||06-24-2009 05:59 PM
Minicamp wrap: 10 things that I learned (James Walker)
James Walker talks about what he's seen in the AFC North minicamps so far:
Minicamp wrap: 10 things that I learned
June 24, 2009 12:00 PM
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
The AFC North blog made it to every minicamp this offseason for the Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers and came away with a great feel for each team's strengths and weaknesses heading into training camp.
With that in mind, here are 10 things that I learned about the AFC North during my trip around the division:
10. Bengals are getting meaner
Analysis: Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis set the tone early with his team motto for 2009: "Fight back!" It's fitting because the Bengals have a lot to prove this year, especially with newfound expectations. The offense is trying to prove it can return to form with a healthy quarterback in Carson Palmer, and the defense is out to prove last year's solid performance wasn't a fluke. The result was multiple team fights and plenty of shoving and jawing during Cincinnati's three-day minicamp. When I joked with several players afterward that they're fighting too early and need to save it for cameras when "Hard Knocks" films training camp, one player hinted it was just the beginning. As long as no injuries occur, this could be good in the long run when the Bengals play tough rivals such as the Ravens and Steelers.
9. Fewer carries for Le'Ron
Analysis: On the surface, it appears the Ravens could play Le'Ron McClain more at fullback than last season. Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron says too much is being made of this and the team isn't switching McClain's position. But from what I saw in mandatory minicamp, McClain and Ray Rice shared the first-team backfield with McClain often lining up in front of Rice. Take that for what it is. If Rice, who packed on some noticeable muscle, improves in his second year and Willis McGahee stays healthy, there's a good chance McClain will not lead the Ravens in rushing again this season.
8. Browns' offense could struggle
Analysis: Perhaps the most underwhelming unit on either side of the football that I watched this offseason was Cleveland's offense. My impression was this group won't be too exciting or dynamic this year. Instead, the Browns' offense appeared very safe with the goal of getting first downs, not touchdowns. Many players were shuffling in and out of various positions, particularly at receiver and on the offensive line. The new coaching staff, led by Eric Mangini, is still learning the players, and likewise the players had a lot thrown at them trying to learn a new system. So overall, not much looked in sync. There were various mistakes made throughout minicamp, both mentally and physically, which resulted in players running laps. The quarterbacks were decent but not overly impressive. But we will get back to that situation later.
7. Timmons is ready
Analysis: Lawrence Timmons is one of the best pure athletes in the division, but in Pittsburgh the former first-round pick was unable to make the starting lineup until his third season. Now Timmons is ready after developing and learning behind James Farrior and Larry Foote, who was released this offseason and signed by the Detroit Lions. Timmons fit right in with his veteran defensive teammates in minicamp. He wasn't guessing because he has been in the system for three years now, and he looked fluid getting to the football. The Steelers have high hopes for Timmons, who has a chance to be a breakout player in the division and yet another great linebacker under defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau.
6. Ryan wants to be aggressive
Analysis: The Browns had only 17 sacks in 16 games last year. I get the sense new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan would pull all of his hair out if Cleveland's defense repeats those numbers this season. Ryan -- the son of former NFL head coach Buddy Ryan and twin brother of New York Jets coach Rex Ryan -- brought the heat this offseason. As a result, his cornerbacks were left to play a lot of man-on-man coverage, which wasn't often seen from the Browns during the Romeo Crennel era. More blitzing could be feast or famine for Cleveland's defense, but expect this unit to be in the face of the quarterback more than once a game this year.
5. Flacco is getting better
Analysis: Don't expect a sophomore slump in Baltimore. What I saw from second-year quarterback Joe Flacco in minicamp was a player who gained confidence from his rookie success and is ready for more responsibility. It's obvious Flacco can make all the throws and has a good mentality to play the position. The only question is whether Flacco will reduce some of the rookie-type mistakes he made last year, particularly in big games. The Ravens added tight end L.J. Smith and rookie right tackle Michael Oher to help Flacco's continued development. But it will be interesting to see if any new receivers emerge outside of Derrick Mason and Mark Clayton.
4. Ochocinco is back
Analysis: Cincinnati receiver Chad Ochocinco did something different this offseason: He stayed quiet. No one, including the Bengals, knew what he was up to until recently. It turns out Ochocinco worked extremely hard in Los Angeles to get back to his Pro Bowl form. Minus a few drops, he was clearly the most explosive receiver that I've seen in all four minicamps this offseason. Against a pretty good Bengals secondary, Ochocinco got behind the defense plenty of times for big plays and ran cat-quick short and intermediate routes. If he remains this motivated throughout the entire season, Ochocinco could be a problem for opponents once again this year.
3. Palmer is healthy, sharp
Analysis: As Ochocinco often says, there is not a No. 85 without No. 9. It wouldn't matter how hard Ochocinco worked this offseason if Palmer cannot remain healthy and upright this season. Palmer says his elbow is 100 percent after rest and rehab. The Bengals are being cautious by keeping him on a pitch count, but the football is accurate and zips like usual when he does throw in practices. Palmer has the potential to impact the AFC North more than any injured player from 2008, which is why many feel the Bengals have sleeper potential.
2. Quinn holds early lead in QB race
Analysis: Getting back to Cleveland's offense, Mangini isn't showing his hand on who is leading in the quarterback race between Brady Quinn and Derek Anderson, but we will come up with our own interpretation. Quinn began the offseason with a slight lead and didn't do anything in minicamp to lose that advantage. Although neither quarterback lit it up in minicamp, Quinn did string together a few solid practices, while Anderson suffered a calf injury and missed the final two sessions. Quinn also appeared more comfortable in the conservative offense Cleveland is implementing. Meanwhile, Anderson is more of a gunslinger trying to scale back what made him successful, and at times has looked awkward. It's unknown at this point who's the better quarterback, but there are plenty of signs that Quinn might be the better fit for Cleveland. That might be enough for the former Notre Dame star to win the job.
1. Steelers are focused
Analysis: The reigning Super Bowl champions were very workmanlike this offseason and look like a team driven in its quest to win back-to-back titles. The Steelers' veterans who were in the locker room in 2006 know exactly what it feels like to flop after a Super Bowl, and they are sharing that experience with the younger players. Plus, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is healthy and coach Mike Tomlin is firmly entrenched and focused on the task at hand, which is different from '06. With an experienced group returning and the No. 29 strength of schedule, the Steelers like their chances of being the first team since the 2003-04 New England Patriots to repeat.