Published July 27, 2012
| Sports Network
Philadelphia, PA – The AFC may have lost the last three Super Bowls, but they'll have their rival conference well beaten when it comes to summertime exposure.
Nearly all of the most captivating story developments of this year's training camp season will reside in the offshoot of the old American Football League, with Peyton Manning's exodus from Indianapolis to Denver as the most ballyhooed free agent in NFL history, Tim Tebow's arrival on Broadway as the New York Jets' latest show-stopping attraction and the contentious holdouts in the works from Jacksonville running back Maurice Jones-Drew and Pittsburgh wide receiver Mike Wallace all sure to garner an insane amount of scrutiny and attention in the coming weeks.
Heck, even Chad Johnson's rebirth in Miami (yes, Ochocinco es muerto) should bring some enchanting footage when HBO renews its "Hard Knocks" documentary at the site of Dolphins' camp.
So take that, Giants, Packers and Saints.
With teams ramping up their preparations for the regular season this week, here's a team-by-team synopsis of the players and position battles to look out for among the 16 AFC inhabitants, with last season's record for each included in the breakdown:
Buffalo Bills (6-10)
REPORT DATES: July 9th (rookies), July 25th (veterans)
SITE: St. John Fisher College, Pittsford, NY
The installation of a new 4-3 defense run by former Bears and Dolphins head coach Dave Wannstedt will take precedent when the Bills convene in Pittsford, with the defensive end and cornerback positions getting a particular emphasis. Buffalo spent big on pass rushers in the offseason, landing prized two-time Pro Bowler Mario Williams and double-digit sack artist Mark Anderson in free agency, and both will be counted on to play prominent roles in the revised scheme. Rookie Stephon Gilmore, Buffalo's first-round choice in April's draft, will be given every opportunity to supplant disappointing former No. 1 pick Leodis McKelvin at one corner spot, with talented second-year pro Aaron Williams getting a crack at a starting nod on the other side. There's plenty of competition at wide receiver as well, with returnees Donald Jones, Derek Hagan and Marcus Easley and rookie speedster T.J. Graham (3rd Round, North Carolina State) all seeking to seize the No. 2 post opposite top target Stevie Johnson, and a battle between onetime Titans starter Vince Young and holdover Tyler Thigpen for the backup quarterback job should be one of the more intriguing preseason competitions. Maintaining good health will also be a desired goal in camp, with key players such as Mario Williams, running back Fred Jackson, defensive tackle Kyle Williams and center Eric Wood all coming back from season-ending injuries.
Miami Dolphins (6-10)
REPORT DATE: July 26th
SITE: Miami Dolphins Training Facility, Davie, FL
The cameras will be rolling in South Florida this summer, and the Dolphins figure to provide plenty of entertainment for HBO's "Hard Knocks" series with the compelling position battles that will take place at camp. The headline story will undoubtedly be at quarterback, where three players are in the mix to run first-year head coach Joe Philbin's West Coast offense. Matt Moore entered the offseason as the favorite after a solid 12-start stint under the old staff last season, but will need to fend off rejuvenated veteran David Garrard, who missed all of 2011 with a back injury but showed well in the team's minicamp sessions. Miami also spent its first pick in April's draft on athletic Texas A&M triggerman Ryan Tannehill, and the rookie should receive plenty of preseason work to state his own case. The pecking order at wide receiver is equally as cloudy, with holdovers Brian Hartline and Davone Bess joined by the always-colorful Chad Johnson and ex-Panther Legedu Naanee for the right to be the new No. 1 target in the wake of Brandon Marshall's offseason trade to Chicago. Competitions also exist on the right side of the offensive line, with rookie second-round choice Jonathan Martin contesting Lydon Murtha at tackle and free-agent pickup Artis Hicks vying with disappointing 2009 third-rounder John Jerry at guard. The Dolphins didn't have much turnover on defense, but the switch to a 4-3 look under new coordinator Kevin Coyle will require some fine-tuning. Top pass rusher Cameron Wake will now work at right end after previously excelling as a stand-up linebacker, with former first-round pick Jared Odrick entering the starting lineup on the opposite side.
