ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- David Bruton Jr. turned 30 on Sunday, an occasion he said would include "a mountain bike with me on it." He will complete a summer chemistry class on Thursday, and he has a to-do list that is chock-full of "my new life" as he looks at what’s to come.

The future is now for Bruton, as the longtime special-teams captain of the Denver Broncos formally announced his retirement from the NFL on Monday. The self-professed “nerd of the locker room" said that a combination of health concerns -- he said he’s had six concussions in his eight-year career -- paired with a loss of passion to prepare for the game and his eagerness to get to the next life step brought him to his decision.

“I’m burnt-out, definitely worry about my health," Bruton said. “Another season was cut short by a concussion [in 2016] -- that’s six. I’m a guy who likes to use his brain. Especially back in school, I need as many brain cells as possible with all these science classes. It came down to health, and I’ve definitely had my time in the league. I’m ready to move on."

Bruton, who graduated from Notre Dame before entering the NFL in 2009, is already back in school at the University of Colorado-Denver. He has begun what he says will be a five-year journey to become a physical therapist in his post-football life.

To that end, he has been an intern at Next Level Sports Performance in Golden, Colorado, and will work with the Broncos’ training staff during training camp.

“I thought about professional mountain biking," Bruton said with a laugh. “I don’t know if they have a great concussion plan. But physical therapy is definitely something I’ve always wanted to do. To see the people who enjoy doing it, who are good at it, and seeing the reward they get with working with people who work so hard to get back to normal life -- it’s so rewarding."

Bruton played 108 games in his NFL career -- 104 with the Broncos. He was a longtime special-teams captain, a respected voice in the locker room. As the Broncos powered through the 2015 season on the way to victory in Super Bowl 50, Bruton was the longest-tenured player with the team, having been a fourth-round pick in 2009.

Champ Bailey, who played the bulk of his Hall of Fame-worthy career in Denver, routinely pointed to Bruton as a player “who does it like guys should do it -- [Bruton] knows what he’s supposed to do and what everybody else is supposed to do too."

But how the 2015 season ended -- the Broncos put Bruton on injured reserve in December with a fractured fibula because they feared he wouldn’t be healed in time for the postseason, so Bruton was not in uniform for the Super Bowl -- and how his final season unfolded in Washington in 2016 weighed heavily in his decision. Bruton suffered a concussion in the Redskins’ fourth game, and eventually the Redskins put him on injured reserve and later released him.

“I thought I was ready to come back for the playoffs [in 2015]. I did a full workout before the Super Bowl but was already on IR. So I still went into last season thinking I’m going to at least see 10 years ... that concussion happened, being cut happened, the ugliness of the business was really exposed," Bruton said. “But the bottom line is I want to do other things. I’m ready to move on."

David Bruton Jr.AP Photo/David RichardDavid Bruton Jr. played 108 games in his NFL career, 104 with the Broncos. He was a special-teams captain and a respected voice in the locker room.

The Broncos are expected to recognize Bruton’s contributions to the team now that he has formally announced his retirement. He and the Broncos always had football love for each other, but it was often tough love. A safety, Bruton was consistently one of the smartest, most athletic players on the team, but the Broncos often seemed to be searching, through three head coaches and five defensive coordinators, for someone else to play instead of him.

“So I made sure I excelled on special teams," Bruton said. “You can make an impact with the team, make an impact in the community, make a career for yourself. It always angered me, always motivated me to work. I don’t know what it was. I took my role very seriously no matter what it was. But when you’re living it, it’s always tough to constantly see somebody else get drafted."

Bruton said a workout with the Baltimore Ravens earlier this year, one that “did not go well at all, because I just didn’t have it in me anymore to do it," was one of the last indicators football is no longer for him.

As he moves into this next career, he will continue with his Bruton’s Books program to put books in the hands of children and improve reading skills of at-risk elementary school students. During the 2011 NFL lockout, Bruton worked as a substitute teacher in Miamisburg, Ohio, and he was the Broncos’ Walter Payton Man of the Year in 2015 for his charitable endeavors.

He said he allows his son, Jaden, to play football, but wishes Jaden had waited a little longer to take up the game. Jaden will be a sixth-grader this coming school year.

"I started playing in seventh grade," Bruton said. “But he’s been playing since third grade, I haven’t been a fan of that. I advise to start later; football can wait. If you can eliminate that contact until you get older, I think it’s better.

“But my family, my parents, my brother, everyone, they’re very happy with what I did, and with what I’m going to do now after football. Especially my mom [Constance]. She wanted me to hang it up after the last concussion. But I’m excited about what’s next."

Zack MartinMatthew Visinsky/Icon SportswireThe Cowboys hope to have an extension reached with Zack Martin by the end of training camp.

OXNARD, Calif. -- The Dallas Cowboys are hoping to follow precedent with a major signing on their offensive line this summer.

On July 30, 2014, All-Pro left tackle Tyron Smith signed an eight-year deal. On Aug. 14, 2016, All-Pro center Travis Frederick signed a six-year extension.

By the time the Cowboys leave Oxnard, California, on Aug. 18, they hope to have an extension worked out with All-Pro guard Zack Martin.

Executive vice president Stephen Jones said he was “optimistic” a deal could be worked out for the Cowboys’ first-round pick in 2014. There are plans to speak with Martin’s agents, Tom Condon and R.J. Gonser, during training camp.

“It’s something we want to get done,” Jones said. “Hopefully it will happen, but you never know until you get there.”

Martin is looking at a deal that likely would make him the highest-paid guard in football. Kevin Zeitler signed a deal averaging $12 million per season with the Cleveland Browns as a free agent in the offseason. He is also represented by Condon. The Oakland Raiders signed Gabe Jackson to a five-year, $56 million extension recently.

Martin, 26, has been named to the Pro Bowl in each of his first three seasons and has yet to miss a game in his career. The Cowboys picked up Martin’s fifth-year-option for 2018 in the spring, worth more than $9 million, but they did the same with Smith in 2014 and Frederick in 2016.

They hope that serves as a placeholder that will make Martin a Cowboy for a long time. If not, then Martin would become an unrestricted free agent in 2019, but the Cowboys would have the ability to use the franchise tag on him.

“He’s the type of player we want with the Cowboys,” Jones said.

OXNARD, Calif. -- There wasn't a cloud in the sky Saturday when the Dallas Cowboys arrived at Point Mugu Naval Air Station for the start of training camp.

For 45 minutes, players signed autographs, took photos, shook hands and talked with hundreds of families who call the military base home. All was right in the Cowboys' world as they started a process they hope leads to Super Bowl XLII.

By finally getting to California, they put their recent offseason drama -- real or perceived, big or small -- behind them.

Running back Ezekiel Elliott's status with the NFL continues to be a major question, as the league closes an investigation into an alleged domestic violence incident a year ago in Columbus, Ohio, that could lead to a suspension.

