Every NFL Team's Greatest Mystery Heading into Training Camp
Each NFL team has a plethora of mysteries to solve before the regular season commences Sept. 5. Said mysteries vary from positional battles, schematic adjustments and replacing departed talent/production.
But what is each team's most pressing mystery heading into training camps? Click ahead to find out.
Arizona Cardinals: Which Carson Palmer Did the Cardinals Acquire?
Off the heels of one of the more egregious quarterbacking seasons in league history, the Arizona Cardinals traded for veteran quarterback Carson Palmer in a swap of late-round picks with the Oakland Raiders.
At face value, acquiring a quarterback who eclipsed 4,000 yards passing last season for a late-round selection is a home run. Certainly Palmer, regardless of diminishing talent, is an improvement from an ailing Kevin Kolb and John Skelton.
But what can Arizona expect from Palmer?
Without drafting a quarterback in this year’s draft—a wise decision in a soft QB class—Arizona is conceivably lurching forward with Palmer as its quarterback for the next two seasons (which also gives the Cards an out after one season).
Is this wise? As followers of the NFL, we often unfairly associate a team's record with the starting quarterback. The blame for the Oakland Raiders' 2012 woes don’t belong at the doorstep of Carson Palmer.
Last season, Palmer was 10th in the NFL in passing yards, and his 61.1 completion percentage was better than that of Eli Manning, Joe Flacco, Cam Newton and Matt Stafford.
Though the most optimistic of Cardinals supporters are prognosticating a playoff run with Palmer in 2013, at the least, Arizona should expect an improvement from its 5-11 mark.
Atlanta Falcons: What Is the State of Their Pass Defense?
Atlanta has little to worry about on the offensive end of the field.
But the Falcons' absentee pass rush and porous secondary was the principal flaw in their failure to reach the Super Bowl in 2012.
Last season, Atlanta was 28th in sacks and 22nd in the league in yards allowed. In two playoff games combined, opposing quarterbacks had a quarterback rating of 116.
Atlanta’s excellent front office identified the issue and spent their first two draft selections on defensive backs Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford. Atlanta will need one of them to secure the starting job opposite Asante Samuel.
To improve the pass rush, the Falcons signed former New York Giant Osi Umenyiora and drafted Malliciah Goodman. But will that be enough?
For Atlanta to take the next step, both the secondary and pass rush will need to improve. Whether one, or both, achieves this is the greatest mystery facing the Atlanta Falcons in 2013.
Baltimore Ravens: Can Joe Flacco Carry over His Postseason Success?
What Joe Flacco accomplished during the Baltimore Ravens' 2012 Super Bowl run was spectacular. But Flacco’s regular-season performance is only slightly above average.
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Every personnel move Baltimore has conducted since hoisting the Lombardi Trophy upon Flacco carrying over his playoff greatness. The Ravens have been forced to part with valued commodities—Anquan Boldin, Paul Kruger, Vonta Leach, Dannell Ellerbe, Ed Reed, Cary Williams—to clear cap space for the gargantuan $120 million Flacco contract.
Flacco helped bring the Ravens a Super Bowl victory, but at what cost? The mystery will solve itself over the next few seasons.
Buffalo Bills: When Will They Hand EJ Manuel the Quarterbacking Reins?
When the Buffalo Bills made EJ Manuel the first quarterback selected in the 2013 NFL draft, it was an obvious indication he was their quarterback of the future.
But when does the future begin?
The Bills quarterback competition was reduced to Kevin Kolb and Manuel when the team released Tarvaris Jackson last week. The team's current depth chart shows Kolb at the top, but how long can the veteran stave off the ambitious rookie?
The deck is stacked against Kolb. The Bills are entering a new era with the hiring of rookie head coach Doug Marrone, naturally making fellow rookie Manuel the favorite.
Quarterback battles require delicate handling. Once Buffalo promotes Manuel, there is no going back to Kolb—at least not without damaging Manuel’s psyche and dividing the locker room.
Marrone is already praising Manuel, which may indicate the change will come sooner rather than later.
Carolina Panthers: Who Will Emerge to Assist Cam Newton Offensively?
Acquiring a franchise quarterback is the most important personnel task for an NFL team.
