Every NFL Team's Biggest Problem at the Start of Training Camp

Vincent FrankCorrespondent IJuly 26, 2013

Every NFL Team's Biggest Problem at the Start of Training Camp

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    In just over a week, the 2013 NFL season will unofficially be underway when the Miami Dolphins take on the Dallas Cowboys in the annual Pro Football Hall of Fame Game in Canton, Ohio. 

    Every single team around the league has a problem or two as it relates to its roster, depth chart, injuries or something else that has happened off-the-field. 

    In short, there seems to be more questions than answers at this early point in training camp. 

    How long will new Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Percy Harvin be out? Who is going to fill Michael Crabtree's role for the defending NFC champion San Francisco 49ers? 

    These are just a couple of the questions facing two of the best teams in the NFL. 

    Quarterback competitions will take hold in otherwise meaningless preseason games, while injuries will start to pop up around the league. 

    Today's article will focus on one problem area for each NFL team as training camps start to take over the news cycle. 

     

    All contract information provided by Spotrac.

     

Buffalo Bills: Quarterback Situation

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    The Buffalo Bills have a solid running game in place with C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson. They have talented young receivers on the outside. They also have a new head coach in Doug Marrone who will bring a modern offense to Buffalo. 

    Defensively, the Bills struggled last season, but they possess the necessary talent to improve in 2013. 

    All said, Buffalo could be in prime position to surprise a lot of skeptics this season. 

    With that in mind, the primary issue that the team has at this point is its quarterback situation. Can Kevin Kolb prove his worth as a starting quarterback this year? Will EJ Manuel take over the reins as a wide-eyed rookie? 

    The ultimate conclusion to this training camp battle may very well depend on who gives Marrone the best chance at success in his first season. 

    Kolb played well last season in Arizona before his offensive line let him down. He won three of his five starts and threw eight touchdowns compared to three interceptions before missing the final 10 games due to injury. 

    Kolb apologists will point to the circumstances in Arizona as a primary reason why he never lived up to the expectations that came with his trade to the desert. 

    While that may be true, this is likely his last chance to prove he can be a starter in the NFL. 

    As it relates to Manuel, he seems to have everything in place to succeed as a rookie. In what has to be considered the complete antithesis of Geno Smith's situation with the Jets, Manuel has the weapons to succeed as a rookie. 

    Either way you put it, Buffalo must get better quarterback play than we saw last season if it is going to make a surprise playoff run in 2013. 

Miami Dolphins: Starting Left Tackle Position

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    Jonathan Martin got completely owned in this highlight-worthy play against San Francisco last season, just one example of how the former second-round pick was atrocious in pass protection as a rookie. 

    According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Martin ranked 75th out of 80 qualified tackles in pass protection last year. The interesting thing here is that 12 of his 16 starts came at right tackle. 

    According to Ourlads.com, Martin is slated to start at left tackle with new addition Tyson Clabo taking over the right tackle position. 

    Martin is expected to fill the shoes of departed former No. 1 overall pick Jake Long, who signed with the St. Louis Rams on a four-year, $34 million contract this offseason. 

    With youngster Ryan Tannehill under center, Miami needs solid protection upfront in order to improve what was a below-average passing game last season. 

    If Martin fails to take his game to the next level, all of the additions Miami made at skill positions won't matter a whole bunch. In short, Tannehill needs to have time to find his receivers on the outside. 

     

     

     

New England Patriots: Wide Receivers

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    New England's returning corp of receivers caught a total of 21 passes from Tom Brady last year. All those completions went to Julian Edelman, who was just recently placed on the active/PUP list, according to ESPN.com. 

    Considering that Edelman's 2012 season ended early with a foot injury, this should be cause for alarm in New England. He should, however, be ready at some point in the not-so-distant future. 

    The larger issue here is what New England is going to do as it relates to both the starting lineup and depth at wide receiver. 

    They did select Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce in April's draft. Both are expected to make immediate impacts for Brady and Co. as rookies. 

    New England also went out and signed former St. Louis Rams receiver Danny Amendola to a five-year, $28.5 million contract.

    When on the field, Amendola has shown the ability to produce somewhere near the level that New England saw from Wes Welker over the past six seasons. Amendola has missed 21 games over the past two seasons, though, but is averaging 4.7 receptions per outing in his career. 

    It's all about staying healthy for Amendola. 

    New England does have one thing working in its favor here. It seems like Brady can get water from a rock when it comes to his receivers. He has made the likes of Deion Branch and Edelman, among others, look like above-average receivers in the past. 

    The Patriots will assuredly be banking on the same thing to happen this season. 