Meanwhile, Dallas police have suspended an investigation into an alleged assault incident last week in which Elliott was involved because they can't locate the victim and no witnesses have stepped forward. Elliott led the NFL in rushing as a rookie in 2016.

Ezekiel ElliottAndrew Dieb/Icon SportswireRB Ezekiel Elliott's pending status as training camp starts is only one example that the Cowboys appear to have missed coach Jason Garrett's message.

Wide receiver Dez Bryant was late to reporting day on Friday in Frisco, Texas. While not a major issue, a veteran not showing up on time is not a good look.

Defensive end David Irving missed the reporting day altogether and could be subject to a $40,000 fine, although he was in California early. Running back Darren McFadden was not on the charter flight with the team Saturday, but he won't face a penalty unless he does not report by 5 p.m. ET Sunday. The only cost to him will be the plane ticket and ride from Los Angeles to Oxnard.

Add that to the legal entanglements of linebacker Damien Wilson, who was arrested on charges of assault with a deadly weapon, and cornerback Nolan Carroll, who was arrested in May on suspicion of DWI, and it appears the Cowboys have not digested coach Jason Garrett's messages of accountability, commitment and focus.

Tight end Jason Witten, the Cowboys' soul in a lot of ways, said the issues have been addressed by all involved.

"First off, as a leader of the team and the other leaders, we have to do a better job," Witten said about the Cowboys' off-the-field woes. "We have great guys. The core is really strong with this football team. Everybody inside that building has worked really hard to get the right type of guys together. I believe that. We have to work through situations, but certainly we have to be better there.

"We have to understand our platform, and what we have to do is eliminate those distractions so we can go out and play football. All those guys are a huge part of our team. They're good football players and good people and good friends and brothers of mine that I've had a lot of success and adversity with them. They'll work through it. We're there to support them, but certainly the standard stays really high and we have to understand that and we have to embrace it and we have to handle it."

Once practices start Monday, the players will have little choice but to focus on football. The Cowboys love the River Ridge Residence Inn setup because of the cool California temperatures and the proximity of the practice fields, which are just a short walk from the hotel.

"Anytime you can focus on ball, that's what this team is about," safety Byron Jones said. "We just want to play ball and win games."

The Cowboys enter training camp as one of the NFC's favorites to reach the Super Bowl. They have one of the best offenses in the NFL, led by quarterback Dak Prescott, Bryant, Witten and Elliott, but if the running back misses time, that will have a great effect. They have a defense with lingering questions that will be affected by Irving's suspension for violating the performance-enhancing drug policy. The D could also be affected by the potential losses of Wilson and Carroll because of suspension.

There could be answers to those questions soon. For now, the Cowboys are just glad to be back to football.

"The stomach's always turning the last couple of nights," said Witten, a 15-year veteran. "It's a mix of excitement, and you're also excited to prepare for what's taking place. I love this part of it. To me, one of the best parts about the season is getting the team together and going off training camp. I feel like in a lot of ways it's 2003 and it's my rookie season all over again.

"But there is a buzz to our team and I feel that. I think a lot of our guys on our team have made us all feel young again. Look, I know what lies ahead and I'm excited for the challenge."videovideo

The numbers jumped out, but the contract offers did not. Maybe some didn't trust that Washington Redskins receiver Terrelle Pryor could duplicate last year's stats -- even though it was just his first year at a new position.

One of his former coaches in Cleveland says that won't be a problem.

"I will be shocked if he isn't in the Pro Bowl," said Browns receivers coach Al Saunders, via ESPN's Pat McManamon. "He's going to have that kind of year."

Washington Redskins wide receiver Terrelle Pryor Sr.Photo by Daniel Kucin Jr./Icon SportswireTerrelle Pryor's position coach with the Browns believes the Redskins have a future Pro Bowl receiver.

The Redskins certainly hope so. They signed Pryor after losing Pierre Garcon (whom they did not try to keep) and DeSean Jackson (whom they did) in free agency. Both surpassed 1,000 yards and were accomplished receivers.

Pryor finished last season with 77 catches and 1,007 yards, hoping it would lead to a massive payday. The Browns offered a four-year deal for $8 million per season. Pryor opted for free agency and signed a one-year deal worth up to $6 million. Another big season could land the payday he'd like.

This season, Pryor is playing with a better quarterback, Kirk Cousins, and is surrounded by more talent. But the Redskins' passing game revolves more around tight end Jordan Reed and receiver Jamison Crowder.

Pryor worked all spring alongside Crowder with the starters. Pryor's size and athleticism -- he's 6-foot-4 -- will provide Cousins with a different sort of target. Pryor also runs fast, so the deep ball will remain a threat. The effort Pryor put into transitioning from quarterback -- which he played his first three seasons in the NFL -- led him to last year's success.

Pryor, in various interviews, has credited Saunders for helping him grow as a receiver. In the spring, Pryor said, "He's a big reason I made this transition, instilling confidence in me."

Saunders is a big fan.

"Working with Terrelle Pryor was a delight. He was a special guy," Saunders said late in the spring. "When you look at it, one year, never playing receiver in his life and going for over 1,000 yards, 70-some catches -- what he did was unprecedented. In one year. And I've worked with Antwaan Randle El and other guys that have made the transition from quarterback to wide receiver, but I think history will say that what Terrelle has done is phenomenal."

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The John Brown who took the field for the Arizona Cardinals' first training-camp practice of the season on Saturday looked like an updated version of John Brown from 2015.

Throughout the practice, Brown displayed the hands and speed that made him one of the league's toughest players to defend. And an extra 13 pounds of muscle had Brown looking the part of a game-changing receiver.

Brown said he weighed 185 pounds, up 12 pounds from last season.

"That's a lot compared to last year," Brown said. "I feel good with the weight I've put on, so I'm ready to go."

John BrownRob Schumacher/USA TODAYCardinals wide receiver John Brown has put on 13 pounds of muscle heading into camp.

Brown believes the added bulk will help him this season as he tries to rebound from the worst season of his career, which was marred by the October diagnosis of being a carrier of the sickle cell trait. He also had a cyst on his spine that was drained after the season. A year after his first 1,000-yard season, Brown had a career-low 517 receiving yards, 39 catches and two touchdowns as he fought fatigue and injuries.

After he had the cyst drained, Brown set out to get himself in better shape.

"Once I got the cyst removed I was able to put on weight, take care of my body right," he said. "I was doing a lot of lifting and working out, but somehow I maintain the weight."

He didn't just maintain the weight. Brown also kept the one thing that made him who he is: his speed.

"Of course, of course," he said with a smile. "I'll never lose that."

Saturday's practice was significant for Brown beyond it being the first of the season. He wanted to show that he was back to the level he played at in 2015, which he did a few times, especially with a deep catch and run.

"It's just important just to show I'm back to normal and I can help out," he said.

Brown has been through a turbulent year but returned healthier -- and bigger -- with the hopes of proving himself again. And it was a day he's been looking forward to.

