Will the Jaguars' 32nd-ranked pass offense in 2011 improve with rookie wideout Justin Blackmon?
So many questions. And so little time.
In less than a week, the Cowboys and Giants kick off the 2012 NFL season, and four and five days later, the rest of the teams begin their odyssey to Super Bowl XLVII.
With rosters about to be pared down, no doubt every team still has some concerns over one area or another. In this day and age of the NFL, it’s harder than ever to be very good in every phase of the game.
So we take a look at what could trip up each team this season. In some instances, we’re simply pointing out significant changes. In others, injuries have taken a toll, and filling the voids may be harder than expected.
Hopefully, every team can find the cure for what ails it sooner than later.
Will John Skelton get the nod in the season opener?
You can just picture Judge Smails glaring at Danny Noonan in the closing minutes of Caddyshack.
“Well. We’re waiting!”
It appears that 31 of the 32 teams know who their starting quarterback will be in Week 1. The exception is the Cardinals and head coach Ken Whisenhunt, who has to choose between Kevin Kolb and John Skelton, both of whom have had their ups and downs this summer and both playing behind an offensive line that is also having some issues.
First up for Arizona in the regular season are the visiting Seahawks, they of the three Pro Bowlers in the secondary. It’ll be interesting to see who the Cards decide on between now and then.
There will be plenty of pressure on second-year linebacker Akeem Dent
There had to be concern from the moment that the Falcons knew middle linebacker Curtis Lofton was to hit the open free-agent market, so much so that there was the Lofa Tatupu contingency plan.
Lofton, the team’s perennial tackle leader, headed to New Orleans. And unfortunately, Tatupu couldn’t stay healthy and is no longer with the team.
Now it’s Akeem Dent’s turn, and it’s a tall task indeed. A third-round draft choice a year ago, he led the team with 19 special teams tackles. But he barely saw the field on defense and now will be the man at the center of attention.
The Falcons finished sixth in the league against the run last season, a ranking that could be tough to equal if the young defender isn’t up to the task.
Bryant McKinnie begins his second season with the Ravens
With Jarret Johnson gone via free agency and 2011 NFL Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs out for at least the first six weeks, the natural answer would have probably been outside linebacker as Paul Kruger, rookie Courtney Upshaw and perhaps Sergio Kindle look to fill that void.
But the choice here is veteran Bryant McKinnie, whose final seasons in Minnesota were not his best; frankly, he’s been somewhat of a mystery since arriving in Baltimore last season. With Ben Grubbs gone to New Orleans, veteran free agent Bobbie Williams takes over at left guard.
Will protecting Joe Flacco’s blind side become an issue?
Stevie Johnson led the Bills in receiving in 2011
Steve Johnson enjoyed a very interesting 2011 season, from leading the team in catches (76), receiving yards (1,004) and touchdown receptions (7) to leading the league in decorative t-shirts.
All kidding aside, the Bills could use some more production in this department. While David Nelson did catch 61 passes, five for touchdowns, there wasn’t a ton of numbers put up by the rest of the wideouts on the team.
In fairness, tight end Scott Chandler caught six touchdown passes, and running backs Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller totaled 39 grabs apiece. But more big plays are needed from Johnson and his fellow wide receivers.
Can Byron Bell hold on to the right tackle job this season?
More often than not, the Panthers’ offensive front has been one of the strengths of the team. These days it’s not much different with stars such as Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil and former All-Pro left tackle Jordan Gross.
It wasn’t long ago that the franchise invested a first-round pick in tackle Jeff Otah, who had his moments on the right side of the line. But injuries have taken their toll. This offseason, he was dealt to the Jets, but the trade fell through when Otah failed his physical.
Enter Byron Bell, who will try to fill that spot this season, unless of course former Raiders draft choice Bruce Campbell (acquired in trade a few months ago) steps to the forefront.
