Every NFL Team's Greatest Mystery Heading into Training Camp

Russell S. Baxter@@BaxFootballGuruContributor IJuly 11, 2014

Every NFL Team's Greatest Mystery Heading into Training Camp

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    Face it. We are all suckers for a great whodunit.

    This past season, it was the Seattle Seahawks who did it, crushing the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII.

    We are rapidly approaching the start of training camp for all 32 NFL teams as the league’s 95th season is less than two months away from kicking off.

    So it’s time to do a little detective work and try to deduce just what is the greatest mystery surrounding each club as each enters the dog days of summer.

    Of course, some mysteries are a bit more obvious and a little less ominous than others. But no team in the game, even the champion Seahawks, is without a flaw or two.

    So do any of these teams have a clue in terms of solving their puzzles?

    And as we know, there is no sure lock when it comes to that answer.

Arizona Cardinals: Is the Offense Ahead of the Defense?

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    Some will recall that back in 2008, the Arizona Cardinals made their first and only Super Bowl appearance. The team was led by an attack keyed by signal-caller Kurt Warner and targets such as wide receivers Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin and Steve Breaston.

    That season, the Cards scored 427 points, which was just one more point than they allowed (426).

    These days, it is veteran quarterback Carson Palmer pulling the trigger in Arizona. Fitzgerald is still around but now he has new playmates with emerging wide receiver Michael Floyd, free-agent wideout pickup Ted Ginn Jr., rookie pass-catcher John Brown and tight end John Carlson. Second-year pro Andre Ellington is the new feature running back.

    Today’s NFC West is based on defense. The Seattle Seahawks (first), San Francisco 49ers (fifth) and Cardinals (sixth) were three of the league’s top six units in terms of fewest yards allowed in 2013.

    However, this is an Arizona team minus its top three tacklers of a year ago. Inside linebacker Karlos Dansby joined the Cleveland Browns, strong safety Yeremiah Bell was not re-signed and inside linebacker Daryl Washington (via Bob McManaman of AZCentral.com) is serving a one-year league-induced suspension. Finally, second-year free safety Tyrann Mathieu is still on the mend after finishing his rookie season on injured reserve.

    If the Cardinals get to 10 wins again this season, they may do it a totally different way than a year ago.

Atlanta Falcons: Who Will Be the Team’s Top Pass-Rusher?

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    Is anyone raising their hand?

    A lot of things have to go wrong when you go from the top seed in the NFC (13-3) to just four wins over the course of a calendar year.

    One factor for the Atlanta Falcons’ epic collapse in 2013 was injuries. Another was the failure to run the football and the inability to stop the opposition from doing the same.

    But perhaps even more glaring was the fact that the Falcons’ pass rush continues to be AWOL as well. Last offseason, the team replaced defensive end John Abraham with defensive end Osi Umenyiora. The team’s sack total rose from 29 in 2012 to just 32 sacks this past season.

    That’s 61 sacks in 32 regular-season games, or just one more than the Carolina Panthers managed (60) in leading the league in 2013.

    We will see more 3-4 alignments from defensive coordinator Mike Nolan this season. That and the additions of defensive end Tyson Jackson and nose tackle Paul Soliai should help against the run. But besides Umenyiora, who will consistently chase the likes of Drew Brees, Cam Newton and Josh McCown for six of the team’s 16 games in 2014?

Baltimore Ravens: How Many Games Will RB Ray Rice Play in 2014?

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    A.J. Perez of NJ.com updates us on the latest when it comes to Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice’s legal situation and how it affects his NFL future in terms of this upcoming season.

    As far as on the field, 2013 proved to be highly disappointing for not only the Ravens but Rice himself. After averaging at least four yards per carry in each of his first five seasons, the three-time Pro Bowler ran for just 660 yards on 214 carries, a paltry 3.1 yards per attempt.

    After scoring a combined 25 touchdowns the previous two years, Rice reached the end zone just four times this past season.

    Now it’s just a waiting game for the Ravens and their standout running back, who hopes to make the most of his opportunity once he gets back on the field.

Buffalo Bills: Who Will Take over for Injured RLB Kiko Alonso?

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    How do you adequately replace 159 tackles, two sacks and six takeaways?

    The Buffalo Bills are about to find out in roughly two months.

