Philadelphia, PA – Training camp season has arrived, and the NFL probably couldn't be happier.
With countless episodes of bad behavior both on the field (the revelation of the New Orleans Saints' elaborate "pay-for-performance" system and its resulting ramifications) and off (an alarming number of player arrests) dominating the headlines during the normally tranquil down period of the offseason, the league can't wait for the attention to be turned to less blood- boiling subjects such as quarterback controversies, injury impacts and fantasy league sleepers that the upcoming preseason is sure to provide.
As the exhibition schedule draws nearer, here's a synopsis of the top storylines and camp battles to keep an eye on for the 16 NFC representatives over the next six weeks, with last season's record for each included in the breakdown:
Dallas Cowboys (8-8)
REPORT DATES: July 25th (rookies), July 29th (veterans)
SITE: River Ridge Sports Complex, Oxnard, CA
The Cowboys were able to upgrade perhaps their most pressing offseason need by signing coveted free-agent cornerback Brandon Carr to a sizeable five-year contract and aggressively moving up in the draft to nab highly skilled LSU coverman Morris Claiborne in the first round. There are still quite a few positions that must be sorted out on a defense that was clearly the team's weak link in 2011, however. Former Jet Brodney Pool and career reserve Barry Church will be fighting for a starting position at safety, and a fierce competition between Bruce Carter, a gifted but raw second-round pick in last year's draft, and more-experienced spring pickup Dan Connor should ensue at inside linebacker. There's also a battle to be held at left defensive end, where veteran Kenyon Coleman faces a steep challenge from holdover Marcus Spears and emerging third-year man Sean Lissemore for the top spot on the depth chart. Dallas will also be hoping that a reliable No. 3 receiver from the current ranks can emerge, with 2011 college free agent Andre Holmes believed to have an edge on the inconsistent Kevin Ogletree and rookie Danny Coale (5th Round, Virginia Tech), who'll miss the beginning of camp with a fractured foot, heading into the summer. Another rookie to monitor is Ronald Leary, an undrafted offensive lineman with a chance to open the season as a starter at right guard if projected regular Mackenzy Bernadeau isn't completely recovered from hip surgery. The saga involving cornerback Mike Jenkins, a 2011 starter who was on the trade block in the spring following the additions of Carr and Claiborne, also bears watching, though his situation is compounded by a lingering shoulder injury that will sideline the former first- round selection early in the preseason.
N.Y. Giants (9-7)
REPORT DATE: July 26th
SITE: University at Albany, Albany, NY
Though the Giants enter the preseason as world champions for the second time in five years, the roster is far from set as they begin defense of their title. Key contributors to last year's Super Bowl run such as running back Brandon Jacobs, wide receiver Mario Manningham, offensive tackle Kareem McKenzie, tight end Jake Ballard and cornerback Aaron Ross are no longer around, and there are a few medical concerns as well with corner Terrell Thomas, wide receiver Domenik Hixon and left tackle Will Beatty all coming back from season-ending injuries and No. 1 receiver Hakeem Nicks sidelined for the start of camp with a broken foot. If Beatty proves to have his back problems behind him, that will allow Big Blue to move veteran David Diehl into McKenzie's old post on the right side, but those plans would be scrapped if that isn't the case. The Giants did secure potential replacements for Jacobs and Manningham by selecting running back David Wilson and wideout Rueben Randle in the first two rounds of this past draft, with the latter ready to contend with Hixon for the No. 3 receiver position. The situation at middle linebacker is a bit tenuous as well. Special-teams ace Chase Blackburn emerged as the starter following spring practices, but he'll have competition from former Cincinnati first-round pick Keith Rivers and inspirational second-year man Mark Herzlich.
Philadelphia Eagles (8-8)
REPORT DATES: July 22nd (rookies), July 25th (veterans)
SITE: Lehigh University, Bethlehem, PA
The Eagles head to Lehigh focused on atoning for a disappointing 2011 campaign filled with sky-high expectations, though this season's optimism has been tempered somewhat by the absence of a pair of important contributors due to injury. All-Pro left tackle Jason Peters will likely miss the entire year after rupturing his Achilles tendon in the spring, while steady defensive tackle Mike Patterson will be held out all of camp while recovering from January brain surgery. Patterson's unavailability will provide an avenue for 2012 first-round pick Fletcher Cox to showcase his skills and make a case for a starting role on a defense that will be fielding two new linebackers, with ex-Texan DeMeco Ryans slated to man the middle after coming over via trade and rookie second-rounder Mychal Kendricks the favorite to take over on the strong side. On offense, Philadelphia will be hoping free-agent signee Demetress Bell can stay healthy and transition quickly to line coach Howard Mudd's zone- blocking scheme as Peters' replacement and third-year pro Mike Kafka can continue to make strides as the next in line to Michael Vick at quarterback. Finding someone who can ease the workload on star running back will also be a high priority. 2011 fifth-round choice Dion Lewis enters camp with an edge in experience, but rookies Bryce Brown and Chris Polk will have a chance to make an impression as well.
