AFC North players in the crosshairs

Posted May 21, 2012 @ 4:28 p.m.
Posted By Eric Edholm

As training camp approaches, we take a look at the players on each team who will be most heavily scrutinized. The list contains a fair amount of quarterbacks — no stunner there — but we tried to highlight as many non-QBs as we could. The players featured range from rookies to veterans with 10 or more years of experience.

In the second of an eight-part series, we look at the AFC North from the 2011 order of finish:

Ravens QB Joe Flacco

Flacco is probably further along after four seasons than Eli Manning was at a similar stage of his career. The difference: Manning earned his first ring in his fourth season. Flacco made some Manning-like statements this offseason when he said he considered himself the best quarterback in the NFL, just as Eli said he belonged in elite company before the 2011 campaign. Manning backed it up with his second championship. Can Flacco join the fraternity of elite quarterbacks with a ring of his own? Tricky contract negotiations between Flacco’s camp and the Ravens this offseason (his deal is up after 2012) have added a layer of intrigue to the situation.

Other Ravens worth mentioning: OLB Courtney Upshaw, PK Billy Cundiff.

Steelers WR Mike Wallace

Wallace hung in the balance as a restricted free agent this offseason as the Steelers shed a lot of skin by cutting unwieldy veteran salaries with the hope that they could keep another team from signing him to an offer sheer they could not match. The Steelers were fortunate that no team made a big run at Wallace, but it might be only a one-year delay of the inevitable. Wallace will be gunning for big dollars this season, money the Steelers might not pay, although he will have to reverse a second-half trend from last season that saw more production go in the direction of Antonio Brown.

Other Steelers worth mentioning: OT Mike Adams, OLB James Harrison.

Bengals QB Andy Dalton

By all accounts, Dalton had a successful rookie season, helping turn the four-win Bengals into a playoff team — and taking control of the offense without the benefit of a full offseason earned him serious notice around the league in the categories of football IQ, leadership and toughness. But he still must improve as a quarterback. Not only did Dalton struggle mightily in the playoff loss to the Texans near where he grew up, but he also was far less successful in games against top defenses, including those of the Steelers and Ravens, whom he will be facing twice a season for the foreseeable future. Still, that future appears to be bright.

Other Bengals worth mentioning: DE Carlos Dunlap, OLT Andre Smith.

Browns QB Brandon Weeden 

Trent Richardson might be the big name in Berea, but Weeden could be the difference between improvement for this down-and-out franchise or another season in the doldrums. He appears to know what Browns fans want to hear, anyway. “We are coming with a goal to win games,” Weeden told the media at the team’s first minicamp. “Obviously, our first goal is to get to the playoffs, then go as far as we can, and ultimately, before it’s all said and done, to win a Super Bowl. That’s my goal as a player. Before I am done playing, I want to win a Super Bowl.” Fair warning: Many others have tried and failed, Brandon.

Other Browns worth mentioning: Richardson, ILB D’Qwell Jackson.