    This past season, Kiko Alonso manned the inside linebacker spot for Doug Marrone’s team and turned in an impressive rookie campaign. The second-round pick from the University of Oregon led the team in stops.

    Alonso was getting set to move to right side linebacker this season after the team added free-agent linebacker Brandon Spikes at the middle spot. The former New England Patriots defender specialized in stopping the run.

    There will be no movement when it comes to Alonso anytime soon, at least when it comes to the playing field. He recently tore his ACL and is expected to miss the 2014 season.

    Chris Brown of BuffaloBills.com speculates on Alonso’s replacement(s) in the form of veteran Keith Rivers and/or third-year pro Nigel Bradham, who totaled 51 tackles of his own this past season. The favorite seems to be the latter, with Rivers manning the left spot in new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz’s 4-3 scheme.

    Now the only question is whether Bradham can start 16 games, something he hasn’t done in his two previous NFL seasons. Don’t bet against it.

Carolina Panthers: Who Will Be the Starting Left Tackle in Week 1?

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    When it comes to replacing Carolina Panthers left tackle Jordan Gross, there really is no mystery in terms of the candidates.

    It’s the solution that will take some time when it comes to the successor for the three-time Pro Bowler.

    Last month, David Newton of ESPN.com gave his feelings when it came to the clash this summer between tackles Nate Chandler and Byron Bell, both starters in different roles last season.

    Byron Bell and Nate Chandler split the role during organized team activities, and this will be a rehash of what they've learned. The real battle won't start until training camp when they put the pads on. Most believe Bell, moving from starting right tackle, has the inside track on the position. He was the first to work at left tackle during OTAs. But Chandler was working out at tackle before injuries last season forced him to move to right guard, where he started the final eight regular-season games. A former defensive tackle, he has solid footwork and the size (6-4, 310) to play the position. He just doesn't have experience.

    That experience in terms of Chandler could come in the form of on-the-job training during the regular season.

    Then will come perhaps an entirely new set of questions.

Chicago Bears: Has the Defense Improved Enough from 2013?

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    When you think of the Chicago Bears, you think of hard-nosed play, the “Monsters of the Midway” and a team traditionally built on defense.

    Think again.

    A year ago, the team gave up the third-most total yards in the league and was dead last in the NFL against the run. In their last 10 games alone, the Bears gave up 197.1 yards per game on ground.

    Add in 31 sacks (tied for last in the league) as well as surrendering 478 points (201 more than in 2012) and it was all systems no-go in the Windy City.

    The new faces include free-agent defensive ends Jared Allen, Lamarr Houston and Willie Young, while rookie defensive tackles Ego Ferguson and Will Sutton hope to assist Jay Ratliff and Stephen Paea. First-round pick Kyle Fuller will learn his trade from veteran cornerbacks Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings. Veteran strong safety Adrian Wilson, who missed all of last season with the New England Patriots, hopes to contribute as well.

    Is all of this enough to make a difference? On paper, it appears that these Bears have made significant upgrades.

    Then again, we are not sure that last year’s defense would have fared very well against paper.

Cincinnati Bengals: How Different Will the Offense Look This Season?

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    Late last month, new Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson had glowing praise for his tandem of quarterback Andy Dalton and wide receiver A.J. Green on SiriusXM NFL Radio (and recounted by Around the League writer Kevin Patra of NFL.com).

    It seems that Green is on the same page with Jackson when it comes to the three-year passing combination of himself and Dalton.

    “We came in together and that is the great thing for me and him,” said the Pro Bowl wideout on NFL Network’s Top 100 Reaction Show earlier this week (also recounted by Patra of NFL.com). “I know he's my guy. I don't want any other quarterback throwing me the ball,” added Green. “I think he feels the same way about me.”

    Last season, the Bengals ranked 10th in the league in total offense, 18th in rushing and eighth in passing. But will that change dramatically under Jackson, who takes over for Jay Gruden, now the head coach of the Washington Redskins?

    Last season, rookie running back Giovani Bernard was the talk of the summer and he lived up to it during the season. This offseason, second-round pick Jeremy Hill has been climbing up the depth chart and along with Bernard and possibly BenJarvus Green-Ellis gives Cincinnati a trio of options in the backfield.

    Given Jackson's preference for the ground game, the Bengals could be doing a little reverse when it comes to those rushing and passing ranks.

