NFL

Eight burning questions heading into the 2017 NFL season

Can Marshawn Lynch help lead his Raiders to the Super Bowl?
Vincent Frank
Written by Vincent Frank

Now that most teams have their rosters set and off-season programs are underway around the NFL, it’s time to start looking forward to the 2017 campaign. A whole heck of a lot has changed since the New England Patriots hoisted the Lombardi in Houston this past February.

First off, these very same Patriots absolutely dominated the trade circuit by adding multiple key contributors to an already loaded roster. Are the Patriots prepared to go back-to-back en route to earning their sixth Super Bowl of the Tom Brady era?

While New England looks to stay on top, other teams attempted to add franchise quarterbacks to compete for the future. Which one of these rookies will duplicate what we saw from Dak Prescott last season?

These are among the top-eight early questions heading into the 2017 NFL season.

1. How will rookie quarterbacks perform?

Will Deshaun Watson start for the Texans as a rookie?

This past season saw Dak Prescott jump on to the scene as a mid-round pick. As a rookie, the former Mississippi State signal caller would first unseat an injured Tony Romo as the Dallas Cowboys’ starting quarterback before ultimately leading his team to a 13-win regular season and the No. 1 seed in the NFC.

Interestingly, both of the top-two picks struggled throughout their rookie campaigns. Jared Goff was a downright disaster for the Los Angeles Rams, putting up just five touchdowns en route to leading his team to a 0-7 record in seven starts. And after a strong start, No. 2 pick Carson Wentz faded out big time down the stretch for the Philadelphia Eagles.

In what has to be considered a weaker 2017 NFL Draft class at quarterback, it will be interesting to see how rookies perform this upcoming season. It will also be interesting to see how many of them get actual real-time regular season action.

Deshaun Watson would be a good starting-off point. Houston did not yield a first-round pick next year to move up with Cleveland on Day 1 of the draft to select Watson with the idea of sitting him as a rookie.

The most pro-ready quarterback in this class, it would not be a huge surprise to see Watson start out of the gate. He’s also surrounded by a solid running back, a deep receiver group and a defense that led the Texans to the AFC South title last season despite horrendous quarterback play.

In reality, there’s no reason to believe Watson can’t have immediate success out of the gate in the same manner as Prescott last season. Though, it might be in more of a game-manager role.

Outside of that, there’s not a lot of questions here. Even after yielding a bounty to move up one spot for Mitch Trubisky, the Chicago Bears expect to sit the former North Carolina standout as a rookie. Should Trubisky and his one year of college starting experience see the field, there will be questions about his ability to succeed and Mike Glennon’s future with the team.

The same can be said about Pat Mahomes in Kansas City. Much like Trubisky, he will likely be brought along slowly. Unlike Chicago, the Chiefs are contenders. This gives Mahomes an ability to succeed should Alex Smith go down to injury. The only question here is whether Kansas City will move on from its veteran sooner rather than later, which doesn’t seem to be the case right now.

A bit further down on the pecking order, San Francisco surprised the masses by selecting Iowa signal caller C.J. Beathard in the third round. Despite the president believing he is the next coming of Tom Brady, there wasn’t a lot of hype surrounding the former Hawkeye.

With Brian Hoyer and Matt Barkley ahead of him on San Francisco’s depth chart, could Beathard potentially act as this year’s Dak Prescott? However unlikely that might be, new 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan could have something to say to the skeptics.

2. Last hoorah for Marvin Lewis in Cincinnati?

The single most successful head coach in modern Bengals history is facing a do-or-die season in Cincinnati. Following a 2016 campaign that saw his team miss out on the playoffs for the first time since 2010, Lewis is squarely on the hot seat.

With expectations comes an understanding that Cincinnati must not only make the playoffs but go deep in the postseason for Lewis to be retained. After all, here’s a guy that’s 0-7 in his playoff career.

More than just Lewis, it appears that the 2017 campaign is a make-or-break one for Andy Dalton as well. The two really do seem to be tied at the hip, with Cincinnati being able to get out from under Dalton’s contract by only paying out a $2.4 million cap hit for the 2018 season.

All this is only magnified by Cincinnati’s unwillingness to trade backup A.J. McCarron prior to what will be a contract year for the former national champion. Should the Bengals struggle in 2017, there’s a real scenario that suggests they will move on from both Lewis and Dalton.

