Burning Questions for the NFL's Preseason
As the 2013 NFL regular season nears—as of Sunday, it’s 33 days until the Sept. 5 game between the Baltimore Ravens and Denver Broncos kicks off the fun—teams are preparing in camp and preseason games to answer tons of questions.
There’s not a team in the league without micro-level questions like depth-chart issues, position battles and injuries. But don’t forget about the macro-level items, too.
Several teams have jockeyed to put themselves in a position to make a huge leap forward. Players have moved, adjusted and acted criminally and ignorantly, putting their teams in harm’s way.
Here’s a look at 10 burning questions that will be addressed in the preseason but won’t be answered for some time.
Do the Cowboys Get Over the Hump This Year?
On offense, assuming they can avoid injuries, the Cowboys are loaded with talent. Dez Bryant positioned himself as one of the NFL’s best receivers down the stretch a year ago, if not as the second-best behind Detroit’s Calvin Johnson.
Miles Austin’s versatility is hard to match up against, given that he can play the slot or split out wide. Dwayne Harris is also a capable third receiver, and Romo has always had a good rapport with tight end Jason Witten.
The key will be whether or not the defense can improve under new coordinator Monte Kiffin. Kiffin has implemented the Tampa 2 out of the 4-3 and has put an emphasis on turning the ball over. It looks like this could be the year the Cowboys make some postseason noise.
But that’s been said just about every preseason for a while now.
Will Miami’s Moves Mean an AFC East Title?
The Miami Dolphins were arguably the busiest team in free agency this offseason. Hoping to contend for a division title, the Dolphins bolstered both sides of the ball.
On offense, Miami brought in receiver Mike Wallace and tight end Dustin Keller, plus it re-signed receiver Brian Hartline and backup quarterback Matt Moore.
On defense, the Dolphins appear to have improved significantly by bringing in linebacker Dannell Ellerbe and cornerback Brent Grimes, as well as re-signing Chris Clemons.
The Dolphins hope these moves translate into their first winning season since 2008.
Quarterback Ryan Tannehill won’t have any excuses this year. The talent’s around him, even though Miami lost left tackle Jake Long in free agency, and Tannehill will be called upon to build on his solid finish to the 2012 season. If he can give the Dolphins solid quarterback play, the Dolphins could wind up being the team to beat in the AFC East.
Can Adrian Peterson Come Close to 2,000 Yards Again?
While that is likely 99.9 percent unattainable, Peterson’s sights are set high to the point where you wonder if the star running back will have a shot at being the first NFL player to reach the 2,000-yard mark twice in a career.
Peterson often saw eight men in the box and was still able to find holes, making defenders miss and churning out yards in bunches. However, with Christian Ponder in year three and receiver Greg Jennings integrated into the offense, you have to wonder whether Peterson will get the same number of touches.
The Vikings don’t want to run their bell cow into the ground this early in his career. Peterson’s entering his prime, and running backs don’t stay in their prime very long. Then again, it’s Adrian Peterson. He tore an ACL at the end of 2011 and rehabbed quickly enough to run for 2,097 yards a season ago.
How Do the Seahawks Make Up for Percy Harvin’s Absence?
One of the biggest moves made on the offensive side of the ball was Seattle trading for wide receiver Percy Harvin.
Harvin’s an all-around player who can line up anywhere on the field. You could even give him a Wildcat snap or two and he’d be dangerous. But Harvin’s season is in jeopardy now that he’s had hip surgery.
For now, it’s likely Harvin returns, even though head coach Pete Carroll discussed in a press conference that the team didn’t have a timeline, but it won’t be until late in the season. Therefore, will the Seahawks be able to be as explosive as they were hoping for with Harvin in the lineup?
Probably not, though the Seahawks return just about everyone from an offense that was deadly down the 2012 stretch. The Seahawks should still be fine as long as Sidney Rice, dealing with a knee issue, remains on track to start the season opener.
Even if Harvin were on the roster, the Seahawks offense would run through running back Marshawn Lynch. But with Russell Wilson's emergence as a rookie, Seahawks fans were looking forward to seeing what Harvin could have added to the offense.
How Will the Patriots Look Offensively?
The New England Patriots will have a fairly different look when they open the season on Sept. 8. There’s still a chance tight end Rob Gronkowski is ready for the opener. But their offensive philosophy of using multiple tight ends to create mismatches will change with Aaron Hernandez in jail on a murder charge.
In addition, the reliable Wes Welker is now in Denver, leaving Tom Brady with just Gronkowski and Julian Edelman as familiar and frequent targets. The Patriots did go out and get Danny Amendola this offseason to fill the Welker role, but Amendola has had a history of injuries and isn’t the most durable receiver.
Rookie Aaron Dobson has impressed during training camp thus far, at least early on, according to the Boston Globe. Dobson could be an interesting development in the passing game.
All in all, the Patriots may rely more on the running game this year. Stevan Ridley finished 2012 with a quiet 1,263 yards and 12 touchdowns. Shane Vereen could be a factor in the running game as well.
Will Tim Tebow Have Any Kind of Legitimate Role?
