As NFL teams gear up for training camp there are some pretty massive questions each one needs to answer. How they answer them will determine how far each team will go during the 2018 NFL season.
Some teams seemingly have all the pieces in place for a title run and need to shore up one specific area to have the best chance of meeting expectations. Other teams are obviously more on the rebuilding side and have many concerns, but the issues we’ll highlight will go a long way toward determining how the rebuild goes long term.
These are the biggest challenges every team faces heading into training camp.
Arizona Cardinals: Offensive line cohesion
No matter who lines up under center for the Cardinals this season, the offense needs to see big improvements up front to achieve overall success. Especially in pass protection, Arizona’s offensive line has struggled in recent years.
We’re not sure Andre Smith is the answer at right tackle, and former Pro Bowl left guard Mike Iupati has been a disappointment the past few seasons. Adding Justin Pugh to play right guard wasn’t exactly an exciting way to fix the problem, either. Needless to say, this unit has its work cut out over the summer.
Atlanta Falcons: Improving red-zone scoring
During the 2016 season, Atlanta’s offense was one of the NFL’s best at scoring touchdowns in the red zone. Then Kyle Shanahan left to coach the San Francisco 49ers, and Steve Sarkisian’s offense was one of the worst in this category, converting under 50 percent of its red-zone opportunities for touchdowns. Julio Jones — one of the best receivers in football — only scored three total touchdowns all year.
This drop off in production in the red zone is the biggest reason the Falcons went from being the highest-scoring team in 2016 to No. 15 overall in 2017. If Sarkisian can’t fix this in 2018, he’ll likely be out of a job and Atlanta will have to start from scratch again.
Baltimore Ravens: Receiving corps must step up
The three men currently penciled in as starting receivers for Baltimore this year weren’t even on the team last year. Based on last season’s production (fourth-worst passing offense), that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Now armed with the likes of Michael Crabtree, John Brown and Willie Snead, not to mention rookie tight ends Hayden Hurst and Mark Andrews, there’s real potential to feature an offense that can work every part of the field. But with so many new faces, it’s worth wondering if the players can come together quickly to make it happen.
Buffalo Bills: Avoid thrusting Josh Allen into spotlight
So far, so good on this front. The Bills are currently set up to have AJ McCarron and Nathan Peterman battle it out for the starting job in training camp. But does anyone honestly have any confidence that either of these quarterbacks will be up to the task of leading a competent offense? I sure don’t.
If the Bills struggle out of the gate and neither of these men is able to keep the chains moving, then there will be a strong temptation to roll with the rookie. That would be a mistake, however, as Allen is a turnover machine waiting to happen. He needs a year to be coached up without facing NFL defenses on game days, and rushing him into action could ruin all the potential he possesses.
Carolina Panthers: Protecting Cam Newton
There aren’t many quarterbacks who’ve taken as many licks as Newton has since he entered the NFL back in 2011 as a No. 1 overall pick out of Auburn. Since then, he’s been sacked 256 times (an average of 36.5 per year) and hit countless other times. Some of that is on him, as Newton has a tendency to escape the pocket even when he doesn’t need to. But the offensive line has been culpable, too. If Newton is going to get back to the form that saw him throw 35 touchdowns en route to Super Bowl 50, then the Panthers need to do a better job protecting him.
Chicago Bears: Managing expectations
This young team really has some outstanding talent on both sides of the ball, and with rookie head coach Matt Nagy leading the charge there’s plenty of reason fans should be optimistic about the future.
That being said, the moves general manager Ryan Pace made this offseason, particularly on offense, have led to some pretty big expectations. The offense is loaded with talent, and now it’s going to be up to second-year quarterback Mitch Trubisky to emerge as a legitimate franchise passer. The biggest challenge this team faces is simply letting Trubisky develop without a ton of pressure. He’s going to have some pretty severe ups and downs, and that’s okay.
Cincinnati Bengals: Get run game going
Andy Dalton is never going to be an elite quarterback. Yet the Bengals seem content to let him continue to lead the charge, which isn’t surprising considering how this franchise clings to mediocrity with such ferocity.
That said, the best way to get an offense that’s headed by a mediocre quarterback is to establish a strong running game. The Bengals did some solid work this offseason to build a foundation for this, adding left tackle Cordy Glenn in a trade with Buffalo, then drafting center Billy Price and running back Mark Walton. If Joe Mixon, Gio Bernard and Walton can get some traction as a three-headed monster, then the offense has a chance to move the chains on a consistent basis.