The good news here is that A.J. Green appears to be back at full health and in the best shape of his career. Add in the presence of troubled rookie Joe Mixon in the backfield, and Cincinnati might very well have an elite offense once again in 2017. If not, questions will arise about both Dalton and Lewis.

3. Are there real problems in Seattle?

Are there major issues brewing between Russell Wilson and his teammates in Seattle?

From Richard Sherman being placed on the trade block to a perceived rift surrounding Russell Wilson in the locker room, Seattle’s offseason has been filled with turmoil. This comes on the heels of a 2016 campaign that saw the Seahawks fail to display the same dominance we had seen earlier in the Pete Carroll era.

The question now is whether Seattle has regressed. More than that, it’s about whether fans in the Pacific Northwest have to worry about the first non-playoff season since 2011.

Sure the issues surrounding Sherman and Wilson might subside. Then again, they could end up being lingering problems within the team’s locker room.

Though, the larger issue here is on the field. Can a previously out of shape Eddie Lacy team up with an injury prone Thomas Rawls to create a solid running back tandem? The lack of consistency there last season led to a regression on offense. It’s something Carroll himself has focused on changing in 2017. But the players on the field need to actually perform at a high level for this to come to fruition.

Staying on offense, one of the largest question marks for any contending team in the NFL is the offensive line in Seattle. Former Jacksonville Jaguars first-round bust Luke Joeckel will now be tasked with protecting Wilson’s blindside. Considering how poorly he played with the Jags, that’s probably not a great thing.

And in reality, the rest of Seattle’s offensive line is made up of makeshift players that actually are well below Joeckel when it comes to a track record of success in the NFL.

Defensively, Seattle’s previously vaunted Legion of Boom regressed a great deal last season when All Pro safety Earl Thomas went down with a broken leg. It exposed Sherman without the backside help Thomas provided. It also led to questions at the other cornerback position, an area Seattle attempted to fortify in the draft.

While the NFC West remains relatively weak in the grand scheme of things, the Seahawks themselves appear to be taking a turn for the worst. The question now is whether perceived locker room issues will doom the team in 2017.

4. Big Ben’s swan song?

Ben Roethlisberger strongly considered retirement following last season. And while he has decided to return for the 2017 campaign, the future Hall of Famer has not committed beyond one more season. More than anything, this puts Pittsburgh in a win-now situation. After all, the likes of rookie Joshua Dobbs and former mid-round pick Landry Jones don’t inspire much confidence behind him on the depth chart.

Maybe Big Ben sees the writing on the wall. Sure the Steelers are loaded at the skill positions with Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown. But Bell himself still hasn’t signed the franchise tag tender and could potentially hold out into training camp (more on that here).

Even if he were to return earlier, last season’s three-game suspension for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy lingers over Bell. Another off-field issue, and he’s looking at a 10-game suspension. Contractually, there’s a scenario in play here that suggests Bell will move on after the 2017 season.

Meanwhile, the rest of the AFC continues to get stronger. By pinpointing areas of weakness on both sides of the ball, the Oakland Raiders have to be seen as the biggest threats to New England in the conference. Houston may have just jumped Pittsburgh simply by making the move for Deshaun Watson in this year’s draft. At the very least, Watson gives the squad an upward trajectory moving forward.

We then have the mighty Patriots, who played the rest of the NFL like a fiddle during the offseason — adding the likes of Mike Gillislee, Brandin Cooks, Dwayne Allen and Stephon Gilmore to an already loaded roster.

With 13 years of experience under his belt and a ton of wear and tear on his 6-foot-5, 240-pound frame, there’s a real chance this could be Big Ben’s swan song in the Steel City. If so, we can expect him to do everything to lead the Steelers to another Super Bowl under his watch. The question here is whether the remainder of the Steelers’ roster is capable of doing just that. We’re not too sure.

5. Will these running backs return to form?

Adrian Peterson looks to rebuild his career with the Saints.

Adrian Peterson to the New Orleans Saints. Marshawn Lynch to the Oakland Raiders. Eddie Lacy to the Seattle Seahawks. Jamaal Charles to the Denver Broncos. This is a total of 17 Pro Bowls that switched teams during the offseason. All four of these players have something to prove to their new squads as well.

