NFL teams gearing up for season | TahoeDailyTribune.com

NFL teams gearing up for season

The Associated Press

NEW YORK (AP) – NFL preseason capsules as training camps open:

AFC EAST

BUFFALO BILLS (6-10)

OPEN CAMP: July 29

LAST YEAR: Popgun offense that Terrell Owens couldn’t spark, instability at quarterback and inability to stop the run conspired to prompt yet another coaching change (Dick Jauron fired after 3-6 start) as bumbling Bills celebrated their 50th year by capping a decade of ineptitude and missing playoffs for 10th straight season. Only bright spot was rookie S Jairus Byrd finishing tied for NFL lead with nine interceptions.

IMPORTANT ADDITIONS: Chan Gailey hired as new head coach, expected to provide vision and running identity to perennially dysfunctional offense; DE Dwan Edwards and LB Andra Davis, both familiar with newly installed 3-4 defense; First-round draft pick RB C.J. Spiller.

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IMPORTANT LOSSES: WRs Owens and Josh Reed (free agency), RB Brad Butler (retired) and potentially DE Aaron Schobel (contemplating retirement).

CAMP NEEDS: Too many to count. Three-way QB competition needs to be settled. WR James Hardy to finally show signs he’s healthy and prepared to play regular role opposite starter Lee Evans. RB Marshawn Lynch to shake dissatisfaction of still being in Buffalo and prove he can contribute to three-back rotation. O-line unsettled with no starting LT named yet, and LG Eric Wood missing most of spring practices while recovering from broken leg. Revamped defense to show signs of jelling with numerous newcomers and position changes.

EXPECTATIONS: Shaky at best. Too many question marks to expect Gailey to transform Bills into immediate contenders, particularly in ever-competitive AFC East.

NEW YORK JETS (9-7)

OPEN CAMP: Aug. 2

LAST YEAR: Behind a pair of rookies in coach Rex Ryan and quarterback Mark Sanchez, the Jets barely made it into the playoffs before going on a postseason run that left them a win away from a Super Bowl appearance. New York had the NFL’s top-ranked defense and rushing offense, both keys to the team’s success. Sanchez also played well down the stretch, capping a shaky first season by showing poise and promise for the player being deemed the face of the franchise.

IMPORTANT ADDITIONS: RBs LaDainian Tomlinson and fourth-round pick RB James McKnight, WR Santonio Holmes, CBs Antonio Cromartie and first-round pick Kyle Wilson, S Brodney Pool, DE-OLB Jason Taylor, K Nick Folk, second-round pick LG Vladimir Ducasse.

IMPORTANT LOSSES: RBs Thomas Jones and Leon Washington, LG Alan Faneca, S Kerry Rhodes, CB Lito Sheppard.

CAMP NEEDS: Sanchez appears healthy after coming off offseason knee surgery, but must continue to develop and limit mistakes which resulted in a few losses. Second-year RB Shonn Greene needs to show he can stay healthy and Tomlinson must prove he still can be a threat on offense in order for the running game to be successful. Ducasse and unproven Matt Slauson will compete for Faneca’s job. Chemistry will also be a major focus in camp with so many new faces joining the mix.

EXPECTATIONS: It’s Super Bowl or bust, according to Ryan and the rest of the franchise. The team believes it has the talent to take the next step this season, despite new personnel. By tweaking a unit that already ranked No. 1, Ryan believes the defense will be even better and not allow late leads to slip away – as it did a few times last season. As long as the running game remains a consistently productive part of the offense, Sanchez won’t need to force things with his arm. The schedule is extremely tough, though, with games against Baltimore, New England and Miami in the first three weeks likely setting the tone for the season.

MIAMI DOLPHINS (7-9)

OPEN CAMP: July 30

LAST YEAR: In the second year of the Bill Parcells regime, the Dolphins backslid after winning the AFC East in 2008. Injuries and a tough schedule contributed, and defense was a problem, too. The Dolphins gave up a franchise-record 140 points in the fourth quarter, most in the NFL. Big plays were an issue on both sides of the ball. Miami had only two touchdown passes of 20 yards or more, fewest in the league. The defense allowed 14 scoring passes of 20 yards or more, which was second-highest. On the bright side, the Dolphins may have found their best quarterback since Dan Marino. Chad Henne threw for 2,878 yards, a franchise record for a first-year NFL starter.

IMPORTANT ADDITIONS: WR Brandon Marshall, defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, LB Karlos Dansby, G Richie Incognito, DE Marques Douglas, rookie DE Jared Odrick, rookie LB Koa Misi.

IMPORTANT LOSSES: LBs Jason Taylor, Joey Porter and Akin Ayodele, NT Jason Ferguson, WR-KR Ted Ginn Jr., G Justin Smiley.

CAMP NEEDS: The Dolphins must sort out their offensive line, which is set only at the tackle spots. There are significant changes in the defensive front seven, which will play a more aggressive 3-4 under Nolan. There will be position battles in the secondary, where Miami has three starting-caliber cornerbacks but a dearth of experienced safeties. Henne must get comfortable with new go-to receiver Marshall, who is being counted on to stretch defenses, and the Dolphins must confirm RB Ronnie Brown is fully recovered from a season-ending right foot injury last November.

EXPECTATIONS: Owner Stephen Ross has said he expects the Dolphins to play in the Super Bowl, but a .500 season is more likely. The offense should be better, especially if Henne meshes with Marshall. A defense in transition may force Miami into high-scoring games, however, which isn’t the Parcells model for winning. The Dolphins must survive a tough first-half schedule if they’re going to be in playoff contention in December.

NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (10-6)

OPEN CAMP: July 29

LAST YEAR: Won the AFC East for the sixth time in seven years, but in the playoffs fell behind Baltimore 24-0 in the first quarter and lost in the wild-card round for the first time since 1998. Tom Brady returned after missing all but the first quarter of the previous season with a knee injury and passed for more than 4,000 yards for the third time and for at least 25 touchdowns for the fifth time despite injuries to his ribs and right finger. The Patriots faltered against top competition, losing to Indianapolis after failing on a controversial fourth-and-2 and, two weeks later, losing 38-17 to the New Orleans Saints. WR Wes Welker blew out his knee in the regular-season finale and missed the playoff game.

IMPORTANT ADDITIONS: WR Torry Holt, TE Alge Crumpler, DL Gerard Warren, CB Devin McCourty, LB Brandon Spikes, DE Jermaine Cunningham.

IMPORTANT LOSSES: LB Adalius Thomas, DE Jarvis Green, TE Benjamin Watson, CB Shawn Springs.

CAMP NEEDS: Welker needs to show he is healthy again, and so does Brady, who is now two years removed from major knee surgery. Randy Moss is in a contract year, and after rehabbing his reputation in New England can earn a big payday if he delivers. The team still needs to establish a running game – Laurence Maroney was the best they had last year, averaging 50 yards per game. Two-time Pro Bowl G Logan Mankins, upset with negotiations over a new contract, skipped the team’s three-day minicamp last month. He’s a restricted free agent after completing his original five-year contract.

