1 Burning Question from Every NFL Team's OTAs
With NFL organized team activities (OTAs) in full swing, the 2013 season is closer than we can imagine.
While OTAs are more casual than training camp, they still have the ability to raise questions for teams. Position battles that weren't thought to have existed can suddenly pop up, no-name players will surprise coaches and established players will disappoint.
Today I'll take a look at one burning question from every NFL team's OTAs.
Burning Question: Can Tyrann Mathieu start at free safety?
Right now it looks like Yeremiah Bell, the free agent brought in from the New York Jets, will be the starting free safety for the Arizona Cardinals.
However, right after the draft the Cardinals made it known that they planned on switching Mathieu's position from cornerback to free safety. There is no doubt that Mathieu is an extremely talented playmaker who excels with the ball in his hands.
The only question is whether he'll be ready to contribute right away at a new position. With the final week of OTAs for Arizona starting Monday, Mathieu could go a long way toward showing his coaches he's ready to start with strong performances.
Burning Question: How will Steven Jackson impact the passing game?
Last year with the St. Louis Rams, Jackson only recorded 38 receptions. That was the second-fewest receptions in a season in his entire career.
There is no question that the Atlanta Falcons will continue to lean on the passing game to be the focal point of the offense. Matt Ryan threw for 4,719 yards last season, which was nearly 600 more yards than any other season in his career.
The Falcons do have Jacquizz Rodgers on the roster to help in the passing game, but as the No. 1 running back, they'll need Jackson to make an impact too. Don't be surprised to see Jackson revitalized during the 2013 season and have one of the better receiving seasons in his career.
Burning Question: How quickly will new defensive players fit in?
The Baltimore Ravens have had the luxury of having two of the best defensive players in the history of the NFL in Ray Lewis and Ed Reed playing for over a decade. Now Lewis is retired, and Reed is a member of the Houston Texans.
On top of that, the Ravens also lost Dannell Ellerbe and Paul Kruger, two key members of last year's defense. It started to look like Baltimore would take a major step back in 2013.
However, the Ravens hit the draft on the nose with their first two picks, taking safety Matt Elam and middle linebacker Arthur Brown. They then added Elvis Dumervil in free agency.
These three additions should go a long way toward helping the Ravens defense not miss a beat despite losing so many players. The big question will be just how quickly these new defensive players can fit in.
If they take time, we could see the Ravens struggle out of the gate. This could ultimately put them too far back in the AFC North and lead them to miss the playoffs.
Burning Question: EJ Manuel or Kevin Kolb?
This question will likely follow the Buffalo Bills throughout training camp and preseason until a starting quarterback is named.
Kolb and Manuel will be in a competition to lead the Bills from here on out. It's likely that a decision won't be made on who will be the starter until late in the preseason, much like the Seattle Seahawks did with Russell Wilson and Matt Flynn last year.
Even though Tarvaris Jackson took some first-team reps during OTAs, he really shouldn't be considered a threat to start in 2013. The job will belong to either Manuel or Kolb when the season begins.
Burning Question: What role will DeAngelo Williams have?
For the past few seasons the Carolina Panthers have had one of the best one-two punches at running back in the league. Both Jonathan Stewart and Williams are extremely talented backs capable of carrying the load for a team.
However, the Panthers have never really given either player the opportunity to be an every-down back. That might not be the case in 2013.
Despite Stewart being limited in OTAs from offseason ankle surgery, he still figures to be the starter in Week 1 for Carolina and get the majority of the carries. Where does that leave Williams?
Williams took a major pay cut just to stay with the team this offseason. However, will he ultimately be pleased in an extremely limited role?
That is the big question that'll need to be answered as the Panthers finish up OTAs this week.
Burning Question: Can anyone replace Brian Urlacher?
After dominating the game for over a decade, the Chicago Bears' defensive leader called it quits this offseason. That leaves a huge hole in the middle of the defense for Chicago that will need to get figured out quickly.
There are two candidates to replace Urlacher for the upcoming season. The Bears signed D.J. Williams after the Denver Broncos released him this offseason. They also drafted Jon Bostic from the University of Florida in the second round of the this year's draft.
Will either of these players be able to replace Urlacher by himself? Probably not, but they bring different skills to the position that might allow them to combine their talents to reproduce what Urlacher was able to do on the field.
Burning Question: How will Andy Dalton handle all his new weapons?
