Rookie running backs highlight summer subplots across AFC

On Tuesday, we took a glance at summer storylines for all the NFC teams -- the impactful subplots around the league worth delving into, some of which exist off the beaten path. With so many teams running mandatory minicamps this week and next, we'll get that much more intel on several issues confronting clubs.

Now it's time to take a look at the AFC storylines, some of which are not getting a ton of pub. Everything you read below can be stowed away in the far corner of your brain, in that spot where you pack football information on ice for a month. Per the usual, your thoughts on such matters are welcome: @Harrison_NFL is the dropbox.

Baltimore Ravens

Can Baltimore answer the mounting questions at linebacker? You've heard enough about Joe Flacco's contract. Starting fullback Vonta Leach is gone. Here's something else worth watching: those Ravens linebackers.

On the outside, you have 30-year-old Terrell Suggs coming off a season in which he logged eight games and two sacks. (Additionally, he's been tasked with rehabbing a biceps injury this offseason.) On the other side, it's Elvis Dumervil. We think he'll be solid, but the veteran pass rusher must transition from playing defensive end in Denver's 4-3 to manning the outside linebacker spot in Baltimore's 3-4. And then there's inside linebacker, where rookie Arthur Brown is dealing with a sports hernia and Jameel McClain is trying to progress from a spinal cord contusion.

The Ravens need some good news in minicamp. It's hard to play a 3-4 without the four.

Buffalo Bills

Will Buffalo's interior defensive linemen live up to their immense potential? For all the excitement surrounding rookie quarterback EJ Manuel, these eyes are looking at the defensive line, particularly on the interior.

Kyle Williams is one of the best interior defenders in pro football, but he's rehabbing after having bone spurs removed from his right foot. He's supposed to be back for training camp. Marcell Dareus missed the first round of OTAs, but unlike Williams, he is healthy. Dareus was back on the practice field last week. Then there's Alan Branch, another defensive tackle who skipped some OTA time. If these three play up to their potential, it should be VERY difficult to run the football in Buffalo this year. That's huge, because it's already tough throwing it there in December, and it gives guys like Mario Williams more third-and-long opportunities to get after the quarterback.

One more note: The aforementioned OTA absences gave Alex Carrington some reps, and he did enough to impress new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine. Just sayin'.

Cincinnati Bengals

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Is a rookie primed to take over the backfield? Andy Dalton has been going vertical in practice. That's fun. The Bengals also have been working on their two-minute and no-huddle offenses. While those are encouraging signs from a team that needed its quarterback to take some shots down the field and occasionally help the team score quickly (like the Bengals did in Washington), running back might actually be the most intriguing position.

Gio Bernard signed two weeks ago, and the rookie has already shown offensive coordinator Jay Gruden what he can bring to the offense. Quite frankly, Bernard is more talented than BenJarvus Green-Ellis. At some point, the kid might just beat out the 1,000-yard back. Stay tuned. This club could use a home-run hitter, especially if Dalton is still hesitant to take deep shots when the real games start.

Cleveland Browns

Is Greg Little on the verge of a breakout season? You might not have heard much about Little in your cubicle at work, but let me tell you, people are excited about this guy -- and it's not just wishful thinking in the wake of Josh Gordon's two-game suspension. Entering his third year, Little is key for this football team. Having struggled with the Browns' offense and dropsies in the past, Little has managed to impress new head coach Rob Chudzinski, who has discussed the receiver's improvement this offseason.

The 6-foot-2, 220-pound wideout caught 22 balls over the last five games in 2012 -- after hauling in just 31 through the first 11. Pairing an improving Little with the recently acquired Davone Bess gives Brandon Weeden options. It also helped matters when Little gave the second-year quarterback a vote of confidence last week.

Denver Broncos

How much can the Broncos rely on running back Montee Ball? Could he be a rookie starter?

Denver is bringing Knowshon Moreno along slowly, with the tailback fresh off a stem-cell procedure on his right knee. So Ball looks to be the front-runner for the gig, despite what Willis McGahee seems to think. The rookie has impressed John Elway. He's impressed Peyton Manning. He's seemingly impressed everyone -- not only with his raw ability, but with his understanding, too.

The cool thing here is that if Ball continues to get all the work over the summer, he'll be that much more prepared when Denver hosts Baltimore in the 2013 season opener. That's huge for a rookie running back, especially when it comes to learning pass protection. And considering how much the Broncos throw the ball ...

Houston Texans

How quickly is DeAndre Hopkins picking up the offense? The Texans' top pick (No. 27 overall) must provide a dimension to the offense that Kevin Walter simply couldn't. The Texans have needed a WR2 who could threaten opponents for several seasons now. Also, bear in mind that Andre Johnson is entering his 11th season as a pro. Hopkins' development this summer is crucial to a club that is, for all intents and purposes, a Super Bowl hopeful. How long will the Texans' other young wideouts -- Lestar Jean, DeVier Posey and Keshawn Martin -- be able to fend off the more physically gifted Hopkins?

