Biggest Questions Facing Every NFL Team Following Offseason OTAs
We are basically less than a month from the opening of NFL training camps and less than seven weeks away from the start of the league’s preseason schedule.
So what is still on the to-do list for each of the 32 clubs?
Here, we will take a look at the biggest concern for each team, as they look to return to the playoffs or reach them after falling short in 2013.
Keep in mind, while teams have tried to address their various problems, some of the ensuing questions ask if they have done enough to date.
But that does not mean there are not some A-1 priorities remaining.
As you will see...
Arizona Cardinals: Defense
The Arizona Cardinals were a team that rode its defense in 2013. No team in the league gave up fewer rushing yards per game, and only five clubs in the NFL surrendered fewer total yards this past season.
Now try and do that again, or even improve on that, without your top three tacklers from a year ago.
Linebacker Karlos Dansby is off to the Cleveland Browns, strong safety Yeremiah Bell is out of football and linebacker Daryl Washington is serving a year-long NFL suspension.
Second-year pro Kevin Minter and veteran Larry Foote will man the inside spots previously owned by Dansby and Washington, and the Cards also added one-time Detroit Lions’ first-round pick Ernie Sims to the roster a few weeks ago. Big things are expected from Minter, the team’s second-round pick in 2013.
Elsewhere, veterans John Abraham and Matt Shaughnessy are set on the outside, but Abraham, with 11.5 sacks in 2013, is entering his 15th NFL campaign.
And with free safety Tyrann Mathieu (knee injury), according to head coach Bruce Arians (via Darren Urban on AZCardinals.com), not expected back until perhaps Oct. 1, there’s suddenly a list of issues when it comes to defensive coordinator Todd Bowles’ unit.
Atlanta Falcons: Front Seven (Pass Rush)
General manager Thomas Dimitroff has done his best this offseason to rectify the Atlanta Falcons’ numerous problems on defense.
However, there’s still a lot of uncertainty regarding the team’s ability to stop the opposition and, in particular, make life miserable for opposing quarterbacks.
The free-agent additions of defensive end Tyson Jackson and defensive tackle Paul Soliai should ideally aid the league’s 31st-ranked run defense of a season ago.
What about collapsing the pocket? The Falcons improved from 29 sacks in 2012 to 32 sacks one season ago. Still, that’s 61 sacks in 32 contests, one fewer than the Carolina Panthers (60) managed in 2013.
Utilizing the 3-4 defense, be it part time or full time, means pressure from the outside linebackers. Are converted defensive ends Kroy Biermann, Jonathan Massaquoi and Osi Umenyiora up to the task? Will defensive coordinator Mike Nolan spend the season trying to find the right combinations?
To make matters worse, linebacker Sean Weatherspoon will miss the 2014 season due to an Achilles injury, as documented by Jay Adams of AtlantaFalcons.com.
There are concerns indeed.
Baltimore Ravens: Running Back
Does anyone really think that the Baltimore Ravens won Super Bowl XLVII strictly on the arm of quarterback Joe Flacco?
That’s not to take anything away from the team’s signal-caller in the 2012 playoffs, when he managed to throw 11 touchdown passes and zero interceptions in four postseason games.
Lost during that title run by John Harbaugh’s club was the fact that Ray Rice, Bernard Pierce and the Baltimore ground attack rolled up 539 yards in those playoff contests, an impressive 134.8 yards-per-game average.
In 2013, only two teams in the NFL gained fewer yards rushing than the Ravens. Harbaugh’s club totaled a mere 1,328 yards on the ground (83.0 yards per game). Rice and Co. were held below 100 yards rushing in 13 of the team’s 16 contests.
The Ravens are hoping the addition of center Jeremy Zuttah (via the Tampa Bay Buccaneers), a healthy left guard in Kelechi Osemele (who missed the final nine games in 2013) and a new starting right tackle in second-year pro Ricky Wagner help.
However, perhaps the bigger issue is Rice's availability, who, per NFL Media Insider Ian Rapoport of NFL.com, via Chris Wesseling of NFL.com, met with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell on Monday (June 16) regarding possible disciplinary action on a very personal matter.
The answer to a question that many people have been asking for a number of months may be coming very soon.
Buffalo Bills: Free Safety
Unfortunately for the Buffalo Bills, another one of their better wagons circled his way out of town.
Three-time Pro Bowl free safety Jairus Byrd signed a lucrative contract with the New Orleans Saints, a huge loss for a Buffalo defensive unit that is making strides but still has some work to do.
Filling the cleats of Byrd is far easier said than done. This past season, he missed five games and still tied for the team lead with four interceptions. In five seasons in Orchard Park, the ball-hawking defender totaled 27 takeaways, including 22 interceptions.
