Juiciest story line: Can the Ravens remain a major player in the AFC after losing some key players in the offseason? Baltimore still has more blue-chip performers than the average team, but stalwarts Ray Lewis and Ed Reed are nearing the end of their careers, and it remains to be seen if the next wave of potential standouts — with QB Joe Flacco heading that list — can reach elite status and keep the Ravens at that level long term.
Player to watch: OLT Michael Oher has had a solid start to his NFL career, but he did have a few tough moments in pass protection a season ago. If he makes strides in his third NFL season, it could lift a line that looks a little shaky. If he plateaus, it won't help an offense looking to improve after a disappointing season.
Strongest position: The Ravens appear to be in good shape along the defensive line. DT Haloti Ngata is a star, and NT Terrence Cody could be a very good run stuffer in short order. Second-year DE Arthur Jones has emerged as a contributor, too, improving the depth of the group. Capable Brandon McKinney will step into Cody's former role as the reserve nose tackle.
Weakest position: The offensive line is shaky at center, where Matt Birk is recovering from knee surgery, and right tackle, where veteran backup Oniel Cousins and rookie Jah Reid are the top options. Considering the Ravens have to contend with Steelers LOLB LaMarr Woodley and NT Casey Hampton in Week One, how those parts of the O-line fare throughout the preseason bears close monitoring.
Juiciest story line: As the Bengals begin life after Carson Palmer, they hand control of the offense to QB Andy Dalton and hope the rookie from TCU keeps the growing pains to a minimum. From all accounts, Dalton has the intangibles to play the position. In his first preseason start, Dalton had his first pass intercepted, but he settled down thereafter.
Player to watch: WR Jerome Simpson finished 2010 with a flourish, catching 20 passes for 277 yards and three TDs in the final three games when he finally received a chance to play. If he plays at that level this season, and if A.J. Green lives up to his billing as an elite prospect, the Bengals could have an above-average WR tandem in 2011 — one that potentially could be potent for years if Simpson signs long term.
Strongest position: Second-year pro Jermaine Gresham was solid as a rookie, catching 52 passes, and the addition of ex-Titan Bo Scaife gives the Bengals a potent one-two punch at tight end. Teams could have a tough time defending the Bengals' athletic WR tandem of Green and Simpson, and Gresham and Scaife are nice middle-of-the-field targets for Dalton, giving Cincinnati options in the passing game.
Weakest position: The Bengals are not deep at safety. An apparent agreement with ex-Bills SS Donte Whitner fell through, likely ending the Bengals' last best chance to upgrade the talent at the position. SS Chris Crocker and FS Reggie Nelson comprise a decent starting tandem, but Crocker has struggled to stay healthy and Nelson has been inconsistent.
Juiciest story line: Can the Browns take advantage of a manageable beginning to their schedule? Of their first 11 games, only two are against playoff teams from a season ago. Poor starts have doomed the Browns the past three seasons; a better beginning would be a boon for Shurmur, a first-time head coach on the professional or collegiate level.
Player to watch: Can QB Colt McCoy thrive in Shurmur's West Coast offense? Playing for an organization led by Mike Holmgren, an expert in the West Coast scheme who loves to collect quarterbacks, McCoy needs to learn the offense and show some playmaking ability. He got off to a very good start. In his first preseason game, he completed 9-of-10 passes for 135 yards and one touchdown.
Strongest position: The offensive line is very good. OLT Joe Thomas has been named to the Pro Bowl in each of his first four NFL seasons and has never missed a snap. Also, C Alex Mack earned his first Pro Bowl nod in 2010 and OLG Eric Steinbach is a solid starter. ORG Shaun Lauvao and ORT Tony Pashos are serviceable.
Weakest position: The Browns have no shortage of options at wide receiver, but they do not have a go-to target. Perhaps rookie Greg Little can earn that role in time, but he needs to be more consistent. Mohamed Massaquoi, expected to be a key contributor, missed the early part of camp with a foot injury.
Juiciest story line: The last two times the Steelers missed the postseason came a season after they appeared in the Super Bowl. This looks like another formidable Pittsburgh squad, but the '06 and '09 editions looked that way, too, and they were home for the playoffs. Can the Steelers keep their focus?
Player to watch: The Steelers have so many known commodities, so we'll focus on OLT Jonathan Scott, who replaces the departed Max Starks. Scott's play improved as last season progressed. If he's solid in protecting QB Ben Roethlisberger's blind side, the Steelers' offense can be daring and dangerous.
Strongest position: The Steelers are loaded at linebacker. OLBs James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley are top pass rushers and very good run defenders. ILB James Farrior continues to play well at age 36, and the other inside 'backer, Lawrence Timmons, comes off his best season.
Weakest position: The offensive line has one star (C Maurkice Pouncey) and a potential above-average right tackle (Willie Colon). However, the guard play is inconsistent, and it remains to be seen how Scott plays over a full season on the left side.