Kellen Davis caught 18 passes in 2011, but five went for touchdowns
True, tight ends were never really a part of the Mike Martz passing game, so perhaps this is a bit unfair. It is worth noting that while starter Kellen Davis caught only 18 passes, five went for touchdowns.
But this now looks like a Bears offense that has made great strides this offseason with the additions of wideouts Brandon Marshall and rookie Alshon Jeffery and veteran running back Michael Bush. Davis and backup Matt Spaeth might actually get more opportunities this season with the Chicago wide receivers able to stretch the field.
The question then becomes whether Davis and Spaeth can take advantage of what could be presented to them.
Brandon Tate enjoyed a strong preseason
Whoa. Didn’t rookie A.J. Green become one of the few rookies to total 1,000-plus receiving yards and finish his debut season at the Pro Bowl?
Correct. But the question here is who will step up next to the talented pass-catcher this season. Brandon Tate, better known for his work on special teams but coming off an impressive summer, looks like the choice for now.
However, there’s very little in terms of proven depth now that Andre Caldwell and Jerome Simpson are in Denver and Minnesota, respectively, while released Jordan Shipley latched on with the Buccaneers.
Yes, quarterback Andy Dalton has other options like Pro Bowl tight end Jermaine Gresham. But be it Tate or perhaps Armon Binns, someone needs to step up opposite Green.
Phil Taylor will miss the start of the 2012 season
While coordinator Dick Jauron did a terrific job with his unit a season ago, stopping the run remains an issue for a Browns team that has been ranked 27th or lower in the NFL in rushing defense for eight consecutive years (30th in 2011).
To make matters worse, massive second-year defensive tackle Phil Taylor will begin the season on the physically-unable-to-perform list. Filling his spot will be rookie John Hughes, a third-round pick from Cincinnati. Free-agent pickup Frostee Rucker is the new starter at right end but was brought on to help the pass rush.
Safe to say that the Cleveland defense figures to have its hands full stopping opposing running backs, at least early on. It starts with the Eagles and Pro Bowler LeSean McCoy in just over a week.
Left tackle Tyron Smith hopes to keep Tony Romo safe this season
There’s potential good news and bad news for this unit, which spent the preseason using all different kinds of starting lineups due to injuries.
First there are the positives. Second-year tackle Tyron Smith takes over on the left side while veteran Doug Free returns to the right.
The Cowboys addressed their guard situation with the free-agent signings of Mackenzy Bernadeau (Panthers) and Nate Livings (Bengals). But while the former started the first three preseason games, the duo didn’t open a game together until the third. And starting center Phil Costa didn’t play at all this summer until the Wednesday night finale against the Dolphins.
Add it all up, and the projected starting unit never took the field together during the preseason. We’re not sure what that means, but it can’t be good when facing the pass-rushing-potent Giants in less than a week.
There are high hopes for second-round pick Derek Wolfe
Usually when a team leads the league in rushing as the Broncos did a season ago, it usually helps the defense in many ways, in particular helping to keep that unit off the field for as long as possible.
But thanks in part to since-traded quarterback Tim Tebow, this was not your typical running game. Hence, your standard results didn't apply when it came to the other side of the ball, as Denver defenders were a mere 22nd in the league in terms of rushing yards allowed.
To fix this, the organization brought back defensive tackle Justin Bannan, who returns after a one-year stint with the Rams, and used its top pick in April (second round) on Derek Wolfe.
While the Broncos defense made some strides last season, there’s still work to be done. Stopping the run with some consistency would be a good start.
Cornerback Alphonso Smith returned one of three INTs for a TD last season
A good pass rush is an enormous benefit to any secondary. But as the Lions prepare for their season opener against the Rams, there’s hope that this is more than true thanks to some major concerns in their last line of defense.
One of the game’s better playmaking safeties (Louis Delmas) as well as the team’s top cornerback (Chris Houston) are on the shelf, and we’ll see if they’re back for Week 1. Safety John Wendling, who led the Lions in special teams stops last season, is filling in for Delmas, who missed the final five regular-season games a year ago.