     

New York Jets: Mark Sanchez and the Quarterback Situation

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    It's hard to look past the Jets quarterback situation when trying to draw a conclusion about what their biggest problem area is. Mark Sanchez has one final chance to show the Jets that he can be their quarterback this season.

    For head coach Rex Ryan, the decision between Sanchez and rookie signal-caller Geno Smith might come down to who could save his job. 

    If that's the case, it's hard to imagine Ryan trusting Sanchez to be that guy. 

    According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Sanchez finished last season with the second-worst grade among qualified quarterbacks; right ahead of Brandon Weeden in Cleveland. 

    Sanchez's regression has been alarming over the past couple seasons. He has averaged over 1.5 turnovers per game since the start of the 2011 season. 

    That's just not going to get it done. 

    For what it's worth, Smith likes his chances of earning the starting quarterback job, according to the Saturday Gazette-Mail. 

    While extremely talented, there has to be some concern over Smith's ability to learn the nuances of the NFL and succeed as a rookie. This is only magnified by the lack of surrounding talent on the Jets offense. 

    The final decision is two-fold. 

    First, New York could go with the veteran quarterback in Sanchez who understands the system and has experience under center in the NFL, but possesses nearly no upside. 

    Second, it could send the inexperienced rookie out there to learn on the fly and make his mistakes. 

    Either way, don't expect a whole lot from the Jets quarterback position in 2013. If the options include either a marginal veteran or an inexperienced rookie, you are not in a good place.  

Baltimore Ravens: Wide Receiver Depth

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    It's hard to indicate in words just how important Anquan Boldin was to Baltimore's passing game last year. You simply can't quantify what he did for quarterback Joe Flacco during the latter part of the regular season and in the playoffs.

    Flacco was able to throw the ball up for grabs, fully expecting Boldin to come down with it.

    Boldin was targeted 43 times in Baltimore's final five games. He came down with 29 catches for 473 yards and four touchdowns during that span, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). 

    Torrey Smith now takes over as the Ravens' No. 1 wide receiver after Boldin was dealt to the San Francisco 49ers. 

    Despite putting up 855 yards and eight scores, Smith caught just 47 percent of the passes thrown in his direction last season. It remains to be seen if he can be that consistent go-to guy. 

    Smith might be a question mark as Flacco's primary receiver, but the larger issue is behind him on the depth chart. 

    Jacoby Jones put up over 400 receiving yards last season. but he is one dimensional. Meanwhile, the rest of Baltimore's returning receivers put up little production in 2012. Deonte Thompson, David Reed and Tandon Doss combined for just 17 receptions and one score. 

    Baltimore also waited until the seventh round to select a wide receiver this past April. That selection came in the form of small-school stud Aaron Mellette, who has a rather extensive learning curve coming from Elon. 

    Even if both Smith and Jones perform up to the levels we saw last season, Baltimore is going to miss Boldin big time in the passing game. 

    Not exactly what Baltimore had envisioned as a supporting cast for its newly extended franchise quarterback.  

Cincinnati Bengals: Starting Strong Safety Job

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    Taylor Mays is not a starter-caliber safety in the NFL. This was evident during his short tenure with the San Francisco 49ers, especially once they traded him after only one season. 

    Cincinnati figured his athleticism and success at USC could translate to its system. 

    This did not happen. 

    Mays has started just three games over the last two seasons, recording a total of 21 tackles. 

    According to Paul Dehner Jr. of The Cincinnati Inquirer, Mays is currently on the roster bubble: 

    The club enters Year 3 of hoping Mays’ instincts catch up with his elite physical skills at the safety position. With a heated competition between Mays, Shawn Williams, George Iloka and Jeromy Miles for the spot opposite Reggie Nelson, the difference between a great camp and subpar one could be the difference between starter and off the roster.

    The other three options that Dehner lists above have very little experience and will be liabilities in the back end of Cincinnati's defense. 

    As it relates to Shawn Williams, a rookie from Georgia, I had former teammate Bacarri Rambo ranked ahead of him leading up to the draft. He struggles a great deal in coverage and lacks the natural ability to go up against NFL-level talent in the passing game. 

    Pretty much every option Cincinnati has next to Reggie Nelson at safety will be the weak link to an otherwise talent-laden defense. 

    Head coach Marvin Lewis and Co. will likely be banking on the deepest defensive line in the NFL to mask this one single weakness. 

     

Cleveland Browns: Starting Quarterback Job

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    While Brandon Weeden got a bad wrap last season due to his rather advanced age for a rookie, the numbers indicate he was pretty much on the same level as Ryan Tannehill of the Miami Dolphins. 

    As has been the case over the past couple seasons, all scouting reports on Weeden start and end with his age. 

