Young QBs lead way in AFC North

Historically, the AFC North, going back to its AFC Central roots, has been a division built around defense. All of a sudden, it's become a laboratory for young quarterbacks.

The Ravens' second Super Bowl run will be measured by the development of Kyle Boller. The Bengals are regrouping around Carson Palmer. The Steelers are grooming Ben Roethlisberger for the 2005 season. Only the Browns went against the trend when Butch Davis dumped Tim Couch after five seasons to go with Jeff Garcia.

As the quarterbacks go, so goes the AFC North. And with young signal callers comes unpredictability. No one can accurately forecast when the youthful mistakes give way to consistent big plays.

"Kyle is getting better, but we won't know until we start playing games," Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said of the Ravens development of Boller.

The Ravens and Bengals have the most at stake this year. After going through a salary cap purge following their Super Bowl year in 2000, the Ravens are ready to challenge for another Super Bowl. They went 10-6 last year and made the playoffs even though Boller and Anthony Wright quarterbacked the league's worst passing offense.

Despite being an offensive guru, Brian Billick has succeeded in a way no one expected. He's won with a stifling defense and a punishing running attack. The Ravens went through one of the league's worst touchdown droughts in 2000 and still won the Super Bowl.

Billick can get more out of less on offense than any coach in the league, but it's hard to predict the numbers Boller can put up in his second season. He was a 51.8 percent thrower last year with a low 5.63 yards per attempt. Those number have to be better in 2004. But can he get to 60 percent efficiency this season or will it be next year? No one knows.

The good news is Boller enters his second year with some experience and without the appearance of being rushed in as a rookie and considered a failure. He's got a powerful arm and a good grasp of offensive strategy. So much will depend on whether or not he has enough offensive talent around him.

The Ravens think he does.

"(Wide receiver) Kevin Johnson was a good addition and we really like how (third-round choice) Devard Darling is developing," Newsome said. "We think we are fine."

Of course, poor receiving stats can be overlooked in a year a running back rushes for over 2,000 yards. Jamal Lewis rushed for 2,066 yards last year and the Ravens won 10 games. Only critics cared that Travis Taylor led the wide receiving corps with a paltry 39 receptions. The Ravens almost pulled off the move of the offseason by acquiring Terrell Owens, but the league stepped in after Owens protested and promoted a settlement that eventually landed him in Philadelphia.

It will be interesting to see how Johnson settles in and adjusts to Boller. Johnson's career in Cleveland was tied to the development of a young quarterback. He was Tim Couch's main target in Cleveland since the expansion season in 1999. Progress was painfull at times and Johnson never ended up with the kind of results fans in Cleveland anticipated.

Butch Davis saw enough, waiving Johnson in the middle of last season, leading to the largest waiver claim in NFL history. The Jaguars got him and then traded him to the Ravens on draft day for a fourth-rounder.

He's a 60-to-80 catch receiver on a playoff team. The Browns, a playoff team in 2002, are in retreat. Davis replaced Couch with Garcia hoping to speed up the recovery from a 5-11 season. But the Browns and Garcia have the same type of uncertainties that plagued Couch in his early years -- questions at the running back position and along the offensive line.

Most predictors have the Browns at the bottom of the division even though they have the most accomplished quarterback in the division.

What's amazing is the Bengals, traditionally a franchise that chewed up young quarterbacks, are showing the league the right way to develop them. Thanks to Marvin Lewis, the Bengals have structure. Their future playoff success will be based on how well Palmer plays after not throwing a pass in his first season.

It's a crap shoot predicting how second-year quarterbacks will perform. Donovan McNabb improved his completion percentage from 49.1 to 58 after a limited rookie season and the Eagles went from a five-win team to 11 wins and became an instant Super Bowl contender. Michael Vick took the Falcons to the playoffs in his second season. Peyton Manning did the same thing. David Carr in Houston and Joey Harrington in Detroit are advancing their teams at a slower pace.

So much of the quarterback's progress depends on the talent around him.

"I sat on the sidelines last year and decided Carson Palmer will be our quarterback this year," Lewis said. "We haven't played anybody so I can't tell you how he's doing or not doing. But we need to be more productive on offense."

The Bengals went 8-8 under the leadership and efficiency of Jon Kitna. Palmer probably can't be expected to do as well as Daunte Culpepper, who sat out his first year on a good Vikings team, took over the job in his second season and threw 33 touchdown passes on a 11-win club.

It's possible the Bengals might have to take a step backwards with Palmer this year to move forward. Lewis, though, is mentally trying to getting his squad to play better to make Palmer's transition easier.

The Bengals went through a three-game losing streak with Kitna last year and Lewis used the experience as a teaching tool.

"They relied on Jon Kitna as a crutch," Lewis said. "It wasn't Jon Kitna's fault. I told them it was the people around him who were at fault for not doing their jobs. If we want to win football games, everybody has do their jobs all the time."

Palmer has a stronger arm and bigger pocket presence than Kitna. Offensively, the Bengals are trying to get faster and make bigger plays at receiver. Chad Johnson has developed as one of the league's most exciting young receivers. Kelley Washington showed flashes last season as a rookie and may come on as a bigger threat. Peter Warrick is the shifty inside receiver. Rudi Johnson and first-round pick Chris Perry will handle the running duties now that Corey Dillon is gone.

Despite the youth at quarterback, Lewis expects big things from his offense.

"We don't lose games based on one position," Lewis said. "If Carson is not playing where our offense needs to be, we have a great quarterback to go to in Jon Kitna."

The Bengals are setting the stage for what the Steelers will be going through in another year. Tommy Maddox is the Steelers Kitna, a veteran who is holding the position until Roethlisberger takes over in 2005. Bill Cowher will make Maddox's job a little easier by going to more of a running attack this season.

Duce Staley was signed to complement Jerome Bettis to give the Steelers a one-two punch running the football.

While the Ravens and Bengals may be the favorites in the AFC North, the Steelers can't be counted out. They have the more experienced offense and if they can come together in their secondary, the older hand at quarterback may have a chance to battle with the young guns.

John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.