The 2013 season could be seen as a make-or-break year for Dalton. Sure, he's guided the Cincinnati Bengals to back-to-back playoff appearances, but he's lost in the first round both times, throwing four interceptions and no touchdowns in those two games.
The Bengals made it a priority this offseason to give Dalton some more weapons to play with in hopes that he'll take the next step toward being an upper-echelon quarterback. They drafted Tyler Eifert, Giovani Bernard and Cobi Hamilton to add to A.J. Green, Jermaine Gresham and BenJarvus Green-Ellis.
With all of these weapons, even an extremely untalented quarterback would be able to put up huge statistics and be successful. If Dalton fails to improve his game and once again sees an early exit from the playoffs, the Bengals may be forced to begin looking for a new franchise quarterback.
Burning Question: Will new defensive pieces make big improvements?
Few teams made as big of a splash in free agency as the Cleveland Browns. They added starters Paul Kruger and Desmond Bryant as well as likely role players Tank Carder and Quentin Groves.
However, the Browns didn't revamp their defense in free agency alone. They also used their first-round draft pick on Barkevious Mingo and their third-round pick on cornerback Leon McFadden.
With all these new pieces in place, the only question is whether or not they'll result in big improvements. The Browns were the seventh-worst team at getting after the quarterback last year, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
With Bryant, Kruger and Mingo, they should definitely be able to improve in that area of the defense, while the addition of McFadden will only boost an already impressive secondary. Don't be surprised if Cleveland boasts one of the league's better defenses next year.
Burning Question: Are offensive line issues fixed?
The Dallas Cowboys offensive line has been the Achilles heel of the team for a number of years. They've been working on fixing the issue for the past few seasons.
It started in 2011 when they used their first-round pick to draft Tyron Smith to become their franchise left tackle. Then they went out and signed guards Nate Livings and Mackenzy Bernadeau during the 2012 offseason, hoping that would help.
While it did help some, the Cowboys still struggled to protect Tony Romo. This offseason, the Cowboys once again spent a first-round pick on an offensive lineman, this time on center Travis Frederick.
Now the question is whether all these pieces can meld together to create a successful offensive line. If they can, Dallas could finally see itself sitting atop the NFC East at the end of the season.
Burning Question: Can OTAs jump-start the Manning-Welker chemistry?
Among the biggest news surrounding the Denver Broncos this offseason was the signing of Wes Welker. In fact, you can almost be guaranteed that Welker will be constantly talked about in Denver throughout the course of the 2013 season.
It has to be quite the luxury for a player like Welker to hop from one Hall of Fame quarterback in Tom Brady to another in Peyton Manning. However, a slot receiver like Welker relies so much upon chemistry with his quarterback in order to be successful.
That's why it had to have been so encouraging to the Broncos to see Manning and Welker working together early in the offseason. Denver probably hopes that OTAs will help continue to build that chemistry so there is no delay in production from these two at the start of the season.
Burning Question: Is the secondary finally improved?
The Detroit Lions have had one of the worst secondaries in the league for a number of seasons. Each year we keep thinking it'll finally be the year that they work to fix the secondary, and each year we're proved wrong.
Well, the 2013 offseason may have finally been that year. Not only did they re-sign Louis Delmas and Chris Houston, but they made some huge improvements via free agency and the NFL draft too.
In free agency, they signed Glover Quin away from the Houston Texans. He should start right away at free safety opposite Delmas.
In the draft, they used their second-round pick on Darius Slay, an extremely talented cornerback from Mississippi State. He also should start from day one opposite Houston.
With Slay, Quin, Houston and Delmas leading the way in the secondary, the Lions may have finally fixed their biggest issue.
Green Bay Packers
Burning Question: Is there an every-down running back on the roster?
When you spend two draft picks on running backs, you know you have a deficiency at that position. That's what the Green Bay Packers did when they drafted Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin in this year's draft.
They'll combine with DuJuan Harris, Alex Green and James Starks to attempt to put together some type of run game in Green Bay for the first time in years. However, the question in OTAs is whether any of these players can ultimately become an every-down back for the Packers.
We already know that it's unlikely that Starks or Green will become that type of player. However, the jury is still out on Harris, Lacy and Franklin.
If one of them steps up in a big way during the final week of OTAs, we could see him get the chance to be the featured running back in Green Bay.
Burning Question: Who will emerge as the No. 3 receiver?
