This is a long-awaited week in the NFL. Every club reports to training camp. And not a moment too soon.
I always think it is important to take the temperature of NFL teams before training camp and the preseason kick into gear, so you don't overreact to the first week of practice or the third quarter of the third preseason game.
Sure, there are things to watch in these next six weeks. I'm dying to check out the Colts' offensive line, with first-round center Ryan Kelly heading an influx of necessary reinforcements. I want to get a glimpse of a Packers defense that could start multiple rookies. And of course, I need to see who's playing quarterback for the defending champs in Denver. All of these things fold into the process of preseason prognostication. But you don't want your summertime takes to be hotter than the training camp sun. I put my preseason picks in pen right after Labor Day.
Heading into this season -- before my initial perspective gets hijacked by the allure of live football -- I believe the Cardinals, Seahawks, Packers, Panthers and Patriots are absolutely playoff teams this year. I also really like the Texans and Raiders. I'm buying the Cowboys. I respect the Vikings and Redskins. On the other side of things, I think the Browns and 49ers are in for long, long seasons. So are the Chargers. Meanwhile, the Titans are better than last year, but not playoff-bound.
So that leaves us with ... well ... everyone else. And of the remaining teams, nine have fully captured my interest heading into training camp. They feel like teams on the bubble, teams that could flourish or flail in 2016. Here's a closer inspection of those nine most fascinating clubs -- a case for, a case against and a very, very early glimpse into my thinking on each.
1) Denver Broncos
The case for: As the late, great Yogi Berra might've said, the Super Bowl champs are the Super Bowl champs. And that defense was historic last season. Von Miller rightly got his monster deal. The cornerback tandem of Chris Harris and Aqib Talib is superb. (Though we will have to see about the aftermath of Talib's offseason shooting incident. Bears mentioning, though, that Denver actually has a third corner with stellar skills in Bradley Roby.) Wade Phillips is a guru. I talked to Harris last week on my SiriusXM Radio show, "Schein on Sports," and he mentioned Derek Wolfe as a player who is primed to elevate his game this season. Gary Kubiak brilliantly skippered Denver to a Super Bowl 50 triumph, handling the Peyton Manning-Brock Osweiler quarterback "controversy" with aplomb. Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas are a strong starting combo at receiver.
The case against: The Broncos currently have one of the three worst starting-quarterback situations in the NFL. Mark Sanchez plays his worst when it matters the most. His follies and failures as a Jet -- not sure if you're aware, but he once ran into the backside of an offensive lineman and fumbled -- are well-chronicled. His struggles in Philly need to be mentioned and stressed, too. Remember the four turnovers in a 2014 loss to Green Bay? How about the back-breaking (and predictable) pick against the Redskins in Week 16 of that same season (one that saw Chip Kelly's 10-6 squad fall just short of the playoffs)? Trevor Siemian is Trevor Siemian. I love the raw talent of Paxton Lynch and his fit in Kubiak's offense, but the neophyte might not be ready immediately. I think the free agency losses of Malik Jackson and Danny Trevathan are more substantial than most people realize (especially in Jackson's case -- dude was a beast in the postseason run).
My way-too-early feeling: I sense a 10-6 or 9-7 wild-card bid for the champs. I think Denver will struggle mightily at quarterback and greatly miss Osweiler. I think the Raiders win the AFC West.
2) Cincinnati Bengals
The case for: Marvin Lewis and Andy Dalton win afternoon games from September through December. The defense, powered by Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap and an able defensive backfield, is incredibly strong. A.J. Green is a bona fide star out wide. The offensive line is strong. Cincy can run the ball. And the Bengalstravel to Pittsburgh early, with Le'Veon Bellin line to be suspended for the game.
The case against: Marvin Lewis and Andy Dalton lose prime-time games in big spots. And then lose in the playoffs. It's kind of a big deal. And now both will be negatively affected by former offensive coordinator Hue Jackson taking the Browns head-coaching job. Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones left via free agency. Tyler Eifert's health is (always) in question.
3) Kansas City Chiefs
The case for: Andy Reid is a winning coach. Alex Smith is a winning quarterback. The offense made major progress last year. Jamaal Charles is a stud, albeit one coming off a torn ACL. But with Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware, K.C. has solid depth at running back. The defense is well-coached under Bob Sutton, and the pass rush is ferocious (though we'll have to see about Justin Houston's health). Eric Berry is a force in the back end. Marcus Peters had a spectacular rookie year. The 2015 Chiefs were fantastic down the stretch, closing out the regular season with 10 straight wins before blowing out the Texans -- in Houston -- on Wild Card Weekend.
4) Jacksonville Jaguars
The case for: Jacksonville ultimately had the best offseason of any NFL club, when you combine free agency and the draft. Blake Bortles is coming into his own. Allen Robinson is a true No. 1 receiver. There is depth and talent at the skill positions. On defense, snatching Malik Jackson away from Denver was a coup. Jalen Ramsey was the best player in the draft. Oh, and one thing that certainly doesn't hurt Jacksonville's cause in the AFC South race: J.J. Watt's recent back surgery.
My way-too-early feeling: Jacksonville's vastly improved and Caldwell deserves much credit. I think the Jags are a solid, young bunch poised for eight or nine wins. But will that be enough?
5) New Orleans Saints
The case for:Drew Brees can put up numbers in a contract year. (If there's one thing Brees has always loved, it's his next contract.) Sean Payton is back, so there is continuity on offense. The defense, which was absolutely horrendous in 2015, got some much-needed talent in the draft (Sheldon Rankins and Vonn Bell).
The case against: Brees isn't getting any younger at age 37. You can make a case the Saints might've been better served cutting the cord on Payton and bringing in a new voice to lead this franchise. The division is tough, with the reigning NFC champion Panthers, as well as the Falcons and Bucs (both of whom got better). The defense, despite the aforementioned improvement, remains light years away from being strong.
My way-too-early feeling: 7-9 feels right for New Orleans. That might be last place in this NFC South.
6) New York Giants
The case against: The Giants foolishly forced out Hall of Fame coach Tom Coughlin. Can elevated former offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo be a lead dog? Remains to be seen. I don't think Big Blue's defense is good enough, even with the offseason additions. Offensively, the Giants still have major questions in the backfield, along the O-line and on the WR depth chart.
7) Atlanta Falcons
The case for:Julio Jones could be the best receiver in football today. Matt Ryan is much better than what he showed last year. Signing Alex Mack to bolster the O-line -- while adding leadership and toughness -- was savvy. I also applaud bringing in Mohamed Sanu, who has promise as a secondary target. Devonta Freeman was a stud running the football in 2015 -- particularly in the first half of the season -- and implementing Tevin Coleman more can keep Freeman fresher down the stretch.
The case against: The defense is still alarming. The Falcons finished last season dead last in the NFL with a paltry 19 sacks, and I'm not sure who on this roster is going to get after the quarterback in 2016. After a 5-0 start to 2015, Atlanta didn't show much toughness and completely collapsed during a six-game losing streak.
My way-too-early feeling: I like head coach Dan Quinn. I am also a believer in offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. But I think Atlanta maxes out at 8-8.
8) Indianapolis Colts
My way-too-early feeling: If I see progress on defense and along the O-line, I'll probably get swept off my feet by Luck. I feel like Indy is a 9-7 team, but given the individual genius of No. 12, I could see Indy reaching double-digit wins and making the playoffs.
9) New York Jets
My way-too-early feeling: We need to see how it shakes out at quarterback, but I think the Jets take a step back and stumble to 7-9.