The Carolina Panthers have theirs in Cam Newton but have struggled to surround him with talent. Outside of Steve Smith and Greg Olsen, Newton’s supporting cast has been impossible to count on.
Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams—to whom the Panthers have pledged a combined $81 million—have each fallen off since Newton’s arrival and were each outrushed by Newton in 2012. Brandon LaFell has shown little improvement over his three seasons with the team and finds himself facing a make-or-break season in 2013.
Newton receives unfair criticism for the stagnant Panthers offense. But if Carolina wants to make the leap to playoff contender, someone—preferably multiple someones—will have to step up and contribute this season.
Candidates for emergent receivers include receivers Joe Adams, Ted Ginn, David Gettis and Dale Moss, rookie running back Kenjon Barner and ultra-talented but work-ethic-challenged tight end Nelson Rosario.
Chicago Bears: Did Chicago Make Enough Improvements to Their Offensive Line?
The abuse Jay Cutler has suffered in Chicago at the hands of incompetent blocking is well documented. This offseason, the Bears finally appeared to recognize the issue.
Chicago signed Matt Slauson and Jermon Bushrod in free agency and drafted Kyle Long out of Oregon with their first-round selection. If all goes according to plan, all three will start for Chicago come Week 1.
But did the front office do enough?
The Bears are asking a lot of Long, who is lacking significantly in experience on the O-line. With Cutler entering a contract year, enduring another sack-laden season may drive him away in free agency for a more quarterback-friendly team.
Chicago is returning most of its playmaking defense, and the addition of Martellus Bennett gives the offense a much-needed secondary option in the passing game.
That being said, if Chicago’s new-look offensive line falters in 2013, the Bears will once again be watching the postseason from home.
Cincinnati Bengals: How Will the Arrival of 'Hard Knocks' Impact Cincinnati?
The Cincinnati Bengals are proud of their consecutive postseason wild-card berths. But with Baltimore and Pittsburgh both losing significant contributors this offseason and Cleveland being Cleveland, is 2013 the year the Bengals make a run at the AFC North?
The popular HBO show Hard Knocks will return to Cincinnati to document the Bengals training camp. Last time the cameras descended upon the Bengals camp, the team’s stars were Chad Johnson and Carson Palmer. The distraction that comes with the show didn’t seem to affect the team, as Cincinnati went on to win the AFC North.
But will the increased distractions affect the young Bengals? With most of the 2009 coaching staff still intact, the Bengals players should be well prepared.
But only time will reveal how this mystery plays out. Luckily for NFL fans, it will play out in full detail on our television sets.
Cleveland Browns: Who Will Emerge as the Starting Quarterback?
The least attractive quarterback competition will be taking place in Cleveland between Jason Campbell, Brian Hoyer and Brandon Weeden.
Weeden’s rookie campaign did little to validate his first-round selection, but it did enough to compel Cleveland to allow him the inside line for the starting job in 2013.
Tony Grossi of ESPN Cleveland reported that during OTAs, Weeden saw all of the first-team action. It’s highly unlikely this trend will continue through training camp. Expect both Hoyer and Campbell to push Weeden once camp commences.
Dallas Cowboys: What's the Impact of Jason Garrett’s Reduced Responsibilities?
Jason Garrett survived the hot seat this offseason, but not without losing his play-calling duties. Bill Callahan will instead be executing the job for Dallas this offseason.
The move is perplexing. Garrett's expertise is his offensive acumen. His struggles as a game manager and motivator have been excused in the past—by Jerry Jones, certainly not his critics—because of his excellent offensive mind.
But now that he isn’t calling plays, what exactly is he doing? Will the alleviation of his duties allow him to improve in his problem areas? Does he still have the support of the locker room, or do they see him as a lame duck?
Mysteries are mounting in Dallas for certain.
Denver Broncos: Can Robert Ayers Replace Elvis Dumervil?
Denver’s passing offense was the fifth-most potent in the NFL in 2012, and it hopes to achieve even more with the addition of Wes Welker. But how will they compensate for the loss of Elvis Dumervil?
After a fax machine gaffe led to Dumervil's vacancy to Baltimore, how can the Broncos replace his production?
