Each team’s most pressing question as minicamp looms
And now, we wait.
There are a little more than four months between the end of the NFL Draft and start of the regular season, so we’re left with plenty of time to analyze rosters. That is essentially where all the teams are, too — they’ll use the upcoming OTAs and camps to decipher their strengths and weaknesses, before trying to figure out how to address the latter.
Here is a breakdown of the most pressing question facing each team as the NFL heads into the summer:
• Buffalo Bills: Are Nigel Bradham and Kiko Alonso ready?
The Bills are rumored to be interested in at least one free-agent linebacker, Karlos Dansby. But as things stand right now, Bradham (a 2012 fourth-rounder with 11 starts last season) and Alonso (a 2013 second-rounder) are slotted to start at the inside linebacker spots in Buffalo’s 3-4 look. That’s a lot to ask of the young pairing.
• Miami Dolphins: Can Jonathan Martin thrive at left tackle?
Martin did so for 37 games during his days at Stanford. He was less successful on Ryan Tannehill’s blindside during five starts in 2012 and possibly even worse on the right. Per Pro Football Focus’ stats, no lineman allowed more than Martin’s 47 QB hurries last season. Tyson Clabo’s signing means that the Dolphins are going to give Martin another shot at left tackle.
• New England Patriots: Who’s going to catch Tom Brady’s passes?
Rob Gronkowski’s status for the start of the season is up in the air, and neither Wes Welker (118 catches in 2012) nor Brandon Lloyd (74) is around anymore. Much of the resulting pressure will fall on Aaron Hernandez (assuming his shoulder is OK after offseason surgery) and new addition Danny Amendola. Beyond that? Rookie Aaron Dobson, Julian Edelman, Michael Jenkins and ex-Giant TE Jake Ballard may be the best options.
• New York Jets: Does Chris Ivory change this offense’s outlook?
On paper, the Jets look plenty capable of repeating last season’s dismal offensive effort — they finished 28th in points and 30th in yards. Geno Smith could provide a glimmer of hope soon, but Ivory is the player currently in position to star. He could not find the field more in a crowded depth chart in New Orleans and he’s dealt with injuries throughout his brief career. He’s also averaged more than five yards per carry and might be just what New York needs.
• Baltimore Ravens: Who is the No. 2 receiver?
Anquan Boldin is off to San Francisco via trade, leaving Dancing With the Stars star and Super Bowl hero Jacoby Jones to pick up the slack alongside Torrey Smith. Also in the mix: Tandon Doss, David Reed, Tommy Streeter and Deonte Thompson. Baltimore needs at least one to raise his game.
• Cincinnati Bengals: Uh … well … who is the No. 2 receiver?
The Bengals have tried and, thus far, failed to find a complement for A.J. Green — Green finished with 1,350 yards receiving last season; Cincinnati’s six other receivers came in at 1,362. Added to the mix via the draft was sixth-rounder Cobi Hamilton. He may see some playing time, though the Bengals hope 2012 selections Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones will emerge.
• Cleveland Browns: Can the back four keep pace with the front seven on defense?
The Browns are transitioning to a 3-4 front, and they look well-stocked to do so with free-agent signings Paul Kruger and Desmond Bryant joining first-round pick Barkevious Mingo. The situation is far less comfortable in the secondary, where the Browns still have no real answer in place at free safety. They also need rookie Leon McFadden to lock down the No. 2 cornerback job.
• Pittsburgh Steelers: How early will Jarvis Jones and Shamarko Thomas make an impact?
The answer had better be “real early” in Jones’ case — Pittsburgh has to replace James Harrison at outside linebacker, and Jones will have every opportunity to beat out Jason Worilds. Thomas, meanwhile, should slot in behind starters Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark at safety. If he has to see action, it’s because of bad news on the injury front.
• Houston Texans: What does Ed Reed have left in the tank?
The Texans signed Reed to a free-agent deal, only to find out that the 34-year-old needed hip surgery. Considering that Reed’s play slipped last season, Houston cannot feel great right now. That’s part of why the team hedged its bet by drafting D.J. Swearinger. Still, the Texans are counting on Reed.
• Indianapolis Colts: Will any of the running backs step up?
This sure feels like Vick Ballard’s job to lose after he led the team in rushing last season. Nobody on the depth chart appears on the cusp of stardom, though, from Ballard to Donald Brown to seventh-rounder Kerwynn Williams. Ballard’s 814-yard rookie year at least gives Indianapolis something on which to build.
• Jacksonville Jaguars: Which cornerbacks will win starting jobs?