Meanwhile, Justin Miller (known more for his work on returns and out of the league in 2010 and ‘11), former Colts defensive back Jacob Lacey, newly acquired Kevin Barnes (Redskins) and rookie Bill Bentley are all in mix at that cornerback spot opposite Alphonso Smith.
That’s a lot of names to ponder over the next week or so. It’s safe to say both Jim Schwartz and defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham have their work cut out for them.
James Starks led the Packers in rushing yards last season
When your quarterback throws 45 touchdown passes and just six interceptions in 15 starts and your team scores an astounding 560 points, it’s hard to find fault with your offense.
But when only five teams in the league gain fewer yards rushing than your club, it’s time to take a harder look.
It’s safe to say the Packers, who despite a 15-1 mark last season didn’t win the Super Bowl, have to be a bit more balanced this time around for a lot of different reasons.
In the mix in the backfield are 2011 team rushing leader James Starks and Alex Green, as well as free-agent pickup Cedric Benson. But the latter also fumbled the first time he touched the ball Thursday night against the Chiefs, a problem for the former Bengals runner in recent seasons.
We shall see.
Shayne Graham and Donnie Jones are the new kicking combo
While we’ve talked about the changes along the Texans’ offensive line for months, another area that will see a pair of new faces will be the Houston special teams.
A Pro Bowler in 2005 with the Bengals, placekicker Shayne Graham has put the journey into journeyman the last two seasons, playing 12 games with four different teams. Now he looks to start over again in this his eighth NFL club.
Meanwhile, veteran punter Donnie Jones comes over from the Rams after finishing a mediocre 19th in the league in punting average in 2011.
Obviously, the proof will be in the pudding if both enjoy steady and consistent seasons. Unfortunately, because it comes with the job, hopefully neither specialist will botch a kick that costs his team a game.
Robert Mathis is now an outside linebacker in the Colts' 3-4 defense
The departure of quarterback Peyton Manning is not the only huge change in Indianapolis.
With head coach Chuck Pagano and defensive coordinator Greg Manusky now calling the shots, the Colts will make the conversion to a 3-4 scheme this season.
In order to aid the transition, the organization added a few of Pagano’s Ravens in the form of defensive linemen Cory Redding and Brandon McKinney and safety Tom Zbikowski. But McKinney was lost for the year during the preseason, a blow to the depth of the line.
Even more intriguing will be seeing standout defensive ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis as the outside linebackers. While we know they can rush the passer, will they be exploited in pass coverage? Zbikowski and fellow safety Antoine Bethea could be very busy this season.
The second season needs to be the charm for quarterback Blaine Gabbert
Yes, there are higher hopes for second-year signal-caller Blaine Gabbert, who despite actually throwing more touchdown passes (12) than interceptions last season (11) barely completed half of his passes, absorbed 40 sacks and fumbled 14 times.
So far this preseason, the former Missouri standout has shown a renewed confidence in terms of pocket presence, and perhaps the additions of rookie Justin Blackmon and veteran Laurent Robinson at wide receiver are part of that.
However, we’re going to find out very early if the rush is something that still bothers Gabbert. Up first this season are All-Pro defensive end Jared Allen and the Vikings, who tied for the NFL lead with 50 sacks last season.
Defensive end Tyson Jackson begins his fourth NFL season
True, Romeo Crennel’s defense played the vast majority of the season without star safety Eric Berry, and the linebacking corps includes 2011 Pro Bowlers Tamba Hali and Derrick Johnson.
So exactly why did the Chiefs defense finish 26th in the league against the run? Probably the same reason general manager Scott Pioli invested a first-round pick in April on nose tackle Dontari Poe.
Unfortunately, former first-rounders Tyson Jackson and Glenn Dorsey don’t come up with their share of game-breaking plays. Last season, they combined for 117 stops and one sack (Jackson), while the latter totaled only a pair of tackles for losses.
Kansas City’s defensive front three needs to take the next step if the team is to do the same.