Enter three-year pro Da’Norris Searcy, who comes off a very productive season but now will have to do it for a full season as a starter. In 2013, he started seven games at both free and strong safety and finished with 71 tackles. The 2011 fourth-round pick also totaled 3.5 sacks, seven passes defensed and returned both of his takeaways (interception and fumble recovery) for touchdowns.
Can Searcy fill the void left by Byrd? It’s a legitimate question. But by the end of 2014, could we be in for a surprising answer?
Carolina Panthers: Wide Receiver
This past season, Carolina Panthers wide receivers Steve Smith, Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn and Domenik Hixon combined for 156 receptions and teamed up for 15 of quarterback Cam Newton’s 24 touchdown passes.
Are we convinced that free-agent pickups Jerricho Cotchery, Jason Avant and Tiquan Underwood, as well as rookie first-round draft choice Kelvin Benjamin, can match or surpass those numbers for the defending NFC South champions?
It is certainly far from possible if you look at last year’s performance by the three NFL veterans alone. Cotchery (46), Avant (38) and Underwood (24) teamed up for 108 catches and 16 scores, 10 of those touchdowns by Cotchery.
Still, that kind of overhaul at one position from one season to the next doesn’t happen every year.
Besides this quarter, there are also eight other wideouts on the Panthers’ rosters, including former Denver Broncos receiver Tavarres King as well as 2011 fifth-round pick Kealoha Pilares, who missed all of 2013 with a torn ACL.
It will be interesting to see how this unit rounds into form. Expect some growing pains early on.
Chicago Bears: Defensive Tackle
Notice the heading for the Chicago Bears says “defensive tackle.”
Simply put, the Bears defense didn’t do a lot of tackling last season, at least when it counted.
Injuries were a big part of last season’s falloff on this side of the football. But so was a lack of talent. This offseason, Chicago added free-agent defensive ends Jared Allen, Lamarr Houston, Willie Young and one-time Bears’ starter Israel Idonije to fix a pass rush that finished tied for last in the NFL with 31 sacks.
Of course, defensive coordinator Mel Tucker’s unit also gave up a league-high 161.4 yards per game on the ground in 2013, including an astonishing 197.1 yards per contest in its final 10 outings.
Have the Bears addressed the issue? General manager Phil Emery opted for 6’2”, 309-pound Ego Ferguson (LSU) and 6’1”, 315-pound Will Sutton (Arizona State) in the second and third round, respectively, in last month’s NFL draft. They join expected starters Jay Ratliff and Stephen Paea, as well as undrafted rookie free agents such as Brandon Dunn (Louisville) and Lee Pegues (East Carolina).
The Bears currently have eight defensive tackles on their roster. We will soon find out if they are indeed enough.
Cincinnati Bengals: Left Outside Linebacker
The Cincinnati Bengals finished with the league’s third-ranked defense in 2013 in terms of total yards allowed. Marvin Lewis’ club was ranked fifth in the NFL against both the run and the pass.
Those rankings could be challenged due to the departures of performers such as defensive end Michael Johnson, who signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and strong-side outside linebacker James Harrison, released by the club this offseason.
It appears that second-year pro Jayson DiManche will take over for Harrison. A rookie free agent in 2013, the University of Southern Illinois product was on the field for only 47 snaps, courtesy of Pro Football Focus (subscription required) and amassed only 18 tackles.
Having the likes of Pro Bowl outside linebacker Vontaze Burfict and middle linebacker Rey Maualuga is a plus for Lewis and Co. But are teams getting ready to exploit DiManche on a regular basis? And could the Bengals add a veteran in the coming weeks to fortify the position?
Cleveland Browns: Quarterback
Here’s one thing we have learned so far when it comes to the quarterback battle for the Cleveland Browns.
Brian Hoyer has the job. Johnny Manziel has the money.
No, we are not talking about that money.
Now the game begins so that we can finally find out who will be playing in the games. According to outside linebacker Paul Kruger, the edge belongs to Hoyer due to last season’s performance, limited as it was. Still, it should be an interesting summer for the team.
“You let the preseason go, see how they look and then make a decision,” said Kruger to radio station KFAN-AM (Sale Lake City), via Dan Hanzus of NFL.com, last week. “In my mind, Hoyer has been a good leader for us and somebody who has been able to win us a few games. It’s tough to say but I think the preseason will be a big deal for both of them.”
Correction: The preseason will be a big deal for new head coach Mike Pettine and a franchise that has lost 11 or more games each of the last six years.
Dallas Cowboys: Linebacker
Yes, you could have mentioned the entire defensive unit of the Dallas Cowboys. But that’s been written about enough in the last few months.
