The build up to the 2014 NFL season has already started. Teams throughout the league are taking to training facilities in an attempt to prepare for what promises to be an interesting season. And within just about one week, the first preseason came will be played in Canton, Ohio.
What is the biggest news surrounding each team as camps start? From Marshawn Lynch’s holdout to Josh Gordon’s suspension, a lot of going on off the football field. Instead of focusing on that, we decided to look at the biggest question surrounding each NFL team as training camps get going. You will read about young quarterbacks who need to step up to keep their jobs, veterans who could be in for a rude awakening and one highly confident rookie in Cleveland who is set to challenge for a starting gig.
So, let’s check in on the biggest question for each NFL team right now.
Arizona Cardinals: Who Will Replace Daryl Washington at Inside Linebacker? With Washington suspended for the season and Karlos Dansby moving on to the Cleveland Browns in free agency, the Cardinals are weak at the inside linebacker position. Second-year player Kevin Minter will take over for Dansby, but it remains to be seen who will replace Washington. Arizona added veterans Larry Foote and Ernie Sims in free agency. Foote seems to have the upper hand, as he was a near full-time starter for the Pittsburgh Steelers for the better part of a decade.
Atlanta Falcons: Where Will Atlanta Get a Pass Rush From? As Atlanta makes the transition to a 3-4 defense, it is going to need to find someone to perform at a high level from a pass-rush standpoint. Osi Umenyiora, who led the teams in sacks a season ago, transitions from his natural position as a 4-3 end to a 3-4 edge rusher. Atlanta has high hopes for youngster Jonathan Massaquoi, who recorded four sacks a season ago. Overall, the Falcons need to increase their sack total, which stood at 32 last year.
Baltimore Ravens: Bernard Pierce or Ray Rice? Rice will miss the first two games due to suspension. This means that Pierce will get his chance to be the Ravens’ featured back early on. With 1,800 career touches under his belt and coming off a disastrous season that saw him average 3.1 yards per carry, there is no telling whether Rice will return to form. For his part, Pierce is also coming off a horrible year. He averaged just 2.9 yards per attempt in 2013. One of these players is going to have to step up in 2014 if the Ravens are going to have a shot at the playoffs.
Buffalo Bills: Is E.J. Manuel Ready to Take the Next Step? Buffalo has done everything in its power to build a strong offense around Manuel. From giving up a bounty to trade up for Sammy Watkins in the 2014 NFL draft to give the young quarterback a talented young target to adding Bryce Brown in a trade, Buffalo has built a strong group of skill-position players around Manuel. He also has a talented duo in the backfield with C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson. Even though Manuel is just entering his second season, he needs to improve by leaps and bounds from a his rookie campaign.
Carolina Panthers: Can Anyone Step up at Wide Receiver for Cam Newton? Steve Smith, Brandon LaFell and Ted Ginn combined for 149 receptions and 1,928 yards a season ago. All three are no longer with Carolina and will be replaced by a couple of veterans and a big-bodied rookie that may have issues gaining separation in the NFL. Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant are the two veteran additions, while first-round pick Kelvin Benjamin will be given a chance to start out of the gate. Their ability to make impacts in 2014 will help decide whether Carolina takes a step back in 2014.
Chicago Bears: Who is Ready to Make an Impact at Safety? Chris Conte and Major Wright were among the worst starting safeties in the NFL last season. The two combined to yield a 121.6 quarterback rating when targeted. That’s just not going to get it done. Free agent acquisition Ryan Mundy will take over for Wright at strong safety, while Conte is going to face stiff competition from rookie Brock Vereen at free safety. Chicago also added veterans MD Jennings and Adrian Wilson in free agency. Chicago needs its safety play to improve a great deal if it is going to compete with Green Bay in the NFC North.
Cincinnati Bengals: Will Andy Dalton Receive an Extension? Cincinnati is willing to give Dalton a contract extension in the range of what San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick received earlier this offseason. Whether this is a smart decision really isn’t the point. If that’s the deal on the table, Dalton should take it and be happy. Unfortunately, he wants more of a long-term commitment rather than a year-by-year prove it deal that Kaepernick received. If the two don’t come to an agreement on a long-term deal, 2014 could really be a make-or-break campaign for the quarterback in Cincinnati.
Cleveland Browns: Brian Hoyer or Johnny Manziel? Hoyer seems like the safer option here. Prior to tearing his ACL in early October, the Michigan State product was playing good football. In two complete games as a starter, Hoyer threw for 590 yards and five touchdowns, leading the Browns to wins in both games. The sexier pick is Johnny Football, who still has a lot to learn in order to be a viable starting quarterback in the NFL. Considering the Browns are going to be without proven and consistently healthy receiving options, it might end up making sense for them to go with the more dynamic player in Manziel at some point in the season.
