Training Camp Storylines: AFC North – Part 1

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Training Camp is already underway around the National Football League. The 32 teams will have to deal with the task of narrowing down their rosters to 53 men, in addition to deciding on close battles at some posts. Moreover, the first preseason games are less than a week away.

One of the teams that are set to open the campaign will find difficulties in its pursuit of a second consecutive division title. The Pittsburgh Steelers are scheduled to face the Dallas Cowboys in Canton at the Hall of Fame Game. However, the reigning AFC North champions certainly have more decisions to make regarding the complete outlook of their depth chart. The same cannot be said about the Cleveland Browns, with the team having its sights set on less drama during the preparations.

Meanwhile, the Ravens still have their fair share of questions whereas Cincinnati will be seeking a way to improve its record after an overhaul within the squad over the offseason. The AFC North division promises to be intriguing and close during the forthcoming regular season. Yet, the same can be said about the four clubs’ preseason agendas.

In Part One, the Steelers and the Bengals will come under the spotlights. Here are the two sides’ most burning issues to watch.

Pittsburgh Steelers: Three-Player Battle At Center

BALTIMORE, MD – NOVEMBER 01: J.C. Hassenauer #60 of the Pittsburgh Steelers runs off of the field during a game against the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium on November 1, 2020, in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Benjamin Solomon/Getty Images)

In 2020, Pittsburgh’s offensive line once again stood tall against every opposing pass-rush. The unit allowed just 14 sacks, the fewest in the National Football League. However, the better part of this group will not return for the 2021 campaign. That has seen a few spots open up amid a complete reconstruction of the Steelers’ O-Line.

Alejandro Villanueva and Matt Feiler both departed in free agency in March, eventually joining the ranks of the Ravens and the Chargers, respectively. Maurkice Pouncey retired after eleven seasons while David DeCastro is still unemployed. This all means Chukwuma Okorafor is the only returning starter from the unbreakable offensive line the team showcased in 2020. The rest of the candidates for starting jobs include a few signings and many inexperienced Pittsburgh draftees that will see their first season as regular members of the unit.

The Steelers already have their undisputed top-choice assets at left tackle, and perhaps at right tackle and left guard. Firstly, Joe Haeg, coming over from the Buccaneers, seems like a much more reliable option at RT than Zach Banner. Haeg has failed to provide stability for his past two teams (Indianapolis and Tampa Bay), taking part in less than 50 percent of his offense’s snaps every year since 2017. Moreover, his last stint on the Injured Reserve list was in 2018, which means injuries cannot justify his demise throughout the following two seasons. However, Banner, on the other hand, has just two starts since the Browns drafted him in the fourth round in 2017.

Furthermore, Kevin Dotson is just a hair ahead of Kendrick Green as the No.1 option at left guard. Across his rookie year, the 2020 fourth-rounder accumulated 360 offensive snaps or about a third of the group’s total snap count. Also, he put on a satisfying grade of 66.2, per Pro Football Focus. His experience makes him a candidate with more leverage than Green. The latter’s draft spot indicates a similar ceiling but lacks experience.

It can be observed that almost all positions include a battle or a competition of some kind, or at least a nuisance of that. However, the situation at no position can be compared to the answers the Steelers have to figure out at center. The opening left by Pouncey’s departure has no clear front-runner and at least three contenders.

Pittsburgh started the signing period with J.C. Hassenauer as the uncontested option at the center post. Hassenauer racked up meaningful playing time in 2020 – about 28 percent of all snaps. However, this sample is too small for this stint to have unveiled his full potential, though his performance was about over-average. Therefore, he could turn out to be a liability and quite the risk.

Leaving no Plan B would have been reckless. That’s why Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert was quick to act once free agency was up and running. Subsequently, Colbert brought back former Steeler B.J. Finney on a one-year, $1.1-million deal. Finney played the first four campaigns of his NFL tenure in Pittsburgh before barely seeing the field with Cinncinati and Seattle in 2020. As a part-time Steelers center, Finney turned in a PFF grade north of 60.0 on three of four occasions.

His impressive track record as a non-regular piece of the offensive line sets the bar high for Finney to compete with, and defeat, Hassenauer. Moreover, Kendrick Green, who started four games at center over his last two years with the Illinois Illini, might give his teammates a solid battle. Nonetheless, he will be more focused on his ambitions at left guard. That will make the main battle between Hasseanauer and Finney within the offensive portion of Pittsburgh’s roster. Here, Finney’s past success could prevail over the sophomore’s lack of accolades.

Cincinnati Bengals: Interior Uncertainty

Just like the Steelers, the Bengals’ biggest question mark this training camp will be in the field of passer protection. That is when you consider that, while the receiving corps has suffered multiple losses and are in trouble, there is not much competition beyond the three clear starters.

However, Cincy could not boast nearly as reliable of an offensive line last year. The group allowed 48 sacks over the course of 2020 – the sixth-most in the league. Moreover, these avid woes were acknowledged by Director of Player Personnel Duke Tobin and his staff, with one of the club’s most high-profile signings coming at left tackle. Over free agency, the Bengals welcomed former Vikings offensive lineman Riley Reiff on a one-year deal worth almost $8 million.

