As NFL training camps get going and continue throughout the summer, 12 teams are looking to make it back to the playoffs after earning a trip last season. Common logic seems to suggest that a handful of these squads will miss out on that initial goal.
Sure the New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons of the world will likely be playing meaningful January football. This doesn’t mean that the two Super Bowl 51 opponents don’t have questions right now. The same can be said for the other 10 teams looking to make return trips to the playoffs.
Here is a look at one burning question for each one of last year’s NFL Playoff teams.
New England Patriots: How will the new faces fit in?
Even after compiling the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history, the defending champion Patriots made sure to improve leaps and bounds from a season ago. It started with the acquisition of wide receiver Brandin Cooks from the New Orleans Saints, but it most definitely didn’t end there.
New England also picked up tight end Dwayne Allen from the Indianapolis Colts in a trade. It then added running backs Mike Gillislee and Rex Burkhead in free agency.
That’s a whole heck of a lot of moving parts on an offense that finished last season No. 3 in the NFL in scoring. Now, the question is whether these new pieces will be able coexist with that New England already had on offense. Cooks put up over 2,300 yards while compiling 17 touchdowns over the past two seasons with New Orleans. He should fit in extremely well with Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan and youngster Malcolm Mitchell.
The larger question here is how Gillislee and Burkhead fit into the equation. In adding these two underrated veterans, New England also decided to part ways with a potential bell cow in LeGarrette Blount.
Neither figures to be a 20-plus touch guy, but that really hasn’t been the team’s MO under head coach Bill Belichick. Instead, they should team up well with Dion Lewis and James White to form a deep running back rotation. Even then, it’s going to be interesting to see how each fits in schematically.
Miami Dolphins: Can Ryan Tannehill take that next step?
Tannehill was one of the primary reasons Miami ended its seven-year playoff drought last season. He improved leaps and bounds from previous seasons, ultimately putting up career highs in completion percentage and quarterback rating. Unfortunately for the Dolphins, a late-season injury forced Tannehill to miss the playoffs.
If Miami is to somehow compete with New England in the AFC East, Tannehill will have to improve even more. In fact, one might conclude that he will have to turn in an elite-level performance in 2017.
The Dolphins definitely have playmakers on offense to turn it up a notch. Young running back Jay Ajayi put up over 1,400 total yards and eight touchdowns en route to earning a Pro Bowl nod as a sophomore last season. Meanwhile, Jarvis Landry caught 94 passes for 1,136 yards. These two players are key components to Tannehill’s success in 2017.
More than anything, however, former first-round pick DeVante Parker will have to prove he’s ready to go for a full season. Entering his third year, Parker showed flashes at times last season. The issue here is that he’s been injury plagued and inconsistent thus far in his young career.
Should these three players do their part to help Tannehill, there’s no real reason to believe the quarterback can’t take that next step in 2017. Should this not happen, questions will certainly be raised about his future as Miami’s starter.
Pittsburgh Steelers: When will Le’Veon Bell report?
By now, the story is already known. Pittsburgh handed Bell the dreaded franchise tag, guaranteeing him $12.1 million if he decided to sign it. In turn, Bell has yet to agree to sign the tender and could be a long-term holdout during camp (more on that here).
And while Bell doesn’t have much leverage here, the Steelers can’t fine him for sitting out. It’s potentially caused a rift within the team’s locker room this summer.
Bell accounted for over 40 percent of the Steelers’ total yardage last season. He did so while playing in only three quarters of the team’s games. This tells us a story of a running back that has taken over as the top dog on an offense that’s been led by Ben Roethlisberger for 13 seasons.
Not only do the Steelers need Bell to return in time for Week 1, they need him to get into football shape with his teammates long before that. We have seen how lengthy holdouts have impacted running backs in the past.
Should this come to fruition in 2017, Pittsburgh will stand no real chance to compete with New England and Oakland in the AFC. That’s the harsh reality of the situation. And the Steelers really only have themselves to blame for that.
