Biggest Questions Facing Each NFL Team Ahead of 2014 NFL Draft
The 2014 NFL draft will commence in less than one month (May 8, but who's counting?), so now is as good a time as ever to address the biggest questions facing each NFL team heading into the all-important event.
The high-point of free agency has come and gone, and the vast majority of quality players are off the market. It's highly unlikely that rosters will change dramatically between now and the draft, meaning that we can now accurately assess areas of need and project the potential fortunes of every franchise.
For some teams, the most important query revolves around the quarterback position, the most important in the sport. For others, it's about whether or not the talent can be upgraded at a position of need that could potentially push the club to the next level. And for the remaining teams, it's about whether or not their rosters will be good enough to contend in 2014.
Here are the biggest questions facing each NFL team ahead of the 2014 NFL draft.
Arizona Cardinals: Can They Seriously Contend for the NFC West Title?
Coach Bruce Arians and the Arizona Cardinals produced a 10-6 campaign in 2013 only to miss the postseason due to the logjam atop the NFC.
The primary reason for that was both the Seahawks (13-3) and 49ers (12-4) finishing with better records in the Cardinals' own division, the NFC West.
Arizona's biggest question mark entering the NFL draft is whether or not it can contend with Seattle and San Francisco, because it's hard to imagine another third-place finish cutting it and earning the team a game or two in the postseason.
The signing of left tackle Jared Veldheer should help protect quarterback Carson Palmer, which was a major bugaboo for the team last year.
Arians is taking an aggressive approach this offseason, telling Darren Urban of Cardinals.com that he wouldn't be surprised if the Cardinals become the first team to play the Super Bowl in their own stadium (Arizona hosts Super Bowl XLIX next February):
I ain't afraid of it. We played well at the end of the season. If we can do that early, the confidence of the core of the team is back. Our leadership is back. We are talented enough. Talent is not the issue. I told them that last year but they didn't believe me until it was too late.
For the Cardinals to make that a reality, they'll have to once again contend with the Seahawks and 49ers for divisional supremacy.
Atlanta Falcons: Will They Move Up in the First Round?
The Atlanta Falcons are coming off a miserable 4-12 campaign that "earned" them the sixth overall pick in next month's draft.
If the club is to return to the postseason, there's no question that general manager Thomas Dimitroff will need to add an impact player with that selection, and there have been rumors that he's interested in moving up to land his man.
Last month, ESPN's Adam Schefter reported that the Falcons are "open to trading up" in the draft. With Atlanta finishing last season with only 32 sacks, moving up to select South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney could be the plan.
Watch here as B/R's NFC South leader writer, Knox Bardeen, tells you why the Falcons should avoid making such a move.
Baltimore Ravens: Have They Surrounded Joe Flacco with Enough Weapons?
Last season, the Baltimore Ravens missed the postseason for the first time with quarterback Joe Flacco under center (a streak dating back to 2008).
Flacco struggled to regain the form that helped the team to Super Bowl XLVII glory, tossing 19 touchdown passes against 22 interceptions on the season. That was due to both the poor play of the offensive line and the lack of weaponry in the passing attack.
The Ravens re-signed left tackle Eugene Monroe and traded for former Buccaneers center Jeremy Zuttah this offseason, though, and the offensive line is expected to be better as a result.
And while it's true that the Ravens brought in former Panthers receiver Steve Smith and former Texans tight end Owen Daniels, while also re-signing both tight end Dennis Pitta and receiver Jacoby Jones, the team still needs another pass-catcher to go along with star receiver Torrey Smith.
Look for the Ravens to address this need in the first few rounds of next month's draft.
Buffalo Bills: Is EJ Manuel Ready to Take the Next Step?
The Buffalo Bills may have missed the postseason for the 14th consecutive season, but there is reason for optimism in lovely Western New York.
General manager Doug Whaley and coach Doug Marrone had a stellar first draft last April, and the team has young talent on both sides of the ball.
But for the team to truly take the next step and contend with the Patriots atop the AFC East, quarterback EJ Manuel will need to both stay on the field and play better in 2014.
