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Ten intriguing NFL training camp storylines

If Peyton Manning stays healthy, there's no doubt the Broncos will return to the playoffs this year. Photo:

If Peyton Manning stays healthy, there's no doubt the Broncos will return to the playoffs this year.

With NFL training camps beginning to open in the coming days, there are storylines galore to start tracking on the field. Here are 10 intriguing questions that need answers as the league’s summer break ends and we get back to football: 

1. With no team having lost a Super Bowl and then bounced back to make amends the following season since Don Shula’s 1971-72 Dolphins, will the Broncos -- humiliated by 35 points on the big stage -- suffer from any lingering Super Bowl shellshock this season?

No cheap shot intended, but at this point in his Hall of Fame-bound career, Peyton Manning is entirely too familiar with the experience of a magical season ending poorly in the playoffs, and then facing the arduous task of pushing the rock back up the hill the following year. And his track record says the focus and drive always return, as attested by his 13 playoff trips in the past 14 years he has been a healthy starter. So the Broncos hardly seemed poised for any significant post-Super Bowl swoon, and how can you consider them as anything but the AFC’s reigning powerhouse at the moment?

Manning and the league’s record-setting offense will be ridiculously potent once again, even with the loss of receiver Eric Decker and running back Knowshon Moreno. For one, the addition of free-agent receiver Emmanuel Sanders should easily offset some of Decker’s impact. And while Manning’s arm strength may be on the decline, his accuracy and ability to dissect a defense, using all of his weapons in the process, remain in the elite class.

It’s on defense where Denver had a concern entering the offseason, and Broncos football czar John Elway addressed those issues about as aggressively as imaginable, acquiring cornerback Aqib Talib, pass rusher DeMarcus Ware, safety T.J. Ward and drafting first-round cornerback Bradley Roby. And don’t forget the return of injured cogs like linebacker Von Miller, safety Rahim Moore and cornerback Chris Harris, all of whom weren’t in uniform on Super Bowl Sunday. These Broncos are loaded with talent on both sides of the ball and Manning’s tone-setting intensity won’t allow for a lot of slippage in desire and motivation. Who can say at this point how the playoffs will unfold, but you can bet the mortgage the Broncos again will be invited to January’s party if Manning stays upright all season.

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2. Can the largely untested Brian Hoyer make the Browns his team before Johnny Manziel’s inevitable starting opportunity arrives? 

Contrary to the bulk of conventional wisdom, I say Hoyer can briefly be the Man in Cleveland before Manziel takes over long-term. We all know Johnny Time is coming in Cleveland. It’s only a matter of its ETA. But I’m of the mindset that the Browns naming Hoyer the clear-cut starter this offseason wasn’t purely a ploy designed to take some of the pressure off Manziel and bring out the best of his hyper-competitive nature. Not that I would be shocked if Manziel is under center in Week 1 against Pittsburgh, because that’s the way it usually works for first-round quarterbacks these days. But I also don’t think it’s a given that Hoyer -- who did win his only three starts last season before blowing out a knee -- is a mere speed bump in the path of the Manziel starting era.

The given is more likely that Hoyer will play and play well in the Browns’ Kyle Shanahan-coordinated offense this preseason, looking comfortable and showing the edge he holds in NFL experience over the rookie. The call will center more on how Manziel responds to Hoyer’s early advantage, and if he can prove ready to grasp the intricacies of Cleveland’s offense and do a passable rookie-year job of reading defenses. If Manziel’s play is up-and-down while Hoyer is more of a solid, steady line, the Browns will have every reason to show patience with their new franchise quarterback and not ride the Johnny rollercoaster from the outset in 2014.

Granted, Hoyer’s hold on the job might not extend into October, but I could see him being just good enough to keep Manziel out of the fast lane to Cleveland’s starting lineup as late summer unfolds.

3. Is Houston’s Bill O’Brien this year’s version of Chip Kelly, an ex-college head coach in line to make a smooth and successful transition to the NFL? Or are the Texans looking at something closer to Tampa Bay’s failed Greg Schiano experience?

While I don’t foresee an instant impact return to the playoffs for the Texans after their 2-14 unraveling of 2013, I"m aware that far more unlikely playoff seasons have been authored in recent NFL history. To me, O’Brien was the right man at the right time in Houston, and his hiring was as shrewd as any move made on the league’s head coaching front this offseason. He supplies the discipline and tough mindset the Texans too often lacked under former head coach Gary Kubiak, but clearly not in the my-way-or-the-highway mode that doomed Schiano to a hasty exit in Tampa Bay.

O’Brien’s strength is he’s a strong motivator who can communicate with players, and he’s adept at finding ways to put them in the best possible position to have success. His two-year tenure leading the troubled Penn State program proved he’s not intimidated by daunting circumstances and limitations, and above all he’ll have the Texans playing like a cohesive unit, with a reputation for fighting an opponent to the end instead of folding in the season’s biggest games.