Houston Texans: Who is the starting quarterback?
Odds are pretty darn good that Houston will go with a veteran in Tom Savage over rookie first-round pick Deshaun Watson. Here’s a team that earned the AFC South title last season despite a disastrous overall performance from free agent bust Brock Osweiler. Common logic seems to suggest that Houston will look for experience under center as it attempts to compete for the AFC South title in 2017.
That’s until we realize rookie first-round pick Deshaun Watson has impressed the Texans since he was selected back in April.
“They knew he was a good player, they liked a lot about him athletically, they thought he was someone who had a very high ceiling as far as being a quarterback,” NFL Media’s Ian Rapoport noted recently. “It’s pretty safe to say the Texans have been blown away with the progress that he has made just as far as work ethic-wise and the mount of time he has put into learning the game of football. He’s the first out on the field always. He takes copious notes. He works incredibly hard and cares about being good.”
If Watson can prove to be a game manager that limits mistakes more than we saw from Osweiler in Houston last season, he might very well earn the starting job out of camp. Surely the reigning national champion will be given a shot during the preseason. It will most definitely be interesting to see how this whole thing plays out.
With an absolutely loaded defense and key talent at skill positions on offense, Houston has a chance to make some noise. It also knows that the quarterback position was an unmitigated disaster.
This is why the team yielded both its first and second-round picks to Cleveland in order to rid itself of Osweiler and trade up for Watson. Think about that for a second before you gloss over this young man simply because he’s a rookie.
Kansas City Chiefs: Can Tyreek Hill replace Jeremy Maclin?
Kansas City shocked the football world by releasing its No. 1 receiver during the summer. Sure Maclin took a major step back for Alex Smith in 2016, but he remained the team’s most-consistent outside receiving threat. With Maclin now gone, it’s become readily apparent that the Chiefs are looking at Hill to replace him.
The second-year player is coming off a dynamic debut season that saw him put up 860 yards from scrimmage and nine touchdowns while catching 73 percent of the passes thrown in his direction. The issue here is that Hill doesn’t have the build to be a true No. 1 outside receiving threat. He stands at 5-foot-10 and weighs just 185 pounds.
It’s definitely not an ideal situation for Kansas City, especially considering it relies on a quarterback in Alex Smith that doesn’t have a cannon for an arm.
The issue here is that Smith needs big-bodied targets to go up and make the contested catch. Maclin was that type of player for the team. And while Travis Kelce should help out at tight end, there’s really no one on the outside to play Maclin’s role. Should Hill fail in this endeavor, it would not be a surprise to see Kansas City miss the playoffs altogether.
Oakland Raiders: Is the defense fixed?
The surprising Raiders did what they could to address defensive inefficiencies during the offseason, spending its first two draft picks on cornerback Gareon Conley and safety Obi Melifonwu . These two should form a solid duo to go with youngsters Karl Joseph and Travis Carrie. But will it be enough for this unit to improve off its less-than stellar No. 24 ranking against the pass last season?
Without a doubt, Oakland’s success on defense will be heavily dependent on reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year Khalil Mack. That’s not even in question. But Mack himself needs some help on the back end of the defense in order for this unit to become above average.
With an elite-level offense that features the highest-paid player in the league in the form of Derek Carr as well as two 1,000-yard receivers, that side of the ball is in great shape. Add in the return of hometown boy Marshawn Lynch from a one-year retirement, and this is magnified even further.
Oakland put up 12 wins and competed for a division title last season. It was a surprising performance that culminated in Carr going down with a season-ending injury in Week 16. The Raiders simply can’t afford to rely so much on their franchise quarterback in 2017 if they want to be taken seriously as Super Bowl contenders.
That’s where this defense comes into play. And in reality, the team’s top two picks will play vital roles in the success of the squad as a whole.
Dallas Cowboys: What is Ezekiel Elliott’s status?
We already know the story here. The NFL may be on the verge of suspending Elliott for at least part of the regular season due to multiple alleged off-field incidents. The league itself has not done Dallas any favors by sitting on a decision. And it looks like owner Jerry Jones is none too happy.