Let us get a little more specific here and talk about the team’s linebacking corps. Last week, middle linebacker Sean Lee underwent surgery for that torn left ACL he suffered earlier in the team’s OTAs in late May.
The Cowboys have decided to fill his absence from within. For instance, a player such as rookie Anthony Hitchens, the team’s fourth-round pick this year could be thrust into the limelight sooner than anyone expected.
As Rowan Kavner of DallasCowboys.com discusses in previewing the team’s upcoming minicamp, it’s hard to get a grasp on who will be in the starting lineup this fall.
DeVonte Holloman could play in the middle or on the strong side. Justin Durant could play any of the three spots, though it appears most likely he’ll start in the middle.
Only Bruce Carter (weak side linebacker) and Kyle Wilber (strong side linebacker) appear to be preparing for only one spot, but even they could end up moving around if more injuries occur.
We assume going into this season that Carter will be given every opportunity to look like the player he was in 2012 and earn the weak side linebacker starting spot, but if he stumbles it could be anyone’s job, and the other two spots are anyone’s guess.
I’ll be interested to see this week how the coaches plan on rotating out the linebackers and where they decide to line their players up.
It appears when it comes to the Cowboys’ linebackers, there’s more than one question to be answered.
Denver Broncos: Offensive Line
Just because the Denver Broncos appear secure on the offensive line and get back one of the best players at his position in 2014 doesn’t mean there aren’t any questions.
Keep in mind that even with perennial Pro Bowl left tackle Ryan Clady sidelined for the vast majority of last season, the Broncos allowed a league-low 20 sacks during the regular season. And this group also allowed quarterback Peyton Manning to be sacked once in three postseason games.
But this will be a different-looking unit this season, and perhaps it will all be for the best. While Clady returns, starting left guard Zane Beadles took the free-agent road to Jacksonville. Head coach John Fox has opted to move right tackle Orlando Franklin to replace Beadles, while Chris Clark (Clady’s capable replacement in 2013) takes over for Franklin at right tackle.
Will it work? “When I first heard about it, you get disappointed, said Franklin last month to Troy E. Renck of The Denver Post. “But as long as I am on the field and one of the best five, I am happy with that.”
While most of the emphasis in Denver has been improving last season’s shaky defense, the alterations on the offensive line bear watching as well.
Detroit Lions: Cornerback
There are certainly reasons to be excited if you are a fan of the Detroit Lions.
The team now has a head coach with Super Bowl experience in Jim Caldwell. General manager Martin Mayhew may have struck gold with his first two draft choices in May via tight end Eric Ebron and outside linebacker Kyle Van Noy.
The Lions gave wide receiver Calvin Johnson some help in free agency with the signing of Golden Tate, who comes over from the defending Super Bowl champion Seahawks.
However, what exactly will Caldwell and new defensive coordinator Teryl Austin do at cornerback? By all indications, the starters for now are second-year pro Darius Slay and longtime veteran Rashean Mathis. The latter led the team in passes defensed in 2013 (16) but did not record an interception.
Former third-round pick Bill Bentley is also in the mix, and the Lions drafted Nevin Lawson in the fourth round back in May. In terms of departures, the Lions recently released oft-injured veteran cornerback Chris Houston.
An improved pass rush would certainly improve Detroit’s chances in the secondary. But this is certainly an area to keep an eye on in 2014.
Green Bay Packers: Defensive Line
Remember the Green Bay Packers’ amazing Super Bowl XLV run in 2010?
A lot of the credit went to red-hot quarterback Aaron Rodgers that postseason. Not enough credit went to a defensive unit that totaled 11 sacks and 11 takeaways (returning three interceptions for scores) in four games.
We haven’t seen much from the Packers defense since. In 2012, they allowed the most passing yards in a season in NFL history. A year later, they faded late and allowed a whopping 490 yards in the ground in two playoff games.
This past season, Mike McCarthy’s club ranked 25th in the league in total defense, 25th versus the run and 24th against the pass.
Getting to the quarterback wasn’t necessarily a problem for the Pack in 2013. Dom Capers’ defenders totaled 44 sacks. But including the home playoff loss to the San Francisco 49ers, Green Bay allowed 150-plus yards rushing in six of their final 10 outings. Injuries have certainly played a part in the defense’s shortcomings, but it’s been a bad run as of late (no pun intended).
There’s a lot of homegrown talent up front. Seven of the team’s 11 defensive linemen were drafted by the club, including defensive ends Mike Daniels and Datone Jones and nose tackle B.J. Raji, the latter two players being former first-round draft choices.
Second-round picks Mike Neal (2010) and Jerel Worthy (2012) provide depth, and the team added defensive end Khyri Thornton (Southern Mississippi) in the third round in May.
