The Biggest NFL Training Camp Question Mark at Every Position

Russell S. Baxter@@BaxFootballGuruContributor IJuly 28, 2013

The Biggest NFL Training Camp Question Mark at Every Position

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    Training camp is under way for all 32 NFL teams, and we are one week away from the first preseason game of 2013.

    Here’s a look at the biggest question surrounding the 10 key positions/areas around the league. We’ve combined the offensive and defensive lines as opposed to separating them by positions like tackle, guard, defensive tackle or defensive end. Cohesion up front on both sides of the ball is crucial.

    Some of the questions raised regard talent, while others revolve around availability. In any case, they are areas to keep an eye on until the start of the season. We will see how well each club attempts to rectify the situation.

    Finally, a big thank you to Pro Football Focus (subscription required) for its outstanding statistical analysis.

Quarterback: New York Jets

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    Mark Sanchez enters his fifth season in the National Football League and is certainly at a crossroads after enjoying success early on. Back-to-back years with 26 turnovers followed consecutive appearances in the AFC title game for the Jets signal-caller and his team.

    Enter rookie quarterback Geno Smith, taken by the franchise in the second round of April’s draft. As it turned out, the talented performer had some question marks that caused him to somewhat surprisingly slip out of the first round three months ago.

    But Smith’s issues and Sanchez’s turnovers are now water under the bridge. It’s a new season and a new start for both with offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg. It also makes for an interesting training camp battle as to who will lead the new-look Jets in 2013.

    2nd: Cleveland Browns

    Second-year pro Brandon Weeden will get the nod but comes off a less-than-scintillating debut season. How hard will he be pushed by well-traveled veteran Jason Campbell?

    3rd: Philadelphia Eagles

    As for now, it’s not only a question of who will start but exactly when we all will find out from head coach Chip Kelly. Will Michael Vick, Nick Foles and rookie Matt Barkley all get their turn in 2013?

Running Back: St. Louis Rams

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    Veteran running back Steven Jackson was a model of consistency for the St. Louis Rams.

    Now the team ventures into the unknown, sort of.

    After nine years in the Gateway City and eight straight campaigns of 1,000 or more yards on the ground, Jackson left the Rams and signed with the Atlanta Falcons.

    The main man in head coach Jeff Fisher’s backfield is now second-year pro Daryl Richardson, who ran for 475 yards on 98 carries as a rookie in 2012. The seventh-round pick a year ago also caught 24 passes for 163 yards. Richardson is still looking for his first NFL touchdown.

    As for depth, 2012 second-round pick Isaiah Pead had as many carries as kickoff returns last season (10), while rookie Zac Stacy is in the mix as well. But replacing a career 10,000-yard rusher is no simple task.

    2nd: Dallas Cowboys

    Running back DeMarco Murray has shown signs of big-play ability in two seasons but hasn’t been able to stay healthy. The Cowboys added former Oklahoma State running back Joseph Randle via the fifth round in April.

    3rd: Oakland Raiders

    Like the Cowboys, the talent is there, but it has had a hard time staying on the field. Running back Darren McFadden enters his sixth NFL season but has missed 23 games in five years.

Wide Receiver: Oakland Raiders

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    The last time quarterback Matt Flynn started a game, he was a member of the Green Bay Packers, and he threw six touchdown passes in a win over the Detroit Lions.

    Last season, Oakland Raiders wide receiver Denarius Moore led the club with seven touchdown receptions.

    Moore and Jacoby Ford are now the starters in Oakland. Moore was third on the team in 2012 with 51 catches. Ford missed the season with a Lisfranc injury. This offseason, former first-rounder Darrius Heyward-Bey was let go by the club.

    Can free-agent pickup Josh Cribbs (Cleveland Browns) make a difference? Is Rod Streater (39 catches, three for touchdowns in 2012) a player to watch? Will young players such as Juron Criner and Brice Butler step up?

    A lot of question marks indeed.

    2nd: New York Jets

    Wideout Jeremy Kerley totaled a team-high 56 catches last season in an attempt to make up for the loss of Santonio Holmes for most of 2012. But when will we see Holmes back on the field? Old friend Braylon Edwards is back in the mix again.

    3rd: Jacksonville Jaguars

    Cecil Shorts was one of the surprise players in the league last season, but the Jaguars will be without 2012 first-round pick Justin Blackmon for the first four games of the year due to suspension. Who will take up the slack in Blackmon’s absence?

