Can the Baltimore Ravens bounce back from a disappointing 2015 season? It will depend on how many of their injured players can recover fully from their injuries. Cleveland is in the midst of repairing ties that were severed by Jimmy Haslam's neglect of the team's alumni. The Steelers have had a long tradition of successfully passing the leadership torches from one generation to the next, and 2016 will be a huge test to see if this generation is up for the challenge.
Timmy Jernigan was drafted in the second round of the 2014 Draft. In his first two seasons Jernigan has posted a total of eight sacks. He also hasn't managed to make the jump that everyone, including himself, expected. He was given ample opportunity after the Ravens traded away Haloti Ngata to the Lions, but he still only managed to start six games last season.
Although Jernigan is disappointed, he isn't going to sit around and let himself have a repeat of last year. Jernigan and his coaches have been trying to pay close attention to the details during the offseason programs so far.
"We’re starting drills [and he says], ‘Timmy get up first, Timmy get up first,’" Jernigan told the team's official site of how Defensive Line Coach Joe Cullen is keeping him on his toes. "If he sees me even think about slacking, ‘Timmy tighten it up.’ I can’t even look down in the meeting at my shoe, ‘Eyes up Timmy.’ He’s on me, so I definitely like that about him. He’s going to get the best out of me."
Most of the team hasn't even put pads on yet (hint: only the rookies have, illegally) and it will be a matter of Jernigan continuing to maintain this amount of focus for an entire season. If he can't make the improvements necessary, he could soon find himself on the bench more often as the Ravens spent a fourth round pick on Willie Henry who plays the same position. Clearly the Ravens' message was as clear as Jernigan's message to himself, and he needs to improve.
Garrett Downing, Baltimore Ravens staff writer, opens up this video with a very reasonable and possibly over-looked issue. He talks about whether all the players the Ravens lost to injury last year will be able to return to the guys they were before their major injuries. He puts an emphasis on players like Steve Smith Sr. and Terrell Suggs, who are both over 30.
Often in sports, fans are either ignorant or spoiled from so many amazing recoveries from injuries to remember that the players are still human. Especially older players could have trouble returning to the state they were in prior to their injury. It wasn't that long ago Bengals saw a shell of Geno Atkins play in 2014 after he tore his ACL in 2013. Sometimes it takes players more than an offseason to get back to normal if they are fortunate enough to get back to that pre-injury point at all.
It was clear the Ravens weren't going to wait and see if Smith Sr. and Suggs could be the same players as they made it a point in the draft and free agency to create more depth at the receiving and pass rushing positions, but the Ravens would be a far better team with those two bouncing back, rather than relying on rookies and outside talent to fill their roles.
Jimmy Haslam has been one of the most hands-on owners since he bought the Browns in 2012. He hasn't just left a burial ground of failed coaches, draft busts, and disappointed fans in the wake of his meddling, he's also severed ties with many of the team's former players after reorganizing the alumni department.
"Alumni perks, such as complimentary game tickets and regular meeting places in the stadium were reduced initially under former CEO Joe Banner and then cut more sharply under former President Alec Scheiner," according to Tony Grossi of ESPN. "The alumni department was reorganized and suffered budget and personnel cutbacks."
The team also replaced one of their former great quarterbacks, Bernie Kosar, with Solomon Wilcots, a former Bengal, as the team's pre-season TV analyst, which rubbed many fans and former players the wrong way. Although you can make the very valid point that Kosar's performance merited the change.
The team recently gave Jim Brown the title of "special adviser." A move that was possibly due to Hue Jackson's efforts to not only reach out, but encourage these former players to be apart of this organization again. If it wasn't for Jackson being around, it's doubtful these changes would be coming about, but in any case, it's nice to see a team take care of it's former players once again... Even if they are the Browns.
Justin Gilbert probably owes a thanks to fellow 2014 first round Browns Draft pick, Johnny Manziel. Without Manziel, Gordo would be the most talked about failed draft pick on the team. Gilbert's poor play was easily overshadowed by Manziel's antics, quotes, and poor play, but Gilbert no longer has that luxury. He stands alone under the magnifying glass of a frustrated fan base looking for any positive sign from one of the worst first rounds in team history. Since the Browns selected Gilbert eighth overall in 2014, he hasn't done much to inspire confidence that he could ever reach his potential. Whether it was being late for meetings or having veterans calling him out publicly it hasn't been a secret that Gilbert isn't doing his part. Gilbert was a healthy scratch for quite a few games in 2015.
Many believe the tough love from veterans didn't help Gilbert, but we'll find out if that was actually the case as his new head coach has a history of having never-ending confidence in his players. Although he has been known to be brutally honest when necessary. Jackson and Ray Horton, defensive coordinator, have been adamant about this being a fresh start for Gilbert, but it is up to Gilbert to seize the opportunity. Otherwise, he may be looking for a fresh start on a new team soon.
Lost in the hype from Steelers fans surrounding the drafting of Artie Burns in the first round is that Burns still has to earn his spot, and that is something current starting corner, Ross Cockrell doesn't plan on giving away. Cockrell knows what it's like to be without a job in the NFL. He was cut by the Bills after only one season last year, but the Steelers picked him up and then re-signed him this offseason.
"(Coach Mike Tomlin) definitely took a leap of faith when he took me on," Cockrell told ESPN. "When you get released, you kind of go numb and can’t believe it’s happening. I took a night, kind of wallowed in it a bit. After that, I got excited, came out and just competed as hard as possible."
His drive showed as he started seven games for the Steelers last season. Still, he has a whole new challenge ahead of him as he will have to fight off the aforementioned Burns, Senquez Golson (a second round pick from last year who missed the 2015 season due to injury), and Doran Grant. Odds are, unless one of those young guys comes in playing out of their mind or Cockrell's play drops off, Cockrell will start at least a few games into the season to allow these young guys to settle in even more. From there, it is really up to Cockrell to perform well, but all it could take is one bad game to open the door for one of the young guns.
While Ben Roethlisberger is easily the most recognizable leader on the Steelers, it takes more than one guy to lead a team, especially on the defensive side of the ball, where the team is so young. The Steelers have a long tradition of grooming players to be leaders and currently, the Steelers are looking for a leader to replace James Harrison who is in a reserve role now and could be playing his last year in the NFL (though, we've been saying that for a few years, right?). This season is more of a dress rehearsal to see which young defensive player is ready to take on the role Harrison will likely leave behind after this season. Christopher Bondi of Behind The Steel Curtain offers up two players who can step into that role: Cameron Heyward and William Gay. Gay is the longest tenured secondary player, and has helped bring along a couple young corners the past couple of years. But, Heyward will likely take Harrison's torch when he leaves it behind.
He's rapidly emerged as the leader of the defense since being drafted in 2011. Heyward is also one of the most approachable players off the field, having been a recipient of "The Chief Award," which recognizes cooperation with the media. His leadership on the field speaks for itself, as evidenced by his 22 sacks in just five years playing as an end in a 3-4 defense.
Heyward has become the next in a long line of dominating defensive linemen for the Steelers, and it won't surprise anyone when he becomes the next great leader for Pittsburgh.