We could tell you that one of the biggest stories to watch when NFL training camps open this week is how the New England Patriots will integrate their ever-expanding collection of options for Tom Brady into their already powerful offense. But there's not much suspense there. The deployment of the offseason haul of weapons, including speedster receiver Brandin Cooks, almost certainly is going to go fabulously well, and the Patriots will be back in the playoffs come January, perhaps trailing some new offensive records behind them, as they pursue a second straight title.
More intriguing are the teams from both conferences that are in pursuit of the kind of consistent excellence the Patriots have nailed down. The ability of the Falcons to bounce back from their gut-punch of a Super Bowl loss. The Steelers' defense trying to find a pass rush that can adequately harass Brady, if they meet in January once more. How much magic Aaron Rodgers can conjure again.
Here, then, are some of the most prominent issues players, coaches and clubs will confront as they begin the effort to dethrone the defending champions:
1) Getting the rookies ready
Life comes at you fast once training camp starts, so even though rookie quarterbacks Mitchell Trubisky (the Bears), DeShone Kizer (the Browns) and Deshaun Watson (the Texans) could use more time, there will be plenty of pressure to get them ready quickly. (The Chiefs can afford to have much more patience with their rookie QB, Patrick Mahomes, because Alex Smith is still the starter). Keep the closest eye on Houston, where Watson and Tom Savage will battle for the starting job on a playoff team that looks to be Super Bowl-ready at virtually every other position. Coach Bill O'Brien, who has shuffled quarterbacks like so many playing cards, finally has a young talent to groom, and it's probably not an accident that in a March interview, he couldn't help mentioning Savage's injury history while otherwise praising him. Bonus viewing: Is 2016 second-rounder Christian Hackenberg the Jets' franchise quarterback or a catastrophic draft miss? With a desperately young and rebuilding roster around him, can he win the starting job out of camp over the veteran Josh McCown?
2) The golden shoulders
Carolina's Cam Newton (partially torn rotator cuff) and Indianapolis' Andrew Luck (labrum repair) are coming off shoulder surgeries. Luck, who played well last year, hasn't started to throw yet and seems likely to miss at least the first few practices of camp. (UPDATE: Colts GM Chris Ballard announced Monday that Luck will be placed on the PUP list, though he also said Luck has begun a throwing program.) Newton, who had a dramatic drop-off in 2016 from his MVP season, started throwing late in the offseason. Their progress will be two of the most closely scrutinized stories this summer, particularly if their preseason game action is limited in any way.
3) The Cowboys
There's never a shortage of stories or attention here, and this camp will be no different. Can Dak Prescott repeat his rookie magic? Is the defense improved? The most important issue, though, is Ezekiel Elliott, who is still under investigationby the NFLfor a domestic-violence allegation and was recently present during a late-night incident at a Dallas bar, although police have suspended that investigation. The Cowboys and their early season opponents are anxiously awaiting word as to whether he will be suspended, and it's worth watching to see how Elliott handles being under the microscope when camp starts.
4) Questions in Washington and Carolina
What the heck is going on here? Nobody really expected Kirk Cousins to sign a long-term deal with the Redskins before last week's deadline for franchise-tagged players to do so. But you don't often see team executives light their starting quarterbacks on fire by trying to publicly paint them as greedy before the season even begins. Deconstructing the every utterance of Cousins, his teammates, coach Jay Gruden, president Bruce Allen and owner Dan Snyder ought to be a hoot. And let's see how contract negotiations and personnel moves go in Carolina, after owner Jerry Richardson stunningly fired general manager Dave Gettleman last week. Former GM Marty Hurney, whose salary-cap mess Gettleman was hired to clean up, is back in an interim role, but he will make all the personnel decisions this season.
5) Colin Kaepernick and the job market?
It's hard to argue now that Kaepernick's persistent unemployment is not at least somewhat connected to his political protest last season. Owners should probably privately ponder what that says about their league. But in the meantime, at what point do camp injuries and the desperation for a quarterback who is better than most current backups (and more than a few starters) overwhelm timidity about dealing with the perceived risk of a backlash over signing Kaepernick?