    You've heard the jokes before. "He's older than Alex Smith and Aaron Rodgers," is a continuing theme among Weeden skeptics. 

    Any signs of progress for the former first-round pick will only help Cleveland's suddenly talented offense. 

    That being said, if he fails to up his game or regresses, there will be many more questions about the Browns quarterback situation. 

    Do they go hard after one in the 2014 NFL draft? Is Jason Campbell a viable stopgap option? 

    For a franchise with a rather extensive history of questionable quarterback play, Cleveland needs this position solidified in order to be taken seriously in the AFC North. 

    Even more importantly, Cleveland needs Weeden to progress as a quarterback if it is going to surprise skeptics this season. 

    The talent is clearly there on the rest of the roster. It's now up to the quarterback, whoever he is, to live up to his end of the bargain. 

    In short, 2013 will represent a make-or-break campaign for the Weeden experiment. 

     

     

Pittsburgh Steelers: Pass Protection

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    After missing the playoffs this past season, the Pittsburgh Steelers are going to need their franchise quarterback under center for all 16 games if they are going to return to the postseason.

    That's not exactly the smallest of orders.

    While Ben Roethlisberger is one of the toughest quarterbacks in the entire NFL, he just cannot continue to take the battering that we have seen over the past couple of years if he is going to play an entire regular season.

    The veteran quarterback has been sacked an average of 38 times per season since 2009, but that really doesn't tell the entire story.

    According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Pittsburgh's offensive line ranked 31st in the NFL in pass protection last season.  

    Due to a pretty bad salary cap situation, Pittsburgh wasn't able to upgrade this unit in the offseason. It goes into the 2013 campaign with sophomore Mike Adams at left tackle and fellow youngster Marcus Gilbert at right tackle. Adams started six games last season, but has yet to play the blindside. Meanwhile, Gilbert has just 18 starts in two seasons. 

    Another injury-shortened season for Big Ben will likely derail Pittsburgh's hopes of returning to the playoffs after a one-year hiatus. 

     

Houston Texans: Inside Linebacker Health

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    Linebacker Brian Cushing jumped on the scene with a Pro Bowl performance as a rookie in 2009 and really never looked back. He anchored the middle of Houston's defense for the next two seasons, putting up 125 tackles and four sacks in 2011. 

    The former first-round pick then injured his knee last October and missed the final 11 games of the season. 

    Including the postseason, Houston yielded an averaged of 24 points per game during Cushing's absence. This includes 42 points against Green Bay, 37 against Jacksonville, 31 against Detroit and an average of 41.5 points in two games against New England (via Pro Football Reference). 

    Needless to say, he's as important as any Texans defender at this point. 

    His projected running mate at inside linebacker this season, Darryl Sharpton, has dealt with various injuries in his first three NFL seasons. During that span, the Miami product missed 21 of a possible 48 games. 

    Outside of these two starters, the Texans really don't have any starter-caliber inside linebackers to fill the void.

    As most of you already know, the backbone of a 3-4 defense is linebacker play. With question marks at two of those four starting positions, Houston has to be a bit worried. 

     

     

Indianapolis Colts: Defensive Front Seven

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    When Indianapolis switched to the 3-4 defense under then first-year coordinator Greg Manusky last season, there were questions about how its personnel would fit. 

    Veterans Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney moved from defensive end to outside linebacker. The transition for these two former Pro Bowlers wasn't seamless. 

    Mathis recorded eight sacks, which was his lowest output since a seven-sack performance in 2007. Meanwhile, Freeney racked up a measly five sacks in an uninspiring season. 

    With Freeney moving on to San Diego in the offseason, Indianapolis will be relying on rookie first-round pick Bjoern Werner to fill the void. 

    The Florida State product played with his hands down the majority of the time in college and could be facing a tough transition to both the NFL and outside linebacker. 

    In total, Indianapolis recorded just 32 sacks as a team last year. 

    The only way its going to be able to mask a relatively weak secondary is with a consistent pass rush in the front seven. 

    That's the major question for the Colts heading into camp. 

Jacksonville Jaguars: Entire Defense

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    Where to start here? 

    Jacksonville's entire defense recorded a total of 20 sacks as a unit last year, which was less than the number of sacks J.J. Watt put up by himself. 

    What did new head coach Gus Bradley and Co. do to solidify this area of weakness? Absolutely nothing. 

    The entire 2013 NFL draft came and went without Jacksonville spending as much as one pick on a pass-rusher. It also failed to sign anyone of significance to fill the void. 

    Tyson Alualu will now move to the outside in Bradley's hybrid 4-3 scheme, but that's more to help in run support than anything else.

    According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), the former first-round pick was the 84th-best pass-rushing interior lineman last year. 