"It was good," Brown said. "I just couldn't wait until this day come just to show [what] I can do."

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Bruce Arians knew what was coming when he approached the podium in the bowels of University of Phoenix Stadium for the first time this training camp.

It was the first time the Arizona Cardinals coach was formally addressing the local media after revealing in his recently released book that he was diagnosed with kidney cancer last December and had surgery in February to remove part of the organ. The questions, regardless of whether he tried to curb them or not, were bound to come.

On Thursday afternoon, he tried to get ahead of the story and then move on from it.

Bruce AriansRob Schumacher/azcentral sports via USA TODAY NETWORKCardinals coach Bruce Arians said he kept his cancer diagnosis a secret last December so that he wouldn't be a distraction to the team in the final weeks of the season.

"Welcome back, guys," Arians began his news conference. "Yes, I'm healthy. Let's get that s--- out of the way right now. All that is behind me and I'm very, very fortunate to have a great doctor and can't wait to get started."

The first question was about why he kept the cancer a secret.

Arians explained that he had hid the cancer diagnosis from his team because he didn't want to be a distraction with three games left. He was diagnosed on Dec. 15, three days before the Cardinals hosted the New Orleans Saints in their home finale. He coached Arizona to a 2-1 record after the cancer diagnosis.

"We had some big games to finish the season and in no way did that have to be a distraction," Arians said.

While his health was an issue from, essentially, the start of last season to the finish, it wasn't enough to force Arians to retire. He was hospitalized last August during a training camp trip to San Diego for symptoms related to diverticulitis. He also was hospitalized in November for chest pains.

The cancer diagnosis came in December, when it was discovered during a doctor's appointment that was initially scheduled to treat a potential hernia. He had surgery in February, the same month he had surgery to repair a rotator cuff injury.

"It was a s---ty February," he said. "Too many operations. But the rotator's great. Don't tell Was [Cardinals orthopedist Dr. Gary Waslewski], but I played golf a few times this summer and I didn’t play very well but I didn't lose all my money. It was fun.

"But, yeah, the other one. When they tell you you're cancer-free, that's a great feeling."

And Arians still returned for a fifth season as the Cardinals’ head coach.

"If I was going to retire because of my health, I should've did it last year," Arians said. "Hopefully I don't have anything worse than I had last year."video

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- All the rest that Arizona Cardinals QB Carson Palmer has been getting has perhaps made him a bit stronger.

Maybe too strong. Just ask RB David Johnson.

During a throwing session at Palmer's Southern California home about a month ago, one of Palmer's passes split open one of Johnson's fingers.

"I ended up having to get stitches in my finger because he was throwing some heat," Johnson said. "His arm was fresh. He's definitely feeling good out there, I would say."

Carson PalmerRob Schumacher/USA TODAYCarson Palmer stretches on Friday, the reporting day for training camp for the Cardinals.

Palmer, 37, felt bad about injuring his teammate. But he insists it wasn't all his fault.

"He wasn't wearing gloves, so I can put a little bit of blame on him," Palmer said dryly. "But I felt bad because we washed it with the hose. And then I started thinking, 'Man, that's probably not the cleanest water in Southern California out of a hose, to be washing all the blood off of your hands.'"

Once reality set it, Johnson called team trainer Tom Reed and then got stitches.

Palmer thinks Johnson might be the first player he's ever injured with a pass, but the QB wasn't patting himself on the back. And he didn't think to himself, "Man, my arm is ready."

"That was not my first thought," Palmer said. "My first thought was, 'This is not good. We're not on Arizona Cardinals property. We're away from the facility.' That was my first thought. I was a little nervous for him."

Johnson, 25, is fine. His finger has healed. But coach Bruce Arians had a message for both his star running back and quarterback.

"'Don't throw the damn ball so hard,'" Arians told Palmer. "And, 'David, wear your damn gloves. You wear them in the game.'"

Michael OherJeff Siner/Zuma Press/Icon SportswireMichael Oher hasn't played wince Week 3 of last season and was released by Carolina on Thursday.

INDIANAPOLIS -- NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. takes pride that he was able rehab from his concussion and feels fortunate to return to racing in 2017.

So he can relate to Michael Oher, the offensive tackle who was released Thursday by the Carolina Panthers after failing a physical. Oher has not played since the third game of the 2016 season because of a concussion.

Earnhardt talked to Oher in February as both were being treated by doctors at the UPMC Sports Medicine Concussion Program in Pittsburgh. Earnhardt missed the final 18 races of the 2016 NASCAR season as he dealt with vision and balance issues, including having problems focusing on an object in the distance while moving his head.

“His situation and mine were kind of similar in what we dealt with as far as symptoms and so forth,” Earnhardt said Saturday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “That was a reason why I think they wanted me and him to chat a little bit, because it really helps to hear from someone going through it. There is nothing more frustrating than trying to talk to somebody about concussions that hasn’t had one.

“I wasn’t bothered by him getting released. The only thing that it made me think about was is that it’s a shame that he is not healthy yet and that hopefully he continues to take the time.”

Oher tweeted earlier this week that he was headed to see Dr. Micky Collins, the same doctor who treated Earnhardt. Oher also tweeted: “The Brain is a scary thing. You have to be careful with it.”

“He is seeing the right people in Pittsburgh, and … I’m glad that he is still persistent and following their orders and getting in front of the right folks,” Earnhardt said. “That is all you can do. He just needs to take the time necessary. I don’t think football should be anything that he is probably thinking about right now.

“And he might not even care about football right at this moment. He might just want to do whatever he needs to do to get well.”

Earnhardt hasn’t talked to Oher since February, saying that he wouldn’t want to interject himself into Oher’s business. Oher, whose life story was the basis for the movie “The Blind Side,” had spent the last two seasons with Carolina after five years with Baltimore and one with Tennessee.

“Certainly, going through that experience changes your priorities,” Earnhardt said. “He certainly seems to be making the right choices for himself if he is up there seeing Micky and still pursuing what he needs to do get well.

“I’m there to support him or anyone else really going through that situation.”

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- A funny thing can happen when a team goes 7-8-1.

The same people who a year ago thought the Arizona Cardinals were the best all-around team in the NFL, which led them to become the chic pick to not just play in the Super Bowl but win it, now think their window to win a title has been slammed shut -- even with the same coach, same quarterback, same running back, same No. 1 receiver, same outside linebackers, same star cornerback and same star safety.

When the Cardinals begin training camp Saturday, they'll take the field with lowered external expectations but the same internal ones: to hoist the Lombardi Trophy next February. The difference this season is they won't be asked about it on a daily basis like they were a year ago. And that'll have an impact in its own right.

Markus GoldenBen Margot/AP PhotoFrostee Rucker, No. 92, said the Cardinals are aiming to use training camp to mend the mistakes that led to costly losses in 2016.