We know that the Houston Texans finally drafted a No. 2 receiver to play opposite Andre Johnson in DeAndre Hopkins. Now the only question is, who will be the No. 3 receiver in Houston?
Both Lestar Jean and DeVier Posey showed promise during training camp last year, but neither made a big contribution during the actual season. Now with Kevin Walter out of the picture, one of those two players will likely need to step up to become a third option for Matt Schaub.
Of course, it's possible that a player like Uzoma Nwachukwu, Alan Bonner or Keshawn Martin impresses coaches enough to win the job. No matter who it is, there is no doubt that the Texans still need to figure out who that third receiver will be in this offense.
Burning Question: Can Darrius Heyward-Bey finally make a big impact?
It's hard to call Heyward-Bey a bust because no one except the Oakland Raiders thought that he was worth the seventh overall pick. However, his 140 receptions and 11 touchdowns in four years are rather pedestrian numbers for a first-round pick.
Sometimes all a player needs is a fresh start, and DHB might have gotten the perfect one with the Indianapolis Colts. Not only will be have the opportunity to play with one of the best young quarterbacks in the league in Andrew Luck, but he'll also be able to learn from Reggie Wayne.
That type of leadership is something he never had in Oakland and could really help him become a more fundamentally sound receiver. The Colts hope this is finally the year that Heyward-Bey makes a big impact in the NFL.
Burning Question: Who will establish himself as the leader of this team?
When you look over the roster of the Jacksonville Jaguars, the lack of a true leader stands out pretty quickly. I mean, is anyone going to follow Blaine Gabbert into a battle without any doubts?
It isn't just Gabbert though; it's the entire Jaguars roster that lacks leadership. So the question in Jacksonville is who will step up as a leader for the upcoming season.
Will it be a rookie like Jonathan Cyprien or Luke Joeckel? Or will Maurice Jones-Drew or one of the other veterans finally step up and become that leader?
Either way, this is a team in desperate need of a leader if it wants to enjoy any type of success this year.
Kansas City Chiefs
Burning Question: How well can Alex Smith run the pistol offense?
When the Kansas City Chiefs hired Chris Ault to be a consultant for the team, the first word that came to everyone's mind was "pistol." No, not the handgun, but the type of offense that Ault was so well known for during his time with the University of Nevada.
Now the question on offense for the Chiefs is how well Alex Smith can run this new offense that is being implemented. Unlike Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson or Colin Kaepernick, Smith isn't known as being an elite athlete.
However, an elite athlete isn't what makes the pistol offense effective so much as a smart quarterback and the right offensive pieces. Smith is definitely a smart quarterback, and there is little doubt that Kansas City has the right pieces to run the pistol offense successfully.
Smith is already running the pistol in OTAs. Now we'll just have to wait and see how well he can run it during the regular season.
Burning Question: How will the offensive line hold up without Jake Long?
The Miami Dolphins made headlines during the offseason when they signed wide receiver Mike Wallace. However, the bigger news with more immediate impact may have been Jake Long signing with the St. Louis Rams.
Losing Long left a huge void at left tackle that someone will have to fill. Even though Long had a down season last year, he was still head and shoulders better than anyone currently on the Dolphins roster.
The likely candidate to replace Long is second-year tackle Jonathan Martin. This is bad news for Ryan Tannehill since Martin graded out as the fifth-worst offensive tackle last year, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
His 47 quarterback hurries were the most given up by any tackle in the entire league. If Martin struggles during OTAs on the left side, we could see the Dolphins begin to panic early to attempt to find a replacement.
Burning Question: Can Christian Ponder take that next step?
No one would argue with you if you said the Minnesota Vikings offense runs through Adrian Peterson. However, as we saw in the 2012 playoffs, they need some type of production from their quarterback in order to have real success.
That quarterback is Christian Ponder, who had his ups and downs over the course of the 2012 season. Unfortunately, there were way more downs than ups.
Now he's without his No. 1 target in Percy Harvin. Thankfully, the Vikings did a great job of bringing in a talented veteran in Greg Jennings and drafting a potential stud in Cordarrelle Patterson.
Much like the Cincinnati Bengals with Andy Dalton, Minnesota will look for Ponder to take that next step, or it may be in the market for a new quarterback in 2014.
New England Patriots
Burning Question: Who becomes the No. 1 receiver in New England?
Ever since Tom Brady became the quarterback for the New England Patriots, he's always had talented receivers to throw the ball to. However, the 2013 season may be the first where Brady doesn't have a true No. 1 receiver.
