AFC North: Baltimore Ravens

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Nose tackle Brandon Williams first showed off his freakish athleticism on video when he filmed himself walking on his hands at the Senior Bowl a couple of years ago. The 335-pound starting lineman from the Baltimore Ravens took it another level this week, when a 15-second clip of Williams dancing to Steve Aoki's "Boneless" went viral on social media.

Williams busted out some moves in an impromptu dance party inside the Ravens' locker room before a training camp practice. While the video included linebacker Terrell Suggs and defensive end Lawrence Guy, Williams was the one who stole the show with a performance that seemed to blend hip hop with a weird form of exercise. The fact he was able to do so in full pads made it even more impressive.

"It was the dog days of training camp, some music came on and you start getting hyped," Williams said. "You got to make it fun and you got to love what you do."

Williams said he knew it was being filmed by teammate Chris Canty, and it was going to get posted on social media. He didn't expect this type of response.

The video has been shared on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram more than 50,000 times. The Rockettes' official Twitter account retweeted Williams:

"I was watching the Rockettes since was I little kid on Christmas," Williams said. "So, I was like 'wow' when they tweeted me."


Williams said he doesn't have a name for the dance and is open for suggestions.


"I never knew me dancing and having fun around the locker room with Suggs and Lawrence Guy would be so crazy," Williams said.

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- During Sunday's training camp practice, Baltimore Ravens inside linebacker C.J. Mosley rushed to the line of scrimmage where he collided with rookie running back Buck Allen and wrapped him up before bringing him to the ground.

It's a play that Mosley made about 100 times last season. The only difference now is all eyes are on his surgically repaired left wrist.

The good news for the Ravens is Mosley showed no hesitation in the first full-contact practices of camp over the weekend.

C.J. MosleyPatrick Smith/Getty ImagesThe Ravens are banking on linebacker C.J. Mosley to improve in his second pro season.

"So far, everything is going smooth," Mosley said. "The timing of the injury -- everything is healing at the right time. I'm protecting it, but still going all out. So, everything is going well."

A first-round pick from a year ago, Mosley led all NFL first-year players in tackles and finished second to Rams tackle Aaron Donald for the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year award. He became the first Ravens player to reach the Pro Bowl in his rookie season.

His performance is more remarkable considering he played six games with a broken wrist last season. For the record, he played the most snaps of any Ravens player last season, sitting out just 15 defensive plays in the regular season.

"I feel 100 percent," Mosley said. "I have all the confidence I can have with it. It's healed now, so I don't have any excuses."

The challenge for Mosley has been maintaining his upper-body strength. He hasn't been able to lift as much weight as he has been able to in the past because his wrist was in a cast for three months.

Mosley, though, isn't known for engaging linemen and shedding blocks. He has a good knack for slipping past blockers to make the tackle, so his game isn't totally reliant on power.

"The good thing [is] I maintained my weight, if anything," Mosley said. "But like I said, [I was] just working back into it with my wrist and everything as far as staying on the field and lifting weights. I'm going to be smart about it, but I'm definitely trying to maintain weight."

There are high expectations for Mosley after a stellar rookie season. Known for his intelligence and instincts, Mosley was a force all over the field. He was the only NFL player last season with at least 125 tackles, three sacks and two interceptions.

"We're looking for C.J. to improve," coach John Harbaugh said. "Wherever you set the bar the year before, it's important to maintain a level head and improve and get better. If you're getting better every day, you certainly should get better between Year 1 and Year 2. I know sometimes guys who have [a] great Year 1 don't have [a] great Year Two -- don't follow it up -- but that should never be the case. If your head is screwed on the right way, you should have a better Year 2, and I believe C.J.'s head is screwed on the right way."

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- The largest and fiercest competition on the Baltimore Ravens' roster is at wide receiver. The Ravens are carrying 12 wide receivers right now, and only half are expected to make it when rosters are cut down to 53 players Sept. 5.

It's a battle among some of the youngest players on the team. Outside of Steve Smith, none of the other receivers are older than 26.

Kamar AikenBrad Barr/USA TODAY SportsKamar Aiken, who caught three touchdowns last season for Baltimore, was impressive Saturday during training camp among a large group of Ravens receivers.

Kamar Aiken and Jeremy Butler separated themselves from the others during Saturday's practice. Both took advantage of increased reps due to the absences of Breshad Perriman (knee) and Marlon Brown (undisclosed).

