NFL Nation: 2011 back to work FYI AFC

Ravens back-to-work FYI

July, 25, 2011
7/25/11
2:09
PM ET
NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Unrestricted FAs

Readiness factor: The Ravens don't have any major issues. The personnel and offensive and defensive schemes are pretty much the same, with the exception of new defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano's adding some wrinkles. Baltimore's roster is already stacked, and the team will focus primarily on taking care of its own (Haloti Ngata, Marshal Yanda) in free agency before signing a few outside players. If the Ravens had to line up next week and play a game, they could.

Biggest challenge: The Ravens-Steelers rivalry is usually reserved for later in the season, but Baltimore will host a rare Week 1 showdown against its biggest rival -- and it comes after a lengthy lockout. Pittsburgh has won most of the key games in this series the past few years, including the past two playoff meetings. Pressure is mounting on the Ravens to start winning again in this rivalry, and they have to do it with little time to prepare for the Steelers this summer.

Competition at right tackle: Despite a veteran roster, Baltimore's right tackle spot is wide open. It was a revolving door last season and one of the major reasons the Ravens struggled with pass protection. This year Baltimore has a rookie draft pick (Jah Reid) and several holdovers (Oniel Cousins, Ramon Harewood) competing for a key spot. You also can't rule out adding another tackle to the mix in free agency.

Key players without contracts for 2011: Yanda, Baltimore's starting guard, is the biggest name without a contract. Yanda will test the market, but the Ravens also will make a strong push to re-sign the versatile lineman. Cornerbacks Chris Carr and Josh Wilson, who both started last season, also will garner interest. Look for the Ravens to bring back the cheaper of the two players, with rookie Jimmy Smith, Lardarius Webb and Domonique Foxworth listed as possible starters. Former starting left tackle Jared Gaither also is a free agent, and Baltimore is expected to part ways with him after a tumultuous and injury-filled 2010 season.

Patriots back-to-work FYI

July, 25, 2011
7/25/11
2:07
PM ET
NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Unrestricted FAs

Readiness factor: The Patriots' organization might have the NFL's most established infrastructure. Players dutifully follow Bill Belichick's scripted, proven routines. Leadership from players such as Tom Brady, Wes Welker, Logan Mankins, Matt Light (if he returns) and Vince Wilfork will help the Patriots galvanize more speedily than most clubs.

Biggest challenge: The Patriots need to manufacture a pass rush. It will be interesting to see whether Belichick pursues assistance through free agency or sticks with the youngsters on his roster. The Patriots tied for 14th in sacks last season with 36. Starting outside linebackers Tully Banta-Cain, Rob Ninkovich and Jermaine Cunningham combined for just 10 sacks and 26 quarterback hits.

Backfield in motion: The Patriots had an entertaining tandem with BenJarvus Green-Ellis pounding out the carries (1,008 yards and 13 touchdowns) and Danny Woodhead electrifying fans as a combo runner-receiver (926 yards from scrimmage and six TDs) last season. But the rest of the backfield depth chart could be erased (see below), and the DanJarvus Green-Woodhead attack probably won't handle as much responsibility. The Patriots drafted running backs Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley back-to-back in the second round.

Key players without contracts for 2011: Mankins' contract has expired, but the Patriots placed the franchise tag on him. Light, running backs Kevin Faulk, Sammy Morris and Fred Taylor and safety Brandon McGowan are up in the air.

Chargers back-to-work FYI

July, 25, 2011
7/25/11
2:05
PM ET
NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Unrestricted FAs

Readiness factor: The Chargers may be one of the most prepared teams in the NFL after the long lockout. Quarterback Philip Rivers has held workouts with many players since March, and several players got together four days a week. It won’t completely match the usual supervised time with the coaching staff, but the Chargers should be in sync. This is a veteran group that should be ready to go.

Biggest challenge: There are two new coaches in major roles. Greg Manusky is taking over the defense and Rich Bisaccia is taking over the special teams. Manusky is a former San Diego coach and will run the same system former defensive coordinator Ron Rivera employed. Because special-teams units often change during the season anyway, that group should have no problem learning on the fly. So, although there is a new flavor on the staff, the Chargers should be fine.