Cleveland Browns: Who Will Be the Team’s Top WR in 2014?

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    Courtesy of NFL writer Will Brinson of CBSSports.com, here’s the latest when it comes to the off-the-field issues for Cleveland Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon.

    The sad part about all of this is that there continues to be a latest.

    Gordon’s brief history in the NFL already includes a two-game suspension this past season. Despite that, he led the NFL with 1,646 receiving yards and was named to the Pro Bowl.

    This most recent issues come somewhat on the heels of the news in May, when it was reported by ESPN’s Outside the Lines that Gordon could be suspended for the entire 2014 season because he once again violated the league’s substance-abuse policy.

    While Pro Bowl pass-catcher Jordan Cameron is the favorite to lead the team in receptions this upcoming season, who among candidates such as Miles Austin, Nate Burleson, Andrew Hawkins, Travis Benjamin and Anthony Armstrong, among others, will take over for Gordon if he isn’t around this season?

    Then again, we do wonder what LeBron James is doing over the next few months?


Dallas Cowboys: Will the Running Game Be a Bigger Factor This Season?

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    The Dallas Cowboys’ latest 8-8 season featured a dismal defensive performance that saw Jason Garrett’s club allowed the most yards in the league in 2013.

    But instead of focusing on the defense, the loss of DeMarcus Ware and the addition of rookie defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence, the emphasis here is on running back DeMarco Murray.

    Although there is no way to accurately document this, the Cowboys running back may have had the quietest 1,121-yard rushing season in 2013 in NFL annals. That’s because quarterback Tony Romo and the passing attack, be it ahead or behind, continues to be the focal point of the offense.

    This past season, despite Murray’s 5.2 yard-per-carry average, the Cowboys ranked 24th in the NFL in rushing yards per game. A year earlier, only the Arizona Cardinals ran for fewer yards than Garrett’s club.

    Enter Scott Linehan, who this season becomes the latest coach to call the offensive plays for the Cowboys. Will that mean more work for Murray, as well as running backs Lance Dunbar, Joseph Randle and perhaps former Cardinals back Ryan Williams?

    Sorry but we can’t decide.

Denver Broncos: Is the Defense Better Than It Was in 2013?

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    It’s hard to outscore the opposition by a combined 207 points during the regular season and then lose the Super Bowl by 35 points.

    We give you the Denver Broncos, who were virtually unstoppable on offense and couldn’t get out of their own way when it came to the other side of the football.

    In 2013, John Fox’s club ranked 19th in total defense and allowed 399 points. The Broncos gave up 20 or more points in 12 of their first 14 regular-season contests. Late in December, they started to employ more of a ball-control attack that kept the football away from opponents. It worked well in the playoff wins over the San Diego Chargers and New England Patriots.

    Of course, it’s hard to play ball control when the pigskin is sailing over your head on Super Bowl Sunday.

    This offseason, general manager John Elway wasted little time in free agency securing the likes of defensive end DeMarcus Ware, cornerback Aqib Talib and strong safety T. J. Ward to upgrade his shaky unit. The season-long presence of former Pro Bowler Von Miller can only help.

    Then again, if the Broncos and quarterback Peyton Manning don’t put a little more focus on balancing the offense, even defenders such as Ware, Talib and Ward can wear out if they are on the field too long.

    The jury is still very much out here.

Detroit Lions: Is New Head Coach Jim Caldwell the Right Fit?

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    Face it. Many football followers never seem to question the amount of talent possessed by the Detroit Lions.

    It’s the other stuff that always seems to get in the way. The “D” with this team usually centers around a lack of discipline and not the defense.

    Enter the under-spoken Jim Caldwell, who replaces head coach Jim Schwartz following a 29-51 regular-season record in five seasons with the club. The latter did lead the Lions to the playoffs in 2011, ending a drought that had dated back to 1999, but the last two seasons have seen the team finish with a combined 11-21 record.

    Meanwhile, Caldwell has been part of three Super Bowl teams and two championships with the Indianapolis Colts and Baltimore Ravens, including a win with the latter in 2012 as the team’s offensive coordinator. How will the somewhat quiet Caldwell fit in with a club whose roar is sometimes bigger than its bite?

    If all goes well, the Lions could finally make some noise when it comes to winning a division title, something the franchise hasn’t managed since 1993.