Last season, Manuel only started 10 games (going 4-6) and threw 11 touchdown passes against nine interceptions. He'll need to show more consistency and playmaking ability this season.
In his latest mock draft, B/R's Matt Miller has the Bills selecting North Carolina tight end Eric Ebron with the ninth overall selection in an effort to provide Manuel with another pass-catching weapon.
Carolina Panthers: Can They Add Sufficient Talent at the Receiver Position?
Once free agency opened, the Carolina Panthers commenced a bloodletting at the receiver position, and the team's top-three options on the depth chart from 2013—Steve Smith (Baltimore), Ted Ginn Jr. (Arizona) and Brandon LaFell (New England)—are all elsewhere as a result.
The Panthers have watched as division rivals New Orleans, Tampa Bay and Atlanta have all gotten better this offseason, so a repeat of last year's magical 12-4 campaign won't come easy. Gettleman will have work to do in the draft in order to give Newton a chance to succeed.
Chicago Bears: Will the Defense Step Up After a Horrid 2013?
Last season, the Chicago Bears featured the NFL's 30th-ranked defense and were completely unable to stop the run, allowing a preposterous 5.3 yards per carry.
General manager Phil Emery has made a spate of signings in the free agent period to improve the unit, including defensive ends Jared Allen, Lamarr Houston and Willie Young, as well as safeties M.D. Jennings and Ryan Mundy.
But the defense still needs work, both up front and in the secondary. It should surprise no one if Emery uses the vast majority of his draft picks to restock the defense.
If the defense shows even a modicum of improvement, a playoff run could be in order, especially with a potentially explosive offense headlined by quarterback Jay Cutler.
Cincinnati Bengals: Can Andy Dalton Put Together a Consistent Campaign?
The good news is that the Cincinnati Bengals made the playoffs for the third consecutive year last season; the bad news is that quarterback Andy Dalton laid his third consecutive postseason egg, and the Bengals bowed out in the opening round once again.
Yes, it's true that Dalton put up gaudy statistics last season, setting the franchise record for both passing yards (4,293) and touchdowns (33), but he was wildly inconsistent and must play better if the Bengals are to advance deep into January.
The Bengals have a loaded roster and appear ready to compete with the likes of Denver and New England atop the AFC, but in order for that to happen, Dalton will need to ascend to the next level.
Cleveland Browns: Who Will Be the Starting QB in Week 1?
Believe it or not, but the Cleveland Browns are a franchise quarterback away from being a perennial contender in the AFC.
There is sufficient talent on both sides of the ball, and a top-level quarterback could push the team over the top and back into the postseason for the first time since 2002.
Brian Hoyer is the only viable option remaining at the position from last season's roster, and he's coming off a torn ACL. With the Browns holding the fourth and 26th overall picks in next month's draft, there's little doubt that a signal-caller will be chosen with one of those selections.
The question now becomes which quarterback will start in Week 1. Will it be Hoyer, who impressed in limited action last season? Or will it be a rookie like Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel or Fresno State's Derek Carr?
Dallas Cowboys: Can They Avoid the NFC East Basement?
The Dallas Cowboys have seemingly embraced mediocrity, as they've finished with an 8-8 record in three consecutive seasons. As of right now, however, it appears that they're more likely to finish with a sub-.500 record in 2014 rather than with nine or more wins.
Think about it. The Eagles are loaded and appear poised to win the NFC East for a second consecutive season, while the Giants and Redskins have both improved dramatically since the onset of free agency.
The Cowboys lost pass-rushing demon DeMarcus Ware and defensive tackle Jason Hatcher, arguably the team's top-two defensive players from 2013. Ware and Hatcher accounted for half of the team's overall sacks last season (17 out of 34).
While the signing of former Bears defensive tackle Henry Melton was a solid one, owner and general manager Jerry Jones still has work to do if the Cowboys are to finish out of the basement in the NFC East.
Denver Broncos: Are They Good Enough to Get Back to and Win the Super Bowl?