Cleveland Browns: Change the culture
On paper, the Browns have the talent to win some games this coming season. Both on offense and defense, this team has players that can make an impact on the scoreboard. But it all boils down to whether head coach Hue Jackson has the ability to squeeze the juice of success out of his players.
And, to this point, that’s a huge question mark. After all, the Browns won just one solitary game in Jackson’s first two seasons in Cleveland. That’s a level of futility the NFL has never before seen. Time for Jackson to prove he’s legitimate head coaching material, once and for all.
Dallas Cowboys: Replacing Dez Bryant and Jason Witten
It’s easy to say that Ezekiel Elliott is the main cog that runs Dallas’ offense now. But if that remains the case going forward, the Cowboys won’t emerge as an elite NFL team. For that to happen, Dak Prescott has to emerge as the leader, both in the huddle and with his play on the field.
Prescott faces a huge challenge this summer in that he doesn’t have a go-to receiver on the roster right now. There’s no No. 1 guy. Allen Hurns could potentially be that guy, but there’s nobody in Dallas who we can say with confidence can replace Dez Bryant in his prime, or Witten, for that matter. We have an idea about who could emerge in that role, but at this point it’s all up in the air.
Denver Broncos: Establish offensive identity
Right now, we have no idea what to expect from Denver’s offense. Sure, Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders have a history of excellent production. But there’s a new quarterback in Case Keenum — and, let’s be honest, aside from last year he’s been utterly mediocre in his career — and the run game is a huge question mark. On top of that, the offensive line is also in flux. Hopefully rookie running back Royce Freeman can step up as the lead back, because Devontae Booker hasn’t shown the ability to be that guy.
It’s going to be interesting to see how offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave approaches this season. So far, there are far more questions than answers. And if the offense struggles again, then it’s likely Denver will miss the playoffs for a third consecutive season.
Detroit Lions: Find balance on offense
We know the Lions can pass the ball. Matthew Stafford has set a legendary pace to start his career, and Detroit has some great weapons for him to work with. The big issue is whether the offense can establish a running game. It’s been unable to do this in recent years, as the last running back to eclipse 100 yards in a game was Reggie Bush, who ran for 117 yards on Thanksgiving day 2013. Rookie Kerryon Johnson has a real chance to provide a spark here, along with veteran LeGarrette Blount. Now it’s time to make it happen.
Green Bay Packers: Developing young secondary
The Packers have been downright awful at defending the pass in recent years. However, as we saw last year in New Orleans, sometimes all it takes is an infusion of young talent to turn things around. Green Bay certainly has that now after selecting Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson in the first two rounds of the 2018 NFL Draft, not to mention Kevin King and Josh Jones, who were second-round picks a year ago. If the Packers can develop these guys and get them to play well together, then it’s not crazy to think this team can win Super Bowl LIII.
Houston Texans: Protecting Deshaun Watson
In general, Houston needs to simply stay healthy this summer and fall to have a real shot at going deep in the playoffs. But no one person is as important to that dream than second-year quarterback Deshaun Watson. Last year, he made NFL history left and right as a rookie before an ACL tear ended his season.
Houston must replace Duane Brown, who was traded to Seattle midseason after holding out. And it remains to be seen if there is anyone on the roster who can protect Watson’s blind side. The offensive line absolutely has to improve, and quickly.
Indianapolis Colts: Managing Andrew Luck’s health
Much like Houston, Indy’s entire season hinges on the health of its quarterback. Andrew Luck hasn’t been healthy since the start of the 2015 season. His recovery from shoulder surgery early in 2017 appears to finally be going well, and he’s experienced no setbacks in his very slow rehab this summer.
The Colts are going to have to play this perfectly. Luck, if he’s healthy, can get the Colts back to the playoffs this year. But if he experiences any more setbacks, then it’s fair to wonder if he’ll ever be the same again.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Getting offense to take the next step
The two Allens (Robinson and Hurns) are gone, but that doesn’t mean Jacksonville took a step backwards on offense heading into 2018. The Jags signed Donte Moncrief and selected the ultra talented D.J. Chark out of LSU. They also surprised everyone by signing one of the big fish in free agency, guard Andrew Norwell, who will propel the run game to another dimension.
Obviously, Blake Bortles has to avoid mistakes and continue to play like he did in the playoffs for the Jaguars to really take the next step offensively. If he and the offense does reach another level, then the Jags can legitimately challenge for the title.