Davone Bess totaled 51 receptions in 2011
It’s stating the obvious that the departure of Brandon Marshall will be felt in a big way with the Dolphins. Hence the decision to add veteran wideout Chad Johnson when he became available, although unfortunate circumstances made his stay in Miami a short one.
So right now it’s up to Davone Bess and Legedu Naanee, the anticipated starters at wideout, to help make life easier for rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill. (Of course, getting the ball to running back Reggie Bush isn’t a bad option.)
Then again, by the time you read this a second or third time, perhaps the Dolphins brain trust will have added some help via trade or some other option. But this is a unit short of established stars.
Can Chris Carr help the Vikings' last line of defense?
It was one of the biggest issues for the Vikings last season, and it’s hard to tell if things have gotten any better.
Having veteran Antoine Winfield as one of your starting corners is a big plus, but there are certainly question marks elsewhere. Let’s not forget that no team in the league gave up more touchdown passes last season, and only the Buccaneers allowed more points.
Besides rookie safeties Harrison Smith and Robert Blanton, there’s a pair of free-agent pickups at cornerback in Chris Carr and Zack Bowman.
We may not know about the Minnesota secondary for a few weeks considering they open the season against second-year quarterback Blaine Gabbert (Jaguars) and rookie signal-caller Andrew Luck (Colts).
Then again, maybe we will.
Nate Solder will be under pressure to protect Tom Brady
I’ll take a Matt Light, please.
You may start hearing those kinds of jokes and references to the recently retired former Pro Bowler, who did his best to protect Tom Brady for the previous 11 seasons, including five Super Bowl appearances.
Now it’s not only up to new left tackle Nate Solder to get the job done, it remains to be seen how much help he will have. Veteran left guard Logan Mankins may be the best player at his position in the league and figures to be fine after knee surgery this offseason, but right guard Brian Waters, a Pro Bowler with the team in 2011, has been a no-show to date. There have been issues at the other tackle spot as well.
It’s hard to throw touchdown passes while on your back. It will be interesting to see how quickly Bill Belichick can rectify this situation.
Roman Harper led the team in tackles and sacks in 2011
On paper, new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo has to be ecstatic with the caliber of talent he’s been given.
When it comes to the starting front four, the Saints are loaded with former first-round draft choices in ends Will Smith and Cameron Jordan as well as tackles Sedrick Ellis and Brodrick Bunkley, the latter coming over from Denver via free agency.
But so far this summer, the New Orleans defense still has some questions to answer, and let’s not forget that Smith won’t be around for the start of the season due to his suspension.
Bunkley is the key when it comes to improving against the run, but it remains to be seen if anyone up front can dethrone safety Roman Harper as the team sack leader, as was the case in 2011.
Corey Webster is the veteran of the Giants' secondary
While the New York defense came up big in the 2011 postseason en route to a win in Super Bowl XLVI, it’s sometimes forgotten that Tom Coughlin’s team gave up 25 points per game during the regular season, the most ever by a team to hoist the Lombardi Trophy.
Last summer, the defense suffered a severe blow when do-it-all cornerback Terrell Thomas was lost for the season. Unfortunately, he’s currently on the mend again, as is 2011 first-round pick Prince Amukamara.
With former first-round pick Aaron Ross taking a job in Jacksonville, there have to be some concerns at the corner spot opposite Corey Webster. The acid test for the secondary comes in less than week against Cowboys receivers Miles Austin and Dez Bryant.
The Jets have Brick at left tackle, but at right tackle...
It’s not like the organization has been standing pat when it comes to addressing this situation.
While the Jets’ offensive front is three-fifths Pro Bowlers in left tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson, center Nick Mangold and right guard Brandon Moore, it was now-former right tackle Wayne Hunter that was getting all the publicity and for all the wrong reasons.