Dallas Cowboys: Can the Offensive Line Dominate in Front of Tony Romo? A vast majority of the blame for Dallas’ mediocre performance over the past few seasons has been directed at Romo. As the quarterback continues to draw unfair criticism, the Cowboys have made sure to solidify their offensive line in front of him. They have spent first-round picks along the offensive line three times in the past five seasons, the most recent coming in the form of Zack Martin in the first round of the 2014 NFL draft. With left tackle Tyron Smith and center Travis Frederick among the best players at their positions in the NFL, the addition of Martin could help lead to a dominating performance from the offensive line. In the end, that could very well dictate whether Dallas wins the NFC East in 2014.
Denver Broncos: How will the Defense Mesh? The additions of DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib and T.J. Ward to what was a decent defense last season has led to renewed hope that Denver can come out of the AFC and actually compete with a NFC team in the Super Bowl. As is the case with every team that adds multiple players to a unit in one offseason, there is some concern that these additions may not mesh well with their new team. In Ware’s case, he is still playing a position (4-3 defensive end) that is new to him. It will be interesting to see how these three newcomers transition to life in Denver.
Detroit Lions: Will the Defense Live Up to its End of the Bargain? There is little doubt that Detroit’s offense is among the best in the NFL. Putting up Madden numbers is one thing, having it equate to success on the football field is a completely different thing. Despite ranking in the middle of the pack in terms of points allowed, Detroit’s defense still leaves a lot to be desired. Can Ziggy Ansah continue to make his presence known as a wide-nine defensive end? If so, will that help mask issues in the defensive secondary? Will there be any improvements from what was a mediocre linebacker group last year? These three things should go a long way in determining Detroit’s success as a unit in 2014.
Green Bay Packers: Fast-Paced Offensive Attack in 2014? With Eddie Lacy and Aaron Rodgers slated to be in the backfield together for an entire season, Green Bay is looking to make the most of this talent. Indications are that it plans to run a minimum of 75 plays per game in 2014. This will enable each of the Packers stars to get the touches they need in order to be utilized correctly. The only issue here is that it will also put more onus on a defense that has struggled a great deal in recent seasons.
Houston Texans: Is Jadeveon Clowney Ready to Make an Impact Early? The Texans are not going to contend for a playoff spot in 2014. Instead, it’s all going to be about building the team for the future. This is where Clowney, as the No. 1 overall prospect in the 2014 NFL draft, comes into play. How will his game translate to the NFL? Can he work well with the best defensive player in the NFL in the form of J.J. Watt? If so, Houston will boast the best defensive tandem in the league for a long time.
Indianapolis Colts: Who Will Start at Running Back? Simply because Indianapolis yielded a first-round pick for his services, Trent Richardson is the odds-on-favorite to break camp as the Colts starting running back. If we were to take into account previous production, both Vick Ballard and Ahmad Bradshaw would be considered the frontrunners here. Unfortunately, we can’t do that. Richardson averaged 2.9 yards per attempt after being traded from Cleveland to Indianapolis. Meanwhile, Bradshaw is averaging 4.6 yards per attempt throughout his NFL career. You do the math. In any event, quarterback Andrew Luck is going to need some balance on offense in order for the Colts to take the next step towards elite status in 2014.
Jacksonville Jaguars: How will Rookie Receivers Perform? With Justin Blackmon and Ace Sanders away from the team due to suspension, the Jaguars are going to have to rely on rookies Marqise Lee and Allen Robinson to produce immediately. Even when Sanders returns in Week 5, these two youngsters should play important roles in Jacksonville’s passing attack. Can they live up to their high billing or will they struggle like most rookie receivers? A lot of this will depend on whether Chad Henne succeeds under center with Blake Bortles likely getting a redshirt season as a rookie.
Kansas City Chiefs: Will Alex Smith Sign a New Contract? While not a huge deal for the 2014 season, this will be a black cloud over Kansas City’s training camp. With one year remaining on his deal and looking for $18 million annually, there is a chance that Smith could head into Week 1 without a long-term extension. If so, his future with the team will be up in the air as the Chiefs look to improve off what was a successful 2013 campaign.
Miami Dolphins: How Will the Running Back Situation Play Out? The signing of Knowshon Moreno in free agency was first thought to be the missing piece in what has been a horrendous rushing attack in Miami. Unfortunately, Moreno was recently placed on the active PUP (physically unable to perform list) after undergoing offseason knee surgery. With Moreno slated to come back at some point soon, the Dolphins are still in a questionable situation at running back. For a team that ranked 26th in the NFL in rushing yards last season, the Dolphins have talent at this position. Can Lamar Miller or Moreno be that guy behind Ryan Tannehill? If so, the Dolphins could challenge for a division title. If not, they will remain as mediocre as they have been over the past few seasons.