Aiken made difficult grabs on two Matt Schaub passes that sailed behind him while running across the middle. Butler made another one-handed reception (the second straight day he's done so), and he pulled in a nice sideline catch from Schaub.

"There have been some tremendous plays out there each and every day," Ravens offensive coordinator Marc Trestman said. "There’s really some tremendous competition outside of Steve [Smith], and everybody will be given a position -- for most of these guys -- to have a chance to work with Joe [Flacco]. We’re moving people around, and those guys continue to move forward and have good days, and they get another opportunity, and we just see how it all unfolds as we move through camp and the preseason games.”

The Ravens' receiving group is composed of one Pro Bowl player (Smith), two rookie draft picks (Perriman and Darren Waller), two returning backups (Brown and Michael Campanaro), two veterans who previously played elsewhere in the league (Aiken and Aldrick Robinson), two undrafted rookies (DeAndre Carter and Daniel Brown), one first-year player coming off injured reserve (Butler) and two converted receivers (Tom Nelson was a safety and Trent Steelman was a college quarterback).

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Steve Smith Sr. and coach John Harbaugh have talked about reducing the wide receiver's snaps to keep him fresher throughout the Baltimore Ravens' regular season.

He's 36 years old. He's entering his 15th season. And his numbers declined in the second half of last season.

Cutting the amount of time Smith is on the field makes sense in theory, but ...

"I think it's going to be hard for both of us to do that," Smith said Friday.

Why?

"Because we're both competitors and we both want to win," Smith added.

In his first season with the Ravens, Smith was one of the most valuable players on the team. In the Ravens' 10 wins, he averaged 79.1 yards receiving and scored five touchdowns. In Baltimore's six losses, he averaged 45.6 yards and was held to one touchdown.

Steve SmithTommy Gilligan/Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY SportsRavens receiver Steve Smith isn't worried about his stats dipping in the second half of last season -- he just wants to get out and play to win.

But his productivity dipped in the last eight games, when he managed 390 yards (53rd in the league). Still, Smith finished as the Ravens' leader in receptions (79) and receiving yards (1,065).

"Steve and I have talked about how many reps he's going to play," Harbaugh said. "We'll probably know by the end of preseason how we feel about that, but sometimes you get to a game and you kind of need a guy in the end to make a play. I'm really hoping that we have enough guys who we like who we can roll receivers through there and play all those guys. I think we're deep, and if we turn out to be deep -- like we hope we are -- then all those guys will play.”

In fact, Smith can see his role expanding for the Ravens. Baltimore hasn't replaced Jacoby Jones at returner, and Smith has fielded punts the first two days of training camp.

He was the Carolina Panthers' primary punt returner for four seasons, averaging 9.3 yards per return and scoring four touchdowns. But he hasn't run back a punt in a regular-season game since 2010.

"My returning days is based on blocking. That's what took me off of it," Smith said. "The blocking wasn't where it used to be. It's kind of like going to a job that can't pay but they want you to work."

Smith said he "absolutely" wants to return punts for the Ravens, and Harbaugh is fine with that because it's an opportunity to put one of his best players in space. Harbaugh, though, doesn't want to gas Smith, who needs to play offense after returning the punt.

"We'll figure it out," Smith said. "I think I will do it at least once or twice. I'm excited about doing it."

Smith doesn't act his age in camp. He's constantly moving as soon as he gets on the field. In between plays, Smith is off to the side where he is stretching, running or talking to someone.

It's going to be hard to slow him down because he practices and plays like a man on a mission.

"I've always been about winning," Smith said. "If we're not winning, I'm not happy. It pisses me off. That's what drives me."

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh delivered the biggest compliment to Marshal Yanda in what has been an offseason of high praise for the right guard.

"He's just a special human being and a special player," Harbaugh said before adding, "and he's a Hall of Famer some day."

This shows the amount of respect Harbaugh has for Yanda. Whether Yanda actually receives a bust in Canton, Ohio, will likely be determined by how he plays over the next five to six seasons.

Marshal YandaPatrick Semansky/APMarshal Yanda is not only the best offensive lineman on the Ravens' roster, he's also one of the best in the league.

In looking at the Hall of Fame voting in recent years, guards need to reach double-digit Pro Bowls to get into the conversation. Since 2007, five guards have been voted into the Hall of Fame and four of them have gone to 10 or more Pro Bowls (Bruce Matthews, Randall McDaniel, Larry Allen and Will Shields). The only exception was in 2010, when Russ Grimm was inducted despite only four Pro Bowl appearances.