That’s a lot of high picks. Now let’s see what the numbers add up to this fall.
Houston Texans: Quarterback
It’s all settled…at least for now.
The Houston Texans, who enter 2014 with a new head coach (Bill O’Brien) and a 14-game losing streak, will go with veteran journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick behind center.
“He's a guy that earned the job,” O’Brien said on Tuesday following Houston's mandatory minicamp session (via Marc Sessler of NFL.com).
And according to Brian T. Smith of the Houston Chronicle, Fitzpatrick’s promotion was followed by the release of three-year pro T.J. Yates. As a rookie in 2011, the young signal-caller wound up taking over late that season, after injuries to Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart, and led the Texans to their first playoff berth.
But can Fitzpatrick get Houston back to the postseason following last year’s debacle? He was an interesting signing by the Texans this offseason. In relief of Jake Locker in 2013, the well-traveled signal-caller had just as many touchdown passes (14) as turnovers for the Tennessee Titans.
Is O’Brien just biding time with Fitzpatrick this season? While Case Keenum is now the backup, could we see rookie Tom Savage by season’s end?
That's especially true if the turnover bug bites the Texans' quarterbacks (22 interceptions, three lost fumbles) just as hard in 2014 as it did this past season.
Indianapolis Colts: Defense
Over the past two seasons, the Indianapolis Colts have had a lot of Luck.
What they haven’t had is a lot of defensive support.
This is nothing new for a Colts team that for more than a decade has had its shortcomings when it comes to stopping the other team.
In 2013, the club ranked 20th in the NFL in total yards allowed as well as 26th in the league in rushing defense. Chuck Pagano’s team was then mauled on the ground in the playoffs by the Kansas City Chiefs (150 yards) and New England Patriots (234 yards) and allowed a combined 87 points in those contests.
The free-agent signings of inside linebacker D’Qwell Jackson, defensive end Arthur Jones and most recently, strong safety Mike Adams figure to help. But keep in mind that the Colts will be without Pro Bowl outside linebacker Robert Mathis for the first four games of the regular season due to suspension.
Holding off the Tennessee Titans, Jacksonville Jaguars and Houston Texans in the AFC South may not be the gimme some assume.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Defensive Tackle
Lost in the problems in recent seasons for the Jacksonville Jaguars is the fact that, while their offense and quarterback situation has gotten the brunt of the criticism, the defense has had its issues as well.
Over the past two seasons, the Jaguars are a combined 6-26. In 2012, only two teams in the league allowed more total yards. In 2013, Gus Bradley’s team was tied for 27th in the NFL in total defense.
Need more proof? One season after finishing with the third-worst rushing defense in the league, Jacksonville improved to 29th in the NFL against the run.
And how is this for a damning statistic when it comes to the play of the Jaguars’ interior defensive linemen in 2013? Pro Football Focus (subscription required) rated 69 defensive tackles this past season, and when it came to stopping the run, three (Roy Miller, Sen’Derrick Marks and Brandon Deaderick) of the bottom nine played for Bradley’s club this past season.
Deaderick signed with the Saints this offseason, while Miller and Marks return. The Jaguars added former Pittsburgh Steelers first-rounder Ziggy Hood this offseason, a player who’s been a bit of a disappointment to date. Perhaps Bradley is counting on free-agent pickup/defensive end Red Bryant, formerly of the Seattle Seahawks, to lend a hand when it comes to stopping the run.
He had better be prepared to use both hands…often.
Kansas City Chiefs: Defense
After nine games in 2013, the unbeaten Kansas City Chiefs were the talk of the NFL, and the team’s defense was taking center stage.
By the end of this past season, no one was asking for a curtain call.
During the club’s 9-0 start, Andy Reid’s team allowed a mere 111 points and limited each opponent to 17 points or less. In the team’s final eight outings, including that stunning playoff loss to the Indianapolis Colts, the Chiefs gave up a whopping 239 points.
So what’s new in 2014? Gone are defensive end Tyson Jackson, whose forte was stopping the run, as well inside linebacker Akeem Jordan and Pro Bowl cornerback Brandon Flowers, the latter released by the team last week. Add in free safety Kendrick Lewis, who slumped badly down the stretch and Reid’s team is minus three (Flowers, Jordan and Lewis) of its top five tacklers from 2013.
Is some of this addition by subtraction? Three-year pro Allen Bailey takes over for Jackson, and free-agent additions Vance Walker and Kyle Love are in the mix up front as well. Second-year linebacker Nico Johnson and veteran Joe Mays will vie for playing time next to Pro Bowler Derrick Johnson.