Minnesota Vikings: Is Teddy Bridgewater Ready to Beat out Matt Cassel? Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer confirmed Thursday that Cassell will begin camp as the team’s starting quarterback. That shouldn’t be too much of a surprise, as all signs have pointed in this direction since the Vikings selected Bridgewater in the first round of the NFL draft back in May. Minnesota will still get a chance to see how Bridgewater performs in live-game action during the preseason. If he impresses, much like most experts think he will, Zimmer and Co. will then have a decision to make. Cassel provides veteran leadership on a talented offense, while Bridgewater is that green rookie with unlimited potential. It should be interesting.
New England Patriots: When Will Rob Gronkowski Be Ready? Gronkowski has recently stated that he’s prepared to play a full 16-game schedule this season. It would be the first time since 2011 that the talented tight end has suited up for every game. While he remains optimistic, reality suggests that this is unlikely to happen. Gronkowski entered camp wearing a brace on his surgically repaired knee and a sleeve on his arm. He’s been hit with nearly every injury known to football over the past couple seasons and is now considered injury-plagued. If Gronkowski finds himself missing substantial action this year, it will impact Tom Brady’s ability to succeed through the air. If he returns to full health, the Patriots offense will be that much better.
New Orleans Saints: Who Will Step Up to replace Darren Sproles? After trading Sproles to the Philadelphia Eagles this past spring, New Orleans made it a point of emphasis to find another electric playmaker on the offensive side of the ball. Enter into the equation rookie first-round pick Brandin Cooks, who seems to fit the Saints offense to a T. If he can make an immediate impact as a possession guy, the Saints offense will continue to roll along. If not, it will be up to the likes of Kenny Stills, among others, to pick up their performances. Despite adding a nice amount of talent on defense, the Saints success will still depend heavily on how they perform through the air on offense. In this, someone needs to step up to replace Sproles’ production.
New York Giants: What Chris Snee’s Retirement Means? We saw how Eli Manning was impacted by losing Snee for all but three games last season. The two-time Super Bowl champion had the worst overall season of what has been a solid career. Now that Snee, who started 141 games in 10 seasons with the Giants, has called it quits, they need to find someone to fill in for the former Pro Bowler. John Jerry, Brandon Mosley and James Brewer are all in contention for the starting right guard spot. As the most experienced player of the trio, Jerry figures to get the first crack at the starting job. In any event, someone needs to fill the void that was left with Snee’s retirement.
New York Jets: Is Geno Smith the Unquestioned Starter? Smith was pretty bad throughout a vast majority of his rookie campaign, but he did step up to an extent towards the end of the year. The 2013 second-round pick put up a total of seven touchdowns compared to three interceptions in his final four games. That came on the heels of Smith tallying just 11 touchdowns compared to 18 interceptions in his first 12 starts. New York decided to add Michael Vick to the mix in free agency, but it’s readily apparent that he’s no longer the player he once was. Considering Vick received just four first-team reps on the first day of camp, it’s safe to say this job is Smith’s to lose.
Oakland Raiders: Is Derek Carr Ready? There can’t be too much confidence that Matt Schaub will be able to revert back to old form after struggling so much last season. Most of the skepticism has to do with the difficult schedule Oakland has to play in 2014, especially against both the NFC West and AFC West. You’re talking about nine games against teams that won 10-plus games right there. This is also a primary reason that the Raiders might want to hold Carr back as a rookie. Despite this, the organization seems really high on the young quarterback and he could make this competition, if you want to call it that, a bit more difficult as training camp progresses.
Philadelphia Eagles: Who Will Replace DeSean Jackson? In what was one of the most surprising moves of the NFL offseason, Philadelphia released Pro Bowl receiver DeSean Jackson due to a perceived rift with the team and head coach Chip Kelly. It then traded for all-everything COP back Darren Sproles while drafting both Jordan Matthews and Josh Huff in May. Veteran receiver Jeremy Maclin is also returning after missing the entire 2013 campaign with injury. While the loss of Jackson seems big at first glance, these “replacements” are more than capable of shouldering the load. Which one will step up? Now, that’s the larger question here.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Who Will Step Up Behind Antonio Brown? With Emmanuel Sanders gone and one year removed from the Mike Wallace “experiment,” the Steelers are now looking to find another receiver to step into a starting role. The candidates for this spot all have talent, but most of them don’t boast a track record of success in the NFL. Markus Wheaton, who has the inside shot at Pittsburgh’s No. 2 wide receiver slot, recorded just six receptions in limited playing time as a rookie. Veteran acquisition Lance Moore put up 346 career receptions in an eight-year career with the pass-happy Saints. It remains to be seen how his game will translate in his first season outside of New Orleans. Rookie fourth-round pick Martavis Bryant, at 6’4″ and 211, is the most physically imposing receiver on the roster. There is talent here, it just remains to be seen who will step up.
