NFL Nation: 09 AFC camp preview

Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky
 
  Bill Baptist/Getty Images
  A healthy Chris Brown could be a big plus for Houston.

Houston Texans

Training camp site: Houston, Texas

Campfires: Weakside linebacker appears to be the biggest battle for a starting spot. Xavier Adibi has bulked up in an effort to become more rugged and withstand the 16-game pounding. Zach Diles appears to be an underdog here, as does veteran Cato June, who signed up after spending time in Indianapolis and Tampa Bay.

Finding a back to complement Steve Slaton is a big priority, but the Texans didn't spend much to increase their options. A healthy Chris Brown could do well in the role, but Houston is living on the edge if it's counting on 16 games from him. Undrafted rookies Jeremiah Johnson and Arian Foster are in the mix along with Ryan Moats and Clifton Dawson

The safety position remains an issue, with Nick Ferguson and Eugene Wilson in line to start now. But the team will allow for the possibility of Dominique Barber to nudge his way into the lineup.

Camp will be a downer if: Anything bad happens to Matt Schaub, Andre Johnson or Slaton. This is an offensive team keyed around that trio, and the loss of any of them for any extended time will be a huge setback.

Schaub's been labeled as injury prone, but it's really been more about being unlucky. It's not as if other quarterbacks would have played through some of the things he's faced. Still, Gary Kubiak's talked about how players can learn how to stay on the field, and he needs his signal-caller to do that.

Camp will be a success if: A defensive identity develops under new coordinator Frank Bush, who's pledged to be more aggressive.

Division Camp Previews
Tuesday: NFC North | AFC North
Wednesday: NFC East | AFC East
Thursday: NFC South | AFC South
Friday: NFC West | AFC West

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Camp battles: AFC | NFC

Schedule: Training camp dates
With new coaches overseeing the defensive line and the defensive backs, there is a real chance for new messages and approaches to have a  bearing on players and units.

The Texans need some preseason success on both sides of the ball to carry into the regular season, because another shaky start will be cause for concern based on the team's history. If Houston is to plot a course to its first playoff berth, it needs to avoid a poor start.

Second time around: Slaton was a revelation as a rookie, and while there is uncertainty about who else will get carries, the line should be better. It's the second year for the group under Alex Gibbs running his scheme, which should mean better and more consistent play.

Additionally, not only does the unit have Gibbs and John Benton as coaching resources, but can look to assistant Bruce Matthews, the Hall of Famer who's now part of the staff.


Indianapolis Colts

Training camp site: Terre Haute, Ind.

 
  Donald Miralle/Getty Images
  Peyton Manning's receiving corps will be without Marvin Harrison this year.
Campfires: Targets for Peyton Manning are crucial, of course, and that's why there is such a large focus on the three-way fight for the No. 3 receiver spot. Pierre Garcon, Austin Collie and Roy Hall will draw a lot of attention as that's sorted out. Garcon seemed to be getting a lot of positive reviews in OTAs and min
icamp, with Hall not generating much buzz.

Returning defensive tackles Keyunta Dawson, Eric Foster, Raheem Brock (an end on early downs) and Antonio Johnson will be fighting for roles at a position that welcomed back Ed Johnson and has two young, thick additions from the draft in Fili Moala and Terrance Taylor. Getting bigger inside while maintaining athleticism was a priority for the Colts.

The plan at linebacker is for Clint Session to play on the weakside and Philip Wheeler to replace him on the strongside. But guys with starting experience like Freddy Keiaho and Tyjuan Hagler will be looking to take the team away from that blueprint.

Camp will be a downer if: Left guard Ryan Lilja, perhaps the team's best run blocker, can't make it back after the knee injury that cost him all of 2008. Trouble on the return path for cornerback Marlin Jackson (knee) would also be a bad thing.

With those injuries, the two surgeries on Manning's knee, a dinged Joseph Addai and a bunch of additional problems for the offensive line, the Colts got to show that they could survive. It's not anything they want to be in position to prove again.

Camp will be a success if: New head coach Jim Caldwell sets an early tone that gives the team no room for doubt about the transfer of power from his mentor, Tony Dungy. The players also must take to the thinking of new defensive coordinator Larry Coyer (a bit more aggressive) and new, fiery special teams coach Ray Rychleski.

