Key AFC training camp battles
Bills' quarterback derby goes three deep; Jets must find niche for Tomlinson
The Bengals could have opened camp Saturday like the Dallas Cowboys -- their opponents in the Hall of Fame Game -- but Marvin Lewis elected to give his team a couple of fewer days in camp.
Lewis will assemble his team in Georgetown, Ky., on Wednesday, hoping to repeat as the AFC North champion. Overall, the AFC is getting a slightly later start, which isn't bad when you consider that the conference enters the preseason with only one quarterback derby (Buffalo).
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For the most part, things haven't changed in the AFC. The Colts, Patriots and Chargers are the consensus favorites in their divisions, while the Ravens hope to top the Bengals and stay ahead of the Steelers in the AFC North. Here are the five main position battles in the AFC:
1. Buffalo Bills: Quarterbacks: Although many people outside of western New York might not care about this battle, it's significant because three players all have a chance to emerge as the starter. Trent Edwards enters as the favorite, but Brian Brohm seems to be picking up steam as a challenger. Don't count out Ryan Fitzpatrick, who started eight games last season. If all three quarterbacks fail this season, they all stand to be out in 2011, because the Bills could be drafting in the top five and grabbing a Jake Locker or Andrew Luck.
2. New York Jets: RB LaDainian Tomlinson versus RB Shonn Greene: Although Tomlinson was brought in to share the position with Greene, coach Rex Ryan has to figure out during practices and in preseason games how to use both backs. Greene is the ideal first- and second-down back because of his powerful running style and his ability to gain yards between the tackles. Tomlinson is a future Hall of Famer who wants to prove the Chargers wrong for letting him go. Can he accept more of a backup role, or will he want to establish himself as the starter?
3. Kansas City Chiefs: RB Thomas Jones vs. RB Jamaal Charles: Everyone applauded the Chiefs for picking up Jones, who ran for 1,402 yards last season and could provide good leadership in the locker room. But Charles exploded during the second half of the 2009 season and finished with 1,120 yards. The only other team with a playing-time decision as tough as this one is the Carolina Panthers, who had two 1,100-yard backs in DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart.
4. Indianapolis Colts: Wide receivers: Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie made Colts fans forget about former first-round choice Anthony Gonzalez, who hurt a knee during the season opener and didn't play the rest of the season. Garcon caught 47 passes for 765 yards as an outside threat. Collie caught 60 for 676 yards working out of the slot. Gonzalez is back and will be competing for playing time. He was drafted to be a slot receiver between Reggie Wayne and Marvin Harrison in 2007. Harrison is gone, but the coaching staff has to decide whether Gonzalez will be playing in the slot or on the outside.
5. Tennessee Titans: Cornerbacks: Cortland Finnegan is established as a star cornerback, but coach Jeff Fisher has to figure out what to do on the other side. He has a four-way competition with Jason McCourty, Ryan Mouton, Tye Hill and Alterraun Verner, a fourth-round pick from this year's draft. McCourty, a sixth-round pick last year, ran with the first team for most of the offseason, but don't count out Mouton, who was taken in the third round in 2009. Verner could be the sleeper. It might be tough for Hill, a former first-round pick of the Rams, to make the roster.
From the inbox
Q: When some players such as Tim Tebow enter the NFL, there is always concern they were "system players" in college. Why don't NFL teams adapt their systems even slightly to attempt to play to the strengths of a player like Tebow?
Dave in Maple Shade, N.J.
A: NFL teams do adjust their systems slightly to fit what is coming out of college, but you can't do the extremes of college. If you go back a couple of decades ago, plenty of colleges were using the wishbone, and that wouldn't translate to the NFL. The spread offense featuring exclusive shotgun formation is the latest trend, but there are running limitations associated with going to that much spread in the pros. In shotgun, an offense is pretty much limited to draw plays in the running game. College is a different game from the pros. In college, teams don't have 11 stud athletes to fill every starting job, so they have to go to extremes. In the pros, you have to have a full playbook on offense and defense to beat the other team.
Bill in Philadelphia wonders why first-round signings are tougher this year. They are tough every year, but be patient. The Dez Bryant deal was the first one done because the Cowboys were willing to pay a little more of a premium on the guarantees, as they aren't big on putting big escalator clauses at the end of deals. I don't think there will be a significant increase in the number of holdouts this year compared to past years. Jack in Palo Alto, Calif., is looking ahead to the season and forecasts more teams trying onside kicks in overtime if they lose the coin toss. He thinks the strategy of recovering the kick and then getting the game-winning field goal could work. That's still a big gamble, but it's an option. David in Madison, Wis., accepts Johnny Jolly's one-year suspension, but he thinks Ben Roethlisberger is getting off lightly after two accusations of sexual assault. I counter that Roger Goodell was bold and strong by going six possible games for Big Ben when there were no verdicts against him. Rick in Xenia, Ohio, wonders whether the Bengals need to pick up a running back to back up Cedric Benson. I think so. Bernard Scott looks like a good third-down back, but if they lose Benson, I'm not sold that Brian Leonard could maintain the ground game consistently. Austin in Seattle knows Leroy Hill's trial for a domestic incident is coming up toward the end of the month and wonders about the impact on the Seahawks. The Seahawks are standing by Hill, so he will be with the team this year. He's already suspended for one game, and a guilty result could eventually extend that suspension. In the meantime, David Hawthorne will fill in, and he's a perfect fill-in. Gregg in Aurora, Ohio, is confused about why Chris Johnson of the Titans accepted a slight raise this year instead of getting the big contract with the $30 million guarantee. The answer is simple: He wasn't getting the big contract after two seasons. It was better to grab something instead of holding out and not getting anything other than fines for missing practices. Staying on the Johnson front, Jim in Greenville, S.C., doesn't see Johnson and the Titans doing any better than 7-9 because of their tough schedule. I have them for eight wins, but seven isn't out of the question, for the reason he states. Mike in Fargo, N.D., asks if the Chiefs upgraded their line enough to better protect Matt Cassel. The line isn't great, but it is deeper and better.
