- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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Finally, the NFL's 10 new coaches get on the practice field for a chance to show why they've been hired.
Finally, the paper tigers of the offseason -- those whose transactions are graded in thought but not in deed -- get a chance to see how accurate prognosticators rated them.
And finally, the talk of miracle comebacks from injuries can be illustrated in live contact drills and preseason games; the Cincinnati Bengals can assemble for an indefinite period, subsequently limiting the chance of another arrest; and Terrell Owens gets to let his actions speak on the Cowboys' practice field instead of talking through his autobiography.
Training camps have finally, mercifully arrived. The unofficial start of camps came when Ty Law reached a five-year agreement with the Chiefs. Most people believed he would wait a week or two into camp and either sign with the Chiefs or rejoin his former teammates in New England. Law was one of last year's big offseason signings when he waited until after the start of camp to sign with the Jets. The great closer that he is, Law finished with 10 interceptions and made the Pro Bowl.
Law was the best free agent available. With virtually every other top player accounted for except quarterback Kerry Collins and defensive tackle Grady Jackson, we can put this offseason's hot stove league to rest and concentrate on what happens on the field.
The summer weather has been hotter than normal, which could cause for interesting decisions on how coaches juggle their practices. More night practices are scheduled. Fewer two-a-days are on the agenda. As always, the idea for most coaches is to preserve talent instead of wearing it out on the hot practice field.
Teams finding the right balance of hard work without carrying over injuries into the regular season tend to have the best starts in September. Here are the top 10 things to watch for in camps.
1. Consult the local physicians: The offseason has been filled with stories of quarterbacks making miraculous comebacks from major injuries. Dolphins quarterback Daunte Culpepper ran virtually all of the team's offseason workouts despite having triple knee ligament surgery last year. Cincinnati's Carson Palmer has been wowing those working out with him in Carson, Calif. He's moving well on a reconstructed knee injured during the playoffs in January. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger bounced back from a motorcycle accident and might be ready for the start of training camp. New Orleans' Drew Brees and Chad Pennington of the Jets have recovered from shoulder surgery. The tough decisions for their coaches is how to use them during training camp. The temptation will be there to let them do everything. Each quarterback feels good enough to ask to do more than he should. Trainers will have to be on alert to make sure those franchises' valued assets don't subject themselves to further injury.
2. Who's the man? It's rare to have quarterback competitions in camp. Most decisions are made once an organization decides to sign or draft a quarterback. Though there aren't many starting quarterback jobs in question, there are some wild battles scheduled. Jets coach Eric Mangini says his team has a four-way battle for the quarterback job. Believe it or not, Pennington is probably the favorite even though he could be the first known quarterback to come back from two shoulder operations. Patrick Ramsey, Brooks Bollinger and rookie Kellen Clemens fill out the competition. The Bills quarterback scramble is also wide open. Veteran Kelly Holcomb enters camp with the edge. General manager Marv Levy liked Craig Nall enough to give him a shot. But the interesting player to watch is J.P. Losman. Unlike last season, Losman will have to earn the starting job and he has a good shot. First, his arm strength fits the system change by offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild. Second, he's worked harder and more efficiently this offseason. Don't dismiss him.
Only upsets could change a few other competitions. If healthy, Culpepper will beat out Joey Harrington in Miami. Jon Kitna will hold off Josh McCown in Detroit. Kurt Warner is clearly the starter over Matt Leinart in Arizona. Jake Plummer might be on the hot seat, but he will stall rookie Jay Cutler's chances of starting.
3. Ground Game: The most wide-open battle at running back is in the Mile High City. Mike Shanahan is making Tatum Bell earn the starting job. Remember, the Broncos traded away Clinton Portis and drafted Bell as the back of the future. The future is now for Bell, who has impressive breakaway speed but needs to improve on his short-yardage and goal-line efforts. Bell competes directly against Ron Dayne but indirectly against air. Shanahan would like to use wide receiver Ashley Lelie in a trade to get another running back into the mix.
The best pure battle of camp will be in Chicago where Cedric Benson will fight it out against Thomas Jones. Benson's training camp holdout last summer and Jones' ability to look great in Ron Turner's one-cut-and-go running scheme allowed Jones to run away with the job last year. Hoping for a new contract, Jones didn't attend most of the offseason practices while Benson did. Benson is the favorite. The Titans' battle should be interesting. In fact, the three-way fight among Chris Brown, Travis Henry and LenDale White already has Brown asking to be traded. The 49ers will have a good competition between Kevan Barlow and Frank Gore. The question in Indianapolis is going to be how long it will take for Joseph Addai to beat out Dominic Rhodes.