It also would be great if Manning develops increased rapport with Anthony Gonzalez, who's graduated to No. 2 receiver with Marvin Harrison gone. Manning also needs to gain a real feel for the guy who wins the battle for No. 3 as well as the young tight ends, Jacob Tamme and Tom Santi.

Off the record: Even with a new coach and changes on his staff, it's unlikely there will be any different emphasis on preseason results. Indianapolis is 3-15 in the preseason over the last four years and 51-13 in the regular seasons that followed.

The Colts have a good feel for how to get ready and don't have to worry about building fan enthusiasm with preseason wins. Everyone knows to look at smaller things early in the game to gauge the team's readiness.


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Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham

Buffalo Bills
Training camp site: St. John Fisher College in Pittsford, N.Y.

Campfires: All eyes will be on Terrell Owens, but he's not the most significant storyline at St. John Fisher. The Bills' offensive line is a jumbled unit and needs to emerge from camp with proficiency. None of the projected starting five will play the same position as last year. Pro Bowl left tackle Jason Peters is gone. Right tackle Langston Walker is flipping over to the other side. Right guard Brad Butler is replacing Walker. Geoff Hangartner is the new center. Rookies are expected to play guard.

 
  AP Photo/David Duprey
  All eyes will be on Terrell Owens during the Bills' training camp.

A lot of parts must come together, but if they do, then the Bills' offense could be dangerous. They're adopting a no-huddle approach that will be fun to watch with a cast that includes Owens, Lee Evans and Marshawn Lynch. The Bills have been installing the offense for months, but the coaching staff's confidence in it will be dictated by how well Trent Edwards commands the no-huddle in camp and preseason games.

On defense, Buffalo's success may hinge on the defensive line. Pro Bowl defensive end Aaron Schobel is coming off a foot injury that rendered him essentially useless last year. The Bills drafted Penn State pass-rusher Aaron Maybin 11th overall. They also are hoping to get some production finally out of fourth-year defensive tackle John McCargo, who the Bills traded up to draft in the first round but so far has been a slug.

Camp will be a downer if ... the offensive line suffers an injury that prevents chemistry from forming. The main question about the Bills' front five is not that it's incapable. While there are doubts about Walker and Butler, many believe first-day draft picks Eric Wood and Andy Levitre have bright futures, and all of them can play multiple positions.

But nobody can dispute the value of cohesion and consistency along the offensive line. The sooner they learn to play their positions at a high level together, the less harassed Edwards will be. Any preseason volatility here would be harmful.

Division Camp Previews
• Tuesday: NFC North | AFC North
• Wednesday: NFC East | AFC East
• Thursday: NFC South | AFC South
• Friday: NFC West | AFC West

MORE
Camp battles: AFC | NFC

Schedule: Training camp dates

Camp will be a success if ... the defensive front shows signs it can be a positive influence. Buffalo defensive linemen recorded 12.5 sacks last year. Right end Ryan Denney led the way with four. Buffalo ranked 22nd in rushing yards allowed per game and 21st in yards per carry.

Buffalo is the only AFC East team that runs a 4-3 defense. If the Bills don't stop the run and can't sack quarterbacks, what's the point?

Project to monitor: Some Bills fans are enamored with the possibilities of sophomore tackle Demetrius Bell, a seventh-round draft pick from Northwestern State who didn't play a game last year. Bell has a good frame (6-foot-5, 307 pounds) and is the son of former NBA star Karl Malone.

Bell is viewed as a potential discovery in the making, the second coming of Peters, who the Bills signed as a rookie free-agent tight end and converted into a Pro Bowl left tackle. Bell spent the offseason getting reps as the second-team left tackle.


Miami Dolphins
Training camp site:
team facility in Davie, Fla.

Campfires: Dolfans are eager to see how old friend Jason Taylor fits into defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni's 3-4 scheme, and a substantial factor is whether Cameron Wake will resemble the player who dominated in Canada the past two years. Joey Porter, the reigning AFC sack leader, will remain on the right side. That leaves Taylor (who has played almost his entire c
areer on the right side), Wake and incumbent Matt Roth to divvy up the snaps at left outside linebacker. That battle will be interesting to monitor.

 
  Jamie Mullen/US Presswire
  Jason Taylor (99) returns to Miami after spending last season with the Washington Redskins.