Washington Redskins (5-11)
REPORT DATES: July 16th (rookies), July 25th (veterans)
SITE: Redskins Park, Ashburn, VA
The Redskins were able to accomplish their No. 1 goal heading into training camp with last week's signing of Robert Griffin III, ensuring that the electrifying rookie quarterback will be on the field when the team begins its first full-squad workouts. Getting the 2011 Heisman Trophy recipient completely versed in the offense in time for Washington's Sept. 9 season opener now becomes the main order of business for head coach Mike Shanahan and his staff, though expect fellow rookie Kirk Cousins to receive abundant playing time early in the preseason as he starts an apprenticeship as Griffin's expected long-term backup. The Redskins also have decisions to make at running back and wide receiver, with Tim Hightower and promising second- year man Roy Helu vying for lead ball-carrying duties as long as the former shows he's over last October's ACL tear and youngster Leonard Hankerson battling free-agent pickup Josh Morgan for the No. 3 wideout job behind ex- Colt Pierre Garcon and mainstay Santana Moss. The biggest camp question marks on defense reside in the secondary, where there'll be new starting safeties in offseason acquisition Brandon Meriweather and either one of two castoffs, Madieu Williams (49ers) or Tanard Jackson (Buccaneers). A preseason competition at kicker will also be on the menu, with inconsistent incumbent Graham Gano attempting to stave off proven vet Neil Rackers.
Chicago Bears (8-8)
REPORT DATE: July 25th
SITE: Olivet Nazarene University, Bourbonnais, IL
A situation of disharmony that threatened to disrupt Chicago's summer practice schedule was averted in the days leading up to camp when the team came to agreement with Matt Forte on a new four-year contract, preventing a potential holdout from the standout running back and allowing head coach Lovie Smith and his staff to devote their full attention to the most pressing on-field matters. As has been the case with the Bears in past years, chief among them will be stabilizing an offensive line that's struggled in pass protection in recent times. The main battle lies at left tackle, where returning starter J'Marcus Webb endured an inconsistent 2011 season and will be pushed for his job by Chris Williams, a 2009 first-round pick whose career has also been marked by erratic play. Right guard is also unsettled, with ex-49er Chilo Rachal brought in to compete with returnee Lance Louis for the starter's role. Achieving continuity between quarterback Jay Cutler and a revamped receiver corps that now contains three-time Pro Bowl honoree Brandon Marshall and big- bodied rookie Alshon Jeffery (2nd Round, South Carolina) will also be on new offensive coordinator Mike Tice's agenda, while 2012 first-round selection Shea McClellin will have a chance to take snaps away from veteran Israel Idonije at left defensive end with a strong preseason. Expect Smith to be cautious with his cornerstone players in camp, with Cutler, Forte and young right tackle Gabe Carimi all missing significant time with injuries last year and longtime middle linebacker Brian Urlacher sitting out the spring with a knee problem.
Detroit Lions (10-6)
REPORT DATES: July 23rd (rookies), July 26th (veterans)
SITE: Detroit Lions Training Facility, Allen Park, MI
Jim Schwartz will probably be welcoming the return of a structured environment after the fiery head coach had to endure four of his players being arrested a total of seven times in the offseason, with projected starting cornerback Aaron Berry recently being released after running afoul of the law twice in the past month. His departure sets up a wide-open competition to earn that spot, with free-agent acquisition Jacob Lacey, returnee Alphonso Smith and rookie third-round pick Dwight Bentley entering camp as the leading candidates. Strong safety Amari Spievey will also have a fight on his hands to keep his starting job following a shaky 2011 season, with Detroit re-signing veteran Erik Coleman and bringing in experienced pro Sean Jones as possible alternatives. Shoring up a secondary that was lit up routinely at the end of last season and creating more balance to a pass-heavy offense will be the Lions' two main goals of this camp. The team's two best running backs, Jahvid Best and Mikel Leshoure, missed most or all of last year with a concussion and Achilles tear, respectively, and both will be closely monitored throughout the preseason. Rookie wide receiver Ryan Broyles, a second-round selection in April's draft, also figures to be brought along slowly as he recovers from a torn ACL sustained in November, but it's hoped that he'll be able to push Nate Burleson for time in the slot at some point.
