In open AFC North, it's anyone's game

Ralph N. Paulk
| Saturday, July 19, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

The AFC North appears as balanced as perhaps it ever has been. The Steelers' back-to-back 8-8 seasons and the Baltimore Ravens' post-Super Bowl championship slide allowed Cincinnati and Cleveland to narrow the competitive gap.

The Ravens and Steelers may have rebooted through free agency with key offseason acquisitions. The Bengals and Browns used the first round of the draft to bolster their rosters with the additions of cornerback Darqueze Dennard and quarterback Johnny Manziel, respectively.

Here is a look at the AFC North heading into training camp.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Key additions: The Steelers may have strengthened their defense with rookie linebacker Ryan Shazier and free agent safety Mike Mitchell. Both come with reputations as sure tacklers, which is needed on a defense that slipped from ranking second against the run in 2012 to 21st in 2013.

Biggest loss: WR Emmanuel Sanders' departure could hurt if second-year receiver Markus Wheaton and free agent Lance Moore fail to complement Pro Bowl receiver Antonio Brown.

Biggest camp battle: DT Cam Thomas opted for Pittsburgh during free agency because he knew there was a job open. He is slated to play defensive end but could battle Steve McLendon at nose tackle as well.

Baltimore Ravens

Key additions: WR Steve Smith adds swagger to an offense that was up and down in 2013. The veteran will keep the heat off Torrey Smith, who drew double coverage with the loss of Anquan Boldin.

Biggest loss: With OT Michael Oher no longer protecting quarterback Joe Flacco's blind side, the Ravens could be challenged in the passing game, especially if troubled running back Ray Rice can't put the offense in workable third-down situations.

Biggest camp battle: OT Rick Wagner has been penciled in as the starter at right tackle, but Jah Reid and Ryan Jensen are expected to push him during training camp. It's one of the few unsettled positions on a revamped roster.

Cincinnati Bengals

Key additions: CB Darqueze Dennard, a first-round pick, has the potential to be a shutdown corner. He adds immediate help to an already impressive secondary that ranked fifth in pass defense and netted 20 interceptions last season.

Biggest loss: It was somewhat surprising that the Bengals allowed offensive linemen Anthony Collins and Kyle Cook to find employment elsewhere during free agency. Now they're rebuilding an offensive line to protect an oft-erratic Andy Dalton.

Biggest camp battle: Offensive coordinator Hue Jackson already has promoted second-round pick Jeremy Hill ahead of veteran BenJarvus Green-Ellis as the feature RB. No one should be sleeping on the explosive Giovani Bernard.

Cleveland Browns

Key additions: Johnny Manziel and RB Ben Tate are obvious upgrades for an offense that was sluggish in 2013. Manziel's mobility and surprisingly strong arm will bring the offense a different look.

Biggest loss: Donte Whitner might be the answer at strong safety, but T.J. Ward was a proven stopper against the run. With an inconsistent front seven ahead of him, Whitner will be under fire.

Biggest camp battle: QB Brian Hoyer is listed as the starter on the depth chart, but the Browns didn't draft Manziel to boost attendance and hold a clipboard. Hoyer's body of work as a starter is too incomplete to count out Manziel.

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