Eight in the Box: Biggest questions

June, 14, 2013
6/14/13
12:00
PM ET
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

The major question facing each team in the AFC North as summer break looms:

Baltimore Ravens: How do the Ravens replace the leadership void left by Ray Lewis and Ed Reed? Leadership has never been a problem in the Ravens' entire existence. This was Lewis' team for 17 years, and Reed was a major influence in the locker room for the past decade. With Lewis retired and Reed on the Houston Texans, the Ravens need to prove they can move on. Don't expect one player to step up and become a polarizing leader like Lewis. It will likely be leadership-by-committee for now. Linebacker Terrell Suggs has to become the voice of the defense, and running back Ray Rice has to be the vocal leader for the offense. Quarterback Joe Flacco, who has become the new face of the franchise, is expected to lead through his take-charge attitude.

Cincinnati Bengals: Who is the starting center? There will be other position battles for the Bengals. Cincinnati will find out in training camp who will take over spots at No. 2 receiver and strong safety. But the most important competition is on the offensive line. Trevor Robinson and Kyle Cook both started games for Cincinnati at center. And the offensive line surprisingly played better with Robinson, an undrafted rookie last season, than Cook, a four-year starter. The Bengals have the two best offensive tackles in the division in Andrew Whitworth and Andre Smith. Right guard Kevin Zeitler looks like a future Pro Bowl player. To elevate this line to another level, Cincinnati needs either Robinson or Cook to take control of center spot.

Cleveland Browns: Can running back Trent Richardson stay healthy? The Browns and Richardson have downplayed the latest injury, a pulled muscle in his shin. And, honestly, many concerns will be quelled if Richardson is taking handoffs when training camp opens in late July. But, based on Richardson's history (knee, ribs, ankle and now shin) over his 14-month NFL career, it's valid to wonder if Richardson will ever play at full strength. There are certainly other questions for the Browns: inside linebacker, cornerback and free safety. Still, none of those issues will impact the Browns more than Richardson's ability to break long runs and punch the ball in the end zone. Perhaps the Browns should reconsider their stance on Pro Bowl fullback Vonta Leach, who would make a great lead blocker/bodyguard for Richardson.

Pittsburgh Steelers: When will tight end Heath Miller return? Many assume Miller will be ready for the regular season, or at least not miss any significant time, because the Steelers didn't take a tight end in the draft or sign a pass-catching one in free agency. That's just speculation at this point because team officials won't give a timetable and Miller was vague about a return date when asked about his recovery from ACL surgery last month. Miller did say there's a "chance" he could play in the Sept. 8 season opener against the Tennessee Titans. Miller led the Steelers with 71 receptions last season and tied for the team lead with eight touchdowns. The departure of No. 1 receiver Mike Wallace to the Miami Dolphins only increased the need to get Miller back as quickly as possible.

Jamison Hensley

ESPN Ravens reporter

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