"When you have the outside stuff coming in and putting more pressure on yourself, to fulfill things outside of yourself, it's tough," veteran defensive lineman Frostee Rucker said. "Right now, everyone is geared toward making sure we do the small things and not worry about the first game of the year.

"Now we're worried about the first practice."

It's up to each individual player to control what they can control, outside linebacker Chandler Jones said.

"There's always going to be expectations," he said. “There’s always going to be critics. And there’s always going to be pin marks [about] where you should and shouldn’t be. Our job as a team is to do what we can do and that’s to buy into what the coaches are coaching and control what we can control.”

Being the favorites comes with one mindset, coach Bruce Arians said.

Being the underdogs comes with an entirely different one, he added.

But Arians said this year's Cardinals don’t look at themselves as the underdog, despite whatever the public perception might be. Arians didn't shy away about what he'd prefer the public perception of his team to be.

"Well, you'd like your fans to think you're good, you know? So they get excited and we think we're pretty good," he said. "I'd rather be the favorites."

Before the Cardinals are favorites again, change is needed, Rucker said. Like dealing with the "little things," which Arians said cost the Cardinals some games last season.

One major focus of training camp will be tackling. There'll be more of it this year than in the past, but Arians will be selective in when Arizona does it. However, since the Cardinals have tackled just during goal-line scrimmages in past camps, anything more will be a significant adjustment.

Everything Arians plans to change during camp will be done with the goal of tipping the win column to be heavier than the loss column. With that will come a change in the public perception of the Cardinals.

"It's just about the work and doing the small things and, really, correcting our wrongs," Rucker said. "Just because we finished well in a lot of categories, we still didn't win enough ball games, so we need to get the wins in the column.

"I think it's just our focus level on us. Right now we need to take care of in-house and make sure we're on point and all our little things are corrected because it's the little things that we have to get better at."

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Players receive compliments from coaches and teammates all the time. It's more unusual when the pat on the back comes from one of your biggest rivals.

The Baltimore Ravens' C.J. Mosley has been named the NFL's toughest middle linebacker by the Pittsburgh Steelers' Ryan Shazier. In an article written for The Players' Tribune, Shazier compared Mosley to one of the best to ever play that position.

Mark Konezny/USA TODAY SportsIn his three NFL seasons, C.J. Mosley is one of just three defensive players in the NFL to record at least 300 tackles, five sacks and five interceptions.

"Ever since C.J. came into the NFL three seasons ago, Baltimore's defense has been in the Top 8," Shazier wrote. "You have to respect that, because when you're the MLB, you're the anchor. You're like the symphony conductor. To come in and run a defense like that at 22 years old is special.

"I always say, Ray Lewis had some great years on paper, for sure. But some years, if you just looked at the stats? They didn't jump off the page. It didn't matter, though. Baltimore was always a top-five defense, and he got respect for that. C.J. has the potential to make that defense click for a long time."

Shazier is right about Mosley's effect on the defensive ranking of the Ravens. In 2013, the season before Mosley was drafted, Baltimore's defense was No. 12 in the league. In three seasons with Mosley, the Ravens defense has ranked No. 8 in 2014 and 2015 as well as No. 7 in 2016.

Lewis had the effect of elevating the play of those around him, and it was reflected in the rankings. Starting in 1999, in the 11 seasons in which Lewis played at least 12 games, the Ravens defense was in the top 10 every year, including eight times in the top three.

It's not just Shazier who has noticed Mosley's impact. He has made the Pro Bowl twice (2014, 2016) since being the No. 17 overall pick in 2014.

Since entering the NFL three years ago, Mosley is one of just three defensive players in the NFL to record at least 300 tackles, five sacks and five interceptions. Luke Kuechly, Jamie Collins and Thomas Davis are the others.

"Baltimore plays exactly the same way we play," Shazier wrote. "They play a little more man, but the philosophies are the same. As an MLB in our schemes, you have to be able to blitz, stop the run and cover. It's a three-tool position. C.J. has to play out in deep coverage a lot, and he does a great job."

Shazier said there's "no escaping" the connection between him and Mosley, and it goes beyond the fact that they both play middle linebacker. They were part of two of the top college programs -- Mosley went to Alabama and Shazier played for Ohio State. And they were selected two picks apart in 2014 by arguably the fiercest rivals in the NFL. Shazier was taken No. 15 by the Steelers.

"We always have heated battles," Shazier wrote, "and I think we bring out the best in each other."

Duke RileyDavid Goldman/APRookie linebacker Duke Riley (42) has impressed with his speed and leadership.

The Atlanta Falcons could have a handful of new starters compared to last year's season-opening lineup against the Buccaneers. Here's a starting lineup projection:

Offense

Quarterback (Matt Ryan): The reigning MVP hasn't missed a game since 2009 and will be looking to pass for 4,000 yards for the seventh consecutive season.

Running back (Devonta Freeman): Named to consecutive Pro Bowls, Freeman has 27 touchdowns the past two seasons.

Wide receiver (Julio Jones): Arguably the most dangerous big-play threat in the game, Jones is aiming for 1,400-plus receiving yards for the fourth consecutive season.

Wide receiver (Mohamed Sanu): In his first season with the Falcons last year, Sanu had just one drop on 79 targets, catching 59 passes for 653 yards and four touchdowns.

Wide receiver (Taylor Gabriel): Gabriel tied Jones for the team lead with six touchdown receptions last season.

Tight end (Austin Hooper): Hooper was slowed early in his rookie season by an injury, but he got better as the season went along and had a touchdown in the Super Bowl.

Left tackle (Jake Matthews): The former first-round draft pick still has the skills to be a special player but needs to do a better job of slowing down rushers.

Left guard (Andy Levitre): The veteran fared better in 2016 than he did upon being traded to the Falcons from Tennessee prior to 2015.

Center (Alex Mack): The Pro Bowler brought instant stability to the offensive line with his savvy play and ability to get to the second level and block.

Right guard (Wes Schweitzer): He was inactive for every game of his rookie season, but Schweitzer has impressed coaches with his offseason preparation, though he is in an intense battle with Ben Garland.

Right tackle (Ryan Schraeder): The former undrafted player has quietly emerged into a force with his relentless fight and improved technique.

Defense

Defensive end (Vic Beasley): Beasley might not start every game based on the defensive formation, but he'll be the primary rusher coming off a season in which he led the league with 15.5 sacks.

Defensive end (Derrick Shelby): Shelby can help stop the run with his power, but rookie first-round pick Takk McKinley, if healthy (shoulder), will be out there in the nickel.

Defensive tackle (Dontari Poe): The two-time Pro Bowler signed a one-year, $8 million contract that included a workout bonus based on meeting weight, so he'll have to be at 330 pounds or less during the season.

Defensive tackle (Grady Jarrett): Coming off a three-sack showing in the Super Bowl, Jarrett could emerge as the most dominant player along the defensive line.

Weakside linebacker (Duke Riley): The rookie third-round pick from LSU has speed and leadership qualities that will make him hard to keep off the field.

