifert received a one-year "prove it" deal from the Bengals in March.

Jimmy Smith, CB, Ravens

Smith was placed on injured reserve after suffering an Achilles injury in Week 13 last year, the same week he was suspended four games for PED use. He was medically cleared to participate in individual drills at June's minicamp, and the team's decision to not place him on the PUP [phyiscally unable to perform] list is a positive development for his recovery. Still, there's lingering concern over Smith, who has missed 17 games in four seasons.

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