Replacing Dumervil’s 11 sacks is Robert Ayers, Denver's first-round pick in 2009. In four NFL seasons, Ayers has only accumulated 6.5 sacks.
The Broncos seemingly improved their offense through the well-publicized additions of Wes Welker and Montee Ball, but unless Ayers (or another defensive end) can competently fill Dumervil's vacancy, Denver’s defense is going to take a step back in 2013.
Detroit Lions: Can the Lions Learn to Close in 2013?
The Detroit Lions followed up their playoff appearance in 2011 by faltering to 4-12 in 2012.
However, there is a silver lining for the Lions in that their average margin of defeat was 6.5 points. Fellow 4-12 teams Oakland and Philadelphia had average margins of defeat of 12.75 and 13.66, respectively.
Through that lens, the Lions' 2012 struggles are less ugly. Learning how to close out games isn’t a simple task, but Detroit can take some satisfaction from its close losses. If they won half of their games decided by a touchdown or less, the Lions would have gone 8-8 and been in the playoff hunt.
Pass defense, a balanced offensive attack and third-down efficiency—both offensively and defensively—are all ways Detroit can improve its fourth-quarter woes in 2013.
Green Bay: Will Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin Bring Balance to the Offense?
Alex Green was the Green Bay Packers' leading rusher in 2012, despite gaining only 464 yards.
The lack of a running game came back to haunt the Packers, as it allowed defenses to blitz Aaron Rodgers without fear of repercussion.
The Packers spent two high draft picks on the position this offseason in response to their rushing woes. They don’t need Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin to transform into Arian Foster and Ben Tate, but they do need the rookie duo to keep defenses honest.
The Packers will continue to rely on Rodgers' arm for the bulk of their offense, but without closing the run-to-pass gap, they may be destined for another unsatisfactory result.
Houston Texans: Will DeAndre Hopkins Allow for an Expanded Offensive Scheme?
The Houston Texans offense isn’t exactly imaginative, but that doesn’t mean it isn't effective.
Houston unapologetically relies on its zone-based rushing attack to dominate the pace of the game. For the most part, this strategy works well. But when the Texans struggle to run the football, they falter (see both New England losses and the Green Bay and Minnesota losses).
What has tied down the Texans offense in the past is the lack of secondary passing option to Andre Johnson. In 3rd-and-long situations, defenses shadow Andre Johnson and pressure Matt Schaub.
If rookie DeAndre Hopkins can step in as an immediate No. 2, the Texans offense can develop into and eventually flourish as a more diverse and lethal force, thus expanding their playbook in most all situations.
Indianapolis Colts: Will Offseason Spending Cure Defensive Woes?
Despite an 11-5 record, the Indianapolis Colts defense was far below average. Ranking 21st against the pass and 29th against the run, the Colts defense allowed 31 more points last season than their offense put up.
Translation: The Colts' 2012 season hinged significantly on late-game heroics and Luck (both the player and the word).
The Colts decided to improve their defensive roster with their checkbook.
Joining the Colts defense via free agency is safety LaRon Landry, cornerback Greg Toler, defensive end Ricky Jean-Francois, linebacker Erik Walden and nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin.
The expensive haul of potential starters will set the Colts back financially, but if they improve the defense, it will be money well spent.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Where Does Maurice Jones-Drew Stand with Managment?
It has been a tumultuous year for Maurice Jones-Drew.
It began sour when MJD held out last summer, which resulted in swirling and ultimately empty trade rumors.
Then Jones-Drew suffered a season-ending Lisfranc injury early in the season. Then came the confusing altercation with a security guard, which ultimately resulted in no arrests. And to further the tumult, MJD showed up to offseason workouts overweight.
So where does that leave Jones-Drew with the Jacksonville Jaguars?
MJD is entering a contract year, and there has been no indication the Jaguars intend on extending him. As training camp arrives and the Jags get some preseason games under their belt, Jones-Drew’s standing with the team should illuminate itself.
As of now, anything seems possible. It’s just as easy to see Jones-Drew return to old form as the leader of the Jags offense as it is to see him traded or released.
Quite the mystery indeed.
Kansas City Chiefs: Which Andy Reid Did They Hire?
