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Never-ending stories

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WHILE SOME FOLKS HAVEN'T PICKED OUT THE BOOKS THEY PLAN to read on the beach yet, the NFL's vacation is just about over. The Philadelphia Eagles and Oakland Raiders, whose full squads report today and tomorrow, respectively, are the first in training camp because they play in the annual Hall of Fame preseason game in Canton, Ohio, but the rest of the league's 32 teams will start in earnest by next Sunday. The Ravens open their camp Friday at McDaniel College. For nearly a third of the clubs, the sense of renewal is more than just about a new season - 10 teams have new coaches, five in each conference. However, in the NFL, each team is a soap opera unto itself. And as the drama that concludes with the Super Bowl in Miami begins, here are the plot lines (last season's record in parentheses):

AFC East

New England Patriots (10-6)

Veterans report -- Friday

Skinny -- How long can coach Bill Belichick replace key free-agent losses? Linebacker Willie McGinest is in Cleveland. Wide receiver David Givens has gone to Tennessee. But the departure of likely Hall of Fame kicker Adam Vinatieri to Indianapolis as a free agent may be most problematic because of the crucial points it might cost the Patriots and the way it strengthens a possible playoff rival. Still, as long as Tom Brady is at quarterback, the Patriots will be in the hunt.

Miami Dolphins (9-7)

Veterans report -- Friday

Skinny -- The Dolphins are a preseason favorite to land a playoff spot based on their six-game winning streak at the end of last season and the addition of quarterback Daunte Culpepper from the Minnesota Vikings. Culpepper, of course, is rehabilitating from a knee injury last season.

Buffalo Bills (5-11)

Veterans report -- Friday

Skinny -- The 2006 Bills are a study in old school - 87-year-old owner Ralph Wilson hired 80-year-old Marv Levy as general manager, and he hired 55-year-old Dick Jauron as coach. But ages aside, the real issues for the Bills are on the field. Quarterback contenders are Kelly Holcomb and J.P. Losman, and though Holcomb had decent statistics last year, it was for just half a season.

New York Jets (4-12)

Veterans report -- Friday

Skinny -- The Jets also have a new coach, 35-year-old Eric Mangini, a protege of Belichick's. This will be a rebuilding year, when the Jets will have to find out whether Chad Pennington can come back from his shoulder injuries. New York was credited with a good draft, taking offensive tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson and center Nick Mangold, but those are moves that will pay dividends in future seasons, not this fall.

Division summary

Skinny -- The Dolphins could end the Patriots' long run as division masters, but both should sweep the Bills and Jets.

AFC South

Indianapolis Colts (14-2)

Veterans report -- Next Sunday

Skinny -- Perennial bridesmaids, the Colts are still the preseason favorites to win the Super Bowl according to many oddsmakers. The biggest defection is running back Edgerrin James, who scampered off to Arizona as a free agent. But there's still quarterback Peyton Manning, three outstanding wide receivers and a defense led by pass rusher Dwight Freeney. The key, though, could be the addition of ex-Patriots kicker Adam Vinatieri, picked up as a free agent.

Jacksonville Jaguars (12-4)

Veterans report -- Friday

Skinny -- A lot depends on whether quarterback Byron Leftwich and running back Fred Taylor can stay healthy. Both are solid performers when they're in the game but missed a combined 10 starts last year. And wide receiver Jimmy Smith retired. The Jaguars were plus-11 in turnovers last year and need to continue to work on a short field to succeed.

Tennessee Titans (4-12)

Veterans report -- Friday

Skinny -- Without Steve McNair at quarterback, Billy Volek has to hold it together while No. 1 pick Vince Young figures out the pro game. Coach Jeff Fisher promises to pound the ball on the ground, and the Titans' defense, an especially young group last year, should be better.

Houston Texans (2-14)

Veterans report -- Thursday

Skinny -- Pity quarterback David Carr. Already, he has been sacked 208 times in a four-year career. New coach Gary Kubiak, coming out of the Denver Broncos' system, is likely to run the ball more to take pressure off Carr. Kubiak is also switching to a 4-3 defense, in which No. 1 overall draft pick Mario Williams will be under pressure to contribute almost immediately at defensive end.

Division summary

Skinny -- The Colts are the class of this group by miles. The Jaguars are a solid playoff team in part because they should sweep the Titans and Texans.

AFC North

Cincinnati Bengals (11-5)

Veterans report -- Saturday

Skinny -- While zooming along the comeback trail, the Bengals hit a rough patch when quarterback Carson Palmer suffered a severe knee injury in the playoffs. Then in the offseason, a spate of player arrests and a reported drug suspension put the franchise under a cloud. The bottom line, though, is that all eyes will be on Palmer on every practice throw, and if he is OK, the Bengals will be, too.

Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5)

Veterans report -- Friday

Skinny -- The defending Super Bowl champions' main issue is regaining the chemistry that allowed them to win the Vince Lombardi Trophy after qualifying for the playoffs as the bottom seed in the AFC. Gone are running back Jerome Bettis, the consummate team player and locker room leader, and multidimensional threat Antwaan Randle El. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger - injured in an offseason motorcycle accident - has said he will be ready when the games count.

