Training days

Optimism Abounds As Nfl Camps Open

Pro Football

July 25, 2002|By Ken Murray

The start of training camp this week gives rise to the belief that anything is possible in the NFL, even the Super Bowl. After all, who would have predicted the past three league champions - the New England Patriots, Ravens and St. Louis Rams - at the start of camp those years?

Inspired by the Patriots' improbable ascension last year, 11 teams have already opened camp and seven more check in today. Every team will be on the practice field by Monday.

The NFL's reshuffled deck includes seven new head coaches plus the debut of the expansion Houston Texans, coached by Dom Capers. The league's realigned look features eight divisions of four teams each and the pooling of the visiting gate receipts. The most prominent changes send the Arizona Cardinals and the Seattle Seahawks to the NFC West.

Heading into two-a-days, this is how those divisions shape up, with the teams listed strongest to weakest.

AFC NORTH

Pittsburgh

Where: St. Vincent College, Latrobe, Pa.

Key imports: LB James Farrior (Jets), WR Terance Mathis (Falcons), K Todd Peterson (Chiefs), WR Antwaan Randle El (rookie).

Pressing issue: The Steelers are fine-tuning after nearly making the Super Bowl. They must replace leading tackler Earl Holmes at ILB with either Farrior or John Fiala.

Cleveland

Where: Browns training facility, Berea, Ohio

Key imports: OT Ryan Tucker (Rams), DE Kenard Lang (Redskins), S Robert Griffith (Vikings), LB Earl Holmes (Steelers), RB William Green (rookie), WR Andre Davis (rookie).

Pressing issue: The Browns need Green to balance the offense and Davis to provide a complement to No. 1 receiver Kevin Johnson. That's asking a lot of rookies. Tucker will be critical to the running game.

Cincinnati

Where: Georgetown College, Georgetown, Ky.

Key imports: QB Gus Frerotte (Broncos), WR Michael Westbrook (Redskins), OT Levi Jones (rookie), S Lamont Thompson (rookie).

Pressing issue: A quick resolution to the quarterback competition between holdover Jon Kitna and Frerotte would be helpful. The Bengals need a more productive passing game.

Ravens

Where: McDaniel College, Westminster

Key imports: QB Jeff Blake (Saints), S Ed Reed (rookie), DT Tony Weaver (rookie).

Pressing issue: The Ravens must find replacements for seven starters on their once-dominant defense. On offense, they need a healthy RB Jamal Lewis to take the load off new starting QB Chris Redman.

AFC EAST

New England

Where: Bryant College, Smithfield, R.I.

Key imports: WR Donald Hayes (Panthers), TE Christian Fauria (Seahawks), CB Tom Knight (Cardinals), DE Rick Lyle (Jets), TE Daniel Graham (rookie), WR Deion Branch (rookie).

Pressing issue: Coach Bill Belichick made a concerted effort to upgrade the skill positions around QB Tom Brady, including the addition of three tight ends. The speedy Hayes could help most, however.

Miami

Where: Nova Southeastern University, Davie, Fla.

Key imports: RB Ricky Williams (Saints), DE Rob Burnett (Ravens), DE Jay Williams (Panthers), DT Larry Chester (Panthers), offensive coordinator Norv Turner (Chargers).

Pressing issue: The Dolphins will emphasize the run this year. They shored up their 17th-ranked run defense, and they hope to become a run- oriented team on offense behind Williams.

New York Jets

Where: Hofstra University, Hempstead, N.Y.

Key imports: LB Sam Cowart (Bills), S Sam Garnes (Giants), CB Donnie Abraham (Bucs), CB Aaron Beasley (Jaguars), DT Larry Webster (Ravens), DT Josh Evans (Titans), DE Bryan Thomas (rookie).

Pressing issue: Rebuilding an offensive line that lost two starters and won't have Pro Bowl C Kevin Mawae (shoulder) back until mid-August is vital. QB Vinny Testaverde, 38, is coming off foot surgery.

Buffalo

Where: St. John Fisher College, Rochester, N.Y.

Key imports: QB Drew Bledsoe (Patriots), LB London Fletcher (Rams), TE Dave Moore (Bucs), OT Trey Teague (Broncos), K Mike Hollis (Jaguars), OT Mike Williams (rookie), offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride.

Pressing issue: Does Bledsoe have anything left? He hadn't played well for the Patriots before his injury and benching. If he can still play, the Bills are much improved.

AFC SOUTH

Tennessee

Where: Baptist Sports Park, Nashville, Tenn.

Key imports: S Lance Schulters (49ers), FB Greg Comella (Giants), DT Albert Haynesworth (rookie), S Tank Williams (rookie).

Pressing issue: After QB Steve McNair's big year (21 TD passes, 3,350 yards) and RB Eddie George's injury-marred season, the Titans have an identity crisis. Are they a passing team or a running team?

Indianapolis

Where: Rose-Hulman Technical Institute, Terre Haute, Ind.

Key imports: Coach Tony Dungy (Bucs), WR Qadry Ismail (Ravens), CB Walt Harris (Bears), LB Greg Favors (Titans), DE Dwight Freeney (rookie), DT Larry Tripplett (rookie).

Pressing issue: The Colts are counting on Dungy's presence to revive their moribund defense. They will go as far as the defense allows them to go.

Houston

Where: Reliant Park, Houston

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