Green Bay Packers: How Effective Will Julius Peppers Be in His New Role?

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    There were not a lot of positives when it came to the Chicago Bears defense in 2013.

    Then again, the Green Bay Packers weren’t that much better on the defensive side of the football last season as well. Mike McCarthy’s team allowed 428 points, was ranked 25th in the NFL in total defense and managed only 22 takeaways.

    Enter veteran Julius Peppers, who in his four seasons in the Windy City never missed a game or a start. He totaled 7.5 of the Bears’ 31 sacks in 2013. He will line up at outside linebacker and perhaps more in Dom Capers’ defense.

    Peppers’ presence should make life easier for the likes of outside linebackers Clay Matthews and Nick Perry, as well as defensive ends Mike Neal and Datone Jones, the latter the team’s first-round pick in 2013.

    At the very least, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers doesn’t have to worry about being chased around the field by Peppers any longer, unless it is in practice.

Houston Texans: Will WR Andre Johnson Play for the Texans Again?

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    “Got any room for me in Denver, Peyton?”

    No, that’s not a direct quote and no one is attempting to read lips. That’s our attempt to decipher what Houston Texans wide receiver Andre Johnson (at least for now) was saying to Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning after their teams met last December. That encounter was the 13th of 14 consecutive losses for the Texans in 2013.

    In 11 seasons in Houston, Johnson has totaled 927 receptions (14th in NFL history) for 12,661 yards (17th in NFL history) and 61 touchdown grabs.

    Apparently that’s enough catches for the Texans in regards to the third overall pick in the 2003 draft, who would like to play elsewhere this season.

    According to NFL Media Insider Ian Rapoport of NFL.com, Johnson has a short list of teams he would now like to be traded to.

    Will it indeed happen? We may be just getting warmed up on that front.

Indianapolis Colts: Will RB Trent Richardson Bounce Back in 2014?

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    As a rookie, running back Trent Richardson ran for 950 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2012 with the Cleveland Browns. The former University of Alabama star also caught 51 passes for 367 yards and a score two years ago.

    In his first season with the Indianapolis Colts in 2013, Richardson rushed for 458 yards on just 157 carries, a mere 2.9 yards per attempt. He did total 28 receptions for 265 yards and a touchdown with his new club, who gave up a first-round draft choice in 2014 to obtain his services.

    According to Craig Kelley of Colts.com, being a lot more familiar with offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton’s playbook could certainly help this season. And if the talented performer can rebound in fine fashion, the third overall pick in 2012 will make life a lot easier for the first overall selection in the same draft in Colts quarterback Andrew Luck.


Jacksonville Jaguars: Who Are the Team’s Starting Wide Receivers?

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    According to NFL draft sage Dan Shonka and the staff at Ourlads, the Jacksonville Jaguars’ depth chart has underrated Cecil Shorts and second-year Ace Sanders at the top of the wide receiver listings. Both were fourth-round draft choices, Shorts in 2011 and Sanders one year ago.

    Is it possible that a pair of twos could actually trump a pair of fours?

    Since this is football and not poker, it could happen.

    In May’s draft, the Jaguars added a pair of wide receivers in the second round in Marqise Lee and Allen Robinson, both eventually hoping to help veteran quarterback Chad Henne as well as a team that scored an NFL-low 247 points this past season.

    Unfortunately, it’s been hard to figure who has stood out so far this offseason because a number of the Jaguars’ wide receivers were down and out during OTAs and minicamps, via John Oehser of Jagaurs.com.

    And that will make for an even more interesting training camp later this month.

Kansas City Chiefs: Which Version of the Defense Shows Up This Summer?

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    A year ago, the Kansas City Chiefs were the talk of the league following a 9-0 start that also saw them limit each of their opponents to 17 points or less.

    Of course, talk is cheap. By season’s end, compliments had turned into concerns. Including a playoff loss which saw them blow a 28-point third-quarter lead to the Indianapolis Colts, Andy Reid’s Chiefs were 2-6 in their final eight outings and allowed a whopping 239 points in the process.

    Particularly damning was the team’s performance within the division. In four games against the Denver Broncos and San Diego Chargers this past season, Kansas City allowed a total of 130 points and lost all four contests to those two AFC West rivals.