Middle linebacker (Deion Jones): Jones had a sensational rookie season and learned the importance of having a stronger voice to help orchestrate the defense.

Strongside linebacker (De'Vondre Campbell): Campbell has the size, length and speed to make an impact, particularly when covering tight ends, but he needs to know how to be in the right place.

Cornerback (Desmond Trufant): The one-time Pro Bowler played in just nine games last season before undergoing pectoral surgery, but Trufant has worked hard to get back to an elite level.

Cornerback (Robert Alford): Although Alford will make flash plays with his speed and outstanding athleticism, he still needs to clean up some things and be more disciplined with his approach.

Strong safety (Keanu Neal): The hard-hitting Neal is the guy the Falcons view as Kam Chancellor in this system. Now he needs to show that he can cover consistently when called upon.

Free safety (Ricardo Allen): Allen might be the most under-appreciated player on the team, with his ability to get everyone aligned in the right spots and his knack for picking up on offensive plays before they occur.

Special teams

Kicker (Matt Bryant): The 42-year-old veteran was named to the Pro Bowl as the NFL's leading scorer last season, with 158 points, and he made all nine of his field goals between 40 and 49 yards.

Punter (Matt Bosher): Bosher had a net average of 41.6 yards last season and 21 kicks downed inside the 20.

Long-snapper (Josh Harris): Harris continues to do his job well and isn't afraid to hit someone as part of the coverage team.

The New York Giants could have as many as 19 returning starters when the NFL season opens, but there are two rookies and two second-year players trying to earn their spots this summer.

Here’s a starting-lineup projection entering training camp:

Offense

Quarterback (Eli Manning): His job isn’t in jeopardy, even though the Giants drafted a quarterback in the third round. Manning had a down year in 2016 (26 touchdowns, 23 turnovers). But with improved weapons, there is hope this will be a bounce-back season.

Running back (Paul Perkins): The second-year back already has been anointed the starter. The elusiveness and versatility he showed during a rookie campaign when he averaged 4.1 yards per carry earned him the opportunity to be the lead back.

Wide receiver (Odell Beckham Jr.): The 24-year-old is one of the NFL’s biggest stars. He has had at least 90 catches, 1,300 yards and 10 touchdowns in each of his first three professional seasons -- the only player in NFL history to accomplish the feat. Now he needs to show that productivity in the postseason while playing for a new contract.

Wide receiver (Brandon Marshall): The tall, powerful receiver was signed this offseason as a complement to Beckham. The Giants hope they’re getting the five-time Pro Bowler, not the 2016 version of Marshall who struggled with injuries and inconsistency.

Wide receiver (Sterling Shepard): He’s looking to build off a strong maiden season during which he was second among rookies with eight touchdowns. Shepard had a strong spring, and his goal is to be more dynamic this season after the catch.

AP Photo/Julio CortezRookie tight end Evan Engram's ability to block on a consistent basis might be the only thing that keeps him off the field.

Tight end (Evan Engram): The first-round pick adds a new dimension to the offense with his speed and ability to open up the middle of the field. But Engram’s blocking will ultimately determine just how often he’s on the field and whether he immediately earns a starting spot. Rhett Ellison could end up starting due to his blocking ability.

Left tackle (Ereck Flowers): The Giants went all-in on Flowers this offseason after they didn’t add a true veteran offensive tackle in free agency. They were impressed that he remained at the facility and reworked his body. Flowers, 23, allowed the second-most pressures (59) among all offensive tackles last season, according to Pro Football Focus. So there is plenty of room to improve.

Left guard (Justin Pugh): Perhaps the Giants’ best offensive lineman, Pugh is entering his contract year. He needs to remain healthy after missing nine games over the past three seasons.

Center (Weston Richburg): The fourth-year center also is entering his contract year. Richburg is hoping to bounce back after playing with a hand injury for most of 2016.

Right guard (John Jerry): The Giants re-signed Jerry this offseason to a three-year, $10 million contract with the intention of him being their starting right guard. Coming off one of the best seasons of his career, he will face some competition from free-agent acquisition D.J. Fluker. But Jerry is the favorite to start entering camp.

Right tackle (Bobby Hart): The Giants' inactivity regarding the tackle slot this offseason again puts Hart in position to start, after he was benched late last year. Hart showed flashes of his potential last season.

Defense

Defensive end (Jason Pierre-Paul): He returns healthy and with a new four-year, $62 million deal. Pierre-Paul proved last season -- with 53 tackles and seven sacks in 12 games -- that he can still be a difference-maker.

Defensive tackle (Damon Harrison): He’s arguably the league’s best run-stuffing tackle. Pro Football Focus had him with a 15.8 percent run-stop percentage, tops in the NFL. Harrison might well be the most important player on the Giants' defense.

Defensive tackle (Dalvin Tomlinson): Robert Thomas spent most of the spring working with the first-team defense. But when all is said and done, Tomlinson, a second-round pick out of Alabama, seems to have the best chance to start alongside Harrison on running downs.

Defensive end (Olivier Vernon): He came to the Giants with a massive contract and didn’t disappoint in his first season with the team. Vernon tied for the NFL lead with 17 tackles for loss and played the most snaps of any defensive lineman. They’re expecting much of the same in Year 2.

Weakside linebacker (Jonathan Casillas): The well-respected defensive captain was the team’s only three-down linebacker last season. He finished with a career-best 96 tackles and eight passes defended. He has a chance to fill the same role in 2017.

Middle linebacker (B.J. Goodson): The second-year linebacker had a strong spring, during which he impressed the coaching staff and teammates. With last year’s starter Kelvin Sheppard still unsigned and unlikely to return, Goodson appears primed to start and become the signal-caller on this defense.

Strongside linebacker (Devon Kennard): The reliable Kennard does an excellent job setting the edge and playing with power. He’s entrenched as the starter on the strong side, in large part because of his run-stuffing ability.

Cornerback (Janoris Jenkins): He took his game to a new level with the Giants last season and earned his first Pro Bowl selection. He shut down Dallas Cowboys wideout Dez Bryant (twice) and proved to be a shutdown corner even against No. 1 receivers.

Cornerback (Eli Apple): With Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie having made the smooth transition to the slot, Apple is the clear-cut starter on the outside. After an up-and-down rookie season, he should make a significant jump, if he can remain healthy.

Strong safety (Landon Collins): He blossomed into an All-Pro safety in his second season. Collins had 125 tackles, five interceptions, 4.0 sacks and 13 passes defended while becoming a fixture in the Giants' secondary. He’ll be there for a long time.

Free safety (Darian Thompson): This is one of the few defensive positions up for grabs. Safeties coach David Merritt said as much last month. Thompson missed all but two games last season, and undrafted rookie Andrew Adams filled in admirably. The two will compete for the starting spot this summer, but Thompson enters as the favorite with his foot healthy. He blew away the team last spring/summer with his smarts and instincts.