Green Bay Packers (15-1)
REPORT DATE: July 25th
SITE: St. Norbert College, De Pere, WI
Defense will be the central theme when the Packers return to St. Norbert for the 55th consecutive summer, with improving a unit that permitted an NFL-worst 411.6 yards per game the unquestioned No. 1 purpose. A host of rookies on that side of the ball will have the chance to shine in the preseason, with first- round choice Nick Perry expected to be installed as a regular outside linebacker opposite All-Pro Clay Matthews and second-rounder Jerel Worthy one of several candidates to start at right defensive end, a list that also includes holdovers C.J. Wilson and Jarius Wynn and Dolphins castoff Phillip Merling. With veteran playmaker Charles Woodson possibly moving full-time to strong safety and nickel back Sam Shields coming off a poor season, the door could be open for Casey Hayward -- another second-round selection in April's draft -- and 2011 fourth-round pick Davon House to get on the field at cornerback, with undrafted second-year safety M.D. Jennings also in the equation in sub packages after impressing in offseason workouts. Green Bay is fairly well set at offense, but the team does want to see if injury-prone leading rusher James Starks can handle a more substantial workload with former backfield mate Ryan Grant now out of the picture and if young reserves Alex Green and Brandon Saine can emerge as reliable secondary options. A pair of second-year tight ends, D.J. Williams and Ryan Taylor, could be in line for increased duties with main backup Andrew Quarless' season in doubt due to an ACL tear.
Minnesota Vikings (3-13)
REPORT DATE: July 26th
SITE: Minnesota State University, Mankato, MN
There will be a few storylines worth following when the Vikings head to Mankato with designs on improving off a dismal 3-13 season in 2011. The biggest one involves Adrian Peterson and the standout running back's continued recovery from a torn ACL sustained last December. Though the team is optimistic that the four-time All-Pro be ready to go for the season opener, he'll still be brought along slowly and likely held out of early practices. Disgruntled wide receiver Percy Harvin made headlines in the spring by briefly walking out of minicamp in protest over his contract and playing, though the expectation is he'll report on time, while another potential holdout was averted when the team reached agreement with heralded rookie offensive tackle Matt Kalil just prior to the first practice. With the No. 4 overall pick now signed, he'll slot in on the left side of a revamped front line that will have last year's regular left tackle, Charlie Johnson, kick inside to guard and a preseason battle between free-agent signee Geoff Schwartz and rising second-year man Brandon Fusco at right guard. The secondary will see some reshuffling as well, with high 2012 draft choice Harrison Smith ticketed for one safety post and his former Notre Dame teammate, Robert Blanton (5th Round), competing with Mistral Raymond, a five-game starter as a rookie last year, for the other starting job. With No. 2 receiver Jerome Simpson to start the regular season with a three-game suspension, veteran Michael Jenkins and fourth-round selection Greg Childs (Arkansas) can state their case to be the emergency fill-in with a good camp.
Atlanta Falcons (10-6)
REPORT DATE: July 25th
SITE: Atlanta Falcons Training Facility, Flowery Branch, GA
The Falcons have already had to make some adjustments even before stepping out to the field for their first practice, as expected starting middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu suffered a season-ending pectorals tear while lifting weights just prior to the outset of camp and was subsequently released. That leaves unproven second-year man Akeem Dent as the favorite to claim the position, though the team did re-sign 13-year vet Mike Peterson as insurance in case the Georgia product isn't quite ready. The offensive line will also need to be sorted out prior to the season opener, as two spots have unsettled situations at the moment. Former first-round pick Sam Baker enters drills as the No. 1 left tackle, but is coming off back surgery and briefly lost his job to journeyman Will Svitek last season. There'll be an open competition at right guard, where neither Joe Hawley nor Garrett Reynolds distinguished themselves in opportunities a year ago, prompting Atlanta to spend a second-round pick in April's draft on Wisconsin's Peter Konz and sign former Jaguars starter Vince Manuwai after being out of football in 2011. This will also be an important camp for second-year running back Jacquizz Rodgers, whom the club would like to utilize more frequently to help keep workhorse Michael Turner fresh over the course of the season.