That's what we're watching. If Hopkins wins (and keeps) the job in Houston, the Texans finally could have the complement to AJ that they've always desired.

Indianapolis Colts

Can Indy field a viable rushing attack to help out Andrew Luck? Everyone is wondering how the Colts will fare without offensive coordinator/interim head coach/Coach of the Year Bruce Arians, who filled in so admirably for Chuck Pagano last season. Enter new offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton, whose first order of business will be figuring out the running back situation. Vick Ballard, who flashed potential as a rookie in 2012, is the incumbent. The signing of Ahmad Bradshaw presents a new angle. Rumored for a while, Bradshaw's arrival means the Colts have at least a two-down back. The question here revolves around Bradshaw's health, specifically his right foot. Can he be effective on first-and-10? If the Colts are to get off on the right foot in 2013, the running game must start strong. A successful ground attack slows the pass rush and prevents Luck from having the whole game fall on his shoulders.

Last thing: Provided Bradshaw gets going in minicamp and training camp, former first-round pick Donald Brown might be let go. We'll see.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Marcedes Lewis, are you there? Looking for a forgotten man in Jacksonville? A strong case can be made for this tight end.

I get it. Jags fans have to worry about who's starting at quarterback, Maurice Jones-Drew's off-the-field stuff and a wideout (Justin Blackmon) everyone hopes doesn't become a bust/head case. The jury is out on all of those issues. But a huge help for the offense would be the healthy involvement of Lewis in the passing game. He's on record as saying he'll be a bigger part of the Jags' attack, and the new staff seems to be on board with him. This guy caught 10 touchdown passes in 2010, and he could once again become the big, reliable target this club desperately needs, to support whoever starts at QB. Ideally, Lewis will get plenty of red-zone and third-down looks.

Kansas City Chiefs

Will Dontari Poe make the leap in Year 2? The Chiefs have a new head coach (Andy Reid), a new quarterback (Alex Smith) and a strong sense of confidence that 2013 will be different.

Speaking of strong, several of the ancillary parts on defense are quite formidable, like the edge rushers the team boasts in Tamba Hali and Justin Houston. But like other 3-4 teams, so much of what happens on that side of the ball begins on the nose. Hello, Mr. Poe. Last year's first-round pick got better late in the season and started making some tackles. If he can occupy blockers while occasionally making opponents pay for single-teaming him, people might be talking about the Chiefs' defense instead of Reid, Smith and their offensive brethren. Poe turned some heads at practice when he tipped a pass, caught it and took it to the house. Keep it up, big guy.

Miami Dolphins

Did the Dolphins acquire a No. 1 corner in the offseason? With all the excitement over the Dolphins signing Mike Wallace and Dannell Ellerbe, as well as moving up in the first round to draft Dion Jordan, some people completely missed another important transaction this offseason. No, we're not talking about the new uni's. (Prefer the old ones, anyway.)

Two years ago, Brent Grimes was becoming one of the best cornerbacks in the NFC. Last year, he tore his Achilles in the opener at Kansas City and watched from injured reserve as his Falcons made it all the way to the NFC Championship Game. Had Grimes been healthy, Atlanta might have gone to the Super Bowl. He's a quality corner in a league devoid of them.

Grimes says he's "fully back." He's running with the 1's at practice and looks healthy. Keep your fingers crossed, Dolphins fans.

New England Patriots



» Pats sign Tebow to two-year contract
» Tebow: It's an honor to be on Patriots
» Billick: Belichick can make Tebow work
» Six reasons why Tebow on Pats will work
» Schein: Tebow, Patriots a match made in heaven
» QB gurus claim Tebow's delivery is fixed
» Belichick tight-lipped about plans for Tebow
» Rex Ryan not surprised by Patriots' move
» Tebow will wear No. 5 -- not No. 15 -- with Pats
» Fantasy take: Tebow still has no value

Video:
» Tebowmania invades Foxborough
» Can Belichick silence the Tebow circus?
» Tebow addresses media at Patriots minicamp
» Timeline of Tebow's up-and-down NFL career
» Belichick: We'll do what's best for our team
» Tebow-Belichick is a match made in heaven

Photos:
» Tim Tebow through the years
» Essay: Ongoing Jets-Patriots feud

What are New England's plans for Tim Tebow? OK, although we'll know more by training camp, it appears Tebow will not be playing tight end in New England. Even with the concerns surrounding Rob Gronkowski's ailing back, keep in mind that you can't just ask a 25-year-old quarterback to become an NFL-level tight end in a matter of weeks. Right?

Well, I guess it wouldn't be a huge surprise. The Patriots can't be that high on him as a quarterback, and why sign a project like Tebow to merely hold a clipboard? Tom Brady doesn't miss time. Ryan Mallett is clearly the No. 2. So, if New England doesn't use him, what's the point? The thought here is that Tebow will be used in esoteric ways, starting with special teams. Also, if this club is going to run Aaron Hernandez out of the backfield, why not Tebow, who is more powerful? Stay tuned.

