Predicting This Year's Biggest NFL Preseason Storylines
NFL training camps have been in session long enough to give us a sense of the storylines that will dominate the preseason until Week 1, which include everything from looming suspensions to quarterback competitions to injury-recovery timetables.
Every team has a handful of storylines that are worth discussing, so to narrow them down for this list, we've chosen issues and stories that have been covered in the national media as well as by the teams' local reporters.
An issue such as Josh Gordon's suspension appeal is not only captivating to a national audience as well as Browns fans hoping he will play in 2014, but it indeed could change the way the NFL deals with substance-abuse violations in the future.
The following eight storylines have been ranked in ascending order, with those most likely to dominate national—as well as local—coverage rounding out the top of the list. The four (or five, in the case of the Buffalo Bills and New York Giants) preseason games will provide clarity on these questions as we prepare to head into Week 1.
Has Tampa Bay Successfully Revamped 2013's League-Worst Offense?
Tampa Bay's 4,432 yards of total offense was 32nd in the league in 2013, with just 176.3 passing yards per game on average. The Buccaneers fared slightly better in the run game, with 100.8 rushing yards per game, which was 22nd.
But revamping the 2013 offense was clearly a huge priority this offseason, and the Buccaneers had serious resources to do it—including more than $55 million guaranteed to spend in free agency, per Andy Benoit of The MMQB, and the No. 7 overall draft pick.
Those efforts landed them journeyman quarterback Josh McCown, first-round wide receiver Mike Evans, second-round tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins, former Bengals left tackle Anthony Collins and solid former Packers center Evan Dietrich-Smith.
On paper, this Tampa offense looks competitive. McCown shined last season in his eight games for Chicago, with the third-highest passer rating among quarterbacks of 109.0 and completing 66.5 percent of his passes for 13 touchdowns to just one pick. He trades in Chicago's big weapons, Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, both at least 6'3", for Evans, Vincent Jackson and Seferian-Jenkins, all 6'5".
Playing behind Collins should allow McCown to keep his accuracy up, while Doug Martin's return will ensure he doesn't exclusively see two-high safety looks from opposing defenses.
It's hard to argue that Tampa Bay could have done more to improve its offense from 2013 this offseason. Now, it's time to wait and see if it all comes together under new offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford and coach Lovie Smith.
Will Geno Smith Prove He Should Be Week 1 Starter?
After splitting first-team reps roughly 75 percent of the time to Michael Vick's 25 percent, Geno Smith got "all 16 first-team reps" at Jets practice on July 31, per per Seth Walder of the New York Daily News.
Walder speculated that the shift could indicate the Jets are closer to making a decision about their Week 1 starter at the quarterback position.
But after the team's Green and White scrimmage at SUNY Cortland Saturday, in which the offense failed to reach the end zone in 12 total possessions, per Dom Cosentino of NJ.com, if Vick can prove through the team's four preseason games he can be productive in this offense, the competition could swing in his favor.
Smith and Vick had similar efforts Saturday, with Smith finishing 7-of-14 for 84 yards and Vick going 7-of-13 for 47 yards and an additional 35 on the ground.
Smith told the Jets' senior reporter Eric Allen on July 31 that he's "more confident running the ball," but the Jets added new pass-catching weapons Jace Amaro and Eric Decker through the draft and free agency, respectively, in order to improve the passing game.
As Vick has demonstrated through his career that he can be a multidimensional weapon with his arm and his legs, so too will Smith need to show he has improved on his passing from 2013—a season that saw him complete just 55.8 percent of his passes and throw 21 interceptions—to get the starting nod.
Has Dallas Successfully Revamped 2013's League-Worst Defense?
After Dallas finished 32nd in total defense in 2013, giving up a whopping 6,645 yards, defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin was demoted, and Rod Marinelli was tapped for the job.
But the Cowboys arguably suffered a net loss on defense this offseason, one that saw sack leader DeMarcus Ware and defensive end Jason Hatcher depart in free agency. They added Henry Melton and Jeremy Mincey, getting younger and cheaper if not necessarily better.
Dallas' pass defense allowed 4,589 yards in 2013 as well as 33 touchdowns, the second-most last season. None of the Cowboys' corners graded in the top third of the league last season, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Lee was their best pass defender, and losing him would have been difficult even with a strong defense. The unit is still struggling to make the transition to a 4-3 scheme, and Lee was the linchpin of that move.
The Cowboys will call on rookie Anthony Hitchens to step up and contribute earlier than he would have had Lee not gotten injured.
Dallas' defense will depend heavily on rookies, backups and free agents, with extremely limited depth. With the NFC East looking to be one of the closest divisions in the league, there's a lot of interest in how the Cowboys' re-tooled defense looks this preseason.
Can Matt Schaub Show That 2013 Was Just a Fluke?
The 2014 preseason will be a key to answering the question of whether the Houston Texans' meltdown in 2013 was in part caused by Matt Schaub's play or whether Schaub was a casualty of a systemic failure.
There's no arguing that Schaub had the worst season of his career since becoming a starter in 2005. Over 10 games, he completed just 61.2 percent of his passes for a quarterback rating of 73.0, averaged 6.45 yards per attempt and threw 14 interceptions, which SI.com's Doug Farrar reminded us set an NFL record for throwing a pick-six in four straight games and five of seven overall.