4. Rookies who don't have to sing school fight songs: It's still hard to believe there are seven first-time head coaches. Will they be a breath of fresh air or fresh meat for a competitive league that can chew up and spit out the best of the experienced coaches? Brad Childress of Minnesota faces the most pressure because he has one of the better teams among the first-time head coaches. The defense has been loading up on talent the past couple of years, and there are some interesting parts on offense. Mike McCarthy has a tough challenge in Green Bay. Even though his schedule isn't that hard, he has to bring back the winning feel in Green Bay. That feeling was lost last season. Brett Favre lost his way and some confidence throwing interception after interception in comeback situations last year. Rod Marinelli of the Lions was brought in to bring back some discipline to the Lions. Early reviews are good, but the Lions have been soft for the past couple of years. Houston's Gary Kubiak needs some time to install much needed protection schemes for the dented David Carr. Sean Payton doesn't have it easy in New Orleans. He needs Brees to be healthy and he's got to find a way for his defense to stop the run. Scott Linehan has to see if the Rams' talent is going forward or backward since the Mike Martz days. Mangini of the Jets has the toughest job of all. The Jets talent has been rebuilt down to the bone, and Mangini has a build it back.
5. Don't forget, hire the vet: What do Art Shell, Herman Edwards and Dick Jauron have in common? A lot. They were all good players. Each became a valued assistant coach. Each had initial success as a head coach. Now, each gets a second chance. Each finds himself in an interesting situation. Shell was rehired by Al Davis to re-educate a new generation of Raiders players on what it means to be a Raider. After going outside the organization for the past several coaches, Davis went old-school on this hire and brought back Shell, whom he shouldn't have let go years ago. Jauron had playoff success in Chicago but lost his job. He caught everyone's eye with how well he did as an interim head coach in Detroit last season after Steve Mariucci was fired. Marv Levy, the Bills' GM, and Jauron are former Ivy Leaguers. They can talk and teach football with the best of them. I'm still trying to figure out why the Jets let Edwards go to Kansas City for just a fourth-round pick. Edwards led the Jets to three playoff trips in five years. Now, he takes over a veteran Chiefs team looking to get back to the playoffs. All three veterans should provide their teams with a boost.
6. Welcome to the Big Top: This is the Cowboys final summer in Oxnard, Calif. Training camp is moving back to San Antonio next year, but there will be a circus environment in this camp. Tents and fun things for fans fill the areas outside of the Cowboys' practice field in Oxnard. What makes this camp extra special is the arrival of Owens. Owens is a show. Though he might grab more headlines with his statements and opinions, the guy can play. Cowboys fans who hated him with the 49ers and Eagles will love his smooth, hard-working style of running routes. But will there be any training camp blowouts? The Cowboys are loaded with veteran players. They have Bill Parcells and Jerry Jones. T.O. is the show, but there is plenty to see at this camp.
7. Who's the Boss? Good things are happening in Miami. Nick Saban took over the Dolphins last season and surprised everyone with a strong finish and nine victories. Are the Dolphins the next major playoff contender? Probably. Saban has brought in his type of players. Saban loves size. He has beefed up the offensive line and added size on the defense. There is more speed in the secondary. And there is no bigger quarterback than Culpepper, who has trimmed down from 267 to 261 pounds. Saban appears to be building something special in Miami. This is one of the key camps to watch.
8. Yipes, Stripes: Face it, the Bengals will be considered annual playoff contenders as long as Palmer and Marvin Lewis are sharing the spotlight in Cincinnati. Palmer looks like the next Peyton Manning. Lewis brought the Bengals organization into the new millennium with the acquisition of good, fundamentally sound players. But the Bengals head to training camp with distractions everywhere. A number of young players on the Bengals have had off-the-field issues in recent months, including a number of arrests and a league suspension for violations of the substance abuse policy. Suddenly, the Bengals have gone from being a Cinderella story to being considered the NFL's version of the Portland Jail Blazers. Lewis must get the players' focus back on football.
9. An Oasis in Flagstaff: Is there finally hope in the desert for the Arizona Cardinals? There appears to be a lot of hope. Considered the sleeper team of 2005, the Cardinals never opened their eyes, finishing 5-11. But the Cardinals had one of the league's best offseasons. They signed Edgerrin James and drafted Leinart. Warner is back to throw to one of the most dangerous three-receiver sets in the league. Leonard Pope was drafted as a tall tight end to help out in the red zone. The Cardinals have a new stadium, and, believe it or not, they will be playing in front of a full house. Home-field advantage in Arizona? It's hard to believe.
10. A super Charger? The Chargers will miss the leadership and tenacity of Brees, who left for the New Orleans Saints. What they have in his place is Philip Rivers, who had a great reputation for leadership and game tenacity in college. But can Rivers win over his Chargers teammates and put up Brees-like numbers in his first season? The first challenge for Rivers is not to panic in training camp and to let his team gain confidence in him. Rivers has had a quiet, but good offseason working with the Chargers. Though the Chargers missed the playoffs by a game last season, they were burdened by one of the league's toughest schedules. The schedule is easier this season, but the quarterback is more uncertain. The pressure is on Rivers after a two-year apprenticeship. He appears to be up to the task so far, but all eyes will be on him in training camp.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
2dEric D. Williams
2dMel Kiper Jr.