AFC East: Training camp challenges
Challenge No. 1: Improve the offensive line.
After ranking near the bottom of the league in several offensive categories, the Bills sought to upgrade their porous offensive line by signing Derrick Dockery and Langston Walker during free agency. Star tackle Jason Peters and Dockery should form one of the league's better tandems on the left side, while Walker should solidify right tackle.
They'll have to jell quickly for the offense to make major improvements this season, so look for the starters to get more snaps during the early preseason games to speed up that transition.
Challenge No. 2: Get the young guys ready to play on defense.
The loss of defensive back Nate Clements and linebackers Takeo Spikes and London Fletcher-Baker leaves huge holes in terms of leadership and production. The Bills are optimistic that Keith Ellison and Angelo Crowell can fill the void at linebacker, and they're also high on 2007 second-round draft pick Paul Posluszny. But making up for Clements' absence will be tougher. Ashton Youboty and Kiauwakee Thomas were penciled in to battle for the starting spot before free agent Jason Webster impressed during the OTAs (optional team activities). Webster appears to be a lock to win the starting job if he stays healthy. Still, the unit is likely to experience growing pains, even if the version of the Cover Two that Buffalo runs is simpler than most.
Challenge No. 3: Settle the running back situation.
While first-round pick Marshawn Lynch will be the feature back, the battle between fourth-round pick Dwayne Wright and sixth-year veteran Anthony Thomas for the backup position should be closely watched. With the Bills seeking to create a productive duo in the backfield, the importance of finding a complementary runner is essential. Though Thomas has been productive throughout his career, many feel Wright would bring more juice to the lineup. The rookie will get every opportunity to win the job, but will need an impressive showing during the preseason to unseat Thomas, a second-round draft choice in 2001 by then-Bears head coach (and current Bills coach) Dick Jauron.
Challenge No. 1: Get Trent Green acclimated with the offense -- and his teammates.
By not closing the deal quickly on the Green trade, the Dolphins hampered the development of their offense. Green was handpicked by coach Cam Cameron to orchestrate Miami's attack, but he and Cameron have not worked together since their days in Washington in 1996. Despite having familiarity with Cameron's offense, Green has just six weeks in training camp to establish a rhythm with his teammates. He will have to take a higher number of reps with the first unit early in training camp, but his reps and throws will be monitored to prevent him from overworking his arm. Green will be ready to go by the season opener. It'll be interesting to see how effective he is.
Challenge No. 2: Find the right combination along the offensive line.
The Dolphins are implementing a youth movement along the offensive line. Rookie Samson Satele will start at center and sixth-round pick Drew Mormino is battling for the starting spot at left guard. Former center Rex Hadnot is moving to right guard while left tackle Vernon Carey and right tackle L.J. Shelton seem set at those positions. With so many new faces playing together for the first time, it is important that Miami play various combinations during the preseason.
Challenge No. 3: Figure out how to best utilize Joey Porter.
After his surprising release from Pittsburgh, Porter landed in the perfect spot. The Dolphins needed an outside linebacker with outstanding rush skills to push Dom Capers' defense to the next level; Porter's skills fit the bill.
Teaming Porter with Jason Taylor gives the Dolphins a host of options in their 3-4 zone blitz scheme, which should create headaches for opposing offenses. Because of the athleticism and versatility of both players, offenses will have a difficult task in deciding which way to slide their protection. Both players will see more one-on-one matchups, which should bode well for Miami.
The challenge for Capers will be to determine how best to utilize Porter's skills as a pass rusher without taking away from the effectiveness of Taylor. Capers' scheme features a lot of player movement. It's possible to see Porter or Taylor line up all over the field in the base defense. Porter is also likely to line up at defensive end in the sub package to give the Dolphins a pair of bookend rushers on passing downs. Though Capers may not reveal his plans for Porter during the preseason games, he is surely building a package that lines him up at multiple positions in the regular and sub-packages.
Challenge No. 1: Prepare to play without Asante Samuel.