Tight End: New England Patriots

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    Since it has been one of the biggest issues of the NFL offseason, we won’t bore you again with the facts surrounding the New England Patriots pass-catching corps.

    With Aaron Hernandez gone and Rob Gronkowski recovering from surgeries, it appears that one-time Super Bowl XLVI adversary Jake Ballard will be Bill Belichick’s starting tight end this season.

    Of course, Ballard was injured in that Super Bowl while with the New York Giants, and that caused him to sit out the 2012 season.

    There figures to be a lot of changes on the New England offense this season. Once Gronkowski returns, how will Ballard’s role with the offense change?

    2nd: Oakland Raiders

    Brandon Myers led the Silver and Black with 79 catches last season, but he signed with the New York Giants this offseason. Currently the team has four rookie tight ends on the roster, while third-year pros Richard Gordon and David Ausberry combined for nine catches last season.

    3rd: Pittsburgh Steelers

    The uncertainty regarding the return of Pro Bowl tight end Heath Miller is a little troubling considering he led the team in receptions last season. The Steelers brought back Matt Spaeth, let go by the Chicago Bears this offseason.

Offensive Line: San Diego Chargers

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    San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers was sacked 49 times last season, and the team’s running game ranked 27th in the league.

    Time for some changes up front.

    There will be new tackles for new head coach Mike McCoy and new offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt. First-round pick D.J. Fluker takes over on the right side, and free-agent addition Max Starks (Pittsburgh Steelers) is the new left tackle. Chad Rinehart, late of the Buffalo Bills, is the new left guard.

    The Chargers also signed free agents in tackle King Dunlap and guard Rich Ohrnberger to help.

    Now it’s just a matter of finding the right combination for the Chargers. For Rivers' sake, hopefully this does not prove to be a lengthy process.

    2nd: Arizona Cardinals

    The Cardinals allowed an NFL-high 58 sacks, and 10 players in the league had more rushing yards than the entire Arizona team last season. Left tackle Levi Brown returns after missing all of 2012, and the club will have rookie guards in Jonathan Cooper and Earl Watford. But Cooper remains unsigned as of now.

    3rd: Pittsburgh Steelers

    There is plenty of talent on paper, led by Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey, as well as recent high picks like tackles Mike Adams and Marcus Gilbert and 2012 first-round guard David DeCastro. But this unit never came together last season, and the jury is still out for now.

Defensive Line: Indianapolis Colts

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    Despite the fact that the Indianapolis Colts won nine more games than they did in 2011, Chuck Pagano’s club has some question marks.

    The Colts gave up 30 more points (387) than they scored (357) last season. Only three teams in the league gave up more rushing yards per game.

    General manager Ryan Grigson addressed the defensive front via free agency, but was the team able to do enough? Indianapolis signed veteran nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin for depth behind young Josh Chapman. Ricky Jean-Francois is the new defensive tackle, but he has totaled only two starts in four seasons.

    This is not an area you want to have concerns about considering running backs Arian Foster, Chris Johnson and Maurice Jones-Drew reside in the same division.

    2nd: Kansas City Chiefs

    Left defensive end Tyson Jackson has been a bit of an enigma since being drafted third overall in 2009. Last year’s first-round pick, nose tackle Dontari Poe, hopes to up his game in his second season. New right defensive end Mike DeVito is a consistent run stopper, but is his addition enough?

    3rd: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

    Left defensive end Michael Bennett and right defensive tackle Roy Miller are gone, and right defensive end Adrian Clayborn comes off an injury-shortened 2012.

Outside Linebacker: New Orleans Saints

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    As has been well documented, the New Orleans Saints were an unmitigated disaster on the defensive side of the football in 2012.

    After giving up the most total yards in a season in NFL history, it’s back to square one.

    That square is Rob Ryan, who brings his 3-4 defensive designs to the Crescent City. But you have to have the right personnel to make it work, and the Saints lost some of that personnel (for now) when free-agent pickup Victor Butler suffered a knee injury that will keep him out indefinitely.

    Meanwhile, former defensive end Will Smith is slated for the right outside linebacker spot, but it remains to be seen if he can make the transition to the new position.

    Third-year pro Martez Wilson is the expected starter in place of Butler. Junior Galette and rookie Rufus Johnson hope to contribute as well. But there are no certainties here, and that has to be of some concern to head coach Sean Payton.

