It's July, the slowest month of the year for the NFL. So what better time to start breaking down the upcoming season? From July 6-27, FanHouse will take an in-depth look at each division to help prepare you for training camp. We're calling it our Summer Scramble.
Coming July 14: NFC North Players to Watch
How Will the Steelers Play Without Ben Roethlisberger?
By all accounts, Byron Leftwich is penciled in as the Steelers starting quarterback to open training camp, due to the four-to-six game suspension of Ben Roethlisberger. These three statements are all equally true: 1) Ben Roethlisberger is a world-class jerk off of the field; 2) He is a world-class quarterback on it; 3) Byron Leftwich is not Ben Roethlisberger.
Since drafting him in the first round of the 2004 draft, the Steelers have transformed themselves into a pass-first offense centered around their franchise quarterback, and needless to say, they're a different team without him. Since the start of the '04 season, Pittsburgh is just 4-5 in games that Roethlisberger has missed, and 68-27 (including playoffs) in games that he's started. Naturally, that makes the first month of the season quite important. The Steelers have made some noise this offseason about wanting to run the football more than they have in recent years, and they have an excellent third-year back in Rashard Mendenhall. With Roethlisberger sidelined for at least the first month of the season, Mendenhall will have to build on the breakout performance he had last year (more than 1,100 yards rushing). Leftwich has experience in Pittsburgh's offense (he played with the Steelers during the '08 season) and has had some success in it, and he has a solid group of pass-catchers in Hines Ward, Mike Wallace, Heath Miller and Antwaan Randle-El.
Will Carson Palmer Become an Elite Quarterback Again?
Four years ago, it appeared as if Carson Palmer was going to be one of the top five quarterbacks in the NFL for the foreseeable future. And now? He's just sort of ... there. You can probably name 10 or 11 teams in the league that would love to have him as its starting quarterback, and there's probably another 11 or 12 that wouldn't touch him with a 10-foot pole. His passer rating was 16th in the NFL in 2009 and it hasn't been higher than 14th since 2006. If the Bengals are going to end their 19-year postseason win drought, they're going to need more of the 2005-06 Palmer and less of the '06-'09 Palmer.
How Long Will the Jake Delhomme Experience Last in Cleveland?
Heaven help Browns fans for the revolving door of quarterbacks they've been subjected to since 1999. From Tim Couch and Spurgeon Wynn to Brady Quinn and Derek Anderson, it's been a never-ending parade of sadness along the shores of Lake Erie. Never fear, Cleveland, because you're reward for the start of this season is a quarterback -- Jake Delhomme! -- that's thrown 35 interceptions (and only 24 touchdowns) over the past two seasons (one playoff game included). There's only one thing to say: Ugh. Colt McCoy is next in line when it comes to a hopeful quarterback of the future, but for the present day, it's going to be a struggle with yet another subpar NFL signal-caller. It's just a matter of how long he keeps the No. 1 spot.
How Much Better Can Ray Rice Get?
For a team that's known for its defense, the Baltimore Ravens sure have managed to stockpile quite an arsenal of offensive talent. With Derrick Mason and Anquan Boldin they have an intimidating 1-2 punch at wide receiver, while third-year quarterback Joe Flacco appears to be the franchise quarterback they've been searching for since the team relocated to Baltimore. The best player of the bunch, however, might be running back Ray Rice. A duel threat out of the backfield, Rice is coming off a season that saw him rush for more than 1,300 yards while picking up an additional 700-plus through the air. His 2,041 yards from scrimmage were second-most in the NFL, trailing only Tennessee's Chris Johnson (2,509). He's not underrated; he's simply one of the best running backs in the NFL and is still only 23 years old. A scary combination.
• The Jake Delhomme experience in Cleveland will last no more than eight ugly games.
• Ben Roethlisberger's suspension will be reduced to four games, the Steelers will go 2-2 in his absence and make the playoffs.
• There will be two playoff teams in the division: Pittsburgh and Baltimore.
• Cedric Benson's production will decrease in Cincinnati, while Bernard Scott's playing time -- and production -- will increase.
• Listed at 6-foot-7, 260 pounds and capable of running a 4.6 40-yard dash, Michael Johnson is a freak of an athlete on the defensive line for the Cincinnati Bengals. The second-year player will make a run at double-digit sacks.
• Hines Ward will continue to defy logic and show no sign of age, once again catching more than 85 passes.
• Ray Rice will continue to get much better and rush for more than 1,600 yards while gaining more than 2,000 yards from scrimmage.
• Rey Maualuga will play in the Pro Bowl.