The Biggest Storyline in Every NFL Team's OTAs so Far
I suppose we still have a long time until the NFL season gets underway, but that doesn't seem to be the case, does it?
The Super Bowl may have ended in early February, but between trades, free agency, all the Bountygate investigations and the draft, the NFL has been very much in the headlines every day since the calendar turned to 2012.
And OTAs only added to the ongoing drama of today's NFL offseason.
Although some may be bigger, juicier, sexier or more meaningful than others, every team had/has an intriguing storyline that hovered above their OTA during the past few weeks and will continue to do so over the next few days.
Baltimore Ravens: Replacing Terrell Suggs
Even if Terrell Suggs' claim that he'll be back in the lineup by November proves true (it won't) Baltimore will still miss him for a huge chunk of the regular season. And since he is the reigning AP and AFC Defensive Player of the Year, that absence will be as conspicuous as any, especially since Ray Lewis and Ed Reed are each another year older, and Jarret Johnson left town for San Diego.
So finding someone to fill Suggs' shoes is critical.
By some kind of remarkable break, the Ravens drafted Courtney Upshaw with their second-round selection in April, and he would seem to have the athleticism to fill the huge void. The rookie out of Alabama did show some promise at last week's OTA, according to the Baltimore Sun. Still, Upshaw is a rookie and the Ravens will expect a ton from him if he takes on Suggs' position.
If he can't do the job, Sergio Kindle will have a shot to earn the spot, but he too has not proven himself a worthy starter in that scheme; during OTAs he had his first chance to do so.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Adjusting to Todd Haley
Todd Haley is in the saddle as the team's play-caller, and the rest of the Steelers offense will have to adjust. Pittsburgh has not run the ball very effectively the past several years, and given what Haley was able to achieve in Kansas City back in 2010 (first in the NFL in rushing), he should provide Pittsburgh a major boost.
OTAs gave that makeshift offensive line and that makeshift collection of running backs the opportunity to apply his new system. Now, they'll have to take it a step further in minicamp.
On a side note, while Mike Wallace's absence is a big deal and has become a major storyline throughout the NFL, Haley's insertion into the Steelers family has far more wide-reaching implications.
Besides, the Steelers replaced Santonio Holmes fairly easily; they can do without Wallace...for now.
Cincinnati Bengals: Finding the Cornerback Combination
No team is deeper at cornerback than the Cincinnati Bengals. They have several proven names (Leon Hall, Nate Clements, Terence Newman, Jason Allen), a very promising rookie in Dre Kirkpatrick, as well as the athletically gifted Pacman Jones.
But along with all that talent comes some uncertainty about who will start, who will sit, who will play in nickel and dime packages, and who will be cut.
Kirkpatrick (groin) and Clements (abdominal strain) missed OTAs in May, setting them both back a step in the race for one of the starting jobs.
Hall, who would seem to have a starter's job locked down if healthy, has also not been cleared to participate because of the Achilles' injury he suffered last year.
So an already muddied situation has become even more murky since only a few of the principals are healthy enough to practice. This is one storyline that will definitely need a lot more time for resolution.
Cleveland Browns: Brandon Weeden vs. Colt McCoy
Ahh, the quarterback controversy. Such a staple of the NFL and specifically offseason practices.
As you'll see, this list is filled with such conundrums, but the first mentioned is the one taking place in Cleveland.
Both McCoy and Weeden have reasonable claims to the starter's job as well as weaknesses that make a case for the other guy.
Trading McCoy remains a serious option for the Browns. But for now, they have to keep him as insurance against Weeden, who may be 28 years old, but doesn't have any NFL experience and comes from a college system that tends to inflate statistics.
And don't forget, McCoy has a leg up on Weeden—this is his second year in Pat Shurmur's system.
Like most position battles, OTAs probably won't solve this question mark, but they will help the picture come a bit more into focus.
Houston Texans: Finding a Third Reciever
The Texans don't seem to have many weaknesses right now. They have two excellent running backs, one of the best receivers in the NFL in Andre Johnson, a very sturdy offensive line, and a defense that (despite losing its most high-profile player, Mario Williams) was one of the league's best last season.