    Jason Babin, Andre Branch and Jeremy Mincey will form the rest of Jacksonville's defensive end rotation. They combined for just 5.5 sacks in 2012. 

    The Jaguars are also incredibly thin and young in the secondary. 

    They selected five defensive backs, including safety Johnathan Cyprien and cornerback Dwayne Gratz in the 2013 draft. Both of these youngsters are slated to start as rookies. Meanwhile, the Jaguars picked up the injury-riddled Marcus Trufant to challenge for a starting position on the outside. 

    While Bradley did wonders in Seattle over the past few seasons, he just doesn't have as much to work with in Jacksonville. It's going to be a rather extensive rebuilding process for the young head coach and his equally young defense.  

Tennessee Titans: Defensive Secondary

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    Tennessee's defense ranked 26th against the pass and yielded a ridiculous 92.7 quarterback rating last season. The 31 passing touchdowns it gave up also ranked in the bottom four in the NFL. 

    It goes without saying that the secondary was as much to blame here as the front seven. 

    Despite signing a five-year, $35 million contract last offseason, Michael Griffin continued to struggle against the pass. Pro Football Focus (subscription required) graded him second-to-last among all safeties in the NFL in this category last year. 

    The loss of Cortland Finnegan also hurt a great deal. 

    Alterraun Verner failed to take that next step as the No. 1 cornerback, while Jason McCourty regressed from what was a solid 2011 campaign. 

    Tennessee might have one of the youngest and most talented front sevens in the entire AFC, but it needs its secondary to step up if the entire defense is going to improve upon a disastrous 2012 performance. 

     

     

     

     

     

Denver Broncos: The Von Miller Situation

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    By now you are aware of the unusual circumstances that surrounded the departure of Elvis Dumervil to the Baltimore Ravens during the offseason. 

    While that loss was definitely a blow for the Denver Broncos, they were in a better situation to overcome it due to the emergence of Von Miller as one of the best pass-rushing outside linebackers in the NFL. 

    Miller has recorded 30 sacks in two seasons with the Broncos and appears ready to continue that dominance moving forward. 

    There is possibly one major road block from that fully happening this season. 

    Miller is facing a potential four-game suspension for violating NFL's substance abuse policy. An appeal is set to be heard in about three weeks time, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter. 

    If the suspension is upheld, Denver's defense will be without its one major star. Losing Miller for the first four games will put a ton of pressure on Peyton Manning and the passing game early on, especially with the departure of Dumervil to the defending Super Bowl champions. 

    The good news here is that Denver is the clear favorite in one of the weakest divisions in football and Miller will be ready to go when it counts the most. 

     

     

     

Kansas City Chiefs: Pass Rush

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    For a team that won just two games last season, Kansas City finds itself in a surprisingly good situation right now. It now has stability at quarterback with Alex Smith, a strong coaching staff led by Andy Reid, a great young offensive line and a solid running game. 

    The Chiefs also appear to be in a rather good position defensively. They have three solid cornerbacks in Brandon Flowers, Dunta Robinson and Sean Smith. Safety Eric Berry, who struggled last year, is also nearly two years removed from a serious injury that derailed his sophomore season. 

    Everything might be falling into place here for a surprise playoff run. 

    The one hurdle could be the lack of a consistent pass rush. Justin Houston led the team with 10 sacks, and Tamba Hali pitched in with nine last season. Outside of these two linebackers, Kansas City tallied a total of eight sacks throughout the entire year.

    Whether it is Tyson Jackson or Mike DeVito accumulating a few sacks each or continued progression from those two aforementioned outside linebackers, Kansas City will have to put up more than the 27 total sacks they totalled last year.

    If not, it really doesn't matter how good that secondary is. Give a quarterback time to throw the ball and even the best secondary in the NFL can't stop him.

     

     

     

Oakland Raiders: Pass Defense

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    It could be stated that Oakland bottomed out last season when it had Shawntae Spencer, Ronald Bartell and Michael Huff sharing starting cornerback duties. 

    While the Raiders pass defense did rank in the middle of the pack in yards against last year, they yielded a 97.5 rating against opposing quarterbacks, according to NFL.com. 

    General manager Reggie McKenzie fully understood the need to acquire talent and experience along the secondary this offseason. 

    He went out on the free-agent market to sign cornerbacks Tracy Porter and Mike Jenkins as well as safety Charles Woodson to cap-friendly deals. While none of these three veterans are currently at the top of their game, they do represent somewhat of an upgrade over what Oakland fielded last season. 

    The big addition Oakland made was through the draft, selecting D.J. Hayden in the first round. The Houston product represents tremendous upside at cornerback, but is also coming off a serious injury

    For a team with so many questions, being able to field a consistently good secondary could solve a lot of problems. 