For his part, Jones has every reason to be upset. Elliott has not been convicted or charged with a crime in the court of law. He’s also the team’s second-most important player behind backfield mate and fellow second-year player Dak Prescott.
Here’s a guy that’s coming off a rookie season hat saw him put up nearly 2,000 total yards with 16 touchdowns en route to earning All Pro honors. He’s as dynamic of a young back that we have seen in the NFL for some time now.
Sure we can focus on Elliott’s immaturity off the field. We can also conclude that the NFL, as a private entity, can punish him how it sees fit.
The on-field issue here is that Dallas remains one of the top teams in the NFL after finishing as the top seed in its conference last season. At the very least, the league needs to give the Cowboys time to prepare for any suspension Elliott might receive. Is that too much to ask?
New York Giants: Who is the starting running back?
Second-year player Paul Perkins is the Giants’ leading returning rusher from a season ago. As a rookie, the UCLA product put up just 456 yards and averaged a pedestrian 4.1 yards per rush.
This led New York to go after former Clemson standout Wayne Gallman in the fourth round of the 2017 NFL Draft. In his final season with the Tigers, Gallman put up nearly 1,300 total yards with 17 touchdowns while averaging 5.1 yards per touch.
Despite his on-field success and awe-inspiring tape, there has not been much talk of Gallman since the Giants selected him. Of course, that will likely change with camp here. But Perkins is the one that has caught the eye of the team’s coaching staff.
“I really like what Paul Perkins has been doing so far,” running backs coach Craig Johnson said back in June, via ESPN. “He ended last season playing like a guy that is ready to take over the job. There is nothing so far in the offseason to show he’s not going to be able to handle that role.”
This came on the heels of head coach Ben McAdoo naming Perkins the starter earlier in the offseason. Unfortunately for the second-year back, things can definitely change in the late summer. Perkins failed to get into the end zone a single time in 127 touches as a rookie last season. He brings very little to the table in the passing game and is somewhat of a liability in pass protection.
With the likes of Odell Beckham Jr., Sterling Shepard and Brandon Marshall catching passes from Eli Manning, the Giants should be tremendous through the air. But the team needs a consistent running back to take its offense to the next level. Should Gallman shine over Perkins in camp, he could very well surprise many and take the starting job out of the gate. It’s most definitely something to keep an eye on.
Green Bay Packers: Can young secondary compete?
After yielding the second-most passing yards and a 95.9 rating to quarterbacks last season, Green Bay set out to improve a disastrous secondary in the draft. It’s in this that the team exhausted its first two picks in the 2017 NFL Draft on defensive backs.
Green Bay selected the 6-foot-3 Kevin King with the first pick in the second round after trading down with Cleveland. King is a physical and lanky corner who can go up with the big boys on the outside. This is really something the Packers have not had in recent seasons.
Then, later in the second round, Green Bay picked up former North Carolina State safety Josh Jones. The former Wolfpack star can play both corner and single-high safety, but will likely be utilized in the latter.
As to where King might be able to start immediately, Jones’ prospects for this upcoming season are somewhat limited by the presence of Ha Ha Clinton-Dix at free safety.
That’s what leads us to our biggest question here. Green Bay has in the past exhausted high-round picks to fix a perpetually under-performing secondary. Clinton-Dix comes to mind as a first-round pick. We can also look at fellow first-round pick Damarious Randall as a case study here. If these players continue to be part of a disastrous coverage group, what are we to expect from this team in 2017?
Unfortunately, King himself missed most of spring practice to injuries and is being worked in slowly during the early part of camp. We shouldn’t read too much into this. But if he were to continue taking a back seat as camp continues, it might end up being a big deal.
Green Bay has the offense to succeed. It boasts the best quarterback in the NFL. The team’s front seven is pretty solid on defense. But if the Packers are unable to improve against the pass, it will spell doom for their Super Bowl aspirations.