The odds-on favorites right now have to be Marcus Trufant and third-rounder Dwayne Gratz. Even if that tandem manages to hold its own in a tough division, there’s not a lot of meaningful depth here — Alan Ball, Kevin Rutland, Mike Harris, Demetrius McCray and others look like bit players at best.
• Tennessee Titans: How much better can the run game be?
Tennessee ranked 31st on the ground in 2011 and 21st last year, as teams loaded up in the box against Chris Johnson. Better play from Jake Locker would help alleviate that issue, but new guards Andy Levitre and Chance Warmack ought to aid the cause, regardless. Johnson still finished with nearly 1,300 yards on the ground last year, meaning an improved line might thrust him back into elite status.
• Denver Broncos: Can Robert Ayers and Shaun Phillips fill the Elvis Dumervil void?
How the Broncos handle their RB stockpile (Montee Ball, Willis McGahee, Knowshon Moreno, Ronnie Hillman, etc.) will be an issue to keep an eye on here. The other is at DE, where the Broncos lost Elvis Dumervil and will try to replace him with Ayers and Phillips. Those two combined for 11.5 sacks last season … or a half-sack more than Dumervil produced.
• Kansas City Chiefs: What will happen with Branden Albert?
The uncertainty regarding Kansas City’s projected left tackle has reached the stalemate phase. Trade talks have bottomed out, leaving Albert the choice to sign and show up or hold out into the season. The Chiefs do have No. 1 overall pick Eric Fisher ready to roll at one tackle spot, but there’s little question this offense would be better with Albert and Fisher on the field together.
• Oakland Raiders: Is Matt Flynn the right man for the QB job?
The Raiders could have as many as nine new starters on defense, and it likely won’t matter how effective those changes are unless Flynn shows he’s ready to be a No. 1 QB. Oakland traded for him following the failed Carson Palmer experiment, and anticipates he’ll own the job. However, don’t discount Terrelle Pryor or even rookie Tyler Wilson taking the starting spot.
• San Diego Chargers: Will anyone block for Philip Rivers?
The Chargers grabbed D.J. Fluker in the draft, after three left tackles and two guards came off the board in the top 10. Fluker should start at right tackle, but there’s very little to get excited about elsewhere. San Diego allowed the fourth-most sacks in the NFL last season (49) and has more a collection of so-so pieces up front now than a dominant unit.
• Dallas Cowboys: Has the offensive line improved at all?
Did the Cowboys pull a fast one on us all? Possibly, if center Travis Frederick — who admitted without hesitation that he “didn’t expect to be drafted in the first round” — turns out to be a reliable anchor. The big mystery here is at right tackle, where the Cowboys may cut Doug Free if he does not agree to a pay cut. The other three starters (Tyron Smith, Nate Livings and MacKenzy Bernadeau) are not going anywhere.
• New York Giants: Is Dan Connor really the starting middle linebacker?
He is for now, unless Mark Herzlich beats him out or the Giants dip back into free agency. New York won its most recent Super Bowl with Chase Blackburn in the middle, so Connor does not represent a huge drop-off. But Blackburn also had Michael Boley playing next to him; Connor will be flanked by Keith Rivers and Jacquian Williams.
• Philadelphia Eagles: Will the revamped secondary make enough plays?
Chip Kelly wasted no time trying to reform the Eagles’ defense. Two new cornerbacks, Bradley Fletcher and Cary Williams, and two new safeties, Pat Chung and Kenny Phillips, could take the field to start Week 1. That group doesn’t carry the big-name potential of Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, but the Eagles need a more cohesive secondary this season than those former stars provided.
• Washington Redskins: Are any of the draft picks ready to contribute in the secondary?
Washington finished 30th against the pass in 2012, then spent three of its seven draft picks at either safety or corner. The resulting adds: Phillip Thomas, Bacarri Rambo and David Amerson. Thomas and Rambo should be in the mix at safety, where either Reed Doughty or Brandon Meriweather could be bumped. But it’s Amerson, the speedy yet inconsistent former N.C. State standout, that may be needed most. He could be in that safety competition, as well as an option at corner.
• Chicago Bears: How long does the offensive line need?
The Bears’ pick of Kyle Long in Round 1 this year was a selection lauded as a promising one for the future, even if Long struggles in the present. Unfortunately, the pieces potentially surrounding him on the Bears’ line (including free-agent pickup Jermon Bushrod) are underwhelming and facing the challenge of learning a new offense. When (if?) this unit ever pulls it all together, will it be too late?
• Detroit Lions: Who are the starting tackles?
