Players To Watch In NFL Training Camp: AFC North
The Father chooses one player from each team to keep an eye this summer
Training camps will be opening up later this month, and roster battles will begin, new players will find a role, injured players will seek a return to form, old players will try to show they still have it, and young players will try to show they have improved. Every team has their own storylines and players to watch, and I am going to take a little time over the next couple weeks to highlight some of these players. I will pick one player from each team to highlight to keep an eye on in training camp. If they can fulfill their destiny, they can make a big difference in what happens with their team this year.
We previously did the AFC East.
Now we move to the AFC North.
Cleveland Browns: WR Odell Beckham Jr.
A few years ago, the OBJ trade rocked the NFL. The hottest young receiver in the game moved from the league’s biggest media market to… Cleveland. This was expected to be the piece around which the Browns offense would revolve with new QB Baker Mayfield. Two plus years later and the result has been a lot more meh than expected (at least as far as Odell’s performance goes). Following a lost season under Freddie Kitchens, the Browns decided to focus their offense on the ground, and Beckham’s role was marginalized: down to just 45 yards per game down prior to a season ending injury. This is not at all what was expected, yet two years in, it’s fair to wonder if we will ever see the old OBJ again. After his injury rehab, will he be as explosive as before? What will his role be? Will he get 125 plus targets? Do he and Mayfield have a strong connection? Some of this will need to be assessed in training camp. If he can turn back into the OBJ of the Giants, this team will have Super Bowl upside.
Baltimore Ravens: C Bradley Bozeman
This is probably a very unfamiliar name, unless you are a hardcore Ravens fan, but it will be a VERY important one for the Ravens this season. Last season saw major problems at the center position. Matt Skura suffered a hand injury that saw him struggle with shotgun snaps. Skura had previously been an excellent center and a lynchpin to the Ravens run first approach. His departure also saw a downturn in the Ravens offense. He was replaced by utility lineman Patrick Mekari, who didn’t fare well, including a season crushing mistake against the Bills that knocked Lamar Jackson out of the game. Skura was not invited back (or replaced in free agency) and Mekari didn’t do enough, so the team is handing the reigns to Bozeman. Can he keep a line full of new pieces together? Star LT Ronnie Stanley is slated to return following an offseason of rehab. Orlando Brown Jr. is gone, however, replaced by a declining Alejandro Villanueva. The guard positions are in flux. Right out of the gate, watch to see how Bozeman looks snapping, and it will be interesting to see if this group can maintain their dominance over the line of scrimmage.
Cincinnati Bengals: QB Joe Burrow
This is another obvious one, but between his injury recovery, confidence in the offensive line, and development as a pro in his second year, there is a lot to monitor. Burrow missed the second half of his rookie year after an onslaught of hits finally left him with a very severe leg injury. Injuries like this typically take a year to fully recover from, so while he may be starting in week one, it is fair to wonder if he will be fully mobile and confident at that point. Fans will want to look closely for signs of hesitancy, limping, or throwing off his back leg more. Even if he is indeed back to 100 percent, there could be psychological hangover from the beating he took last year. It will be important for him to keep his eyes in the secondary and not on the players around him. Can he still do it? Training camp is our first chance to find out.
Pittsburgh Steelers: RB Najee Harris
Last year the Steelers started strong, but faded as the season wore on. Ultimately, their sole reliance on Ben Roethlisberger proved ill-placed as Ben struggled down the stretch and petered out in the playoffs. Their reliance on Ben was the result of a near total abandonment of the ground game, long a Steeler strength. The offensive line was overhauled this offseason, often through the release/retirement of formerly key pieces. Very little was added with an established pedigree, so the line will be very unproven this year. This means the Steelers will need to keep pressure off Roethlisberger artificially. Running the ball well and quick dump offs in the passing game will be enormous. That is where Harris comes in. The jewel of the draft-able running backs, Harris can run hard for yards and make yards after the catch. Rather than upgrade their line in the first round, they opted for Harris, and he will have to deliver tough yards all season to make this offense work. In camp, his ability to find lanes, run routes, and pass block will need to be ramped up very quickly for this offense to be successful. There isn’t going to be a break in period. He needs to be the guy from day 1.