Both Brandon Lloyd and Wes Welker are gone. Sure, the Patriots brought in Danny Amendola, but he's been injured more than he's been healthy during his career. If he gets injured again, New England will be left with Michael Jenkins, Aaron Dobson and Donald Jones fighting for the top receiver spot.
This is going to be the year where we see just how talented of a player Brady is if he can continue to put up huge numbers with such an underwhelming group of receivers.
New Orleans Saints
Burning Question: How good can this secondary become?
Every NFL team had a flaw last year, and most teams worked hard to improve those flaws during free agency and the draft. However, no team improved on its flawed areas as much as the New Orleans Saints did with their secondary.
For starters, they signed Keenan Lewis, who was one of the top available free-agent cornerbacks. He led the NFL in passes defended last year and is a talented cornerback in man-to-man coverage.
Then the Saints went out and used their first-round draft pick to draft the best safety in the 2013 draft, Kenny Vaccaro. He also excels in man coverage and has the ability to cover slot receivers.
Throw in the hiring of defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, and this secondary has the potential to become very good very quickly.
New York Giants
Burning Question: Will younger receivers step up?
With the New York Giants struggling with their top two receivers, they are going to need some younger receivers to step up during OTAs just in case something terrible happens.
The worst-case scenario right now for the Giants is that neither Victor Cruz nor Hakeem Nicks suits up for the team early in 2013. That's an extremely long shot, but once again, we're talking about the worse case here.
Considering that Cruz and New York are in a "contract stalemate" (via Rotoworld) and Nicks has yet to show up for OTAs, it might not be that long of a shot after all. If neither Cruz or Nicks plays in 2013, that means the younger receivers on the the roster like Rueben Randle and Jerrel Jernigan are going to have to step up.
The more you think about Randle being a No. 1 receiver, the quicker you think the Giants would do whatever it takes to get Cruz and Nicks back on the field.
New York Jets
Burning Question: Geno Smith or Mark Sanchez?
The million-dollar question for the New York Jets is Smith or Sanchez. Since I'm sure you are all sick of hearing about it, I'll be brief in breaking this down.
Mark Sanchez is one of the worst quarterbacks in the league. Geno Smith is a rookie with a ton of potential.
Give the kid the starting job and let's move on.
Burning Question: Can Tyler Wilson overtake Matt Flynn?
Few positions have been as terrible in recent years as the Oakland Raiders' quarterback. Things looked up a little when Oakland traded for Flynn in the offseason.
However, the Raiders also drafted Wilson in the fourth round of this year's draft, and all signs point to him really giving Flynn a run for his money. According to Steve Corkran of The Contra Costa Times, Wilson has been the one who everyone is talking about as the best-looking quarterback during OTAs.
Wilson has a real chance to win the starting job before the season starts. As for Flynn, that'd make back-to-back seasons that he was ultimately beaten out by a rookie quarterback in his first year with a team.
Burning Question: Is Michael Vick the QB to run Chip Kelly's offense?
Let's be honest for a second here. No one really knows what to expect from the Philadelphia Eagles on offense this year. We know that Chip Kelly was an offensive genius in college, but we don't know that he'll be that way in the NFL.
We do know, however, that he has one of the quickest quarterbacks in the league in the running to be the first quarterback on the depth chart. At first glance, Vick looks like the ideal candidate to run Kelly's offense, and it appears that he'll likely get the first chance to do so.
He's taking first-team reps in OTAs ahead of Nick Foles and rookie Matt Barkley. Whether it'll stay that way for the rest of training camp and preseason is unknown, but as of right now, it appears that Vick is the quarterback that Kelly wants running his offense.
Burning Question: Who steps up in Mike Wallace's absence?
With the departure of Wallace to the Miami Dolphins, the Pittsburgh Steelers have a huge hole in their receiving game. Wallace was the Steelers' deep-threat receiver and the player who could get Ben Roethlisberger out of jams.
Now without Wallace, Pittsburgh will need someone to step up in his absence. The most logical candidate for that is rookie Markus Wheaton.
Wheaton has similar straight-line quickness to Wallace and the ability to consistently win one-on-one situations. Unfortunately, he hasn't participated in, and won't participate in, any of Pittsburgh's OTAs due to Oregon State's late graduation.
That puts him behind his teammates in terms of learning the offense, which could ultimately hurt his chances of becoming the Steelers' next Wallace. If Wheaton takes too long to figure out the offense and is too raw to start the regular season, the Steelers will have to look elsewhere to find their deep-threat receiver.