    Did McKenzie do enough to shore up this unit short-term, while still focusing on gaining long-term talent?

    That's the major question here. 

     

     

     

     

San Diego Chargers: Pass Protection

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    A lot has been made about Philip Rivers' struggles over the past two seasons, but San Diego's offensive line really hasn't done a whole lot to help the enigmatic quarterback. 

    Rivers was sacked a career-high 49 times last season, but that doesn't even begin to tell the story. 

    According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), only Arizona, Indianapolis and Jacksonville ranked lower than San Diego in pass protection last year.

    The tackle position struggled the most. Whether it was Michael Harris, Jeromey Clary or Jared Gaither, there was absolutely no consistency on the outside. 

    San Diego went out this offseason in an attempt to solidify protection in front of Rivers. 

    The Chargers selected D.J. Fluker in the first round of April's draft and signed veteran King Dunlap away from the Philadelphia Eagles in free agency. They also signed Max Starks, who played with Pittsburgh since being drafted in 2004. 

    They constitute more talent than what we saw from San Diego's tackles last season, but there are still questions. 

    Dunlap did a decent job in pass protection last season, but he's not an upper-level lineman, and he likely won't start. Fluker may end up translating into an above-average tackle in the NFL, but rookies at that position tend to struggle in pass protection.

    Starks, meanwhile, will be counted on to man the left tackle position. He is certainly an upgrade, but it was somewhat surprising that Pittsburgh let him walk in free agency. At 31, perhaps the Steelers thought he was past his prime. 

     

Dallas Cowboys: Injuries Aplenty

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    If the injury bug that seems to be making its way around Dallas Cowboys camp right now is any indication, head coach Jason Garrett and Co. might just want to cancel their five preseason games. 

    The vast majority of these injuries have taken place along the defensive line under new coordinator Monte Kiffin. 

    Defensive end Anthony Spencer underwent knee surgery July 25 and is slated to miss two-to-four weeks. He is expecting to play in one preseason game, according to ESPN. 

    Backup defensive end Tyrone Crawford, who impressed in a rotational role as a rookie, injured his Achilles in the first day of camp and will miss the entire season, as reported by NFL.com.  

    Gregg Rosenthal of NFL.com reported earlier this week via Twitter that Jay Ratliff is at least a few weeks away from practicing after straining his hamstring during a pre-camp conditioning test. 

    That's half of the Cowboys starting defensive line on the shelf with their primary backup lost for the season. Depending on what happens with Spencer and Ratliff, Dallas could be looking at going into Week 1 against the New York Giants with a makeshift front four. 

    Not a good way to start what promises to be a make-or-break season for head coach Jason Garrett. 

     

     

New York Giants: Starting Linebackers

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    You cannot conceivably say that the New York Giants linebacker position is going to be a strength this season. Veteran castoffs Keith Rivers and Dan Connor are slated to start at two linebacker positions with Jacquian Williams starting at the weak side. 

    While New York hasn't necessarily boasted the best linebacker group in recent seasons, this particular unit leaves a lot to be desired. 

    Connor started eight games for Dallas last season and has 27 career starts since joining the league back in 2008. Rivers, a former top-10 pick in Cincinnati, fell out of favor with his original team and was traded to New York prior to the start of last season. He started six games with the Giants in 2012.

    Mark Herzlich should challenge Connor for the starting middle linebacker job. The Boston College product was one of the best linebackers in the nation before being forced to deal with a scary cancer diagnosis. He went undrafted back in 2011, but he has slowly worked himself into shape and appears to be headed for a breakout season. 

    According to the New York Giants' official website, Herzlich took first-team reps in minicamp last month.

    It will be interesting to see how he performs in training camp and during preseason games. It might just be up to him to stabilize what has to be considered an otherwise weak crop of linebackers. 

     

     

     

Philadelphia Eagles: Inexperience and Injuries at Offensive Tackle

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    Jason Peters is simply one of the best blindside protectors in the entire NFL when he is healthy. The issue with Peters is that he missed the entire 2012 season with a torn Achilles. This represented the second time in a calendar year that Peters suffered that very same injury. 

    There is no telling if the 31-year-old offensive tackle will be up to snuff this season. 

    Fully understanding the complex nature of Peters' injury history, general manager Howie Roseman went out there and selected former Oklahoma standout Lane Johnson with the fourth overall pick in April's draft. 

    The ultra-athletic tackle represents the highest ceiling of any tackle selected this past year, but he's going to have to buck the trend of rookie tackles struggling in pass protection. Even a performance similar to what we saw from Matt Kalil in Minnesota last season would help solidify an offensive line that was downright atrocious last year. 