    This is a unit that has seen starters such as defensive end Tyson Jackson, inside linebacker Akeem Jordan, free safety Kendrick Lewis and Pro Bowl cornerback Brandon Flowers depart the team for various reasons.

    So is there any reason to believe that this defense won’t pick up where it dropped off in 2013?

Miami Dolphins: Has the Offensive Line Been Fixed?

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    Thanks to free agency and May’s draft, the Miami Dolphins were doing everything possible to correct their biggest issue of 2013.

    Now thanks to some key acquisitions and no thanks to a crucial injury, the team will have five new opening day starters when the team opens the season against the New England Patriots.

    The new left tackle and right guard are Branden Albert and Shelley Smith, formerly of the Kansas City Chiefs and St. Louis Rams, respectively. Left guard Dallas Thomas was a third-round pick in 2013 and appeared in seven games as a rookie but has never made a start in the NFL. And this year’s first-round pick, Ja’Wuan James, is the team’s new right tackle.

    That leaves Pro Bowl center Mike Pouncey as the lone incumbent. But the standout pivot underwent hip surgery last month and, according to the sources from Adam Schefter of ESPN.com, Pouncey was expected to be out at least three months. Joe Philbin’s team doesn’t have any proven depth at center, although the club did add versatile offensive lineman Daryn Colledge to the roster recently.

    Remember, this was a unit that helped allow an NFL-high 58 sacks in 2013 and also led the league in bad publicity this past season. It will be interesting to see how it all comes together…hopefully.

Minnesota Vikings: Will QB Teddy Bridgewater Be the Opening Week Starter?

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    Let us remember that the Minnesota Vikings made a move in the late hours of Day 1 of the 2014 NFL draft. With the 32nd overall selection, obtained in a trade with the Seattle Seahawks, general manager Rick Spielman grabbed quarterback Teddy Bridgewater from the University of Louisville.

    So will the last pick in Round 1 be first on the depth chart come September?

    According to Mike Wobschall of Vikings.com, new offensive coordinator Norv Turner has been very impressed with the rookie signal-caller, as well as his other two veteran quarterbacks.

    While the plan is for Matt Cassel to start the season, is it possible that Turner and new head coach Mike Zimmer turn over the reins to Bridgewater on opening weekend?

    It’s a question begging for an answer. But it is also an issue we may not get closure on for a while.

New England Patriots: Will the Defense Be a Top-10 Unit in 2014?

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    It was a down year for the New England Patriots in 2013, which means the team once again won the AFC East and came one game short of the Super Bowl.

    Veteran quarterback Tom Brady threw just 25 touchdown passes (compared with 11 interceptions) and struggled to get on the same page with a new-look pass-catching corps that may bear more of the brunt of the responsibility in that case. Still, the Pats scored the third-most points in the league in 2013.

    What ultimately proved to be the team’s undoing was a defensive unit that began the year with great promise and ended with performers such as defensive tackle Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly and middle linebacker Jerod Mayo on injured reserve.

    The results were a team that finished 26th in the NFL in total yards allowed while giving up the third-most rushing yards in the league. However, thanks to 29 takeaways and a pass rush that produced 48 sacks, Bill Belichick’s club was able to limit the damage caused. Still, this unit couldn’t get off the field in the AFC title game loss to the Denver Broncos.

    The Patriots hope to do even more than that in 2014. Additions such as cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner (who will miss the first four games due to suspension) and rookie defensive lineman Dominique Easley figure to help, as well as the emergence of second-year pros such as outside linebacker Jamie Collins and strong safety Duron Harmon.

    It has become vogue for some to count out the Patriots in recent seasons when it comes to Super Bowl talk. Someday, it will also be accurate.

New Orleans Saints: When Will TE Jimmy Graham Sign?

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    Now that we have the age-old question of whether Jimmy Graham plays tight end or wide receiver for the New Orleans Saints, what’s next when it comes to the four-year pro?

    In other words, when will we see the Pro Bowl performer on the field with his teammates?

    Graham was designated the team’s “franchise” player this offseason, a tag we now know in his case means $7 million in 2014 rather than a whole lot more.

    Shalise Manza Young of The Boston Globe outlines an arbitrator’s recent decision to rule against Graham’s notion that he is a wide receiver and should be paid like one, at least in the case of the franchise tag. We are still waiting to see if there is an appeal to be filed on Graham’s behalf, the deadline being this Monday.