Yanda has been named to four Pro Bowls, but he's playing as well as he's ever played at the age of 30.

Grantland recently called Yanda as the best offensive lineman in the game. Pro Football Focus ranked Yanda as the fifth-best player in the NFL.

"Obviously, I take pride in working hard and being the best player I can be, but I'm more worried about the football team and us as an offensive line and us as an offense more than that," Yanda said. "You just go out here and do your job every day to the best of your ability, and you try to be great. I'm not going to lie; I come out here, and I want to be great in everything I do. So, you just work your tail off and you hope that happens."

Yanda is known as a dominating run blocker. There have been times when he has shoved three defenders on one play to single-handedly open a hole. He's also a top-notch pass protector, allowing four sacks over his past three seasons.

"This is at the highest level, and he's one of the best guys out there in the league," quarterback Joe Flacco said. "The physicality that he brings to the game, it's kind of weird to say, because that's all playing offensive line is, but he obviously just takes it up to another level."

Yanda grew up on an Iowa pig farm, and his straggly beard makes him look more like a member of "Duck Dynasty" than one of the better offensive lines in the league. Still, he's gone from being the 10th offensive lineman drafted in 2007 to becoming one of the best in the league.

"He's a special player; he's a leader, a hard-working guy," running back Justin Forsett said. "He just goes about his business the way a pro is supposed to, and [I'm] fortunate enough to run behind him. I've played behind a guy named Walter Jones, and [Jones'] work ethic was very similar to [Yanda]."

Jones, incidentally, reached the Hall of Fame in 2014.

The Baltimore Ravens aren't expected to pursue Reggie Wayne even though there's a report linking the team to the former Indianapolis Colts wide receiver on Monday.

Team officials don't consider wide receiver to be a pressing need entering training camp, and they don't want to push down younger receivers such as Breshad Perriman, Kamar Aiken, Marlon Brown or Michael Campanaro on the depth chart.

Plus, Wayne doesn't seem to be a good fit at this stage of his career. He is going to turn 37 during the season, and the Ravens already have a 36-year-old Steve Smith. Wayne has had three surgeries (anterior cruciate ligament, triceps and knee scope) over the past two seasons. And he wouldn't add any speed to a team that has enough possession receivers.

It's easy to see why the Ravens would be a popular candidate for Wayne. General manager Ozzie Newsome has a strong history with acquiring veteran receivers such as Derrick Mason, Anquan Boldin, Lee Evans and Steve Smith. He's also signed former Colts castoffs such as Dallas Clark and Brandon Stokley.

But it just doesn't make much sense for the Ravens to add Wayne, whose 64 catches last season were his fewest in a full season since 2003.

The Ravens are also not expected to show interest in wide receiver-returner Ace Sanders, who was cut on Friday. Even though Baltimore doesn't have an established returner to replace Jacoby Jones, Sanders wasn't an impressive running back kicks for the Jaguars. In his two NFL seasons, Sanders ranked 35th in the league with a 7.1-yard punt return average.

NFL Nation reporter Jamison Hensley assesses which Ravens rookies could earn a starting berth this season.

[+] EnlargeBreshad Perriman, Baltimore Ravens
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesThe Ravens will need someone to step in as the deep threat this season, and that receiver could be rookie Breshad Perriman.

Why Breshad Perriman could start: The biggest reason Perriman will be given a chance to start immediately is he's the only Baltimore wide receiver outside of Steve Smith Sr. who can score a touchdown any time he touches the ball. There's a possibility the Ravens will begin the season by starting Kamar Aiken or Marlon Brown. But this would happen only if the Ravens don't want to put too much pressure on Perriman, or if the first-round pick doesn't progress as expected this summer. The Ravens used the No. 26 overall pick on Perriman because they needed someone who can replace Torrey Smith's role as a deep threat. At Central Florida last season, Perriman averaged 20.9 yards per catch and 33.1 yards per touchdown. He caught a touchdown in seven straight games. His size (6-foot-2, 212 pounds) and speed (4.25 seconds in the 40-yard dash at his pro day) make him a potential No. 1 receiver. There are concerns about Perriman's hands and his consistency. Still, his speed is the perfect complement to QB Joe Flacco's strong arm. It would be extremely surprising if Perriman doesn't find a spot in the starting lineup at some point this season.