    2nd: New York Giants

    A pair of former first-rounders in Keith Rivers and Aaron Curry are hoping to get their careers back on track with Big Blue, with Rivers a member of the team in 2012. Third-year pro Jacquian Williams hopes to be more productive this season.

    3rd: Buffalo Bills

    Former Indianapolis Colts first-round disappointment Jerry Hughes is the starter on the left side, and free-agent pickup Manny Lawson will open on the right side. And this isn’t a group with a lot of proven depth.

Inside/Middle Linebacker: Minnesota Vikings

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    There has been speculation and concern regarding the middle linebacking spot in the Twin Cities this offseason.

    Have the Minnesota Vikings found the answers they were looking for in their own backyard?

    With Jasper Brinkley off to the Arizona Cardinals in March, the team moved outside linebacker Erin Henderson to the middle. The Vikings also added Desmond Bishop this offseason, let go by the division rival Green Bay Packers. Bishop looks like the starter at left outside linebacker.

    If there are issues, would the team entertain a switch between the players? Minnesota’s defense ranked 16th in the NFL in yards allowed last season and was a mediocre 11th in the league versus the run.

    At least the team has options, but it will be interesting to see how it all plays out.

    2nd: Buffalo Bills

    This was an area of concern last season, hence the selection of Kiko Alonso in the second round in April. Will the switch to the 3-4 help as well? Nigel Bradham will start next to Alonso. Will the team wind up missing veteran Nick Barnett?

    3rd: Denver Broncos

    With the offseason releases of D.J. Williams and, more recently, Joe Mays, third-year pro Nate Irving is the team’s new starting middle linebacker. The Broncos' run defense, third in the NFL last season, was erratic despite the impressive ranking.

Cornerback: Jacksonville Jaguars

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    It is safe to say that Jacksonville Jaguars head coach Gus Bradley has his work cut out for him in his first stint as an NFL head coach.

    Let’s start in the secondary. Familiar faces at cornerbacks such as Rashean Mathis and Derek Cox are gone, and 2012 free-agent pickup Aaron Ross was released after one season.

    The team signed veteran Marcus Trufant this offseason, and it will be interesting to see what he has left, although he is familiar with Bradley from when both were with the Seattle Seahawks. Jacksonville also added free agent Alan Ball (Houston Texans), while rookie Dwayne Gratz, a third-round pick in 2013, looks like the starter at right cornerback.

    Of course, regardless of who’s covering who, Trufant and company hope to get a lot more help from the defensive front. The Jaguars totaled an NFL-low 20 sacks last season.

    2nd: Detroit Lions

    Chris Houston has had problems staying healthy, and the Lions are hoping rookie Darius Slay can make an immediate impact. Second-year pros Bill Bentley and Jonte Green are counted on for depth.

    3rd: San Francisco 49ers

    A surprising team on the list perhaps, but the Niners’ secondary had its issues down the stretch last year, and the team just tried to trade for Eric Wright, who could still wind up in San Francisco. Veteran cornerbacks Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown could be pressed this season.

Safety: Washington Redskins

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    Despite the franchise’s first division title since 1999, all was not right with the Washington Redskins last season...especially when it came to the defensive side of the ball.

    Mike Shanahan’s club gave up 388 points last season, the most among the 12 playoff teams in 2012.

    A lot of the damage done to the Washington defense came via the pass, as the club allowed 31 scores through the air. Only two teams in the NFL gave up more passing yards last season.

    While a pass rush plagued by injuries was one culprit, the play at safety may have been a bigger issue. Veteran free safety Madieu Williams had his problems, while strong safety Brandon Meriweather played in one game in mid-November. Veteran Reed Doughty saw action at both spots. DeJon Gomes saw his share of playing time and was a starter early in the season.

    Perhaps a healthy Meriweather makes all the difference here. For now, he’ll pair with Doughty, and both hope to offer some consistency in the defensive backfield.

    2nd: Carolina Panthers

    Strong safety Charles Godfrey comes off a disappointing season, and free safety Haruki Nakamura was average at best a year ago. Former Oakland Raiders second-round pick Mike Mitchell may be a factor this season.

    3rd: Cincinnati Bengals

    Marvin Lewis’ team needs a little better play from this area, which will no longer have strong safety Chris Crocker. Crocker’s tabbed replacement, Taylor Mays, may be in for a fight for his job from rookie Shawn Williams.