Carolina Panthers (6-10)
REPORT DATES: July 16th (rookies), July 27th (veterans)
SITE: Wofford College, Spartanburg, SC
The Panthers have no questions at the quarterback position after Cam Newton's dazzling rookie season in 2011, but there are a few issues that still need to be resolved in other areas if the young club is to continue its progression. Most of those concerns lie on defense, with a pair of starting spots up for grabs in the secondary and several veterans attempting to make their way back from serious injuries. Carolina would like to see one of two high-upside youngsters, either 2011 fourth-round pick Brandon Hogan or rookie fifth- rounder Josh Norman, quickly develop into a capable cornerback opposite stalwart Chris Gamble and push the undersized Captain Munnerlyn into slot duties, while incumbent free safety Sherrod Martin is on the hot seat after an erratic last season and the addition of heady ex-Raven Haruki Nakamura. Three- time Pro Bowl linebacker Jon Beason has been cleared for practice after missing all but one game due to a torn Achilles, but where he'll play has yet to be fully determined. It's possible that the usual middle linebacker will be shifted to the weakside to make room for pro-ready rookie Luke Kuechly, the ninth overall choice in this past draft, or Kuechly could start at the WILL if that proves to be a better fit. The comeback of fellow linebacker Thomas Davis from a third ACL tear in three years to his right knee will also be a compelling storyline of this preseason, while the team is hopeful talented wideout David Gettis is over his own knee injury and can serve as the No. 3 receiver and that undrafted find Byron Bell can be a solid replacement for the departed Jeff Otah at right tackle after an encouraging rookie year.
New Orleans Saints (13-3)
REPORT DATE: July 24th
SITE: Saints Training Facility, Metairie, LA
The Saints will likely be eager to hit the practice fields once again after experiencing one of the most tumultuous offseasons any professional franchise has ever endured. And although Super Bowl-winning head coach Sean Payton and middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma won't be present at Metairie after being hit with season-long suspensions for their roles in the Bountygate scandal, the recent signing of Drew Brees to a new five-year contract that ensures the star quarterback won't miss any camp time was a positive step for a team ready to turn the page on the past few months. With nearly every key member of New Orleans' record-setting offense also returning, interim head coach Joe Vitt shouldn't have too many worries on that side, but a defense that'll be breaking in two new starting linebackers in free-agent additions Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne and is now being run by ex-Rams sideline boss Steve Spagnuolo may need a bit of an adjustment period. Finding consistent pass rushers and a dependable nickel back from a group headed by 2011 third-rounder Johnny Patrick and newcomer Elbert Mack (Tampa Bay) will also be on Spagnuolo's agenda, while the kicking competition between the strong-legged Garrett Hartley and 42-year-old John Kasay should be one of the more interesting battles of camp.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-12)
REPORT DATES: July 18th (rookies), July 26th (veterans)
SITE: One Buccaneer Place, Tampa, FL
There's a new coach, new attitude and plenty of new faces on the 2012 Buccaneers roster, not to mention plenty of decisions that await Greg Schiano as the ex-Rutgers program architect begins his first season in charge. The most interesting of the many camp battles that will take place at this year's camp is at running back, where fumble-prone incumbent LeGarette Blount faces a stern challenge from rookie Doug Martin, whom Tampa Bay selected with the 31st overall choice in April's draft. Two other premium 2012 picks, safety Mark Barron (1st Round, Alabama) and outside linebacker Lavonte David (2nd Round, Nebraska), have the inside track at starting jobs on an overhauled defense where 16th-year veteran Ronde Barber is being moved to free safety after a long and successful run at right cornerback. The main focus of the Schiano regime, however, will be getting quarterback Josh Freeman back on track after the strong-armed 24-year-old regressed badly last season following an excellent 2010 campaign. The Tampa field general will have an exciting new weapon to work with after the Bucs landed prized free-agent wideout Vincent Jackson in the offseason, while ex-Colts tight end Dallas Clark will attempt to further boost a remodeled receiving corps if he's able to bounce back from two straight injury-plagued years.
Arizona Cardinals (8-8)
REPORT DATE: July 23rd
SITE: Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff, AZ
Arizona's sixth training camp under head coach Ken Whisenhunt will feature a quarterback competition that figures to last well into the preseason. Kevin Kolb enters the two-man race with third-year pro John Skelton as a slight favorite for the starter's nod, mostly because the Cardinals are paying him $8 million for this season, but the brittle veteran will still need to show well after managing only a 3-6 record during a disappointing and injury-marred first year with the team. Skelton guided Arizona to a 5-2 mark in seven starts in 2011, but owns just a 53 percent completion rate and a 13-to-16 touchdown- to-interception ratio over his career. There will be a few other positions to watch on offense, with heralded 2012 first-round pick Michael Floyd attempting to overtake holdover Andre Roberts for the No. 2 receiver slot opposite perennial All-Pro Larry Fitzgerald and fellow rookie Bobby Massie (4th Round, Ole Miss) vying with journeyman Jeremy Bridges to be the regular right tackle. Whisenhunt and his staff will also be keeping a close eye on their top two running backs, with leading rusher Beanie Wells coming off knee surgery in January and promising youngster Ryan Williams missing his entire debut season with a torn patella tendon. Greg Toler, also recovering from a knee injury that cost him all of 2011, will contend with free-agent pickup William Gay and rookie Jamell Fleming (3rd Round, Oklahoma) for starter's snaps at cornerback in the most notable defensive battle.
