Site: Under Armour Performance Center, Owings Mills, Md.
Report date: July 22 (rookies), July 25 (veterans).
Key veteran arrivals: DE Ryan McBean, S Sean Considine, CB Corey Graham, WR-RS Jacoby Jones, NT Ma’ake Kemoeatu, QB Curtis Painter, OG Bobbie Williams, OL Tony Wragge.
Key veteran departures: CB Chris Carr, WR Lee Evans, CB Domonique Foxworth, PK Shayne Graham, OG Ben Grubbs, OLB Jarret Johnson, DT Brandon McKinney, S Haruki Nakamura, DL Cory Redding, RB Ricky Williams, S Tom Zbikowski.
Juiciest story lines: The Ravens lost the AFC title game at New England in hard-to-believe and heartbreaking fashion. The good news? QB Joe Flacco, after a somewhat disappointing regular season, played very well in defeat. Moreover, the Ravens, even after enduring some offseason personnel losses, still look like AFC contenders. Now, all eyes are on whether Baltimore can take that next step and return to the Super Bowl for the first time since 2000. This is an especially important season for Flacco, who enters the final year of his contract.
Burning questions: Will OLB Terrell Suggs (Achilles) return at some point in 2012? ... Can the Paul Kruger-Courtney Upshaw OLB tandem pick up the slack with Suggs out and the rugged Jarret Johnson now in San Diego? ... Will FS Ed Reed report for the start of training camp? ... Will the left side of the offensive line hold up? … With RB Ray Rice getting a lucrative five-year deal, will QB Joe Flacco's contract situation now be resolved before the season begins? ... Can PK Billy Cundiff recapture his best form after his late-game AFC-title miss? ... Will second-year CB Jimmy Smith take a big step forward?
Fearless prediction: After having a so-so 2011 regular season, Flacco steps up his game in ’12. Flacco is in his physical prime, and he’s had four pressure-packed seasons to learn his craft. Flacco’s impressive play in the ’11 AFC title game could be a sign of things to come for the Ravens’ signalcaller, who throws one of the game’s best deep balls. The Ravens’ passing game has a good deal of upside.
Fantasy nugget: TE Dennis Pitta might have some sleeper potential. All three of his 2011 regular-season TDs came in the final six weeks of the season, and he caught 5-41-1 on eight targets in the AFC title game. QB Joe Flacco trusts him, and if the end of the '11 season is any indication, Pitta has a good shot at improving on last season's TD total.
Site: Paul Brown Stadium, Cincinnati.
Report date: July 26 (rookies and veterans).
Key veteran arrivals: CB Jason Allen, DE Jamaal Anderson, RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis, DE Derrick Harvey, CB Terence Newman, OG Travelle Wharton.
Key veteran departures: WR Andre Caldwell, S Chris Crocker, DE Jonathan Fanene, LB Brandon Johnson, OG Nate Livings, OG Mike McGlynn, CB Rico Murray, LB Keith Rivers, DE Frostee Rucker, TE Bo Scaife, WR Jerome Simpson, OG Bobbie Williams.
Juiciest story lines: For the second time in three seasons, the Bengals exceeded expectations and made the playoffs. Cincinnati received stellar rookie seasons from WR A.J. Green and QB Andy Dalton and a stout performance from the NFL’s seventh-ranked defense as Marvin Lewis’ club grabbed the final wild-card spot in the AFC. The Bengals garner more respect now as they try do something they have never done in Lewis’ tenure as head coach — make the postseason in back-to-back seasons. Another playoff berth would add to the growing notion that the Bengals have begun to make sounder football decisions, but a step backwards would damage that perception.
Burning questions: Can the Bengals prove they can beat playoff-caliber clubs? They were 0-7 against playoff entrants in ’11, with four losses combined (each by seven points or more) against Baltimore and Pittsburgh. ... If the Bengals make that next step, will it come from improvement from their young offense, an even better season from a strong defense — or just regression from Baltimore and Pittsburgh, who each have age concerns? ... Who will emerge as the starting wideout opposite of Green? ... How will the Bengals split the carries between RBs BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Bernard Scott? ... Who will take over for Chris Crocker at strong safety?
Fearless prediction: Although the Bengals made the postseason in 2011, they were the third-best team in their division, and it’s not going to be easy to overtake Baltimore and Pittsburgh this season, too. Nevertheless, the Bengals are building something promising, and a full offseason for the Dalton-led offense can only be helpful. Cincinnati sits poised in the rear-view mirrors of Baltimore and Pittsburgh, ready to pounce. Whether the Bengals can make that move this year will tell us a lot about the present and future of this division. If nothing else, 2013 looks rather promising for Cincinnati.
Fantasy nugget: If no clear-cut No. 2 wideout steps up, TE Jermaine Gresham could be a big beneficary. Gresham, who was targeted 92 times a season ago, catching 56-596-6, figures to be an attractive alternative for QB Andy Dalton if nothing's open on the outside. Moreover, Gresham has the athleticism to be a downfield threat.