Second-round draft pick Pat White has generated plenty of excitement for what he could provide the Wildcat offense. Training camp will be the West Virginia quarterback's proving ground. He looked raggedy as a passer in minicamp. Chad Henne certainly will remain the No. 2 quarterback behind Chad Pennington, but White's value will be as a threat to throw out of the trendy direct-snap offense.

One of the Dolphins' big areas of need heading into the offseason was at receiver. They don't have a clear-cut, go-to target. Rather than obtain one, they tweaked. They drafted Southern California's Patrick Turner as a third-down and red zone option and Ohio State's Brian Hartline as another possession receiver. Ted Ginn is entering his third year and needs to show he was worth the ninth overall pick Miami used to draft him.

Camp will be a downer if ... Taylor's homecoming doesn't pan out. Despite fan enthusiasm for his return after a bitter, one-year exile, there are no guarantees. Taylor probably won't hold down an every-down role. He will be playing on the side opposite of his career success.

Acid reflux will be a common ailment for Dolfans if injury-prone center Jake Grove can't stay healthy. Grove, a free agent from the Oakland Raiders, was the Dolphins' top offseason acquisition after the staff identified stout blocking at center as their greatest need. It's the only major offensive upgrade the Dolphins made, but he has missed 26 games since he was drafted in 2004.

Camp will be a success if ... one of the rookie corners steps into the starting role on the right side. The Dolphins drafted Vontae Davis in the first round and Sean Smith in the second.

It takes a while for rookie cornerbacks to gain the coaches' trust, but the Dolphins lost last year's starter, Andre' Goodman, to free agency. They signed Eric Green, but he lost his starting job with the Arizona Cardinals last year. What a boon it would be if Davis or Smith show he's ready right away.

Newcomer to watch: Even his new teammates are keen on finding out whether Wake is the real deal. He dominated Canadian Football League offensive linemen, piling up 39 sacks in two seasons.

But he hasn't worn full pads in the NFL. The former Penn State captain went undrafted. The New York Giants signed him in 2005 but cut him before training camp began. Many Dolphins players have been impressed with Wake's raw athleticism but haven't been able to definitively state what they think of his chances until they see him in full-contact situations.


New England Patriots
Training camp site: Gillette Stadium complex in Foxborough, Mass.

Campfires: Tom Brady's left knee not only is the top story of Patriots camp, but perhaps the NFL preseason, too. How Brady responds from having two ligaments reattached will determine whether the Patriots return to their familiar status as Super Bowl contenders. He looked impressive during minicamp, but what everybody wants to see is Brady against a live pass rush. One of his biggest assets is his pocket presence. We'll see if oncoming defenders affect him.

 
  AP Photo/Stephan Savoia
  Tom Brady has looked solid during offseason workouts as he recovers from knee surgery.

Vince Wilfork's contract situation could be a problem. The Patriots drafted Boston College defensive tackle Ron Brace, but he's no Wilfork, the behemoth who anchors Bill Belichick's 3-4 defense. Wilfork is entering the final year of his contract and wants security. He skipped offseason workouts and his displeasure could impact his participation in training camp.

A couple of intriguing positions to watch will be outside linebacker and running back. The Patriots didn't bring in anybody to replace respected veteran Mike Vrabel, a Pro Bowler two seasons ago. Pierre Woods, Shawn Crable and Tully Banta-Cain don't make quarterbacks quake in their cleats, but maybe somebody will emerge. In the offensive backfield, Laurence Maroney is coming off a shoulder injury and, entering his fourth season, needs to produce. The Patriots also signed free agent Fred Taylor.

Camp will be a downer if ... Brady suffers a setback in his recovery. The Patriots won 11 games with unheralded reserve Matt Cassel last year, but does second-year backup Kevin O'Connell (without offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, no less) engender enough confidence to withstand Brady tweaking his
knee?

If Brady encounters some turbulence, it's foreseeable the Patriots still could pull through as they did last year. But any Brady struggles will make Patriot Nation squirm.

Camp will be a success if ... somebody emerges as Vrabel's replacement and the Patriots come away pleased with their cornerbacks. New England's defense has some uncertainties, but finding reliable help at these spots will be huge.

The Patriots emerged from last year's camp unstable at cornerback. They cut Fernando Bryant just before the season and signed Deltha O'Neal, who was lackluster. This offseason they welcomed veterans Shawn Springs and Leigh Bodden and second-rounder Darius Butler. They traded right-side starter Ellis Hobbs.