The defense still has Pro Bowlers in Eric Berry and Dontari Poe, as well as outside linebackers Justin Houston and Tamba Hali who each totaled 11 sacks in 2013, despite the fact that Houston played in only 11 games. And how does rookie Dee Ford, the team’s first-round pick, fit into the team’s plans in 2014?
Will we see the early-season Chiefs defense or the unit that faded down the stretch? It’s a tough call at this time.
Miami Dolphins: Running Back
With the free-agent departure of Reggie Bush last offseason, some felt the Miami Dolphins’ running game would be just fine in the hands of Lamar Miller, Daniel Thomas and perhaps promising rookie Mike Gillislee in 2013.
Someone forgot to tell their feet.
To be fair, a problem-plagued offensive front was part of the problem for a Miami running attack that finished 26th in the NFL in yards gained this past season. Still, the team averaged a mere 90.0 yards per game on the ground and ran for only eight touchdowns.
Of course, the Dolphins did dip into the free-agency pool this offseason. The team signed former Denver Broncos running back Knowshon Moreno to a one-year $3 million contract, according to Spotrac (subscription required). The former first-round draft choice comes off a career year, totaling 1,586 yards from scrimmage, including 1,038 yards rushing, and scoring a total of 13 touchdowns.
However, it’s also worth noting that the five-year runner has had problems staying on the field. This past season marked the first time since his rookie year in 2009 that Moreno played in all 16 games.
Minnesota Vikings: Middle Linebacker
Where’s Scott Studwell when you need him?
No team in the NFL allowed more points than the Minnesota Vikings in 2013. And for good reason, the team’s new head coach is celebrated defensive mind Mike Zimmer.
Thanks to general manager Rick Spielman, the team rebuilt an aging defensive line in the offseason. The Vikings signed defensive linemen Linval Joseph and Corey Wootton and drafted defensive end Scott Crichton. The Minnesota secondary has a new face in free-agent cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, and the first round of the draft brought outside linebacking prospect Anthony Barr.
But are Zimmer and the club truly comfortable at middle linebacker? It appears to be a job up for grabs between one-time Viking Jasper Brinkley (late of the Arizona Cardinals) and former seventh-round draft choices Audie Cole (2012) and Michael Mauti (2013). Both saw playing time this past season, with Cole logging 45 tackles and a sack.
Still, Brinkley appears to be the favorite, and according to Sid Hartman of the Star Tribune, is happy to be back in Twin Cities.
Let’s see how happy the Vikings are this summer.
New England Patriots: Tight End
In four seasons in the NFL, Rob Gronkowski has made quite the impression as well as a notable impact.
Lately, the two-time Pro Bowl tight end has been less about “Gronk” and more about the “ow.”
Still, the productive performer may be on the verge of returning from his various ailments sooner than later, at least according to Ben Volin of the Boston Globe, who witnessed Gronkowski being somewhat spry at a practice roughly a week-and-a-half ago.
The Patriots don’t seem to mind that Gronkowski is keeping himself busy as long as he puts in his rehab. He was actually bursting, planting, and cutting during the early portions of Thursday’s practice open to the media, and doesn’t look like he’s having any limitations. Whether he’ll be ready to play in the first month of the season is another matter.
And it’s that final sentence that remains the biggest issue. Along with Gronkowski, the Pats currently have six tight ends on the roster, including Michael Hoomanawanui, whose letters in his last name equaled the number of receptions (12) he had in 2013.
With all of their issues a year ago, New England still finished third in the NFL in scoring. Not being able to count on a performer who has caught an amazing 42 touchdown passes in 50 regular-season contests is somewhat unfortunate. And maybe it catches up with the Patriots this upcoming season.
Then again, maybe not…
New Orleans Saints: Run Defense
When you give up the most total yards in one season in NFL history, conventional wisdom says there is nowhere to go but up.
And it was defensive coordinator Rob Ryan’s wisdom that aided the New Orleans Saints' cause in 2013. Sean Payton’s club would improve from dead last in the league in total defense to allowing the fourth-fewest yards in the NFL this past season.
But all was not well with this defensive unit by year’s end, and two of the team’s weaknesses on this side of the football were the inability to consistently stop the run and to come up with more takeaways.
Free agency this offseason brought three-time Pro Bowl free safety Jairus Byrd to the Crescent City. As for the rushing defense, that very much remains to be seen.
Up front, nose tackles Brodrick Bunkley and second-year pro John Jenkins return. Per Pro Football Focus, the combination was more than respectable when it came to defensing run, especially Bunkley. Defensive ends Akiem Hicks and Cameron Jordan also graded out well, according to PFF, when it came to stopping the opposition on the ground.
At inside linebacker, David Hawthorne and Curtis Lofton are back as well, and there’s certainly room for improvement, once again, according to Pro Football Focus. Does that mean we will see more of reserves Ramon Huber and Kevin Reddick? Will 2014 fourth-round pick Khairi Fortt see substantial playing time as a rookie?