With the aggression shown by general manager John Elway in free agency, the directive for the Denver Broncos is clear: win a Super Bowl while Peyton Manning remains under center.
Elway made a trio of tremendous transactions in the first 48 hours of free agency, inking pass-rushing sensation DeMarcus Ware, safety T.J. Ward and cornerback Aqib Talib. He also signed former Steelers receiver Emmanuel Sanders a week later to replace Eric Decker, who signed with the Jets.
The Broncos are still licking their wounds from an embarrassing defeat at the hands of the Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII, but they remain the favorite to represent the AFC in Super Bowl XLIX.
The question concerns whether or not they are good enough to win the big game once they get there. It's Elway's job to ensure that the Broncos will be able to contend with the likes of Seattle and San Francisco if they can get back to the Super Bowl.
Detroit Lions: Can Jim Caldwell Instill Much-Needed Discipline?
Talent was not the issue for the Detroit Lions in 2013, and it won't be in 2014.
This isn't to say that the Lions have a Super Bowl-caliber roster, because they don't just yet. But the fact that they didn't win the NFC North last season is a disgrace, and it rightfully cost former head coach Jim Schwartz his job.
Enter new coach Jim Caldwell, who is expected to bring a steady hand and a level head to an organization in dire need of both.
The Lions are a talented club on the cusp of achieving big things. It'll be up to Caldwell to provide much-needed discipline and in-game management to push them to the next level.
Green Bay Packers: Can Julius Peppers Take the Defense to the Next Level?
Last season, the Green Bay Packers finished with the NFL's 25th-ranked defense, which isn't good enough when their aspiration is to reach and, ultimately, win the Super Bowl.
General manager Ted Thompson made an uncharacteristic splash in free agency with the signing of former Bears defensive end Julius Peppers. While he isn't the player he once was, Peppers still contributed 7.5 sacks last season.
If Peppers proves that he can succeed in a 3-4 scheme and rush the passer alongside linebacker Clay Matthews, Dom Capers' defense will have the potential to be much better in 2014.
And with the great Aaron Rodgers under center, that could be enough to earn the Packers a trip to Arizona in February.
Houston Texans: What Will They Do with the No. 1 Overall Pick?
The Houston Texans are on the clock.
The team holds the first overall pick in next month's draft, and it's still unclear which direction coach Bill O'Brien and general manager Rick Smith will go with the selection.
There's little question that they'll add a quarterback early in the draft, but will it come with the No. 1 overall pick? Or will they opt to create a devastating one-two pass-rushing punch by selecting South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney to pair with stud lineman J.J. Watt?
The Texans hold the keys to the NFL draft, and what they decide to do with the No. 1 overall pick will have a major bearing on the franchise's fortunes moving forward.
Indianapolis Colts: Can They Contend with the Broncos and Patriots Atop the AFC?
The Indianapolis Colts have authored back-to-back 11-5 campaigns, and they won the AFC South last season.
But despite that, they have yet to advance past the divisional round of the postseason and were crushed by the Patriots in that round this past January.
With quarterback Andrew Luck looking like one of the premier signal-callers in the NFL, the Colts have the look of a perennial contender atop the AFC. But are they good enough to hang with Denver and New England in 2014?
General manager Ryan Grigson has added pieces in an effort to make that happen, bringing in defensive lineman Arthur Jones, linebacker D'Qwell Jackson and receiver Hakeem Nicks, as well as re-signing cornerback Vontae Davis.
The question is if the signings will be enough to push the Colts into the AFC's elite.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Will They Select a Quarterback in the First Round?
With coach Gus Bradley and general manager David Caldwell manning the helm, the Jacksonville Jaguars are a team on the rise.
But their long-term quarterback situation remains unsettled, meaning the biggest question facing the team is whether or not to select a signal-caller with the third overall pick in next month's draft.
Earlier this offseason, the club re-signed Chad Henne, who started 13 games last season. While Henne wasn't terrible (he tossed 13 touchdown passes against 14 interceptions), he's not the kind of guy you hand the keys of your franchise over to.