New England Patriots (13-3)
REPORT DATES: July 19th (rookies), July 25th (veterans)
SITE: Gillette Stadium, Foxboro, MA
Competition will be fierce when the Patriots begin defense of their 2011 AFC title, with a slew of free-agent signings brought in during the offseason fighting to stick on a deep and talented roster. Shoring up a defense that surrendered the second-highest yardage total in the league last year will also be near the top of the priority list, as evidenced by the team spending their first six draft picks on that side of the ball. Two first-round selections -- end/linebacker hybrid Chandler Jones and linebacker Donta Hightower -- could be ticketed for major roles in the rebuild if up to the task, with the former having a opportunity to quickly make his mark as a needed pass-rushing presence if still-unsigned Pro Bowler Andre Carter isn't retained. Versatile lineman Jonathan Fanene and former Raiders edge rusher Trevor Scott are two other newcomers with a chance to become valuable contributors, while ex- Charger Steve Gregory looks to have the inside track at a starting safety spot in a secondary that has also undergone some fine-tuning. There are jobs up for grabs on offense as well, with second-year pros Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen battling returnee Danny Woodhead for playing time at running back and stalwart Deion Branch trying to fend off challenges from seasoned pickups Jabar Gaffney and Donte Stallworth and remain the third receiver. At quarterback, strong- armed sophomore Ryan Mallett will likely get a long look in the preseason to prove his worth as Tom Brady's future backup with current No. 2 Brian Hoyer a free agent at season's end.
New York Jets (8-8)
REPORT DATES: July 23rd (rookies), July 26th (veterans)
SITE: SUNY Cortland, Cortland, NY
The Jets have never shied away from the spotlight during Rex Ryan's tenure as head coach, and the blockbuster acquisition of Tebow from Denver back in March ensures they'll again be one of the more talked-about teams of the preseason. The move could come with some controversy as well, even though Ryan has repeatedly stated the captivating young quarterback won't be a threat to the maligned Mark Sanchez's starting job. How the Jets exactly plan to incorporate Tebow's unique skills as a runner into an offense that's now being run by ex- Dolphins head coach Tony Sparano will be something to follow all throughout camp, as will the club's uncertain situation at right tackle. New York traded for former Carolina first-round pick Jeff Otah just prior to the start of the summer sessions, but the brittle lineman failed his initial physical and the deal could end up being voided. If Otah is kept around and healthy enough to go, he'll be an overwhelming favorite to beat out pedestrian incumbent Wayne Hunter. Safety LaRon Landry, another offseason pickup, will also be trying to work his way into playing shape after missing much of last season with a lingering Achilles problem. Two other newcomers that may be in line for key roles are 2012 draft picks Stephen Hill and Quinton Coples, with second-round choice Hill a possibility to start alongside Santonio Holmes at wide receiver and first-rounder Coples slated to hold down one of the ends on a defense that's expected to utilize more 4-3 looks this year.
Baltimore Ravens (12-4)
REPORT DATES: July 22nd (rookies), July 25th (veterans)
SITE: Under Armour Performance Center, Owings Mills, MD
After losing coordinator Chuck Pagano as well as three experienced regulars to their high-caliber defense during the offseason, the Ravens enter this year's camp in need of some rearranging in that area. The most notable and important absence comes at the rush linebacker spot, where 2011 NFL Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs will be out until at least November after partially tearing his Achilles tendon in the spring. His injury puts the spotlight on projected replacement Paul Kruger, a fourth-year pro who's flashed difference- making ability in spot duty but has never been a full-time player at the pro level. Rookie Courtney Upshaw, Baltimore's second-round pick in this past draft, will also be asked to step into a featured role at outside linebacker with valued veteran Jarret Johnson departing in free agency, while the team will be counting on promising youngsters Arthur Jones and Pernell McPhee to help fill the void left by end Cory Redding's decision to join first-year head coach Pagano in Indianapolis. A changing of the guard could take place at one cornerback spot as well, with gifted 2011 first-round selection Jimmy Smith a candidate to push incumbent Cary Williams into nickel situations after being eased in as a rookie. Do-everything running back Ray Rice won't have to worry about losing his status after recently signing a long-term contract, but there will a battle brewing between rookie Bernard Pierce (3rd Round, Temple) and seldom-used sophomore Anthony Allen for the backup job. Another interesting competition could take place at quarterback, where former Colt Curtis Painter was signed to vie with the lightly-seasoned Tyrod Taylor for the No. 2 position on the depth chart.