St. Louis Rams (2-14)
REPORT DATES: July 24th (rookies), July 27th (veterans)
SITE: ContinuityX Center, Earth City, MO
The long-suffering Rams are about to embark upon yet another massive rebuilding effort, with former Tennessee head coach Jeff Fisher tabbed to lead this latest project, and establishing roles and getting a bevy of incoming talent to blend together will be the focus of the new regime. Many of St. Louis' 10 choices in this most recent draft have a path to immediate playing time if they're up to the task, with hulking first-round tackle Michael Brockers and controversial second-round cornerback Janoris Jenkins penciled in as immediate starters on a defense that's undergoing a major makeover. The Rams could have a pair of first-year players contributing at the outside receiver flanks as well, with both good-sized second-rounder Brian Quick and speedy fourth-round selection Chris Givens set to get crash courses in coordinator Brian Schottenheimer's offense, though veteran Steve Smith may have a say in the matter if the ex-Eagle can demonstrate he's completely over a knee problem that greatly curtailed his 2011 production. Getting 2010 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year Sam Bradford healthy and back to form after an injury-plagued and ineffective sophomore campaign is also a high priority for the new staff, and that cause would be aided if tackles Roger Saffold and Jason Smith can stay on the field after each missed substantial time a season ago. There are also decisions to be made at left guard and outside linebacker, where free-agent additions Jo-Lonn Dunbar, Rocky McIntosh and Mario Haggan are vying for two open spots.
San Francisco 49ers (13-3)
REPORT DATES: July 21st (rookies), July 26th (veterans)
SITE: Marie P. DeBartolo Sports Centre, Santa Clara, CA
Obtaining more explosive weapons to an offense that ranked 29th in passing yards during last year's breakthrough 13-3 campaign was the offseason onus of the 49ers' front office, and getting those newcomers ready to go when the real games start will be the top priority of camp. The most notable acquisition was that of seven-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Randy Moss, though the mercurial 35- year-old must prove he can still be an impact performer after sitting all of of last season and putting together a rather unproductive 2010. Giants Super Bowl XLVI hero Mario Manningham and rookie first-round pick A.J. Jenkins will also attempt to earn prominent roles on a totally revamped receiver cast, while former University of Oregon speedster LaMichael James (2nd Round) has an opportunity to make a mark as a change-of-pace alternative to workhorse running back Frank Gore. Another interesting preseason battle will come at quarterback, where ex-Buccaneer Josh Johnson and 2011 second-rounder Colin Kaepernick will compete to be the No. 2 behind entrenched starter Alex Smith. The Niners have to replace only one regular, right guard Adam Snyder, from last year's NFC West championship squad, with third-year man Alex Boone entering camp as the favorite to step in.
Seattle Seahawks (7-9)
REPORT DATE: July 27th
SITE: Virginia Mason Athletic Center, Renton, WA
The Seahawks are set to stage a wide-open competition for the No. 1 quarterback job, and that race will certainly be the highlight of the team's third camp under head coach Pete Carroll. Seattle signed ex-Green Bay understudy Matt Flynn to a three-year, $19.5 million contract in the offseason, though he'll open camp behind Tarvaris Jackson on the depth chart due to the returning starter's advanced knowledge of the offense. Undersized rookie Russell Wilson, a third-round pick in April's draft, can't be counted out as a dark horse either after impressing the staff in minicamp, and the athletic 23-year-old should get ample opportunity to show his skills in the preseason. Fellow rookie Bobby Wagner, the Seahawks' second-round choice, could be in line to claim a major role at middle linebacker with free-agent signee Barrett Ruud a question mark because of various injuries, while bruising running back Marshawn Lynch's possible suspension after a recent DUI arrest could provide an early-season opening for fourth-round selection Robert Turbin. Young wide receivers Golden Tate, Kris Durham and Ricardo Lockette also figure to get long looks in camp following veteran Mike Williams' release and the fragile status of top target Sidney Rice, who's missed 17 games with shoulder problems the last two years.