To replace the struggling Hunter, Rex Ryan’s team attempted to trade for Carolina’s Jeff Otah, who arrived in New York and promptly failed his physical. Against those Panthers on Sunday night, Austin Howard took his turn in the starting lineup. Now the Jets front office has orchestrated another deal, sending Hunter to St. Louis for former first-rounder Jason Smith, the second overall pick in the 2009 NFL draft.
The storylines in regards to the Green and White just keep on coming.
Staying healthy has been an issue for Darren McFadden
Not a typo.
It’s safe to say that when he’s in the lineup, Darren McFadden is as explosive as they come out of the backfield. But the latter part of that sentence is perhaps more than a play on words, as that’s exactly what we’ve seen too much of since the former Razorback was the fourth overall pick in 2008.
Staying healthy has been the biggest problem for McFadden, who has yet to play all 16 games in a season. A year ago, the Raiders running back totaled 614 yards and four touchdowns on just 113 carries, an impressive 5.4 yards per attempt. But he missed the final nine weeks of the season and has played in just 45 games in four years.
Of course, McFadden’s presence is vital to quarterback Carson Palmer, who had a rocky preseason (zero touchdown passes, four interceptions) to say the least and comes off a season in which he was picked off 16 times in 10 games in 2011. With Michael Bush now in Chicago, can Taiwan Jones and/or Mike Goodson take up the slack should McFadden go down again?
King Dunlap hopes to fill the shoes of injured left tackle Jason Peters
Simply put, you don’t easily replace a Pro Bowler such as Jason Peters, who will miss the season with an Achilles injury suffered roughly five months ago.
The Eagles quickly moved in free agency and grabbed former Bills tackle Demetress Bell. But it’s actually King Dunlap, a former seventh-round draft choice now in his fifth NFL season, that appears to own the starting job.
So how does this affect the Philadelphia offense, which probably needs an upright Michael Vick to contend for a Super Bowl title? That certainly remains to be seen, but what is a guarantee is that Dunlap will see the best pass-rusher the opposition has to offer.
We'll see whether he and the rest of the line are up to the task of not only protecting Vick but making sure there are plenty of holes for 2011 NFL touchdown leader LeSean McCoy.
2012 first-round pick David DeCastro was injured vs. the Bills
An area of concern for the last few years, the offensive line was addressed early and often by general manager Kevin Colbert in April. Not only did highly-regarded guard David DeCastro fall into the Steelers' lap with the 24th overall pick, talented tackle Mike Adams was the team’s choice in the second round. Once again, Colbert and the organization were lauded for their excellent work.
It still may turn out that way, for those assigning grades to the teams immediately after the draft don’t usually take injuries into consideration (and who could?).
Penciled in as starters this season, Adams struggled early in the preseason and was banged up as well, while DeCastro suffered a knee injury in Buffalo roughly a week ago and will be sidelined indefinitely.
In step former starters Max Starks and Ramon Foster, which in a way means it’s back to the drawing board…for now.
Danny Amendola was lost in the season opener a year ago
With new head coach Jeff Fisher at the controls there’s a few things you’re guaranteed to see in St. Louis this season. One is an aggressive defense led by a strong front four, and the Rams certainly have the potential for that.
Another is a reliable running game, and there have been few more consistent than Steven Jackson, who is looking for his eighth consecutive 1,000-yard season.
One thing Fisher may be searching for all year is some balance via the passing game. It starts with former No. 1 overall pick Sam Bradford, who suffered through an injury-shortened 2011 that saw him throw just as many touchdown passes as interceptions (6) in 10 games.
But who will those passes be going to? Danny Amendola returns after missing nearly the entire season, as does Brandon Gibson, who caught 36 passes (one touchdown) a year ago. Veteran Steve Smith, late of the Eagles, as well as rookie Brian Quick and second-year pros Austin Pettis and Greg Salas, are also in the mix.
Somewhere amongst that group, Bradford needs to find a wideout that can catch 70-plus passes.
Former first-rounder Corey Liuget totaled 19 tackles and a sack last season
Much was made about the Chargers pass rush, which produced 15 fewer sacks than the previous season.