Cincinnati Bengals (9-7)
REPORT DATE: July 26th
SITE: Paul Brown Stadium, Cincinnati, OH
The Bengals were hit with some sobering news right as they were beginning preparations for the upcoming season, with the team's top 2012 draft pick -- cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick -- fracturing his knee bone just prior to the start of camp. His expected absence for likely the entire preseason is a bad break for a secondary in which top cornerback Leon Hall will be handled delicately in practices as he comes back from a torn Achilles, but increases the chances of veterans Jason Allen or Adam Jones handling nickel duties in Week 1. The most contentious camp battle will take place at wide receiver, where a host of promising but unproven options are competing to start opposite rising star A.J. Green. Return specialist Brandon Tate and onetime practice-squad member Armon Binns each turned heads in the spring to vault into contention, with rookie Mohamed Sanu (3rd Round, Rutgers) squarely in the mix as well. One of that group could also receive some work at slot receiver with top option Jordan Shipley still recovering from an ACL tear suffered last September. Chris Crocker's offseason release has created a void at strong safety the team hopes to fill with former 49ers second-round selection Taylor Mays, who's played sparingly his first two pro seasons, though the coaching staff is also high on 2012 fifth-rounder George Iloka.
Cleveland Browns (4-12)
REPORT DATES: July 24th (rookies), July 26th (veterans)
SITE: Cleveland Browns Training and Administrative Complex, Berea, OH
The future will be now as the Browns prepare for the second year of the Pat Shurmur era, with the team's top three choices in this past draft all slated to become major contributors to a transitioning offense. Cleveland intends to sink or swim with overaged rookie Brandon Weeden at the quarterback position, and how the 28-year-old former baseball player fares in grasping the system will determine the eventual fates of deposed starter Colt McCoy and veteran backup Seneca Wallace, both of whom are prime candidates to be either traded or released. There's little debate or controversy over who will start at running back, with former Alabama star Trent Richardson locked into lead duties after being tabbed with the third overall pick in April, but there'll be a fierce competition between oft-injured Montario Hardesty and third-down specialist Brandon Jackson to be the primary understudy. Second-round selection Mitchell Schwartz also opens camp as a starter at right tackle, while keep an eye on wide receiver Josh Gordon, a raw but physically-gifted wide receiver whom the Browns took in the second round of this month's supplemental draft. If up to the challenge, the Baylor product could push for a significant role on an nondescript pass-catching corps. The greatest area of uncertainty on defense lies at tackle, where returning regular Phil Taylor is expected to miss a good portion of the regular season with an offseason pectorals tear. Career reserve Scott Paxson will get first crack to be the replacement, though rookie draft picks John Hughes (3rd Round, Cincinnati) and Billy Winn (6th Round, Boise State) could have a say in the matter.
Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4)
REPORT DATE: July 25th
SITE: Saint Vincent College, Latrobe, PA
The offense figures to be the main focus when the Steelers hold their 47th consecutive training camp in Latrobe, with former Kansas City head coach Todd Haley now taking over as coordinator and the front line expected to undergo a major reshuffling. Pittsburgh used its first two picks in April's draft on offensive linemen, plucking Stanford's David DeCastro and Ohio State's Mike Adams with early selections, and the rookies loom as the early favorites to grab starting jobs at right guard and left tackle, respectively. Second-year man Marcus Gilbert will take over full-time at right tackle in addition, shifting the oft-injured Willie Colon to left guard provided he's over Achilles and triceps tears that have limited to just one game over the past two seasons. Change will be taking place at running back as well, with capable reserve Isaac Redman now the main man with Rashard Mendenhall still recovering from a torn ACL suffered back in January, and his elevation creates an opening for youngsters Jonathan Dwyer and John Clay to claim the primary backup role. Veteran nose tackle Casey Hampton will also miss most or all of camp while making his way back from knee surgery, with either former practice-squad member Steve McLendon and massive rookie Alameda Ta'amu (4th Round, Washington) to hold down the fort in the meantime, while 2011 draft picks Cortez Allen and Curtis Brown will both be trying to claim the vacant nickel back spot in lieu of William Gay's offseason departure. The impasse between Wallace and the team over long-term contract talks could wind up trumping all other storylines, however, with the big-play wide receiver yet to sign his restricted free agent tender and failing to show up on reporting day in protest.