If the Saints are to make a serious run at Super Bowl XLIX, they had better get serious when it comes to stopping the run.
New York Giants: Running Back
Would it surprise people to know that the New York Giants put up the same “numbers” in 2013 as they did the previous season?
Of course, there’s a catch. In 2012, Tom Coughlin’s club scored an impressive 429 points. One year later, move the four behind the nine and New York finished with a mere 294 points, the fifth-lowest total in the league. Ironically, the Giants also ranked 28th in the NFL in total yards gained.
When you don’t have the football, controlling it can be a problem. Besides leading the NFL with 44 turnovers, Coughlin’s team totaled the fourth-fewest rushing yards in the league in 2013.
Solutions when it comes to 2014? The team signed free-agent running back Rashad Jennings, who led the Oakland Raiders in rushing yards this past season.
As Michael Eisen of Giants.com explains, the team is hoping that former first-round pick David Wilson gets medical clearance sometime soon. Veteran Peyton Hillis and former seventh-round pick Michael Cox (2013) are in the fold, as is rookie fourth-rounder Andre Williams from Boston College.
A healthy return by Wilson and the addition of Jennings could mean a revival of New York’s ground attack. However, there’s still far more doubt than proof at this time.
New York Jets: Cornerback
Now that we are more than a year removed from the 2013 NFL draft, many analysts like to give out grades to not only clubs but also individuals.
It would be interesting to know how many of those evaluators gave an “F” to a Dee?
The New York Jets added a pair of first-round picks last spring, and defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson was impressive enough to earn NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year honors. The standout defender was the 13th overall selection a year ago.
Four picks earlier, the Jets added cornerback Dee Milliner, and the results were less-than-impressive. The former University of Alabama performer had his issues in his debut campaign. New York’s secondary took its lumps last season, as veteran Antonio Cromartie and four-year pro Kyle Wilson struggled as well.
Cromartie was released this offseason and signed with the Arizona Cardinals. The Jets picked up Miami Dolphins’ castoff Dimitri Patterson, who figures to start opposite Milliner. The team also added cornerbacks Dexter McDougle and Brandon Dixon in the third and sixth rounds, respectively, of May’s draft.
For now, this group isn’t evoking a great deal of confidence.
Oakland Raiders: Quarterback
After going through their fair share of starting signal-callers in 2013, the question this upcoming season is not whether the Oakland Raiders have a quarterback.
We may just have to ask who that quarterback will be?
This offseason, general manager Reggie McKenzie gave the Houston Texans a sixth-round pick in 2014 for veteran signal-caller Matt Schaub. The former Pro Bowler will try to revive his career in the Bay Area.
A year ago, the Texans fell completely apart after a 2-0 start, and Schaub was one of the many reasons for the team’s season-ending 14-game losing streak. The 10-year pro set a dubious NFL record this past season by having an interception returned for a touchdown in four consecutive games.
However, McKenzie also used a second-round draft choice in May to select Fresno State quarterback Derek Carr, the younger brother of one-time Texans’ quarterback David Carr, the first overall pick in the 2002 draft. And the newest Carr has done nothing but impress Raiders’ offensive coordinator Greg Olson so far.
“I really, really like him,” said Olson to Vic Tafur of the San Francisco Chronicle. “Everybody knew he was accurate, but he is more accurate than we thought. ... We’ll have to wait and see how he does against a live rush, but so far, his intelligence, accuracy and quickness in getting the ball out (have) been excellent.”
How about some irony? The Texans obtained Schaub in a trade with the Atlanta Falcons in 2007, ending the David Carr era in Houston. Could Derek unseat Schaub in training camp this season before the latter gets the chance to revive his career?
Philadelphia Eagles: Secondary
No matter how you slice it, the numbers weren’t good when it came to the Philadelphia Eagles and their pass defense in 2013.
The Birds allowed the most yards in the league through the air. Chip Kelly’s club also surrendered 25 touchdown passes, two or more scores in nine of their 16 games.
The starting cornerbacks are Bradley Fletcher and Cary Williams, signed during the free-agency period in 2013. A year ago, the Birds also added safeties Patrick Chung and Kenny Phillips. The latter failed to make the team, while Chung played one season in Philadelphia and was released earlier this year.
The safeties are Nate Allen and free-agent addition Malcolm Jenkins, the New Orleans Saints’ first-round draft choice in 2009. He comes off a less-than-scintillating season with Sean Payton’s club, and there are those who wonder if the Birds actually upgraded the position.
