The Buccaneers are getting things under way in Tampa and the Saints open their training camp on Thursday in Mentairie, La.
Over the next eight days, the NFL’s remaining 30 teams will open their camps at various sites.
The summer is nearing an end and dawn is breaking for fans of the most popular sport in the nation. Once camps begin in earnest, things will move quickly. The annual Hall of Fame game — this year pitting the Dallas Cowboys against the Miami Dolphins — is less than three weeks away — signaling the start of the preseason. And finally, the regular season begins in the first week of September.
In these next eight weeks, there is much to talk about and even more to analyze. The questions are big. Are the depleted New England Patriots finished? Can Robert Griffin III rebound from a nasty knee injury that wrecked the Washington Redskins’ playoff hopes? Can the Baltimore Ravens successfully defend their Super Bowl title after decimating their roster? Can the San Francisco 49ers take the final step toward a championship?
“Excitement’s in the air. Our team got bigger and there’s more of us and these guys got really good,” Niners coach Jim Harbaugh told reporters last month. “We’re ready to get started and we’re ready to take the first step.”
When last seen, the NFL was coming off one of the most exciting postseasons in recent memory.
There was Ray Lewis and the Ravens making a triumphant run to a championship. There was Colin Kaepernick coming off the bench for the Niners and turning himself into a star. There was Peyton Manning leading the Denver Broncos to the edge of glory, only to give a game away to Baltimore in heartbreaking fashion.
And there were the locals making names for themselves: Bobby Wagner going from Utah State to the Seattle Seahawks and becoming one of the better middle linebackers in the league in his rookie season; Paul Kruger and Sean Smith finally capitalizing on their vast potential, turning in career years and carrying the Utah flag to free agent riches.
“I wanted to come to a team that was excited about me,” Kruger said in his introductory Cleveland news conference. “I feel strongly about being a part of something and I feel I can help this team become better.”
So how will it all spill into the upcoming season? The year should yield more exciting and competitive football. The beauty of the NFL — as opposed to baseball and the NBA — lies in the competitive balance. In most seasons, a true upstart emerges and becomes one of the best teams in the league. Last season, it was the Seahawks, who combined a great defense and the emergence of Russell Wilson to make the playoffs and register a win over the Redskins.
Who will make a name for themselves this season? We will all soon find out.
Four story lines for the 2014 season
Happiest man in the NFL
That would be commissioner Roger Goodell, who now can talk about his league’s on-the-field exploits, rather than what’s going on off it. The statistics are frightening. Since the Baltimore Ravens won the Super Bowl, 31 NFL players have been arrested. Goodell promised to clean the league up when he took over, but the offseason arrest rate is up 75 percent since 2003. The case of Aaron Hernandez is the most troubling. One of the best tight ends in the league, Hernandez was recently arrested and charged with first-degree murder. Now, with training camp commencing, fans can focus on the NFL season, and not the latest NFL player to make a court docket.
Ex-Utes find new homes
Quarterback Alex Smith was traded from San Francisco to Kansas City and will be paid $8.5 million to lead the Chiefs this season — with the possibility of a longer contract in the future. Cornerback Sean Smith will join him in K.C., leaving Miami to sign an $18 million deal. And defensive end/linebacker Paul Kruger cashed in big after a breakout 2012 season in Baltimore, signing with the Cleveland Browns for $40 million. All three former Utes are expected to be cornerstones for their teams.
Best new NFL rivalry
The Seattle Seahawks have one of the best defenses in the league and an offense that could prove dynamic if Percy Harvin proves healthy. The San Francisco 49ers simply may be the most talented team in the league. Both are Super Bowl contenders. Both reside in the same division. Best of all, to say they don’t like each other is putting it kindly. Mix it all together and the potential is there for three classic matchups — two in the regular season and possibly one in the playoffs. Don’t be shocked if one of these two teams wins it all.
Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson proved to be the best trio of rookie quarterbacks since the vaunted class of 1983 — which featured Dan Marino, John Elway and Ken O’Brien. All have the chance to win big. At least one — Wilson — has the chance to win a Super Bowl and Griffin III isn’t far behind. Charting their progress will be one of the major storylines of the season. It will be interesting to see if one of them can vault himself into Tom Brady or Aaron Rogers territory as well.
Local NFL rookies
Star Lotulelei • Carolina Panthers, defensive tackle, Utah
Should start right away. Already being touted as one of the better run stoppers in the league.
Ziggy Ansah • Detroit Lions, defensive end, BYU
Will have every chance to make an instant impact on one of the better defensive lines in the NFL.
Will Davis • Miami Dolphins, cornerback, Utah State
Is he the replacement for Sean Smith jumping ship to Kansas City?
Joe Kruger • Philadelphia Eagles, defensive end, Utah
Has the size and the pass-rushing ability to make an impact. But can Paul’s little brother stay healthy? And can he be consistent?
Brad Sorensen • San Diego Chargers, quarterback, Southern Utah
Will compete for a backup job behind Philip Rivers. Count on him making the roster with his excellent size and strong arm.
Kerwynn Williams • Indianapolis Colts, running back, Utah State
Has a ton of potential as a kick returner. Reminds many of former Aggies star Kevin Robinson.