Every NFL Team's Greatest Mystery Heading into Training Camp
Heading into training camp, there are still unsolved mysteries for every team in the NFL.
For some teams, such as those that still have not determined their starting quarterbacks, those questions have the potential to change the way an entire offense is run.
For other teams, the big mysteries they face are more rhetorical, but no less important to the team’s success.
So what are the greatest mysteries still waiting to be unraveled as teams head into training camp? Keep reading to find out.
Arizona Cardinals—Is the Starting Quarterback Spot Really Up for Grabs?
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After a failed attempt to lure the great Peyton Manning to Arizona to clean up the quarterback mess that has unraveled in the last year, Ken Whisenhunt has a big decision ahead of him: Who will start under center for the Cardinals?
Statistically speaking, Kevin Kolb was the better quarterback during the 2011 campaign despite his abysmal win/loss record. That’s not to say that he excelled in any particular measurable category, but that he performed better from that perspective than his competition.
John Skelton, the underdog that it seems most fans at least are rooting for, had more of a Tim Tebow-esque performance. By the numbers his play at quarterback was lesser than Kolb’s, yet Skelton was on the field for six of the team’s eight wins.
Skelton’s clutch performance as a surprise starter isn’t a one-and-done phenomenon, either. During the 2010 season, Skelton started four late-season games and came away with a 2-2 record to end a season that the Cardinals started at just 3-9.
The Cardinals are financially invested in Kolb much more heavily than they are in Skelton, and heading into training camp at least it appears that Kolb looks more like an NFL starting quarterback. Despite that, Coach Whisenhunt continues to insist that the starting spot is open for whichever man can step up and take it. He still has both quarterbacks splitting snaps with the starting unit.
If this really is an open competition and not just precautionary measures to develop Skelton in case Kolb falls to injury again, this could be an interesting battle to watch.
Atlanta Falcons—How Much Shakeup Will There Be on the O- and D-Lines?
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When asked what he believes the top training camp stories will be, head coach Mike Smith of the Atlanta Falcons indicated that it would be the potential upheaval along the offensive and defensive lines.
You have to believe that Smith knows what he’s talking about.
There is a lot of positional depth on the Falcons' roster on both the offensive and defensive lines, and while there has already been an opportunity to make impressions during the OTAs and minicamps, there’s still room for things to change once the pads are put on.
Baltimore Ravens—How Long Will Ray Rice Hold Out?
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It is hard to argue that running back Ray Rice is the heart and soul of the current Baltimore Ravens' offense, but there remains a gap between what Rice believes he is worth and what the Ravens are willing to pay him.
Of course, the most recent example of a stellar running back holding out for a big payday would be when Chris Johnson ultimately received a four-year, $53 million contract extension—and then immediately dropped off in terms of production.
There is a much smaller chance of that happening with Rice, though. He is a vital component of the Ravens' passing attack, a trait that Johnson doesn’t necessarily share. Rice has been nothing but consistent for the Ravens' offense, ranking in the top three in total yards from scrimmage over the past three years (and first last year).
Until the two sides can see eye to eye, Rice will hold out from team activities in an act that has become commonplace among running backs whose contracts are up for renewal. He has not signed the franchise offer and therefore does not face any discipline for bowing out of mandatory team activities.
Right now, nobody on either side seems too concerned that Rice will miss significant playing time, but dragging out the negotiation process increases the danger of that happening.
Buffalo Bills—How Can Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller Co-Exist?
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The 2011 Buffalo Bills were decimated by injury on both sides of the ball. As injured players return, the defense is starting to look sound, which leaves the bigger mystery shaping up on offense.
Last season, C.J. Spiller—a former first round draft pick who had thus far failed to produce—was given one last opportunity to silence his critics when starter Fred Jackson broke his leg. He grabbed the chance and ran with it, rushing for 446 yards and four touchdowns (plus two receiving).
Now that Fred Jackson, who was one of the most productive running backs in the league prior to his injury, is back in football shape, Spiller may once again be relegated to the backfield despite his breakout performance last season.
Prior to this, Spiller has been without question the lesser running back on the Buffalo roster, assuming only a fraction of the carries that Jackson received and earning his keep by filling in on special teams and lining up at other positions on the field.