Expect Caldwell and Bradley to add a quarterback in the early rounds of the draft. The question is if they'll pull the trigger with their first pick, or if they'll opt to select a playmaking talent instead and then grab a signal-caller in the second or third round.
Kansas City Chiefs: Are They Good Enough to Return to the Postseason?
Last season, the Kansas City Chiefs finished with an 11-5 record and qualified for the postseason, a marked improvement from their 2-14 campaign in 2012.
But with the team having lost a number of quality players in free agency, it remains to be seen if the Chiefs are good enough to repeat last year's feat.
Andy Reid is still the coach and Alex Smith is still under center, but the AFC West is a tough division. The Broncos are the prohibitive conference favorite, the Chargers are coming off a trip to the divisional round of the postseason and the Raiders have improved.
Reid and general manager John Dorsey have work to do in the draft if the Chiefs are to return to the postseason in 2014.
Miami Dolphins: Can the Offensive Line Protect Ryan Tannehill?
Last season, the Miami Dolphins offensive line was a disaster of historic proportions, both on and off the field.
They couldn't keep quarterback Ryan Tannehill upright, allowing a league-high 58 sacks, and they suffered through the bullying scandal that rocked the NFL and left the team without three of its five starting linemen from a year ago (John Jerry, Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin).
While new general manager Dennis Hickey has improved the unit by signing tackle Branden Albert and guard Shelley Smith (along with running back Knowshon Moreno, an accomplished pass-protector), he still has work to do.
In his latest mock draft, B/R's Matt Miller has the Dolphins selecting Notre Dame offensive guard/tackle Zack Martin with the 19th overall selection.
Minnesota Vikings: Who Will Be the Week 1 Starter at Quarterback?
Last season, the Minnesota Vikings trotted out the ugly, three-headed quarterbacking monster of Christian Ponder, Matt Cassel and Josh Freeman. In a related story, the Vikings finished in last place in the NFC North with a record of 5-10-1.
Mike Zimmer is the new head coach, and he and general manager Rick Spielman brought back Cassel this offseason, and he currently sits with Ponder atop the team's depth chart. That's simply not good enough, and the Vikings will likely select a quarterback with one of their first few picks.
Minnesota holds the eighth overall selection in next month's draft, and it remains to be seen if they'll draft a quarterback in that spot. If they choose to wait until the second or third round, it could mean that Cassel is the club's Week 1 starter.
But if they select someone like Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel, as B/R's Matt Miller projects in his latest mock draft, it's likely that the neophyte would be under center for the opener.
New England Patriots: Can They Dethrone the Broncos and Win the AFC?
For the New England Patriots under coach Bill Belichick, it's always Super Bowl-or-bust. And last year was a bust, as the Patriots lost the AFC Championship game in Denver to the Broncos.
With quarterback Tom Brady turning 37 later this summer, time is of the essence for the Patriots to win a fourth Super Bowl championship. And in order to do so, it appears as if they'll once again have to go through the Broncos, who are the conference's prohibitive favorite.
Helping matters will be cornerback Darrelle Revis, who was signed to a one-year deal earlier in the free-agent period.
New Orleans Saints: How Will They Resolve the Jimmy Graham Situation?
New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham is coming off a ridiculous season. He hauled in 86 passes and 16 touchdown catches in 2013, leading the Saints to hit him with the franchise tag this offseason in order to keep him off the open market.
But a battle could be brewing over the tender, with Graham having been expected to file a grievance that would allow him to be paid a top-five average salary at wide receiver as opposed to tight end.
Graham has yet to file that grievance, and it is widely believed that a long-term deal could be in the works, per Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk. In fact, coach Sean Payton recently said that he believes "it's a matter of not if, but when" Graham and the team will reach a deal ahead of July's deadline, per James Walker of ESPN.com.
But with Graham being one of the best players in the NFL, regardless of position, this situation remains one to monitor as the draft draws closer.
New York Giants: Can They Protect Eli Manning?
The primary reason that the New York Giants finished 7-9 last season was the failure to protect quarterback Eli Manning.