Houston Texans (10-6)
After finally getting over the hump in 2011 with a 10-win regular season and opening-round victory in their first-ever playoff game, the Texans now face the unfamiliar task of being the hunted favorite in a reordered AFC South. The defending division champions also have to withstand the loss of several key players from last year's breakthrough squad, with premier pass-rusher Mario Williams, inside linebacker DeMeco Ryans, offensive linemen Eric Winston and Mike Brisiel and wide receiver/return man Jacoby Jones among those no longer on the payroll. The team will be counting on holdovers Antoine Caldwell and Rashad Butler to rise up from the reserve ranks and fill Brisiel and Winston's spots at guard and tackle, respectively, on a rebuilt right side of the line, though 340-pound rookie Brandon Brooks (3rd Round, Miami-Ohio) and second-year pro Derek Newton could have a say in the outcome with impressive camps. Grooming a replacement for No. 3 receiver Jones also ranks as a top goal. Houston is very high on Lestar Jean, a college free agent who spent his entire rookie year on injured reserve, and spent mid-round picks on rookies DeVier Posey (3rd Round, Ohio State) and Keshawn Martin (4th Round, Michigan State) in this past draft, but none have ever caught a pass in an NFL game. Rebuilding the special teams is also on the to-do list, with the Texans set to enter the season with a new kicker (rookie Randy Bullock), punter (Donnie Jones) and returners (likely Martin and Justin Forsett), and keeping quarterback Matt Schaub and All-Pro wideout Andre Johnson healthy after each missed multiple games with injuries last year is a must as well.
Indianapolis Colts (2-14)
REPORT DATES: July 25th (rookies), July 28th (veterans)
SITE: Anderson University, Anderson, IN
The torch will be officially passed when the Colts return to Anderson for their 2012 camp, as the splendid 13-year Peyton Manning era is now over and the Andrew Luck period about to commence. Preparing the cerebral No. 1 overall pick of this past draft for his NFL debut as the team's new starting quarterback is just one of a multitude of assignments that first-year head coach Chuck Pagano and his staff will have on their plate as Indianapolis begins a full-scale rebuilding operation, however. The Colts are switching to a 3-4 defense in which pass-rush artists Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis will now be deployed as stand-up linebackers, while a worthwhile nose tackle must be found among the likes of old regime holdover Antonio Johnson, free-agent addition Brandon McKinney and rookie Josh Chapman (5th Round, Alabama). There are questions abound at one cornerback spot as well, with lightly tested third-year man Kevin Thomas, 2011 draftee Chris Rucker and veteran newcomers Cassius Vaughn and Justin King all competing for a starting nod. The offensive line will also have a whole new look, with ex-Raider Samson Satele replacing longtime center Jeff Saturday and a pair of onetime Eagles, guard Mike McGlynn and tackle Winston Justice, the projected starters on the right side. A few other rookies will have a chance to contribute right away on offense, with Luck's Stanford teammate Coby Fleener (2nd Round) and third-round selection Dwayne Allen the top two prospects at tight end and fifth-rounder Vick Ballard vying with second-year pro Delone Carter for the backup running back job behind expected No. 1 option Donald Brown.