    If Peters is unable to return at 100 percent or Johnson struggles in pass protection, Philadelphia's fast-paced offense under new head coach Chip Kelly might not take form this year.

    The idea of relying on Ed Wang or Dennis Kelly seeing significant snaps at tackle in 2013 has to worry the powers to be in Philadelphia. 

    Let's hope this won't be the case. 

     

     

Washington Redskins: Robert Griffin III's Health

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    There was definitely a flirtation to go with what has to be considered a weak safety unit in Washington, but Robert Griffin III has to be the story in D.C. 

    As one of the best, if not the best, young quarterbacks in the NFL, RGIII is pretty much the face of the franchise in Washington. 

    His performance in leading the Redskins to to the playoffs as a rookie was nothing short of amazing. All of this excitement for the future took a backseat due to multiple injuries to the same knee toward the latter part of the 2012 season. 

    RGIII is attempting to recover from a serious ACL injury that he first suffered in November before injuring again in the playoffs against Seattle. According to his official Twitter account, RGIII was cleared to participate in training camp this past week.

    However, Washington's starting quarterback is not expected to participate in any preseason games and will likely see the field for the very first time Week 1 against the Philadelphia Eagles, ESPN reports. 

    Outside of what promises to be some rust after not playing in a competitive game for a good nine months, there has to be concern over his knee. Considering just how important he is to this franchise, one certainly still has the health of the most famous knee in the Beltway on their mind. 

     

     

Atlanta Falcons: Pass Rush

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    Former Atlanta Falcons defensive end John Abraham recorded 10 of their 29 sacks this past season. With him moving west after being released, Atlanta picked up former Pro Bowler Osi Umenyiora in free agency. 

    The 31-year-old defensive end recorded just six sacks for the New York Giants in 2012. This came on the heels of him averaging nearly 10 sacks per season since 2004. 

    It's pretty clear that many around the league believe Umenyiora is slowing down. That's only magnified by the fact that he received a relatively small two-year, $8.5 million deal with Atlanta this offseason. 

    Outside of Umenyiora, the Falcons really don't have a whole lot in the pass-rush category. 

    Projected starting left defensive end Kroy Biermann has started just 20 games in five seasons with the team and recorded four sacks in expanded playing time last year. 

    While youngsters Malliciah Goodman and Jonathan Massaquoi have tremendous upside, they are about as green as you get as pass-rushers. 

    Considering that Atlanta will be relying on two rookie cornerbacks in the form of Robert Alford and Desmond Trufant to play important roles at cornerback, it will need a more consistent pass rush to succeed this season. 

     

     

     

Carolina Panthers: Cornerback Play

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    Carolina addressed a major weakness along the defensive line by selecting Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short early in April's draft. General manager Dave Gettleman found both value and need with these two selections. 

    Unfortunately for the Panthers, the need to acquire help at defensive tackle disabled their ability to find cornerback help. According to Ourlads.com, Captain Munnerlyn and Josh Norman are slated to start at cornerback in 2013. 

    As a huge fan of Norman's, I am expecting a great deal of progression from what was a struggle-filled rookie campaign. The 2012 fifth-round pick started 12 games and recorded seven passes defended. 

    According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Norman ranked among the bottom 10 cornerbacks in the NFL in pass coverage last year. It goes without saying that he needs to pick that part of his game up a great deal as a sophomore. 

    At just 5'9" and 182 pounds, Munnerlyn is among the shortest corners in the entire NFL. While possessing decent coverage skills, he will struggle going up against larger receivers on the outside. 

    If Carolina is able to maintain its 13th-ranked pass defense from a season ago, it should be in a good position. If not, it will struggle against some pretty darn good offenses in the NFC South. 

     

     

New Orleans Saints: Pass Protection for Drew Brees

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    Say what you want about Jermon Bushrod's performance at left tackle last season, the Saints' options this year with him moving on to the Chicago Bears aren't that good. 

    As of right now, Charles Brown is slated to start at left tackle. The former second-round pick has started just eight games in three seasons and just doesn't seem to be up to the task of protecting Drew Brees' blind side. 

    Terron Armstead, a rookie third-round pick from Arkansas Pine-Bluff, is also in the mix for the starting left tackle job. 

    He was a workout warrior at the combine in Indianapolis this past February and represents tremendous upside. It just remains to be seen if he can handle protecting Brees as a rookie. Former top pick Jason Smith is another candidate to start this year. 

    The Saints offense is predicated on the passing game. If Brees is unable to find consistent protection up front, we may end up seeing the very same mistakes we saw from the future Hall of Fame quarterback last year. 