But what about the defense’s inability to consistently stop the run last season? The Bolts finished 20th in the NFL in rushing defense just one year after only three teams in the league gave up fewer yards per game on the ground.
While nose tackle Antonio Garay finished fifth on the team in tackles (57), ends Vaughn Martin and Corey Liuget combined for 66 stops and only a pair of sacks.
In a division absolutely loaded at running back and some pretty good offensive tackles, this could be a big area of concern for new defensive coordinator John Pagano.
Alex Boone (75) and Anthony Davis (76) anchor the right side of the 49ers' offensive line
We could be nitpicking here, but then again, perhaps not.
San Francisco’s offensive line was pretty effective last season, but right guard Adam Snyder took the free-agency route to Arizona. During free agency, the Niners added well-traveled guard Leonard Davis, late of the Lions.
But the man who will be making his first NFL start in just over a week, at Lambeau Field no less, is one-time undrafted free agent Alex Boone, who saw some playing time last season.
Granted, the former Ohio State Buckeye will be surrounded by plenty of first-round talent in Joe Staley, Mike Iupati and Anthony Davis. But no doubt the Packers and other opponents will view him as the possible weakness on that unit. It certainly bears watching.
Leroy Hill is the veteran on a young linebacking corps
Certainly some would view wide receiver as an area of concern simply because Pete Carroll and company have brought in numerous veterans (Antonio Bryant, Terrell Owens) for a look-see. But a healthy Sidney Rice certainly changes that equation.
There are a lot of prognosticators high on the Seahawks defense this season, a group led by three Pro Bowlers in the secondary and the possible contributions of rookie defensive end Bruce Irvin.
However, while outside linebacker Leroy Hill is battle-tested, K.J. Wright has just one season under his belt, while rookie Bobby Wagner gets the nod in the middle. It will be interesting to see opposing quarterbacks challenge the young duo with the short passing game and more.
Gerald McCoy was the third overall pick in the 2010 NFL draft
In recent years, the Buccaneers have used a number of high draft choices to rebuild a defensive front that not only struggled to get to opposing quarterbacks but has had its issues against the run, both problems more than just a one-year issue.
This offseason, the tweaks continued up front, as former second-round defensive tackle Brian Price was dealt to the Bears, while young but talented Amobi Okoye hopes to make an impact in the middle of the line.
But we haven’t seen much to date from the front four, five or six, meaning rookie defenders Mark Barron and Lavonte David, as well as second-year middle linebacker Mason Foster, figure to make their share of tackles.
Until this area improves, it’s hard to imagine the Buccaneers making a significant jump in the NFC South standings.
The loss of kick returner Marc Mariani for the season could be costly
Yes, Jake Locker is a second-year quarterback, and while he has veteran Nate Washington, rookie Kendall Wright and big-play wideout Kenny Britt (after serving a one-game suspension) to throw the ball to, don’t be surprised if he makes an impact sooner than later.
But we’re taking aim at another area, and that’s the return game, where the Titans will try to make do without underrated kick returner Marc Mariani, who suffered a season-ending injury in the preseason win over the Cardinals.
Sure, Mike Munchak’s team is far from complete (whose is?) and has a few holes elsewhere. But the loss of their field-position-changing performer will certainly be felt.
Veteran Madieu Williams is a newcomer in the Washington secondary
Jim Haslett’s defense is a very intriguing unit. You know Pro Bowler London Fletcher is going to get his tackles and outside linebackers Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan will do their job harassing opposing quarterbacks. The line is unsung, while DeAngelo Hall and Josh Wilson are solid as the corners.
But there will be a new duo at safety this season when the Redskins kick off the season at the Superdome, and you can bet both Brandon Meriweather and Madieu Williams will be tested early and often.
While Meriweather is a former Pro Bowler with the Patriots and comes over this season from Chicago, Williams (late of the 49ers) has bounced around the league the last few seasons after beginning his career with the Bengals.
It will be interesting to see if these two journeymen mesh in the nation’s capital.