EXPECTATIONS: The core of the team that was 18-0 in 2007-08 before losing the Super Bowl to the New York Giants is still around, at least on offense, but the leadership on defense suffered with the departures before last season of Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel, Rodney Harrison and Richard Seymour. LB Jerod Mayo, the team’s top draft pick in 2009, will be counted on to fill that role. The New York Jets and Miami Dolphins added more key players in the offseason, lessening the Patriots prospects’ for another division title.

AFC NORTH

BALTIMORE RAVENS (9-7)

OPEN CAMP: July 26

LAST YEAR: The Ravens made the playoffs for the second straight season for head coach John Harbaugh, who took over in 2008 for Brian Billick. The defense remained sound under Greg Mattison, who replaced coordinator Rex Ryan, and the offense rode the legs and hands of Ray Rice, who led the team in yards rushing and receptions. After clinching a wild-card berth in its final game, Baltimore won at New England in convincing fashion before falling to the Indianapolis Colts 20-3.

IMPORTANT ADDITIONS: WRs Anquan Boldin and Donte Stallworth, QB Marc Bulger, K Shayne Graham, DT Cory Redding, CB Travis Fisher, LB Sergio Kindle.

IMPORTANT LOSSES: DTs Dwan Edwards and Justin Bannan, OT Adam Terry.

CAMP NEEDS: The Ravens need one thing: good health. There’s a good chance S Ed Reed could start camp on the physically unable to perform list, and Baltimore needs to keep quarterback Joe Flacco and his new receivers up and running so they can get properly tuned up for the regular season.

EXPECTATIONS: The Ravens addressed their biggest need during the offseason, adding Boldin and Stallworth to enhance a passing game that too often consisted of Flacco dumping off a short pass to Rice. If the offense can excel and the defense can maintain its snarling attitude behind ageless MLB Ray Lewis, then Baltimore can return to the playoffs and quite possibly make a run at the Super Bowl.

PITTSBURGH STEELERS (9-7)

OPEN CAMP: July 30.

LAST YEAR: The reigning Super Bowl champions played like a team intent on repeating while starting 6-2. After that, injuries (S Troy Polamalu, DE Aaron Smith) and inexplicable breakdowns on offense and defense by a team normally known for its consistency led to a five-game losing streak – with losses to the Chiefs, Raiders and Browns. Even a three-game winning streak to end the season couldn’t salvage a playoff appearance. Ben Roethlisberger had his best season statistically (4,328 yards passing, 100.5 QB rating), but his problems came after the season.

IMPORTANT ADDITIONS: OL Maurkice Pouncey, LB Larry Foote, WR Antwaan Randle El, S Bryant McFadden, QB Byron Leftwich.

IMPORTANT LOSSES: RT Willie Colon (to season-ending Achilles’ tendon injury), WR Santonio Holmes, RB Willie Parker.

CAMP NEEDS: The Steelers must figure out quickly if third-year QB Dennis Dixon will push Leftwich to start during Roethlisberger’s 6-game (can be reduced to 4) suspension for his aberrant behavior in a Georgia nightclub in March. Endless snaps aren’t available in camp, especially since Roethlisberger must get his work in, too – he can’t practice once his suspension starts. With their QB out, the Steelers know they must get their running game going, and what better time to start than camp?

EXPECTATIONS: Murky. If the Steelers can get through Roethlisberger’s suspension with a decent record, if Polamalu can stay healthy again, if LB James Farrior doesn’t play like a 35-year-old, if the running game assumes an expanded role in the offense, if a thinned offensive line holds up, the Steelers believe they’ve got another playoff run in them. It’s why they brought back experienced Super Bowl players Foote, Randle El, Leftwich and McFadden. But that’s a lot of ifs for a franchise accustomed to reporting to camp with a Super Bowl-or-it’s-a-failure attitude.

CLEVELAND BROWNS (5-11)

OPEN CAMP: July 31

LAST YEAR: Perhaps overloaded with responsibilities, coach Eric Mangini’s first season in Cleveland was mostly a circus. But after a 1-11 start, the Browns ended with a surprising four-game winning streak – including a victory over rival Pittsburgh – that helped Mangini keep his job. Players grumbled about his heavy-handed discipline and long practices, but they didn’t quit. Cleveland’s quarterback situation never cleared up, and the team finished 2009 ranked at or near the bottom in virtually every statistical category.

IMPORTANT ADDITIONS: President Mike Holmgren, general manager Tom Heckert, QBs Jake Delhomme, Seneca Wallace and Colt McCoy, LBs Scott Fujita and Chris Gocong, CB Sheldon Brown, RB Montario Hardesty, TE Benjamin Watson.

IMPORTANT LOSSES: QBs Derek Anderson and Brady Quinn, WR Braylon Edwards, RB Jamal Lewis, C Hank Fraley, TE Steve Heiden, S Brodney Pool.

CAMP NEEDS: Delhomme is hoping to resurrect his career and bounce back from a disastrous season in Carolina. The Browns signed the veteran to stabilize the troublesome position and provide leadership to a team needing an infusion of positive energy and confidence. They lack an experienced wide receiver and are counting on Mohammed Massaquoi and Brian Robiskie to develop in their second years. Mangini needs to avoid the drama that hung over the team all season.

EXPECTATIONS: Holmgren is the proven, credible leader the team has lacked since its expansion return. Owner Randy Lerner needed someone to fix his franchise and has turned to Holmgren, who revitalized the Green Bay Packers and made the Seattle Seahawks respectable. Holmgren says he’s done coaching, but he didn’t look ready to give it up just yet while standing and observing during minicamps.

CINCINNATI BENGALS (10-6)

OPEN CAMP: July 28

LAST YEAR: A young and fast-improving defense helped them go 10-6 – only their second winning record since 1990 – and make the playoffs as AFC North champions. The defense finished fourth in the league. The offense went to a run-first philosophy that helped the Bengals win the division but came up far short in a playoff loss to the Jets. The Bengals spent a lot of time and money in the offseason keeping the team together, resulting in few noteworthy changes.

IMPORTANT ADDITIONS: WR Antonio Bryant, K Mike Nugent, K Dave Rayner, CB Adam “Pacman” Jones, S Gibril Wilson, TE Jermaine Gresham, WR Jordan Shipley.

IMPORTANT LOSSES: K Shayne Graham.

CAMP NEEDS: The Bengals have to figure out what they’re going to be on offense. The run-first philosophy won a division title, but lacked the firepower to go deep into the playoffs. They drafted TE Jermaine Gresham and WR Jordan Shipley to give QB Carson Palmer more targets. They also replaced WR Laveranaeus Coles with Antonio Bryant. Mike Nugent and Dave Rayner will compete for the kicking job of departed Shayne Graham, gone to Baltimore.