The Lions brought in free agent Winston Justice for a visit this week, further indication that they’re not entirely sold on starting two of Riley Reiff, Jason Fox and Corey Hilliard at the tackle spots. Reiff will be on the starting line somewhere — ideally, Detroit might shift him to guard, but it might not have that luxury.
• Green Bay Packers: What’s the plan at running back?
Easy, right? Eddie Lacy on early downs and in short-yardage situations, with Johnathan Franklin stepping in on passing downs? Not so fast. Lacy’s draft drop came with reports that teams were worried about his health. And let’s not forget about DuJuan Harris — he rushed for 100 yards and two TDs last postseason, remember. There are way more options here than before, but nothing is settled yet.
• Minnesota Vikings: Will Matt Cassel push Christian Ponder at QB?
This is the obvious storyline for the Vikings, and one that figures to pop up each and every time Ponder struggles in 2013. Though Cassel fell apart during the final stages of his stay in Kansas City, he has 62 starts and more than 13,000 career passing yards under his belt. The Vikings feel as if they can contend right now. So, if Ponder holds them back, a switch could come.
• Atlanta Falcons: Is Lamar Holmes capable of filling Tyson Clabo’s shoes?
No one but the Falcons’ coaching staff knows this answer — Holmes played all of seven snaps during his rookie season. After cutting Clabo, though, Atlanta has no choice but to drop Holmes in at right tackle and hope for the best. The Falcons’ offense is built to get the ball out of Matt Ryan’s hands quickly, but Holmes still has to protect his edge and help clear space for Steven Jackson.
• Carolina Panthers: Are there any answers at safety?
It doesn’t look like it, in early May. Charles Godfrey graded as Pro Football Focus’ No. 82 safety in 2012, and you could make the case that Haruki Nakamura was even worse. Ex-Raider Michael Mitchell could unseat one, while 2012 seventh-rounder D.J. Campbell has a shot to claim the other spot. None of those choices are particularly rosy-looking.
• New Orleans Saints: Do they trust Charles Brown at left tackle?
Had offensive tackles not flown off the board early in Round 1 of this year’s draft, the Saints might have pounced on one. Instead, they settled for the raw Terron Armstead in Round 3, likely relegating them to starting Brown and Zach Strief on the edges. Saints coach Sean Payton said about a month ago that the left tackle spot “keeps him up at night.”
• Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Will Darrelle Revis (and Johnthan Banks and Dashon Goldson) be as good as advertised?
Ronde Barber has opted to retire, but the Buccaneers prepared for that scenario by signing Dashon Goldson away from San Francisco. They also traded for Revis and drafted Banks — those two could form the 1-2 punch at cornerback on a Tampa Bay team desperate to improve its miserable pass defense.
• Arizona Cardinals: How many new faces will be starting on defense?
At least two, in safety Yeremiah Bell and either Antoine Cason or Jerraud Powers at cornerback. Jasper Brinkley and second-round pick Kevin Minter may form a new starting unit at inside linebacker, too, especially with Daryl Washington suspended to start the year. And then there’s Alex Okafor, Tyrann Mathieu and Lorenzo Alexander, to name a few. Total it all up, and Arizona could look quite different on D.
• San Francisco 49ers: Is there enough depth on the D-line?
There are not a lot of weak spots for the 49ers, on paper. This could be one. The 49ers are hoping that Glenn Dorsey, a colossal disappointment in Kansas City, can play behind any of their three starters (Ray McDonald, Ian Williams, Justin Smith). San Francisco has little else in the way of reliable depth, unless fifth-rounder Quinton Dial earns a roster spot.
• Seattle Seahawks: Will the right side of the offensive line keep it together?
The Seahawks have a dominant left tackle in Russell Okung and an emerging star at center in Max Unger. But the rest of the line can be shaky, especially on the right side. That’s where guard Paul McQuistan and tackle Breno Giacomini battled through up-and-down 2012 campaigns. The other choice behind McQuistan is J.R. Sweezy, who bombed during a rookie-season cameo. Seattle thrived last year with that McQuistan-Giacomini setup. It’s still a spot defenses can attack.
• St. Louis Rams: Can all the young weapons gel?
At 25, Sam Bradford is one of the elder statesmen at the Rams’ skill positions. The running back battle will be between 2012 draft picks Isaiah Pead and Daryl Richardson and 2013 fifth-rounder Zac Stacy. The top five receivers (Tavon Austin, Brian Quick, Chris Givens, Austin Pettis and Stedman Bailey) all were taken in the last three drafts. And that’s all just on offense — rookies Alec Ogletree and T.J. McDonald are slated to start on D. The future is bright, but the present may cause some growing pains.