— The zaniest training camp in memory ended faster than many teams wanted. Players signed at a record clip, and coaches quickly installed their systems while leaving a few young players behind.
So what have we learned and where are teams headed from here? We’ve got answers.
Training camp solution: The Patriots think their pass rush will be more dangerous with a four man defensive line. Free agent pickup Andre Carter looks like an impact player and the team is moving linebacker Jerod Mayo around more to bring pressure.
Hanging questions: How will Chad Ochocinco and Albert Haynesworth fit in? Haynesworth hasn’t practiced much because of his balky knee, and Ochocinco may be the team’s fourth or fifth best receiving option. The Patriots also are unsettled at safety.
Surprise: Rookie running back Stevan Ridley should add a dynamic piece to New England’s deep and versatile backfield.
Outlook: Tom Brady combined with an improving young roster makes the Patriots AFC favorites in a deep field.
2. New York Jets (wild-card team)
Training camp solution
: The Jets took a big gamble trading in Braylon Edwards and Jerricho Cotchery at receiver for Plaxico Burress and Derrick Mason. Early indications hint it may pay off. Mason emerged as a leader in August, while Burress presented matchup problems in the preseason when paired with Santonio Holmes.
Hanging questions: How long can Rex Ryan’s defensive scheme cover up the Jets' front seven? It’s a solid group, but lacking players who create one-on-one matchup problems. On offense, this team goes as Mark Sanchez’s development goes. Only the real games will tell us if Sanchez is maturing.
Surprise: Rookie receiver/returner Jeremy Kerley may help Jets fans forget about Brad Smith. Fourth-year defensive lineman Ropati Pitoitua enjoyed a strong camp coming off injury.
Outlook: The Jets are stressing the need to win the division, but a wild-card route to the playoffs is more likely.
Training camp solution: Quarterback Chad Henne steadily improved all month under new coordinator Brian Daboll, quieting the calls for Henne’s head. Free agent pickup Kevin Burnett’s versatility at linebacker helps complete a young, loaded defense.
Hanging questions: The Dolphins signed Reggie Bush to be a lead back. The idea: He’d complete rookie Daniel Thomas, who would theoretically run between the tackles. Thomas looks shaky and tentative. Bush will be better away from New Orleans when we see it. The offensive line has huge questions. Dolphins fans may wind up missing Ricky and Ronnie.
Surprise: Brandon Marshall enjoyed a healthy, drama-free training camp. This hasn’t happened in his entire career. On the field, Marshall seems to have his early career explosion back.
Outlook: A vastly underrated and deep top-five defense could lead Miami to a surprising winning record and playoff contention.
Training camp solution: Free agent pickup Nick Barnett solidifies a shaky run defense at middle linebacker. Young wideouts Donald Jones and Marcus Easley impressed in August. Their development made it possible to deal Lee Evans to Baltimore.
Hanging questions: The Bills remain weak at tackle. They still hadn’t fully settled on a left tackle late in camp. It will probably be Demetrius Bell, which will make the rest of the AFC East smile.
Surprise: Outside linebacker Shawne Merriman looks healthy and ready to contribute for the first time in years. Cross your fingers.
Outlook: Ryan Fitzpatrick is a better quarterback than you think, but he’s stuck in the wrong division. So are the Bills, even if they are feisty.
Training camp solution: The old guys stayed healthy during August. Hines Ward is back from surgery. Key defensive end Aaron Smith is finally staying on the field. Troy Polamalu is healthier than usual. This is an old team, especially on defense. The lockout may have benefited Pittsburgh.
Hanging questions: Can Ben Roethlisberger get better? With a young receiver crew, it’s on Big Ben and the offense to make up for any defensive drop-off. Roethlisberger will have to be special because his left tackle is not.
Surprise: Rookie Cameron Heyward has quickly picked up the defense and should be a factor. Rookies often struggle to break into Pittsburgh’s 3-4 defense, but Heyward has been a quick study. Ziggy Hood and Heyward make a nice pair for the future.