Special teams

Kicker (Aldrick Rosas): He’s the only kicker on the roster, and the Giants were impressed by what they saw this spring. It’s Rosas’ job to lose at training camp and in the preseason.

Punter (Brad Wing): He established himself as a weapon last season. Wing’s average of 46.2 yards per punt was the best of his career.

Long-snapper (Zak DeOssie): The veteran is back for another season. The special-teams captain is well-respected and considered a leader in the locker room.

The Minnesota Vikings could have as many as five new starters on offense when the NFL season opens. Here's a starting lineup projection:

Offense

Quarterback (Sam Bradford): He'll be the focal point of training camp, with Teddy Bridgewater still rehabbing from last year's knee injury and Bradford in the final year of his contract. Bradford set an NFL single-season record for completion percentage in 2016, but the Vikings want more big plays from an offense that should give Bradford a better supporting cast.

Running back (Latavius Murray): The starting designation here probably doesn't mean much, since Dalvin Cook will get plenty of work and Jerick McKinnon will be involved. Murray is the most established back on the Vikings' roster, and his reliability in pass protection will get him plenty of work on third downs. He'll need a solid season to stay in Minnesota beyond 2017; only $1.1 million of his $5.15 million 2018 base salary is guaranteed against injury, with the full amount becoming guaranteed on the third day of the 2018 league year.

Wide receiver (Stefon Diggs): He led the team with 84 catches last season, despite battling a groin injury that he said bothered him for the final three months of the season. If Diggs can become the kind of downfield threat he appeared to be early in the season, he has a chance to cash in; his rookie contract will be up after 2018.

Wide receiver (Adam Thielen): The Vikings rewarded the restricted free agent in March after his breakout 2016 season, giving him a three-year contract extension with $10 million in guaranteed money. Thielen led the Vikings in receiving yards in 2016 and became the team's best vertical threat late in the season; the 26-year-old will be a focal point of the team's offense from Day 1 in 2017.

Wide receiver (Laquon Treadwell): This spot could change hands throughout the season, depending on Michael Floyd's disciplinary status with the NFL, the development of rookie Rodney Adams and whether Jarius Wright returns from a 2016 season spent on the margins of the Vikings' roster. The Vikings spoke highly of Treadwell's improvement through the offseason, and he was in the team's top three-receiver set for most of the spring. The 2016 first-round pick has plenty to prove after a one-catch rookie year, but he'll get his chance.

Tight end (Kyle Rudolph): He posted the best numbers of his career in 2016, catching 83 passes for 840 yards and leading the team with seven receiving touchdowns. The Vikings' pursuit of Jared Cook showed they wanted to add another vertical threat to the middle of the field, and rookie Bucky Hodges could eventually add that element to the offense. Rudolph earned Bradford's trust last season, and he will be counted on heavily again.

David Berding/Icon SportswireVikings left tackle Riley Reiff (71) will be tasked with protecting quarterback Sam Bradford's blind side.

Left tackle (Riley Reiff): After he was moved from the left side to the right side in Detroit, the Vikings gave him $58.75 million over the next five years to play the left side. Coach Mike Zimmer thinks more highly of Reiff as a run-blocker than a pass-protector; and the Vikings had the league's 32nd-ranked running game a year ago. For what he brings to the run game, though, he'll still be charged with protecting Bradford's blind side.

Left guard (Alex Boone): A slow start to his first year in Minnesota turned into a respectable first season with the Vikings, and the 30-year-old guard will look for more consistency in 2017. It would be helpful for the Vikings to put more consistency around Boone, after a 2016 season that saw him line up next to three different starting left tackles.

Center (Nick Easton): The Vikings gave the 25-year-old a long look during their spring program, and they and could start him here with Joe Berger at right guard. Rookie Pat Elflein might compete for this spot, as well, but Easton will likely get the first crack, given how the Vikings approached the spot this spring.

Right guard (Joe Berger): At age 35, he might be in his final NFL season; he has been a reliable member of the Vikings' offensive line in recent years, and he can play either center or guard, depending on how things shake out with Easton and Elflein.

Right tackle (Mike Remmers): His first tour with the Vikings saw him released at the end of the 2014 preseason. He's back on a five-year, $30 million deal now, after becoming a starter with the Carolina Panthers. Remmers also is better against the run than the pass, as Zimmer said this offseason, and teams could try to test the Vikings' remade right side of the line with pressure early on.

Defense

Defensive end (Everson Griffen): The right end has played in two straight Pro Bowls, after posting 30.5 sacks over the past three seasons. He will turn 30 in December and has two seasons left on the five-year, $42.5 million deal that has paid off handsomely for the Vikings so far. Griffen has missed just one game during the past three seasons. He recovered three fumbles last year, returning one for a touchdown.

Defensive end (Danielle Hunter): He'll take on a bigger role in the Vikings' defense after registering 12.5 sacks in a rotational role last season. He's a force with few parallels in the NFL, at 6-foot-4 and 252 pounds with 34½-inch arms and a 4.57-second 40-yard dash, and he's still only 22.

Defensive tackle (Datone Jones): The Packers tried Jones at defensive end and linebacker, and now the Vikings will give the 2013 first-rounder a shot at 3-technique tackle. They need help here, with Sharrif Floyd's status still uncertain, and Jones has expressed a willingness to try the spot. Tom Johnson and Jaleel Johnson will factor in here, as well, but the Vikings will trust defensive line coach Andre Patterson to get more out of Jones than he showed in Green Bay.

Defensive tackle (Linval Joseph): After matching his career high with four sacks and turning in another year as one of the league's best run-stoppers, he was named to his first Pro Bowl in 2016. Mike Zimmer still believes Joseph can be even more dynamic as a pass-rusher; he will turn 29 in October.

Weakside linebacker (Edmond Robinson): This spot will likely be decided by a camp battle between Robinson and Emmanuel Lamur, but the 2015 seventh-rounder could win out if Robinson shows the kind of range and athletic ability that made the Vikings draft him in the first place. The Vikings sounded pleased with his progress this spring, when he got plenty of work with the first-team defense.

Cornerback (Xavier Rhodes): He has emerged as one of the best shutdown corners in the league, and he's going to get paid like one very soon. Rhodes is playing on his fifth-year option, making $8.026 million this season, but the Vikings have indicated they plan to work on a long-term deal for the 27-year-old, who has become one of their most important players. History suggests the Vikings could try to get something done as soon as the start of training camp.

Cornerback (Trae Waynes): After effectively redshirting as a rookie and splitting time with Terence Newman last season, the 11th pick in the 2015 draft will likely get his shot opposite Rhodes at left cornerback. The Vikings will need to figure out if Waynes can do the job; a decision on his fifth-year option awaits after the season.

Free safety (Harrison Smith): He should be fully recovered from offseason ankle surgery after fighting through a high ankle sprain at the end of last season. Smith played on the injury in his second Pro Bowl in January, and has every chance to make it three in a row this year; even though he didn't have an interception in 2016, he remained one of the best in the business.

