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NFL Key Performance Indicators: AFC North

Is Joe Flacco healthy? Is Ben Roethlisberger healthy? What fans of the Baltimore Ravens, the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Cleveland Browns, and the Cincinnati Bengals should watch for in training camp.

by Ty Schalter
Jul 19 2016, 2:33pm

Photo by Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Every spring, every NFL team looks to get better: they draft rookies, they sign free agents, they let underperforming players go. But when teams aren't being put to the test against each other, how can we know if they're really improving? Throughout July, VICE Sports will be identifying Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) for each squad: the things fans should be watching in August for hints about how their teams might perform come kickoff time.

CLEVELAND BROWNS

The Browns followed up a surprise 7-9 performance in 2014 with a surprise 3-13 pratfall last season, and the resultant house-cleaning evicted the entire leadership structure, coaching staff, and many of the team's best players. Sashi Brown was promoted from the team's legal staff to run the football operations; he hired head coach Hue Jackson to handle the on-field implementation of the organization-wide strategy. That strategy? Start with a clean slate, and a lot of youngsters.

Read More: Key Performance Indicators for the NFC North

For the inside perspective on the Browns' KPIs, VICE Sports reached out to Brady Quinn, FOX Sports analyst, Ohio native, and former Browns first-round draft pick.

Consistency Under Center: "This is an easy one, right?" Quinn asked rhetorically about the starting-quarterback battle between Robert Griffin III and holdover Josh McCown. "The Browns haven't had a quarterback since 1999," Quinn noted, and they failed to draft one this year until the 93rd overall pick, which means that Griffin is likely set up to win the competition and be the starter for the foreseeable future. Whether he makes it, Quinn says, comes down to "consistency." Is Griffin putting in the work to get better every day, or does he fall back on old, bad habits? Fans should be watching if Griffin is slow to read the field, hesitant to let the ball go, and struggling to manage the pocket.

How Many Rookies Make the Team: "The team isn't filled with enough talent to be able to compete against its own division; that's the bottom line," Quinn said. The receiver corps, in particular, is underpowered without the services of suspended No. 1 wideout Josh Gordon or free-agent flameout Dwayne Bowe. That's why Brown turned in four draft cards with receivers' names on them. But with veteran Andrew Hawkins and quarterback-conversion project Terrelle Pryor still on the roster, plus youngsters Taylor Gabriel and Marlon Moore, Quinn says, "you have four guys who've been drafted fighting for two or three spots." Whether more veteran or rookie receivers get cut could be an early sign of simpatico (or lack thereof) among the Browns' decision-makers.

Terrelle Pryor is one of many receivers battling for spots at camp. Photo by Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Cam Erving's Maturation: "If you don't know what you're doing," Quinn said, "that's going to impact you getting beat physically. I think [Erving] lacked strength, I think he lacked a solid foundation." The Browns' versatile, talented 2015 first-round pick needs to figure out his footwork, technique, and leverage quickly if he's going to replace departed Pro Bowler Alex Mack.

BALTIMORE RAVENS

Last season was The Darkest Timeline for the Ravens. Pro Bowl quarterback Joe Flacco headlined a wave of critical injuries that, combined with a brutal schedule, hobbled the perennially contending Ravens. Last season's 5-11 finish, an influx of big-named veterans, and an emptied-out trainers' room set the table for a promising 2016. Can Flacco and the Ravens bounce back into AFC title contention?

Flacco's Participation: Flacco's health, workload, and performance are unknowns as he recovers from his first ACL tear; ESPN's Jamison Crowder reports Flacco will be on the field at the outset of camp—but how much he actually plays will be a function of how he's feeling. If Flacco's going easy on it throughout camp, fans of a franchise that needs him at 100 percent on Week 1 should be very concerned. Then again, if he appears completely ready on that first day and never wavers, the biggest question mark about this season goes away.

The M.A.S.H. Unit Clearing Out: Last year's first-round pick, receiver Breshad Perriman, and talented young tight end Dennis Pitta are both in Schrödingerian half-healthy states. Pitta moved well at minicamp, per Jeff Zrebiec of The Baltimore Sun, but we won't know if he can lean on that twice-dislocated hip until he takes some live hits in training camp. Reports Perriman suffered a second-straight season-ending knee injury were refuted by reports Perriman would use stem-cell treatment as part of a non-surgical rehab. Whether Perriman is ready to go, out for the year, or somewhere in between won't be determined until observers collapse the waveform at the opening of camp.

Old Guys Looking Young: Safety Eric Weddle and wide receiver Mike Wallace will both be on the wrong side of 30 when the season starts, yet they're penciled in as starters. The other starting wideout is 37-year-old Steve Smith, coming off his first serious injury since breaking out in 2005, a season-ending Achilles tear. Thirty-five-year-old Ben Watson will be Baltimore's backstop in case Pitta can't contribute; Trent Richardson isn't "old," per se, but it's been four years since the veteran played at the level of a NFL starter. Many, if not most, of these high-mileage players need to prove in camp they can still play well enough to help the Ravens win the AFC North.