EXPECTATIONS: The Bengals will have a deeper roster than last season, but a much tougher schedule will make it more difficult to reach the playoffs again. They went 6-0 in division play for the first time in their history, something not likely to be repeated. Plus, they’ve got a history of falling back after a good season. They’ve reached the playoffs in consecutive seasons only twice in their history, in 1981-82. Palmer needs to have a much better season if that’s to happen. One of the major decisions in camp will be picking the receivers.

AFC SOUTH

INDIANAPOLIS COLTS (14-2)

OPEN CAMP: Aug. 1

LAST YEAR: First-year coach Jim Caldwell won his first 14 games and might have had a perfect regular-season had he not pulled the starters in the last two games. Indy recovered in the playoffs, beating AFC’s two best defenses – the Jets and Baltimore – to reach a second Super Bowl in Peyton Manning era before losing to New Orleans. Manning won his fourth MVP award.

IMPORTANT ADDITIONS: DE Jerry Hughes, OL Adam Terry, OL Andy Alleman

IMPORTANT LOSSES: OL Ryan Lilja, LB Tyjuan Hagler, LB Freddy Keiaho

CAMP NEEDS: Improving offensive line and running game, getting Hughes into defensive line rotation, making sure Robert Mathis and Reggie Wayne are themselves after spring contract holdouts

EXPECTATIONS: Indy has won at least 12 games in a record seven straight seasons, reached two Super Bowls since the 2006 season and has the only four-time MVP in history. Why should any of that change? It shouldn’t. Manning is still in his prime and he’ll have 2007 first-round pick Anthony Gonzalez back after missing all but one quarter last season. The defense returns all 11 starters from the AFC championship team, adds another speed rusher in Hughes and should get 2007 NFL defensive player of the year Bob Sanders on the field for more than two games this season. All of that makes Indy the clear-cut favorite in the AFC South and a Super Bowl contender yet again.

TENNESSEE TITANS (8-8)

OPEN CAMP: July 31

LAST YEAR: The Titans fell out of the gate losing their first six games, prompting owner Bud Adams to bench Kerry Collins for Vince Young. Tennessee rebounded by becoming the first NFL team to reach .500 after such a disastrous start but just missed the playoffs. Chris Johnson became the sixth man in NFL history to run for at least 2,000 yards in a season.

IMPORTANT ADDITIONS: LB Will Witherspoon, top draft pick DE Derrick Morgan, DE Jason Babin, CB Tye Hill and assistant running backs coach Kennedy Pola.

IMPORTANT LOSSES: LB Keith Bulluck, DE Kyle Vanden Bosch, C Kevin Mawae and assistant RB coach Earnest Byner.

CAMP NEEDS: The Titans will spend camp figuring out what they have on defense. Leaders Bulluck and Vanden Bosch are gone, though Bulluck has an outside shot at being re-signed as he heals from a torn ACL. They must find a new starter opposite CB Cortland Finnegan, see if LB David Thornton is healthy enough to start while Gerald McRath sits out a four-game suspension and finally measure what Morgan can add to the pass rush. They made Chris Johnson happy for now with a pay raise for 2010, ensuring he has an entire camp to erase any rust from his offseason holdout. Young also must continue improving as a passer and prove he’s their franchise quarterback.

EXPECTATIONS: Four of the first six games at home should help the Titans win early. Adams is expecting a third playoff berth in four seasons after just missing out in 2009, a goal that will depend on how much the offense can carry until the defense gels together.

HOUSTON TEXANS (9-7)

OPEN CAMP: July 30

LAST YEAR: The Texans broke through with their first winning record, but failed to make the playoffs for the eighth straight year. QB Matt Schaub made the Pro Bowl after throwing for a league-high 4,770 yards and 29 touchdowns. WR Andre Johnson led the NFL with 1,569 receiving yards and topped 100 catches for the third time in four years. But the Texans ranked 30th in rushing (92.2 yards per game) and coughed up 11 fumbles. The Texans’ defense ranked near the middle of the league in most categories. They ranked 20th in interceptions and 25th in sacks.

IMPORTANT ADDITIONS: TE Owen Daniels, K Neil Rackers, LB Danny Clark.

IMPORTANT LOSSES: CB Dunta Robinson, G Chester Pitts.

CAMP NEEDS: The Texans must find a consistent running game, and second-round pick Ben Tate could challenge incumbent Steve Slaton for the starting job in the backfield. Slaton rushed for 437 yards and lost five fumbles in 2009. Houston is also looking for a dependable kicker, and brought in the free agent Rackers to challenge Kris Brown, the kicker since the franchise’s inception in 2002. Brown missed 11 of 32 attempts last year, including last-minute tries in close losses to Indianapolis and Tennessee.

EXPECTATIONS: It’s the playoffs or bust for the Texans, entering their ninth year of existence. Coach Gary Kubiak is starting his fifth season and while Houston’s record has gradually improved, only a postseason berth will satisfy the increasingly impatient fan base. The Texans went 1-5 against AFC South opponents in 2009, and have lost 14 of 15 meetings with divisional top dog Indianapolis. Houston faces one of the league’s most difficult schedules, with home showdowns with Dallas and Baltimore and a road tilt with the New York Jets mixed in with the rugged AFC South slate. The Texans extended Kubiak’s contract through the 2012 season, but falling short of the postseason this year may force change.

JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS (7-9)

OPEN CAMP: July 30

LAST YEAR: The overhauled Jaguars surprised many by starting 7-5 in 2009 and getting in playoff contention. But they ended on a four-game losing streak, failing to reach the postseason for the eighth time in 10 years, evoking questions about coach Jack Del Rio’s future and prompting a defensive makeover.

IMPORTANT ADDITIONS: DE Aaron Kampman, LB Kirk Morrison, G Kynan Forney.

IMPORTANT LOSSES: DT John Henderson, DE Reggie Hayward, LB Clint Ingram, WR Torry Holt.

CAMP NEEDS: With several new defensive starters, Jaguars need to find chemistry and stability on that side of the ball while figuring out ways to fix the league’s worst pass rush. Also need to solidify interior offensive line and settle receiving corps alongside Mike Sims-Walker.

EXPECTATIONS: Maybe more blackouts and talk about relocation. Jacksonville is struggling to sell tickets and has acknowledged it can’t be a viable NFL franchise with so many empty seats. Jaguars desperately need a fast start to energize fan base. If not, look for Del Rio and QB David Garrard to spend the season on the hot seat.