Still, Gary Kubiak and Matt Schaub should be actively trying to find more options in the passing game.
Not only will opposing teams regularly double-team Andre Johnson, but the former third overall pick is about to turn 31 and has suffered through a string of injuries the last few years.
Finding another receiver to take pressure off him will be essential to the Texans' Super Bowl run. Maybe that's Kevin Walter, maybe it isn't. But after Walter—whose numbers have dipped the past few years—the Texans' options are very limited, especially since they cut Jacoby Jones.
Hoping he could fill that spot, DeVier Posey was selected in the third round, but he still has to earn the job ahead of Lestar Jean and fellow rookie Keshawn Martin. Through three OTA sessions, Posey has failed to do that.
Tennessee Titans: Matt Hasselbeck vs. Jake Locker
This is probably the most classic type of quarterback controversy: aging, established veteran (Hasselbeck) vs. more physically skilled youngster (Locker).
Coming off a near postseason berth in 2011, the Titans have playoff hopes this season and head coach Mike Munchak is certainly going to take his time with this decision.
So OTAs (which still aren't completely finished for the Titans) were never going to earn the job for either Hasselbeck or Locker.
Still, if Locker proves to have even a decent understanding of the offense and shows the coaching staff an ability to make all the right reads and adjustments, then it's probably his job to lose. They spent a (very surprising) high first-round pick on Locker, and his mobility will mask any protection issues the Titans have.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Maurice Jones-Drew's Contract Status
Even in an offseason where they made some much-needed upgrades, the Jaguars seem to be a mess.
That's a huge story that not enough people are talking about. Jones-Drew was the league's leading rusher and is a key player in Blaine Gabbert's development. Their star RB averaged 100 yards per game last year on a team that had almost no passing attack.
But the franchise refuses to pay him what he thinks he's worth. They have that right and maybe Jones-Drew should stick to his current contract obligations. But without him, they just might go from a pretty bad team to a bottom feeder.
Indianapolis Colts: Andrew Luck's Absence
Obviously, the Colts are starting all over, and even though there are any number of changes to point to (new GM, new head coach, new offensive and defensive coordinators, a number of new faces on the roster), one stands head and shoulders above the rest.
No one expects Andrew Luck to lead the Colts to a Super Bowl in his first year—they can't even realistically expect the Colts to be a .500 team in 2012. But they do expect him to be able to start on day one.
That was all the buzz about Luck for the past year or two; he was the most NFL-ready quarterback to come out of college since, well, Peyton Manning.
OTAs were the first real opportunity for Luck to validate all that hype, but he has not been able to attend while he finishes up classes at Stanford.
He'll join the team soon enough, but it would have been nice if the first post-Peyton Manning OTAs had Manning's heir apparent in uniform.
New England Patriots: Brian Waters' Return or Retirement
It might seem strange, considering all their depth at the skill positions and the contract issues relating to Wes Welker and Rob Gronkowski, to see a guard be the "biggest" storyline for the Patriots this offseason.
But Brian Waters was a key part of the offense last year, and he's not going to be so easily replaced if he decides to retire—especially since the Patriots' other guard, Logan Mankins, is coming off ACL surgery.
They've signed Robert Gallery as insurance for both guard spots, but given all Waters has achieved in his long career (six Pro Bowls) and the fact that New England's running game also lost their top rusher, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, to free agency, this question mark is one that would have been better addressed during OTAs, rather than minicamp, training camp or the preseason.
New York Jets: Tim Tebow's Role
Still, Tim Tebow's figure weighs much more heavily on the minds of the franchise, media and fans.
They are experimenting with him at other spots on the field, most notably special teams, but they have to be developing packages for him on offense as well. Maybe they're just gimmick plays or Wildcat-type formations, but throwing the ball has to be a wrinkle in those game plans. And the OTAs are a critical point in the process.
Further complicating things, he's been working as the backup quarterback behind Mark Sanchez. If he does develop into a consistent passer, it will make things much more difficult and tense all offseason.