San Diego Chargers
Burning Question: Can D.J. Fluker play left tackle?
The San Diego Chargers' biggest need heading into the offseason was the offensive line, especially the offensive tackle positions.
So what did the Chargers do? Instead of signing a player like Jake Long, San Diego went out and signed Max Starks away from the Pittsburgh Steelers. That's the same Starks that graded out as the 71st-best offensive tackle out of 80 tackles graded by Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Now the Chargers have to be wondering if Fluker, their first-round pick this year, has the ability to play left tackle so Philip Rivers has a chance surviving this year. Many pegged Fluker as capable of playing right tackle only, but it's definitely worth giving him a chance if it means keeping Starks away from the left side of the line.
San Francisco 49ers
Burning Question: Who steps up in place of Michael Crabtree?
One unfortunate thing about OTAs can be the injuries, and the San Francisco 49ers suffered quite the major injury. Michael Crabtree suffered a full Achilles tear, which he had surgically repaired days after it happened late in May.
Crabtree and quarterback Colin Kaepernick showed incredible chemistry late last season, so this is a huge blow to the 49ers. Now they need to figure out how to replace Kaepernick's No. 1 target from last season.
Anquan Boldin, who San Francisco traded for, figures to play a huge role, but he'll need help. With Crabtree down, look for A.J. Jenkins and Quinton Patton to get a chance to shine.
Burning Question: How quickly can Russell Wilson and Percy Harvin click?
What was really incredible about Wilson's rookie season is that he put up incredible statistics without much talent at the receiver position.
Sidney Rice was the leading receiver, but after him, Wilson was throwing to guys like Golden Tate, Zach Miller, Doug Baldwin and Anthony McCoy. The Seattle Seahawks realized that Wilson needed some legitimate targets and traded for Harvin.
Now the only question is how long will it take for Wilson and Harvin to get on the same page. If the two can build chemistry rather quickly, the Seahawks might need to be considered an early Super Bowl contender.
St. Louis Rams
Burning Question: Who is the No. 1 receiver for Sam Bradford?
The St. Louis Rams desperately needed some offensive weapons for Bradford, so they signed Jared Cook in the offseason and drafted Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey.
However, they still haven't figured out who will be the No. 1 receiver for Bradford. While Austin will likely see the most targets next year, he'll probably see those targets as a slot receiver. That leaves Brian Quick and Chris Givens as the likely candidates for the title of top receiver for the Rams.
Givens is coming off a much more productive season last year, but Quick's size and potential could ultimately make him the ideal candidate to become the No. 1 receiver in St Louis. Either way, Bradford has to be excited that he finally has some receivers to throw the ball to.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Burning Question: Is there a quarterback competition?
When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers drafted Mike Glennon, no one really thought that he'd compete for a job this year. Josh Freeman is a free agent next year, and it made sense for Tampa Bay to have a backup plan.
However, through rookie camp and OTAs so far, Glennon has made quite the impression on the coaching staff. In fact, Glennon has made it to where head coach Greg Schiano isn't against him beating out Freeman for the starting job.
Whether that means there is actually a competition or not is anyone's guess, but if Glennon continues to impress throughout OTAs and training camp, we could literally be talking about Glennon overtaking Freeman this year instead of down the road.
Burning Question: Does Chris Johnson like his new offensive line?
As much as the Tennessee Titans want their offense to run through Jake Locker, this team is still so dependent upon Chris Johnson. In order for Johnson to be successful, he needs to be happy.
Before the draft and start of free agency, Johnson kept throwing his offensive line under the bus, so the Titans went out and signed Andy Levitre and drafted Chance Warmack and Brian Schwenke.
Levitre and Warmack should instantly improve the ground game and make Johnson a very happy man. However, if he struggles again to start the season, how long until he's complaining again about the poor play of his offensive line?
Burning Question: How healthy is Robert Griffin III?
The only question that anyone cares about concerning the Washington Redskins revolves around RG3 and his knee.
Everyone wants to know exactly how healthy Griffin is and what the timeline is for his return. The most recent reports coming out of Washington are that Griffin has now resumed running. He's expected to do some more explosive running in the next few weeks.
The real question is whether Griffin can have the same type of miraculous healing that Adrian Peterson had last year. If he can, the NFL should watch out because RG3 will be in for a big year in 2013.