Now that he has proved himself as a future running back for the franchise, Spiller will be eager to see more action on the field.
At the same time, while Jackson is fast approaching the twilight of his career, there is no indication that he has slowed down yet.
Whether it comes down to splitting the touches almost equally or featuring both running backs on the field at the same time, the Bills will need to find a way to juggle two players who could individually shoulder the starting load. There are certainly worse problems that the Bills could face
Carolina Panthers—Can Home Grown Talent Round out the Offense?
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The Carolina Panthers have a great quarterback in Cam Newton and an outstanding starting receiver option in veteran Steve Smith. It takes more than that to make an offense dangerous, though, and there is a definite lack of big-name talent in the Panthers wide receiver corps.
They have opted not to go with Plaxico Burress, who recently made his wish to join the Panthers public knowledge. Neither does it appear that they will go with another veteran free agent as their second starter.
Instead, they have named Brandon LaFell their No. 2 guy and penciled David Gettis down in the No. 3 slot.
We could yet see something of a training camp battle between Gettis and LaFell for that second starting slot, but regardless of who takes it, they will both be vitally important to the success of the team.
If Gettis is able to meet or exceed his rookie year production and LaFell can build upon the success that he found last season, they could combine with the ever-threatening Steve Smith to become exactly the wide receiving weapons that Cam Newton needs to help the Panthers win.
Chicago Bears—How WIll a Matt Forte Hold out Impact the Offense?
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Like Ray Rice, Matt Forte was slapped with a franchise tag offer instead of the big contract extension that he felt he deserved—and like Ray Rice, Matt Forte has yet to either receive a suitable offer or to sign the franchise tender.
Unlike Ray Rice, however, Forte does not appear to be close to reaching an agreement with the Bears.
This situation has all of the makings of a holdout that could extend into the regular season if the two sides cannot come to some sort of compromise, and quickly.
Not only would this leave the Bears without one of their best offensive players, but also it has the potential to impact the morale of the rest of the offense in training camp and beyond.
After all, after the debacle that was the end of the 2011 season, it seems clear that the Chicago offense needs both its ground and aerial attack. Without a running game to compliment the passing game, how well can the Bears compete—even with the improvements that they have made at the wide receiver position over the offseason?
Cincinnati Bengals—Can They Make a Running Back by Committee Approach Work?
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Now that the Cincinnati Bengals have parted ways with former starting running back Cedric Benson and gone forward yet another step in their offensive makeover, they have adopted what appears to be more of a running-back-by-committee approach.
Spearheaded by BenJarvus Green-Ellis as the bruiser and Bernard Scott as the third-down back, the committee approach will probably balloon to include Brian Leonard as a tertiary option.
Whether two or three running backs can replace the production that Cedric Benson achieved—even if that production did drop notably over the last few years—remains to be seen. We’ll have our first look in training camp.
Cleveland Browns—Can Brandon Weeden Handle the Starting Job?
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There is a lot of optimism in Cleveland as Brandon Weeden, this year’s 22nd overall draft pick, continues to show that he has the potential to be a franchise quarterback, but will 2012 be the start of that reign?
After the failed Colt McCoy experiment in 2011, it is easy to jump onto Weeden’s bandwagon as the better option. He has certainly looked like the better quarterback during the first few rounds of team activities.
Still, the Browns have not officially named him their starting quarterback. There is no indication of when they might ultimately make the decision of who their starter will be.
As much promise as Weeden has shown, and as mature as he has proved himself to be, he faces many of the same struggles as all rookie quarterbacks. He must learn a new system well enough to lead an entire offense, and he must be close to flawless in his personal execution.
Most quarterbacks struggle to accomplish those tall tasks in their first season. Colt McCoy did. Weeden, despite the benefit of maturity and a proven track record of tenacity in the face of adversity, might as well.
It seems almost inevitable that Weeden will ultimately win the starting job, relegating McCoy to the No. 2 slot. Whether he can excel in his first year as notable others like Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco, and Mark Sanchez have done before him is a question that will have more answers once we see how Weeden handles the added pressure of training camp.
Dallas Cowboys—Can the Cowboys Offensive Line Protect Tony Romo?