For Peterson, it’s all about showing that he is still a viable running back after struggling through injuries last season and following a three-year span that saw him play a total of 20 games.

At 32 years old and in a completely different system, one has to wonder if Peterson has finally hit that wall following a Hall of Fame caliber career. Heck, here’s a guy that’s not even being given a guarantee that he will start this upcoming season for the Saints.

Lynch is a completely different story. After losing Latavius Murray in free agency, many figured Oakland would go ahead and draft a replacement at running back. That all changed when Lynch — after one season away from the NFL — decided to return for his home-town Raiders.

Some wonder whether Lynch is completely washed. After all, he’s 31 years old and has not seen more than eight attempts in a game since November of 2015. Then again, Lynch did take a year off from the physical pounding being an NFL running back takes. That could give him fresh legs for a loaded Raiders team (more on that later).

Lacy and Charles are interesting in that their success was nowhere near as long lasting as the other two running backs here. Lacy fell out of favor in Green Bay due to injury and weight issues over the past two seasons. As mentioned before, he’s now being tasked with helping Thomas Rawls shoulder the load in Seattle. Whether that happens is anyone’s guess, but Lacy has the incentives to get back on track (more on that here).

With Charles it’s all about injuries. Considering he’s still one of the most-effective all-around backs in the game, it was a surprise that Charles took a fully non-guaranteed deal with Denver after being released by the Chiefs.

That’s until we realize the two-time All Pro has played in a grand total of eight games since suffering a torn ACL back in October of 2015, his second torn ACL of the running back’s career. With Charles not even being a lock to make the Broncos’ 53-man roster, the question here is whether his career is over. If so, that would be a sad culmination for a player that put up over 5,000 total yards from 2012-14.

On the other hand, should Charles remain healthy, it would be a huge boon for a Broncos team dealing with a questionable quarterback situation.

6. Will Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota take that next step?

There’s very little doubt that these two young quarterbacks represent the future for their franchises. Though, there are some rather large question marks surrounding each one heading into important 2017 campaigns.

For Winston and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, it’s all about the former No. 1 overall pick cutting down on the mistakes that plagued him early on last season. Winston threw eight interceptions in his first four games, leading the Buccaneers to a 1-3 mark during that span. He then followed that up with a nine-game stretch that saw him tally 15 touchdowns compared to four interceptions. It’s not a coincidence that Tampa posted a 7-2 record in those nine games.

Most figured that the Florida State product had turned the corner. But with the Bucs in contention for a playoff spot late in the season, he went on to throw six picks in the team’s final three games.

The issue with Winston is decision making. He tends to continue throwing late and to the outside. That might work in college football, but defenses will pick up on that tendency in the NFL. It’s led to some horrible mistakes in the past.

This is something Tampa Bay can’t afford in 2017 if it wants to expand off that 9-7 mark from last season. The good news here is that the Buccaneers added two shiny new weapons for Winston in the passing game. That came in the form of Pro Bowl wide receiver DeSean Jackson in free agency and All-American tight end O.J. Howard in the first round of April’s draft. This should afford Winston the ability to cut out the mistakes that came with force-feeding Mike Evans (173 targets last season) the ball.

Mariota’s situation in Nashville is different in that he’s proven to be a top-tier decision maker when healthy. Unfortunately, Mariota has seen each of his first two NFL seasons end prematurely to injury, including a season-ending fibula fracture this past December. When on the field, Super Mario has been downright dominant. He put up 28 touchdowns compared to nine interceptions en route to leading Tennessee to a surprising 8-7 mark in 15 starts last season.

Now that the Titans have retained the running back tandem of DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry, Mariota has the balance to succeed on offense. Add in the selection of big-bodied receiver Corey Davis in the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft, and that’s been brought to a whole new level. For the former Oregon standout, it’s all about proving he can play a full 16-game season without injuries coming back to bite him on the back end.

Both Tampa Bay and Tennessee should be considered legitimate playoff threats heading into the 2017 season. The lingering question here is whether each team’s franchise quarterback is prepared to take his game to the next level. We won’t know the answer to this until the fall.

7. Super Bowl champion Oakland Raiders?

What a going away party it would be for the city of Oakland if the Raiders were able to hoist the Lombardi this upcoming February. By now, you already know that the Raiders will be relocating to Las Vegas in time for the 2020 season. That’s unfortunate for a die-hard fan base in Northern California who has seen this team struggle through two decades of cellar-dweller status. Now that the Raiders appear to be back after a 12-win 2016 campaign, they are just going to up and bolt? Life isn’t fair sometimes.