Free agency will be a factor: San Diego has several key free agents, including running back Darren Sproles, receiver Malcom Floyd, safety Eric Weddle, tackle Jeromey Clary and linebacker Kevin Burnett. Weddle, Clary and Burnett may be priorities; Floyd and Sproles could get solid offers elsewhere. Still, the Chargers will have immediate work to do and may have to sign some replacement players at key spots, which hasn’t been a tendency during the A.J. Smith era.

Key players without contracts for 2011: Sproles, Floyd, Weddle, Clary, Burnett.

Chiefs back-to-work FYI

July, 25, 2011
7/25/11
2:05
PM ET
NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Unrestricted FAs

Readiness factor: The Chiefs are in pretty good shape. They didn’t have many major changes. New offensive coordinator Bill Muir was on the staff last year, and big pockets of players worked out together on a few occasions. I don’t think there will be any major obstacles to this team getting rolling quickly.

Biggest challenge: Quarterback Matt Cassel's progression is vital for this team. He made great progress last season, but he stalled in the Chiefs' final two games after offensive coordinator Charlie Weis announced he was leaving for the University of Florida. New quarterbacks coach Jim Zorn is charged with working with Cassel. The two have met briefly, but they will have to get on the same page quickly to ensure Cassel can continue to lead the offense effectively.

Getting rookies ready: The Chiefs are excited about their draft class. Players such as receiver Jon Baldwin, center/guard Rodney Hudson and front-seven defenders Justin Houston and Allen Bailey have a chance to play right away. They must get up to speed without the benefit of an offseason program.

Key players without contracts for 2011: Center Casey Wiegmann.

Raiders back-to-work FYI

July, 25, 2011
7/25/11
2:04
PM ET
NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Unrestricted FAs

Readiness factor: The Raiders should be able to get going quickly. Yes, they have a new coach in Hue Jackson, but he was the team’s offensive coordinator last season and there won’t be much change. New defensive coordinator Chuck Bresnahan isn't familiar with the current roster, but he is a former Oakland defensive coordinator, so he knows the system and has worked with Jackson in the past. New offensive coordinator Al Saunders has worked with quarterback Jason Campbell in Washington. This team should be able to get in sync quickly. More than 30 players participated in a four-day camp in Georgia in late May, which was led by Campbell and defensive lineman Richard Seymour.

Biggest challenge: The Raiders have several key unrestricted free agents, including cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, safety Michael Huff, tight end Zach Miller and guard Robert Gallery. The Raiders could be facing salary-cap restrictions because they re-signed several prospective free agents before the lockout. They could be missing some key players. Also, the offensive line is in flux and must come together quickly.

Campbell has to be ready: Campbell is a free agent after the season and has to have a productive season to prove he can be the answer at quarterback for the foreseeable future. He had an up-and-down season in 2010, but finished strong and has the backing of Jackson. Still, I would have liked to have seen Campbell get some offseason time with his coach.

Key players without contracts for 2011: Asomugha, Huff, Miller, Gallery.

Broncos back-to-work FYI

July, 25, 2011
7/25/11
2:04
PM ET
NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Unrestricted FAs

Readiness factor: The Broncos are a weird mix. They have a lot of veterans, and safety Brian Dawkins led several weeks of player workouts during the lockout. Yet they are rebuilding and will rely on young players. Denver will probably start five rookies and will be looking for several contributors in free agency. So the final makeup of this team is unknown.

Biggest challenge: The Broncos will probably be the most challenged of the AFC West teams because they are in the middle of a big transition. They are starting the John Fox era, and he has yet to see his team up close. The team is dealing with change once again on defense. Dennis Allen is the team's sixth defensive coordinator in six years.

Is it Tebow time? The biggest on-field question is who will be Denver’s quarterback. The team would like to trade Kyle Orton, but he will compete with second-year quarterback Tim Tebow if Orton is kept. The Broncos would have liked to see Tebow in the offseason, but they will have to make a decision very quickly at the most important position on the field.

Key players without contracts for 2011: Tackle Ryan Harris and defensive tackle Marcus Thomas.

Texans back-to-work FYI

July, 25, 2011
7/25/11
2:03
PM ET
NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Unrestricted FAs

Readiness factor: Quarterback Matt Schaub and rehabbing linebacker DeMeco Ryans took on the major leadership roles for a team that did a lot during the lockout. Schaub led a regimen of offseason workouts right in line with what coach Gary Kubiak would have run. Position groups worked together, and the whole gang got together for minicamp gatherings. Ryans has a pretty good handle on the basics of Wade Phillips’ new 3-4, but he hasn’t played in it. The defensive front will have a lot of learning to do, but Phillips has promised that it’s not as big a transformation as many anticipate.