Jacksonville Jaguars (5-11)
REPORT DATE: July 26th
SITE: EverBank Field, Jacksonville, FL
The Jaguars didn't have the smoothest of offseasons, but training camp could prove to be an even more challenging period for new head coach Mike Mularkey. 2011 NFL rushing champion Jones-Drew has been angling for a new contract that the front office is reluctant to negotiate, and there's a very real possibility that the prolific running back stages a protracted holdout if his demands aren't met. Talks have also stalled with rookie wide receiver Justin Blackmon, primarily because the team is insisting on protective language after the No. 5 overall pick in this past draft was arrested on a DUI charge in June. There are issues to be hammered out on the field as well, most of which reside on an offense that finished last in the NFL in total yards and first downs last season. Second-year quarterback Blaine Gabbert will need to show improvement after an uninspiring debut, especially with veteran Chad Henne now waiting in the wings after being signed in the spring, and whomever's under center will have to get comfortable with a redesigned cast of receivers that now includes free-agent pickups Laurent Robinson and Lee Evans in addition to Blackmon. The Jags have fewer concerns on the defensive end, though there are a couple of starting jobs to be determined in the preseason. Promising rookie pass rusher Andre Branch (2nd Round, Clemson) will compete with third-year pro Austen Lane for snaps at defensive end, while franchise mainstay Rashean Mathis is coming off ACL surgery and will have a fight on his hands from ex- Giant Aaron Ross at left cornerback.
Tennessee Titans (9-7)
REPORT DATES: July 24th (rookies), July 27th (veterans)
SITE: Baptist Sports Park, Nashville, TN
Mike Munchak's second camp in charge of the Titans won't have nearly the drama as his first go-around, when the Hall of Fame offensive lineman-turned head coach had to deal with an extended holdout from running back Chris Johnson, but the battle between Matt Hasselbeck and Jake Locker for the starting quarterback position is sure to keep the team in the news. The two enter the preseason virtually neck-and-neck for the No. 1 job, though Hasselbeck's large experience advantage over the athletically superior Locker rates the savvy veteran a slight edge if the 2011 first-round draft pick doesn't emerge as the clear-cut choice in camp. There's an interesting situation developing at wide receiver as well, with expected top target Kenny Britt still not 100 percent recovered from last season's torn ACL and encountering numerous off-field problems during his rehab, meaning exciting rookie Kendall Wright -- Tennessee's first-round choice in this past draft -- can work into a prominent role on offense after dazzling the staff with his abilities and quick learning curve in the spring. On defense, the Titans' aim is to accelerate the growth process of a promising young core. Second-year players such as linebackers Colin McCarthy and Akeem Ayers and defensive tackles Jurrell Casey and Karl Klug all saw extensive time as rookies, while cornerback and fellow sophomore Tommie Campbell appears to have a leg up on the open nickel back spot in a secondary that must overcome the free-agent departure of standout cover man Cortland Finnegan.
Denver Broncos (8-8)
REPORT DATE: July 25th
SITE: Paul D. Bowlen Memorial Broncos Centre, Englewood, CO
Tebow Time may have run out in Denver, but Manning Mania has now officially begun as the Broncos hit the practice fields for their second training camp under John Fox. Manning's arrival in the Mile High City -- and comeback from a career-threatening neck injury that sidelined the future Hall of Fame quarterback for the entire 2011 season -- will be one of the most followed and discussed storylines of this preseason, and how the reigning AFC West champions handle the additional media scrutiny could have a big say in their chances for a repeat. Of course, Manning's health will be the biggest factor in determining Denver's 2012 success, and the four-time league MVP will need to develop a rapport with young receivers Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker during the summer prep sessions. Also keep an eye out for rookie running back Ronnie Hillman, a third-round pick in April's draft who could push disappointing former first-rounder Knowshon Moreno off the roster as well-worn veteran Willis McGahee's handcuff. Defensive tackle will be a position to watch as well, with projected starter Ty Warren trying to overcome hip and tricep injuries that have kept him out two straight years and 2012 second- round choice Derek Wolfe attempting to nail down a spot in the rotation. Second-year players Quinton Carter and Rahim Moore will compete to replace the retired Brian Dawkins at strong safety, while Wesley Woodyard will get plenty of reps at weakside linebacker with starter D.J. Williams set to serve a six- game suspension to begin the season.
