Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
As players in the AFC North begin reporting to their teams as early as Friday, several will be feeling a great deal of pressure to perform. With that in mind, here are top seven players on the hot seat in the division during training camp:
Why: The Steelers and Sweed are chalking up last year's mistakes and dropped balls to a rookie learning curve. But in his second year, Sweed, a former second-round pick, has no additional excuses to fall back on. With the departure of Nate Washington to the Titans as a free agent, the No. 3 receiver position is there for the taking. Sweed has the physical tools to succeed, but will he be mentally prepared this year for the NFL grind?
Why: Nothing gets a seat warmer than management drafting a player in the first round as your replacement. That is the case for Fraley, who as the incumbent is working hard to fight off rookie Alex Mack from California. At some point Mack will step in and take over the position for the long term. But it will be up to the veteran Fraley to determine if that happens in the distant or immediate future, setting up an intriguing position battle in Cleveland between experience and youth.
5. William Gay, CB, Pittsburgh Steelers
Why: The coaching staff has liked the gradual development of Gay for the past couple of seasons, and 2009 will be the grand unveiling of one of Pittsburgh's favorite projects. Gay has been solid as a reserve and a part-time starter in the past. But he's making a significant jump as an expected permanent fixture in the starting lineup. Opponents are going to be hard-pressed to find any weak links in Pittsburgh's defense, which finished No. 1 in the league last season. So expect teams to test Gay early and often this preseason to see where he stands among the wealth of talent behind the Steel Curtain.
Why: It had to be a shot to the former Pro Bowler's ego when just about every team passed on Williams during the first month of free agency. Williams was once one of the league's most intimidating defenders, but teams had little interest in a safety who has as much of a reputation for giving up big pass plays as he does for making big hits. The Bengals gave Williams an opportunity because of his prior relationship with defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer during their time with the Dallas Cowboys. But Williams will have to show he's still worthy of a starting job, and he's competing with a young up-and-comer in Chinedum Ndukwe, who expects to push Williams to the limit.
Why: As a former first-round pick who never quite lived up to expectations, Clayton's seat was already warm entering the 2009 season. But the sudden retirement of top receiver Derrick Mason has raised the temperature for Clayton significantly. As of right now, Clayton is the team's top returning target for second-year quarterback Joe Flacco. But that could change. Baltimore plans to meet with Mason soon and/or probably will attempt to sign a veteran free agent to upgrade the position. The Ravens enter the season with high aspirations following an AFC title game appearance, and Clayton will play a major role in the team's success whether Baltimore adds a receiver or not.
2. Andre Smith, RT, Cincinnati Bengals
Why: Most people would consider it a surprise if Smith, who is still unsigned, makes it to training camp on time. That remains to be seen. But what's most important is that Smith lives up to his lofty billing and contract that comes with being the sixth overall pick. Because the Bengals switched Smith to right tackle, the rookie probably will become one of -- if not the -- highest-paid players at his position. Last year, No. 6 pick Vernon Gholston of the New York Jets received a contract that maxed out at $50 million. Smith's contract will exceed that amount this summer. It proves how much Cincinnati values protecting franchise quarterback Carson Palmer, who has suffered two season-ending injuries (knee, elbow) in the past four seasons. Last year Palmer (broken nose) couldn't even make it through the preseason unscathed. Smith is there to ensure that won't be the case again this summer.
1. Brady Quinn, QB, Cleveland Browns
Why: A Columbus, Ohio, native, Quinn has waited for the chance to be the Browns' starting quarterback most of his life, and this is his best shot to do it in his third season. Can the Notre Dame alum develop into a franchise NFL quarterback? Two years in, no one knows for sure. Quinn has received little playing time and was up and down in his three starts in 2008. He finished with 518 yards, two touchdowns, two interceptions and a 50.6 completion percentage before breaking a finger on his throwing hand. Now Quinn is healthy and the pressure is on the 2007 first-round pick to beat out former Pro Bowl quarterback Derek Anderson, who also wants the starting job.