Biggest challenge: The 3-4 transition is a big deal, despite what Phillips says publicly. Three guys in particular will be under the microscope. Shaun Cody and Earl Mitchell are expected to play effectively at nose tackle, a key spot in a 3-4 even if Phillips doesn’t need a mammoth guy. And Mario Williams will be an outside linebacker who will often look like a fifth defensive end. Can those three guys and the rest adapt to new responsibilities?

High expectations: Kubiak kept his job as the franchise pinned its hopes of a turnaround on Phillips. He’s got a long history of first-year turnarounds. Does he extend it or see it end? And how does Arian Foster, a player who led the league in rushing yards last season, handle success and perform in his second season as the featured back?

Key players without contracts for 2011: Receiver Jacoby Jones, quarterback Matt Leinart, tackle Rashad Butler.

Colts back-to-work FYI

July, 25, 2011
7/25/11
2:02
PM ET
NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Unrestricted FAs

Readiness factor: Players were very hush-hush about player-organized team activities, but they did happen, with Peyton Manning spearheading the effort. Before his neck surgery, Manning had spent time with a lot of his targets, doing the sort of offseason route work that he said is key to much of what unfolds in games. Curtis Painter did the throwing during workouts after Manning had his neck operation. Reports say Manning won't be ready for the start of camp and could miss a large chunk of it, which will hurt the team's readiness.

Biggest challenge: Holding on to people. The team could conceivably lose running back Joseph Addai, linebacker Clint Session, strong safety Melvin Bullitt, versatile offensive lineman Charlie Johnson, defensive tackle Daniel Muir and kicker Adam Vinatieri. Reggie Wayne and Robert Mathis are heading into the final years of their deals. The Colts also need to sort out high salaries for tackle Ryan Diem and corner Kelvin Hayden.

Medical report: We’ve heard good things about all the hurting Colts, but they need checkups from a slew of guys coming off injuries. It’ll start with Manning, whose surgery was in late May. Key guys who also ended last season on IR: tight end Dallas Clark(wrist), Bullitt (shoulder), Austin Collie (concussions), Jerraud Powers (arm), Hayden (neck) and Session (elbow).

Key players without contracts for 2011:Addai, Session, Bullitt, Johnson, Muir, Vinatieri.

Jaguars back-to-work FYI

July, 25, 2011
7/25/11
2:01
PM ET
NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Unrestricted FAs

Readiness factor: With Jack Del Rio, offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter and veteran quarterback David Garrard in place, the offense won’t change much. But rookie quarterback Blaine Gabbert's missing offseason time in the facility slowed his ability to challenge for the starting job. Garrard and defensive end Aaron Kampman organized a good bit of offseason work for players, but much of it was on positional levels where a leader stepped up at each spot.

Biggest challenge: Defensive coordinator Mel Tucker is taking over play calling from Del Rio. But more significant will be the Garrard-Gabbert dynamic -- and whether we will see any sort of wrestling match between the coach's thinking (win now to save his job) and the organization’s bigger issue (develop Gabbert and get the new face of the franchise ready to carry it).

Most holes: Jacksonville could be the most active team in the division in free agency. After the draft, the Jaguars said they didn’t love the available guys for their holes. They could add two veteran linebackers and a veteran safety (here's one vote for Eric Weddle). Kirk Morrison might be back if they don’t land an upgrade at middle linebacker.

Key players without contracts for 2011: Tight end Marcedes Lewis (franchise tag), punter Adam Podlesh, Morrison.

Titans back-to-work FYI

July, 25, 2011
7/25/11
2:01
PM ET
NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Unrestricted FAs

Readiness factor: As poor as any team in the league, simply because of bad timing. New coach Mike Munchak and his staff have not had any time with their guys and are relying completely on tape for their assessments of veterans. The team does not yet have a quarterback who is the probable starter on opening day. Although Cortland Finnegan and Jake Scott did admirable work with group workouts and a two-day minicamp, having rookie Jake Locker along with Rusty Smith and Brett Ratliff as the signal-callers didn’t cut it.

Biggest challenge: Sorting out the quarterback issue. Even if the Titans wanted to go sink-or-swim with Locker from the start -- and the chances are very slim that's where they'll end up -- they have no veteran qualified to help him out. They could take a big swing at free agent Matt Hasselbeck, who would be determined to start as long as possible but also would mentor Locker, who’s already a friend. If they don’t land him, with Kerry Collins retired, the position will be a major concern.