Kansas City Chiefs (7-9)
REPORT DATE: July 26th
SITE: Missouri Western State University, St. Joseph, MO
The Chiefs will be installing a different offense after hiring former Browns and Dolphins coordinator Brian Daboll as the new play-caller in February, but the team is hoping to stay out of the trainer's room more than anything else when it convenes for camp. ACL tears to three cornerstone members -- dynamic running back Jamaal Charles, strong safety Eric Berry and tight end Tony Moeaki -- in the first two weeks of last season were critical factors in Kansas City's diminished 2011 win total from the previous year, while quarterback Matt Cassel missed seven games after breaking his hand in November. Charles, Berry and Moeaki will all be eased into practices as a precaution, while starting free safety Kendrick Lewis may miss some time as well after tearing his pectorals in January. Assuming he shows up for duty, disgruntled wide receiver Dwayne Bowe will need to get up to speed in digesting Daboll's system after sitting out all offseason workouts in hopes of earning a contract extension, but counterpart Jonathan Baldwin -- the team's No. 1 pick in 2011 -- got rave reviews for his minicamp performances and can stake a claim to an increased role if he continues to progress in the summer. Getting an offensive line that will have two new starters -- young center Rodney Hudson and free-agent right tackle Eric Winston -- to come together will also be on the agenda, while the battle between ex-Chief Brady Quinn and 2011 fifth-rounder Ricky Stanzi for the backup quarterback job will be one to watch come preseason. This year's first-round selection, defensive lineman Dontari Poe, is expected to be an immediate starter at nose tackle.
Oakland Raiders (8-8)
REPORT DATE: July 29th
SITE: Napa Valley Marriott, Napa, CA
The Raiders will once again have a new voice as they begin their quest to end a streak of nine straight non-winning campaigns and playoff absences, with former Denver defensive coordinator Dennis Allen the team's third head coach in three seasons. His first order of business will be getting increased performance out of a defense that was 29th in the NFL in both yards and points allowed in 2011, as well as instilling better discipline after Oakland led the league in penalties in Hue Jackson's lone year at the helm. The most notable camp competition could take place at running back, where former Panther Mike Goodson and second-year speedster Taiwan Jones will square off for the right to be the new No. 2 option behind injury-prone starter Darren McFadden, though it's not out of the question that the team could still explore a veteran insurance policy such as Cedric Benson or Ryan Grant. With middle linebacker Rolando McClain at risk of jail time and/or a league suspension for an assault conviction, getting backup Travis Goethel prepared for a possible fill-in role will be necessary as well. Two players among the team's rookie class to keep an eye on in the preseason are wideouts Juron Criner, a fifth-round choice in April's draft, and free-agent Rod Streater. Both made good impressions in the OTA sessions and may be able to carve out a role even on a receiving cast that possesses good depth.
San Diego Chargers (8-8)
REPORT DATES: July 22nd (rookies), July 25th (veterans)
SITE: Chargers Park, San Diego, CA
Though back-to-back non-playoff finishes have created an atmosphere of heightened urgency in what could be a make-or-break season for head coach Norv Turner, the Chargers won't be going into training camp with a whole lot of uncertainty on the depth chart. The team does have to replace two important offensive pieces in playmaking wide receiver Vincent Jackson and versatile running back Mike Tolbert, both of whom left in free agency, and will be relying on a number of veteran newcomers to mesh quickly and help fill those voids. Ex-Saint Robert Meachem will attempt to step into Jackson's shoes as the new No. 1 receiver, with fellow additions Eddie Royal and Roscoe Parrish also entering the wideout mix, while former 1,000-yard rusher Ronnie Brown and Kansas City discard Jackie Battle are among those aiming to be the main understudy to feature back Ryan Mathews. One newcomer to watch on defense will be outside linebacker Melvin Ingram, San Diego's first-round pick in April's draft who'll be asked to make an immediate impact as a pass-rushing specialist and help fortify a problem area from a year ago. There's a possible opening at safety as well, with offseason pickup Atari Bigby and rookie Brandon Taylor (3rd Round, LSU) the top candidates.