Strong safety (Andrew Sendejo): The soon-to-be 30-year-old returns opposite Smith after intercepting a career-high two passes last season. Sendejo is at his best when he's helping against the run, and his reliability allows the Vikings to create the kind of multifaceted role that they've developed for Smith.

Special teams

Kicker (Kai Forbath): Marshall Koehn has a bigger leg than Forbath, and the two will compete for the job during training camp, after Forbath beat out Koehn and others for the right to replace Blair Walsh in November. If Forbath can be more effective on extra points this preseason after missing three last year, he has a good chance to retain the job; he was 15-for-15 on field goals last season.

Punter (Taylor Symmank): There'll be competition here, as well, with Symmank and Ryan Quigley fighting to replace Jeff Locke. The Vikings liked Symmank after a rookie camp tryout in 2016, and he could beat out the more experienced Quigley if he's able to build on a strong spring.

Long-snapper (Kevin McDermott): He's entrenched in the job after the Vikings gave him a four-year contract extension in the fall. He is signed through 2020.

The New Orleans Saints should have at least six new starters when the NFL season opens. Here's a starting lineup projection:

Offense

Quarterback (Drew Brees): The 38-year-old led the NFL in passing yardage for the seventh time last season with 5,208 and he is now just 5,830 yards away from breaking Peyton Manning’s career record of 71,940.

Running back (Mark Ingram): Adrian Peterson may be stealing the spotlight, but that doesn’t mean he’ll take over Ingram’s job as the Saints’ lead back. Ingram, 27, ran for a career-high 1,043 yards last season and is a strong pass-catcher and pass protector.

Running back (Adrian Peterson): The Saints are a pass-first team, but I’m putting two running backs in their starting lineup since they have two of their biggest stars sharing the backfield. Peterson, at 32 years old, is determined to prove the laws of aging running backs don’t apply to him.

Wide receiver (Michael Thomas): The second-round pick from Ohio State had the second-most catches (92) by a rookie receiver in NFL history last year. The big target also had 1,137 yards and nine TDs in 15 games.

Wide receiver (Willie Snead): The slot receiver went undrafted and bounced around with three teams before breaking out in New Orleans in 2015. He has a combined 1,879 yards and seven TDs over the past two years and could play a bigger role after Brandin Cooks was traded.

Tight end (Coby Fleener): Had a disappointing debut in New Orleans after signing a big contract in 2016 (50 catches, 631 yards, 3 TD catches). But a full year in the system should help boost his production.

Left tackle (Andrus Peat): This is a guess since the Saints just lost stellar left tackle Terron Armstead to shoulder surgery during minicamp. Peat primarily starts at left guard, but his natural position is left tackle, and he filled in when Armstead was hurt last year. Bryce Harris, Khalif Barnes and rookie Ryan Ramczyk are also candidates.

Left guard (Senio Kelemete): If Peat moves to left tackle, veterans Kelemete and Josh LeRibeus or a young backup like Landon Turner could fill in at left guard. Kelemete is a valuable backup who can play guard, center and tackle.

Center (Max Unger): Unger has quickly emerged as one of the Saints’ most valuable players and leaders after arriving from Seattle in the 2015 trade for Jimmy Graham. He has been sidelined by foot surgery this summer, but the Saints are hoping he’ll return before Week 1.

Right guard (Larry Warford): The Saints’ most expensive free-agent addition this offseason at $8.5 million per year, Warford is a powerful fifth-year pro who was just coming into his prime with the Detroit Lions.

Right tackle (Zach Strief): The Saints drafted their future right tackle, Ramczyk, with the 32nd pick. But the 33-year-old Strief isn’t ready to hand over the job just yet after having one of the best seasons of his 11-year career in 2016.

Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsGuard Larry Warford was the Saints' most expensive free-agent addition this offseason.

Defense

Defensive end (Cameron Jordan): The versatile 6-foot-4, 287-pounder should be coming off of his third Pro Bowl season. He got left out partly because he had only 7.5 sacks, but he tied for the NFL lead with 17 tackles for loss and ranked in the top seven with 24 quarterback hits and five batted passes.

Defensive end (Alex Okafor): The Saints got the 26-year-old at a bargain rate in free agency after minor injuries marred his first four seasons with the Arizona Cardinals. But he has the potential to fill their biggest need as a weakside edge rusher.

Defensive tackle (Sheldon Rankins): The Saints’ first-round pick in 2016 missed the first half of the season because of a broken fibula, but he finished strong with four sacks and a forced fumble. The 6-foot-2, 305-pounder has breakout potential as a disruptive 3-technique.

Nose tackle (Tyeler Davison): The third-year pro earned a starting job last summer after being drafted in the fifth round in 2015. He started 15 games despite battling foot and shoulder injuries.

Middle linebacker (A.J. Klein): The Saints signed Klein away from the rival Carolina Panthers on the first day of free agency. He was stuck behind stars Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis in Carolina but made 23 starts in four years, collecting 146 tackles, four sacks, four forced fumbles and an interception.

Weakside linebacker (Dannell Ellerbe): When healthy, the ninth-year veteran has been one of New Orleans’ most dynamic defensive players. Unfortunately, he has been limited to just 15 games in two years because of nagging injuries.

Cornerback (Delvin Breaux): The physical 6-foot-1, 196-pounder emerged as a Pro Bowl-caliber cornerback after migrating from the Canadian Football League in 2015. But he was limited to six games last year because of a broken fibula and shoulder injury.

Cornerback (Marshon Lattimore): The 11th pick in the draft has dynamic speed. But he’ll need to develop fast to earn a starting job since he just turned 21 and had only one full year as a starter at Ohio State. He’ll compete with third-year pro P.J. Williams and veteran Sterling Moore, among others.

Strong safety (Kenny Vaccaro): The 2013 first-round pick has developed into one of the Saints’ defensive cornerstones. He was having one of his best seasons last year with 67 tackles, two interceptions and two forced fumbles before serving a four-game suspension for a positive Adderall test.

Free safety (Vonn Bell): Bell started 14 games as a rookie second-round draft pick in 2016. He had 87 tackles, two forced fumbles and a sack.

Nickel safety (Rafael Bush): I went with three safeties instead of three linebackers because that’s the Saints’ most common lineup. They re-signed the versatile veteran Bush in free agency, but rookie second-round pick Marcus Williams should also contribute as a ball-hawking center fielder.

Special teams

Punter (Thomas Morstead): One of the NFL’s best punters over the past eight years, Morstead’s 47.0 yards per punt rank second in league history. He made the Pro Bowl in 2012.

Kicker (Wil Lutz): The undrafted rookie endured some highs and lows after signing with the Saints in Week 1 last year -- including some costly blocked kicks that weren’t entirely his fault. But he didn’t miss a kick over the final six games.

