NFL Preseason 2012: Top Storylines for Every Team
The 2012 NFL preseason in underway in earnest, and already, we've seen a handful of prominent players go down with injuries, the return of a four-time NFL MVP to action after more than a year away from the game and any number of other fascinating storylines.
Here's a look at some of the biggest stories revolving around each NFL team as the exhibition season gets rolling.
Arizona Cardinals: The Growing Quarterback Controversy
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There's a quarterback controversy brewing in the desert, and if last week's Hall of Fame game was any indication, it's not going away any time soon.
Starting signal-caller Kevin Kolb, who the Cardinals acquired last year in a trade with the Philadelphia Eagles, has done very little to justify the five-year, $63 million contract the Cardinals signed him to a season ago, and calls have begun for Kolb to be replaced under center by John Skelton.
Those calls only got louder after Kolb's 1-of-4 for four yards with an interception faceplant against the New Orleans Saints last Sunday.
Atlanta Falcons: The Offensive Line
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The Atlanta Falcons were a playoff team a season ago, but that trip into the postseason didn't last long, as the Falcons were destroyed by the New York Giants in the Wild Card Round due in large part to a porous offensive front.
Head coach Mike Smith has promised a shakeup along that offensive line this season, and how the Falcons retooled offensive line holds up will go a long way toward determining how far the team gets this year.
Baltimore Ravens: Replacing Terrell Suggs
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After coming within a game of advancing to Super Bowl XLVI, the Baltimore Ravens were dealt a crushing blow in the offseason, losing reigning NFL defensive player of the year Terrell Suggs to a torn Achilles tendon that will likely cost the 29-year-old the entire 2012 campaign.
Obviously, Suggs isn't the sort of player who can be easily replaced, and how well players such as Paul Kruger and youngster Courtney Upshaw pick up Suggs' slack is likely the biggest question facing the purple and black this season.
Buffalo Bills: The Switch to the 4-3 Defense
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After missing the playoffs yet again and ranking 26th in the NFL in total defense last year, the Buffalo Bills took major steps to address that deficiency in the offseason.
Not only is the team making the transition to a 4-3 defensive front, but the Bills also made a big splash in free agency to aid in the switch, adding defensive ends Mark Anderson and Mario Williams.
With Anderson and Williams joining defensive tackles Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams, the Bills now possess one the NFL's more formidable front fours on paper, leading many pundits to label Buffalo a dark-horse contender for their first playoff spot since 1999.
Carolina Panthers: Improving on Defense
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There may well have been no bigger surprise in the NFL last year than the excellent play of rookie quarterback Cam Newton, but even Newton's 4,000-plus passing yards and 14 rushing scores couldn't overcome a defense that ranked 28th in the NFL.
The return of middle linebacker Jon Beason and addition of college football's leading tackler from a year ago in Luke Kuechly should help, but if the Panthers are going to make any noise in the NFC South this season, then the Carolina defense needs to get better in a hurry.
Chicago Bears: Getting Their Stars Back Healthy
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At 10 weeks into the 2011 NFL season, it appeared that the Chicago Bears, at 7-3, were well on their way to the postseason.
Then, injuries ravaged the team, the Bears dropped six of seven games, and just like that, the season was lost.
Quarterback Jay Cutler, running back Matt Forte and middle linebacker Brian Urlacher suffered significant injuries in 2011, and the return of those stars to the gridiron is essential if the Bears are going to get back into the thick of things in the NFC North.
Cincinnati Bengals: Taking the "Next Step"
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The Cincinnati Bengals were a surprise playoff team in 2011, riding a top-10 defense and the solid play of rookie quarterback Andy Dalton to a 9-7 record and wild-card berth.
It's now up to Cincinnati to take that mythical "next step" and win a playoff game.
With a much harder schedule this year, young players such as wide receiver A.J. Green and linebacker Rey Maualuga are going to have to step up their games if that's going to happen.
Cleveland Browns: Rookies on Parade
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2011 was yet another miserable season by the shores of Lake Erie for fans of the Cleveland Browns, with the team going 4-12 due in large part to one of the NFL's most anemic offenses.
With two first-round picks in April's NFL draft, the Cleveland front office took steps to get better offensively, adding Alabama running back Trent Richardson and Oklahoma State gunslinger Brandon Weeden.