Obviously O’Brien comes with NFL experience, having recently been on Bill Belichick’s staff in New England, while Kelly was an NFL novice last year in Philadelphia. But being a member of Belichick’s coaching tree hasn’t worked out too well for the likes of Romeo Crennel, Josh McDaniels, Eric Mangini at the head coaching level, and O’Brien has to buck that trend if he’s to turn around a program that is deep in talent but at times maddeningly inconsistent, with a penchant for underachievement.

O’Brien’s biggest challenge would seem to be returning Houston to relevance without the benefit of a front-line quarterback. For now, well-traveled veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick is his serviceable but far-from-spectacular starting option, and the job gets all the tougher for the Texans if their disgruntled No. 1 receiver, Andre Johnson, forces his way out of town. On the plus side, the weak AFC South may be the NFL’s most fertile ground for a turnaround team, a similar fate to what Kelly’s Eagles enjoyed in last year’s mild-mannered NFC East.

4. Which unit is primed and in position to be the league’s most improved?

The hide-your-eyes ugly realities were many for the Falcons offensive line last season. Atlanta ranked 32nd in the league in rushing, allowed Matt Ryan to absorb more pass pressure than any other quarterback in the league, and had its toughness and tenacity questioned by seemingly everyone from Falcons owner Arthur Blank on down after 2013’s disaster. Atlanta got pushed around up front and rarely pushed back. If that sounds like a recipe for nowhere to go but up, I concur.

The Falcons at least threw their full focus on the problem, drafting Texas A&M’s Jake Matthews at No. 6 overall to fix things at right tackle, signing ex-Chiefs right guard Jon Asamoah to close another hole, and hiring noted offensive line guru Mike Tice to coach the revamped bunch. Tice always leaves an O-line better than he found it, and his oversized presence alone will help instill toughness and resiliency to what was Atlanta’s weakest link last season.

The Falcons offensive line can’t help but be better, and if left tackle Sam Baker can return strong from last year’s knee injury and center Joe Hawley and left guard Justin Blalock respond positively to Tice’s teaching, Atlanta’s offensive front might be transformed from outright liability to borderline team strength almost overnight. The Falcons’ return to playoff contention probably depends on such improvement, and without it, Atlanta’s bevy of skill position talent will again go largely wasted.

5. Is the shortage of defensive talent in Dallas a crisis that’s every bit as bad as it looks?

Absolutely. Think of it this way: The Cowboys defense was dreadful and ranked dead-last in the league in yards allowed (415.3), even when it had reliable inside linebacker Sean Lee, franchise career-leading pass-rusher DeMarcus Ware and underrated defensive tackle Jason Hatcher playing the vast majority of the time. Subtract those proven playmakers (Lee with a likely season-ending ACL injury in OTAs, Ware a cap cut and Hatcher exiting via free agency) and where does that leave a unit that was dinged for 27 points per game on average (ranking 26th) in 2013? I liked the Cowboys move to elevate the resourceful Rod Marinelli from defensive line coach to coordinator, replacing the overmatched Monte Kiffin, but the man is not a miracle worker. Otherwise his 2008 Detroit Lions would not have made history at 0-16.

The Cowboys defense had better see some little-known talents emerge and get career years from a host of veterans if Dallas hopes to play for another division title in Week 17 this season. Otherwise, the mind-boggling recent run of 8-8 mediocrity in Dallas will be recalled as the good old days at Valley Ranch in 2014.

​Marinelli will at least have the Cowboys defense better prepared than last year’s train wreck of a transition to a 4-3 Tampa 2 formation, when five quarterbacks torched Dallas for four touchdowns, four QBs totaled 400 yards passing against Dallas, and the New Orleans Saints posted a gaudy 40 first downs on one memorable night in the Superdome.

But that still might not be nearly enough if Dallas doesn’t find a way to replace the pass rush it loses without Ware and Hatcher in the lineup (a combined 17 sacks in ’13). Up front, the likes of ex-Bears Pro Bowl tackle Henry Melton, Nick Hayden, George Selvie, Terrell McClain, Jeremy Mincey, DeMarcus Lawrence and Tyrone Crawford will be out to prove the theory that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. In the secondary, cornerbacks Morris Claiborne, Brandon Carr and Orlando Scandrick all have to thrive in a system that Marinelli said will rely on more man coverage than it did in the dark days of last season.

It’s a heck of an ask of a defense to improve after losing its three best players, but that’s the landscape Dallas faces this season. In this case, a crisis mode seems entirely justified.

6. How secure is Geno Smith’s grasp on the Jets starting quarterback job, even if new veteran backup Michael Vick has all but conceded their impending training camp competition?

