AFC North training camp previews
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Posted: July 22, 2008
Sporting News correspondents
A quick look at the most pressing issues facing teams in the AFC North as training camps open:
Site: McDaniel College, Westminster, Md.
Reporting date: Rookies, July 21. Veterans, July 23.
1. Find a starting QB.
It's Kyle Boller's job to lose, but Troy Smith could take over with a strong camp. Boller has experience as a starter but doesn't thrive in pressure situations. Smith is athletic and can make plays outside the pocket but is small (6-0, 225). Both lack accuracy.
2. Pick two starting tackles.
The leading candidate on the left side is Jared Gaither (6-9, 350), who is huge but untested. Adam Terry will battle Mike Kracalik, who played well during the offseason, for the right tackle job. Terry has more experience but has failed to nail down the job in the past.
3. Coach 'em up.
John Harbaugh displayed a strong presence in the offseason, but now it's showtime. He must prove he's a capable leader who can handle the surly vets who had a hand in Brian Billick's demise. --Mike Preston
Site: Georgetown College, Georgetown, Ky.
Reporting date: July 27.
1. Do the offensive line dance.
The top position battle is right tackle, where franchise-tagged Stacy Andrews is competing with four-time Pro Bowl pick Willie Anderson. Both are outstanding blockers and skilled pass protectors. The team might opt to get both on the field by replacing C Eric Ghiaciuc with RG Bobbie Williams and inserting Andrews in Williams' spot.
2. Catch on quickly.
With Chad Johnson coming off ankle surgery and T.J. Houshmandzadeh in the final year of his contract, it's vital for rookie receivers Jerome Simpson and Andre Caldwell to show progress.
3. Identify new targets.
TE Ben Utecht and RB Chris Perry must get up to speed quickly. Utecht is the pass-catching complement to blocking TE Reggie Kelly. Perry, who hasn't played since 2006 because of a broken ankle, has regained most of his speed and can be a threat in the passing game. --Chick Ludwig
Site: Cleveland Browns Training Facility, Berea, Ohio.
Reporting date: July 23.
1. Get even more from the QB spot.
The Browns have committed to Derek Anderson over Brady Quinn -- for now. Now they need to be right. The team has a shot at the playoffs if Anderson simply plays at his 2007 level but no serious postseason hopes if he doesn't improve. Anderson needs to work on raising his completion percentage, throwing fewer interceptions and better preparing himself mentally for big games.
2. Identify (and follow) the leaders.
In Romeo Crennel's fourth year as coach, it's time to address leadership issues. Anderson can't be the man on offense because everyone knows Quinn might be No. 1 next year -- if not sooner. RB Jamal Lewis has the needed temperament, but there's concern as to how he'll react if his carries are reduced. On defense, ILB Andra Davis has the makeup to be a leader -- if he can elevate his play.
3. Make the retooled defense work.
New coordinator Mel Tucker has created an early buzz. Now Tucker must prove his plan to simplify Crennel's defensive playbook can work against complex game plans. --Steve Doerschuk
Site: Saint Vincent College, Latrobe, Pa.
Reporting date: July 27.
1. Straighten out the late-game defense.
One of the biggest problems last season was the team's inability to protect late leads. Coordinator Dick LeBeau needs to correct that in camp, and he needs to do it by finding new personnel to play in some of his substitution packages.
2. Solidify the offensive line.
Free-agent pickup C Justin Hartwig must help shore up a line that has allowed QB Ben Roethlisberger to be sacked 93 times the past two years. Hartwig and G Chris Kemoeatu, Alan Faneca's replacement, are new starters who need to get comfortable with the system.
3. Get the new guy into the offense.
The team did not draft Rashard Mendenhall to make him a backup or third-down back. Coaches plan to use him in some two-back sets with Willie Parker and make him an explosive part of the offense. If Mendenhall gets lots of work in the preseason, he could ease the workload on Parker. --Gerry Dulac