    Another date is Tuesday, July 15. That is in regards to the Saints and Graham working out a long-term deal.

    Right now, a short-term deal doesn’t appear to be in the cards. Stay tuned.

New York Giants: Who Will Be the Starting Tight End?

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    It’s like beating a dead horse. But it is still worth pondering.

    This offseason, the New York Giants saw tight end Brandon Myers leave the club after one season and sign with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

    We have shown you the names and numbers before in terms of who sits on the team’s depth chart at the position. For now, third-year pro Adrien Robinson and his zero career receptions is affixed at the top spot, followed by free-agent pickup Kellen Davis, second-year player Larry Donnell, well-traveled veteran Daniel Fells and rookie free agent Xavier Grimble.

    Quarterback Eli Manning has Pro Bowl wide receiver Victor Cruz and youngsters such as Rueben Randle and Odell Beckham Jr. to throw to. Veteran wideout Mario Manningham is back with the team after a short stint with the San Francisco 49ers.

    But let’s not forget that Myers did catch 47 passes for 522 yards and four touchdowns in 2013 , his reception total third on the team this past season. That production needs to be made up somewhere.

    It’s not where that is the mystery here; it is who.     

New York Jets: Is Chris Johnson Still a 1,000-Yard Running Back?

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    The odds are statistically still in Chris Johnson’s favor.

    The former running back with the Tennessee Titans is now a running back with the New York Jets. In six seasons in Nashville, the three-time Pro Bowler ran for 7,965 yards and 50 scores, topping the 1,000-yard mark each season. He also totaled at least 250 carries in each season with the Titans.

    Will that be the case with the New York Jets and offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg? Johnson was a workhorse in Tennessee but there’s been talk of a backfield-by-committee approach by Rex Ryan’s team. And, according to Dom Cosentino of NJ.com, the former Titan has been approachable when it comes to being a part of the committee.

    However, is the big-play performer capable of a seventh straight 1,000-yard campaign? Let’s see if Johnson indeed winds up with fewer than 250 carries this upcoming season.

Oakland Raiders: Will QB Matt Schaub Hold off Rookie Derek Carr?

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    Oh, brother…and the irony.

    In 2007, the Houston Texans orchestrated a trade with the Atlanta Falcons to obtain the services of quarterback Matt Schaub. He would replace 2002 first overall pick David Carr in the Texans’ lineup and have his good and bad moments in seven seasons with the franchise.

    It’s safe to say 2013 was one of those bad moments. He set an NFL record by having an interception returned for a touchdown in four consecutive games and also missed time due to injury. The team dealt him to the Oakland Raiders for a sixth-round draft choice in 2014.

    Now he starts anew with the Oakland Raiders, a team that hasn’t had a winning season since 2002, ironically the Texans’ first season in the NFL. And there’s the smell that comes with a new Carr, as is rookie quarterback Derek Carr.

    Yes, it is David’s younger brother. By all accounts, he has had a strong showing so far in the OTAs and minicamps to date.

    Could Schaub be looking over his shoulder again, this time when it comes to his job and not watching a defender pass him on his way to the end zone with one of his passes?

Philadelphia Eagles: Is the Defense Ready to Step Up?

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    As you know, the game of football is far more than just numbers.

    In the case of the Philadelphia Eagles, the most relative figure may be two.

    No. We are not talking about Chip Kelly’s club being ranked second in the NFL in total offense, including first in rushing, this past season.

    It will be the Birds’ second year in defensive coordinator Billy Davis’ 3-4 scheme. In 2013, the team allowed the fourth-most yards in the league and was dead last in pass defense. While the team produced a so-so 37 sacks, the Eagles came up with 31 takeaways, a dramatic improvement from the previous season (13).

    With outside linebacker Trent Cole (team-high eight sacks) a year wiser at his new position and free-agent pickups such as cornerback Nolan Carroll and free safety Malcolm Jenkins in the secondary, this may be a Philadelphia defense ready to complement the team’s explosive attack.

Pittsburgh Steelers: Is WR Markus Wheaton a Season-Long Starter?

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    The Pittsburgh Steelers feature one of the league’s best wide receivers in Pro Bowler Antonio Brown. The sixth-round pick in 2010 from Central Michigan finished second in the NFL this past season in catches (110) and receiving yards (1,499) while scoring eight touchdowns.

