The AFC is seemingly loaded with star power, owning Super Bowl in 2023. There might not be an AFC division, meanwhile, more jam-packed than the North, where Joe Burrow's Bengals have made two straight conference title games, Lamar Jackson is motivated to get over the hump with the Ravens, the Browns are under pressure to rebound and the Steelers haven't tasted a losing season in decades.and, by default, many of the favorites to contend for the
That doesn't mean, however, that any of the AFC North contenders are exempt from lingering questions. With training camps underway, here are three questions that each of the four clubs must answer before the start of the season:
How will the tackles hold up?
Every year, it feels like Cincinnati improves its protection for Joe Burrow, and yet every year, we're still asking about its trenches. Orlando Brown Jr. is an upgrade at left tackle, to be clear, but removed from the unmatched aid of Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs offense, he'll be a big-money addition to watch. Then there's the right tackle spot, where both Jonah Williams and La'el Collins are recovering from surgery, with the former playing the right side for the first time in his career.
What is the plan at running back?
Obviously Joe Mixon is a part of it, taking a pay cut to stick as the Bengals' primary ball-carrier. But he's not been the most efficient back of late, averaging fewer than four yards per carry in two of his last three seasons. And with Samaje Perine gone via free agency, their chief alternatives are Trayveon Williams and Chase Brown, who have a combined 47 carries at the NFL level.
Is the new-look secondary in sync?
With both Jessie Bates III and Vonn Bell exiting at safety and Eli Apple bidding farewell at corner, Cincy will be relying on at least three new regulars on the back end, including 2022 first-rounder Dax Hill and former Rams vet Nick Scott. The added speed of rookie defensive backs DJ Turner and Jordan Battle should help, but the entire group carries a lot of projection.
Is Deshaun Watson ready?
As in, ready to functionally operate an NFL offense, which wasn't the case at the start of his polarizing Browns debut in 2022? In truth, Watson needs to be more than functional in a make-or-break year for coach Kevin Stefanski. After an erratic emergence from his suspension, it's imperative for Cleveland's entire regime, which bet so much to acquire him, that he's settled into the system.
Who is the real No. 2 pass target?
The Browns took advantage of Elijah Moore's unceremonious split from the Jets, and the Ole Miss product has the tools for a big leap opposite Amari Cooper. But he's still somewhat of a projection, competing for targets with Donovan Peoples-Jones and tight end David Njoku, who after six seasons is still searching for a true breakout season.
Does Jim Schwartz still have it?
A tough question to answer before the season, perhaps, but the Browns have the personnel up front to do serious damage. Between Myles Garrett, Za'Darius Smith, Dalvin Tomlinson and Jordan Elliott, they should be able to pressure anyone. The X-factor lies with the new coordinator, who tends to be very selective with blitzing and hasn't called a defense in three years.
Is the offensive identity established?
Freshly paid, Lamar Jackson is now under pressure to not only stay on the field but make a leap as an efficient, big-game passer. The most important ingredient for him may be new coordinator Todd Monken's system, which apparentlyand more control at the line. And yet it's vital Jackson and Co. are truly bought into whatever changes have been made. After years of leaning heavily on Greg Roman's run-first scheme, it could be hard to fully flip the switch.
Is Odell Beckham Jr. truly ready to contribute?
The Ravens are betting big that the former Giants star is -- or will be -- healthy enough to elevate Baltimore's aerial attack as Jackson's new No. 1. Now it's prove-it time. Beckham may remain a route-running, hands-catching phenom when active, but if/when he takes the field in a game, it'll be the first time since the Rams won the Super Bowl in 2021.
What is Patrick Queen's future?
With or without the former first-rounder, the Ravens defense has the pieces to succeed, starting with fellow linebacker Roquan Smith. But Smith's arrival at last year's trade deadline might've been the best thing to happen to Queen, freeing up the LSU product to register career numbers. On a contract year after a declined option, he's been a popular subject of trade rumors.
Is the offensive line stable?
Nothing will delay a young quarterback's development quite like a failure up front, and while Pittsburgh has taken pronounced steps to upgrade its line the last few years, it'd be nice to confirm that rookie left tackle Broderick Jones, in particular, is prepared to protect Kenny Pickett's blind side. Ex-Eagles starter Isaac Seumalo is another new face to monitor on the inside.
What is expected of Kenny Pickett this year?
Last year, Pickett didn't see his first NFL action until October, and he didn't really his stride until late as a rookie. Going into Year 2, it'd behoove Steelers brass to set a bar for the former first-rounder. Is it a disappointment if he doesn't guide a playoff run? A postseason win? After veteran upgrades on both sides of the ball, surely the standards have been raised at least a bit.
Is Patrick Peterson ready for an expanded role?
The veteran corner Cameron Sutton as the Swiss Army knife of Mike Tomlin's secondary, with snaps at nickel, dime and safety on the table. On a "D" where lots could be asked of newcomer Joey Porter Jr., his comfort as a veteran starter is key.that he's learned several new positions in his first offseason as a Steeler, meaning he's a virtual lock to replace