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Going into the offseason, there were two areas where the Cowboys were in desperate need of a makeover.
The team spent the offseason making defensive changes to both the coaching staff and the players, clearing house of many players who had not found a way to thrive in Dallas.
Their secondary will have a completely different look and feel in 2012, and while the jury is out on how that will work out for them, there is at least a lot of progress and change in the works. At the same time, however, many of the positional battles are all but resolved heading into training camp. There’s not a lot of mystery there.
The more interesting battles will be fought along the Cowboys' offensive line, where in some cases there will be as many as three or four prospects competing for potential starting roles at the same position.
The Cowboys weren’t exactly the worst offensive line in the league last year, but they didn’t do an adequate job of protecting Tony Romo, either. The team has acquired free-agent guards from the Bengals and the Panthers, as well as several undrafted free agents.
From that mix of veteran and rookie talent, surely the Cowboys will be able to field an offensive line that is a better overall unit than fans saw in 2011.
Denver Broncos—Can Peyton Manning Regain and Maintain His Former Peak?
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This mystery that the Denver Broncos face is perhaps the most obvious of all of the teams in the NFL: Is Peyton Manning capable of reaching his former level of performance and staying there for the whole season?
The Broncos have invested a substantial amount in the gamble that Peyton Manning will be not only ready to play when the season starts, but also capable of playing out the entire year with consistent performance. Broncos fans will doubtless be holding their breaths each time Manning gets brought down by an opposing defense.
Before even reaching that point of consideration, though, Manning will have to demonstrate that he has progressed far enough in his rehabilitation and in shaking out the cobwebs of a year off to take the field at all.
Training camp will be his first real opportunity to show everyone—including, perhaps, himself—how much progress he has made.
Detroit Lions—What Do They Do with Riley Reiff?
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The way things are shaping up at practice, it seems more and more likely that Riley Reiff will command a starting spot on the Detroit Lions roster. He has really turned heads so far, and if he’s as good with pads as he is without them, he will be a versatile tool for the Lions' offensive line.
He looks primed to unseat either Gosder Cherilus or Jeff Backus if the coaching staff does decide to open the positions for competition. Reiff has practiced so far at both tackle positions, and according to general manager Martin Mayhew, he might see some time at guard.
While Cherilus would be the more appropriate choice for Reiff to replace, it is worth considering that Cherilus has a guaranteed salary that the Lions will pay regardless of whether he plays or sits.
Regardless of what the coaching staff decides to do with Reiff to start the 2012 season, it is clear that the Lions have picked up an offensive linesman who will make an impact for years to come.
Green Bay Packers—Who Will Replace Nick Collins?
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The Green Bay Packers fielded the worst-ranked defense in the NFL last season, which leaves plenty of room for improvement from the whole squad.
Right now, however, the position of most importance is the one that was permanently vacated last year by Nick Collins: safety.
Although Collins has been cleared to play, the Packers ultimately parted ways with him in the offseason rather than risk putting him back on the field. This leaves a hole in the defense that was all too obvious in 2011 waiting to be filled.
At least the Packers have some options to consider. There has been some talk of using aging veteran Charles Woodson at safety a bit more. Charlie Peprah was adequate—but not great—at holding the position last season, although he has thus far been held out of team activities due to a minor knee surgery.
Then there are the two wild cards: fourth-round pick Jerron McMillian and second-year pro M.D. Jennings.
Jennings has been taking snaps with the first team in Peprah’s absence, displaying a marked improvement in his skills. This is shaping up to be a three-way competition, even removing Charles Woodson from the equation.
Houston Texans—Who Will Step Up to Replace Mario Williams?
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The Houston Texans finished second in all-around defense in 2011 despite losing perhaps their best defensive starter to injury in Week 5.
This offseason, they parted ways with Mario Williams for good.
It seemed last season that the defense was able to perform almost better as a unit without Mario Williams than they did with him, thanks in large part to the emergence of linebacker Brooks Reed and the defensive scheme implemented by Wade Phillips.
In addition to Reed, the Texans also drafted Whitney Mercilus, presumably to help replace Williams. Mercilus or one of the more veteran defensive ends will have some big shoes to fill, but a solid training camp could go a long way towards easing fans’ minds that parting ways with Williams was the best thing for the Texans as a team.