Given the attention Tim Tebow brings from his fanbase and preconceived (and unfounded) hype at the NFL level, the best fit for him at this time is New England.
His head coach, Bill Belichick, hates the media; his offensive coordinator, Josh McDaniels, drafted him in Denver, and there will be no cries for Tebow to start at quarterback in the event Tom Brady has a bad week.
But will Tebow have any kind of role on offense?
Tebow has seen some time early in camp catching passes with the tight ends and has both caught and thrown passes in a drill used to catch passes and quickly elude tacklers, according to the Boston Herald.
Even though the tight end depth chart appears to show an average-at-best unit without Gronkowski around, if Tebow does in fact play some tight end, there will certainly be a learning curve. Those thinking he could step in and naturally play the position underestimate what it takes to play this game at the professional level.
For now, it appears Ryan Mallett is still the backup quarterback. With Brady on the roster, you have to wonder why the Patriots would even think about keeping three quarterbacks. Perhaps Belichick and McDaniels envision a role for Tebow. Or maybe it’s simply a favor to McDaniels, who thought highly enough of Tebow to draft him in the first round when he was the head coach in Denver.
Can Jay Cutler Succeed in Marc Trestman’s System?
With Jay Cutler in a contract year, he’ll need to prove why he’s worthy of being Chicago’s long-term starter at quarterback. So far, the reports out of Chicago have been mostly positive regarding how he’s adjusted to head coach Marc Trestman’s new offensive scheme.
Cutler’s built the reputation of being a gunslinger, but not necessarily in the good way that was spun for Brett Favre. Cutler has had tendencies to force throws into coverage instead of throwing the ball away and moving on to the next play.
Trestman recently told the Chicago media that Cutler is grasping the concepts for his offense, and that he’s checking the ball down or throwing it away when under pressure. This would be a step in the right direction for Cutler, who has mentioned that Trestman is an ideal players’ coach.
There’s no denying the potential Cutler has based on his strong arm and ability to make any throw. But the mental aspect has been lacking over the past few years. If he and Trestman get on the same wavelength this preseason, maybe Cutler will make a leap in 2013.
How Many Rookie Running Backs Will Be Major Contributors?
No rookie running backs were taken in the first round of the 2013 draft. Could there be a scenario where none of the running backs, especially those taken in the second round, contribute in a major way this season?
Running backs just aren’t valued as highly as they once were. Then again, three teams are looking at starting a rookie running back as of now.
Pittsburgh’s Le’Veon Bell is a prototypical bruising back like those the Steelers have trotted out in the past. He’s been getting first-team reps along with Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer, according to Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and could wind up starting.
Rookie Le'Veon Bell was RB w/Steelers first team offense for 4 of its 5 snaps in team drills to end practice. Carried 3 times.— Ed Bouchette (@EdBouchette) July 29, 2013
The Green Bay Packers need a lot of help with their running game, which has been nonexistent in recent years. They drafted Alabama’s Eddie Lacy, who showed up to camp overweight.
Cincinnati’s Giovani Bernard is also one to watch, though BenJarvus Green-Ellis is still a clear-cut starter.
The rookies could earn more chances as the preseason progresses.
How Do the Eagles Get Past All of the Distractions?
Whenever a successful coach takes a shot at the NFL, it’s scrutinized heavily. Chip Kelly has been no different.
A lot of eyes have been fixated on him as he’s simultaneously adjusted to this level while dealing with the fallout from NCAA violations that happened under his watch at Oregon. On top of that, he’s pitted Michael Vick, Nick Foles and Matt Barkley in a quarterback competition that’s been a main focus of the Philadelphia media’s attention.
Now, a video has surfaced with receiver Riley Cooper using a racist slur at a Kenny Chesney concert. With a slew of teammates ready to forgive but not forget, it makes sense for the organization to get rid of Cooper and move forward without him. The only problem is that with Jeremy Maclin out for the year with a torn ACL, the Eagles might need Cooper because there aren’t many other options out there.
The one thing that will move the Eagles past all of these distractions is winning. The Eagles have all preseason to show whether or not they have what it takes to be competitive.
What Will the Ravens Be Like Without Ray Lewis or Ed Reed?
Ray Lewis is a future Hall of Famer, and Ed Reed is one of the NFL’s best safeties to ever play the game. But it was evident that Lewis needed to retire because he could no longer keep up in pass coverage or get off blocks.
Reed was also not going to receive the kind of money he hoped Baltimore would pay him. The NFL is about what a player can do in the future, not what he's done in the past, so Reed bolted to Houston.
There are quite a few question marks at inside linebacker, especially because Jameel McClain may not be ready to start the season opener. Rookie Arthur Brown could wind up starting alongside Daryl Smith, who spent the previous nine seasons with Jacksonville.
Reed’s replacement will be former Raiders safety Michael Huff, who will also be playing alongside a new starter at strong safety in either James Ihedigbo or rookie Matt Elam. The Ravens wanted to get younger and faster on defense. But with the new look, will they be as smart on the football field as Lewis and Reed were for them?