The team named the 28-year-old Weeden the starting quarterback earlier this week, but already, bad news is striking the Browns yet again.
Richardson was forced to go under the knife for arthroscopic knee surgery which leaves his status for the season opener up in the air.
Dallas Cowboys: Better Pass Defense
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The Dallas Cowboys defensive backfield was their Achilles' heel last year, and quarterback Eli Manning took full advantage of that weakness in shredding the Cowboys for over 350 passing yards in the regular-season finale.
To say that Jerry Jones and the Cowboys addressed the situation would be something of an understatement.
Not only did Dallas add the offseason's best free-agent cornerback in Brandon Carr, but the team also moved up in April's NFL draft to select LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne.
Those defensive improvements should help the Cowboys get back into the NFC East race.
Denver Broncos: That Manning Fellow
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After leading the Denver Broncos to a surprising AFC West championship and an even more surprising playoff win over the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Broncos rewarded quarterback Tim Tebow by shipping him out of town.
Executive vice president of football operations John Elway saw the opportunity to extricate himself from Tebow-mania and took it, adding free-agency's biggest prize in quarterback Peyton Manning.
The arrival of Manning in the Mile High City has created mile-high expectations, and the return of Manning to the field after a lost 2011 season is sure to be one of the dominant stories in the NFL throughout the preseason.
Detroit Lions: Improving in the Secondary
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The Lions, unfortunately, did little personnel-wise to remedy the problem in the offseason, although the loss of cornerback Eric Wright may have been addition by subtraction.
Cornerback Aaron Berry's run-ins with the law led to his release by the team, and free safety Louis Delmas recently underwent knee surgery, leaving the Lions pass defense as a huge question mark entering the 2012 campaign.
Green Bay Packers: Getting a Better Pass Rush
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The Green Bay Packers had the NFL's worst pass defense in 2011, but the root of that ugly stat lies not in the secondary, but with a pass rush that ranked 27th in the league in sacks.
The Packers tried to get outside linebacker Clay Matthews some help in that regard by adding USC defensive end Nick Perry in the 2012 NFL draft, and the team will be counting on the youngster to make a quick transition to 3-4 linebacker to help divert attention away from Matthews.
Houston Texans: Can Matt Schaub Stay Healthy?
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The Houston Texans had the most successful season in the short history of their franchise last year, winning 10 games and capturing their first AFC South title.
Those achievements were all the more remarkable given that the team was without starting quarterback Matt Schaub, who missed the season's last six games and the team's playoff run with a foot injury.
Rookie T.J. Yates played as well as could be expected, and then some last season, given the circumstances.
However, if the Texans are truly going to be a factor in the AFC this year, then they need the 31-year-old Schaub, who has missed at least five games in three of his five years in Houston, healthy and on the field.
Indianapolis Colts: Let the Rebuilding Begin
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The 2011 season was a never-ending disaster for the Indianapolis Colts, as Peyton Manning's neck injury sent the team into a 2-14 death spiral that led to Manning's departure from Indy and management's decision to blow up the team.
It's not going to happen overnight, but the team has begun the process of rebuilding under new head coach Chuck Pagano, handing the reins to rookie quarterback Andrew Luck in much the same fashion that they did with Manning over a decade ago.
Jacksonville Jaguars: The Jones-Drew Holdout
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Jacksonville Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew led the National Football League with 1,606 rushing yards in 2011, and that career year has led the 27-year-old in search of a pay raise.
However, with two years still remaining on the five-year contract that Jones-Drew signed back in 2009, the team appears to be in no hurry to capitulate to his demands.
Both sides appear to be dug for in a holdout that ESPN's Adam Schefter reported recently could drag on into September, and the last thing the NFL's worst offense from last season needs is to be without its linchpin for a prolonged period of time.
Kansas City Chiefs: The Return of the ACL Boys
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The Kansas City Chiefs 2011 season ended almost before it began, as arguably the team's best offensive and defensive players in running back Jamaal Charles and safety Eric Berry suffered season-ending ACL tears in the first two weeks of the year.
Tight end Tony Moeaki also tore his ACL in the last game of the 2011 preseason, and the healthy return of these players will be crucial if the Chiefs are going to be a factor in a very winnable AFC West.