Miami Dolphins: Matt Moore vs. David Garrard vs. Ryan Tannehill
Although the Jets' quarterback situation is much more high profile and a national story, the Dolphins' is arguably more complex.
They seem to have a past, present and future at the position, each embodied by a different player.
Garrard is the "past" and might not even make it to the preseason given his age and back issues.
Moore is the "present" after a solid 2011 and will earn $2.5 million this year.
And the physically gifted Ryan Tannehill is the "future," but considered an unrefined, raw talent.
OTAs haven't really done much to change those perceptions (unless you count Reggie Bush's NFL Total Access take, in which he says Tannehill is in the lead for job), but by the time the preseason schedule comes around, Joe Philbin will really need to start honing in on a starter.
Buffalo Bills: Mario Williams' Presence
The Bills have plenty of issues that need to be resolved if they are going to have hopes of unseating the Patriots for AFC East supremacy.
But the signing of Mario Williams seems to have infused so much life into the dormant franchise that those questions all take a back seat.
He's become something of a savior to a team (and specifically a defense) that needs a centerpiece and star.
His adaptation to Dave Wannstedt's scheme (and having to switch back to a 4-3 defensive end) is/was also a critical part of the team's offseason preparations, but more than anything else, his leadership and presence is what the Bills are looking to shine through as they build an identity.
Denver Broncos: Peyton Manning's Neck and Arm
It's great that Peyton Manning is throwing the ball as sharp as ever as many people seem to be insisting. That means that the year off hasn't hurt him and that his neck probably isn't bothering his throwing motion.
But the much bigger question is how he will react in games when he doesn't have the proverbial red jersey on and 300-pound defensive ends can actually tackle him.
Still, knocking off the rust was critical to validating the signing and the decision to unload Tim Tebow so closely to their improbable playoff run.
John Elway and John Fox have won half the battle already in some ways: OTAs proved that they didn't take on a bill of damaged goods with Manning's $96 million contract.
Kansas City Chiefs: Dwayne Bowe's Absence
He'll almost certainly sign his franchise tender, but that doesn't mean the Chiefs aren't missing Dwayne Bowe right now.
Although many of the pieces aren't new and Romeo Crennel was with the club all of last year, the Chiefs offense is in a real transition right now.
Not only do they have a new tackle in Eric Winston and a new running back in Peyton Hillis, but Jamaal Charles and Tony Moeaki are returning from major injuries. Matt Cassel is coming off an injury-plagued and poor season that led to questions about whether he has what it takes to be a franchise quarterback.
That's why having Bowe in uniform and on the field would have infused at least some certainty and consistency into the Chiefs' offensive sets during OTAs. But he was absent—a pretty noticeable hole in their passing-game preparations.
San Diego Chargers: Robert Meachem Replacing Vincent Jackson
Vincent Jackson wasn't necessarily one of the NFL's top three or five wide receivers, but he was a huge target for Philip Rivers and a great source of relief while Antonio Gates' injuries piled up.
Now he's gone to Tampa Bay.
The Chargers have tried to fill his hole with several options, including Eddie Royal, Roscoe Parrish and Micheal Spurlock, but obviously, the player expected to do the heavy lifting will be Meachem.
He doesn't have Jackson's size and came from a scheme that was about as receiver-friendly as any in the NFL, but he does have a track record for making big plays.
If that potential translates on the field this spring (and Gates is able to stay healthy), the Charger passing game should be as strong as ever, even with the loss of Jackson.
Oakland Raiders: Darren McFadden's Health
Despite all the changes to the coaching staff, the trade for Carson Palmer, and the promising depth at wide receiver, the Raiders' bread and butter should be their running game.
When healthy, Darren McFadden has proven to be as explosive and powerful as any back in the league. Of course, that's the issue: he's been unable to stay healthy.
Last year was a prime example. Through six games, he was averaging over 100 yards a game and the Raiders were 4-2 and in position for a playoff spot. He went down with that Lisfranc injury, and the Raiders tumbled out of the playoff race.