Indianapolis Colts—Can Andrew Luck Turn Things Around for the Colts Immediately?
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The new face of the Indianapolis Colts franchise, Andrew Luck faces sky-high expectations in his first year as the starting quarterback.
He may have missed most OTA time thanks to the quarter schedule that Stanford follows, but based on what he has shown so far at minicamp, Colts fans have a lot to look forward to as Luck grows into his role as a team leader.
At the same time, it is worth remember that a young quarterback leading an offensive squad that has parted ways with many of their former starters is bound to have his share of rough games and rookie mistakes.
The true first test will come in training camp. Luck is still trying to get past the huge learning curve that comes with assuming the starting role right away.
At least now that school is finished, he will be able to devote himself entirely to immersion in the NFL. Hopefully that will be enough to help prevent a disappointing bumpy start to his NFL career.
Jacksonville Jaguars—What Is Going on with Justin Blackmon?
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The Jacksonville Jaguars have a potential offensive weapon to deploy this season in Justin Blackmon, but there are plenty of questions about how they will use him.
Setting Blackmon up to run mostly short and medium routes instead of using him to stretch the field vertically seems to be one possible direction where he can be used effectively, which would allow him some time to click with quarterback Blaine Gabbert.
Putting him in that position would potentially turn him into a safety blanket of sorts for the struggling young quarterback, which could give both Gabbert and Blackmon a big confidence boost particularly early in the season.
It is worth noting that there are also some major behavioral and character concerns surrounding Blackmon, not the least of which is his recent DUI arrest. If Blackmon cannot keep his personal life clean, he will find himself facing not only possible legal repercussions, but also potential disciplinary action from the NFL.
Kansas City Chiefs—How Well Can Peyton Hillis Commit to His New Team?
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The Kansas City Chiefs already have an outstanding running back in Jamaal Charles, even if his 2011 season did end abruptly in the second week due to an ACL injury.
That injury was perhaps a nightmare come true for the Chiefs, who lost their most productive running back. For the remainder of the season, Kansas City was able to average just 3.9 yards per carry on the ground.
Jamaal Charles is back now, though, and the Chiefs have covered their bases by signing Peyton Hillis to share touches and essentially back him up. Hillis will replace the aging Thomas Jones as the second part of a running back by committee approach.
The pair’s talents should complement one another fairly well provided that they can make this situation work.
Hillis has seen the quality of his running game decline since one outstanding season in Cleveland in 2010, so in theory he should be grateful to share the running duties and relieve some of the pressure.
After the drama that Hillis left behind in Cleveland, this new setup could either turn into a chance at a new start or could become more of the same. Hopefully, he will be content to play the role that the Chiefs have brought him in to do and will not resort to many of the antics that plagued his final season with the Browns.
Miami Dolphins—Who Will Step Up to Assume a Leadership Role at Wide Receiver?
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The Miami Dolphins traded their top wide receiver, Brandon Marshall, away in order to free up some salary cap room to bid for Peyton Manning’s services. As it turned out, that gamble cost the Dolphins their top wide receiver and left the team without an outstanding quarterback option.
The quarterback battle seems to be up in the air between David Garrard, Matt Moore and Ryan Tannehill, with Gabbert in the lead heading into training camp.
The man who starts under center is a moot point, however, without a capable corps of wide receiving options to throw to.
Chad Ochocinco has been brought on board after a quiet year with the New England Patriots, but he is hardly the up-and-coming No. 1 option the Dolphins sorely need.
Currently, that title tentatively belongs to Davone Bess or Brian Hartline, a pair of young wide receivers who have been the most productive of the receivers remaining on the roster. One of them will have to step up and separate himself from the rest during training camp in order to compete for a starting position.
Otherwise, there is a very real possibility that the Dolphins will need to turn to free agency or maybe even a trade to bring in someone with the leadership qualities and physical talent that the team sorely needs.
Minnesota Vikings—Can the Vikings Improve Their Secondary Enough to Compete?
As training camp looms closer, most eyes in Minnesota are on Adrian Peterson and the timeline for his return to the field. That is a relevant and hugely important issue, but not one that will be answered by training camp.