    As for his pass-catching counterpart in 2014, it won’t be Emmanuel Sanders, now a member of the Denver Broncos. For now, it falls upon second-year pro Markus Wheaton, who was limited to six catches for 64 yards in 12 games as a rookie in 2013.

    Is the former Oregon State speedster ready to make the jump into a bigger spotlight? Playing opposite Brown and having veteran quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to throw you the football helps.

    Wheaton hopes to stay healthy this season and make an impact. And his ability to help stretch the field could also have an impact on a ground game, tied for 27th in the NFL in 2013, which now features both Le’Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount.

    Of course, time (and a few touchdown receptions) will only tell.

St. Louis Rams: Can the Team Count on QB Sam Bradford?

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    If you go by the numbers, this shouldn’t even be a question, much less a mystery.

    Of course, St. Louis Rams quarterback Sam Bradford’s four-year stay in the NFL is worthy of some Scooby-Doo-like speculation.

    That’s because the first overall pick in 2010 has yet to stay on the field consistently in consecutive campaigns.

    The former Oklahoma Sooner started all 16 games in his rookie season in 2010 and duplicated that two years later.

    Bradford played in a combined 17 games the other two years and was limited to just seven contests this past season.

    While his record as a starter is usually the focus (18-30-1), it’s worth noting that Bradford has thrown for 59 scores compared to just 38 interceptions in his brief career. And while his completion percentage (58.6) doesn’t wow you, that could change as he and that young receiving corps get more acquainted.

    This offseason, general manager Les Snead and head coach Jeff Fisher added veteran free-agent quarterback Shaun Hill as insurance.

    According to recent history, Hill won’t be needed this season unless there’s a fall-off in performance by Bradford. And that would be a whole new series of questions that need to be answered.

San Diego Chargers: Can RB Ryan Mathews Top His 2013 Performance?

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    Last season, San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers earned NFL Comeback Player of the Year honors after rebounding from a pair of disappointing years.

    He had his share of help along the way.

    Taking a bit of a back seat in the team’s resurgence was former first-round running back Ryan Mathews, who totaled a career-high 1,255 yards on the ground and scored seven total touchdowns (six rushing, one receiving). It also marked the first time in four NFL seasons that Mathews had played in all 16 games.

    Head coach Mike McCoy used the running game, with a big assist from a much-improved offensive line, to keep the opposing attack off the field. The Chargers averaged just over 30 rushing plays per game.

    Can we expect even more from Mathews this season? He carried the ball a career-high 285 times in 2013 and there’s no reason he can’t top that. But could free-agent pickup Donald Brown take a lot of those attempts away from the Pro Bowl running back?

    Instead, it would not be a surprise if Mathews averaged at least 20 carries per game this season while Brown eases the load on running back Danny Woodhead in terms of rushing attempts.

    For the Chargers, it’s a nice problem to have to solve.

San Francisco 49ers: What Will Be the Availability of OLB Aldon Smith?

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    As training camps get closer, so does the San Francisco 49ers reality of knowing that they won’t have inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman on the field at the start of the season.

    They may also be down another Pro Bowl defender. While outside linebacker Aldon Smith recently found out he won’t face charges regarding a fake bomb threat back in April in a Los Angeles airport, Bill Williamson of ESPN.com explains that the pass-rushing terror still has some issues to deal with in terms of off the field.

    Smith, the team’s first-round pick in 2011, has totaled 42 sacks in 43 regular-season games, 33.5 of those sacks in his first two seasons. Last season, he played in only 11 contests and tied for the team lead with 8.5 sacks, then added 3.5 sacks in the team’s three playoff games.

    Jim Harbaugh’s club seeks a fourth straight trip to the NFC title game (and beyond) and is one of the deeper squads in the league. In the five games Smith did not play in 2013, the defense totaled 10 sacks, five of those in one game.

    It remains to be seen what kind of breakdown we will doing in this regard this season.

Seattle Seahawks: Can WRs Sidney Rice and Percy Harvin Stay Healthy?

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    It’s a mystery that is impossible to solve. That is understood.

    But it’s still a question that begs an answer.

    This offseason, the defending Super Bowl champions Seattle Seahawks didn’t make a slew of changes. But there are a few notable faces no longer with the club.