Kansas City Chiefs: Developing Patrick Mahomes
When Kansas City shipped Alex Smith to Washington, it pushed all its chips in on second-year quarterback Patrick Mahomes. Obviously, he’s got a ton of potential, and as good as Smith has been he’s limited overall. The Chiefs had to make this gamble to reach new heights in the future.
So far, however, it’s been rough going for the young quarterback, who had a brutal go of it in minicamp. He’s got to learn quickly, and he’ll have to do it while being baptized by fire. The entire franchise rests on his shoulders. Andy Reid and Co. have their work cut out to help him succeed.
Los Angeles Chargers: Staying healthy
Staying healthy is one of the biggest challenges every NFL team faces during training camp. However, given the way this team has been snake bitten in the past, and given the overall level of talent, both young and old, on the roster, it especially is important to the Chargers. If the offensive line can stay healthy, and if the receiving corps can avoid injury, then the offense has a chance to be among the game’s best. The same goes for the defense, which has top-end talent at all three levels.
Los Angeles Rams: Getting Aaron Donald signed
There’s no bigger challenge facing the Rams and general manager Les Snead right now than getting the big guy on defense signed long term. Aaron Donald is the most dominant defender in the game today, and he’s just about to enter into his prime. The contract he signs, whether it be now or next year, will set a new market for NFL defenders. The issue for the Rams is that, if Donald has another monster season in 2018, he’ll be even more expensive next year. Throw in the fact that he won’t report to camp without a new deal and you have plenty of motivation to get something done.
Miami Dolphins: Getting Gase’s offense in gear
We’re entering Year 3 of the Adam Gase era in Miami. He was the hottest coach entering the 2016 NFL offseason, and every team that had a vacancy coveted him for his prowess on offense. The problem here is that, so far, Miami hasn’t seen a lot of positive development on offense since Gase arrived.
This year there are some new faces, including veterans Frank Gore and Danny Amendola, who could help Gase finally see some consistent production from his offense. But of course it all boils down to whether Ryan Tannehill can stay healthy and play at a high level. This summer and fall will tell us a lot about the future of both Tannehill and Gase.
Minnesota Vikings: Life after Pat Shurmur
There’s not a notable chink in Minnesota’s armor heading into training camp. This team is stacked on both sides of the ball, and it landed the most coveted free agent of the offseason in Kirk Cousins, who is expected to elevate the offense to new heights.
For my money, the most fascinating thing to watch this coming season is how the team’s offense performs under new offensive coordinator John DeFilippo, who was the quarterback coach in Philly the past two seasons. He has massive shoes to fill, as Pat Shurmur was a veritable quarterback whisperer in Minnesota.
New England Patriots: Assembling new defense
There are a lot of new faces in New England this summer. First off, Matt Patricia is in Detroit, and he’s been Bill Belichick’s defensive coordinator since 2012. In a not-so-shocking move, Belichick opted not to hire a new one and will instead just lean a bit more heavily on linebackers coach Brian Flores this year.
From a personnel standpoint, the Patriots will be rolling out a new look, too. Adding Adrian Clayborn, Danny Shelton, Jason McCourty and drafting Duke Dawson this offseason appeared to be solid moves, so we could see a stronger defense in New England this season than we did in 2017. Still, with so much change, we’re going to withhold judgement until we actually see the product on the field.
New Orleans Saints: Taking another big step on defense
In one offseason, New Orleans went from being a league laughingstock on defense to featuring one that had some serious teeth. The team’s improvement on the defensive side of the ball, fueled in large part by rookies Marshon Lattimore and Marcus Williams, was a huge reason why the Saints were strong postseason contenders.
The Saints took a huge gamble in the draft to land their coveted pass rusher, Marcus Davenport, signed linebacker Demario Davis to a lucrative contract and added some more secondary players late in the draft. If Davis can contribute at a high level, and if Davenport lives up to the hype, then the Saints will be quite formidable in 2018.
New York Giants: Building a brick wall on offense
On paper, the Giants made two moves this offseason to significantly upgrade their offensive line. Adding Nate Solder to play left tackle and then drafting Will Hernandez to man the left guard spot should lead to positive developments. And if right tackle Ereck Flowers finally lives up to his draft slot and plays like a first-round pick, the offense will be even more formidable.
If these guys can learn to play well together, then Eli Manning could rebound in a big way from a miserable 2017 season, and the run game can thrive with rookie Saquon Barkley leading the charge.
New York Jets: The quarterback decision
Given the fact that head coach Todd Bowles is likely on the hot seat already, we have to believe he’ll be itching for a veteran to win the quarterback job. Right now, it’s looking like a legitimate three-way competition between veterans Josh McCown and Teddy Bridgewater, and of course rookie Sam Darnold.