The real mystery that could see some answers in the next few weeks is what, exactly, is going on with the Vikings' secondary.
There is no outstanding talent to contend for starting positions at safety. The Vikings traded up in the draft to acquire Harrison Smith, a player who has the potential to be a team leader and difference-maker someday. Someday probably won’t be in 2012, though, which leaves the Vikings in a precarious position.
From a cornerback perspective, the seemingly timeless Antoine Winfield is starting to show his age. He will see limited reps in training camp, and it seems that the Vikings are still keeping their eyes open for a viable replacement since there are currently nine cornerbacks on their roster.
One positional group that did see some love after an abysmal 2011 season was the linebacker corps—with the notable exception of middle linebacker.
With no contract yet, E.J. Henderson looks like he is as good as gone. Jasper Brinkley, the presumed replacement, is a relative unknown with just a handful of starts under his belt. What we do know is that Brinkley is injury-prone and that he is still hurting, which could spell big trouble for a team with little depth at middle linebacker.
With all of those question marks, it is difficult to believe that the Vikings will be able to compete in their pass-happy division without finding some solid answers in training camp.
New England Patriots—Can the Secondary Bounce Back from a Poor 2011 Performance?
In 2011, the New England Patriots were saved from having the worst defense in the league by the even poorer performance of the Green Bay Packers' secondary.
The safety position was a key missing link last season, so if the Patriots can settle things down there, that should be an immediate help.
Solid, consistent play from Patrick Chung will be an important element to the overall success of the Patriots' pass defense this season, but at least one other player will need to take this opportunity to stand out.
The Pats should also be assisted by improved play at cornerback from a now-healthy Devin McCourty. If he is able to return to the form he demonstrated during his rookie year, his knack for intercepting the ball and making plays downfield will help transform the Patriots' secondary into a force to be feared.
New Orleans Saints—Is It Possible for the Saints to Overcome Distractions?
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The existence of the New Orleans Saints' bounty program is now common knowledge, as are the suspensions that were handed down to four players—two of whom still play for the Saints. The team is also without head coach Sean Payton for the entire 2012 season.
There’s also the little problem of the Offensive Player of the Year, Drew Brees, and his contract situation. Certainly both sides want that mess to be wrapped up as soon as possible, but the movement forward has been impossibly slow.
Any one of these problems could perhaps be overcome, but the combination of them affects the team on both offense and defense. The assumption is that Brees will be back, whether with a new long-term deal or under the franchise tag. But without a signed deal, there is always a chance, however remote, that things may fall apart.
The coaching situation and juggling defensive suspensions won’t be as easy to put aside, though. The Saints will have to hope that a solid training camp and (hopefully) the return of Drew Brees will be enough to send the team into the preseason with some semblance of a solid plan.
New York Giants—Can the Run Game Continue Its Playoff Renaissance?
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After fielding an outstanding running game in 2010, the New York Giants were able to scrape out an average of just 3.5 yards per carry in 2011—the lowest in the NFL.
The resurgence of their rushing game in the playoffs was a big contributing factor to their success as a team. In 2012, continuing to have an effective ground presence will be crucial to the success of the offense.
The face of the running game has changed, though. Brandon Jacobs is gone, which leaves Ahmad Bradshaw and first-round draft choice David Wilson to make up for his absence.
When he is healthy, Bradshaw can be a force to be reckoned with on the ground. Wilson is a promising young back who has the potential to provide an agility that the New York ground game has been missing.
Whether this pair can combine to lift the Giants' running game back into the top half of the NFL in the regular season remains to be seen, but we should have a better idea of how well these two complement each other in training camp.
New York Jets—How Can Tim Tebow Be an Effective Tool for the Jets?
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The New York Jets have brought in offensive coordinator Tony Sparano, and there is every indication that they have used this offseason to transform into more of a run-first offense.
This could be good news for Tim Tebow, or his arrival in New York could be largely irrelevant. Nobody really seems to know how things will go quite yet.
It seems that Tebow’s main purpose with the first-string team in practice so far has been to be utilized in Wildcat plays, a setup that could be the best possible scenario for a quarterback whose running threat is much stronger than his passing plays.