That's not to absolve Manning of blame, as he was horrendous throughout the season and tossed an NFL-high 27 interceptions. But he was often under duress and running for his life, as he was sacked 40 times.
General manager Jerry Reese has made a number of quality signings during the free-agent period, most notably cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and guard Geoff Schwartz, but the offensive line still needs work.
Schwartz will help, but it remains to be seen if the unit will be improved enough to provide Manning with adequate time to throw the football.
If they can, a bounce-back year is likely in order for Manning and Big Blue.
New York Jets: Will the Offense Scare Anyone?
Last season, the New York Jets finished 8-8 despite setting offensive football back to the Stone Age.
Rookie quarterback Geno Smith finished with only 12 touchdown passes against 21 interceptions, but it's not like he had Jerry Rice and John Taylor to throw to. The Jets desperately need to upgrade the talent at the skill positions.
Signing former Broncos receiver Eric Decker was a solid first move, but it isn't nearly enough for the team to field a competent passing attack. The Jets must add another receiver early in the draft, and a speedy running back would help, too.
Complicating matters was the signing of quarterback Michael Vick, who is expected to push Smith for the starting job.
But whether Smith, Vick or the reincarnation of Joe Namath is under center, the Jets will have no chance of succeeding on offense without adding more weapons at the skill positions.
Oakland Raiders: Can They Contend in a Tough AFC West?
Despite an awful first 48 hours that earned him a "loser" distinction in my first two free-agency columns, Oakland Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie has rebounded nicely and has upgraded the talent on what was the NFL's worst 53-man roster in 2013.
The trade for quarterback Matt Schaub was an inspired move, and running back Maurice Jones-Drew, receiver James Jones and defensive end Justin Tuck (among others) will greatly improve the on-field product this season.
But following back-to-back 4-12 seasons, can the Raiders produce a successful enough season for owner Mark Davis to retain both McKenzie and coach Dennis Allen?
The Raiders have the look of a competent NFL team, which is a departure from the rosters they have fielded over the last few seasons, but it remains to be seen if that will be good enough to contend in the ultra-tough AFC West.
Philadelphia Eagles: How Will They Replace DeSean Jackson?
Late last month, the Philadelphia Eagles sent shock waves throughout the NFL world by releasing wide receiver DeSean Jackson.
The biggest question now facing coach Chip Kelly's club is how they'll replace the mercurial-but-talented wideout. Jackson is coming off an 82-catch season in which he hauled in nine touchdown catches.
While the club brought back receivers Jeremy Maclin and Riley Cooper and traded for running back Darren Sproles, it remains to be seen if they can replace Jackson's production and allow the team to once again field a top-flight offense.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Can They Contend with the Bengals and Ravens?
The Pittsburgh Steelers are coming off back-to-back 8-8 campaigns and haven't made the playoffs since 2011. For a franchise as steeped in winning as the Steelers, that simply isn't good enough, and coach Mike Tomlin and general manager Kevin Colbert know it.
The problem is that the Steelers play in a division with the Bengals and Ravens, and both of those teams currently look better on paper than they did last season.
Another weapon for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger would be welcomed, particularly a big-bodied receiver. Pass-rushing help is also a need.
Colbert will need to add a few playmakers in the draft if the Steelers are to contend for an AFC North title and return to the postseason.
San Diego Chargers: Can They Add a Top-Notch Cornerback?
The San Diego Chargers reached the divisional round of the postseason in spite of their secondary. Outside of spectacular free safety Eric Weddle, the position desperately needs an upgrade.
The biggest question facing the Chargers heading into the draft is whether or not they can add playmakers at the position in an effort to boost coordinator John Pagano's defense. The club doesn't have a true shutdown cornerback, and that could spell doom in today's pass-happy NFL.
In his latest mock draft, B/R's Matt Miller projects the Chargers to select Ohio State cornerback Bradley Roby with their first-round pick.
San Francisco 49ers: Can They Acquire a Receiver to Stretch the Field?