     

     

     

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Pass Rush

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    By virtue of losing defensive end Michael Bennett to the Seattle Seahawks in free agency, Tampa Bay lost 33 percent of the sacks it tallied as a team last year. 

    It doesn't matter how good your secondary is if you cannot get pressure on the quarterback. This could limit the success that newcomers Darrelle Revis and Dashon Goldson have against the pass. 

    The good news here is that former first-round pick Adrian Clayborn, who missed all but three games last season, returns to full health. The defensive end recorded 7.5 sacks as a rookie in 2011. 

    That being said, the real onus as it relates to Tampa Bay's ability to get to the quarterback is going to be on third-year defensive end Da'Quan Bowers. The former Clemson standout has recorded just 4.5 sacks in two NFL seasons, but he will be asked to play a much more prominent role this year. 

    Rick Stroud of the Tampa Bay Times indicated as much in an article back in June:

    As a rookie, he was limited while the Bucs waited for his knee, injured while at Clemson, to gain strength. Last season it was the Achilles torn in May. If Bowers can stay out of the trainer's room, he can make an impact with his natural pass rush skills. He has added significant upper-body strength while getting into better shape. The problem is Bowers has never been counted on as an every-down player.

    Tampa Bay's success on defense will depend heavily on what it gets from the talented Bowers in his third season. 

     

Chicago Bears: Pass Protection

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    General manager Phil Emery didn't shy away from the fact that Chicago struggled in pass protection last season. He went out there and made a strong effort to upgrade that unit in the offseason. 

    The Bears might have overpaid for former New Orleans Saints starting left tackle Jermon Bushrod, but it was a move that they had to make. If Bushrod is able to return to 2011 form, the five-year, $35.9 million contract he signed won't be seen as too rich. 

    With that in mind, Bushrod was terrible in protection of Drew Brees last year. 

    According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), the veteran graded out as the 50th-best pass-protecting tackle in the NFL last year. In fact, he was ranked below J'Marcus Webb in that category. 

    Speaking of Webb, he is slated to move to the right side. This could be beneficial to both Chicago and the veteran offensive tackle. Rookie first-round pick Kyle Long, who played tackle at Oregon, is likely going to start at right guard in his first year. 

    These three players will have to perform if Jay Cutler is going to succeed in Marc Trestman's new offensive scheme. Simply put, the onus is once again on Chicago's offensive line to pick its game up. 

     

     

Detroit Lions: Pass Protection

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    Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson might have put up Madden numbers over the past two seasons, but the Lions offensive line needs to solidify if those numbers are actually going to translate into wins. 

    Gone are 2012 starting tackles Jeff Backus and Gosder Cherilus. While neither of them performed extremely well last season, they at least created some sense of continuity in protection of Stafford. 

    Former first-round pick Riley Reiff is slated to take over at left tackle with either Corey Hilliard or Jason Fox playing right tackle. 

    These three players have started a combined 12 games in the NFL; not exactly what Detroit is looking for when it comes to protecting its franchise quarterback in 2013. One of these youngsters will have to step up and play solid football in order for the Stafford-to-Johnson connection to translate to wins on the field. 

    For what it is worth, Tim Twentyman of the Lions' official site gives Fox the "slight advantage" to win the right tackle position.

     

     

     

Green Bay Packers: Complementary Pass-Rusher to Clay Matthews

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    General manager Ted Thompson addressed one area of perceived weakness when he selected running backs Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin in April's draft. 

    Thompson also attempted to address an area of weakness in the 2012 NFL draft when he picked up former USC pass-rusher Nick Perry in the first round. Perry struggled a bit making the transition from defensive end to outside linebacker as a rookie. He recorded just two sacks in an injury-plagued campaign. 

    Green Bay's success on defense this season will depend heavily on finding a solid complementary pass-rush threat for Clay Matthews. The Pro Bowl outside linebacker recorded 13 sacks last season, while no other Packers defender put up more than 4.5. 

    As a team, the Packers did tally 46 sacks. However, that type of committee approach in terms of getting to the quarterback is rarely duplicated in consecutive seasons. 

    The onus is on Perry to take that next step and stay healthy. 

     

     

Minnesota Vikings: Christian Ponder and the Passing Game

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    What running back Adrian Peterson did last year was absolutely amazing. Now take into account that he put up the second-most rushing yards in NFL history with defenses stacking the box against him, and you just have to wonder if he is able to repeat that performance. 

    This is one of the primary reasons that Minnesota acquired two wide receivers in the offseason. It picked up former Green Bay Packers star Greg Jennings in free agency and traded up for Cordarrelle Patterson in April's draft. 