With Samuel's holdout likely lingering into the regular season, the Patriots have to find a suitable replacement for the cornerback during his anticipated absence. Samuel emerged as one of the top corners in the league last season: His 10 interceptions were tied with Denver's Champ Bailey for the NFL regular-season lead.
Veterans Tory James and Chad Scott have been solid starters throughout their career, but both are on the downside and lack the playmaking skills that Samuel possesses. Former starter Randall Gay surprised many with his performance as a rookie starter, but he has since settled in as a nickel and dime defender. Rookie Brandon Meriweather is another option because of his athleticism and versatility. The Patriots will spend the majority of the preseason tweaking their scheme to play to that individual's strengths while masking their weaknesses.
Challenge No. 2: Develop chemistry between Tom Brady and the new receivers.
After watching Brady's production slip last season, the Patriots aggressively upgraded their receiving unit. The additions of Randy Moss, Donte' Stallworth, Wes Welker and Kelley Washington give Brady one of the NFL's top receiving corps. But defining roles among the cast presents the Patriots with an interesting dilemma.
Moss has always been viewed as a lead receiver; his willingness to sacrifice his numbers will be the key to the Patriots success. If he can find satisfaction with fewer catches, it will make it easier for the other guys to buy into a less-is-more equation. Remember, the Patriots have never had a receiver gain more than 1,000 yards or catch over 60 balls in a season during their championship runs. Getting everybody to buy into the system should be the focus of the preseason.
Challenge No. 3: Determine whether Laurence Maroney is healthy enough to carry the ball fulltime.
Maroney was dazzling as Corey Dillon's partner last season. He showed big-play potential by scoring six touchdowns and leading the team in rushing seven times. Despite those flashes of brilliance, there is growing concern over his ability to be the workhorse in the Patriots' offense.
Maroney is recovering from offseason shoulder surgery and missed two games last season with a rib injury. Based on that history and the limited depth behind him, it is imperative that the Patriots bring him along slowly to ensure his healthy return for the regular season. Without his perimeter running skills, maintaining balance in their three- and four-receiver sets will not be possible.
Challenge No. 1: Fix the Pete Kendall issue.
Despite signing a lucrative extension in March 2006, Kendall has voiced displeasure with his contract and has raised the possibility of a holdout. Though Kendall is still viewed as a serviceable starter at guard, his declining skills and penchant for being a locker room lawyer leaves the Jets in a bind. The team would love to find a suitable replacement so they can jettison the lineman before he becomes a bigger distraction.
Adrien Clarke is getting the majority of the reps with the first team. If the third-year pro can convince the coaching staff early in preseason that he is ready to be the starter, Kendall will be traded or released prior to the end of training camp. If Clarke falters, the team will likely bite the bullet and keep Kendall.
Challenge No. 2: Find a capable backup for Chad Pennington.
Pennington is one of the top quarterbacks in the league when healthy but the Jets have to solidify the backup quarterback position in case of injury. Former second-round pick Kellen Clemens has not developed as quickly as hoped and free agent Marques Tuiasosopo has yet to prove he can be a solid player in the league.
Both Clements and Tuiasosopo should see significant time early in preseason games. If neither performs up to par, expect the Jets to shop around for a backup. With the quarterback position being the key to New York's success, it is critical that they feel good about the depth at the position.
Challenge No. 3: Get the top draft picks on the field.
In the first two rounds of the draft, the Jets aggressively made moves to secure cornerback Darrelle Revis and linebacker David Harris. They need to push to get these guys on the field because they could be critical pieces in the building of the 3-4 defense. Though teams are reluctant to pencil in rookies as starters, both of these players are significant upgrades over the players who previously manned the positions.
With Revis having to guard the likes of Moss, Lee Evans and Chris Chambers, he should play as much as possible during the preseason. While the adjustment to linebacker should be a little smoother, Harris also needs to see a plenty of work during the preseason. As an inside linebacker in the 3-4 defense, much of his game will involve making critical checks and adjustments for the front seven. Plugging him into the lineup right away will get him much-needed experience against formations and shifts that require quick adjustments.