Reports out of the Bay Area have him in peak health, and at OTAs, he impressed the reporters in attendance. So that does sound very, very promising. But it has to last well past May and June for the Raiders to snap their long playoff drought.
Green Bay Packers: Clay Matthews' Move to the Right Side
A good chunk of the Packers' defensive woes in 2011 can be attributed to a lack of a pass rush. Spending their top pick on USC's Nick Perry should provide a boost.
But rather than fitting Perry to the scheme, Dom Capers and crew have decided to fit the scheme to Perry. And as a result, they've opted to move Clay Matthews over to the right side and insert Perry into Matthews' old spot on the left.
That's pretty surprising considering how big of a star Matthews is and how productive he has been over the past few years.
So given how dominant their offense is and how much talent they have in the secondary, Matthews' adjustment to the right will be a major storyline throughout 2012.
It's probably not as big of a deal as people have made it. In the 3-4, the left/right responsibilities aren't nearly as different as they are in a 4-3. And in the end, Matthews' role as a pass-rush specialist will still be virtually the same. But it's newsworthy that the Packers, just two years off their Super Bowl win, would move one of their stars to accommodate a rookie.
Detroit Lions: Off-the-Field Problems
Between Nick Fairley's two arrests, Mikel Leshoure's two arrests and the fight that broke out between Titus Young and Louis Delmas, the young Lions have caused a number of headaches for the front office.
These off-the-field issues may not seem to have an impact on what took place between the lines at the OTAs, but thinking it through, they might.
Fairley and Leshoure very well could endure suspensions for their legal troubles, and OTAs were critical in finding short- (and maybe even long-) term replacements for those two.
And don't discount the impact all those recent arrests and disciplinary problems had on head coach Jim Schwartz. I'll bet he put them on notice that they cannot afford even one more slip-up.
Chicago Bears: Matt Forte's Absence
Like Dwayne Bowe, Matt Forte didn't attend OTAs. And like Dwayne Bowe, that absence is very, very troublesome.
Right now, the two sides aren't close to a resolution. Ultimately, he really doesn't have many options, and it's a good bet that he'll sign at some point in the next few months. But it's in both sides' interest to figure it out much sooner.
The Bears may have signed Michael Bush, but he was meant to be a complementary player, not the feature back. Forte is so versatile and such a valuable asset to Chicago's passing game that his absence from thus far limits what Jay Cutler, Brandon Marshall and the rest of the offense can do in Mike Tice's new system.
Minnesota Vikings: Filling Adrian Peterson's Shoes
I don't care what is being said about Adrian Peterson and his possible return to the field well before people would have thought back in January when he torn up knee.
Maybe he will be on the field in Week 1, maybe he won't, but the likelihood of AP actually being anywhere near the AP we've seen of years past is minimal.
Either way, it will be critical to find someone to step up and take some, if not a huge chunk, of his carries.
Most people expect that to be Toby Gerhart, and given his build, that's a strong possibility. But after Gerhart, they seem to be woefully thin when it comes to experience in the backfield.
During the first wave of OTAs, Jordan Todman, the former Charger, made his play for that third (or maybe second, depending on Peterson's health) string spot. He'll have a few more opportunities to do so during this week's final set of OTAs.
New Orleans Saints: Drew Brees' Absence
Bountygate is behind them, and nothing can be done about it now.
All the Saints can do is move forward with Joe Vitt and all those linebackers they signed to replace Jonathan Vilma.
But moving forward is going to be extremely difficult, if not impossible, without Drew Brees, clearly the cornerstone of the now-perennial Super Bowl contenders.
It seems like the two sides are a bit closer than they were several months ago, but the bottom line is that Brees wasn't at last month's OTAs and doesn't figure to be at the last few this week.
Brees' experience and leadership affects nearly every aspect of the offense, and without him, the Saints offense can't be getting much out of their practices.
Considering all the turmoil this franchise has endured this spring, Brees' absence exacerbates an already terrible situation.
Atlanta Falcons: Installing Two New Schemes
Replacing one coordinator is hard enough. Replacing two? That's almost unheard of.