But the move to Oakland is an opportunity for Schaub to prove he's better than the guy we saw last season who struggled with mechanics, accuracy and engineering scoring drives. Per Jerry McDonald of the Bay Area News Group, Schaub "has been extremely sharp since the Raiders went to padded practices" in training camp.
At practice on July 30, Schaub engineered a 10-play scoring drive ending with a touchdown pass to Denarius Moore in the back of the end zone, per McDonald.
ESPN.com's Paul Gutierrez provided comments from head coach Dennis Allen regarding Schaub's transition: "...I think he's been very focused and very driven this offseason and I don't think there's any question that he's got something that he wants to go out and prove."
If Schaub fails to demonstrate this preseason that he's game-ready, he has pro-ready second-round rookie Derek Carr on his heels, which should provide extra motivation.
Does Carolina Have Enough Weapons in Kelvin Benjamin, Receiving Corps?
After cutting Steve Smith and losing Brandon LaFell in free agency, the Carolina Panthers drafted Kelvin Benjamin in Round 1. Given the rest of the depth chart at receiver, does Cam Newton have enough weapons here? That's certainly an issue to pay close attention to this preseason.
Benjamin, who missed some time this training camp with a bruised knee but returned to practice on August 2, per ESPN.com's David Newton, has looked promising throughout camp. Newton noted that Benjamin made back-to-back 30-plus-yard catches from Cam Newton on Day 1 of camp, then he burned cornerback Melvin White for a leaping catch on Saturday.
But do Jerricho Cotchery, Jason Avant, Tiquan Underwood and Tavarres King, if all make the roster, make up a productive corps behind Benjamin? And are the Panthers, who were very mindful of their cap health when they let Steve Smith walk in free agency, planning for the future?
Two of their projected starting receivers—Cotchery and Avant—have played an average of nine years in the league. They won't factor into the future as Newton enters his prime.
Cotchery has only had one 1,000-yard season in his career, in 2007, but he had 10 touchdowns for the Steelers in 2013. Neither Underwood nor Avant has had a 1,000-yard season, and Avant has not scored more than three touchdowns in a given year.
Will Odell Beckham Jr. Be Ready to Contribute This Preseason?
Odell Beckham Jr. did not play Sunday night when the New York Giants faced the Buffalo Bills in the Hall of Fame Game, the first game of five this preseason for both teams.
After the Giants drafted Beckham No. 12 overall, he injured his hamstring during OTAs and has been sitting out practice as he recovers. This has caused coach Tom Coughlin to grow "increasingly cranky," per Paul Schwartz of the New York Post, but that frustration "is with the injury, not the player."
Beckham revealed to Schwartz that he still has blood in his hamstring, and though he feels he will "definitely be playing in the preseason games," he still has at least a week or longer to go.
Given their needs on both the offensive and defensive lines, it was a little surprising when the Giants went with a sub-6'0" receiver with the No. 12 pick. More so than with other players they could have taken there, New York will be under close scrutiny until Beckham proves his value. But the Giants can settle those doubts if he has a strong showing heading into the season.
Will Josh Gordon Successfully Appeal 1-Year Ban?
Josh Gordon's appeal hearing to overturn his suspension of at least a year for failing a marijuana test went until 7 p.m. Friday night and will resume Monday, per Nate Ulrich of the Akron Beacon Journal.
Will his appeal be successful, and/or will Gordon negotiate a settlement that would allow him to see playing time with the Cleveland Browns in the 2014-15 season? Former NFL executive and Sports Illustrated's MMQB contributor Andrew Brandt told SI Now that this case "screams to him" a negotiated settlement for a ban somewhere between eight and 16 games.
However, if the ban of at least a year is upheld, per the language of the NFL substance-abuse policy, Gordon will not be permitted to apply for reinstatement "sooner than 60 days before the one-year anniversary date of the letter so suspending him," which would put his return at the tail end of training camp in 2015.
Thus, the repercussions of this potential ban could ripple into the beginning of the 2015-16 season.
Per Ulrich, Pettine has said "the Browns would need to use a committee approach with their receiving corps if Gordon is unavailable," which would include calling on free-agent additions Andrew Hawkins, Miles Austin and Nate Burleson.
National coverage of Gordon's suspension has been ongoing since May, so undoubtedly the resolution to these proceedings will be a key storyline not only for the Browns this preseason but also for the league as a whole.
Will Johnny Manziel Start over Brian Hoyer?
After the scrimmage, in which he had two offensive periods against the second-team defense, Manziel appears to have made a case for mixing up the units.
When asked if the competition was closer now than at the start of camp, coach Mike Pettine wouldn't say so outright, but he hinted that Manziel could see first-team snaps. Mary Kay Cabot of The Cleveland Plain Dealer provided the following comments from Pettine:
"When camp began Brian [Hoyer] was the one because we had to put somebody out there with the ones, but they were truly competing against each other and at some point we will mix the units. I think that it's all part of our evaluation process."
Manziel wasn't overly impressive in passing at Family Day—going 3-of-7 for 14 yards—but his scrambling kept drives alive, per Cabot.
Whether Manziel or Hoyer receives more starts in the Browns' four preseason games will be a strong indication of which quarterback will start in Week 1. But as Pettine told Greg Bedard of The MMQB in June, while Manziel's first start being Week 1 "could happen, in my ideal world, it’s not opening day.”