    Acquiring that type of talent on the outside, especially with the departure of Percy Harvin, was a necessity. It won't matter much if Christian Ponder doesn't progress in this third season as the Vikings' starting quarterback, though. 

    After starting out his sophomore campaign relatively strong by throwing zero interceptions in his first four games, Ponder struggled throughout the remainder of the season. He tallied just 10 touchdowns in as many games to conclude the regular season before missing Minnesota's playoff loss to Green Bay with an injury. 

    Overall, Ponder averaged just 6.1 yards per attempt, which represented the second-lowest figure among all regular starting quarterbacks last season. 

    In order for Peterson to have sustained success on the ground and for Minnesota's offense to show some type of balance, Ponder will need to push the ball down the field more this season. 

    Is he capable? 

     

Arizona Cardinals: Offensive Line

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    The Arizona Cardinals upgraded their offensive line by signing under-the-radar offensive tackle Eric Winston to a one-year contract on Thursday. It remains to be seen exactly where Winston, who has never suited up at left tackle, will figure into Arizona's plans this season. 

    Potential starting left tackle Levi Brown could find himself without a job after missing the entire 2012 season due to injury. Bleacher Report's Matt Miller chimed in on that possibility and more on Twitter after the Winston signing was made official, saying, "Can Bobbie Massie play left tackle if Levi Brown is finally done? That's an interesting proposition."

    Speaking of Massie, he played really well down the stretch last season and might be given every opportunity to earn the starting left tackle job. 

    Arizona also spent a top-10 pick on former North Carolina guard Jonathan Cooper this past April. Cooper was considered the best pass-protecting guard in the draft and should help protect new quarterback Carson Palmer. 

    Things might be falling into place here. 

    That being said, Arizona lacks continuity and experience along the offensive line, two things that it will need in order to protect the statue that is Carson Palmer. After all, there is no way he lasts a full season if Arizona's offensive line plays anywhere near the same level it played last season. 

San Francisco 49ers: Safety Play

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    Rookie first-round pick Eric Reid will be tasked with replacing Pro Bowl safety Dashon Goldson, who departed for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in free agency. Meanwhile, Donte Whitner remains in there at strong safety. 

    This is the one major question mark heading into training camp for the defending conference champions. Can San Francisco succeed on defense with an unproven free safety and lackluster cover strong safety? 

    Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio will rely a great deal on pressure from the 49ers front seven in order to mask this potential weakness. 

    If Justin Smith and Aldon Smith are able to perform up to the levels that we saw over the course of the first three quarters of last season, San Francisco will be in a good position. If not, its safety play could be a major problem moving forward. 

     

     

Seattle Seahawks: Percy Harvin Injury

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    This is taking the whole San Francisco-Seattle rivalry to a whole new level. A couple of months after San Francisco lost its No. 1 wide receiver Michael Crabtree to a torn Achilles, news broke that new Seahawks wide receiver Percy Harvin has a torn labrum. 

    Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports filed the following report on Harvin's injury on Twitter, saying, "Percy Harvin yet to finalize 2nd opinion on hip, with that process ongoing. If surgery required as 1st Dr. recommended likely season ending." 

    While we will have to wait for that second opinion, which will likely come at some point next week, this has to be concerning for fans in the Pacific Northwest.

    Sidney Rice, Golden Tate and Doug Baldwin would remain Seattle's top three receivers if Harvin is unable to play this season. That's pretty much the same rotation we saw in what was a successful 2012 season from this up-and-coming franchise. 

    That being said, Seattle spent a whole lot in terms of money and draft picks on Harvin, who has a history of injuries. 

    While this might not be a huge short-term issue for the talented team, it does raise questions about Harvin's ability to stay healthy. 

     

     

     

     

St. Louis Rams: Sam Bradford and the Passing Game

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    The excuses are over for quarterback Sam Bradford, who needs to take that next step among the best young quarterbacks in the NFL. 

    St. Louis added tight end Jared Cook and wide receiver Tavon Austin as pass-catching options for the former No. 1 overall pick. Bradford now has the weapons to be more than the game manager that we have seen during his short three-year career. 

    While Bradford did throw for a career-high 21 touchdowns and 3,702 yards last season, he still failed to help the Rams offense progress a great deal. They ranked 25th in scoring offense at just 18.7 points per game. 

    In order for the Rams to make a surprise run at the NFC West this season, Bradford needs to take that next step and become a reason why they have success on offense. 

    If not, St. Louis is looking at a third-place finish in the best division in football. 

     

    Vincent Frank is an NFL featured columnist at Bleacher Report.

    Vincent is the head sports editor at eDraft, co-host of Draft Sports Radio (which airs every Monday and Wednesday from 3-6 p.m. ET) and a fantasy writer for Pro Football Focus.