Tough cuts to come? The Patriots will have some decisions to make at running back. Maroney is a first-round pick entering just his fourth season. They identified Taylor as somebody they needed. Sammy Morris and Kevin Faulk are old dependables. BenJarvus Green-Ellis showed he could play in the NFL when given the chance. It will be interesting to see how this position sorts out.


New York Jets
Training camp site: State University of New York in Cortland, N.Y.

Campfires: As much as rookie coach Rex Ryan's revamped defense will shape the Jets' season, quarterback battles always steal the headlines. When one of the candidates is the highest-paid player in franchise history and the highest-drafted quarterback since Joe Namath, you know it will be a molten topic. The Jets traded up to draft Mark Sanchez fifth overall. He's getting paid $28 million in guarantees. Unless he flops or veteran Kellen Clemens is brilliant, the rookie should start.

 
  Rich Kane/Icon SMI
  Vernon Gholston had a disappointing rookie season.

The Jets, however, likely will go as far as their defense takes them. It's difficult to tell how an aggressive, blitz-oriented defense is coming together when nobody's wearing pads or hitting. Training camp conditions will be the first real sense we'll get about how Ryan's methods will translate from Baltimore.

Ryan's defense will be aided substantially if he can get pass-rusher Vernon Gholston to contribute. Last year's sixth overall pick from Ohio State had an undetectable rookie campaign. The Jets need to get some kind of return on their investment, but the urgency is greater with outside linebacker Calvin Pace's four-game suspension at the start of the season. Gholston's opportunity couldn't be more obvious. He must have a terrific camp.

Camp will be a downer if ... Ryan's much-ballyhooed defense doesn't hum by the end of preseason. With all of the bluster, the signings of Bart Scott and Jim Leonhard and the Lito Sheppard trade, the Jets better be good on defense.

Purely from an entertainment perspective, camp will be a bummer if Ryan doesn't keep yapping like he did during OTAs and minicamp.

Camp will be a success if ... either Sanchez or Gholston emerges as a credible player. They don't have to be Pro Bowlers, but if one or the other demonstrates a level of competence to build from, then fans -- and general manager Mike Tannenbaum -- can breathe a little easier about the immediate future.

Sanchez, of course, is who the Jets need to come into his own more than any other player. They have the most invested in him. He might be the franchise's front man for the next decade. But if Sanchez sputters in camp and Gholston's game materializes, organizational confidence still would be buoyed.

Catch and release: The Jets haven't made the move fans hoped. They haven't landed an experienced receiver to play with Jerricho Cotchery. They lost Laveranues Coles but have opted to find a starter among last year's reserves and by turning over the bottom of the roster.

Chansi Stuckey and speedster David Clowney look like the best bets to emerge from this crew. Brad Smith and Wallace Wright also could end up with bigger roles, but the auditions will last right up until the regular season begins.

Trey Wingo, Darren Woodson and Tim Hasselbeck preview the AFC East.

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

Baltimore Ravens/McDaniel College: Westminster, Md.

 
  Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images
  Baltimore running back Le'Ron McClain might not get as many carries this season.
Campfires: Coming off an appearance in the AFC Championship Game, Baltimore is a veteran-laden team set at a lot of positions. So there aren't many training camp battles to look forward to.

One of the few open competitions is the battle to replace Bart Scott, involving young linebackers Tavares Gooden and Antwan Barnes. Gooden, with his energy and athleticism, is the early favorite but will have to solidify the starting job with a good camp this summer.

Although the Ravens' coaching staff has downplayed it this offseason, there seems to be a shift in the backfield toward giving more carries to the tailbacks -- Ray Rice and Willis McGahee -- and fewer carries to Le'Ron McClain, who is a natural fullback. McClain was the hot hand last year and led Baltimore in rushing with 902 yards, while Rice and McGahee were in and out of the lineup with injuries. But McClain only averaged 3.9 yards per carry and it appears Baltimore is hoping for more big rushing plays from its tailbacks. But similar to last year, all three components of the "three-headed monster" will get their share of opportunities.