Q: In regards to LaMarr Woodley, I know it's the Steelers' way to not work on contracts during the season, but what are the real chances that they let him leave after the season? Shouldn't he be the No. 1 priority?
Adam in Pittsburgh
A: Don't forget that the Steelers have the franchise tag for now. The tag would have to be approved in the new collective bargaining agreement, but the Steelers want to keep him, and Woodley wants to stay. Elvis Dumervil set the market for Woodley at six years, $61 million, and that would be a difficult contract for the Steelers to swallow. The good thing for the Steelers is that Woodley understands and is handling the situation well. His money is coming next year one way or another.
Q: Can we crown the AFC East as the toughest division in the NFL now?
From Rick in Florida
A: Not yet. The NFC East is still the best, because it has four tough teams now that the Redskins have acquired Donovan McNabb. The AFC East has the Bills, but the three teams at the top of the division make for a competitive race. You can make the argument that the AFC East tops the AFC North because the Steelers might struggle to get over .500 without Ben Roethlisberger early in the season. You can also make the argument that the AFC East tops the AFC South if you believe the Jets and Dolphins are better than the Titans and Texans. You can put the AFC East over the NFC North if you believe the third-best team in the AFC East is better than the Bears.
Q: I know there is still plenty to go in the Peyton Manning contract negotiation, but when it is done do you think it will give us more of an idea on how long Manning is going to play? He seems to have numerous options after football. What's your gut feeling?
John in Knoxville, Tenn.
A: I think Manning will play until he is 40, and then make a judgment. You figure this contract will be five or six more years. He turned 34 in March and is sacked fewer than 20 times a season. This contract will be a bridge until that decision.
Q: Of the Jets' big three seeking new contracts, who should be the first priority? Honestly, I think Nick Mangold comes first. Darrelle Revis should get one too, but with the additions of Brodney Pool and Antonio Cromartie, the team should be pretty good in the secondary. What's your take?
Corey in Sturgis, S.D.
A: I think the team should take care of Mangold and David Harris first. Harris is going to make more than $8 million a year, but they need to keep him for leadership. Mangold is the best center in the AFC. They can't lose him. I'd put Revis third in the order because he still has three years on his contract.
Q: I'm a soldier serving in Iraq right now and would like to know what your thoughts are on the Raiders' front seven on D with the additions of Quentin Groves, John Henderson, Rolando McClain, Kamerion Wimbley and the re-signing of Richard Seymour?
Angelo in Baghdad
A: The biggest impact could come from McClain, who might end up as one of the top candidates for defensive rookie of the year. He's a playmaking middle linebacker who could become an instant leader on defense. As you know, linebackers have been dominating the DROY award for the past eight years. Henderson won't be the impact player he was in Jacksonville, but he's a solid addition to the line. I wouldn't count on much from Groves, but they could get a good season out of Wimbley as the strongside linebacker. The Raiders will be better on defense, and Jason Campbell can make them better on offense.
Q: Jared Odrick is a hometown hero back here in Lebanon. Is there a chance that Odrick starts at defensive end for the Dolphins and fills his Lebanon faithful with even more pride?
Cameron in Lebanon, Pa.
A: I look at Odrick as a clone of Aaron Smith. Through the 2000s, Smith was probably the best 3-4 defensive end. He was great against the run, and he helped the pass rush. Maybe that's too high a level to project for Odrick, but he has the potential to be an Aaron Smith-type defensive end. Phillip Merling blew out his Achilles and is probably going to miss the season. That doesn't automatically give Odrick the starting job, but it gives him the chance to earn a lot of playing time as a rookie.
Q: I just posted an analysis of the Raiders' offensive line with and without JaMarcus Russell on the message boards here. It was rough, but I don't get paid to do this kind of stuff and I don't have the data sheets that you guys do. Anyway, the difference is dramatic. Russell was sacked at almost twice the rate Bruce Gradkowski and Charlie Frye were per pass attempt. Also, averaging the yards per carry for the running backs in the games in which Russell took most of the snaps (3.3) versus the games in which Gradkowski/Frye played (4.3) was also telling. With no real changes to this line other than the fact that it should be healthier, is it to much to expect that it will be somewhere around average?
Parker in Seattle
A: For the Raiders' offense, Russell was a zero. He stared at wide receivers to the point that it made it easy for cornerbacks to pick up the coverage. With the ball not going to the wide receivers, defenses could load up against the run and only had to worry about Zach Miller catching passes at tight end. All the numbers will get better without Russell. That's why the Raiders should be one of the surprise teams this season. Their offense should score six or seven points a game more than last year, and all their numbers will improve. Good job by you, though.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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