Outlook: Roethlisberger in his prime will prevent Pittsburgh’s usual post-Super Bowl malaise.
Training camp solution
: Baltimore badly needed veteran receiver depth. It found it by trading for Lee Evans, a perfect deep complement to rugged Anquan Boldin. Evans still has skills and adds speed to a receiver group that was too slow last year.
Hanging questions: Baltimore picked up their starting left tackle Bryant McKinnie from the scrap heap after he ate his way out of Minnesota. McKinnie is among the league's most inconsistent players. This huge gamble will be tested in Week One against Pittsburgh.
Surprise: Ricky Williams was brought in to back up Ray Rice and chase a Super Bowl ring.
Outlook: A soft schedule should help get Baltimore back in the playoffs.
Training camp solution: Quarterback Colt McCoy threw himself into the West Coast offense under new coach Pat Shurmur has looked seamless. McCoy is ready to take a major second-year leap.
Hanging questions: Everyone is focused on the offense, but Eric Mangini’s solid 3-4 defense was totally remodeled. Expect a step back. Two rookies will start on the line (Phil Taylor and Jabaal Sheard). The linebacker group smells generic, though the young secondary is promising.
Surprise: Fourth-year tight end Evan Moore and dynamic rookie wideout Greg Little have stepped up as the best-looking receiving options on the team.
Outlook: Cleveland has serious sleeper potential if their defense can just be average.
Training camp solution: The Bengals wisely went with a youth movement at receiver. No. 4 overall pick A.J. Green leads the way. No other rookie offensive player made a stronger early impression.
Hanging questions: Where to begin? It’s no surprise that second-round rookie QB Andy Dalton doesn’t look ready. There is no safety net behind him, unless Carson Palmer suddenly decides to show up. The Bengals lost a great cornerback in Johnathan Joseph and replaced him with a mediocre one in Nate Clements. Two so-so starting linebackers are new to the system.
Surprise: Defensive end Michael Johnson rushes the passer like a third-year player ready to make a big leap. He’s no workout wonder as draft analysts once feared. Cincinnati’s young defensive line could be pretty good.
Outlook: Expect a brutal learning experience for Dalton. The Bengals look like one of the league’s worst teams.
Training camp solution: The beleaguered secondary will improve. Glover Quin is a natural moving to free safety, Daniel Manning upgrades strong safety, and cornerback Johnathan Joseph ranked as our No. 2 free agent at any position.
Hanging questions: Early signs are good for the transition to Wade Phillips’ defense for many young players (J.J. Watt, Connor Barwin), but some old standbys look out place. Can Mario Williams and Brian Cushing be difference makers in a 3-4 scheme?
Surprise: Second-year running back Ben Tate is out of the doghouse, making the Texans feel safe at the position despite Arian Foster’s balky hamstring.
Outlook: Phillips only has to make the defense average for this team to finally make the playoffs. It’s time.
Training camp solution: The rookies (tackle Anthony Castonzo, defensive tackle Drake Nevis, and running back Delone Carter) should contribute. Even a low-cost free agent such as Jamaal Anderson could be a solid role player.
Hanging questions: The Colts still don’t know when Peyton Manning will be back. When he returns, will he be able to take a hit? Signing Kerry Collins for $4 million speaks louder than any words the Colts have said.
Surprise: Picking up Collins so late in the preseason was an eye-opener. Letting go of Kelvin Hayden despite a lack of depth at cornerback was also surprising.
Outlook: We’ll stupidly bet on the Colts’ postseason streak ending.
Training camp solution: Free-agent pickup Barrett Ruud and rookie Akeem Ayers re-energized the linebacker group. The offensive line maintained great continuity. Chris Johnson’s holdout ended just in time to play him in Week One.
Hanging questions: Johnson’s drama has masked the difficulty in installing new offensive and defensive schemes. New QB Matt Hasselbeck is still learning his surroundings.