There has been a lot of change in Kansas City this offseason.
The Chiefs have a new quarterback, new defensive and offensive schemes and a new coaching staff. With changes come mystery, but the greatest mystery is Andy Reid.
Reid was sensational during his first 12 years in Philly. In fact, during that time frame, Reid’s win total was second only to Bill Belichick. However, during Reid’s final two seasons, his teams severely underachieved and stumbled to 12-20.
But will the change of scenery rejuvenate Reid to his former prestige? Or will his tenure in Kansas City be a continuation of his head-scratching play-calling and underachieving?
Certainly, if Reid is going to succeed in Kansas City, he will have to leave his hate for the run game in Philadelphia, as the Chiefs' greatest offensive weapon is the electric Jamaal Charles.
Miami Dolphins: Can Jonathan Martin and Nate Garner Fill in for Jake Long?
The Miami Dolphins may have been the most satisfied non-playoff team last season. The season validated both their hiring of Joe Philbin and the selection of Ryan Tannehill.
Building off their overachieving 2012 campaign, the Dolphins made some major improvements to their roster, namely Mike Wallace, Dion Jordan, Brent Grimes and Dannell Ellerbe.
However, these additions came at a cost, as perennial Pro Bowl left tackle Jake Long departed for St. Louis. By allowing Long to leave and by declining to take a tackle with their abundance of draft picks, Miami is moving forward with Jonathan Martin and Nate Garner as their replacement options.
In 2012, Garner was solid as a spot starter along the offensive line, but adjusting to being the weekly starter at right tackle is asking a lot.
Martin, meanwhile, endured some growing pains as a rookie. He got four starts at left tackle after Long got injured, but he will have to significantly improve in 2013 now that he's being asked to more or less anchor the line.
Minnesota Vikings: Is Christian Ponder Really the Starter?
Among the 38 quarterbacks who took at least 325 snaps in 2012, Christian Ponder found himself ranked 36th in Pro Football Focus' passing ratings (subscription required).
Ten spots ahead of Ponder on that list is current backup Matt Cassel.
Whether you accept advanced metrics or not, the play of Christian Ponder must improve if he expects to maintain his job. Leslie Frazier continues to publicly thrust his support in Ponder's corner, but it’s impossible to believe that he and the Vikings higher-ups have complete faith in Ponder.
A lack of confidence in Ponder helped lead to Percy Harvin's departure, per Jason Cole of Yahoo! Sports, and it contributed to the team being spurned by free-agent wideout Mike Wallace—despite the Vikings offering the speedster $16 million more than Miami.
Once Cassel learns the Vikings offense and training camp commences, this quarterback competition might fire up.
If the Vikings do decide to enter the season with Ponder at the helm, how long can they stand by his poor play before turning to Cassel?
New England Patriots: How Will They Fill the Hole Left by Aaron Hernandez?
Since November, tight end Rob Gronkowski has undergone five surgeries. When and at what level he will return has been a huge concern for the Patriots most of the offseason.
The surgeries are concerning to New England, but with fellow stud Aaron Hernandez standing ready, the Pats were able to err on the side of caution with Gronkowski’s return.
If the Patriots didn't have a contingency plan in place already, they absolutely must have one now.
New Orleans Saints: Can Rob Ryan Fix the Defense?
2012 was painful for the New Orleans Saints—especially for the defense.
The Saints were ranked at the bottom of the NFL in many defensive categories, including yards allowed per game.
Considering Rob Ryan is inheriting, on paper, the worst defense in league history, to not see an improvement would be near-catastrophic.
To what degree the defense will improve under Ryan and the new 3-4 defense is the greatest mystery facing the Saints.
New York Giants: Can David Wilson Lead the Rushing Attack?
When the New York Giants released Ahmad Bradshaw this offseason, David Wilson became the team’s de facto starter.
But is the second-year back ready to become the full-time starter?
Wilson showed promise in flashes during his rookie season, especially in a Week 14 spectacle against the Saints. The Giants are depending on Wilson to step into and embrace his elevated role in 2013.
New York Jets: When Will Geno Smith Supplant Mark Sanchez as Starter?
It’s inevitable that the New York Jets part ways with Mark Sanchez.
