The road to Super Bowl XLIX begins Sunday in Pittsford, N.Y., where the Buffalo Bills will hold their first full-squad practice of training camp.
They're the first NFL team to open camp, with the New York Giants — the Bills' opponent in the Aug. 3 Hall of Fame Game, allowing both teams to start early — kicking off Tuesday and the other 30 teams over the next week.
Every team has questions this time of year, here are 10 notable story lines to monitor during the preseason:
Forget the inflatable swan, money phone and other offseason social media sensations: It's football time for Johnny Manziel, who has the best chance of any rookie quarterback to start in Week 1. The Cleveland Browns have made it clear the job belongs to Brian Hoyer, a 28-year-old journeyman with four NFL starts who is coming off knee reconstruction surgery. But it's only a matter of time before Manziel gets the chance to prove his elite improv skills can translate to the pro game and lift the NFL's most tormented franchise. A Tim Tebow-worthy news media throng will document Manziel's every move on the field — and hey, better there than a nightclub bathroom.
If you ask Michael Vick, the New York Jets have no quarterback competition. But the team gave Vick a $4 million contract for a reason: to push Geno Smith, who won't have the same luxury to play through growing pains as he did during an uneven rookie season. Even after signing a contract extension in January, coach Rex Ryan can't feel safe if a three-year playoff drought becomes four. The Jets need to win now, and Vick has done it before. Elsewhere, veteran QBs sit atop the depth charts and are heavy favorites with the Minnesota Vikings (Matt Cassel) and Oakland Raiders (Matt Schaub), who need someone to make things respectable until rookies are ready.
Hard feelings lingering?
Jimmy Graham's franchise-tag fight with the Saints is over, but is all well with the New Orleans Saints? Coach Sean Payton testified on the team's behalf in an arbitration case Graham lost, tipping leverage in negotiations that yielded a four-year, $40 million contract Tuesday. And it was Payton's (smart) deployment of Graham that raised the issue of whether he's a tight end or a receiver. Regardless, both men figure to dismiss the issue publicly as the Saints move on to more important questions — such as how they'll replace dynamic halfback Darren Sproles.
Easing Peyton's load
Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning put together one of the greatest seasons in NFL history, only for it all to fall apart against Seattle in a 35-point loss in Super Bowl XLVIII. Can he and the Broncos recapture the magic? The five-time MVP and future Hall of Famer is 38. His arm never will be the same after a series of neck surgeries. Manning is as smart as dedicated as any player in the game, but he'll need help to reach the pinnacle again — support Broncos GM John Elway hopes he provided by adding DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib and T.J. Ward to a revamped defense.
Training camp holdouts are less common these days, given the hefty fines threatened by the collective-bargaining agreement for veterans and the simplified nature of negotiating rookie contracts. But that only increases the intrigue surrounding established stars such as San Francisco 49ers tight end Vernon Davis and Houston Texans wide receiver Andre Johnson, who both might be absent when camps open. Davis wants a new contract. Johnson apparently wants out. Each day they miss could result in a $30,000 fine — although in Davis' case, it's always possible that will be erased as part of a new deal. Davis' teammate, guard Alex Boone, could be another holdout.
Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice and 49ers linebacker Aldon Smith are expected to be on the field when camps begin, but both appear to be long shots to play Week 1. The NFL will hand down discipline at some point related to their respective legal issues, and Smith is slated to be sentenced on DUI and felony weapons charges, to which he pleaded no contest, next Friday — two days after veterans report. (Rice was accepted into a pretrial diversion program, avoiding prosecution on an assault charge.) Also coming: discipline for Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay, who faces an Aug. 28 trial date on two misdemeanor charges related to driving under the influence of prescription drugs.
The deployment of freakish No. 1 pick Jadeveon Clowney in the Texans' defense will be worth watching from Day One. But there's likely to be more attention on another former Southeastern Conference defensive end: Michael Sam, who in May became the first openly gay player drafted. Sam must overcome his athletic limitations, stand up to the immense pressure that comes with being a trailblazer and make the St. Louis Rams' roster. He figures to have plenty of support from fans when camp opens next Friday, with the first padded practice a couple of days later. Another milestone awaits Aug. 8, when Sam will make his preseason debut against the Saints.
Players on the mend
Will Tony Romo be the same after another back surgery? In June, the Dallas Cowboys quarterback said he hoped to be 100% by camp and thought he could play in a game already. But if he has a setback, the backup plan — Brandon Weeden — isn't reassuring, especially given all of Dallas' defensive issues. Others who will have various levels of participation to open camp as they return from season-ending injuries/offseason surgery: Clay Matthews, Rob Gronkowski, Sam Bradford, Julio Jones, Reggie Wayne, Von Miller, Arian Foster, Doug Martin, Brian Cushing, Geno Atkins, Cam Newton and Eli Manning.
It's easy to forget Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III was a rookie sensation in 2012 before his knee gave out. New coach Jay Gruden's primary task is to get RGIII back on track — and earn his trust as predecessor Mike Shanahan apparently couldn't. The same could be said of new Detroit Lions coach Jim Caldwell, whose offensive staff was built to fix Matthew Stafford. Ken Whisenhunt (Tennessee Titans) and Bill O'Brien (Houston) also come from offensive backgrounds, while the other three new head coaches — Lovie Smith (Tampa Bay Buccaneers), Mike Zimmer (Minnesota) and Mike Pettine (Cleveland) — made their names on defense.
Seahawks begin tilte defense
The last two Super Bowl champions failed to make the playoffs the following season. There hasn't been a repeat champion since the New England Patriots a decade ago. But the Seattle Seahawks have a better shot than most to carry over their success, given the makeup of a roster that appears to be improving. Four of their top difference-makers (Russell Wilson, Percy Harvin, Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas) are 26 or under. No starter on offense or defense has hit 30. With the loss of some depth along both lines and in the secondary, there are opportunities for other young players to show in camp they're ready to step into larger roles.