Can the AFC East send three clubs to the playoffs?
Sure seems possible to me. The past two years have produced different division champs and a third team that reached the AFC Championship Game last season.
The journey will start in a matter of days. The Buffalo Bills and New England Patriots blow the air horn on Thursday. The Miami Dolphins start Friday afternoon. The New York Jets open their "Hard Knocks" camp Monday morning.
All four teams have loose ends to tie up before camp. None has signed its first-round draft choice. Patriots left guard Logan Mankins remains unsigned and unhappy.
FOUR BIG QUESTIONS
Buffalo Bills: Who will be the quarterback?
New head coach Chan Gailey has stressed there will be an open quarterback competition, but the first depth chart will be known when the Bills begin camp. The campaign would get off to a fascinating start if anybody other than Trent Edwards takes the initial first-team reps. Ryan Fitzpatrick finished last year as the starter, but offers the least amount of upside. He's a sixth-year journeyman backup. Brian Brohm, a 2008 Green Bay Packers second-round pick, provides the most intrigue, titillating Bills fans because he's the unknown quantity. The battle should be a slowly progressing storyline unlikely to be decided until preseason games have been played -- and maybe not until the week before the season opener.
Miami Dolphins: How quickly will receiver Brandon Marshall integrate into the offense?
The Dolphins' prized offseason acquisition missed voluntary workouts and minicamp because of hip surgery the Dolphins didn't anticipate when they traded for him in April. His absence delayed the Dolphins' ability to see how he could transform the offense, forcing any ideas to remain X's and O's on the dry-erase board until training camp. The injury also prevented quarterback Chad Henne from getting fully acquainted with Marshall, a player who can help expedite Henne's development. Henne must get used to Marshall's speed and route angles. How quickly they find their timing on intermediate and longer patterns such as deep outs and posts against a defense will be important to making sure they're totally on the same page when the season starts.
New England Patriots: Will the Patriots show noticeable improvement on defense?
The old baseball adage claims championship teams are strong up the middle. The Patriots can say they're formidable in that regard. They have star nose tackle Vince Wilfork, inside linebacker Jerod Mayo and a solid group of safeties. But this ain't baseball. In football, especially with a 3-4 defense, teams need an outside presence. The Patriots are eager to see if they can improve their pass rush and be more consistent at cornerback. Those two areas depend on each other and contributed to the Patriots ranking 22nd in sacks per pass play last year. They'll have to sort through returning outside linebackers Tully Banta-Cain, Derrick Burgess, Rob Ninkovich and Shawn Crable and 53rd overall draft pick Jermaine Cunningham. At the all-important left cornerback spot, unproven sophomore Darius Butler will compete with first-round pick Devin McCourty.
New York Jets: Will quarterback Mark Sanchez take command in his second camp?
As a reckless rookie, Sanchez seemed hell-bent on squandering a team loaded in several key categories: No. 1 defense, No. 1 rushing attack, three Pro Bowlers on the offensive line. But late last season, Sanchez finally bought into what offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer had been preaching and closed the season with a deep playoff run. Knee surgery limited Sanchez's first full NFL offseason, but he participated in minicamp. He'll have two talented receivers, Braylon Edwards and Santonio Holmes, who weren't around at this time last year. How their chemistry develops over the next two months will be crucial.
Bills: Demetrius Bell. It's odd to imagine a player drafted in the seventh round as a long-term project being on the hot seat going into just his third season. But Bell plays left tackle, and the Bills can't afford to fool around at such an important position. Bell didn't play a snap in 2008, yet emerged as last year's opening-night starter. He struggled before a knee injury ended his season prematurely. Bell was one of the NFL's most penalized players, and Gailey abhors pre-snap penalties. In eight games, Bell committed six false starts and allowed five sacks.
Dolphins: Will Allen. The 10-year veteran started last season as the club's top cornerback, but suffered a season-ending knee injury in the sixth game. The Dolphins played out the year with a pair of rookies, Sean Smith and Vontae Davis, at cornerback. While they were frequently broiled by opposing receivers, they are the future and there's something to be said for trial by fire. Allen's contract might doom him. He's scheduled to make base salaries of $5.2 million this year and $5.5 million next year.
Patriots: Laurence Maroney. He has been a polarizing player since the Patriots drafted him 21st overall in 2006. He has looked like a stud running back at times, but not nearly often enough. Maroney's entering his fifth season but has started only 14 games, hasn't cracked 900 rushing yards in a season and fumbles too much.
Jets: Nick Folk. Coaches don't have much patience for an erratic kicker. The Jets parted ways with a good one, letting Jay Feely leave via free agency. They signed Folk, a former Pro Bowler who was a disaster with the Dallas Cowboys last year. He was inconsistent in Jets voluntary workouts and minicamp, already drawing playful ridicule from coach Rex Ryan. If Folk continues to miss kicks, the Jets won't be laughing.
Patriots receiver Brandon Tate. When considering New England's top targets, the names Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Torry Holt and maybe Julian Edelman come to mind. Keep an eye out for Tate, a second-year pro with one reception. Tate still was recovering from knee surgery when the Patriots drafted him in the third round out of North Carolina. He made his debut in Week 7 and suffered another knee injury in Week 9. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has spoken highly of Tate during the offseason.
CHANGING OF THE GUARDS
The Bills boast one example of stability over the rest of the AFC East -- on the offensive line, no less.
The Bills enter training camp with the lone left guard in place. Second-year pro Andy Levitre returns as the starter, while each of the other three clubs have uncertainties to address. The Jets and Dolphins are letting players compete for their left guard openings, while the Patriots have a two-time Pro Bowler who has demanded a trade.
The Dolphins traded Justin Smiley, their left guard the past two seasons. Nate Garner started eight games, including four on the left side while Smiley was hurt last season. Donald Thomas started 12 games at right guard. Richie Incognito started at right guard for the St. Louis Rams and Bills. The Dolphins drafted guard John Jerry in the third round.
Mankins isn't expected to be at Patriots camp when it begins. He's an unsigned restricted free agent and last month went public with his desire to be traded. Right tackle Nick Kaczur has been working in Mankins' spot.