Mike Nolan brings to Atlanta a track record of excellent defenses, and he should have success installing his system; there was already a good amount of talent on that unit before adding Asante Samuel.
Nolan's counterpart, Dick Koetter, has even more talent on the offensive side of the ball, so his job is a bit easier, but with all that talent comes enhanced expectations.
And while it's critical that the players adjust to both coaches' new schemes, it's just as important that Koetter and Nolan adjust to Mike Smith and vice-versa.
Koetter and Smith were on the same staff in Jacksonville for one year, but they didn't really work together. And Nolan and Smith may have been on the same defensive staff in Baltimore in 2002, but back then, Nolan was Smith's boss. Now, it's the other way around.
Last month's OTAs gave those three a chance to become acclimated with each other, and this week's last set of OTAs will let them develop a little more coaching chemistry.
Carolina Panthers: The Health of Jeff Otah
Cam Newton may be Superman, but he still needs protection, and the Panthers' offensive line would benefit greatly from the return of former first-round pick Jeff Otah.
Otah has missed virtually all of the last two seasons and even came into spring a bit overweight, but he had recovered enough to see OTA action last month.
Unfortunately, according to reports out of Charlotte, his knee became a problem, and he was held out of the remaining portion of the team's OTAs.
That further opens the door for Byron Bell to take his place, especially if Otah misses any more time during the minicamps that start this week.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Doug Martin vs. LeGarrette Blount
Unlike a quarterback controversy, a running back "controversy" isn't always a bad thing. Depth is a great asset, and two running backs can be on the field at the same time or work on a rotation basis.
Still, both backs want to be "the guy," and that's probably how Martin and Blount approached OTAs and will continue approach the rest of the offseason.
New head coach Greg Schiano was singing Martin's praises earlier this month, but he also has to be intrigued by Blount, who possess incredible size and a real knack for open-field runs.
Right now, since both backs are so young and still pretty raw, it's hard to say that there's a front-runner. Blount may be the incumbent and has some impressive film, but the Bucs traded up to get Martin and will be looking to run the ball to take pressure off their young QB Josh Freeman.
New York Giants: Hakeem Nicks' Injury
Hakeem Nicks' broken foot came at a terrible time considering Mario Manningham's recent departure for San Francisco.
Of course, the Giants' wide receiving corps isn't depleted now that Manningham is gone and Nicks is injured, they still have the dynamic Victor Cruz. More importantly, Nicks is adamant that he'll be ready to return by Week 1.
But in the meantime, the Giants have to find a suitable replacement, even if it's just for the preseason.
Fortunately, they have plenty who spent OTAs making their case.
Ramses Barden, Domenik Hixon, Jerrel Jernigan and rookie Rueben Randle, all have great physical talent but seem to lack refinement as pass-catchers and route-runners. Kevin Gilbride and Tom Coughlin will continue to pay very close attention to their performances once minicamp begins this week.
Philadelphia Eagles: The Buzz over Michael Vick
Virtually all of the entries on this list have been to point out question marks or even possible disasters on the horizon for the 2012 season.
Here's one that''s very, very promising, and something Eagles fans have to be excited to hear.
According to reports, Vick has rededicated himself and worked harder than ever this offseason.
Improving his accuracy has been one of his chief goals, and OTAs were his first opportunity to show off that newfound skill.
Vick's athleticism and arm strength both rank right up there among the league's elite, but his inability to throw into tight windows has cost his teams. So, if he has in fact become much more accurate, he becomes an even greater threat to defenses across the NFL.
Dallas Cowboys: Mike Jenkins' Unhappiness
The Cowboys revamped their secondary big time this offseason.
They let Terence Newman go, they signed Brandon Carr and they drafted Morris Claiborne.
That seems to make the odd man out in Big D Mike Jenkins, who didn't report to OTAs but is expected to do so at training camp despite a shoulder injury.
But keep in mind that Claiborne, the LSU corner Dallas traded up to take sixth overall, hasn't yet been able to practice because of a wrist surgery. So not only did he miss OTAs, but he will likely miss minicamp.
