The sports calender is a little light right now. Following the alternating nightly rush of watching the NBA or NHL finals all June, the July lull leaves sports fans itching for a fix.
The NFL hiatus breaks July 23 when the Arizona Cardinals start the training camp season. Since the end of last season you have likely been mulling over a few areas of concern for your favourite team, and contemplating transactions and draft picks.
Training camp offers clues. Is the revamped offensive line holding its own? How’s the top rookie looking? Were the free agency dollars well spent?
With training camp less than two weeks away we take a look at one major question in every AFC division.
AFC East: New England is stumbling, but does it matter?
The Patriots’ top five receivers from last season are gone or on the mend. Wes Welker went to the Broncos, Rob Gronkowski is rehabbing from back and forearm surgery, Danny Woodhead is a Charger, Brandon Lloyd is unemployed and Aaron Hernandez has been accused of murder. Are free agent signings Danny Amendola and Michael Jenkins the answers?
Even if the New England offence isn’t the finely tuned machine we are used to watching, it likely won’t matter. Who else can win this division? Kevin Kolb and his Bills? Second year quarterback Ryan Tannehill and the Dolphins? Don’t start with the Jets. Miami might be the best of the bunch with rookie pass rusher Dion Jordan and free agent receiver Mike Wallace in the fold, but we don’t see anyone taking this division from the Pats.
AFC North: Can the champs sustain as they reload?
The Ravens defence was nothing special last year, allowing a middle of the pack 21.5 points per game last season. But how will the loss of Ray Lewis and Ed Reed impact the defending champions? The addition of Elvis Dumervil, thanks to a clerical error, gives the defence a pair of whirling dervish edge rushers along with Terrell Suggs.
Perhaps the biggest loss will be receiver Anquan Boldin, who was traded to San Francisco. The 32-year-old receiver finally looked like the pass catching machine everyone envisioned when he joined Baltimore in 2010, grabbing 22 balls for 380 yards and four touchdowns in the postseason.
The loss of several key pieces will likely prevent the Ravens from repeating, and others in the division look capable of capitalising on a comparable late season hot streak.
The Bengals, like the Ravens, were 10-6 last year. After knocking on the doorstep for two seasons, Cincinnati may be ready to break through. The defence is expected to be one of the best in the league and the addition of Notre Dame tight end Tyler Eifert gives the Bengals a fearsome tight end duo with Jermaine Gresham.
If Pittsburgh can get a full season from Ben Roethlisberger they too will be in the mix. The ability of Emmanuel Sanders to replace deep threat Mike Wallace will play a big factor in the Steelers offensive balance. After averaging an anemic 96.1 rushing yards per game, the Steelers must rediscover their ground game, whether its with rookie Le’Veon Bell or last year’s leader Jonathan Dwyer.
AFC South: Will the Luck continue in Indianapolis?
Despite a -12 turnover differential, a 22nd ranked rushing game, 21st ranked pass defence and 29th ranked rushing defence, the Colts went 11-5. Is that a miracle season, or a warning shot? It’s hard to tell if the Colts will win more games with better stats or were a team that thrived on the struggle. Quarterback Andrew Luck will be in his second season, but the Colts remain an enigma.
Once again the division will run through Houston, and again the question will be if the Texans are able to get over the hump. They looked like the best team in the league at times last year before stumbling late and bowing out to the Patriots in the divisional round. The stretch running game will continue and anything less than a Super Bowl will be a disappointment in Houston.
Tennessee and Jacksonville, meanwhile, are in shambles. Ryan Fitzpatrick will challenge Jake Locker for the Titans quarterback job and the selection of guard Chance Warmack will finally lead to some open holes for Chris Johnson to run through. It’s hard to see the Jaguars being anything but the worst team in the league, again.
AFC West: Will Rahim Moore stay deep?
The Denver free safety’s offseason was shorter than most—his team made the playoffs—but no one’s offseason dragged longer. It was Moore’s blown coverage that led to this play in the waning seconds of regulation in the division playoffs:
The Broncos would go on to lose, reminding fans that sometimes a year’s worth of preparation and work can fall apart with a single mistake. It was Ravens only the year prior who saw their Super Bowl dreams fade on a Lee Evans dropped touchdown. The Broncos return as the overwhelming favourites in their division, adding Wes Welker to an already solid receiving corps. This team has what it takes to win a Super Bowl, the only question will be execution.
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