Ravens (6-10)

Veterans report -- Friday

Skinny -- The Ravens' camp will be watched to see whether there's a renewed sense of mission. Under the microscope will be middle linebacker Ray Lewis, who is coming back from a hamstring injury, and running back Jamal Lewis, who was mired in a season-long funk in 2005. And, of course, Steve McNair is anticipated to be the blue-chip quarterback that's been missing.

Cleveland Browns (6-10)

Veterans report -- Wednesday

Skinny -- Second-year quarterback Charlie Frye will be the man for the Browns with veteran Trent Dilfer gone, and this will be his camp to assert himself as the leader. This summer also will be marked by the potential emergence of tight end Kellen Winslow, whose injuries on the field in 2004 and on a motorcycle in 2005 have delayed any major contribution as a pro.

Division summary

Skinny -- Top to bottom, this is possibly the strongest division in the AFC. The Ravens have improved the most with McNair, but if the Bengals' Palmer is healthy and the Steelers keep their chemistry, those two teams remain the favorites.

AFC West

Denver Broncos (13-3)

Veterans report -- Thursday

Skinny -- After his best season (18 touchdown passes, seven interceptions), quarterback Jake Plummer appeared to revert to his big-mistake past in the AFC title game against the Pittsburgh Steelers with two interceptions and two fumbles. It's hard to imagine coach Mike Shanahan getting so fed up with Plummer that he'd go to rookie Jay Cutler at any point in the season, but if Plummer fails to play smart, things will get tense.

Kansas City Chiefs (10-6)

Veterans report -- Thursday

Skinny -- Ex-New York Jets coach Herman Edwards assumes control of the Chiefs after one of his longtime supporters, the retired Dick Vermeil. The challenge for Edwards is getting the defense to support a high-scoring offense. The window of opportunity is closing quickly for the aging Chiefs. Two key offensive linemen are possibly in their final seasons, and quarterback Trent Green, who has started 80 straight games, is in his 14th year.

San Diego Chargers (9-7)

Veterans report -- Friday

Skinny -- The question in San Diego is quite simple: Is quarterback Philip Rivers ready for prime time? He has the job all to himself now that Drew Brees is in New Orleans. Rivers, a first-round pick in 2004 whom the Chargers acquired in a trade with the New York Giants, has thrown just 30 passes. Coach Marty Schottenheimer may be risking his job on Rivers.

Oakland Raiders (4-12)

Veterans report -- Tomorrow

Skinny -- Once a proud and feared franchise, the Raiders have slipped to the point where they have cast their fortunes with former Saints quarterback Aaron Brooks, who is trying to reverse a career slide. More worrisome is whether aging but still autocratic owner Al Davis remains capable of running the club. Hall of Famer Art Shell starts his second tenure as coach of the Raiders.

Division summary

Skinny -- This will come down to Denver and Kansas City because Rivers' inexperience will hurt the Chargers and the Raiders are a non-factor.

NFC East

New York Giants (11-5)

Veterans report -- Thursday

Skinny -- Make no mistake, the Giants believe the future is now. They added linebackers LaVar Arrington and Brandon Short and defensive backs Will Demps, Sam Madison and R.W. McQuarters to a defense that was already filled with veterans. But they need quarterback Eli Manning to become more consistent.

Washington Redskins (10-6)

Veterans report -- Next Sunday

Skinny -- There's also a sense of urgency surrounding the Redskins. They needed to win their final five games last year to make the playoffs, but in two postseason games, the offense was horrible. They signed ex-Pittsburgh Steelers receiver-returner Antwaan Randle El to go with receiver Santana Moss and added former St. Louis Rams safety Adam Archuleta and ex-San Francisco 49ers defensive end Andre Carter to a solid defense.

Dallas Cowboys (9-7)

Veterans report -- Friday

Skinny -- The Cowboys are poised for a breakout or an implosion. That's what you get with wide receiver Terrell Owens. That Bill Parcells is the coach makes this all the more delicious. The Cowboys' young defense, now comfortable in a 3-4, should just get better, and the kicking game with former Indianapolis Colt Mike Vanderjagt is greatly improved. Still, the Owens-Parcells show will get top billing from the start.

Philadelphia Eagles (6-10)

Veterans report -- Today

Skinny -- The weight rests squarely on the shoulders of quarterback Donovan McNabb. With nemesis Owens gone and with a long offseason to mend from injuries, McNabb needs to assert himself again as one of the game's dominant performers. But do the Eagles have enough talent, especially among wide receivers, to support McNabb?

Division summary

Skinny -- The NFC East has re-emerged as the NFL's top division. If Parcells can keep Owens under control, Dallas has the talent to fight its way to the top.

NFC South

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (11-5)

Veterans report -- Thursday

Skinny -- Quarterback Chris Simms' continuing maturation is the most important issue for the Buccaneers; he has just 12 NFL starts. Coach Jon Gruden will work on Simms' game management and protect him by running Carnell Williams. Many regard defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin as the team Most Valuable Player because his No. 1 overall defense has kept the Bucs afloat.

