- Ashley Fox
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It is here. Finally.
On Saturday, the Dallas Cowboys and Miami Dolphins will become the first teams to open training camp. By July 27, every team will be in camp, with 19 of the 32 teams working at their own practice facilities.
What are the top storylines to watch as teams get started? Let's take a look.
The Patriots and life without Aaron Hernandez
There was no bigger story this offseason than the arrest of Hernandez on a murder charge. The Patriots have done everything they can to distance themselves from Hernandez and in all likelihood have advised their players not to answer any questions from the media regarding Hernandez or his absence from the team.
Life is obviously more important than football, but there is an undeniable football element to the story, as well. The Patriots are going to miss Hernandez on the field. In three seasons, he caught 175 passes for 1,956 yards and 18 touchdowns and, with Rob Gronkowski, gave New England the league's most dynamic tandem of tight ends.
This season, New England completely revamped its receiving corps. Heading into camp, there are 11 wide receivers on the active roster. Only one, Julian Edelman, caught a pass for the Patriots last season, and he has been dealing with a foot injury.
Hernandez would have given Tom Brady a reliable, productive option while he breaks in free-agent pickup Danny Amendola as well as Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce, rookies New England selected in the second and fourth rounds, respectively.
The Broncos and life without Matt Russell and Tom Heckert
The Broncos suspended Russell, their director of player personnel, indefinitely and Heckert, their director of pro personnel, for a month after each man was arrested and charged with driving under the influence.
Russell is John Elway's right-hand man. They watch practice together. They evaluate players together. Elway so values Russell that when San Diego asked to interview Russell for its vacant general manager job earlier in the offseason, the Broncos declined. Elway, Denver's executive vice president of football operations, hired Heckert in May in part because Heckert is a respected talent evaluator who has been in the business for more than 20 years and has been a general manager twice.
Now Elway is going to have to determine the Broncos' roster without them. He's going to have to decide who gets cut and who makes the team. Heckert will be back after Denver's first preseason game, but Russell likely is gone until the beginning of the regular season at the earliest.
It is a rocky way to start a season for a team with Super Bowl aspirations.
The quarterback competition in Philadelphia
Welcome to the circus, Chip Kelly. First year. First quarterback competition, which undoubtedly will devolve into a controversy.
Kelly wants to see repetitive accuracy and decision-making from Michael Vick and Nick Foles. He also wants to see them in pads and in game action, which means Kelly likely won't name a starter until after the Eagles' second preseason game at the earliest.
Vick tired of the constant questions about his status during organized team activities and the Eagles' minicamp. They will only continue every day until the situation is resolved.
The bet here is that Vick, despite his inconsistencies, will win the starting job. But how long he will hold on to it likely will be an ongoing story.
The Jets' quarterback competition
Mark Sanchez and Geno Smith might not be as neck and neck in their pursuit of the New York Jets' starting job as Vick and Foles appear to be, but there likewise will be a legitimate competition in training camp. It is, however, Sanchez's job to lose.
One thing in Sanchez's favor is that new offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg has a wealth of experience tutoring quarterbacks. In his career, Mornhinweg has coached, among others, Jeff Garcia, Brett Favre, Donovan McNabb and Vick, and his West Coast system is predicated on short and intermediate throws.
To supplant Sanchez, Smith will have to grasp a new system quickly, show he can weather adversity and display leadership.
The dreaded sophomore slump
It's bound to happen, right? One of the rookie quarterbacks from last year likely will take a step back. Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson can't all have the success they did last year, when each led his team to the postseason.
Griffin has the toughest challenge, coming off multiple knee ligament tears suffered in Washington's first-round playoff loss to Seattle in January. He missed OTAs and minicamp as a result, and, although Griffin has vowed to be ready once training camp opens, it's possible coach Mike Shanahan could limit Griffin in practice and in preseason games.
Griffin needs to learn how to protect himself better, how to take fewer risks and how to get rid of the ball sooner. He needs to progress as a passer and learn to find open receivers so he can avoid unnecessary hits. Because he missed the offseason, Griffin also must play catch-up. Shanahan is going to have to find the delicate balance between getting Griffin enough work and giving him too much work.