Making the right decision here is going to define how New York’s season ultimately goes. Needless to say, the Jets have one of the most interesting challenges this summer, as all three quarterbacks possess some strong abilities that are unique to them.
Oakland Raiders: Fixing the offense
It honestly was tough to pick just one thing with the Raiders. This team had significant issues on both sides of the ball last year. But what it boiled down to was the fact that, in 2016, Oakland appeared to be a championship contender before Derek Carr was injured, even featuring a sub-par defense.
Last year the offense took a significant step backward. Carr struggled, the offensive line struggled and Amari Cooper was a miserable wreck. Can Jon Gruden fix things? That’s a question we have no idea how to answer right now (but it’s safe to say we’re skeptical). What we do know is that it’s going to be fun to see how it unfolds.
Philadelphia Eagles: Avoiding Super Bowl hangover
Not for the first time in history, the defending Super Bowl champs enter their next season with what appears to be the best overall roster in the NFL. The only positional group that appears to be potentially worse is linebacker. But overall, this team might have actually gotten better since beating New England last February.
With that in mind, the biggest challenge is simply going to be keeping that edge. The Super Bowl hangover is a real thing, and if the Eagles can avoid it they have a great shot at repeating.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Tightening up run defense
The Steelers really don’t have many areas of weakness, especially now that Big Ben is all charged up about continuing his career after seeing the team draft his replacement. That said, there is one notable aspect of the defense that must be addressed, and it’s quite important.
The Steelers lost a huge part of their defense when Ryan Shazier was injured last year. Before his injury, Pittsburgh’s defense was on a streak of six straight games in which it did not allow 100 yards rushing. Counting that game, the Steelers allowed over 100 yards in five of their last six games, including their playoff loss to Jacksonville. Needless to say, it’s imperative that they fix this ahead of the 2018 campaign.
San Francisco 49ers: Balancing youth vs. experience on offense
The offensive line is almost set in stone. We already know who the quarterback and running backs will be. But the 49ers have quite an interesting problem at wide receiver, which is that they have some quality veterans and some exceptionally talented young players who need to get as much action as possible to live up to their potential.
In particular, Trent Taylor, Kendrick Bourne and rookies Dante Pettis and Richie James are all going to be fighting for significant roles. So, Shanahan and Co. have an interesting job ahead of them determining how to balance playing their veterans with getting these young guys involved.
Seattle Seahawks: Improving offensive line
No NFL quarterback has been sacked as often as Russell Wilson since he became the starter in Seattle back in 2012. He’s been taken down with the football as a passer an absurd 248 times in six years (that’s an average of 41.3 per year), and that doesn’t count the playoffs.
The Seahawks didn’t really do much to improve the line from a personnel standpoint this offseason. So it’s hard to imagine Wilson suddenly won’t be running for his life in 2018. That said, fixing this issue is easily the most difficult challenge Seattle has to tackle for the foreseeable future.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Preparing for Jameis Winston suspension
Tampa Bay is still committed to Winston as the starter in 2018. At least for now. But the fourth-year quarterback put the team in a bad spot, as he’s suspended the first three games due to a violation of the league’s personal conduct policy (more on that here).
The immediate challenge during training camp is this: The Bucs have to figure out how much first-string work Ryan Fitzpatrick needs, since he’ll be the starter for the first three games of the season. It’s a conundrum. Winston is the starter, but the Bucs have to get Fitzpatrick ready, not him.
Tennessee Titans: Getting Marcus Mariota back on track
It’s no secret that Mariota had his worst season as a pro in 2017. The poor guy threw more interceptions than touchdowns, and he battled through injuries pretty much the entire season.
Much of that we can blame on Mike Mularkey. Now the Titans have former Los Angeles Rams offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur, who should be a significant upgrade. If he can scheme a system that works to Mariota’s strengths, then the Titans can make some noise this postseason. It’s as simple as that.
Washington Redskins: Fixing squishy run defense
No team in the NFL was worse than Washington at shutting down the run game last year. The Redskins allowed 134.1 yards per game, and opposing offenses really were able to grind games out by just running it down Washington’s throat.
Getting Jonathan Allen back from injury should help. Washington also added his former Crimson Tide teammate, Da’Ron Payne, in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft and re-signed star inside linebacker Zach Brown, who was injured last year. If the defense can shut down the run, then everything else becomes easier.