Vick is 100 percent right about this much: If Smith and he perform relatively equally in August, the second-year pro is going to get the nod because he’s the team’s future and general manager John Idzik and everybody else who matters keep reflecting the organization’s unwavering faith in him. After all, Smith did follow up a rocky first three months of his rookie season with a strong December, completing 59 percent of his passes with four touchdowns and just two interceptions. Why not maintain the status quo and keep building on that momentum?

But equal preseason showings have a funny way of often failing to materialize. What if Smith struggles and Vick sparkles in the practice games? What if Vick benefits from knowing offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg’s offense inside and out from their time spent together in Philadelphia and clearly outshines a slow-starting Smith in their limited doses of playing time next month? And how can you not factor in the reality that head coach Rex Ryan is again in win-now mode following his third consecutive non-playoff season, even if he was granted a two-year contract extension through 2016 (with the final year not fully guaranteed)? How long until the coach and the GM find themselves in conflict in terms of the team’s present versus future needs?

In the NFL’s version of movies we’ve seen before, I think Vick will again clearly out-perform a second-year quarterback this summer, just as he did in 2013 in the Eagles’ truly open quarterback competition between Vick and Nick Foles. Vick’s wealth of experience and his blend of playmaking with both his arm and still-dangerous legs almost always look enticing and intriguing at this time of year. Then the hits start piling up, the inevitable injuries arrive, and his effectiveness drops, which played out again last year with Foles’ meteoric ascension in Philly.

It’s definitely Smith’s job to lose in New York, but would anyone be shocked if he loses it? At least for a short while? Vick opening the season at No. 1 for the Jets doesn’t mean he’ll stay there all season, or that Smith’s future has been derailed. More likely, only delayed.     

7.  Last season Kansas City rode major upgrades at head coach (Andy Reid) and quarterback (Alex Smith) to the NFL’s turnaround team of the year status. Anybody ripe to follow that particular blueprint in 2014?

Tampa Bay easily jumps to mind. New Bucs head coach Lovie Smith brought instant credibility, stability and a winning track record to town with him in January, and I’m of the opinion Tampa Bay’s Josh McCown signing represented one of the better fits of short-term need and player in this year’s free agency period. Challenging NFC South and all, I’m backing the Bucs in the turnaround team pool. They’ve improved at the two spots that most often doom franchises to failure, and that gives them their best shot to reach the playoffs since the final season of the Jon Gruden coaching era collapsed down the stretch in 2008.

McCown at 35 can be overlooked as journeyman QB material, with just 38 starts in his 11-year NFL career. But he is coming off the best work of his professional life in Chicago last season, where he started five games (going 3-2) in place of Jay Cutler and played in eight overall, posting the league’s third-best passer rating (109.0) to break the franchise record, with 13 touchdowns and just one interception (he had an NFL-best 0.4 interception percentage). His 66.5 completion percentage, three consecutive 300-yard passing games and 36 completions in a single game all set Bears records, and Chicago was a more explosive and efficient team when he, rather than Cutler, was under center. Just ask Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery. The Bucs got very solid rookie work from Mike Glennon last season, but on whole, McCown is a clear-cut upgrade over the tandem of Josh Freeman and Glennon from 2013.

Smith’s history and familiarity with the Bucs organization and his steadying presence are obvious pluses in his favor, but the retooling in Tampa Bay extended far beyond just the coaching and quarterbacking fronts. Originally owning just five draft picks this spring, the Bucs went to town in free agency, signing a bevy of proven commodities in defensive end Michael Johnson, offensive tackle Anthony Collins, cornerback Alterraun Verner, center Evan Dietrich-Smith, tight end Brandon Myers, defensive tackle Clinton McDonald and McCown. None of them broke the bank in terms of guaranteed money, and I like Smith’s chances of restoring a reliable Tampa 2-style defense with the players on hand, building primarily around the difference-making talents of defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and outside linebacker Lavonte David

By talent alone, Tampa Bay should have been far better than its 4-12, last-place record a year ago, but it lacked cohesiveness and enough experience to overcome adversity. Smith’s hiring and McCown’s signing were the two most important steps to ensuring the same fate won’t strike again in 2014.

8. Can Darrelle Revis reprise Revis Island in Foxboro, in a way he never remotely accomplished in Tampa Bay?

The timing of Revis’s arrival in New England is obviously on the Patriots’ side in a big way, given that players are almost always better in their second season after ACL surgery than they were in their first. So a clear-cut advantage to the Men of Belichick right there. But you can’t help but like the other factors that Revis has going for him in 2014, like his familiarity with AFC East owing to his days with the Jets, his motivation to prove that last year’s low-impact season with the Bucs was more about how they used him than the state of his elite coverage skills, and last but not least, his desire to mount a contract drive as a potential 2015 free agent, hopefully recovering all of the $4 million in salary he sacrificed when he moved from Tampa Bay to the Pats this spring.

