Over the last two weeks, we put together a look at each of the San Francisco 49ers 13 opponents with a little help from SB Nation’s network of bloggers. Each person answered a few questions, providing a nice, basic rundown to help preview training camp. We got through that on Monday with the Seattle Seahawks. You can find the rest in our opponents section on the site.
Since we still have two weeks until the 49ers report to training camp, I thought why not use the 18 non-49ers previews to take a look at the rest of the league. The 49ers will not play the 18 teams outside of the playoffs and preseason, but it is always interesting to know more about the rest of the league. And so, we’re going to look at each division over the next four days. I’ve combined the four previews per division, and we are starting with the AFC North.
The biggest news out of the AFC North is that Cleveland Browns defensive end Desmond Bryant is likely out for the season following an unexpected torn pectoral. He is undergoing surgery and reports suggest he will miss at least 5-6 months. His six sacks led the team last season, so he is certainly a notable loss.
The big return will be Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell. He tore his MCL and PCL early last November, and was cleared for individual drills during OTAs. He is expected to be ready for training camp, although I don’t think anybody would be surprised if he did not play much at all during the preseason.
Notable free agent additions: WR Brandon LaFell, LB Karlos Dansby, LB/S Taylor Mays
Notable free agent departures: WR Marvin Jones, WR Mohamed Sanu, RT Andre Smith, DE Wallace Gilberry
Draft picks expected to contribute as rookies: Tyler Boyd (2nd round, WR), Andrew Billings (4th round, DT)
Biggest offseason addition: Uhhhh…. LaFell or Boyd, I guess, hopefully?!
Biggest storyline heading into training camp: The wide receiver battle is hands down the biggest storyline heading into training camp. The position is essentially completely up in the air, other than A.J. Green being the No. 1. Will LaFell get the No. 2 job? Will Boyd play in the slot? Those things are fairly certain, though still questions. But just about everything else including the No. 4-6 wide receiver spots is up in the air are available for the taking without many (cough, any) big names competing for the jobs. It comes down to 2014 seventh round draft pick James Wright who is coming off microfracture surgery and hasn’t played since 2014; 2015 seventh round draft pick Mario Alford who played one game in 2015; Brandon Tate, who has a way of always making the roster due to his return abilities, and then a bunch of undrafted players.
Under-the-radar storyline heading into training camp: The Bengals have a new offensive coordinator, their long-time quarterbacks coach, Ken Zampese due to Hue Jackson leaving this offseason to be the head coach of the Browns. No one really knows what to expect with Zampese calling the shots and 2016 will likely prove just how big of an impact Jackson had on the Bengals’ offense as well as Andy Dalton’s development. Will the Bengals be able to continue their winning ways without Jackson? Some are more optimistic than others when it comes to asking this question.
Notable injuries heading into training camp: Tyler Eifert injured his ankle in the Pro Bowl and now is expected to miss all of training camp and potentially the first few weeks of the regular season. Darqueze Dennard is coming off of a season-ending shoulder injury and is hoping to be back for training camp. Other than that, everyone is fairly healthy. Though, given the wide receiver position, Eifert is a huge piece to the Bengals’ offensive puzzle and having him miss time would be a major loss.
Also of note: Vontaze Burfict starts off the season with a three game suspension and Taylor Mays starts off the season with a four game suspension. There’s no guarantee Mays will make the roster when his suspension ends. The Bengals play the Jets in Week 1, the Steelers in Week 2 and the Broncos in Week 3 so playing without Burfict during that stretch is far from ideal.
Notable free agent additions: Ladarius Green, TE
Notable free agent departures: Antwon Blake, CB, Brandon Boykin, CB
Trades: None to date
Draft picks expected to contribute as rookies: Most would assume 1st round pick Artie Burns, CB, will be the main to step up, but the hope is he won’t be needed in 2016. The picks who are expected to truly make some plays are 2nd round pick Sean Davis, Safety out of Maryland, and Javon Hargraves, NT from South Carolina State. Both play positions which are extremely thin and could lend themselves to seeing a rookie with notable playing time.
Biggest offseason addition: No doubt the biggest addition was bringing in Ladarius Green. With Heath Miller calling it a career, Green will help mask some of the issues which are absent with Miller not in the fold anymore. Green has the size and speed to create mismatches down the middle of the field, something Miller lacked in his later years.
Other than Green, the Steelers’ ability to keep their own (Ramon Foster, LG, William Gay, CB, and Robert Golden, S) were huge additions this offseason.
Biggest storyline heading into training camp: The team’s secondary will certainly be the most talked about topic heading into training camp, but the team’s defense overall should be the biggest storyline. They were able to create turnovers in 2015, but their overall lack of pass defense (30th in the NFL) left the team hanging out to dry on more than one occasion.
Under-the-radar storyline heading into training camp: For the past two seasons, offensive coordinator Todd Haley has given the offense a goal of averaging 30 points per game. They failed to do so last year, without having Ben Roethlisberger under center for almost 6 full games. If everyone stays healthy, this could be one of the best offenses in team history, as well as in the NFL in the past decade.
