The Bengals have made the playoffs three straight seasons and are defending AFC North champs. But the Ravens, a year removed from a Lombardi Trophy, are looking to rebound, while the Steelers are hoping to improve on back-to-back 8-8 records. And then there are the Browns. Have they finally found their franchise quarterback?
CAMP BATTLES TO WATCH: AFC North
Key battle: Ricky Wagner vs. Ryan Jensen, right tackle
Former first-round pick Michael Oher never lived up to expectations and is now in Tennessee, which leaves even more questions at right tackle now that he's gone. Wagner, a 2013 fifth-rounder out of Wisconsin, and Jensen, taken in the sixth round of that same draft, are the top candidates to replace Oher, and as we head into training camp, Wagner looks to be the favorite.
During offseason workouts last month, coach John Harbaugh was asked about Wagner's progress.
"To me, Ricky has been -- I don't want to say he's a surprise, because I expected him to play well -- but I think we put a lot on his plate early walking in here as a starter, new scheme and those types of things," he said, via the team's website. "He has responded and hasn't missed a rep. He plays very hard in what we're doing, so we just have to keep going. But I've been very pleased with Ricky.”
Jensen spent time this offseason working at the interior line positions, further evidence that this is Wagner's job to lose.
There's also dark-horse candidate James Hurst, an undrafted rookie out of North Carolina who broke his leg in his final college game. If nothing else, he'll provide competition in the coming weeks.
Predicted outcome: Wagner's the favorite. And a consistently average performance at right tackle would be an improvement on Oher, who ranked 68th among all offensive tackles last season (out of 76 total), according to Pro Football Focus.
Other battles to watch: Running back -- Ray Rice, Bernard Pierce, Justin Forsett, Lorenzo Taliaferro. Off-field issues and injuries have plagued this group in recent months and it's reasonable to expect Rice to face a suspension heading into the season. When he does return, he'll be looking to improve on a forgettable 2013 season when he ranked dead last in RB efficiency, according to Football Outsiders.
Free safety -- Darian Stewart vs. Terrance Brooks. Stewart, who started six games last season with the Rams, should beat out rookie third-rounder Brooks.
Bodine was impressive during offseason workouts, but if left guard Clint Boling is fully recovered from an ACL injury, Pollak could find himself at center, giving the interior offensive line experience (along with right guard Kevin Zeitler). Tackles Andrew Whitworth and Andre Smith round out the unit, which ranked third in pass protection and 11th in run-blocking last season, according to Football Outsiders.
And while the left tackle position is usually considered the most important along an offensive line, AFC North rivals Baltimore and Pittsburgh have first-hand experience with how substandard play from the center can wreck an entire offensive game plan. It led to the Steelers drafting Maurkice Pouncey back in 2010, and the Ravens trading for Jeremy Zuttah this offseason. Put another way...
Predicted outcome: Pollak, who has never played center in the NFL but excelled at the position in college, is the favorite coming out of camp. But if he's manhandled by Baltimore's imposing defensive line in Week 1, Bodine could find himself on the field sooner rather than later. Also keep an eye on Trevor Robinson, who started seven games as a rookie in 2012, when Cook went down with an injury.
Other battles to watch: Quarterback -- Andy Dalton vs. A.J. McCarron. We're mentioning this here to dispel any notion that there's even a battle. When the Bengals selected McCarron in the fifth round of the 2014 NFL Draft, there was some murmuring that this was a sign that the team wouldn't look to re-up Dalton, who is in the final year of his rookie deal.
The reality is that quarterbacks drafted late rarely have an NFL impact. In fact, history suggests that that quarterback taken on Day 3 will, on average, play two NFL seasons, never be his team's primary starter, will sport a 2-5 career record (if he's lucky), complete 54.7 percent of his passes and throw 3 touchdowns against 6 interceptions. In other words: Dalton, without question, is the guy. For 2014, and almost certainly beyond.
Key battle: Brian Hoyer vs. Johnny Manziel, quarterback
Brace yourselves. This will be just about the only storyline coming out of Browns' camp. Much like Tebowmania, Manziel's NFL journey will be all-consuming whether we like it or not. Back in May, hours after the Browns selected Manziel 22nd overall, Hoyer welcomed the competition, saying "Bring it on."
"Everybody in America knew we were going to draft a quarterback," Hoyer said at the time. "I've said a million times, I have all the confidence in the world in myself. So we'll just see how it plays out."