The defensive switch in Dallas
Defensive guru Monte Kiffin is back in the NFL, at age 73, and, in implementing his 4-3 defense, he will try to get the Cowboys to do something they could not last season: create turnovers.
Dallas was tied with Kansas City last season for the fewest interceptions -- seven -- in the NFL. (In contrast, Chicago led the league with 24.) The Cowboys forced 15 fumbles and recovered nine, and their turnover differential was minus-13, tied with Buffalo for fifth-worst in the league.
Kiffin will be asking DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer to hold up as defensive ends when neither has played the position since college. He will try to get a secondary that has struggled to find the football -- Brandon Carr led the team with three interceptions last season -- to generate turnovers. And he will have to work fast because, given Jason Garrett's precarious hold on his job, this might be the only season in Dallas that Kiffin has.
The return of Sean Payton
Last season was an unmitigated disaster for the New Orleans Saints, as Payton served an unprecedented one-year suspension for his alleged role in the Saints' bounty scandal. In his absence, things understandably slipped.
How many wins is Payton worth beyond the seven the team secured last season under Aaron Kromer and Joe Vitt? Two? Maybe four?
The Saints are built to outscore opponents, but they will have to shore up a defense that last season gave up an NFL-record 7,042 yards and more points (28.4 per game) than all but one other team, the Tennessee Titans. New defensive coordinator Rob Ryan is transitioning New Orleans to a 3-4 defense. That takes time. And better personnel than the Saints have.
A four-game uptick over last season would put New Orleans at 11-5, which likely would be good enough to qualify for the postseason. But, like every other team in the NFC South not based in Atlanta, the Saints are looking up at the Falcons, who clinched the division in Week 13 last season and won it by a whopping six games.
The Falcons' pursuit of a ring
I talked to Matt Ryan in June, and he admitted it was a relief not to have to answer a question about whether he and the Falcons can win a playoff game. They can. They did.
Under Ryan, coach Mike Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff, Atlanta has a stellar 56-24 regular-season record. Last season, with home-field advantage and a first-round bye, the Falcons finally got their first postseason win under the current regime before wasting a 17-point lead in their loss to San Francisco in the NFC Championship Game.
The goals in Atlanta are high. Winning in the regular season is great, but it's what Smith calls "the second season" that matters. This is about the Falcons getting to the Super Bowl. They upgraded their secondary, added running back Steven Jackson, convinced tight end Tony Gonzalez to stave off retirement for one more year and added defensive end Osi Umenyiora in hopes of upgrading their pass rush. The Falcons must replace two starters on the offensive line but otherwise will enter the season as a front-runner to get to the Super Bowl.
The Ravens' title defense
The champs took plenty of roster hits in the offseason because of retirement, trades or free agency. Yes, they lost eight starters. That's more than any other Super Bowl winner ever.
But know this about general manager Ozzie Newsome: He's an outstanding talent evaluator, and the Ravens certainly aren't panicking. It will be fascinating to see this team come together.
How will defensive end Elvis Dumervil and middle linebacker Jameel McClain fit in? How quickly will strong safety Matt Elam, the Ravens' first-round draft pick and Ed Reed's replacement, adjust to the NFL? Will Gino Gradkowski be an adequate replacement or even an upgrade at center over retired Matt Birk? Has cashing in on winning a Super Bowl changed Joe Flacco?
• The ongoing rivalry between the 49ers and Seahawks, teams that will spend the next six weeks preparing for Week 1 with an eye toward Week 2, when they meet in Seattle.
• Andy Reid's rebirth in Kansas City. I'm not sure who needed whom more, Reid or the Chiefs, but it's a marriage that should benefit both.
• Can new San Diego coach Mike McCoy fix Philip Rivers? Can Carson Palmer effectively execute Bruce Arians' offense in Arizona and maximize one of the best playmakers in football in Larry Fitzgerald? How will quarterbacks Jay Cutler and Josh Freeman perform in the final years of their contracts? Will J.J. Watt return to earth after last season's amazing performance?
Camps are here. Finally.
1dEric D. Williams
2dBy Dan Graziano