Revis’s pride will be fully engaged this season in Foxboro, and that could turn out to be a very good thing indeed for a New England team that knows it must tighten things down defensively if a fourth Super Bowl ring is to ever be secured by quarterback Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, the team’s 15th-year head coach. Revis was the Patriots’ centerpiece acquisition on that front, but by no means is he on an island in that regard. Ex-Seahawk Brandon Browner, once he serves his league-mandated four-game suspension, should team with Revis to give New England it’s biggest and best pair of starting cornerbacks in recent memory, and better coverage should boost both the pass rush and a third-down defense that was dreadful at times last season (26th overall at 42.2 percent).

If defensive tackle Vince Wilfork returns to form after his injury-shortened 2013, and linebacker Jarod Mayo and defensive end Tommy Kelly follow suit, the middle of New England’s defense should be stout, especially if rookie defensive linemen Dominique Easley proves as versatile and as pro-ready as the early returns suggest. If the Patriots defense can stay healthier than it has of late, and Revis delivers on his goal of once again shutting down his half of the field in the passing game, New England appears to have the pieces to close the gap on defending AFC champion Denver, with its state-of-the-art Peyton Manning-led offense. The one-year gamble taken by both Revis and the Pats might wind up being an overwhelming win for both sides.

9. Can Oakland rookie quarterback Derek Carr give Matt Schaub a legitimate battle for the starting job this preseason? 

All I know is the last time the Raiders went out and acquired a veteran presumed starting quarterback named Matt, things didn’t work out as planned. Matt Flynn wasn’t the answer in Oakland last summer, and he was released in October after being beaten out by Terrelle Pryor in August. Flynn cost the Raiders a fifth-round pick in a 2013 trade with Seattle, and Schaub came over from Houston in exchange for a sixth-rounder this spring. But it’s Carr, the second-round selection out of Fresno State, who was generating the buzz this offseason in Oakland’s OTAs.

Schaub will enter training camp atop the team’s depth chart, but you get the feeling he’s already lost ground to the rookie, who has Raiders offensive coordinator Greg Olson praising his “intelligence, accuracy and quickness,’’ adding the caveat that Carr’s early comfort level indicates “he may not need to redshirt’’ in 2014. Olson said it’s clear the NFL game is “not too big for [Carr],’’ and that amounts to the acknowledgment that he’ll be playing sooner than later this year, perhaps at the first sign of offensive stagnation in Oakland.

None of that can be music to Schaub’s ears, given that his confidence was almost completely crushed in that record-breaking hail of pick-6’s he threw early last year in Houston. The Raiders talked Schaub up enthusiastically when they landed him, calling him one of the game’s elite quarterbacks, but it sounded hollow then given his recent performances, and the echo grew even louder when Oakland invested the 36th overall pick in Carr, the younger brother of ex-Texans starter David Carr, the quarterback Schaub replaced in Houston in 2007.

Schaub gets the first shot in Oakland this season, but my hunch is he’ll have a brief tenure at No. 1. The Raiders revolving door at quarterback always keeps turning, and Carr’s opportunity will soon arrive.

10. Which team will easily lead the league in dealing with the dreaded “distraction’’ dynamic this preseason?      

With star tight end Vernon Davis and starting right guard Alex Boone dissatisfied with their contracts and contemplating training camp holdouts, and standout pass-rusher Aldon Smith facing both court sentencing and a possible league suspension and/or fine for pleading guilty to DUI and felony weapon charges, the 49ers have more troublesome off-the-field issues to contend with than anyone. And that includes that other Harbaugh-coached team in Baltimore, where the Ravens had an embarrassingly busy offseason when it comes to showing up on the police blotter.

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Given the backdrop of San Francisco’s 2014 season, with its win-it-all-now-or-maybe-never sense of urgency, the confluence of factors facing the 49ers is less than ideal. Jim Harbaugh’s club has won its way to three consecutive NFC title games and one Super Bowl, but has yet to take the big confetti shower it craves. Even if you don’t buy the notion that this could be Harbaugh’s final season in San Francisco with his own contract situation having become a potential issue, patience  is clearly in short supply as the 49ers debut their new stadium in Santa Clara. It’s get-it-done time in year four, or major change might be in the offing.

All of which probably makes Harbaugh even antsier than normal and less-inclined to deal with the daily barrage of questions that could be inspired by Davis's and Boone’s prolonged absence, or Smith’s legal situation and league-issued punishment. It could make for a very testy summer, with the 49ers high-strung coach struggling to keep the focus on the field, keep everyone chasing the defending champion Seahawks, and build a season that can culminate in ultimate victory in Arizona next February. In the end, it might all work out to everyone’s benefit and satisfaction. But as the 2014 season begins in San Francisco, there are some thorny problems to contend with, all of which could significantly impact the work ahead.

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