NFL Training Camp Preview: AFC

Thank the gods, football is back! Well sort of. NFL training camp is underway, which means that meaningful football games are less than two months away. This is the time of year when every team's fans (except maybe the Cleveland Browns) are foolishly optimistic about the upcoming season. Traning camp is a critical time as teams sort out rosters, rookies make an impact, and each franchise tries to figure out what they’ve got working for the upcoming season. So we’re bringing you a division-by-division breakdown of what to pay attention to the next few weeks as we coutdown the days until kickoff.

AFC East

Most intriguing camp battle: Dolphins running back (Jay Ajayi vs. Arian Foster vs. Kenyan Drake)
When the Dolphins ran the ball last year, they enjoyed fairly moderate success but if they're going to win many games this year, it'll be on the strength of the ground game. Foster is coming off Achilles surgery and isn't guaranteed a roster spot. Ajayi is a durable back who can pound the ball inside with less finesse. Drake seems more likely to be a change-of-pace guy as a rookie, but at this point, it's anybody's spot.

Most interesting team: New York Jets
With the Jets coming to an agreement on a one-year deal with Renaissance quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick just days ago, fans don't have to go into the preseason thinking Geno Smith will handle starting duties and promptly lose their lunch. Fitzpatrick has never been consistent but put together a Pro Bowl season a year ago, though they fell apart at the finish line and narrowly missed the playoffs. Will “Fitzmagic” and Co. be able to take advantage of Tom Brady-less Patriots the first four games and compete for the divisional title?

Coach with the most to prove: Bill Belichick, Patriots
It might sound absurd that the most stable coach in the NFL goes into the season with the most to prove and aside from proving you can dress like a homeless guy and still have NFL success, there’s nothing Belichick hasn't accomplished. But this season he'll be without Tom Brady for the first four games as his suspension was re-assessed dating back to the DeflateGate mess two years ago. Belichick once coached a Matt Cassel-led team to an 11-5 record and the motivation of coaching a Jimmy Garoppolo-led squad to a good start out the gate would be just the type of hoodie-clad middle finger Belichick craves.

AFC West

Most intriguing camp battle: Broncos quarterback (Mark Sanchez vs. Trevor Siemian vs. Paxton Lynch)
In similar fashion to the way John Elway sailed off into the sunset a champion, Broncos fans will find a new quarterback under center a year after bringing home a title with Peyton Manning at the helm. Though Manning was broken down in 2016, the Broncos will miss his leadership as they go into camp with an open competition at the most important position. Sanchez and a defense-heavy Jets team were once one game from a Super Bowl, but Sanchez hasn't looked the game manager he was in years. That he isn't the starter out of the gate when his competition is a second-year player who was active for one game last year (Siemian) and a rookie who seems more of a long-term project (Lynch) is pretty much all you need to know about the Bronco’s faith in Sanchez. A final wrinkle in this conundrum could be the team’s potential interest in the just-made-available Nick Foles, who was just granted his release by the Rams.

Most interesting team: Oakland Raiders
Despite a proud tradition, the Raiders have been one of the more pitiful franchises in all of sports over the past decade and a half. One 8-8 season since a Super Bowl appearance in 2002 is the best they've mustered, but Oakland fans have a right to be optimistic heading into 2016. They've got great young pieces in quarterback Derek Carr, wideout Amari Cooper and linebacker Khalil Mack and put together one of the more impressive free-agent hauls of the offseason. General manager Reggie McKenzie was once a laughingstock but has proven himself in the last two years, helping put this team on the right track. With so many question marks in Denver after their Super Bowl season, coaching changes in Kansas CIty, and a predictably hot/cold Charger team, the AFC West could be ripe for the Raiders’ taking.

Coach with the most to prove: Andy Reid, Chiefs
With offensive guru Doug Pederson moving on to coach Reid's old Philadelphia Eagles team this year, the pressure is on Reid to keep the offense moving in the right direction. Reid has brought on former Vikings coach Brad Childress and up-and-comer Matt Nagy to lead the offense in tandem. With one playoff win in three years in KC, Reid can't afford for the team to go in reverse. Fans won't soon forget Reid's awful clock management in the fourth quarter of the Chiefs' Divisional Round loss to the Patriots last year, making his margin for error this season as narrow as a Chiefs cheerleader’s g-string.

AFC South

Most intriguing camp battle: Jaguars running back (Chris Ivory vs. T.J. Yeldon)
Jacksonville thought they drafted a dependable every-down back in Yeldon two years ago, but his rookie season was uneven before it ended in injury. Ivory was signed on the first day of free agency after enjoying some success with the Jets, but he's got many more miles on his wheels. With tandem and group running back approaches trending like a Bieber hastag in the NFL right now, this will probably end up as a timeshare situation and will no doubt make fantasy owners lives miserable as well.

Most interesting team: Tennessee Titans
When healthy, Marcus Mariota looks very much like the franchise quarterback the Titans thought they had when they drafted him first overall in the 2015 draft. The Titans fleeced the Rams when trading this year's first pick, securing a lot of depth in the second round with a trio of top picks. Rookie Derrick Henry should compete with DeMarco Murray for carries in training camp and Top 10 pick Jack Conklin should add protection for Mariota. Add in a developing recieving corps and this is a young team headed in the right direction that promises to be fun to watch.

Coach with the most to prove: Chuck Pagano, Colts
It seemed like a sure thing that Pagano was going to be on the losing end of a power struggle last year in Indy with general manager Ryan Grigson. But in a rare form of loyalty from an NFL owner to the men he hires to run his team, owner Jim Irsay gave a vote of confidence to both coach and GM and they're both on for another year. If Andrew Luck doesn't regain his form from two seasons ago and remains the human turnover machine he was early last year before succumbing to injuries, Pagano could be out of a job before the halfway point.

AFC North

Most intriguing camp battle: Browns quarterback (Robert Griffin III vs. Josh McCown)
The Browns signing Griffin was one of the big WTF-moments of the offseason, particularly because new coach Hue Jackson didn't seem like the type to take a chance on such a big question mark. Griffin went from the toast of the league his rookie season to looking as though he'd never played the position in subsequent years. His mechanics need an overhaul and it'll be interesting to see how he looks now that he's left the toxic situation he had in D.C. McCown is a veteran who put up pretty good numbers with no help last year in Cleveland, but couldn't stay healthy. Whoever earns the starting spot has to hope they make it to Week 5 when they get Josh Gordon back as a viable No. 1 wideout but given that it’s, you know, The Browns, all bets are off.

Most interesting team: Pittsburgh Steelers
How many more years does Ben Roethlisberger have in the tank? He misses a few games nearly every year and will have to start 2016 without the services of his bell-cow running back Le'Veon Bell (suspended four games) and emerging star wide receiver Martavis Bryant (suspended the entire season). While he’s got All-Pro Antonio Brown available to haul in passes, the Steelers have a lot of question marks as their roster continues to age. I mean – James Harrison is still around so...

Coach with the most to prove: Hue Jackson, Browns
Most people feel Jackson didn't get a fair shot in his lone head coaching job in Oakland a half-decade ago. He led the hapless Raiders to 7-4 before they stalled out at 8-8, costing him his job after one season. After turning the Bengals into an offensive powerhouse, he's got another opportunity and it comes within the same division as his former employer in Cincinnati, but boy does he have his work cut out for him. Most people aren't expecting much out of Cleveland in year one under Hue but if he can make them look respectable that'll be more than the dozen coaches they've had since the turn of the century could say.

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