Miami Dolphins: It's a Hard Knocks Life
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It's a season of transition for the Miami Dolphins, with a new head coach in Joe Philbin and a shiny new quarterback in Ryan Tannehill who will probably take the reins at some point this season.
For better or worse, this will all play out this season under the watchful eyes of television cameras, as the Dolphins are the featured team on this year's edition of HBO's "Hard Knocks."
Get your popcorn ready!
Minnesota Vikings: Improving the Offensive-Line Play
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The offensive line was a hot mess for the Minnesota Vikings last year.
The Vikings allowed the fifth-most sacks in the National Football League a season ago, and although they ranked second in the NFL with 5.2 rushing yards per attempt in 2011, that likely had a lot more to do with running back Adrian Peterson than it did with the players blocking for him.
With Peterson recovering from an ACL injury suffered last December, the Vikings may be forced to rely more on the pass, especially early in the season.
That places additional pressure on rookie tackle Matt Kalil and the Minnesota offensive front to step up their game sooner rather than later.
New England Patriots: Play a Little Defense
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The New England Patriots were as good as any team in the NFL last year on offense.
The same cannot be said for the Patriots defense, as the team ranked next to last in the league in that regard.
New England spent several draft picks on the defensive side of the ball this year, including the additions of defensive end Chandler Jones and linebacker Dont'a Hightower.
If the Patriots can field a defensive unit that's anywhere near as high-powered as the offense is set to be this season, then Tom Brady and company may just land back in the Super Bowl this year.
New Orleans Saints: The "Bountygate" Hangover
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The New Orleans Saints were one of the NFL's most dangerous offensive teams in 2011, but it was the defensive side of the ball that hogged the headlines this offseason.
Numerous suspensions, including year-long bans handed down to head coach Sean Payton and linebacker Jonathan Vilma, rocked the Saints after allegations that the team knew of and participated in a program that placed bounties on opposing players' heads.
The fallout from this scandal continues to this day as Vilma fights his suspension, and how far the stain from "bountygate" seeps onto the playing field is easily the biggest hurdle facing the Saints in 2012.
New York Giants: The Bulls-Eye on Their Backs
The New York Giants barely made the playoffs a season ago, but the team then went on a magical run in the playoffs that culminated in a victory over the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI.
That was then and this is now, however, and not only must the Giants contend with an improved NFC East in 2012, but the team will also face teams giving their best effort on a weekly basis.
Such is the fate of the reigning world champions, and if the Giants are going to make it back to the playoffs, then the running game and defense is going to have to play much more consistent football than they did a year ago.
New York Jets: Meltdown Imminent
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The New York Jets were quite possibly the NFL's most dysfunctional team in 2011, as controversy, inconsistency and locker-room discord followed the team throughout their disappointing 8-8 campaign.
Well, at least things can't get any...oh, wait.
The arrival of Tim Tebow has already started the clock ticking on an inevitable quarterback controversy, cornerback Antonio Cromartie angered teammates by telling ESPN's First Take that he's the second-best wide receiver on the team, and the Jets seemingly can't make it through a practice without a brawl breaking out.
Yep, this season is going to be awesome.
Oakland Raiders: Contributions from Lesser-Known Names
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When Reggie McKenzie took over as the general manager for the Oakland Raiders, he was handed something of a nightmare, and it may well take a few years for the team to dig out from under years of bad personnel moves and even worse contracts.
In the meantime, if the Raiders are going to remain competitive, it's going to be up to players such as wide receiver Denarius Moore and cornerback Ronald Bartell to make starting contributions at reserve prices.
Philadelphia Eagles: Which Michael Vick Will Show Up?
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In 2010, Michael Vick accounted for 30 total touchdowns against only nine turnovers, and the Philadelphia Eagles advanced to the postseason.
Last year was a much different story, as the 32-year-old southpaw scored 19 total touchdowns while turning the ball over 18 times, and the Eagles missed the playoffs.
Vick's 2012 preseason got off to a rocky start, as CBS reports he injured his hand against the Steelers, although x-rays were negative.
Quarterback is far from the only question mark facing the Eagles this year, but it's the most pressing.
Simply put, the Eagles will go as far this year as Mike Vick takes them, and he has to hang onto the ball.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Offensive Upheaval
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The Pittsburgh Steelers had something of an up-and-down 2011 season. Though the team won 12 games, they came up short in the AFC North race and were bounced in the Wild Card Round of the playoffs by the Denver Broncos.