Due to a wonderfully idiotic contract extension the Jets gave to Sanchez last offseason, departing with the former first-round pick will be a messy ordeal financially. But after the Jets drafted Geno Smith with the 39th overall pick in April, departure time for Sanchez accelerated.
Rex Ryan has been mum on whom he plans to start, but given the burning heat of Ryan’s head coaching seat, it is difficult to envision him not going with the rookie.
Ryan, after all, is driven by egotism and self-preservation. It is why he refused to go with Tebow late last season. If Tebow had won a single game, Ryan would have to explain to the clamoring chorus of Tebow sycophants why the popular quarterback didn’t start earlier.
The only life preserver Ryan has left is Geno Smith. If he goes with the Smith and fails, he can explain away the struggles as the rookie growing pains of his quarterback.
If he goes with Sanchez and fails, the two will be carpooling to the airport together upon their release.
Oakland Raiders: Can Darren McFadden Stay Healthy?
When healthy, Darren McFadden is a three-down impact player capable of burning defenses as a runner and pass-catcher. However, in his five NFL seasons, McFadden has never played in more than 13 games in a given season.
With McFadden entering the final year of his rookie contract, 2013 will be a major test on his durability.
Durability concerns aside, the Oakland Raiders' rushing attack was brutal in 2012, ranking 28th in the league. McFadden gained a mere 3.3 yards per carry, as both he and the offensive line struggled to establish the run.
Most of the offseason chatter in Oakland has surrounded the quarterback competition, but the greatest mystery for the Raiders is whether they will have a rejuvenated, healthy McFadden in 2013.
Philadelphia Eagles: Who Will Emerge as the Starting Quarterback?
Of the seven quarterback competitions that will take place during training camp, Philadelphia’s may be the most intriguing.
What makes the battle between Michael Vick, Matt Barkley, Nick Foles and Dennis Dixon so interesting is how logically each player fits into the job.
Michael Vick is the most physically compatible option for Chip Kelly’s system, based upon his spectacular athleticism. However, the most important component of Kelly’s system is maintaining a high pace and running a flurry of plays. Of the four quarterbacks, Vick is unquestionably the most turnover-prone, which, on principle, puts him at odds with Kelly.
Nick Foles played well last season for a rookie. With another round of minicamps, OTAs, training camp and preseason games under his belt, Foles will certainly be even better in 2013. Only 24 years old, Foles has youth as his advantage and is also the biggest quarterback of the group.
Barkley makes sense as the Eagles starter, considering he is the most accurate of the group, the youngest of the group and, unlike Vick and Foles, was hand-selected by Kelly.
Finally, Dixon, who certainly has the longest odds of the competitors, makes sense as the Eagles starter due to his experience in the system and familiarity with Kelly, who coached him in college.
Kelly’s lips have been shut, so far, on the competition. In fact, Dixon doesn’t expect a winner to be named until after the final preseason game.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Can Cortez Allen Replace Keenan Lewis?
Cortez Allen played very well last season as the Pittsburgh Steelers' nickel corner; however, with the departure of Keenan Lewis to New Orleans, Allen will be asked to start on the outside for Pittsburgh in 2013.
Allen got three starts late last season for the Steelers and played well enough to secure the job. Cornerbacks in the Dick LeBeau scheme must excel in coverage to compensate for the scores of linebackers the Steelers blitz.
Allen has big shoes to fill, as the Steelers were the No. 1 pass defense in 2012 with Lewis as a starter.
San Diego Chargers: Can Mike McCoy Rejuvenate Philip Rivers?
Not long ago, Philip Rivers' name would emerge during "best NFL quarterback" debates. Rivers was elected to three consecutive Pro Bowls from 2009-2011, but he has since diminished significantly.
This offseason, the San Diego Chargers hired both a new head coach and new general manager. Mike McCoy, who is considered to be one of the league’s premier offensive minds, has been tasked with bringing Rivers back to a high level.
If Rivers doesn’t produce in 2013, the Chargers can release the quarterback and save $30 million over the next two seasons.
San Francisco 49ers: Who Will Replace Michael Crabtree?
The San Francisco 49ers were dealt a significant setback when Michael Crabtree tore his Achilles tendon during OTAs.