Long-snapper (Thomas Gafford): The Saints just signed the 10th-year veteran in June to compete with undrafted rookie Chase Dominguez. The position is wide open after the team decided to part ways with veteran Justin Drescher.

The Carolina Panthers will have at least four new starters when they open training camp on July 26 at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Here's a starting lineup projection:

Offense

Quarterback (Cam Newton): The Panthers are hoping offseason surgery to repair a partially torn rotator cuff and the evolution of the offense to take the pressure off Newton to run will help him return to his 2015 MVP form. How long it takes Newton to regain full strength in his throwing shoulder remains the big question. But having first- and second-round draft picks Christian McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel as big-play options should make Newton's job easier.

Running back (Jonathan Stewart): Much has been made about the dynamic playmaking ability of McCaffrey as a running back and slot receiver. But the Panthers signed Stewart to an extension during the offseason because even at 30 he's still the first option to jump-start the running game that will remain the centerpiece of this offense.

Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffreyJim Dedmon/Icon SportswireVersatile running back Christian McCaffrey may help spark the Panthers' offense.

Fullback (Darrel Young): The staff is high on sixth-round pick Alex Armah, but the former defensive end at West Georgia likely is a year away from being ready. Coaches felt strongly enough about Young that they didn't re-sign Pro Bowl fullback Mike Tolbert, now with the Buffalo Bills.

Wide receiver (Kelvin Benjamin): If he returns to the form he showed prior to suffering a season-ending knee injury during the 2015 camp, he could be in for a big year. With the new receiving weapons (McCaffrey, Samuel) it'll be hard for teams to double-team the 6-foot-5 Benjamin as often. He was questioned for being overweight at the start of offseason workouts, but he appears to have that under control.

Wide receiver (Devin Funchess): The offensive MVP of last year's training camp has fallen short of expectations after being drafted in the second round in 2015. The third season often is telling for wide receivers, and Funchess will have a chance to emerge now that Ted Ginn Jr. is with the New Orleans Saints

Tight end (Greg Olsen): Last year he became the first tight end in NFL history to have three straight seasons with at least 1,000 yards receiving. Now he wants to be paid like one of the top tight ends in the NFL, and it would be best for the Panthers to do so. He's a huge part of this offense and helps keep Newton comfortable.

Left tackle (Matt Kalil): The Panthers gave the former Minnesota Vikings tackle a five-year, $55.5 million deal during the offseason to protect Newton's blind side. With Michael Oher's future uncertain and a weak draft class at tackle, there weren't many other options. If 2016 hip surgery returns him to his rookie form, it could pay off. If not, it was a big financial mistake.

Left guard (Andrew Norwell): Carolina placed a second-round tender on Norwell to retain his rights for 2017. The former undrafted free agent out of Ohio State, who has 38 starts since 2014, has proved to be one of former general manager Dave Gettleman's better finds.

Center (Ryan Kalil): His 2016 season ended prematurely with a shoulder injury that required surgery. When healthy, the five-time Pro Bowl selection is one of the best in the league at his position, and there's no reason to think he won't return to that form.

Right guard (Trai Turner): The 2014 third-round pick out of LSU is in store for a big payday. He's already a two-time Pro Bowl selection and proving to be one of the better guards in the NFL.

Right tackle (Daryl Williams): The most competition in training camp on the offensive side will be here between Williams and second-round draft pick Taylor Moton -- and Oher if he's still with the team. Williams appears to have the upper hand with 12 starts and 23 games played since 2015 if Oher isn't on the roster.

Defense

Defensive end (Julius Peppers): The return of Carolina's all-time sack leader after a seven-year hiatus with the Chicago Bears and the Green Bay Packers was the team's feel-good story of the offseason. At 37, the nine-time Pro Bowl selection still appears capable of playing at a high level. Having a player who can stop the run and rush the passer as a part of the four-man end rotation should pay huge dividends.

Defensive end (Charles Johnson): He was Carolina's most consistent defensive lineman last season despite issues with his hamstring at the end of the year. Johnson had back surgery in the offseason to help correct that. His leadership and ability to play the run and rush the passer, despite a drop in sacks the past two seasons, is highly undervalued.

Defensive tackle (Star Lotulelei): The 2013 first-round pick is playing for his future this season as he heads into the final year of his rookie deal. He has been solid but not spectacular in his first four seasons. If 2016 first-round pick Vernon Butler emerges, Lotulelei may be expendable if the asking price is too high for 2018.

Defensive tackle (Kawann Short): His 17 sacks over the past two seasons ranks third among defensive tackles in the league. Carolina rewarded him with a five-year, $80.5 million deal during the offseason. The 2015 Pro Bowl selection is one of the most dominant tackles in the league.

Weakside linebacker (Thomas Davis): At 34, the two-time Pro Bowl selection (2015 and 2016) believes he still has a few good years left in him, so he'd like an extension as he enters the final year of his contract. He and Luke Kuechly form arguably the best linebacker combination in the NFL. Look for the Panthers to be more judicious with how they use Davis this season to keep him fresh, but it'll be hard to keep him off the field.

Middle linebacker (Luke Kuechly): There's no question he's the top middle linebacker in the league. The question is, will concussions that have sidelined him for multiple games the past two seasons remain an issue?

Strongside linebacker (Shaq Thompson): He started to emerge as a force last season and will be used more moving forward. When Kuechly was out, the Panthers put Thompson in his spot in nickel situations.

Cornerback (James Bradberry): He's fast on his way to making Carolina fans forget about Josh Norman. After a slow start, the 2016 second-round pick went on to receive Pro Football Focus' top grade (82.6) among rookie cornerbacks.

Cornerback (Daryl Worley): The 2016 third-round pick improved more than arguably any player on defense last season. Once he settled in after a rocky beginning, he finished with 88 tackles (fourth most on the team), nine pass deflections and an interception.

Strong safety (Mike Adams): The Panthers didn't look at his age (36) as much as they did his production when they signed him in free agency. He made the Pro Bowl in two of his past three seasons with the Indianapolis Colts. His ability to anchor the strong safety role allows Kurt Coleman to return to the free safety spot.

Free safety (Kurt Coleman): He led Carolina in interceptions with seven in 2015 when playing free safety and the signing of Adams allows him to return there. He has become the leader of this secondary and defense in general.

Special teams

Kicker (Harrison Butker): The Panthers had never used a draft pick on a place-kicker before selecting Butker in the seventh round out of Georgia Tech. If he has a solid camp, look for him to replace veteran Graham Gano, whose shaky 2016 season and big salary-cap number make him expendable.

Punter (Andy Lee): The three-time Pro Bowl selection was acquired in a trade with the Cleveland Browns just before the 2016 season began. He was having another solid year before a hamstring injury landed him on injured reserve in November. He should be back at full strength.

Long-snapper (J.J. Jansen): Carolina thought enough of the 2013 Pro Bowl selection to give him a five-year, $5.5 million deal in February 2016. He's as solid as they come at an unheralded position.

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