Burning Questions for NFL Offseason Workouts
Savvy NFL fans know that despite there being no meaningful games in between February and September, the sport doesn't have a true offseason. With the 2014 draft having come and gone, the next stage on the calendar is offseason workouts, and it's time to address the burning questions surrounding them.
Offseason workouts and OTAs (organized team activities) provide an opportunity to glean important information about each NFL team. Rookies jostle for position, veterans fight to hold on to jobs and the mantra of competition is preached early and often. The workouts are especially important for clubs with new head coaches who are installing different systems.
In this column, we'll examine three rookie quarterbacks in their quest to start as greenhorns, discuss the suspensions of two elite players and the fallout for their respective teams, monitor the injury rehab of two long-time NFC East signal-callers and discuss whether there will be a quarterback controversy in Gotham.
Here are the burning questions for NFL offseason workouts.
Can Cowboys QB Tony Romo Stay Healthy Through OTAs?
Last December, after guiding his team to the cusp of the postseason (a Week 17 win-and-you're-in NFC East title game against the Philadelphia Eagles), Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo was ruled out for the remainder of the campaign with a back injury, and later underwent surgery.
But in a positive development, the 34-year-old Romo is scheduled to participate in "most, if not all" offseason activities, per ESPN.com's Calvin Watkins, which is fantastic news for Cowboys fans.
Despite being on the receiving end of more scrutiny than perhaps any player in the NFL, Romo has authored a number of spectacular seasons, and was excellent last year in throwing 31 touchdown passes against only 10 interceptions. His critics will point to the fact that the Cowboys have finished 8-8 and missed the playoffs for three consecutive years, but they would have finished much worse than 8-8 without a quarterback of Romo's quality.
Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones selected Notre Dame offensive lineman Zack Martin in the first round (16th overall) of the 2014 draft to help keep Romo upright, but Romo must remain healthy through the offseason before worrying about opposing pass-rushers in the fall.
As the Cowboys start their offseason workouts, Romo's physical well-being looms as a major storyline. If Dallas harbors any hope of competing this season, it must have a healthy Romo on the field.
Who Will Step Up for Colts While LB Robert Mathis Is Suspended?
Last Friday, the NFL announced that Indianapolis Colts linebacker Robert Mathis, who led the NFL with 19.5 sacks last year, has been suspended for the first four games of the 2014 season for violating the league's performance-enhancing drugs policy.
And while Mathis released a statement (via the Facebook page of ESPN's Adam Schefter) claiming the violation came as a result of a fertility drug, the NFL issued a strongly worded statement (via Stephen Holder of The Indianapolis Star) that seems to indicate that Mathis will indeed miss the full four games.
Outside of Mathis, the Colts' leading sack artist in 2013 was linebacker Jerrell Freeman with 5.5, so it goes without saying that this is a significant blow to the team's defense, especially considering they start the season in Denver and then host Philadelphia in Week 2. Last year, the Broncos and Eagles possessed the top two offenses in the NFL.
When the Colts' offseason workouts resume next week, it will provide coach Chuck Pagano with the opportunity to figure out how to replace Mathis. Players such as defensive lineman Arthur Jones and linebackers Erik Walden, Bjoern Werner and Jonathan Newsome will have to step up in Mathis' absence.
Can Vikings QB Teddy Bridgewater Grab Hold of the Starting Job?
Last week, I wrote that the Minnesota Vikings could be leaning toward starting first-round quarterback Teddy Bridgewater when the season kicks off in September.
And this past Friday, in an interview with NFL Network's Albert Breer on NFL Total Access, Mike Zimmer revealed a piece of information that lends credence to that scenario, saying that Bridgewater will take first-team reps at OTAs (h/t NFL.com's Mike Coppinger).
"Teddy's been great," Zimmer said. "He's had a good command of the offense. I like his leadership. I like his determination. He's throwing the ball well. He's got good, quick feet. I think he's a good athlete. So he's progressing at a good pace."
The other passers on the roster, Matt Cassel and Christian Ponder, have failed to inspire in their time in the Twin Cities, so it doesn't come as a surprise that Bridgewater will be given every opportunity to claim the job.
This is a positive development for an ascending Vikings team. If Bridgewater can seize control of the offense and play well as a rookie, the Vikings could be a surprise contender for an NFC Wild Card berth.
How Long Will Browns WR Josh Gordon Be Suspended For?
The Cleveland Browns and the rest of the NFL world await the league's decision on soon-to-be suspended wide receiver Josh Gordon.