Why Maxx Williams could start: Williams' role in the Ravens' offense should come with an asterisk. It all depends on the health of tight end Dennis Pitta. If Pitta can't play this season or is limited because of issues with his hip, Williams becomes a bigger factor in Baltimore's passing attack. The Ravens traded up in the second round in order to get Williams, the draft's best insurance policy at tight end. Beyond Pitta, the only experienced tight end on the roster is Crockett Gillmore, who had 10 catches as a rookie last season. It was essential for the Ravens to get a dependable pass-catching tight end like Williams. Even if Pitta does play at some point this season, there will be a role for Williams. He is a rising playmaker who can stretch the field more than any other Baltimore tight end. Last season, 77.7 percent of his receptions at Minnesota (28 of 36) resulted in a first down or a touchdown. Williams led all college tight ends with nine catches of 25 yards or more. The Ravens have relied on second-round picks to make an impact immediately in recent years. Since 2011, three second-rounders (wide receiver Torrey Smith, outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw and offensive lineman Kelechi Osemele) started eight-plus games as rookies. There's a chance Williams will add his name to that list in 2015.

Baltimore Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome suggested to Steve Smith that the wide receiver should take some time in the offseason before deciding whether he wanted to play a 15th NFL season.

In Smith's mind, there were no thoughts about walking away from the game.

"I left [the Ravens' facility] here knowing what my plans were, and my family knew what the plans were," he said.

At age 36, Smith shows how much he loves the game in everything he does. He attended the Ravens' first voluntary organized team activities when many veterans chose not to show up. He reported in excellent shape and made a couple of leaping catches, including a one-handed one, over the middle.

It takes a special player to last this long in the NFL and continue to perform at a high level. Only three players (Jerry Rice, Jimmy Smith and Joey Galloway) have topped 1,000 yards receiving in a season at 36 or older, and Steve Smith would become the first to accomplish this since 2007, according to ESPN Stats & Information, if he can do so this season.

"I think age is a number," Smith said. "Right now, I feel good and I’m playing well, so I think 36 is good.”

One reason Smith has excelled for so long is his attitude and energy level. He's carried a chip on his shoulder throughout his career, whether it was because of his size (5-foot-9) or the fact he wasn't drafted until the third round.

Smith practices at a different intensity level than most players, and it took his Ravens teammates a year to adjust to that. Now, he's a tone-setter. Quarterback Joe Flacco said Smith's presence at OTAs pushes everyone to work hard.

"He’s one of the guys that everybody kind of looks at and says, ‘OK, how is Steve doing on this play?’ And they feed off of that and learn how to practice," Flacco said. "So, any time you can get guys out here of his nature, it does things for the whole team, just because all the young guys learn from it.”

Smith, who is 10 years older than any of the Ravens' other receivers, does have an endgame in mind. He is in the second year of a three-year contract with the Ravens, and it's possible he could retire after the 2016 season.

[+] EnlargeSteve Smith
Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesAt age 36, Ravens wide receiver Steve Smith isn't worried about questions regarding his age.

All he knows is he's not going to compete with the longevity of a certain Hall of Fame receiver.

“Jerry Rice is, obviously, the greatest wide receiver to ever play, and I really don’t have the family structure to chase 40, to be honest," Smith said. "I have a lot of things on my ‘to do’ list that don’t have to do anything with football. So, I’m going to take it day by day, but I will not be playing until I’m 40.”

The challenge for Smith this season is consistency. Last season, he was among the top receivers in the NFL for the first eight games, totaling 675 yards receiving (seventh most in the NFL). He didn't sustain that level of productivity in the last eight games, putting up 390 yards (53rd in the league). Ravens coach John Harbaugh mentioned at the end of the season that the team might want to lessen Smith's snaps to save on his wear and tear.

Still, Smith led the Ravens in receiving with 1,065 yards, which was 298 more than any other player on the team.

"Yes, I’m 36, and I remember last year when I signed here [the media were not] expecting anything from a 35-year-old," Smith said. "Now, [the media have] to pick on me, because I’m 36. I’m just going to play football and practice. I think I look halfway decent. I think there are teams that probably [are] drafting wide receivers hoping that they can get a guy fresh out of a college [who is] able to put up 1,000 yards [like] I did at 35."

So, when did Smith start hearing questions about his age?

“Probably after the height questions stopped," he said.

Wide receiver Michael Campanaro injured his quadriceps during the Baltimore Ravens' first organized team activity of the year, according to The Baltimore Sun.