PITTSBURGH, PA – AUGUST 12: Offensive lineman Riley Reiff #71 of the Detroit Lions looks on from the sideline during a National Football League preseason game against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field on August 12, 2016, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Lions defeated the Steelers 30-17. (Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images)

Fortunately for Cincy, he is not the only guaranteed solid starter in the team’s front line. 2020 first-round pick Jonah Williams is returning to his post at right tackle after starting ten games during his debut campaign in Ohio. The Alabama alum had a promising rookie year, allowing just three sacks and committing two penalties, in addition to a PFF rating of 70.1.

The Bengals seem just set as regards the exterior part of their offensive line. Not only that but the direction of these posts looks as bright as it could be. The same, however, cannot be said about the interior and all the question marks that are looming in that field.

Firstly, the left guard position might offer the most competition. Cincinnati does have its premier piece from last year, Michael Jordan, back. Jordan made ten starts and participated in 68 percent of all offensive snaps. Pro Football Focus rates his display as insufficient at 55.7 despite just one conceded penalty.

Moreover, the heavy workload he was assigned was in huge part due to the injury that saw 2020 offseason signing Xavier Su’a-Filo sidelined. The UCLA alum was the team’s starter at LG during the Week 1 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers. However, his injury eventually ruled him out for the next eleven weeks. The club’s Week 12 showdown with Miami was the stage for his return from the bench. He followed that up with four starts on the spin to finish the 2020 campaign.

On the one hand, the trust the Bengals seemed to have in Su’a-Filo after he came back could make him the favorite this year as well. This is further confirmed by the contract he signed with the team in 2020 – three years, $9 million. On the other hand, Xavier Su’a-Filo has not had a PFF grade north of 60.0 since 2016. That was the first of two healthy seasons as a starting lineman for the Houston Texans. Also, he has surpassed the aforementioned threshold just twice across his seven-year NFL tenure.

Xavier Su’a-Filo’s recent lack of stability could open the door for Jordan, as well as one other contender for the job. This could be 2021 second-rounder Jackson Carman, drafted out of Clemson. Carman spent almost the entirety of his collegiate career with the Tigers at left tackle, starting each of the team’s last 27 games. However, he is projected to be thrown into the inside part early on within Cincy’s roster. Carman was initially considered as the starter at right guard, though he is now said to not be getting reps with the first team.

CHESTNUT HILL, MA – NOVEMBER 10: Clemson Tigers offensive lineman Jackson Carman (79) gets set during a game between the Boson College Eagles and the Clemson University Tigers on. November 10, 2018, at Alumni Stadium in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts. (Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Not only is Jackson Carman competing for a job at right guard but he can also be even involved at left guard should that not work out. However, he seems to be losing both races as of now. Quinton Spain has recently been rumored to have more leverage at RG during the beginning of the 2021 training camp. Spain has started at least ten games for his team in each of his last four seasons on the professional level. Furthermore, the Titans draftee has turned in a grade over 60.0 in three of his six seasons. At the same time, he has surrendered less than three sacks on five occasions.

It seems like this battle could be even closer than at left guard, where all the pressure is now on Su’a-Filo to deliver in the season itself. Spain has an impressive track record while Carman was thought to be the upfront option for quite some time. The outcome of that battle is fully up to each guy’s performance throughout the preseason. However, Spain has both showcased stability and has the sample to back it up. Meanwhile, there’s no reason to put a “reliable” label next to Carman’s name heading into his rookie year in the NFL.

The offensive line is rounded off by another competition, this time for the starting job at center. Trey Hopkins looks to enter the training camp with almost a guaranteed spot after starting 15 games last year. His only competition could come in former first-round pick Billy Price. Price has failed to live up to his slot value, being present for about 50 percent of the time in his first two campaigns.

After disappointing noticeably in these opportunities, the Ohio State alum then lost his job permanently to Hopkins, making just one start across 2020. Heading into the last season of his rookie deal, Billy Price could look to finally start presenting his potential. Yet, the chances of his beating out Trey Hopkins still look incredibly slim.

Amid all the questions entering the roster-cutting process, it has to be said that the Bengals’ O-Line has been thoroughly improved from last year’s lows. Nonetheless, Cincinnati’s staff will have to finish the job adequately. The opportunities to make bitter mistakes exist and are very tempting with the plethora of options available to choose from.

JACKSONVILLE, FL – NOVEMBER 22: Pittsburgh Steelers Center Maurkice Pouncey (53), Pittsburgh Steelers Offensive Guard Matt Feiler (71), and Pittsburgh Steelers Linebacker Robert Spillane (41) line up in the tunnel with teammates before the game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Jacksonville Jaguars on November 22, 2020, at TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville, Fl. (Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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Thanks for reading my article on the AFC North training camp storylines. Follow me on Twitter @TeodorTsenov for more of my content and follow @OT_Heroics!

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Teodor Tsenov is an editor in the NFL Department of Overtime Heroics. Teodor joined the media in March 2020, previously writing for Franchise Sports UK. Also, a first-year International Sport Management student at The Hague University of Applied Sciences in Den Haag, the Netherlands. Originally from Sofia, Bulgaria.