Beyond quarterback: How actively will the Titans shop in free agency? They said they were not done at defensive tackle after the draft. They could use help at linebacker, especially if Stephen Tulloch moves on. Chris Hope is aging and expensive, and they could look to upgrade at strong safety. What goes unaddressed (like interior offensive line, likely) will tell us about their initial confidence level in multiple incumbents.

Key players without contracts for 2011: Defensive ends Jason Babin, Dave Ball and Jacob Ford, Tulloch, guard Leroy Harris, fullback Ahmard Hall, receiver Randy Moss.

Browns back-to-work FYI

July, 25, 2011
7/25/11
2:00
PM ET
NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Unrestricted FAs

Readiness factor: The Browns are by no means ready and are arguably the team hardest-hit by the lockout. They have a new offense to install, a new defense and a rookie head coach who still needs to learn his players. On top of that, Cleveland still has a lot of holes to fill in free agency and should be out to sign several key players as soon as possible. The Browns need to get to work immediately on all of these things if they want to avoid a slow start and contend in the AFC North.

Biggest challenge: Getting second-year quarterback Colt McCoy and the rest of the West Coast offense in sync is Cleveland's biggest task. The West Coast offense is primarily based on timing and precision, and Cleveland may lack both early. This is a huge year for McCoy, and he must quickly learn his second offense in two NFL seasons. McCoy is put in a tough spot, but he knows there will be no excuses if he doesn't turn out to be the long-term solution in Cleveland this year.

Rookie watch: The Browns are lacking talent compared with other teams in the division, so they are hoping for an immediate impact from their rookie class. Defensive linemen Phil Taylor and Jabaal Sheard are expected to start in Week 1, and the Browns have high expectations for second-round receiver Greg Little, who missed all of 2010 because of suspension. The lockout hurts all of these rookies, but this year's class will be given every chance to earn significant roles during training camp.

Key players without contracts for 2011: The Browns have already made most of their decisions on which in-house free agents they want to keep, but there were a few surprises. Fullback Lawrence Vickers, one of the best at his position, is set to hit the open market. Former starting cornerback Eric Wright has a better chance of returning but may garner interest. Veteran kicker Phil Dawson was offered the franchise tag but hasn't signed it, which leaves his future in Cleveland up in the air.

Bengals back-to-work FYI

July, 25, 2011
7/25/11
1:59
PM ET
NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Unrestricted FAs

Readiness factor: The Bengals will have continuity on defense under Mike Zimmer, but the offense probably will face a learning curve with a new system and a lot of young skill players to deal with. Offensive coordinator Jay Gruden is bringing his brand of the West Coast offense to Cincinnati but hasn't had any practice time with the players. For the Bengals to be successful, the defense needs to play at the same level it did during the 2009 season -- at least early on -- until the young offense is able to catch up.

Biggest challenge: Cincinnati needs clarity and a distraction-free training camp at quarterback. Rookie second-round pick Andy Dalton is expected to take over for veteran Carson Palmer, who has threatened to retire. His threat won't stop the constant questions and speculation about whether the Bengals will trade Palmer, though. There is also a remote chance Palmer could have a change of heart and return to the team, because he remains under contract. It will be up to Dalton and the Bengals' coaching staff to remain focused on the task at hand and not worry about the dark cloud the Palmer situation has created.

Second-year standouts: One key to Cincinnati's success will be the progress of second-year players coming off strong rookie seasons. Starting tight end Jermaine Gresham, defensive end Carlos Dunlap and receiver Jordan Shipley all performed well in 2010. They made their share of rookie mistakes last season, but if they improve and make solid strides this season, they will be huge for the Bengals.

Key players without contracts for 2011: Bengals starting tailback Cedric Benson will be an interesting case after a recent arrest on assault charges. He was the team's biggest free-agent priority. But the Bengals may rethink their strategy, especially if Benson is facing a suspension to start the 2011 season. Cornerback Johnathan Joseph is more difficult to predict. The Bengals like Joseph but have given no indication they want to pay market value for good cornerbacks, which ranges between $8 to $10 million per season. Receiver Terrell Owens is another big name, but he will not return. The Bengals are going younger at the position, and Owens had a major knee injury in the offseason.