The San Francisco 49ers came oh-so-close to qualifying for Super Bowl XLVIII, and they are one of the favorites to win Super Bowl XLIX. But in order for that to happen, the club must bring in a deep threat at receiver who is capable of stretching the field.
Receivers Michael Crabtree and Anquan Boldin are excellent, but don't fit that mold. A deep threat would open things over the middle for Crabtree, Boldin and tight end Vernon Davis, allowing quarterback Colin Kaepernick a greater opportunity for success.
In his latest mock draft, B/R's Matt Miller projects the 49ers will select Fresno State receiver Davante Adams with the 30th overall selection.
Seattle Seahawks: Can They Repeat as Super Bowl Champions?
The NFL hasn't witnessed a back-to-back Super Bowl champion since the New England Patriots accomplished the feat following the 2003 and 2004 seasons.
But if any team has appeared poised to duplicate the feat, it's the 2014 Seattle Seahawks.
The Seahawks, who dominated the Broncos to win Super Bowl XLVIII, are loaded once again heading into 2014. Receiver Percy Harvin will presumably be healthier than he was a year ago, and the club re-signed stud defensive end Michael Bennett.
With quarterback Russell Wilson leading the team on the field, and with coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider forming one of the best coach/general manager duos in the NFL, the Seahawks are once again poised to do big things.
Anything less than securing another Lombardi Trophy would be a disappointment in the Emerald City.
St. Louis Rams: Can Sam Bradford Deliver a Playoff Appearance?
This will be a make-or-break season in St. Louis for Rams quarterback Sam Bradford. The former No. 1 overall pick in the 2010 draft has been too inconsistent over the course of his career, and he is now coming off a torn ACL that limited him to seven starts in 2013.
Despite those facts, the Rams remain "committed" to Bradford, and coach Jeff Fisher and general manager Les Snead have clearly hitched their wagons to the signal-caller.
With the team coming off back-to-back seven-win seasons, this is an extremely important campaign for Fisher and Snead, particularly in the ultra-tough NFC West, which saw three teams finish with double-digit victories in 2013.
If the Rams are to make the postseason, Bradford must stay healthy and play well. Whether or not he can do that is the biggest question facing the team heading into the draft.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Can All Their New Signings Gel Together?
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have been one of the most active teams during the free-agent period, with new coach Lovie Smith and general manager Jason Licht working to fashion the roster in their image.
The biggest question facing the team is whether or not all the new signings can gel and help them contend for a playoff berth.
Thus far, the Bucs have signed players like defensive end Michael Johnson, cornerback Alterraun Verner, tackle Anthony Collins and quarterback Josh McCown, with Smith going so far as to name McCown as his starting signal-caller. That's a lot of new pieces to be incorporated successfully.
On paper, the Buccaneers appear to be markedly better than their 4-12 iteration a season ago. But it remains to be seen if Smith can coax successful seasons out his new players in an effort to return to the postseason.
Tennessee Titans: Can Jake Locker Stay Healthy?
The Tennessee Titans have a new coach in Ken Whisenhunt and will have a new starting running back after releasing Chris Johnson, but come September all eyes in the Music City will be on quarterback Jake Locker.
Locker has missed 14 games over the past two seasons, including nine last year. He was 4-3 in his seven starts in 2013, and he threw eight touchdown passes against four interceptions before a series of maladies ended his season prematurely.
No matter what else the Titans do in free agency and the draft, they won't be able to contend unless Locker can stay healthy, especially with the below-average Charle Whitehurst serving as the team's primary backup.
Washington Redskins: Can Robert Griffin III Flash His Rookie Form Again?
Last season, the Washington Redskins crashed and burned to the tune of a 3-13 record, and one of the primary reasons was the sophomore slump of quarterback Robert Griffin III.
Griffin was unable to match the heroics he displayed in his rookie year, and while some of that certainly had to do with the torn ACL he suffered last January, he also displayed suspect mechanics and accuracy.
If the Redskins are to once again contend in the NFC East, Griffin must elevate his level of play, especially since the club doesn't have a first-round pick, as it was traded away back in 2012 so they could acquire Griffin.