Then again, if the Eagles can improve on those 37 sacks of a year ago, the secondary will look a whole lot better.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Wide Receiver
Who says it’s better to give than receive?
Probably those teams looking to justify their needs for help at receiver?
Last offseason, Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Mike Wallace left for greener shores and signed with the Miami Dolphins. A few months ago, wideout Emmanuel Sanders departed the Steel City and joined quarterback Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos.
But who will be Brown’s playmate in 2014? The odds-on favorite is second-year pro Markus Wheaton, a third-round pick a year ago who was limited by injuries, totaling just six catches in 12 games. In 2014, the stakes are a lot higher for the former Oregon State product.
Elsewhere, New Orleans Saints castoff Lance Moore is expected to fill the role of free-agent departee Jerricho Cotchery. Second-year pro Justin Brown, rookie Martavis Bryant and enigma Darrius Heyward-Bey are in the picture as well.
Patience may need to be exercised by Tomlin and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger when it comes to this group.
That means…just give it a little time.
St. Louis Rams: Quarterback
When you look at the roster of the St. Louis Rams, you have to be impressed with all of the young talent acquired in recent years by general manager Les Snead and head coach Jeff Fisher.
In May’s draft, the club added big pieces in the trenches in offensive lineman Greg Robinson and defensive tackle Aaron Donald. St. Louis’ front four also includes former first-rounders in defensive ends Robert Quinn and Chris Long and defensive tackle Michael Brockers.
On the other side of the ball, speedy Tavon Austin is one of many young wideouts on a team that also added veteran Kenny Britt this offseason. The running game is in the capable hands of second-year pro Zac Stacy, with intriguing rookie Tre Mason in the picture as well.
Defensively, the Rams were 25th in the league in total yards allowed, and the team allowed only 39 offensive touchdowns in 2013. That unit is now led by veteran coordinator Gregg Williams.
It seems like we have mentioned everyone except starting quarterback Sam Bradford. That’s because we are waiting for the first overall pick in 2010 to stay on the field for back-to-back seasons. The former Oklahoma Sooner started all 16 games in his rookie season as well as 2012. Bradford played a combined 17 games in 2011 and 2013.
Fisher’s insurance policy is free-agent addition Shaun Hill, formerly of the Detroit Lions. But keeping Bradford on the field and intact is the key. If you go by his history, he should be fine in 2014.
Then again, 2015 could be another story.
San Diego Chargers: Nose Tackle
In terms of talent and design, there’s not a lot wrong with the San Diego Chargers.
The team that started 5-7 in 2013, only to rally to win its final four games and grab a playoff berth, got a lot better as the season progressed.
That’s because, thanks to new head coach Mike McCoy and offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt, as well as a bolstered offensive line, these Bolts were able to play ball control and slow down the best of offenses. Just ask the Denver Broncos.
But it’s the other side of the football that is a bit of a concern. After finishing with the league’s ninth-ranked defense, while only five clubs permitted fewer rushing yards in 2012, the Chargers fell to 12th in rushing defense and 23rd in total yards allowed this past season.
With Cam Thomas now with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Sean Lissemore moves over to nose tackle. He’s backed up by Kwame Geathers and rookie Ryan Carrethers, a fifth-round pick last month. It should be noted that Lissemore spent more time at defensive end than on the nose in 2013.
It will be interesting to see if the Chargers still try to employ a little more experience at the position.
San Francisco 49ers: Linebacker
The San Francisco 49ers, the home of Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman, Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks, may actually have some concerns at linebacker?
The questions here are not regarding viability. They are in reference to availability.
Willis is a seven-year veteran and has been named to the Pro Bowl in each of those seasons. For the 2013 season, he finished second on the team with 104 tackles and added three sacks. Brooks tied for the team lead with 8.5 sacks, totaling 60 stops and knocking down seven passes.
But when will we see Bowman in 2014? The tackling machine suffered a severe knee injury in the NFC title game, and his return is unknown. Last week, colleague Bryan Knowles of Bleacher Report contemplated how the Niners would deal with his absence.
Even more unknown is the regular-season availability of Smith, who runs into trouble seemingly as often as he runs down opposing quarterbacks. Josh Alper of Pro Football Talk has the latest news on the talented but troubled performer.
Intact, there’s arguably no better linebacking corps in the NFL. But what will this group look like when the regular-season kicks off in September?
Seattle Seahawks: Offensive Line
We saw Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson running for his football life too many times in 2013. Fortunately for the two-year pro, he has the ability to do so.
Continuity was the biggest issue when it came to the team’s offensive line in 2013. Starting left tackle Russell Okung missed eight games, and right tackle Breno Giacomini (now with the New York Jets) missed seven contests. Center Max Unger also missed three games during the regular season.