Detroit Lions: Is Ameer Abdullah a workhorse?
Matthew Stafford is coming off two of the best seasons of his career and could soon become NFL’s highest-paid player. Golden Tate and Marvin Jones have more than made up for the retirement of Calvin Johnson. And on defense, the Lions improved leaps and bounds during a surprising run to the playoffs last season.
There are now a couple different factors potentially leading to Detroit taking the next step. They are both on offense and have a direct correlation to the team’s rushing attack. It starts up front, where the team replaced guard Larry Warfard and tackle Riley Reiff with T.J. Lang and Ricky Wagner respectively. That seems to be a major upgrade from a run-blocking standpoint.
Even then, it’s going to be all about Abdullah on the ground. Can he prove to the Lions, and the rest of the NFL in general, that he’s a true three-down back? After missing all but two games to injury last year and having put up a career-high of 143 attempts in his two NFL seasons, we’re not entirely sure.
Physically, Abdullah is a 5-foot-8, 198-pound scat-back. He struggles running through the middle and is not apt at breaking tackles. Despite this, the Lions see his game-breaking ability (4.9 yards per touch throughout his career) as a major bonus. Again, that’s been in a limited role.
In order for Detroit to take that next step to conference championship contention, its run game is going to have to improve from a No. 30 ranking last season. And while the team has improved from a run-blocking standpoint, all eyes are going to be on Abdullah entering his third season in the league.
Atlanta Falcons: How much of a downgrade will Sarkisian from Shanahan?
Losing the reigning NFL Assistant Coach of the Year is not necessarily a bad thing. It means you have built up strong capital within your coaching staff. Look at the New England Patriots as a prime case study here. But for the Falcons, it somehow seems a bit different.
Think about it this way. Shanahan led an offense that averaged 33.8 points per game. He turned Matt Ryan into a league MVP from what was nothing more than an above-average quarterback. Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman represented the best one-two-punch at running back in the game.
Julio Jones continued to dominate on the outside. And Taylor Gabriel turned into a serviceable No. 2 after being a Cleveland Browns cast-off.
Shanahan is now being replaced by a coach in Steve Sarkisian whose only previous NFL experience was as the quarterbacks coach for an Oakland Raiders team that won five games and had a washed up Kerry Collins under center back in 2004. Since then, Sark has been run out of both USC and Alabama.
There’s still a ton of talent here. And in reality, Sark will likely implement nearly the same scheme as we saw from Shanahan in Atlanta last season. Still, there’s definitely a major experience and talent vacuum in terms of the man calling the plays. That has to concern people around the Falcons organization.
Seattle Seahawks: Did they do enough along the offensive line?
No. That’s the simple answer to this long, drawn-out question. Whether Luke Joeckel starts at left guard or left tackle, the former Jacksonville Jaguars bust has yet to prove himself to be a starter-caliber offensive lineman in the NFL. He was Seattle’s biggest veteran acquisition along an offensive line that allowed Russell Wilson to be treated like a rag doll last season.
In all, Wilson was among the three-most pressured quarterbacks in the game. And if it weren’t for his escapability in the pocket, he might have gone down to a serious injury. That’s how bad Seattle’s offensive line was in 2016.
A first-round pick last year, Germain Ifedi was among the worst starting offensive lineman in the NFL. He’s now slated to start at right tackle opposite whoever Seattle tasks with protecting Wilson’s blindside. Backing him up and potentially competing at that spot, rookie Ethan Pocic played primarily at center in college. Woof.
There’s a lot to the issues Seattle has seen on its offensive line over the years. Simply put, general manager John Schneider and Co. have put too much faith in position coach Tom Cable.
It came home to roost last season, and could be a major issue for a Seahawks team that’s nowhere near as deep and talented as it was just a couple seasons back.
Seattle’s offensive line isn’t as much a question as it is a weakness. But if a couple of these players can find a way to step up, maybe this unit becomes serviceable. That’s what the Seahawks will need to compete for a conference title in 2017.