Which, of course, leads to the thought that perhaps Tim Tebow isn’t really meant to be a backup quarterback at all and that he will instead serve more as a running back who brings a limited passing threat to the table.
Heading into training camp, there still seems to be no firm direction which way this could go.
Oakland Raiders—Can Carson Palmer Rejuvenate His Career?
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The 2011 season was a rough one for Carson Palmer. He started the year off facing a potential forced early retirement. Halfway through the year, a whirlwind trade to the Oakland Raiders brought the new challenge of getting back into shape while learning a new offensive system.
Now Palmer will have had a full offseason to own the offensive system. He has spent time in the offseason with some of his wide receivers and has worked on becoming the team leader that he needs to be.
With Jason Campbell gone, the Raiders have officially placed all of their eggs in Palmer’s basket. If they can coax out the Carson Palmer who showed flashes of greatness in 2012 with some regularity, they will be in a very good position. Otherwise, they may be in for another season of offensive struggles.
Philadelphia Eagles—Who Will Assume the No. 2 Quarterback Role?
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Michael Vick has had an up-and-down career in the NFL, marked most recently by a 2011 campaign that started off promising and ended up filled with disappointment and injury.
It became clear last year that whoever backs Vick up must be an excellent quarterback in his own right, because chances are good that with Vick’s reckless style of play, he will be called upon often to step in. Vince Young was not that player. Neither was Mike Kafka.
Now, the Eagles have ditched Young and replaced him with Trent Edwards, a mediocre quarterback (if we’re being generous) who has not played in the NFL in over a year. They have also added rookie Nick Foles to the roster.
Edwards already seems to be playing himself out of a roster spot, but there seems to be plenty of upside to Nick Foles. If he and Kafka can both perform well in training camp, the Eagles should be able to rest a bit more easily with their injury-prone starting quarterback.
Pittsburgh Steelers—How Well Will the Steelers Adapt to Haley’s New Offense?
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There is change in the air in Pittsburgh as former Kansas City Chiefs head coach Todd Haley works to implement a brand new offensive structure. The new scheme has left some players—including Ben Roethlisberger—feeling distinctly uncomfortable.
It makes sense that there is some tension within the new system. Change is difficult, and the Steelers have been entrenched in a similar offensive scheme for years.
We will get our first real look at the implantation of the new offensive structure and how well the team is adapting to it when training camp starts. As with any new system, there will certainly be some kinks to work out, but big problems here could be big warning signs for the regular season.
San Diego Chargers—Can the Offense Adjust to the Departures of Veterans?
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The face of the San Diego Chargers has changed a lot during this offseason, most notably with the departures of running back Mike Tolbert and star wide receiver Vincent Jackson.
Robert Meachem was brought in from the New Orleans Saints, but he is not able to fill the void left by Jackson’s departure—he simply isn’t as much of a well-rounded player. The Chargers have brought in a few other free-agent option,s and there is some big potential talent already on the roster, but it will take some time to sort out the new pecking order.
Meanwhile, Ryan Matthews will be expected to shoulder the load that was previously handled by Tolbert. Ronnie Brown was signed as a free agent, but it has been over a year since he was a relevant part of a football team.
With confusion and upheaval in the receiving and running game, there is plenty of opportunity for younger, unproven players to step up with a strong training camp and carve out a spot for themselves.
San Francisco 49ers—Will Alex Smith Finally Break out in 2012?
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The San Francisco 49ers' offense finally started to take shape as a real threat this offseason, which should take some of the pressure to perform off the team’s outstanding defense.
The ground game has been successful thanks to the efforts of Frank Gore, but Alex Smith has only begun to show what he is capable of doing with the ball under center. His supporting cast of receiving options was somewhat limited in 2011, an issue that has been addressed in the offseason.
With the help of newcomers Mario Manningham, Randy Moss and A.J. Jenkins, Alex Smith will have more than just Michael Crabtree and a field full of lesser targets to choose from. Smith has an opportunity this season to prove the doubters wrong by lighting up the opposition.
Seattle Seahawks—Who Will Start at Quarterback?