Surprise: Receiver Kenny Britt avoided a suspension, which is a huge break. Even better news? Jake Locker probably enjoyed the best camp of any rookie quarterback. That’s a great sign for a kid that was supposed to be raw.
Outlook: We honestly have no idea what this team will look like, but it was the wrong year to completely overhaul your organization.
Training camp solution: Maurice Jones-Drew’s recovery from knee surgery went smoothly. Getting tight end Marcedes Lewis signed long-term is a plus.
Hanging questions: Rookie quarterback Blaine Gabbert didn’t show enough to push starter David Garrard in camp, but the Jaguars dumped Garrard anyway in a stunner. Luke McCown will start at quarterback, with expectations for the team lowered. Jack Del Rio will be the one who gets the blame if McCown and Jacksonville’s questionable high-paid defensive pickups (Paul Poslusnzy, Dawan Landry, Clint Session) don’t work out.
Surprise: The Jaguars uncovered a sleeper in rookie slot receiver Cecil Shorts. He could be the team’s No. 2 wideout.
Outlook: GM Gene Smith’s three-year plan was built to this season, but we don’t see it going anywhere.
Training camp solution: The entire offensive line returns. Receivers Vincent Jackson and Malcom Floyd are back. Underrated safety Eric Weddle re-signed, and Antonio Gates is healthy for once. The Chargers enjoyed a smooth camp without many big issues.
Hanging questions: Can Bob Sanders hold up Safety? Will Ryan Mathews be able to be a true lead back? Can Philip Rivers, already a top-five quarterback, somehow take his game to another level?
Surprise: Various Chargers answered questions about avoiding a slow start approximately 159,547 times without resorting to violence.
Outlook: The safest bet in the AFC to win their own division. That makes them our conference co-favorites with New England.
Training camp solution: Sometimes the best moves are the ones you don’t make. Keeping Kyle Orton gives this offense a chance for survival because quarterback Tim Tebow simply isn’t ready. The offensive has potential with good continuity on the line and a deep group of wideouts.
Hanging questions: The Broncos came into camp with shaky starters at defensive tackle, and then lost their starters to injury. Their next two backups have been banged up too. Teams will run on Denver, starting in Week One.
Surprise: No. 2 overall pick Von Miller played like a star pass rusher from day one of camp. With Elvis Dumervil back from injury, the Broncos suddenly own one of league's best pass rushing combos.
Outlook: There is potential for the Broncos to climb from worst to .500 in only one season.
Training camp solution: Former Ravens Kelly Gregg (defensive tackle) and Jared Gaither (tackle) added size up front on both sides. Gaither is a boom or bust pickup who could greatly help a shaky right tackle spot.
Hanging questions: Kansas City sleepwalked through the preseason. Perhaps no offense looked worse, with the offensive line playing especially bad. Backup quarterback Tyler Palko is among the worst in football.
Surprise: Rookie receiver Jonathan Baldwin couldn’t make it through one camp without creating drama. He broke his thumb on the losing end of a locker room fight with Thomas Jones. The Chiefs needed wideout help, and Baldwin was no higher than No. 4 on the depth chart before the injury.
Outlook: We trust Scott Pioli’s methodical roster-building, but we just don’t trust quarterback Matt Cassel to take the next step. Expect a return to mediocrity.
Training camp solution: Rookie receiver Denarius Moore and rookie running back Taiwan Jones add speed (surprise) and playmaking ability to the offense. Oakland’s backfield looks particularly impressive. The team has drafted better of late.
Hanging questions: Who can play cornerback here other than Stanford Routt? Teams are going to throw on Oakland all day. Front seven on defense may be a little overrated and overpaid like its leader, Richard Seymour. The offensive line was completely revamped and could have growing pains.
Surprise: The Raiders are getting sleeper love as a potential team that could go far in the playoffs despite losing a good head coach and three of its best players: Nnamdi Asomugha, Zach Miller, and Robert Gallery.
Outlook: A return back to 5-11 depression is a lot more likely than a leap to the playoffs.