Pro Football Focus reminds us that neither left guard James Carpenter nor right guard J.R. Sweezy comes off a stellar campaign, although in fairness, part of that performance could also be attributed to the various lineup changes on this unit.
Save for Giacomini, the same offensive line that started Super Bowl XLVIII will open the season for Pete Carroll’s team in less than three months. Michael Bowie owns the right tackle job for now, although it should be noted that the Seahawks used a second-round pick in May on tackle Justin Britt.
Will Seattle’s offensive front be better in 2014? Injuries played a big role in last season’s problems, meaning answering that question is virtually impossible.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Pass Rush
Have the Tampa Bay Buccaneers done enough this offseason to address one of the team’s glaring weaknesses?
This past season, the defense totaled just 35 sacks. But it was the club’s best effort in this department since 2005 (36 sacks). Tampa defenders have totaled less than 30 sacks in six of the last eight seasons dating back to 2006.
New general manager Jason Licht gave up some big bucks (pun intended) to add free-agent defensive end Michael Johnson (Cincinnati Bengals) to a group that already includes defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and defensive end Adrian Clayborn. Johnson's sack total dropped from 11.5 in 2012 to 3.5 this past season, although the five-year pro comes off a solid showing overall.
Licht also signed free-agent defensive tackle Clinton McDonald (Seattle Seahawks), known more for his pass-rushing ability than his run-stopping prowess.
In 2013, the draft provided defensive ends William Gholston and Steven Means, as well as defensive tackle Akeem Spence.
Keep in mind that over the past six seasons, the Buccaneers have totaled just 168 sacks while allowing 164 touchdown passes. That’s the challenge that faces new head coach Lovie Smith and new defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier, who must deal with a double dose of Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Cam Newton.
Tennessee Titans: Quarterback
The Tennessee Titans have a new sideline leader in Ken Whisenhunt, who knows a little something about getting to the Super Bowl as both an offensive coordinator (Pittsburgh Steelers) and head coach (Arizona Cardinals).
The team also has a new offensive coordinator in Jason Michael.
Now let’s hope they don’t have a new quarterback on a weekly basis.
Former first-round pick Jake Locker became the team’s starting quarterback in his second year in 2012. But the eight overall pick in 2011 has missed as many games (14) as he has started (18) over that span. Injuries have played a major part of his lack of development to date.
This past season, veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick was the much-needed backup. He’s now with the Houston Texans, hence the club signed free-agent signal-caller Charlie Whitehurst this offseason. Last December, the Titans signed Tyler Wilson off the Oakland Raiders’ practice squad and also added Zach Mettenberger (sixth round) in May’s draft.
Injuries are impossible to predict, but one thing you can count on is Whisenhunt’s work with quarterbacks, the latest example being veteran Philip Rivers. In 2013, the San Diego Chargers signal-caller earned NFL Comeback Player of the Year honors following two shaky seasons.
Could Locker be in line for such accolades in 2014?
Washington Redskins: Secondary
When you win only three games and finish the season with eight consecutive losses, it’s hard to find positives.
Still, the Washington Redskins have done their best to address their various shortcomings this offseason. And we will eventually see if they can pull off another worst-to-first turnaround, as was the case in 2012 when they captured the NFC East.
During the 2013 draft, Washington addressed its last line of defense often, with the selections of cornerback David Amerson and safeties Phillip Thomas and Bacarri Rambo. As rookies, Amerson started nine games, totaled 48 tackles, two interceptions and knocked down 10 passes. Rambo earned three starts and amassed 43 stops. Thomas spent the season on injured reserve.
For now, Amerson is the youngster in a starting lineup that includes cornerback DeAngelo Hall and safeties Brandon Meriweather and Ryan Clark, the latter returning to Washington after eight seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Safety Reed Doughty was not re-signed by the club, and cornerback Josh Wilson signed with the Atlanta Falcons.
The Redskins also added free-agent cornerback Tracy Porter, formerly of the Oakland Raiders, while safety Tanard Jackson returns from a two-year NFL suspension. The former Tampa Bay Buccaneer has never played in a regular-season game for Washington.
Over the past two seasons, Jim Haslett’s defensive unit has allowed a combined 60 touchdown passes, 31 in 2012 and 29 in 2013. While the team ranked 20th in the league in passing yards allowed this past season, only four teams in the NFL ranked worse in terms of pass coverage, according to Pro Football Focus.
Will things be any better in 2014? There’s certainly some doubt. And new head coach Jay Gruden may need all the points he can get from quarterback Robert Griffin III and Co.
Some statistical support for this piece was provided by Pro Football Focus, Pro-Football-Reference.com, NFL.com and ESPN.com. Depth charts are provided by Ourlads, while financial terms are supplied by Spotrac.