Wednesday's OTA was closed to reporters, and a Ravens spokesman said the team will not give any reports from the workout. The severity of the injury is unknown, The Sun reported.

Campanaro is considered one of the leading candidates to return kicks for the Ravens, although the Ravens have been noncommittal in naming Jacoby Jones' successor. One reason is the Ravens want Campanaro to prove he can stay healthy before relying on him for a significant role. So, it's not a good sign that he couldn't get past the first day of OTAs.

Other options for the Ravens in the return game include undrafted rookie DeAndre Carter, cornerbacks Asa Jackson and Lardarius Webb and wide receiver Breshad Perriman.

Last year, Campanaro was limited in OTAs because of a hamstring injury and missed seven of the last eight regular-season games because of another hamstring issue. When he was healthy, Campanaro showed flashes as a slot receiver and finished with seven catches for 102 yards and one touchdown as a rookie. In the divisional playoff loss at New England, he caught all three passes thrown his way for 39 yards.

Campanaro is expected to compete against Marlon Brown and Kamar Aiken for the No. 3 wide receiver spot.

This injury is the latest setback for a player who had durability issues coming out of Wake Forest because of his small build. The Ravens wanted Campanaro so much late in the 2014 draft that they traded a 2015 sixth-round pick to Cleveland in order to acquire the Browns' seventh-round selection, which they used to take Campanaro. A hometown product, Campanaro played high school football at River Hill in Columbia, Maryland, which is 23 miles from M&T Bank Stadium.

The Baltimore Ravens made a couple of moves involving undrafted linebackers on Wednesday, cutting Alabama's Trey DePriest and re-signing Rhode Island's Andrew Bose.

Bose returns to the Ravens after being waived to make room for cornerback Kyle Arrington just 13 days ago. He was initially signed by the Ravens on May 12 after a tryout during rookie minicamp.

A three-year starter at Rhode Island, Bose finished with 295 tackles in his career, including 125 last season. He also had 4.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and one interception last year.

DePriest was a first-team All-SEC linebacker who was considered a hard-hitter but had limited range.

The other 15 undrafted rookies still on the Ravens' 90-man roster: OL Darryl Baldwin, OLB Brennen Beyer, WR Daniel Brown, G Leon Brown, WR DeAndre Carter, OL Blaine Clausell, OL Nick Easton, OL Kaleb Johnson, QB Jerry Lovelocke, RB Terrence Magee, P/K Justin Manton, S Nick Perry, OL De'Ondre Wesley, WR Cam Worthy, CB Julian Wilson (injured).

The Baltimore Ravens have been one of the winningest NFL franchises over the last decade, but they apparently don't look very good while doing it.

According to ESPN's Uni Watch rankings, the Ravens remain one of the worst-dressed teams in the NFL, coming in at No. 23 out of 32 teams.

This is traditionally where the Ravens land in theses uniform rankings, whether it's ESPN or another media outlet. Criticism generally ranges from the purple-black combination, the number design and the bird head logo on the helmet (which is still a step up from the "Flying B" logo in the team's early days).

The Ravens improved one spot from last year's ESPN rankings, but you get the feeling that was simply the result of poor decisions by Washington (continued use of the Redskins logo) and Tampa Bay (awful redesign).

Here is what Paul Lukas of Uni Watch had to say about the Ravens' game-day look:

"OK, we get it -- ravens are black, so this is the rare team whose use of black doesn't feel gratuitous. But that doesn't mean they couldn't scale it back a little. The black pants could use some stripes, and they'd be better if they were paired with non-black socks (which the team used to have, once upon a time) to avoid the leotard effect. On the plus side, here's a detail worth noting: The gold trim on the numbers is a really nice accent."

From my perspective, the Ravens' different uniform combinations vary greatly. The best looks are the purple jersey with white pants (the traditional home combination) and the white jersey with black pants (which should be the team's go-to away look). The worst combination is the purple jersey with black pants, which conjures up the bad memories of Vinny Testaverde and the bad Ravens teams in 1996 and 1997.

If Ravens are ticked off about this ranking, it only gets worse. The Pittsburgh Steelers are considered to have the best uniform and the Indianapolis Colts (aka, the uniform that got away) are No. 9.

Baltimore Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome was asked Tuesday night about the team's interest in recently released cornerback Kyle Arrington.

