- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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The AFC has been blindsided by the Patriots.
After taking a passive approach in 2006, the Patriots have outspent the rest of the league in an attempt to get back to the Super Bowl. New England has spent more than $40 million on new acquisitions.
From Randy Moss to Adalius Thomas, the Patriots have tried to bring in Pro Bowl-caliber talent to upgrade their roster at a time when some of their top young players have contract issues. Asante Samuel isn't happy about his franchise tag and could hold out. Deion Branch held out last year and ended up getting traded.
But few can criticize the Patriots' approach. They have treated free agency like Tom Brady treats two-minute situations. They're trying to make the big score.
Here are the big questions in the AFC.
Is the offensive line solid enough to get the Ravens to the Super Bowl?
The first piece of good news came the day before the draft. Left tackle Jonathan Ogden decided not to retire. He's been a rock at left tackle, so losing him could have cost the Ravens a chance to make the playoffs. The line has taken some hard hits, with right tackle Tony Pashos leaving for Jacksonville and Ed Mulitalo getting cut and signing with the Lions.
Fortunately, Brian Billick has been grooming young replacements. Adam Terry takes over at right tackle and Jason Brown replaces Mulitalo, while Chris Chester will challenge Keydrick Vincent at right guard. The line came together last year after struggling in 2005, but any line that has to replace two or three starters can face problems. Pass protection will be even more important because Steve McNair is older and doesn't have the same mobility he once had. The play of the line could determine the success of the team.
Are the Bills really better at linebacker without Takeo Spikes and London Fletcher?
A follow-up question is whether the Bills are as good at running back with Marshawn Lynch replacing Willis McGahee. Naturally, the Bills wanted Patrick Willis to be their first-round pick. He would have been the anchor to their linebacking corps, but the 49ers drafted him one spot ahead of the Bills. Marv Levy believes he found a new Shane Conlin with the second-round selection of Paul Posluszny.
Spikes and Fletcher are gone, so the linebacking group has been completely overhauled. With a defensive line that isn't dominating, it is hard to tell whether the defense is even better. Making things worse is the loss of Nate Clements at cornerback. The Bills are hoping to get by with Terrence McGee and Ashton Youboty. As a low-revenue team, the Bills have to cut some financial corners. It remains to be seen whether they cut their collective throats by losing too many key defenders.
Did the Bengals do enough this offseason to get better?
It's been a quiet offseason, and that should be good news for the Bengals. No player has been arrested since the end of the season, but the offseason also has been quiet in terms of acquisitions. Other than linebackers Ed Hartwell and Michael Myers, the Bengals haven't added much to an aging defense.
Marvin Lewis is holding the fort and hoping the roster is good enough to compete with the Ravens. He knows Carson Palmer should be even healthier in 2007, and the receiving corps is deep, despite the loss of Kelley Washington, and Chris Henry's eight-game suspension. He just hopes this group stays out of trouble.
Can the Browns get off to a fast start?
General manager Phil Savage did everything he could to give Romeo Crennel a chance to get off to a fast start. Everyone in Cleveland knows the season, and the future of the front office, could be determined in the first six games. The Browns play their three AFC North home games in September. If they can't get off to a 2-1 start in the division, Crennel's tenure as head coach could end this season.
Savage drafted Joe Thomas and signed Eric Steinbach to fix the left side of the line. Jamal Lewis has the experience to pound teams early in games. Charlie Frye knows his job as starter comes down to how well he performs during the first six weeks. If the Browns don't win, Crennel could lose his starting job and Brady Quinn could emerge as the starting quarterback.
So how much different will this Broncos defense be?
Mike Shanahan surprised everyone by firing defensive coordinator Larry Coyer and replacing him with the talented Jim Bates. Equally surprising has been the overhaul in personnel. Middle linebacker Al Wilson was released. The Broncos also changed the focus of the defensive line, which had been filled with former Cleveland Browns. The Broncos drafted two linemen from Florida and acquired Dre' Bly to start at cornerback opposite Champ Bailey. Bates comes in with an aggressive style of coverage. He loves man-to-man and will have his corners in press coverage. Obviously, Shanahan wants more big plays coming from his defense.
Is the Texans' offensive line good enough to protect Matt Schaub?
The Texans had a busy offseason, but failed to add any new offensive linemen. Jordan Black was the only signing for the line. David Carr was the least-protected quarterback in the league over the past five years. While the Texans kept drafting blockers, few developed into solid pass protectors.
The result was the release of Carr and the acquisition of a whole new backfield. Schaub, who backed up Michael Vick in Atlanta, will have former Packers Ahman Green and Vonta Leach in the backfield. But the whole success of the offense comes down to the offensive line. Black, Chester Pitts, Mike Flanagan, Fred Weary and Eric Winston have to keep the quarterback upright.
Can the Colts survive their losses on defense?
Tony Dungy works so well with general manager Bill Polian. Polian knows Peyton Manning and the offense can already hold their own, but he still gave them a little infusion by drafting wide receiver Anthony Gonzalez and tackle Tony Ugoh. Dungy and Polian also love developing young defenders, and are willing to let them play.