Site: Cleveland Browns Training Facility, Berea, Ohio
Report date: July 24 (rookies), July 26 (veterans).
Key veteran arrivals: DE Juqua Parker, DE Frostee Rucker.
Key veteran departures: S Mike Adams, OT Artis Hicks, RB Peyton Hillis, P Richmond McGee, DE Jayme Mitchell, OT Tony Pashos, OG Eric Steinbach, OL Steve Vallos.
Juiciest story lines: Rookie QB Brandon Weeden is expected to capture the starting job. Will the 28-year-old former minor-league baseball player have a short learning curve? The play of Weeden and highly touted rookie RB Trent Richardson will be vital to an offense that sputtered the past several seasons. Something else to watch: The 2011 Browns couldn’t take advantage of a favorable early schedule and fell apart late, losing their final six games. This season, the schedule is tougher earlier, with four of the first six contests against ’11 postseason entrants. Can these Browns keep it together early in the fall?
Burning questions: There are plenty. Will Weeden quickly be able to pick up the West Coast offense — a scheme that can be tough to master? ... Will his arm strength spark a station-to-station passing game? ... Will Greg Little, the Browns’ top target as a rookie, take a step forward? ... Will the Browns deal Colt McCoy before training camp? If he stays around, can he prove a serious challenger to Weeden? ... Can Richardson consistently get the best of professional defenses that will be gearing up to stop him? ... Finally, can the defense match last season’s surprising output? It was lost in the Browns’ overall struggles, but Cleveland allowed the fifth-fewest points in 2011.
Fearless prediction: The Browns will be more fun to watch in 2012, with Richardson proving he’s a legit lead back from the get-go. Weeden, too, will have his moments. However, wins will continue to be tough to come by. The ’12 schedule simply doesn’t afford Cleveland many breathers. To wit: The Browns face the Ravens twice in the first nine weeks, then draw the Steelers twice in the final six games. The Browns’ rebuilding process has had its positive moments, but growing pains are still the name of the game for this team.
Fantasy nugget: Little looks to be the best fantasy bet of the Browns' wideouts. Little, who caught 61 passes for 709 yards and a pair of scores as a rookie in 2011, could show improvement in his second NFL season and second year back on the field after sitting out the 2010 collegiate campaign. Fantasy owners taking a longer view also will want to keep an eye on talented rookie Josh Gordon, though how he takes to the pro game must be monitored.
Site: Saint Vincent College, Latrobe, Pa.
Report date: July 25 (rookies and veterans).
Key veteran arrivals: OLB Brandon Johnson, LS Matt Katula, TE Leonard Pope.
Key veteran departures: ILB James Farrior, CB William Gay, OG Chris Kemoeatu, OT Jamon Meredith, DE Aaron Smith, WR Hines Ward.
Juiciest story lines: The Steelers had a news-packed offseason by their standards. They shed some long-time stalwarts, notably WR Hines Ward, LB James Farrior and DE Aaron Smith. They changed offensive coordinators, replacing Bruce Arians with former Chiefs head coach Todd Haley. How Haley gets along with QB Ben Roethlisberger figures to be a consistent topic of speculation. Also, the Steelers endured some contract strife, with RFA WR Mike Wallace declining to sign his tender as he tries to garner a lucrative contract extension. On paper, though, the Steelers still look like strong contenders — assuming time doesn’t catch up with this veteran group.
Burning questions: If RB Rashard Mendenhall and NT Casey Hampton miss the beginning of the season as they each recover from ACL tears, can their replacements (Isaac Redman and Steve McLendon, respectively) perform well for sustained stretches? ... Can the Roethlisberger-Haley relationship work? ... Will the offense, an above-average group on paper, score more points? Pittsburgh was just 21st in that category in 2011. ... Can a revamped offensive line better protect Roethlisberger? ... Will the defense, which allowed the fewest yards and points a season ago, continue to play at an elite level — and can it force more turnovers? ... Can the secondary, which has struggled in playoff losses the last two seasons, step up on the postseason stage?
Fearless prediction: The Steelers’ point-scoring issues of a season ago don’t repeat themselves. This talented of an offense should expect to at least rank in the upper half of the NFL in points scored, and it would be a surprise if the Steelers didn’t light up the scoreboard a little more this season. Added punch on offense would make Pittsburgh all the more formidable, considering the strength of its experienced, physical defense.
Fantasy nugget: If Mendenhall misses the start of the season, Redman figures to get the bulk of the carries, but it's also reasonable to wonder if the biggest beneficary, from a fantasy perspective, will be Roethlisberger, who very well could go drafted as a backup in 10-team leagues (and perhaps 12-team formats, too). Roethlisberger offers excellent value if drafted as a No. 2 quarterback.