"There are a lot of players available right now that I have been on the phone talking to representatives of," Newsome said in a conference call with season-ticket holders.

Newsome rarely gives out much information when talking about the team's plans, but there's a little intrigue at this point. Newsome and coach John Harbaugh both acknowledged the interest to add another cornerback, and the top target is clearly Arrington (pictured) after he was surprisingly released by the New England Patriots on Monday.

In terms of the free agents available, it's Arrington and there's everyone else. He's a tough cover man who is strong in run support and on special teams. Arrington can fill the void at nickelback and serve as quality insurance if Jimmy Smith or Lardarius Webb get injured.

The other viable options are Tarell Brown, a four-year starter for the Raiders and 49ers who is coming off season-ending foot injury, and Carlos Rogers, a 33-year-old defender who was limited to seven games last season because of a knee injury. The Ravens can also bring back the likes of Antoine Cason or Danny Gorrer.

No one is suggesting Arrington is a Pro Bowl cornerback, but he might as well be viewed that way when looking at the alternatives. For that reason, Arrington isn't going to come cheap. He's going to want to get as close to that $3 million that he was originally scheduled to earn this year with New England. Every cornerback-needy team is going to pursue Arrington, and there is still a chance Arrington will return to the Patriots on a cheaper deal, according to ESPN Patriots reporter Mike Reiss.

The Ravens have the cap room to sign Arrington. When Baltimore signed Smith to a four-year, $48 million extension last month, the Ravens reduced Smith's cap number by $3.2 million. The Ravens should use a chunk of that space to get a tested veteran like Arrington.

Cornerback was the weak link last season, and it remains the biggest concern right now. Free agents such as Perrish Cox and Cary Williams -- whose deals averaged over $5 million per season -- were too expensive. Top draft picks such as Kevin Johnson and Marcus Peters didn't fall to the Ravens in the first round.

The Ravens drafted Texas Southern's Tray Walker in the fourth round, but it's unknown how much impact he can provide as a rookie. Baltimore understands the need for experienced depth at that position. When the Ravens won the Super Bowl in 2012, they were able to withstand the season-ending knee injury to Webb because they still had Williams, Smith and Corey Graham.

Right now, the Ravens have Smith, Webb and some question marks. The hope is for Asa Jackson or Rashaan Melvin to step into the nickelback role, but there are no guarantees of that happening.

It's clear the Ravens need Arrington. It's just a matter of whether they can make it happen.

"We are still looking for defensive backs," Harbaugh said. "There's no doubt about it. We want to add some competition in there. Ozzie is working on that right now. Ozzie has said, 'We're not finished there.'"

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Stingy defense has long been a hallmark of teams in the AFC North.

Last season, though, three of the division's teams were in the lower half of the league's total defensive rankings, allowing an average of 350 yards or more per game. The Pittsburgh Steelers (18th), Cincinnati Bengals (22nd) and Cleveland Browns (23rd) claimed the undesirable honors. Only the Baltimore Ravens, at eighth, ranked among the league's best defensively.

Those rankings were a sharp departure from the year before, when all four teams ranged from third (Cincinnati) to 13th (Pittsburgh) in total defense.

As nearly the entire division tries to reinvent itself defensively this season, which team (of the three subpar defenses from last year) has the best chance of seeing a turnaround in 2015 that could put it in the top 10? ESPN AFC North reporters made their picks:

[+] EnlargeMichael Johnson
Tom Szczerbowski/Getty ImagesMichael Johnson's return makes the Bengals' defense a strong candidate to return to prominence in the AFC North.

Coley Harvey, Bengals reporter: This seems like a no-brainer. Between the Steelers, Browns and Bengals, Cincinnati's defense has the best chance to make the jump back into the top 10. That's mainly because for so long the Bengals were already there. Remember, they had a top-10 defensive unit for several seasons before a change at coordinator ushered in transition last year. Under former defensive coordinator (and current Minnesota Vikings head coach) Mike Zimmer, the Bengals were seventh, sixth and third in total defense in 2011, 2012 and 2013. While it's easy to pin last year's 22nd ranking on Paul Guenther, who was in his first season as a coordinator, the Bengals' drop-off was the product of a few other factors. They had injuries at key linebacker positions and had trouble replacing one of their top pass-rushers, who bolted in free agency the prior offseason. This year, they anticipate being back at full health throughout the secondary, and that pass-rusher, defensive end Michael Johnson, is back. Unlike the Browns and Steelers, who have to replace veterans at multiple positions this season, the Bengals have to fill only one spot: the left corner position vacated by 36-year-old Terence Newman. Cincinnati has the best chance to be dramatically better defensively this season.