AFC WEST

KANSAS CITY CHIEFS (4-12)

OPEN CAMP: July 30

LAST YEAR: In their first year under general manager Scott Pioli and head coach Todd Haley, the Chiefs started slow but ended fast, routing Denver in an encouraging season finale to finish 4-12. After trouble-making RB Larry Johnson was released, backup Jamaal Charles emerged as one of the NFL’s best young backs, rushing for 1,190 yards. Matt Cassel’s passer rating in his first year as a full-time starter came to rest at 69.9. But as the offensive line stabilized, so did Cassel.

IMPORTANT ADDITIONS: Coordinators Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel, S Eric Berry, WR-RB Dexter McCluster, OL Jon Asamoah, RB Thomas Jones, OL Ryan Lilja.

IMPORTANT LOSSES: OL Wade Smith.

CAMP NEEDS: After camping for 20 years in the cool north woods of Western Wisconsin, Pioli and Haley have returned the Chiefs to the Midwest’s summer swelter. If oppressive heat and energy-sapping humidity in their new camp in St. Joseph, Mo., prove a problem, Pioli’s program could stumble.

EXPECTATIONS: Haley and Pioli dislike the word “culture,” so just say their first year helped change the organization’s attitude and laid the foundation for the “tough, smart, disciplined” team they dream of. Berry, their first-round pick, will be counted on as an immediate starter. Having Weis run the offense frees up Haley, who fired his coordinator last September and burdened himself with the responsibility.

OAKLAND RAIDERS (5-11)

OPEN CAMP: July 28

LAST YEAR: The Raiders suffered through an NFL-record seventh straight season with at least 11 losses. The season started off on a bad note with allegations that coach Tom Cable assaulted assistant Randy Hanson at training camp. That story hung over the team until midway through the season when prosecutors announced they would not charge him. By then the season was lost and the focus turned to the struggles at quarterback by former No. 1 overall pick JaMarcus Russell.

IMPORTANT ADDITIONS: QB Jason Campbell, LB Rolando McClain, DL John Henderson, DL Lammar Houston, LB Kamerion Wimbley.

IMPORTANT LOSSES: QB JaMarcus Russell, LB Kirk Morrison, DT Gerard Warren, DE Greg Ellis, RB Justin Fargas, OL Cornell Green.

CAMP NEEDS: Establish a credible passing game. In what has increasingly become a passing league, the Raiders have had trouble moving the ball through the air ever since Kerry Collins left town following the 2005 season. A parade of quarterbacks from Aaron Brooks to Andrew Walter to Russell were unable to fix it. Now comes Campbell, who had an up-and-down tenure in Washington. If he is to be successful in Oakland, Campbell will need improved play from the receivers, especially last year’s first-round pick Darrius Heyward-Bey.

EXPECTATIONS: The change at quarterback has brought a needed dose of optimism to the Raiders during the worst stretch of losing in franchise history. But there are still plenty of holes that need to be filled before Oakland can be considered a playoff contender. The biggest issues are at the line of scrimmage. The Raiders did little to improve an offensive line that struggled in the passing and running game a year ago. They added bulk to the front seven led by first-round pick McClain in hopes of upgrading a run defense that has allowed more yards and more touchdowns than any other team the past seven years.

DENVER BRONCOS (8-8)

OPEN CAMP: July 29

LAST YEAR: In their first year under coach Josh McDaniels, the Broncos were the surprise of the NFL over the first half, jumping out to a 6-0 start before a 2-8 finish left them out of the playoffs for the fourth straight season. After trading QB Jay Cutler to Chicago to start things off, McDaniels culminated his first year on the job by trading another Pro Bowl performer, WR Brandon Marshall, to Miami. He then made a splash in the draft by grabbing Florida QB Tim Tebow in the first round. Incumbent starting QB Kyle Orton wanted a big contract extension like the one NFL sacks champion Elvis Dumervil garnered but instead he got Tebow and Brady Quinn, who came over from Cleveland in a trade.

IMPORTANT ADDITIONS: QBs Tebow and Quinn, RB J.J. Arrington, LB Akin Ayodele, WRs Demaryius “Bay-Bay” Thomas and Eric Decker, DLs Jamal Williams, Jarvis Green and Justin Bannan.

IMPORTANT LOSSES: Marshall, TE Tony Scheffler, C Casey Wiegmann.

CAMP NEEDS: The Broncos will work in a youth-filled offensive line while hoping tackles Ryan Harris (foot) and Ryan Clady (knee) return from injuries to restore what’s a solid pocket of protection when healthy. They’ll also want an answer quickly to who will be taking the snaps – it’s Orton’s job to lose.

EXPECTATIONS: McDaniels beefed up his defensive line through free agency, and the Broncos took care of Dumervil with a record $43 million in guaranteed money over the next six seasons. The veteran-laden defense will be asked to carry the load with the youth-filled offense making its way through quarterback jostling, a makeshift offensive line and revamped receiving and running corps.

SAN DIEGO CHARGERS (13-3)

OPEN CAMP: July 26

LAST YEAR: Chargers rallied from a 2-3 start and a 3 1/2-game deficit in the AFC West to win their final 11 games to finish 13-3 and claim their fourth straight division title. But then they took another inexplicable face-plant in the playoffs, against the New York Jets, their third loss in their last four postseason games. The Chargers solidified themselves as a passing team behind Philip Rivers, which made the departure of LaDainian Tomlinson easier, although Tomlinson took some shots at the Bolts on his way to the Jets.

IMPORTANT ADDITIONS: RB Ryan Mathews, LT Tra Thomas, CB Nathan Vasher, CB Donald Strickland.

IMPORTANT LOSSES: RB LaDainian Tomlinson, DT Jamal Williams, CB Antonio Cromartie.

CAMP NEEDS: Thomas is entering his 13th season and is being asked to protect Rivers’ blind side in place of Marcus McNeill, who is holding out because Chargers haven’t given him a long-term contract. Also holding out is Pro Bowl WR Vincent Jackson, so Legedu Naanee and oft-injured Craig Davis will have to step up. Mathews is expected to replace Tomlinson.

EXPECTATIONS: Chargers are expected to win another title in the weak AFC West, although many feel their window of opportunity for getting to the Super Bowl is closing. Coach Norv Turner thinks this can be the best team in his four seasons, but that’s being optimistic considering that Jackson and McNeill could sit out the first 10 games before returning. Mathews should give the Chargers a fresh start at running back, where Tomlinson was clearly in decline.

NFC EAST

DALLAS COWBOYS (11-5)

OPEN CAMP: July 24

LAST YEAR: Finally, another playoff victory for the five-time Super Bowl champions. With Terrell Owens gone and Miles Austin going from relative unknown to Pro Bowl receiver, Tony Romo set single-season Cowboys passing records while also throwing a career-low nine interceptions. After clinching the NFC East, the Cowboys won their first playoff game at their new stadium – and their first postseason victory anywhere since 1996. That eased the sting of a lopsided loss at Minnesota in the NFC divisional playoff game.