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This offseason, the Seattle Seahawks signed free-agent quarterback Matt Flynn to a three-year, $26 million contract. With numbers like those involved compared to Tarvaris Jackson’s paltry two-year, $8 million contract, it seemed clear that the Seahawks wanted Flynn to be their starter.
So why is Jackson going to enter the team’s training camp as the starter?
There’s also the dark-horse contender Russell Wilson, who has not yet been ruled out as a potential starter by Pete Carroll.
It seems that the job is Jackson’s to lose, as he's the incumbent starting quarterback, but the numbers indicate that Flynn was seen as the better prospect in the long term.
Training camp will present another opportunity for one of the trio to put some distance between himself and his competition, but at this point the jury is out on who will step up to the challenge.
St. Louis Rams—Will Sam Bradford Regain His Comfort in the Pocket?
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Sam Bradford had a great rookie year in 2010, but 2011 was not kind to him. Where he had once served as a great pocket quarterback, he was transformed into a tentative, almost frightened presence in the pocket—and for good reason, as he was sacked 36 times in just 10 games last season.
The pocket problems were due in part to the loss of mobility when Sam Bradford suffered from his high ankle sprain, but it was also caused by poor offensive line performance and a lack of separation by his wide receivers.
With the return of Danny Amendola, Bradford will at least have the receiver who has proved to be somewhat of a security blanket back in the upcoming season. The addition of Brian Quick could be a big boon as well if he is able to live up to his potential during his rookie season.
Being healthy will perhaps make the biggest difference of all in Bradford’s comfort level this season. High ankle sprains prevent players from cutting directions without enormous pain, which certainly contributed to Bradford’s loss of mobility as the season went on.
If the offensive line can step up and protect well and the wide receiving corps can achieve separation from the defense, then Bradford should have an opportunity to become comfortable in the pocket again. Otherwise, St. Louis fans could be in for another long season.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers—Can LeGarrette Blount Keep His Starting Position?
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Running back LeGarrette Blount had a pretty good season in 2011, running for 781 yards on 184 carries, but are those numbers really worthy of an automatic starting position?
Going up against Blount in a training camp battle will be first-round draft pick Doug Martin, who many like to compare to Ray Rice and Maurice Jones-Drew as the type of all-around back who can make a big difference to a team’s ground game.
If Martin is impressive in training camp and in the preseason, there’s a decent chance that Blount may find himself holding the No. 2 slot on the roster. Either way he’ll be guaranteed to be sharing his touches with Martin unless one of them suffers an injury.
It is worth considering that although this will be Blount’s third year in the NFL, 2012 will be the first season where he has had a full offseason program with the Buccaneers. That additional comfort and deeper understanding of the team’s offensive structure could bump up Blount’s production to better levels.
Tennessee Titans—Will Jake Locker Set Himself Up to Oust Matt Hasselbeck?
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Perhaps the most interesting quarterback battle of the year is taking place in Tennessee, where seasoned veteran Matt Hasselbeck faces somewhat serious competition for his job from young Jake Locker.
Hasselbeck has the benefit of being a seasoned veteran with a steady, but not outstanding record of performance.
Locker, on the other hand, made the most of his opportunity at the end of the 2011 season by putting together a handful of games that filled fans with hope. He wasn’t perfect, but he showed that he could become great over time. Certainly he outshone Hasselbeck, and he is surely the direction the franchise will head in the future as they transition to a younger, potential franchise quarterback.
While the general consensus seems to be that Hasselbeck will walk away with the starting job—for now, at least—a good training camp from Locker might be enough to secure him the job as soon as Hasselbeck slips up.
Washington Redskins—Which Running Back Will Be Named Starter?
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Tim Highotower, Roy Helu and Evan Royster have combined to present an interesting problem to the Washington Redskins coaches: Since each has proved himself capable of putting together 100-plus-yard rushing games, which one should be named the starter?
All three of these players had a chance in 2011 to prove their mettle, and each of them took the opportunity and literally ran with it.
At the same time, the reason that each running back received the chance to prove himself as a starter for the Redskins was because of a string of injuries at that position last season.
No matter how talented Hightower, Helu and Royster may be, they must also prove that they can stay healthy in order to avoid earning a reputation for being injury-prone—which could cost them the starting position.