Jamison Hensley, Ravens reporter: Cleveland's defense is ready to reach new heights, and it has nothing to do with the way Danny Shelton lifted up Roger Goodell on draft day. The Browns have the potential to field one of the best secondaries in the league. Three starting defensive backs (Joe Haden, Donte Whitner and Tashaun Gipson) are back after making the Pro Bowl in 2014. This secondary will be better if free agent Tramon Williams lives up to his contract ($7 million per season) and Justin Gilbert matures after being a disappointing top-10 pick. The sore spots last season were the Browns' run defense and pass rush. That's why the Browns used the No. 12 overall pick on Shelton, a nose tackle, and a second-round pick on outside linebacker Nate Orchard. The Browns produced 31 sacks last year , and Orchard and Shelton combined for 27.5 sacks last season. The improvement on defense doesn't mean the Browns will win more than a handful of games. The Browns are hamstrung by an offense that lacks a quarterback and playmakers. But the Browns wisely invested in their defense in free agency and the draft, and that will propel Cleveland back into the top 10.

Pat McManamon, Browns reporter: Being from Cleveland, it would be nice to say the Browns here. Their secondary is sound, they invested heavily in the defensive line in the draft and free agency, and they added linebacker Nate Orchard to go with Barkevious Mingo, Paul Kruger, Karlos Dansby and Craig Robertson. That's a good place to start. The problem is that the Browns ranked 32nd against the run last season with a defense that was much like this one. Until the Browns actually stop the run, they can't be considered top-10. Pittsburgh is going through transition, from Dick LeBeau to Keith Butler. From Troy Polamalu to Mike Mitchell. From a stellar linebacking crew to young guys who are developing (Bud Dupree, Ryan Shazier and Jarvis Jones). That's a lot of change for any group. Which leaves Cincinnati as the last team standing -- and the most logical choice to improve. The Bengals re-signed Michael Johnson after the Tampa Bay Buccaneers released him. That fortifies a line that includes Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap and Domata Peko. Vontaze Burfict is a force, and the Bengals as a unit got better as the 2014 season went on -- a natural occurrence after the departure of Mike Zimmer to become Vikings coach. In the first half of the season, the Bengals gave up 23.8 first downs, 357.4 yards and 23.4 points per game. In the second half, the numbers dropped to 18.4 first downs, 323.4 yards and 19.6 points per game. With Atkins one more year removed from ACL surgery, the addition of Johnson and the players as a whole becoming more comfortable with coordinator Paul Guenther, Cincinnati will be the team that jumps back into the top 10.

If you like it when the Baltimore Ravens are the underdogs, you probably should stop reading right now. The Ravens continue to be the trendy pick this offseason to win the AFC North.

Football Outsiders selected the Ravens to win the division in its unofficial projectionsInsider Monday, which comes a week after the online sports gambling website Bovada made Baltimore the favorite in the AFC North.

The Ravens are predicted by Football Outsiders to finish 9-7, which would edge the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals by one game. The Cleveland Browns are expected to end up in their usual spot at the bottom of the standings with a 5-11 record.

Football Outsiders came up with these projections by starting with its Defense-adjusted Value Over Average and then accounted for last year's injury numbers, major free-agent moves and a few other indicators.

This projection falls in line with what many analysts are thinking. The AFC North should once again come down to a close race between the Ravens, Steelers and Bengals. Baltimore is now a popular choice for good reason. The Ravens had arguably the best draft in the division (some of my colleagues would disagree), and they finished one game behind the division champion Steelers despite a bad run of injuries at cornerback.

If the Ravens can get production from their top two rookies (wide receiver Breshad Perriman and tight end Maxx Williams) and stay healthy at cornerback, Baltimore should be regarded as the team to beat in the AFC North. The Steelers are going through a transition on defense, and the Bengals still have erratic Andy Dalton at quarterback.

In taking Football Outsiders' projections one step further, the Ravens would play host to the New England Patriots in the first round of the playoffs. Football Outsiders has the Miami Dolphins winning the AFC East if Tom Brady is suspended multiple games. This would mark the first time the Ravens would play a postseason game against the Patriots in Baltimore, where I'm fairly certain the pressure of the footballs will be checked thoroughly.

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