The Steelers took significant steps to improve the offensive line with the additions of guard David DeCastro and tackle Mike Adams.
However, with wide receiver Mike Wallace holding out and running back Rashard Mendenhall on the shelf with a knee injury, question marks abound at the offensive skill spots in Pittsburgh.
San Diego Chargers: The Ryan Mathews Injury
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The preseason didn't waste any time in claiming its first victim.
After handing the reins in the San Diego ground game to third-year pro Ryan Mathews, the Chargers have been left scrambling, as NFL.com reports that Mathews fractured his clavicle on his first preseason carry and will be sidelined four to six weeks.
The Chargers are hopeful that Mathews will return in time for the season opener, but the questions that were already swirling around Mathews perceived lack of durability are only going to become amplified now.
San Francisco 49ers: Improvements at Wide Receiver
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The San Francisco 49ers shocked the National Football League by not only going 13-3 and capturing the NFC West last season but also coming within overtime of advancing to Super Bowl XLVI.
However, one of the primary reasons the team fell short in the NFC title game was poor wide-receiver play, as wideouts accounted for all of one reception in the loss to the New York Giants.
If the 49ers are going to make it back to the postseason, the team is going to need much better production from a retooled bunch at the wide receiver position that now includes free-agent acquisitions Mario Manningham and Randy Moss and first-round draft pick A.J. Jenkins.
Seattle Seahawks: An Offensive Offense
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That's the best way to describe the Seattle Seahawks offense in 2011, as the team ranked 28th in total offense and 23rd in scoring.
Whether it's an unsettled quarterback situation, a mediocre line, a so-so group of wide receivers or the potential suspension of running back Marshawn Lynch, the Seahawks enter this season with many more questions than answers on offense.
If you need any more indication of how desperate the Seahawks are for an offensive spark, they just signed wide receiver Terrell Owens.
St. Louis Rams: Lots of Holes to Fill
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The dismal 2-14 record posted by the St. Louis Rams in 2011 aptly demonstrates just how many holes the St. Louis Rams have on their roster.
New head coach Jeff Fisher knows this as well as anyone, which may be why the Rams traded back twice in the first round of April's draft, stockpiling picks in a quantity over quality approach.
With additions such as defensive tackle Michael Brockers, cornerback Janoris Jenkins and wide receiver Brain Quick joining free-agent pickup Cortland Finnegan, the Rams should be an improved team in 2012.
How much they improve will probably depend on how quickly those youngsters acclimate to the NFL.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Run Rookie Run
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The Tampa Bay Buccaneers slogged through a miserable 2011 season, following a surprising 10-6 2010 with an equally disappointing 4-12 2011 campaign.
That implosion led to the dismissal of head coach Raheem Morris, and with new head man Greg Schiano will, all but certainly, come an offensive game plan that relies heavily on the run.
Should that prove to be the case, then the pressure to get that ground game going will fall on the shoulders of rookie running back Doug Martin, who the Buccaneers moved back into the first round to select in April's NFL draft.
Tennessee Titans: Kenny Britt Is a Meathead
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The Tennessee Titans were one of the more surprising teams in the NFL last season, as a team that no one expected to make much noise actually finished the year a very respectable 9-7.
What made that performance even more surprising is that most of their success occurred with star wideout Kenny Britt on the shelf with a torn ACL, and the team was hopeful that Britt's return would lead to further success on the field this season.
Unfortunately, the Titans may not be getting Britt back any time soon. Britt recently underwent knee surgery yet again and is staring at a probable suspension after being arrested yet again for DUI in Kentucky earlier this summer.
At this point, the Titans may be nearing the point of just washing their hands of Britt, as the knuckleheaded pass-catcher has now taken to throwing his team under the bus for having the audacity to fine him according to CBS Sports.
Washington Redskins: The RG3 Show Comes to Town
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The Washington Redskins paid a hefty price to acquire the second overall pick in the 2012 NFL draft, sending a bevy of picks to the St. Louis Rams for the right to draft Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III of Baylor.
If his debut was any indication, then the Redskins may not have been so crazy to mortgage their future on Griffin's arm and legs, as the rookie looked very sharp in completing 4-of-6 passes for 70 yards and a touchdown against the Buffalo Bills.