The key to the defense is how it survives the losses of cornerbacks Nick Harper and Jason David. There are plenty of unproven draft choices who will be counted on to emerge, such as Marlin Jackson, Tim Jennings and Daymeion Hughes. Kelvin Hayden also has some playing experience. The other challenge will be at weakside linebacker, where Freddy Keiaho will try to replace Cato June. The Colts can't afford too much of a drop-off on defense.
So why did the Jaguars sign Tony Pashos and Dennis Northcutt?
Two of the most surprising signings of the offseason were Pashos at offensive tackle and Northcutt. Most observers felt the Jaguars were in good shape along the offensive line. Right tackle Maurice Williams received a contract extension a couple of years ago.
The receiving corps has disappointed Jack Del Rio, but Northcutt's signing was like a blindside hit. He received a five-year, $17 million contract after after being cast aside by the Browns. Northcutt might improve the passing game, but the key for the team is protecting Byron Leftwich.
Did the Chiefs start a late rebuilding process and the league didn't get the memo?
Veterans are flying out of Kansas City. In the past week, the Chiefs traded Dante Hall and Ryan Sims, then cut Eric Hicks and William Bartee. In addition, Will Shields is going to retire and Trent Green is out the door. Herm Edwards took over an old roster and it will take a couple of years to rebuild, but it is interesting that the purging process started around the draft, not before. The Chiefs still have a number of questions. What happens to Kendrell Bell after the signings of Napoleon Harris and Donnie Edwards? When will Green be traded or released? Kansas City will be one of the more active teams over the next month.
So who is the Dolphins' starting quarterback?
The only unresolved quarterback situation in the league is in Miami. Daunte Culpepper is the starter, but the Kansas City Chiefs will determine how long things remain that way. If the Dolphins finally acquire Green, Culpepper will likely lose his job. He is still recovering from knee surgery and has to feel uncomfortable with all the talk about Green. The most controversial decision was passing on Brady Quinn, Miami opting instead to select John Beck in the second round.
How fast can four receivers pick up the Patriots' offense, and are there enough balls to go around?
The league is still buzzing about the Randy Moss trade. Sending Moss to the Patriots for a fourth-round pick makes New England the early Super Bowl favorite. Tom Brady has an impressive list of targets: Donte' Stallworth, Moss, Wes Welker and Kelley Washington. Welker is the only one of the group with any long-term security. Moss is a free agent after the season, while the team has options on Stallworth and Washington. Watching the Patriots' offense should be fun.
Is Anthony Clement the Jets' answer at right tackle?
The Jets looked at right tackle from the start of free agency but couldn't find anyone and re-signed Clement. The team has other issues along the offensive line. Pete Kendall's days at left guard could be numbered; there were rumblings he was up for trade consideration. The Jets hit it big in last year's draft with D'Brickashaw Ferguson and Nick Mangold. Ferguson had a decent rookie season, and the Jets believe Mangold is an emerging star. The Jets used the draft to take care of some defensive needs, but need more options along the line.
How long will it take before JaMarcus Russell starts for the Raiders?
The Raiders drafted the best quarterback in JaMarcus Russell and traded for veteran Josh McCown. McCown has good mobility, which is important because the Raiders were the leakiest line in football last year. He could be a solid stopgap, but with so much money invested in Russell, Al Davis might want to see him play right away.
Russell has a strong arm and gives the Raiders hope at quarterback. It is worth remembering that the Titans intended to sit Vince Young for the season, but he came off the bench and won eight of 13 starts.
Is Ben Roethlisberger comfortable with the coaching change and the offseason?
Ben Roethlisberger wanted more responsibility as a passer, but wasn't ready to handle it. The motorcycle accident and the appendectomy certainly didn't help. Bill Cowher and Ken Whisenhunt are gone, but some of the same offensive coaches remain.
Roethlisberger seems to be working well with offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, as the Steelers try more spread sets. The coaches are even letting Roethlisberger handle the blocking adjustments. The gloves have been removed, and it will be up to Roethlisberger to take control of the offense.
Are the Chargers good enough to beat the Colts and Patriots?
The Chargers will be a sexy pick for the Super Bowl because they have 11 Pro Bowl players returning and Philip Rivers has had an extra year to develop at quarterback. However, while the roster underwent virtually no big changes following a 14-win season, the coaching staff has experienced a great deal of turmoil.
The Chargers fired head coach Marty Schottenheimer and had to replace their top two coordinators, Wade Phillips and Cam Cameron. Norv Turner takes over as head coach, so there is harmony between the head coach and the general manager. The Chargers are one of the elite teams in the league. Now, they have to take the next step by beating the Colts and Patriots in the playoffs.
Can Vince Young get better at quarterback if the Titans' skill positions around him look weaker?
The Titans head into their minicamps with a lot of changes on offense. Wide receivers Drew Bennett and Bobby Wade and halfback Travis Henry are gone. Chris Brown remains unsigned and it is not known if he will be back. LenDale White is the starting halfback at the moment, but he has reportedly ballooned to 260 pounds this offseason.
The Titans did draft speedy running back Chris Henry in the second round, but the backfield clearly isn't as deep as it was a year ago. The receiving corps also seems a little thin. Young won Rookie of the Year honors by running around and moving the chains with timely throws. If new weapons don't emerge, it could be hard for him to repeat his success in 2007.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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