    One of those is wide receiver Golden Tate, who paced the team in catches (64) and receiving yards (898) and tied for the club lead with five touchdown receptions. He’s taken his championship ring to the Motor City, where he will play opposite Detroit Lions wideout Calvin Johnson.

    The Seahawks certainly have options. Emerging wideout Doug Baldwin also tied for the team lead with five touchdown receptions and finished second on Pete Carroll’s club with 50 grabs and 778 receiving yards. Jermaine Kearse and Ricardo Lockette are again in the mix and the Seahawks added Paul Richardson (second round) and Kevin Norwood (fourth round) in May’s draft.

    But will we see a lot more of one-time Minnesota Vikings Percy Harvin and Sidney Rice in 2014. Everyone knows what Harvin can do when available while Rice caught 15 passes for 231 yards and three scores before going down after eight games in 2013. Rice was released this offseason and then re-signed with the club.

    Wouldn’t it be fun to actually see these two on the field together?

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Will All of the Team’s New Faces Gel Sooner Than Later?

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    When you are the first team to finish last in the NFC South three consecutive years, there are bound to be some changes.

    And once this club got going this offseason, the Bucs didn’t stop.

    Via free agency, new Tampa Bay Buccaneers general manager Jason Licht added the likes of Pro Bowl cornerback Alterraun Verner (Tennessee Titans), defensive end Michael Johnson (Cincinnati Bengals), quarterback Josh McCown (Chicago Bears), left tackle Anthony Collins (Bengals), center Evan Dietrich-Smith (Green Bay Packers), tight end Brandon Myers (New York Giants) and defensive tackle Clinton McDonald (Seattle Seahawks).

    But wait, there’s more. The draft brought new offensive weapons in wide receiver Mike Evans, tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins and running back Charles Sims.

    There is also a new head coach in Lovie Smith, who once upon a time took well more than just three Chicago Bears to Super Bowl XLI.

    That’s a lot of new faces. But is one offseason enough for this team to find its new self in 2014? We may not know the answer until perhaps midway through the season.

Tennessee Titans: Can QB Jake Locker Stay Healthy for 16 Games?

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    Is it possible? Of course it is.

    And new head coach Ken Whisenhunt is bound and determined to make sure the Tennessee Titans first-round pick in 2011 will be seen and heard from a lot more in 2014.

    Since becoming the regular starter two years ago, quarterback Jake Locker has been a regular when it comes to spending time on the sidelines. Since 2012, he has only slightly started more games (18) than he has missed (14).

    In those 18 contests, Locker has run 65 times for 446 yards and three touchdowns. He has also been sacked 41 times over that span, numbers Whisenhunt hopes to improve on this season.

    David Climer of The Tennessean explains how the Super Bowl-seasoned head coach is determined to put Locker in his place. And that means in the pocket.

    For now, it’s so far so good, according to Whisenhunt. “Jake works hard," said the Titans’ sideline leader. “He's done a great job as far as studying the offense and understanding his reads. He's really done a good job with a lot of little things—his footwork, his techniques.”

    We will soon find out if that technique will be on display for an entire season.

Washington Redskins: Is the Defense Capable of a Major Turnaround?

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    While talk of the Washington Redskins these days usually surrounds the team’s young quarterback and the franchise’s moniker, here’s another issue worth discussing.

    Jim Haslett begins his fifth season as the team’s defensive coordinator. The season before his arrival, Washington gave up 29 offensive touchdowns in 2009. In each of the past four campaigns, Redskins defenders have surrendered at least 37 touchdowns, including 52 in 2013.

    Will the free-agent additions of Pro Bowl defensive tackle Jason Hatcher and veteran free safety Ryan Clark make a difference for a team that gave up 478 points (tied for the second-most in the NFL) last season?

    This is a team with notable defensive performers such as outside linebackers Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan, who teamed for 18.5 of the club’s 36 sacks in 2013. Veteran cornerback DeAngelo Hall led the team with four interceptions, returning two for touchdowns. Second-year cornerback David Amerson bears watching.

    Do the additions of Hatcher, Clark and even veteran cornerback Tracy Porter give this unit a big boost? The answer to that question needs to be a resounding yes if the Redskins are going to return to the playoffs for the second time in three seasons.


    Some statistical support for this piece was provided by Pro-Football-Reference, NFL.com and ESPN.com. Depth charts are provided by Ourlads.