That absence could slow down his development and limit his preseason action. If that's the case, Dallas may have no choice but to hang onto Jenkins, who has essentially demanded a trade.
Ironically enough, because of Claiborne's injury, Jenkins somehow becomes more valuable to the Cowboys.
Washington Redskins: Robert Griffin III's Presence
Perhaps, even more so than Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III carries an incredible burden on his shoulders right now—especially since he was able to attend OTAs while Luck wasn't.
Griffin is already being deemed the savior of the franchise, and according to several reports, is wowing people with his arm strength.
Everyone knew about RG3's athleticism and thought that his passing skills would eventually become top notch, but the fact that he's already sporting a big-league arm is one of the more intriguing OTA storylines in the league.
We all saw what Cam Newton was capable of achieving last year with basically zero offseason preparations. If Griffin has a full offseason (and boasts similar skills as a runner and passer), his potential might be limitless.
San Francisco 49ers: Randy Moss' Return
Although the 49ers have made a handful of changes and the whole flirtation with Peyton Manning (and the fallout relating to Alex Smith) remains an issue, this is probably the top storyline.
And here's why.
Randy Moss' career was over. He was put on the trash heap and blasted for not really living up to his full potential. Sure, he was an All-Pro, a record-setter and probably a Hall of Famer. But the whole "play when I want to" attitude coupled with how quickly his 2010 season fizzled out in Tennessee became a real stain on his legacy.
Now, he's back, in San Francisco, and Jim Harbaugh seemingly can't say enough good stuff about Moss and his work ethic.
That translated to a very solid, if not spectacular, series of OTAs.
And if Moss can provide the 49ers with another receiving threat to complement Vernon Davis and spark something more out of Michael Crabtree, then they will have a fantastic offense in 2012.
Arizona Cardinals: Kevin Kolb's Job Security
At the end of one of his team's OTA sessions last month, Cardinals head coach Ken Whisenhunt made what many people thought was a fairly surprising statement.
"I want Kevin [Kolb] to be successful. I want him to be our quarterback," he told reporters.
But why shouldn't he "root" for Kolb? The team traded a good player (Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie) and a second-round pick to get him, then the franchise gave him a huge contract.
Still, Whisenhunt isn't going to just blindly hand Kolb the job. Proof of that is the fact that John Skelton was given a legitimate shot to earn the starter's gig during this offseason.
That competition began at OTAs and will continue on throughout the summer.
Seattle Seahawks: Matt Flynn vs. Russell Wilson vs. Tarvaris Jackson
Although the Dolphins' three-way quarterback battle comes a close second, the one in Seattle is tops when it comes to complexity.
Tarvaris Jackson was seemingly the odd man out in Seattle after the team signed Matt Flynn to a big free-agent contract then spent a third-round choice on the very likable Russell Wilson.
But Jackson reportedly has the inside track on the job after OTAs. As head coach Pete Carroll pointed out, Jackson has more familiarity with the offense and far more experience than either of his competitors. But because his contract is up after 2012 and both Wilson and Flynn seem to have higher ceilings, everyone just assumes Jackson will be traded or cut.
This was one case where, because Jackson looked solid and the two new quarterbacks looked like, well, new quarterbacks, OTAs only made a tough situation even tougher.
St. Louis Rams: Securing the Offensive Line
From top to bottom, the Rams have been through more changes than any other franchise in the NFL (other than the Colts, of course) this offseason, so it's only natural that there are several areas that will need time to develop.
By far, the most pressing area of concern for Jeff Fisher and his staff is offensive line.
They made a huge addition by signing former Packer starter Scott Wells, who was unable to practice the final few days of OTAs with some sort of mysterious injury, and even added some depth via former Chief Barry Richardson—a two-year starter in Kansas City.
They also still have Jason Smith, the former second overall selection. And while he hasn't exactly wowed anyone with his play this spring, he will be given every shot to earn the right tackle job.
Protecting Sam Bradford, who has taken a beating in his two seasons on the job, is clearly vital to the Rams' recovery, and while the OTAs did nothing to instill much confidence in his safety, Fisher and offensive line coach Paul Boudreau have to start somewhere.