IMPORTANT ADDITIONS: WR Dez Bryant, their first-round draft pick; OT Alex Barron; LB Sean Lee.

IMPORTANT LOSSES: LT Flozell Adams, S Ken Hamlin, LB Bobby Carpenter, OL Cory Procter.

CAMP NEEDS: Determine who will protect Romo’s blind side after Adams, the expensive, 35-year-old, five-time Pro Bowl, left tackle was cut. Doug Free is being given the first chance, but Barron was acquired from St. Louis for Carpenter in a swap of underachieving former first-round picks. Marion Barber, Felix Jones and Tashard Choice – how will that talented running back trio be used? The secondary, with converted cornerback Alan Ball taking over for the cut Hamlin at safety.

EXPECTATIONS: For owner Jerry Jones, to be the first team to play the Super Bowl in its home stadium. Cowboys players certainly know that the next Super Bowl will be played in the $1.2 billion Cowboys Stadium on Feb. 6 – Jones constantly reminds them. Then again, it might not be an unrealistic expectation. Instead of a spending spree during an uncapped year, Jones emphasized continuity. Romo and Co. no longer have that postseason winning drought in the background and Bryant is a potentially explosive playmaker who provides yet another offensive weapon for a unit that should be able to pass and run. Head coach Wade Phillips settled nicely into the dual role of defensive coordinator last year, and has basically the same players that allowed the fewest points in the NFC, including consecutive shutouts to end the regular season.

WASHINGTON REDSKINS (4-12)

OPEN CAMP: July 29

LAST YEAR: The Snyder-Redskins circus imploded beyond its usual laughingstock status. Owner Dan Snyder overpaid for Albert Haynesworth, front office chief Vinny Cerrato assembled a thin and aging offensive line, and coach Jim Zorn was still overwhelmed by the job. Before long, Sherm Lewis was hired out of bingo-calling retirement to call the plays, Cerrato was ousted before the season was done, and Zorn was fired immediately after the final game of the worst Redskins season since 1994.

IMPORTANT ADDITIONS: Coach Mike Shanahan, GM Bruce Allen (actually hired late last season), QB Donovan McNabb, RB Larry Johnson, RB Willie Parker, T Trent Williams, T Jammal Brown, G/T Artis Hicks, CB Phillip Buchanon, DE Adam Carriker, DL Vonnie Holliday, NT Maake Kemoeatu, WR Joey Galloway.

IMPORTANT LOSSES: QB Jason Campbell, T Chris Samuels, G Randy Thomas, WR Antwaan Randle El, DT Cornelius Griffin, KR Rock Cartwright.

CAMP NEEDS: The offensive line was overhauled after 46 sacks allowed last year, with No. 4 overall pick Williams and veterans Brown and Hicks the favorites to earn starting nods. Redskins also must complete installation of new offense and defensive schemes and decide what to do about Haynesworth, who’s unhappy over switch to a 3-4 defense and threatening to be huge distraction at camp.

EXPECTATIONS: After a decade of disappointment, Snyder had little choice but to give Shanahan final say over football operations. However, the coach who won two Super Bowls with Denver appears to be have adopted Snyder’s win-now mantra. Older players were purged, but many of the new ones are just as old or older. One of the knocks on Shanahan is overconfidence in his ability to mold hand-picked players into winners – a theory that will be tested right away with this group. Redskins have made major upgrades at four vital positions: coach, GM, QB and LT. That alone should make this team three or four wins better than last year’s.

NEW YORK GIANTS (8-8)

OPEN CAMP: Aug. 1

LAST YEAR: After a 5-0 start, the Giants fell apart in the second half and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2005. The once-solid defense was a major culprit, and rookie coordinator Bill Sheridan was fired as a result. The running game, which led the league in rushing in 2008, slumped behind a banged-up Brandon Jacobs. QB Eli Manning was a bright spot, coming up with the best statistical season of his career – 4,021 yards, 27 TDs – and found a true go-to receiver in Steve Smith (team-record 107 catches, 1,220 yards).

IMPORTANT ADDITIONS: Defensive coordinator Perry Fewell, S Antrel Rolle, S Deon Grant, DE Jason Pierre-Paul (first-round pick), DT Linval Joseph (second-rounder), LB Phillip Dillard (fourth-rounder), P Matt Dodge (seventh-round pick).

IMPORTANT LOSSES: MLB Antonio Pierce, DT Fred Robbins, P Jeff Feagles, CB Kevin Dockery.

CAMP NEEDS: The Giants need to return their defense to dominance and it may start with the guys up front. Justin Tuck has to show he’s back after dealing with a shoulder injury, and Osi Umenyiora needs to rebound from a season marked by injuries and a benching. Jonathan Goff and Dillard have to prove they can replace Pierce. S Kenny Phillips and CB Aaron Ross dealt with injuries last season and could be major factors if they can stay healthy. An aging offensive line could see some changes if LG Rich Seubert is phased out and replaced by David Diehl, with young Will Beatty moving in at LT. Domenik Hixon is out for the season with a knee injury, meaning the Giants need to find a new kickoff and punt returner – with Sinorice Moss and wide receiver Mario Manningham the likely candidates.

EXPECTATIONS: The Giants will enter the season with some major questions, but also with their sights set on a playoff appearance and putting last year’s disastrous finish behind them. As long as the running game gets going, the offense behind Manning, Smith & Co. should produce points. It will be up to Fewell’s defense to keep opponents off balance and keep shootouts to a minimum in a competitive NFC East.

PHILADELPHIA EAGLES (11-5)

OPEN CAMP: July 26

LAST YEAR: Strong contenders to make a championship run heading into the final week of the regular season, the Eagles were exposed in consecutive losses to Dallas. The first cost them the NFC East title and a first-round bye and the second one knocked them out of the playoffs. That signaled the end of the Donovan McNabb Era in Philadelphia. The six-time Pro Bowl quarterback was traded to Washington and several other veterans were jettisoned in the offseason.

IMPORTANT ADDITIONS: DE Brandon Graham, S Nate Allen, LB Ernie Sims, DE Darryl Tapp, RB Mike Bell.

IMPORTANT LOSSES: QB Donovan McNabb, RB Brian Westbrook, CB Sheldon Brown, OT Shawn Andrews, LB Will Witherspoon.

CAMP NEEDS: It’s Kevin Kolb’s first camp as the starting quarterback, so he needs to establish himself as the leader on offense. There’s uncertainty in a secondary that used to be the defense’s strength, and it’s important that starting linebacker Stewart Bradley is able to return from a knee injury that forced him to miss the entire 2009 season. Michael Vick also could prove to be a distraction because of off-field issues.

EXPECTATIONS: Despite overhauling the roster, trading McNabb and getting rid of other veterans, coach Andy Reid and the rest of management refuse to consider this a rebuilding year. If Kolb steps in and plays to his potential, a young offense that has plenty of talent could score a bunch of points. A defense that struggled down the stretch has several holes that are being filled by rookies who will be counted on to make immediate contributions.