And Hoyer looked every bit the legit NFL quarterback in three starts last season before suffering an ACL injury. But with Manziel on the roster, Hoyer's days are numbered. That's not to say he can't win the job; Derek Anderson did just that back in 2007 after the team drafted Brady Quinn, but Anderson's career plateaued after that and he's been better suited to backup duties.
Last month, first-year coach Mike Pettine said that Hoyer was "securely ahead" of Manziel, but with the caveat that the lead wasn't "insurmountable." Which means that nobody will be surprised if Manziel ends up under center by, say, Week 5.
Why Week 5?
The Browns begin the season with games against the Steelers, Saints and Ravens before a Week 4 bye. If the team limps to an 0-3 start then god help us all because everyone will be calling for Manziel to play.
In related, wholly unsurprising news: Manziel "absolutely" expect to win the job.
"I want to play," he said in late June. "That's what anybody wants to do. Anybody that's been a starter in the past, and been playing, they want to play," he said. "To say I don't want to be the starter, that would be ridiculous. I absolutely want to start, that's my goal. Hopefully I can achieve that."
Predicted outcome: Hoyer holds off Manziel in training camp and the preseason, but succumbs to the inevitable by Week 5.
Other battles to watch: Guards: Rookie Joel Bitonio vs. veteran Paul McQuistan, and John Greco vs. Jason Pinkston. The Browns' guards struggled a lot last season, and if Hoyer and/or Manziel are going to have a chance, the bookends to all-everything center Alex Mack will have to play much better.
Key battle: Markus Wheaton vs. Lance Moore vs. Martavis Bryant, wide receiver. Wheaton's rookie season was plagued by a finger injury that resulted in him catching just six passes in 12 games. But there's a sense that he can capably fill Emmanuel Sanders' shoes; coming out of 2013 training camp, former Steelers safety Ryan Clark gushed at how impressive Wheaton had played. And while it never carried over to the season, Wheaton is now a full year into Pittsburgh's offense, and just as important, he's fully healthy.
"Markus Wheaton and [second-year wideout] Justin [Brown] have been here and you can see they have a year under their belt," offensive coordinator Todd Haley said last month, via the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "Those are the two guys I saw during the offseason. They'd be in there working. They have a different confidence level in what they're doing and what we're doing.”
And then there's Bryant, the 6-4 rookie out of Clemson who immediately adds a red-zone dimension the team has lacked since the Plaxico Burress era.
“Martavis is a big guy," wide receivers coach Richard Mann said in June. "He's different from what we've had. As far as with the length, we feel like we can utilize his talents in the red zone. He's got a big reach. He's got good speed, so we can use him in various ways.”
Measurables are great but it's not always enough to get a young player on the field (just ask Wheaton). Still, Mann considers Bryant a special talent, and despite the inexperience wouldn't be surprised if he sees some playing time.
“I think he's going to contribute, I really do,” Mann said. “He's got good speed, he's a big guy and he can run and catch, that's the bottom line."
Meanwhile, Moore, who was brought in this offseason when veteran Jericho Cotchery signed with the Panthers, has been the consummate professional. And whomever wins the No. 2 job opposite Antonio Brown, Moore will likely see plenty of snaps because of his versatility.
Predicted outcome: Wheaton has the chance to be a more dynamic version of Sanders (who's now in Denver), especially down the field. Bryant will likely see time in red-zone situations as he gets comfortable in the offense, and Moore, like Cotchery before him, will be Ben Roethlisberger's security blanket (along with tight end Heath Miller).
Other battles to watch: Right tackle: Marcus Gilbert vs. Mike Adams. Adams played himself out of the starting lineup early last season, but he's a former second-round pick and now under the tutelage of Hall of Fame lineman Mike Munchak (who you could argue was the unit's most important offseason acquisition). Gilbert was steady last season -- and remains the favorite at right tackle -- but he's entering the final year of his contract, so Adams could be an option, especially if Munchak can get the most out of him.
Inside linebacker -- Rookie first-rounder Ryan Shazier appears set to start, which is almost unheard of in Dick LeBeau's defense. But he's not the only interesting story among the linebackers. Vince Williams, who was forced into starting duties as a rookie last season, will battle Sean Spence for the right to back up Shazier. Spence, a 2012 third-rounder who suffered a serious knee injury as a rookie during preseason, is nearing full health. He's a lot like Shazier in that speed is one of his biggest assets.
Punter -- Former LSU punter Brad Wing has a huge leg (along with some previous off-field issues), while Adam Podlesh, a former fourth-round pick, is a solid veteran.