San Diego Chargers: What to Make of Ladarius Green? Antonio Gates is still an extremely productive tight end, but the Chargers need to find a way to get this youngster involved. Green put up 376 yards on just 17 receptions for a whopping 22.1 average in his second season. He’s a talented down-field threat that can help San Diego’s passing attack open up a little bit. After all, none of its receivers offer that type of success in terms of being a deep threat. Green in the seam with Gates lined up off-tackle has a great look to it. If San Diego can get the former fourth-round pick involved more, its offense is going to be much improved from a season ago.
San Francisco 49ers: Is Harbaugh Planning to Open Up the Offense? With the additions of Steve Johnson, Brandon Lloyd, Carlos Hyde and Bruce Ellington in the offseason, there is reason to believe San Francisco’s passing attack will be much improved from its 30th-ranked attack a season ago. Couple that with the return of a completely healthy Michael Crabtree and you have the makings for a dynamic offense. Considering that Anquan Boldin and Kyle Williams were the only two 49ers receivers to put up 300-plus snaps last season, this has to make Colin Kaepernick think he struck gold. It’s now up to the young quarterback to improve off what was an inconsistent 2013 campaign. The only way that’s going to be possible is if San Francisco decides to open up the offense and takes the handcuffs off Kaepernick. If it does, this offense could rank among the top five in the NFL.
Seattle Seahawks: How Long Will Marshawn Lynch Hold Out? Let’s come back to reality for a second here, shall we? If Lynch is out for an extended period of time during the regular season, Seattle’s offense will be impacted a great deal. It’s fine and dandy to project youngster Christine Michael to be a great running back in the future. It’s a completely different thing to believe he can replace Lynch’s production immediately. The 28-year-old Lynch wants more money and is willing to hold out to prove his importance to the team. Unfortunately for the talented running back, Seattle is unlikely to give him a new deal. With Russell Wilson, Bobby Wagner and others set for big paydays in the not-so-distant future, there is absolutely no reason for Seattle to give in here. It’s going to be an interesting few weeks in the Pacific Northwest.
St. Louis Rams: Is Sam Bradford Ready to Improve? It really doesn’t matter how much Jeff Fisher and Les Snead build up the roster, St. Louis isn’t going to be a serious contender in the NFC West until Bradford proves that he can be an above-average starter in the NFL. Up to this point, the former No. 1 overall pick simply hasn’t lived up to the hype. Despite playing pretty well last season prior to suffering a torn ACL in October, Bradford simply doesn’t possess the necessary confidence to go up against the Seattle Seahawks, San Francisco 49ers and Arizona Cardinals in the NFC West. This needs to change if the Rams are going to be taken seriously in 2014.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: How Will New Defensive Stars Mesh? Much like the Denver Broncos, Lovie Smith’s new defense will need to start meshing relatively early in the preseason. The additions of Michael Johnson and Alterraun Verner were big for this team. If they are able to live up to rather lofty expectations, Tampa Bay’s defense will be vastly improved from a season ago and the team will contend for the NFC South title.
Tennessee Titans: What to Make of Jake Locker? Locker, who is in the final year of his rookie deal, has started a total of 18 games in his first three NFL seasons. Injuries and inconsistent play have plagued him thus far in Tennessee. Despite a stat line that shows 26 overall touchdowns and just 15 interceptions, Locker simply hasn’t progressed as much as the Titans had hoped. Without much of a shot at earning a playoff spot this season, Tennessee’s focus will eventually turn to whether Locker is the long-term answer…creating a make-or-break campaign for the young signal caller.
Washington Redskins: Is Robert Griffin III Fully Recovered? All signs point to RGIII being fully recovered from an injury-plagued 2013 season. He’s also all smiles in Redskins camp, which shouldn’t be too much of a surprise if you know his personality. When healthy, this young quarterback is about as dynamic as they come. Now enter into the equation the addition of DeSean Jackson to an already talented skill-position group and there has to be optimism in D.C. right now. If RGIII is fully recovered and ready to return to 2012 form, Washington could easily earn a playoff trip after a one-season hiatus.
Photo: USA Today