NFL training camp 2019: AFC North preview

The AFC North has been dominated by the Cincinnati Bengals, Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers for years, but this finally could be the year of the Cleveland Browns.

It is a division that has a new look all around, as the Browns and Ravens made some big offseason signings, the Bengals added a new head coach for the first time in 17 years and the Steelers moved on from two thirds of their 'Killer B' trio.

Here's the outlook for the AFC North heading into training camp:

Team on the rise

Cleveland Browns

The Browns had nowhere to go but up in 2018 after posting a winless record the previous season, but after going 7-8-1 last time out they could really take off in 2019.

One of the biggest stories this offseason was Cleveland's acquisition of wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. from the New York Giants. But the Browns didn't stop there and made a controversial decision to sign running back Kareem Hunt following his release from the Kansas City Chiefs after the emergence of a video appearing to show him in a violent altercation with a woman. Hunt is suspended for the first eight games of the 2019 campaign following an NFL investigation.

Among those returning for the Browns after helping turn around the team last season are Baker Mayfield, Jarvis Landry, Antonio Callaway and Nick Chubb, making the Browns not only the most intriguing team in the AFC North but also one of the most interesting ones in the entire NFL.

Team on the decline

Cincinnati Bengals

It's a new era in Cincinnati, which means the Bengals could be looking up from the bottom of the division for a year or two as they find their footing.

The team brought in first-time head coach Zac Taylor after parting ways with long-time coach Marvin Lewis, and the 36-year-old will face the tall task of helping the team rebound from their first last-place finish in the division since 2010 after the Browns held the position from 2011-17.

However, much of the team's turnaround will depend on the recovery of their offense after the Bengals lost quarterback Andy Dalton (thumb), wide receiver A.J. Green (toe) and tight end Tyler Eifert (ankle) to injuries last season.

Rookies to watch

Devin Bush, LB, Steelers: The Steel Curtain has been far from impenetrable since the team lost Ryan Shazier to a spine injury, so Pittsburgh traded up to take Michigan standout Bush 10th overall and he quickly made an impression on his team-mates during OTAs. Bush, who ran a 4.43-second 40-yard dash at the combine, had 172 tackles, 18.5 tackles for losses, 10 sacks and an interception in 32 games in his three seasons with the Wolverines.

Marquise Brown, WR, Ravens: The Ravens surprised many taking Brown with the 25th pick of the first round. The team doesn't have the best history drafting receivers, and Lamar Jackson carried much of the offensive load last season as he ranked 30th in rushing yards, joining Cam Newton (49th) as the only quarterbacks in the top 50. Still, Brown proved to be a valuable — and speedy — weapon as Kyler Murray's top target at Oklahoma, posting 75 catches for 1,318 yards and 10 touchdowns last season.

Player spotlight

Earl Thomas

After spending the first nine seasons of his career in Seattle, ex-Seahawk Thomas is in for an adjustment in 2019 with the Ravens, but that doesn't mean he isn't up for the challenge.

A key member of the "Legion of Boom" secondary and Seahawks defense that was among the NFL's stingiest for almost a decade, Thomas brings a level of intensity, determination and leadership that the Ravens defense has arguably lacked since Hall of Fame safety Ed Reed's retirement.

Imagine what Thomas brings to a defense that ranked first in yards allowed in 2018. His fire was only fuelled after he broke his leg last season, and he famously didn't hide his feelings from the Seahawks...

Expect to see that ferocity throughout this season, beginning Week 1 when he finally makes his return to the field.

Key injuries

James Conner, ankle: The Steelers running back broke out last season as he took on a larger role in the absence of Le'Veon Bell during his contract holdout, but an ankle injury limited Conner to just 13 games. With Bell gone, expect Conner's duties to be expanded - if he can stay healthy - as he looks to build on the 973 yards rushing and 12 touchdowns he had in 2018.

Andy Dalton, thumb: The Bengals quarterback went down with a thumb injury late in the season, landing on injured reserve on November 26, but threw for 2,566 yards and 21 touchdowns with 11 interceptions before being sidelined. Pairing his return to the field with Green and Tyler Eifert's comebacks will certainly give Cincinnati a boost.

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