Notable injuries heading into training camp: Le’Veon Bell’s knee injury which ended his 2015 season early will be worth keeping an eye on, as well as an ankle injury which currently has Ladarius Green sidelined until training camp. Other than that, the Steelers have a relatively clean bill of health outside of the usual football maladies.
Notable free agent additions: Eric Weddle DB, Mike Wallace WR, Benjamin Watson TE
Notable free agent departures: Kelechi Osemele OG, Matt Schaub QB, Courtney Upshaw OLB,
Draft picks expected to contribute as rookies:
1st round (6th overall) OT Ronnie Stanley - With Eugene Monroe was cut it is clear the Ravens have complete faith for the young gun to become a blindside blocker
2nd round (42nd overall) LB Kamalei Correa - Some uncertainty where Correa will be playing, as the Ravens are testing the speedy LB at inside & outside positions. Nonetheless expect Correa to be a rotational necessity
4th round (134th overall) RB Kenneth Dixon - The tailback from La. Tech is expected to become the starter by mid-season by some pundits. Will be interesting come later down the road, with Justin Forsett & Javorius Allen ahead in the Depth Chart currently.
6th round (182nd overall) ST/PR/KR Keenan Reynolds - The former Navy QB is transitioning towards a receiving role, but for the first time in Ravens history the depth chart is more stout. Expect Reynolds to fight for Special Teams and PR/KR snaps.
Biggest offseason addition: Eric Weddle - No doubt the highly intelligent and skilled safety is the biggest addition. Once Reed left the back end of the defense seems in disarray. Expect him to ground the secondary and make the Ravens defense great again!
Biggest storyline heading into training camp: Health - Baltimore suffered loses to starting OLB, QB, RB, WR, WR, TE, LT and many second string role players.
Under-the-radar storyline heading into training camp: Dennis Pitta return - The reason for calling this under-the-radar is we’ve heard this story twice. It’s less notable now.
Notable injuries heading into training camp: LOL. . . - Joe Flacco ACL & MCL, Steve Smith Sr. Achilles, Terrell Suggs Achilles, Jimmy Smith screw removal, Dennis Pitta dislocated hip, Breshad Perriman ACL minor tear, Crockett Gillmore shoulder surgery
Notable free agent additions: QB Robert Griffin III, LB Demario Davis, LB Justin Tuggle
Notable free agent departures: C Alex Mack, OT Mitchell Schwartz WR Travis Benjamin, LB Karlos Dansby (released), S Donte Whitner (released), QB Johnny Manziel (released)
Trades: Traded down in the 2016 NFL Draft and acquired more picks in the 2017 NFL Draft
Draft picks expected to contribute as rookies:
WR Corey Coleman: The Browns desperately needed to upgrade the wide receiver position in the draft, especially after the departure of Travis Benjamin and Josh Gordon’s constant struggle to stay clean. Coleman brings a combination of athleticism and playmaking ability that Hue Jackson’s offense relies upon to succeed. Coleman will play a big part in the offense, especially in the downfield passing game.
DE Carl Nassib: The Browns’ pass rushing proved to be nonexistent in the Mike Pettine era. Jackson will partially be judged for how his staff shapes up a mediocre defense with few threats in the pass rush. Nassib is just one of several rookies (Emmanuel Ogbah, Joe Schobert, etc.) expected to bring pressure off the edge.
Biggest offseason addition:
QB Robert Griffin III: Quite a stir occurred when the Browns signed Griffin. Jackson told fans and the media to trust him on this one, though Clevelanders are still skeptical. Griffin will hold down the fort until Jackson can mold rookie QB Cody Kessler, or whatever young quarterback Jackson tries to develop into that elusive franchise quarterback. Griffin thrived in his rookie year then regressed big-time during his next few seasons. The question for him is whether or not he can regain his old form in an offense that will be crafted to his skillset.
Biggest storyline heading into training camp: The 14 new draft picks in training camp. Everyone wants to see how Hue Jackson will bring the biggest draft class in Browns history into the mix. It’s a given that the Browns will cut at least a few of the picks. The question is, ‘Which ones will the Browns cut?’ The only rookie assured a starting spot is Corey Coleman, though starting slots are open for rookies who seize the opportunity during camp.
Under-the-radar storyline heading into training camp: The relationship between Hue Jackson and the front office. Jackson made the call to sign Griffin and to draft Kessler, leading some to believe the relationship between Jackson and the front office might become strained if Griffin and Kessler don’t pan out. Training camp decisions could cause trouble if Jackson and EVP of Football Operations Sashi Brown don’t see eye to eye. If Jackson tries to stifle the analytics department, the new restructuring of the front office will be for naught.
Notable injuries heading into training camp:
CB Joe Haden (ankle), Gary Barnidge (sports hernia), Josh McCown (collarbone). All should be ready to go for training camp.