New York Jets

How will Quinton Coples handle a position change in his sophomore campaign? There are so many question marks surrounding this football team that it's hard to pick just one storyline to follow. There's the ongoing saga of Mark Sanchez, the accompanying subplot of Geno Smith, an unclear situation at running back and much more. But I'm going to the other side of the ball, specifically looking at outside linebacker.

Can Coples, the club's top pick in 2012, turn it on? Rex Ryan's defense will be far better suited to keeping this team in games if he can. Last year, Coples played admirably for a rookie, but that was as a defensive end. This year, Coples is being asked to play OLB. That means covering running backs and tight ends, in addition to rushing the quarterback. He will still line up on the line in obvious passing scenarios, but he also will be covering little fast guys at 285 pounds. Yes, the second-year man out of North Carolina faces a difficult task. Per The Star-Ledger, Coples will have two position coaches (D-line and LB).

All we're saying here is that changing positions -- and being a hybrid -- is a lot to ask of a young player whom the defense will be leaning on.

Oakland Raiders

Is Matt Flynn the answer at quarterback? As much as the NFL is a quarterback-driven league, there just hasn't been much talk this offseason about Flynn. The Raiders' new QB certainly hasn't garnered the kind of attention paid to guys like Alex Smith and Carson Palmer, or even old names fighting for jobs in old places (like Michael Vick and Mark Sanchez). Heck, David Garrard's name has popped up more, and he hung 'em up weeks ago.

So how is Flynn faring? Well, he has done enough to be named the starter -- for now -- by head coach Dennis Allen. Of course, having Terrelle Pryor and Tyler Wilson pining for your job is not exactly the same as competing against Russell Wilson. With the Raiders being one of many teams practicing this week, perhaps we'll get a better idea of whether or not Oakland has a QB to hang its hat on this season. Apparently, Day 1 didn't go very well -- for all quarterbacks involved.

Pittsburgh Steelers

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Can Le'Veon Bell emerge as a No. 1 in Year 1? There's plenty of focus on the Steelers' receiving corps right now. There should be. Losing Mike Wallace was a big deal, and at this point, fans are not quite sure what to expect from Emmanuel Sanders and rookie Markus Wheaton.

Moving away from the outside for a moment, a big story this season will be whether Bell develops over the course of his rookie campaign. If the second-round draft choice can give the team a certifiable No. 1 back -- a guy who can make teams pay for rushing the passer all the time -- the Steelers are a playoff team again.

Too often, Ben Roethlisberger has been asked to make streetball plays out of the pocket because the opposition does not respect the ground game (and thus, pass rushers don't even pause to look for a draw play). Putting it bluntly, no one was worried about a Steelers RB running wild.

With minicamp this week, now is the time for Bell to push Jonathan Dwyer and Co. down the depth chart.

San Diego Chargers

How much better will this team be if Vincent Brown turns into a 1,200-yard receiver? Or how about just a productive, healthy receiver?

The Chargers thought signing Eddie Royal and Robert Meachem could help offset the loss of Vincent Jackson in 2012. Didn't happen. Those two guys combined for a grand total of 37 catches and three touchdowns. Danario Alexander, whom the club got off the street, caught the same number of balls with seven scores. Meanwhile, Brown was out for the entire year with a nasty ankle injury.

But No. 86 is back on the field these days. And new head coach Mike McCoy has already said Brown will be heavily involved in the offense, adding: "We laid out a plan for him early on, and he's one of those kids who want to go full speed, 100 miles per hour every play." And if rookie Keenan Allen (knee) can get healthy and make strides this summer, look out. Philip Rivers might revert to Philip Rivers, circa 2008.

Tennessee Titans

Do the Titans still have run-blocking concerns? When people around the football world think of the Titans -- and specifically, their chances of competing -- quarterback is generally the first thing that comes to mind. Yet there is a lot more to Mike Munchak's football team than Jake Locker.

The running game is certainly a spot to focus on, and I'm not just talking Chris Johnson and Shonn Greene. Tennessee is leaning heavily on free-agent acquisitions Andy Levitre (guard) and Delanie Walker (tight end) to block in the ground attack. Unfortunately, neither is completely healthy. Positive energy abounds with Walker, as MRI results on his knee were OK, allowing him to return to practice. Levitre? He's being brought along slowly after a knee scope. The key here is that the Titans can't afford to have Walker's minor tweak or Levitre's slow recovery bog down the rushing attack.

The Titans finished dead last in time of possession last year, failing to hold the ball even 28 minutes per game. Improving in that area sure would help a tired defense that allowed a league-worst 29.4 points per game.

Follow Elliot Harrison on Twitter @Harrison_NFL.