Ronnie Stanley needs to have Joe Flacco's back this season. Photo by Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Young Guy Looking Old: Poor blindside protection caused the Ravens' downfall last year, when reserve left tackle Kelechi Osemele took himself out of the game just prior to Flacco's season-ending sack. Now Osemele is gone, and rookie Ronnie Stanley has a very important job to do. His talent isn't in question, but his commitment to the game is a matter of some debate. Ravens fans will want to see not just quality but every-rep passion from their top pick.

PITTSBURGH STEELERS

The Steelers again proved they have the deepest offensive skill group in the NFL: They had All-Pro tailback Le'Veon Bell for just six games, speedy young receiver Martavis Bryant for only ten, and franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for 12. With Landry Jones and Michael Vick platooning under center and retread DeAngelo Williams toting the rock, the Steelers were still the NFL's fourth-best scoring offense, and third-best yardage offense. Even so, they couldn't hold on to the division title.

The Steelers won a brutal, controversial grudge match in Cincinnati, but couldn't beat Von Miller and the Broncos in Denver. A defense-heavy draft figures to plug some holes, though—and despite Bryant being suspended for all of 2016, the rest of the healthy, un-suspended offense is loaded, and loaded for bear.

Bell Ringing: When not injured or suspended, Bell has been the most dynamic back in football. We (and ESPN.com) are taking Bell's word that he'll be all the way ready for training camp. Williams has been a pleasant surprise in Pittsburgh, but he's a 33-year-old running back coming off a fountain-of-youth year; the Steelers need Bell contributing in both the pass and the run games from the jump. How quickly does Bell get a full complement of full-contact carries?

Free Dupree: The Steelers have invested plenty of resources in the outside linebacker position: two first-round draft picks (Jarvis Jones and Bud Dupree), a $7.5 million contract (Arthur Moats), and a sixth-round pick this spring (Travis Feeney). Even so, 37-year-old war horse James Harrison logged more snaps at OLB than any other Steeler in 2015. Dupree took over as the starter for Moats in the middle of 2015, but according to Jacob Kingler of PennLive.com, that was a planned transition rather than a changing of the guard. Both Moats and Dupree will surely see plenty of reps, but Dupree emerging in camp as an every-down impact player would do wonders for the Steelers' front seven in terms of depth and flexibility.

Le'Veon Bell needs to stay healthy and on the field for Pittsburgh. Photo by Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The Big Blind Side: The two best quarterbacks in the AFC North (and two of the best in the AFC) both lost significant time to injury last year, and both enter this season with major question marks at left tackle. But while Flacco's question is, "Is this kid we drafted at No. 6 overall any good?," Roethlisberger has to wonder, "Will the undrafted second-year backup who finished last season beat out the journeyman retread we signed to compete with him?" There's a lot of pressure on young Alejandro Villanueva taking over for the departed Kelvin Beachum, but the 6'9" West Point product (with a Bronze Star for valor) is no stranger to that, and his upside is much higher than ex-Bronco (and Chief, and Texan, and Bronco again) Ryan Harris. Steelers fans should be pulling for Villanueva to win the job.

CINCINNATI BENGALS

Once again, the Bengals achieved impressive regular-season success, and once again they found a new way to reach a new low in the postseason. Though their aforementioned defeat at the hands of the Steelers wasn't a total collapse like the last four straight playoff losses, it was still an embarrassment.

It was then followed by a massive exodus of veteran talent, putting a lot of pressure on the Bengals' recent drafts—including, of course, this rookie class.

Not Jonesing for Missing Wideouts: The Bengals lost their second- and third-best receivers, Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones, to free agency. They signed Brandon LaFell as one potential replacement, and drafted second-rounder Tyler Boyd as another. In today's NFL, the third receiver is essentially a starter, and fourth option Brandon Tate has always been much better returning than receiving. Not only will LaFell and Boyd need to hit the field at full speed, the slew of recent late-round draft picks and free agents who'll start August on the camp roster will need to make an impact to be in a position to bolster in-season depth.

Ken You Dig It: Quarterback Andy Dalton and the offense didn't fall off much when Hue Jackson replaced Jay Gruden as offensive coordinator. Now that Jackson, like Gruden, has departed for his own head-coaching gig in Cleveland, Dalton will have to work with another new architect: Ken Zampese. The good news is that Zampese has been on the staff since 2003, so there should be plenty of continuity. The question is, will there be quality? That's hard to assess in August—but Dalton should look as comfortable as ever in seven-on-seven work, and these new receivers shouldn't be running a lot of incorrect routes.

Receivers A.J. Green and Brandon LaFell celebrate during minicamp. Photo by Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

So You Think You Can Dansby: Karlos Dansby, one of the great age-defying defenders of our time, crossed the same "Battle for Ohio" divide as Jackson, just in the opposite direction. The 34-year-old is now three years removed from his 2013 redemption season in Arizona, and he joins a Bengals linebacking corps that needs both quality and consistency. Dansby is likely the only new defensive starter this season, but as he's just a year or two younger than many of the aged-out contributors, he will have to prove in camp he's still got the legs to make an impact.

No Personal Fouls: If Adam Jones and Vontaze Burfict could get through training camp with a minimum of personal fouls, that'd be great.

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