Steelers back-to-work FYI

July, 25, 2011
7/25/11
1:58
PM ET
NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Unrestricted FAs

Readiness factor: The Steelers should be fine. Coming off a Super Bowl appearance, they are well-rested and running the same offense and defense as in recent seasons. For years the Steelers have thrived on continuity, and that should come in handy this fall. Pittsburgh will not be a major player in free agency, so that's not an issue. Like the Ravens, if the Steelers had to line up and play a game next week, they could.

Biggest challenge: The Steelers were fine up until recently, when receiver Hines Ward and linebacker James Harrison both made headlines in separate incidents. Ward was arrested for driving under the influence in Georgia, and Harrison made controversial remarks about many people, including NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and running back Rashard Mendenhall. Pittsburgh, which has been a model organization for years, has had its share of controversies the past three seasons. This is another example of the team having to band together and handle its issues internally before they get worse.

Who's the kicker? Pittsburgh will need to find a kicker for the 2011 season. Shaun Suisham is a free agent after filling in last season for Jeff Reed, who was cut. Reed was one of the few kickers who did well in Heinz Field, which is one of the hardest stadiums to kick in. The Steelers didn't draft a kicker, which means they have a short time to search for a solution in free agency.

Key players without contracts for 2011: Starting cornerback Ike Taylor is the only big name for the Steelers. He is an unrestricted free agent and is looking for market value, which could price him out of Pittsburgh. The Steelers have several younger and cheaper alternatives at cornerback, such as Carlos Rogers and Richard Marshall. Offensive lineman Willie Colon is another interesting name. He's been a versatile starter for Pittsburgh at guard and tackle. Tailback Mewelde Moore will probably test the market as the Steelers look to get more carries for backup Isaac Redman this season.

Jets back-to-work FYI

July, 25, 2011
7/25/11
1:57
PM ET
NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Unrestricted FAs

Readiness factor: The Jets' coaching staff and much of the roster will remain intact, which reduces the learning curve. But the Jets won't have training-camp bonding time at SUNY Cortland, an enhancement Rex Ryan and his players prized the past two seasons. They already pulled the plug on their upstate training camp and will convene at team headquarters in Florham Park, N.J.

Biggest challenge: All their free agents. The Jets have some biggies, most notably at wide receiver. They must keep young quarterback Mark Sanchez's support staff stocked with weapons, and receivers Santonio Holmes, Braylon Edwards and Brad Smith are about to hit the market. So are cornerback Antonio Cromartie and safeties Brodney Pool, Eric Smith and James Ihedigbo.

What a rush: The Jets quietly tied for eighth in the NFL in sacks last season but didn't have a fearsome presence in an overall defense designed to create mayhem. Of the 40 sacks they recorded last season, more than a quarter of them belonged to defensive backs and almost half were rung up by players who aren't under contract. The Jets released outside linebacker Jason Taylor (5 sacks). Defensive end Shaun Ellis (4.5 sacks) also has an expired contract.

Key players without contracts for 2011: In addition to the above, fullback Tony Richardson, cornerback Drew Coleman, top special-teams tackler Lance Laury, kicker Nick Folk, punter Steve Weatherford.

Dolphins back-to-work FYI

July, 25, 2011
7/25/11
1:56
PM ET
NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Unrestricted FAs

Readiness factor: The Dolphins might be the most prepared team in the NFL based on offseason workouts. Because so many players make South Florida their year-round homes, getting them together wasn't difficult. The Dolphins gathered early and frequently during the lockout.

Biggest challenge: Miami must overcome multiple institutional issues that have placed key people on the hot seat. Head coach Tony Sparano is back for a fourth season after owner Stephen Ross publicly flirted with Jim Harbaugh, and the team's hopes appear to be pinned on unproven quarterback Chad Henne, likely an unproven-but-still-unnamed running back and new offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, who was less than inspiring with Cleveland.

Defense in focus: While the offense is in doubt, defensive coordinator Mike Nolan's group is in solid shape. The whole crew essentially is back, a young group that now has another year of experience. The Dolphins ranked sixth in total defense, seventh in run defense and eighth in pass defense. If you're looking for an area that must improve, then turnovers would be the place. Ball hawking is a core Nolan belief, but the Dolphins notched only 11 interceptions and recovered eight fumbles last season.

Key players without contracts for 2011: Running backs Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams are the most prominent. Backup quarterback Tyler Thigpen also is on the list.

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