NFC NORTH

DETROIT LIONS (2-14)

OPEN CAMP: July 31

LAST YEAR: Won just two games under first-year coach Jim Schwartz – a season after being the first NFL team to go 0-16 – and set a league record with 30 losses over two seasons. Dropped record to 33-111 since 2001, sinking to the worst nine-season stretch in the NFL since World War II that includes a 3-37 mark since midway through the 2007 season for the poorest 40-game record in the league since the 1920s. Might’ve finally found a franchise QB in Matthew Stafford, the No. 1 pick in the 2009 draft.

IMPORTANT ADDITIONS: DT Ndamukong Suh, the No. 2 overall pick, first-round RB Jahvid Best, DE Kyle Vanden Bosch, WR Nate Burleson, DT Corey Williams, CB Dre’ Bly, OG Rob Sims, TE Tony Scheffler, QB Shaun Hill, CB Chris Houston.

IMPORTANT LOSSES: LBs Larry Foote, Ernie Sims, DE DeWayne White, QB Daunte Culpepper.

CAMP NEEDS: The revamped linebackers and secondary need to develop chemistry as does the offensive line with Sims, the newly acquired and much-needed guard. RB Kevin Smith and TE Brandon Pettigrew, coming off major knee surgeries, will be assets if they can prove to be healthy.

EXPECTATIONS: Higher than usual. The Lions are very optimistic they will (finally) be respectable this season because the Martin Mayhew-led front office seems to have figured out how to draft well and acquire talent via free agency and trades. But until Detroit shows it can be a winner, doubts will linger about the floundering franchise in the Motor City.

MINNESOTA VIKINGS (12-4)

OPEN CAMP: July 30

LAST YEAR: Brett Favre’s headliner appearance was the spark Vikings needed for a previously lagging passing game and a swagger they rode all the way to the NFC title game, where they lost to the Super Bowl champion Saints in stomach-churning fashion. The steady progression continued under coach Brad Childress, from 6-10 to 8-8 and 10-6 and 12-4. All-Pro running back Adrian Peterson slipped, unable to solve his fumbling problem behind an up-and-down, injury-affected offensive line. Despite a rough December, the defense finished sixth in the NFL in total yards allowed. Special teams made significant strides, with help from rookie returner Percy Harvin.

IMPORTANT ADDITIONS: CB Lito Sheppard, RB Toby Gerhart.

IMPORTANT LOSSES: RB Chester Taylor, OL Artis Hicks.

CAMP NEEDS: The first goal is to get Favre in uniform, even if it’s several weeks into August while the 40-year-old mulls his future again and works his way back from ankle surgery. Peterson also must work on his technique, with opposing defenses eager to punch the ball out whenever they can. Middle linebacker E.J. Henderson is rehabilitating from a broken leg and cornerback Cedric Griffin is recovering from a torn-up knee, so Jasper Brinkley must make progress as Henderson’s backup and the veteran Sheppard has to prove he’s still fast enough to hold down a starting spot.

EXPECTATIONS: If Favre decides to play again, as widely assumed, the roster will again be ready to push for a Super Bowl with the entire starting lineup returning. Recapturing the vibe from last fall will be difficult, and improvements will have to be made by Peterson, his blockers up front and starting safeties Tyrell Johnson and Madieu Williams to counter a possible drop-offs in Favre’s performance. The success of the defense also hinges on the healthy, productive return of Griffin and Henderson.

CHICAGO BEARS (7-9)

OPEN CAMP: July 30

LAST YEAR: The Bears had high expectations with the arrival of Jay Cutler from Denver, only to fall flat and miss the playoffs for the third straight year. Linebacker Brian Urlacher had a season-ending wrist injury at Green Bay in the opener, and the defense never showed the dominant form that led the way to the playoffs in 2005 and 2006. On offense, things were no better. Cutler threw 26 interceptions, the most by a Bears quarterback since Sid Luckman’s club record 31 in 1947 and the most in the NFL since Brett Favre threw 29 for Green Bay in 2005. Blame that on poor protection and bad decisions.

IMPORTANT ADDITIONS: DE Julius Peppers, RB Chester Taylor, TE Brandon Manumaleuna.

IMPORTANT LOSSES: DE Adewale Ogunleye.

CAMP NEEDS: Time to learn new offensive coordinator Mike Martz’s complex system. There are also questions on the offensive line and in the defensive backfield.

EXPECTATIONS: Coach Lovie Smith and general manager Jerry Angelo are basically operating under a win-or-else mandate from president and CEO Ted Phillips. Landing Peppers, the prized free agent, was a bold step. They also overhauled the coaching staff, particularly on offense, and have two new coordinators in Martz and Rod Marinelli. But for all the big moves, there are still some big questions. Can Urlacher stay healthy? Can the defensive backs defend? Can the offensive line block? Will the receivers mature? And will the Cutler-Martz relationship produce spectacular results or a spectacular meltdown?

GREEN BAY PACKERS (11-5)

OPEN CAMP: July 31

LAST YEAR: Aaron Rodgers shook off significant pass protection problems to have a stellar season, throwing for 4,434 yards with 30 touchdowns and only 7 interceptions. The defense took a significant step forward in coordinator Dom Capers’ 3-4 scheme, although the team had to withstand season-ending injuries to cornerback Al Harris and outside linebacker Aaron Kampman. Still, pass defense issues were exposed in a playoff loss to Arizona.

IMPORTANT ADDITIONS: OL Bryan Bulaga, DE Mike Neal, S Morgan Burnett.

IMPORTANT LOSSES: OL Aaron Kampman.

CAMP NEEDS: The Packers need to settle on a starting five for their offensive line early on to improve chemistry. S Atari Bigby is a restricted free agent and has not accepted his tender offer from the team, meaning third-round pick Burnett could get snaps with the first-team defense. The Packers likely will open camp without Harris, who is still rehabilitating a knee injury, so coaches will be looking for one of their young cornerbacks to stand out. And they’ll need to work on a defensive line rotation without Johnny Jolly, who is suspended for at least this season under the NFL’s substance abuse policy.

EXPECTATIONS: High. If the Packers can shore up their offensive line and their defense can do a better job stopping high-powered passing offenses, there’s no reason they can’t make a deep playoff run and contend for the Super Bowl. Will they get another chance to beat Brett Favre?

NFC SOUTH

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS (13-3)

OPEN CAMP: July 30

LAST YEAR: The Saints set a franchise record by winning their first 13 games and went on to win the franchise’s first Super Bowl title in 43 years of existence. Sean Payton’s offense led the NFL in yardage for the third time in his four seasons as a head coach and QB Drew Brees threw for more than 4,000 yards for the fourth straight season. Meanwhile, Gregg Williams took over as defensive coordinator and transformed the Saints’ defense from a liability into an aggressive, turnover-causing, game changing unit.