Division Camp Previews
Tuesday: NFC North | AFC North
Wednesday: NFC East | AFC East
Thursday: NFC South | AFC South
Friday: NFC West | AFC West

MORE
Camp battles: AFC | NFC

Schedule: Training camp dates

Camp will be a downer if ... the Ravens fail to find a replacement for retired receiver Derrick Mason. Baltimore already had the tall task of finding a young receiver to fill the No. 3 option. Mason's surprise announcement this month leaves the team in search of a top receiver. The team also plans to meet with Mason to see if it's possible he could have a change of heart.

Baltimore could stay in-house and hope Mark Clayton develops into a No. 1 receiver this season, which is a risky proposition. Or the Ravens could look outside at a veteran free agent such as Marvin Harrison, who is similar to Mason in terms of skills. Making a trade for a receiver such as Anquan Boldin or Brandon Marshall doesn't appear likely.

The Ravens have high aspirations this year and a starting lineup of Clayton and possibly Demetrius Williams isn't good enough to win a Super Bowl this season. Baltimore doesn't have many glaring weaknesses, but the hole at receiver could become a major issue if it is not addressed.

Camp will be a success if ... rookie right tackle Michael Oher adjusts to the NFL game quickly. Oher has a major responsibility of protecting one of the edges for second-year quarterback Joe Flacco.

Baltimore traded up in the first round to draft Oher, which shows how much the team likes the rookie from Mississippi. Barring injury, Oher will be the Week 1 starter at right tackle. So the Ravens coaching staff would love to see continual progress from the rookie during training camp.

Getting a kick: This year could mark the first time in franchise history that Matt Stover is not Baltimore's kicker. The 18-year veteran who has been with the team from its inception in 1996 was not re-signed by the Ravens because of declining leg strength on kickoffs.

The Ravens kept an additional kicker on their roster for most of last season to help with kickoffs, while Stover handled field goals and extra points. But Baltimore doesn't want to do that again, so they have Steve Hauschka and rookie Graham Gano battling it out for both duties.

Neither kicker got off to a great start this offseason. So Stover remains on call in case Hauschka or Gano do not perform well in the preseason.


Cincinnati Bengals/Georgetown College: Georgetown, Ky.

 
  AP Photo/David Kohl
  Cincinnati linebacker Rey Maualuga will be given every opportunity to compete for a starting job.
Campfires: When a team is coming off a four-win season, naturally there are a lot of interesting camp battles to look forward to the following year.

Perhaps the most compelling battle will be at outside linebacker between incumbent Rashad Jeanty and hotshot rookie Rey Maualuga, whom the Bengals were thrilled to land in the second round. Maualuga is a natural inside linebacker, but that position is already filled by team leader Dhani Jones. So Cincinnati's coaching staff is giving the former USC linebacker every opportunity to see the field, and Maualuga's best chance is to beat out Jeanty in training camp.

Also look for an interesting three-way competition at center between Kyle Cook, Dan Santucci and rookie Jonathan Luigs, and an interesting battle at safety between veteran free-agent signing Roy Williams and the underrated Chinedum Ndukwe.

Camp will be a downer if ... the offensive line fails to get it together. There are expected to be four players at new positions on the offensive line this season. That means developing continuity will be vital during training camp.

First-round pick Andre Smith comes in with a gaudy résumé and is expected to start at right tackle. The Bengals also will have a new center between the aforementioned Cook, Santucci or Luigs. Andrew Whitworth is moving from left guard to left tackle this season, and Nate Livings probably will take Whitworth's place at guard. That is a lot of new faces in new places for Cincinnati.

Camp will be a success if ... quarterback Carson Palmer returns to form and remains healthy. It sounds simple, but two of the past four years Palmer has suffered season-ending injuries.

Last year alone, Palmer had his nose broken in the preseason and later suffered an elbow injury that forced him to shut it down for the year. With Palmer approaching 30 in December and Cincinnati's poor performance on the offensive line the past couple of seasons, getting Palmer to the regular season without a scratch should not be taken for granted.

Show and prove: Cincinnati's defense finished 12th in the NFL last season despite little help or points scored from its offense.

Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer has done a tremendous job with this scrappy group, and now that the Bengals expect to score points again, there is some talk of Cincinnati's defense becoming a top 10 group. With good, young players such as linebacker Keith Rivers, defensive tackle Domata Peko and cornerback Johnathan Joseph, Cincinnati's defense will be out to prove that last year was not a fluke.

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