The very least this Raiders team can do is give its fans in Oakland a Super Bowl before departing for the desert metropolis. While this obviously isn’t the thinking of GM Reggie McKenzie and Co., the team has done a tremendous job building a legitimate title contender. In fact, one has to wonder how far this team would have gone if Derek Carr didn’t suffer season-ending injury in Week 16 last season.

Remember, the Raiders were on the verge of going 12-3 at the time and were a virtual lock for a first-round bye. Instead, they would end up losing in Week 17 — ultimately forcing a road playoff game in Houston with rookie Connor Cook starting in lieu of an MVP candidate. Ouch.

With all that said, the Raiders did a tremendous job closing the gap between themselves and the defending champion Patriots during the spring. Whether it was adding Marshawn Lynch, Jared Cook and Cordarrelle Patterson to the mix on offense or taking a major off-field risk with corner Gareon Conley in the draft, the Raiders added a whole heck of a lot of talent to the mix.

The question here is whether it will be enough to compete with the top dogs in the NFL. In order for this to happen, Carr must remain healthy and continue to ascend the ranks of the top quarterbacks in the NFL. After putting up 81 touchdowns and 31 picks in his first three seasons, this seems to be the likeliest scenario.

Should that happen, the next question has to surround Lynch in the backfield. Expectations seem to be mighty high for a guy that sat out last season and is on the wrong side of 30. But the Raiders will be relying on him big time with Latavius Murray now in Minnesota.

It would not be a surprise to see Oakland’s offense progress from last season’s top-seven ranking. Even then, the team’s defense must step up. Here’s a unit that ranked 24th against the pass and yielded 27 touchdowns through the air last season. That obviously must change if Jack Del Rio and Co. want to vie with New England for the AFC crown, ultimately finding a way to play in Minnesota for the Lombardi.

8. Will the Patriots repeat?

Tom Brady

Yes. Okay, article done.

In reality, New England has to be the odds-on favorite to hoist the Lombard in Houston next February. We can talk about Tom Brady acting the part of an ageless wonder en route to leading the team to the great comeback in Super Bowl history last season. We can talk about Bill Belichick’s coaching prowess and just how dominant he has been on the sideline. Those are two things pretty much everyone already knows about.

Instead, it’s what New England did during the free agency period that has to scare the collective jockstraps off opposing NFL teams. From adding a true No. 1 corner in Stephon Gilmore to go with Pro Bowler Malcolm Butler in the secondary to trading for young receiver Brandin Cooks, there’s not much we can question regarding New England’s offseason.

Gilmore and Butler make for an elite-level coverage tandem on the outside. That’s something the Patriots really have not had during this dominant run that has included five Super Bowl titles in 16 years. It will make the rest of the team’s defense that much better — a defense that, mind you, added defensive end Kony Ealy and retained Pro Bowl linebacker Dont’a Hightower in free agency.

Offensively, it’s just downright scary. Sure New England lost LeGarrette Blount in free agency, but the team didn’t really seem interested in re-signing him. Instead, the Patriots signed Mike Gillislee away from the division-rival Buffalo Bills. A former fifth-round pick of the Dolphins, the 26-year-old Gillislee put up over 900 total yards and 12 touchdowns while averaging 5.7 yards per rush for Buffalo over the past two seasons. He joins a solid running back group that includes holdovers Dion Lewis and James White.

Though, New England’s biggest acquisition was former Saints wide receiver Brandin Cooks. The still young 23-year-old pass catcher has put up over 2,300 yards and 17 touchdowns over the past two seasons. Add his No. 1 receiver ability to a group that already includes Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan and Malcolm Mitchell, and this might be one of the scariest units in football.

As we said before, the Patriots are clear favorites to win the Super Bowl this upcoming season. The only real question here is whether Rob Gronkowski can stay healthy. Should that happen, it would not be a surprise to see Brady and Co. hoist a sixth Lombardi in less than two decades.

About the author

Vincent Frank

Vincent Frank

Editor-at-large, Sportsnaut.

“You were born with wings, why prefer to crawl through life?” Rumi