IMPORTANT ADDITIONS: DE Alex Brown, DE-DT Jimmy Wilkerson, DB Patrick Robinson, LB Clint Ingram, TE Jimmy Graham.

IMPORTANT LOSSES: LB Scott Fujita, DE Charles Grant.

CAMP NEEDS: The Saints are finishing up an eventful offseason. There have been parades, parties, talk show appearances, the releases of books by Payton and Brees, and a few controversies. A civil lawsuit alleged Vicodin theft and possible abuse by some coaches. An investigation concluded that found Reggie Bush broke NCAA rules by taking money from agents while at USC, leading to severe sanctions for his old school. After all that, the Saints must return focused, hungry, and in shape for a tough camp in steamy south Louisiana. The Saints also will be looking to see which of several candidates can step in at strongside linebacker for Fujita.

EXPECTATIONS: With all key players back on offense, the Saints will be disappointed if that unit fails to quickly start clicking and show signs of again being the most productive offense in the NFL. It’s also clear Payton hopes to work rookie TE Graham into the offense after giving him snaps with the first team in minicamp. Another goal will be to get second-round pick, LT Charles Brown, ready to compete with returning starter Jermon Bushrod. On defense, Williams hopes Alex Brown is the right fit to take over as starting end opposite Will Smith. Play-making safety Darren Sharper may have to ease back into action after offseason arthroscopic surgery on his left knee, but he expects to be on the field when camp opens. Meanwhile, speedy first-round draft pick Robinson must improve on his minicamp performance to give coaches enough confidence to play him in five- or six-defensive-back sets.

CAROLINA PANTHERS (8-8)

OPEN CAMP: July 28

LAST YEAR: The Panthers started the year with Jake Delhomme under center, but by the end of the season, Matt Moore was leading the offense while Delhomme was on his way out of town. Carolina closed the year with three straight wins, including a one-sided win against Brett Favre and NFC runner-up Minnesota. The offense again relied on the ground game, with Jonathan Stewart (1,133 yards, 10 touchdowns) and DeAngelo Williams (1,117 yards, 7 TDs).

IMPORTANT ADDITIONS: QB Jimmy Clausen, WR Brandon LaFell, WR Armanti Edwards, LB Eric Norwood, DE Greg Hardy, LB Jamar Williams.

IMPORTANT LOSSES: Delhomme, DE Julius Peppers, WR Muhsin Muhammad, FB Brad Hoover, S Chris Harris, DT Maake Kemoeatu.

CAMP NEEDS: With Muhammad’s retirement, the Panthers have to find a reliable No. 2 receiver opposite Steve Smith and hope draftees LaFell or Edwards could contend for that spot. Carolina also sort out a defensive line that had plenty of turnover, while Moore enters camp as the starter despite Carolina’s selection of Clausen in the second round.

EXPECTATIONS: Coach John Fox is preparing for his ninth – and possibly final – season with Carolina using a remade roster that shed payroll and added plenty of youth from last year. Moore performed well late last season as the starter, but Clausen’s arrival means Moore’s margin for error could be slim. While Smith, Stewart and Williams provide plenty of hope for the offense, the defense must replace the pass rush lost when Peppers left in free agency as part of the team’s makeover.

ATLANTA FALCONS (9-7)

OPEN CAMP: July 30

LAST YEAR: A devastating series of injuries ruined the Falcons’ playoffs hopes, but the team did break one of the NFL’s most embarrassing streaks: For the first time in franchise history, Atlanta posted back-to-back winning seasons. Matt Ryan had a bit of a sophomore slump but still threw for 2,916 yards with 22 touchdowns. Michael Turner battled an ailing ankle, missed five games and tailed off to 871 yards rushing after finishing second in the NFL the previous season. Tony Gonzalez had a huge impact in his Atlanta debut with 83 receptions for 867 yards. But the defense was a major problem, surrendering nearly 242 yards per game through the air, worse than all but four teams.

IMPORTANT ADDITIONS: CB Dunta Robinson, LB Sean Weatherspoon, DT Corey Peters, OG Mike Johnson.

IMPORTANT LOSSES: CB Chris Houston.

CAMP NEEDS: The Ryan-led offense is loaded, so all eyes will be on the defense in training camp. The Falcons made a major upgrade in the secondary by signing Robinson, first-round pick Sean Weatherspoon should improve the linebacking corps, and last year’s two top picks – tackle Peria Jerry and safety William Moore – are coming back from injuries that ruined their rookie season. The biggest question mark is up front, where the Falcons struggled to get pressure on the quarterback. End John Abraham must improve on the 5.5 sacks he had in 2009.

EXPECTATIONS: Very high. The Falcons look like a team that can challenge Super Bowl champion New Orleans in the NFC South, and certainly nothing less than a return to the playoffs will do. By finishing above .500 for the second year in a row, Atlanta finally looks like a franchise that can expect consistent success under general manager Thomas Dimitroff and coach Mike Smith.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS(3-13)

OPEN CAMP: July 31

LAST YEAR: The Buccaneers launched a youth movement in their first year under Raheem Morris, who not only was the youngest coach in the NFL but had no previous head coaching experience. He set the tone for a poor debut by firing his offensive coordinator before the final preseason game and committing to a defensive scheme even though his defensive coordinator didn’t fully buy into the plan. Rookie Josh Freeman became the quarterback following an 0-7 start. Less than a month later, Morris dumped his defensive coordinator and began calling plays on that side of the ball himself. The perfect recipe for a 3-13 finish.

IMPORTANT ADDITIONS: DTs Gerald McCoy, Brian Price; WRs Arrelious Benn, Mike Williams, Reggie Brown.

IMPORTANT LOSSES: WR Antonio Bryant, DE Jimmy Wilkerson, DT Chris Hovan, DB Will Allen.

CAMP NEEDS: Morris is officially his own defensive coordinator now. He also expects the offense to benefit from having an entire training camp to learn from offensive coordinator Greg Olson. The Bucs were one of the youngest teams in the league last year and figure to be even younger in 2010, with draft picks McCoy, Price, Benn and Williams among the newcomers being counted on to make an immediate impact.

EXPECTATIONS: In addition to being confident the Bucs will show significant improvement on defense with Morris running the show from Day 1, the coach thinks Freeman – 3-6 as a starter – will be much better after completing just 54.5 percent of his passes for 1,855 yards, 10 touchdowns and 18 interceptions. That will only be possible if the offensive line does a much better job of protecting the second-year QB, the running game becomes more consistent, and the team gets more production from its wide receivers than a year ago, when TE Kellen Winslow led the club with 77 receptions – 38 more than the top WR.