Carolina Panthers (11-5)

Veterans report -- Friday

Skinny -- The Panthers simply ran out of running backs last season in the NFC title game against the Seattle Seahawks. In the offseason, they kept their team, especially the league's No. 3 overall defense, largely intact and added veteran wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson and rookie running back DeAngelo Williams to the offense.

Atlanta Falcons (8-8)

Veterans report -- Thursday

Skinny -- The Falcons put some teeth into their defense with the offseason acquisition of ex-New York Jets defensive end John Abraham, a fierce pass rusher, and safeties Lawyer Milloy and Chris Crocker. But the story in Atlanta is always quarterback Michael Vick, who, as he enters his sixth season, is expected to prove he can win with his arm. To that end, Bill Musgrave has been hired as quarterbacks coach. Interestingly, Musgrave was Atlanta backup quarterback Matt Schaub's college offensive coordinator.

New Orleans Saints (3-13)

Veterans report -- Thursday

Skinny -- A symbol of the city's efforts to make its own comeback from Hurricane Katrina, the Saints begin the challenge of rebuilding from a training camp at Millsaps College in Jackson, Miss. First-round draft pick Reggie Bush is already being hailed as a savior - perhaps an unfair burden. Along with a daily Bush watch in camp, there'll be close scrutiny of new quarterback Drew Brees, who is coming back from shoulder surgery.

Division summary

Skinny -- Carolina and Tampa Bay are the class of the division, but the Panthers are more balanced and one of the top three teams in the NFC.

NFC North

Chicago Bears (11-5)

Veterans report -- Wednesday

Skinny -- It was amazing that the Bears won 11 games with an offense that did its best work when it simply didn't commit a turnover, but that's testament to coach Lovie Smith's cover-2 defense. To help a wheezing offense, Chicago signed veteran quarterback Brian Griese.

Minnesota Vikings (9-7)

Veterans report -- Next Sunday

Skinny -- The Vikings are one of three teams in their division with a new coach. Brad Childress, the former offensive coordinator in Philadelphia, directed a pass-heavy version of the West Coast offense, and veteran quarterback Brad Johnson should be a good fit. Minnesota will run a cover-2 defense that has worked well for the Bears and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Detroit Lions (5-11)

Veterans report -- Thursday

Skinny -- The latest coach in Detroit is Rod Marinelli, who is essentially starting from scratch. His quarterbacks are recently acquired veterans Jon Kitna and Josh McCown. Marinelli's first job will be to establish a team identity and restore some pride to a franchise that has had five straight losing seasons and six coaches (including interims) in 10 years.

Green Bay Packers (4-12)

Veterans report -- Friday

Skinny -- The Packers can be summed up in two words: Brett Favre. The team's offseason was dominated by the all-but-certain Hall of Famer's vacillation about returning for his 16th NFL season. Now that he's back, can the Pack rally to make it one that's representative of his illustrious career? Considering that they have a new coach, Mike McCarthy, and that their best addition is rookie linebacker A.J. Hawk, the odds are against it.

Division summary

Skinny -- Since the NFC North has three new coaches, that pretty much sums up the shape it's in. The Bears dominate.

NFC West

Seattle Seahawks (13-3)

Veterans report -- Friday

Skinny -- If the Seahawks adopt a slogan in training camp, it should be: "Get over it." Feeling it got the short end of the officiating in its Super Bowl loss, Seattle spent a good portion of the offseason feeling sorry for itself. More to the point, the Seahawks need to worry about replacing star left guard Steve Hutchinson, who was lost in free agency to the Minnesota Vikings.

St. Louis Rams (6-10)

Veterans report -- Wednesday

Skinny -- The Rams are far removed from "The Greatest Show on Turf" glory days. Ranked No. 30 overall in defense last year and with former star Marshall Faulk out for the season, the Rams head into camp with a new coach, Scott Linehan. Wide receivers Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt are still on the roster, but Linehan wants to run the ball more and win with power rather than flash.

Arizona Cardinals (5-11)

Veterans report -- Next Sunday

Skinny -- The saddest of NFL franchises may finally show some life. Opening in a new stadium with one of the most potent offenses in football, the Cardinals are actually getting some respect. In camp, new running back Edgerrin James will be the center of attention. And even though Kurt Warner is the starting quarterback, No. 1 draft pick Matt Leinart will be in the spotlight.

San Francisco 49ers (4-12)

Veterans report -- Thursday

Skinny -- When a team finishes last in total offense and total defense, two things are likely for the following year: some improvement but no playoffs. That's what's ahead for the 49ers. Most significant in the offseason was the hiring of assistant coach Norv Turner to groom second-year quarterback Alex Smith. Turner helped save the career of another young quarterback about 15 years ago, Hall of Famer Troy Aikman.

Division summary

Skinny -- Unless the Seahawks fall apart, they'll easily win this weak division, but the Cardinals have a chance to make a rare wild-card appearance.

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