The suspension, which was first reported by ESPN.com's T.J. Quinn and Don Van Natta Jr., is certain to cost Gordon at least some time; it remains to be seen just how many games he'll end up missing.
Sports Illustrated's Peter King opined that the suspension will be between eight and 16 games, which would serve as a potentially devastating blow to Cleveland's hopes of contending in 2014. Gordon was suspended for the first two games of the 2013 season for violating the league's substance-abuse policy.
Last week, the Browns signed free-agent receivers Miles Austin and Earl Bennett, which would seem to indicate that they expect Gordon to miss a large chunk of time, if not the full campaign.
Following the first round of the draft, the Browns had garnered a ton of optimism, particularly with the drafting of Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel. But if it's announced that Gordon is to miss the entire season, that optimism will quickly fade back into the negativity that's too often permeated the star-crossed franchise since it returned to the NFL in 1999.
Which Texans QB Will Impress?
The Houston Texans currently have a logjam at the quarterback position, with presumed starter Ryan Fitzpatrick joined by incumbents Case Keenum and T.J. Yates and fourth-round rookie Tom Savage.
And when their OTAs kick off next week, all eyes will be on the signal-callers as they seek to impress new coach Bill O'Brien and try to earn the starting job.
Savage faced his first NFL work this past weekend at the team's rookie minicamp, and had a "decent start," per O'Brien via the team's official website.
While Savage possesses the most upside of the four passers on the roster, the only way he'll start as a rookie if he blows away the competition, and that's not expected to happen. The smart money is on Fitzpatrick claiming the job and keeping the seat warm until Savage is ready, with neither Keenum or Yates proving to be factors.
Can Giants QB Eli Manning Bounce Back After a Rough 2013?
It hasn't been the best nine-month period for New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning.
First, he had an absolutely dreadful 2013 campaign, tossing a league-high 27 interceptions as the Giants finished 7-9 and out of the postseason. And then, he underwent left ankle surgery last month.
But Manning is on the mend, having recently participated in team workouts. In regards to the prospects of participating fully in OTAs, Manning said this to Ralph Vacchiano of the New York Daily News: "I already feel like I can go out there and do everything. We’ll still be smart about it these next few weeks and not overdo anything. If they want to limit me somewhat, I’ll understand that. But I want to take every single rep and they know that."
Manning seems to be ahead of schedule, as his comments contradict those of general manager Jerry Reese, who a few weeks ago declared Manning to be "out for the spring" (also via Vacchiano).
If the Giants are to bounce back and return to the postseason for the first time since winning Super Bowl XLVI, Manning must stay stay healthy and perform at a higher level.
His health and progress with new offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo's system is a storyline to monitor through offseason workouts.
Can Browns QB Johnny Manziel Make Up Ground on Starter Brian Hoyer?
Thanks to this past weekend's rookie minicamp and the lack of other neophytes at the position, Cleveland Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel was the No. 1 signal-caller on the field.
And if incumbent starter Brian Hoyer has anything to say about it, it'll be the last time Manziel serves as the top passer for a long while.
With Browns owner Jimmy Haslam saying he wants Manziel to "act like a backup," per Mary Kay Cabot of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and coach Mike Pettine telling Lindsay H. Jones of USA Today that it would be "difficult" for any quarterback to come in and beat out Hoyer, Manziel is currently ensconced in the No. 2 role behind Hoyer.
But the Browns didn't trade back into the first round to draft Manziel so he could sit on the bench and hold a clipboard. The bottom line is that if Manziel outplays Hoyer throughout offseason workouts and training camp, Manziel will be the team's Week 1 starter.
Given the media firestorm that follows Manziel wherever he goes, this will be an extremely hot topic as the calendar turns to summer.
Can Jets QB Geno Smith Hold Off Michael Vick?
New York Jets quarterback Geno Smith had an uneven rookie campaign in 2013.
He piloted the team to an 8-8 record, but only tossed 12 touchdown passes against 21 interceptions. Consequently, the team signed free-agent signal-caller Michael Vick this offseason to provide competition, and many assumed that Vick would go on to claim the starting job.
While Ryan also added that Vick "definitely has a chance to win the job," it seems clear that Smith will be given every opportunity to be the team's starter for a second consecutive season. The only scenario (outside of injury) where Vick could usurp Smith is if Smith is dreadful throughout the offseason and Vick shines.
At this point, the smart money is on Smith being the team's Week 1 starter, but if Vick starts to impress at OTAs, there could be a quarterback controversy on Broadway.