NFC WEST

SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS (8-8)

OPEN CAMP: July 30

LAST YEAR: The 49ers avoided a seventh straight losing season in coach Mike Singletary’s first full year at the helm. Former No. 1 overall pick Alex Smith took over at quarterback from Shaun Hill midway through the season and showed some signs of developing into the type of passer the Niners expected when they drafted him first overall in 2005. The play of TE Vernon Davis and rookie WR Michael Crabtree give the Niners the offensive playmakers that have been so sorely lacking in recent seasons.

IMPORTANT ADDITIONS: OL Anthony Davis, OL Mike Iupati, S Taylor Mays, QB David Carr, WR Ted Ginn, DE Travis LaBoy.

IMPORTANT LOSSES: QB Shaun Hill, CB Dre Bly, WR Arnaz Battle, WR Isaac Bruce, CB Walt Harris, OL Tony Pashsos.

CAMP NEEDS: The Niners’ offensive line was one of the biggest weaknesses last season, leading the team to use both of its first-round picks on linemen. The key in training camp will be getting Davis and Iupati fully integrated so San Francisco can employ the power running game Singletary covets and give Smith plenty of time to get the ball to his play-making receivers.

EXPECTATIONS: Having beaten Arizona twice last season with Kurt Warner at quarterback, the Niners hope they will become the class of the NFC West now that Warner is retired and Matt Leinart is under center. For the first time in his career, Smith gets a chance to play in the same offense for a second season. The familiarity led to an increased comfort level in offseason workouts that the Niners hope translates into bigger production on the field.

ARIZONA CARDINALS (10-6)

OPEN CAMP: July 30

LAST YEAR: The Cardinals won their second straight NFC West championship, then got a 55-49 overtime wild card victory over Green Bay in the highest-scoring playoff game in NFL playoff history. Six days later, they lost 45-14 in the divisional round to eventual Super Bowl champion New Orleans. Warner, who teamed with coach Ken Whisenhunt to lead Arizona out of the football wasteland, completed 66 percent of his passes for 3,753 yards and 26 touchdowns in what turned out to be his final NFL season. He announced his retirement, but not before one of the greatest postseason performances of all time when he completed 29 of 33 for 379 yards and five touchdowns. Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin, in their final season together, each topped 1,000 yards receiving. Fitzgerald had 97 catches, 13 for touchdowns.

IMPORTANT ADDITIONS: G Alan Fanaca, OLB Joey Porter, S Kerry Rhodes, QB Derek Anderson, ILB Paris Lennon, K Jay Feely.

IMPORTANT LOSSES: QB Kurt Warner, WR Anquan Boldin, ILB Karlos Dansby, S Antrel Rolle, K Neil Rackers, CB Bryant McFadden.

CAMP NEEDS: The biggest question, obviously, is whether QB Matt Leinart can succeed after watching from the sidelines as Warner excelled the past two seasons. Leinart has shed his party-boy image and has earned Whisenhunt’s praise for his diligence and attitude. Arizona is expected to tweak its offense to more of a running game behind Beanie Wells and Tim Hightower. The team also must replace some of the best players from a bad defense.

EXPECTATIONS: Once again, the Cardinals find themselves pushed aside in many NFC West predictions, this time in favor of the San Francisco 49ers, who beat Arizona twice last season. But the Cardinals relish the underdog role and Whisenhunt, with a lucrative new contract, has transformed the attitude and work ethic of a franchise that was a joke for so long. Whisenhunt doesn’t believe in contact in training camp, but conditioning always is a priority. If Leinart falters, Arizona can turn to the Cleveland cast-off Anderson, who has a strong arm but erratic accuracy. The defense is just a big a question mark as Leinart, since it was awful in the playoffs.

SEATTLE SEAHAWKS (5-11)

OPEN CAMP: July 31

LAST YEAR: In their one and only year under coach Jim Mora, Seahawks flopped again. Left tackle Walter Jones never made it back from major knee surgery and eventually retired. Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck crumbled with more injuries in one of the worst statistical years of his career. The lack of a pass rush exposed a porous secondary. How bad was it? Punter Jon Ryan was Seattle’s best weapon on offense. And kicker Olindo Mare became the team’s franchise-designated player for 2010.

IMPORTANT ADDITIONS: New coach Pete Carroll and an almost entirely new staff, including offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates. First-round draft choice Russell Okung to replace Jones. G Ben Hamilton, WR Mike Williams; RB Leon Washington, DE Chris Clemons – and a new college attitude from Carroll and his USC pals.

IMPORTANT LOSSES: Jones, DE Patrick Kerney, WR Nate Burleson.

CAMP NEEDS: Figure out Carroll. The constant competition and endless energy from the dynasty maker at USC are things the Seahawks are still getting used to. Every job is theoretically up for grabs – even Hasselbeck’s. The sooner Seahawks adjust to Carroll, the sooner they can start turning around the franchise.

EXPECTATIONS: Tempered. For all the $30 million Carroll is getting to coach and have say on personnel, Seahawks still lack cohesion and experience on the offense line, and production on the defensive line. Teams without good line play don’t win. Carroll will keep it interesting, and the weak NFC West provides hope, but just getting on the same page by the opening game is the most realistic camp goal.

ST. LOUIS RAMS (1-15)

OPEN CAMP: July 31

LAST YEAR: The Rams had the first pick of the draft, and it wasn’t a fluke. The first year under coach Steve Spagnuolo was all about rebuilding, with several veterans jettisoned and a mixture of veterans and unproven players coming up short week after week. The Rams had the lowest scoring team in the NFL, along with one of the most porous defenses. St. Louis leaned heavily on Pro Bowl running back Steven Jackson and ended a 17-game losing streak at Detroit, but otherwise consistently faded in every game.

IMPORTANT ADDITIONS: No. 1 overall pick QB Sam Bradford, QB A.J. Feeley, OL Hank Fraley, LB Na’il Diggs, DT Chris Hovan, DT Fred Robbins, LB Bobby Carpenter, S Kevin Payne.

IMPORTANT LOSSES: DT Adam Carriker, QB Marc Bulger, LB Paris Lenon, CB Jonathan Wade.

CAMP NEEDS: Rams need to quickly get Bradford up to speed, although they likely will open the season with veteran backup Feeley as the starter. Both are new to the system after Bulger was released and last year’s backup Kyle Boller was not re-signed. OT Rodger Saffold, the second-round pick, is expected to be an immediate starter. Offense needs to develop alternatives to Jackson handoffs, and wide receiver position is thin, just like before training camp last year.

EXPECTATIONS: Given the Rams are 6-42 the last three seasons, incremental improvement would be a nice plus. Spagnuolo has preached patience and refuses to look back. There’s a lot of young talent, no surprise considering they picked second the previous two seasons. OT Jason Smith (2009) should be at full go after concussion cut into his rookie season, and Chris Long (2008) has been great against the run while developing as pass rusher.