The Crabtree injury creates a vacancy opposite Anquan Boldin. The natural replacement for Crabtree is Mario Manningham, who played well in a reserve role with the 49ers in 2012.
But Manningham is also sidelined as he recovers from ACL surgery. Coach Jim Harbaugh recently indicated that Manningham could start the year on the PUP list, according to Chris Wesseling of NFL.com.
2012 first-round pick A.J. Jenkins, who didn’t catch a single pass last season, and Kyle Williams are next in line to compete for Crabtree’s spot. Behind them is rookie Quinton Patton, whom the 49ers drafted in the fourth round this offseason.
Wide receiving depth has become such an issue for the 49ers that Vernon Davis worked out exclusively with the receivers during minicamp.
If the 49ers move Davis out wide, it will speak loudly to their trust in rookie tight end Vance McDonald.
Seattle Seahawks: Who Will Win the Backup Quarterback Job?
When your greatest mystery concerns your backup quarterback battle, you’ve done an excellent job putting your roster together.
Nitpickers will be hard-pressed to find holes in the Seattle Seahawks roster. The additions of Antoine Winfield, Percy Harvin, Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril make the already loaded roster straight-up scary.
Battling for the right to back up Russell Wilson is Brady Quinn and Tarvaris Jackson. Jackson probably holds the advantage because of his familiarity with Pete Carroll. Jackson threw for 3,091 yards in 2011, Carroll's second season as head coach.
St. Louis Rams: How Will They Use Rookie Tavon Austin?
Sam Bradford has been starving for an offensive weapon since arriving in St. Louis. By drafting Tavon Austin in the first round, the Rams have finally armed Bradford.
But how will the Rams use the explosive rookie?
Early reports from OTAs indicate that Austin will, as he did in college, occasionally line up in the backfield and receive handoffs.
Using Austin in the backfield will both keep opposing defensive coaches up at night and alleviate the pressure on Daryl Richardson and Isaiah Pead to replace Steven Jackson’s rushing production.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Is Josh Freeman the Long-Term Answer?
When Tampa Bay drafted Freeman with the 17th overall pick in 2009, they did so with the hope that he would become their franchise quarterback.
Four seasons later, Freeman has yet to distinguish himself as their long-term answer.
Freeman is entering the final year of his contract this season, and Tampa Bay has decided to observe the 2013 season before making a decision on whether to extend him.
In 2012, Freeman set career numbers in yards (4,065) and touchdowns (27), but his completion percentage dropped eight points from his 2011 mark.
Freeman has struggled with turnovers since his excellent 2010 season—where he threw 25 touchdowns to six interceptions—with 39 interceptions thrown over the last two seasons.
During the draft, they seeded a contingency plan by drafting Mike Glennon in the third round.
Can Glennon compete for the starting job come training camp?
Tennessee Titans: Can Jake Locker Stay Healthy?
In an injury-shortened 2012 season, Jake Locker completed 56.4 percent of his passes for 2,176 yards and threw 10 touchdowns to 11 interceptions.
Locker won’t have to win the starting job this year in training camp; instead, he will have to combat his own durability. Locker has battled injuries since his college days at Washington, and he missed time last season with a shoulder injury.
Today’s NFL is anything but patient. Locker has only started 11 games in his career and will need to stay healthy and prove to the Tennessee Titans this season that his services are worthy of the No. 8 overall draft pick they spent on him.
Washington Redskins: Will RGIII Be Ready for the Opener?
Robert Griffin III is pledging that he will not only be ready for the season opener, but that he will be ready at the start of training camp, according to an AP report (h/t ESPN).
The greatest mystery surrounding the Washington Redskins is how legitimate his claims are.
Griffin is recovering from both LCL and ACL surgery in January. Recovery time for the injury can be anywhere from seven to nine months, which creates a window of August to October.
Griffin’s surgeon, the illustrious Dr. James Andrews, is likening his recovery to that of fellow client Adrian Peterson, calling RGIII “superhuman.” Comparing RGIII to Peterson is a disservice to the young quarterback, considering the incredible heights Peterson reached in 2012 following his surgery.
If Griffin and Andrews are correct, expect to see RGIII starting Week 1.