Biggest Looming Decision for Every NFL Team
The 2017 NFL preseason is underway, and we're about three weeks from the season opener between the Kansas City Chiefs and New England Patriots. Between now and then, teams will spend time evaluating their rosters and fleshing out their depth charts.
Per Albert Breer of The MMQB, rather than cut down from 90 players to 75 and then 53, as has been the case in years past, NFL teams will now make all of the cuts at once on Sept. 2. Those aren't the only decisions teams must make over the coming weeks, though.
For each NFL team, one choice looms above all others as having the biggest impact on their chances of success in 2017. For some, it's on defense. For others, it's the offensive line. And who can forget the squads with the always popular August quarterback controversy?
From Arizona to Washington, every team has one. Here is the biggest looming decision for each NFL team.
Arizona Cardinals: A Playmate for Patrick Peterson
This one is something of an annual tradition in Arizona. It has been since 2011, anyway.
That's when the Cardinals drafted Patrick Peterson, who has since become one of the NFL's best shutdown cornerbacks. But while Peterson has been locking down one side of the field, a carousel of cornerbacks has been struggling on the other more often than not.
That second starter at cornerback is easily the biggest question mark for the Arizona defense entering the season. Sixth-year veteran Justin Bethel, who is penciled into the starting lineup at the moment, played just 270 snaps last year and would have graded 60th at the position last year at Pro Football Focus had he been on the field enough to qualify.
Second-year pro Brandon Williams started Arizona's first preseason game. But as Darren Urban of the team's website noted, he had an up-and-down performance that mirrored his play in camp so far.
The Cardinals also signed veteran Tramon Williams, but given how badly he struggled with Cleveland in 2016, the only question the 34-year-old appears to answer is "what does a washed-up defensive back look like?"
The Cardinals have about a month to figure this out, but right now, it looks like whoever starts opposite Peterson in 2017 can expect to get thrown at a lot.
Atlanta Falcons: Guarding the Right Side
Coming off a shocking run to the Super Bowl that ended in historic heartbreak, the Atlanta Falcons are well-positioned to defend their NFC South crown.
Among the few holes the Falcons do still need to fill, the largest is likely the right guard spot vacated upon the retirement of Chris Chester.
Second-year pro Wes Schweitzer, who B/R's Brent Sobleski considers the slight favorite for the job, told ESPN.com's Vaughn McClure he learned a lot from Chester during what was essentially a "redshirt" rookie season.
"He was an extremely smart player and extremely athletic," Schweitzer said. "We would take rides together to the stadium sometimes on game day. He just has so much knowledge from playing for so long. He was such a great guy, and I just really appreciated learning from him."
Schweitzer played left tackle in college, so this is quite the switch for him. And he has competition in the form of swing lineman Ben Garland. In fact, the Falcons' first depth chart of the summer listed the 29-year-old Garland as the first-team right guard, per D. Orlando Ledbetter of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Add in rookie fourth-rounder Sean Harlow, and you have the makings of a camp battle that may not be resolved until well into the preseason.
Baltimore Ravens: The Quarterback Conundrum
Last year, the Baltimore Ravens failed to make the playoffs for the second straight season. It's the first time in over a decade that the team has missed the postseason two years running.
The odds of a rebound season in 2017 appear to be dwindling by the day.
With the preseason underway in earnest, there's still no timetable for the return of quarterback Joe Flacco, who has been out since late July with a sore back. According to ESPN.com's Jamison Hensley, Baltimore head coach John Harbaugh insisted the Ravens aren't overly concerned about their franchise signal-caller.
"We know he's getting better every single day," Harbaugh said. "Obviously, we have a plan for him, football-wise, when he gets back. But we haven't been told when yet."
Were the Ravens not concerned, it's unlikely they would have endured the PR circus that was their well-publicized consideration of free agent Colin Kaepernick. According to ESPN's Dianna Russini, Harbaugh and general manager Ozzie Newsome both wanted to sign him, but team owner Steve Bisciotti resisted.
The Ravens denied that report, and as of this writing, Kaepernick remains unsigned. After a second opinion on his back, Flacco was green-lit for what ESPN.com's Dan Graziano called a "slow return"—whatever that means.
Baltimore won't make the playoffs with Ryan Mallett under center, especially given the injuries that have laid waste to its tailback and tight end positions. Mallett has been mostly awful in camp, according to the Baltimore Sun's Jeff Zrebiec, and he wasn't a bit better in the preseason opener.
Flacco won't play at all in the preseason, per Hensley, but the Ravens remain optimistic he'll be under center in Week 1.
If he isn't, Baltimore is in trouble.
Buffalo Bills: The Future of Tyrod Taylor
After the Buffalo Bills traded wide receiver Sammy Watkins to the Los Angeles Rams and cornerback Ronald Darby to the Philadelphia Eagles on Friday, general manager Brandon Beane told reporters the pair of deals didn't mean the team was throwing in the towel on quarterback Tyrod Taylor.
"This is not a throw-in-the-towel thing at all. ... To your question on Tyrod, it's nothing. We got Anquan [Boldin], who we added. I told you, I honestly believe he's a Hall of Famer, he still can play in this league. Jordan Matthews is a starting receiver. If you look at his numbers and what he's done, those aren't anything to laugh at. So Tyrod will get every opportunity to lead this team, and we're all rooting for him. It's our best interest."
Yes, the Bills got back a capable NFL starter in Matthews for Darby. But it appears that in stockpiling 2018 draft picks, Buffalo is far more concerned about the future than the present. Given that and the way Taylor's contract is structured, it's fair to wonder whether he is a part of the team's long-term plans.
The Bills may not know themselves—at least not yet. Taylor is a decent NFL starter, but he's hardly an elite one. And while the Bills have two first-round picks in a 2018 draft that appears to be deep at quarterback, it remains to be seen whether those picks will be high enough to land one of the higher-end signal-callers without a trade up.
In other words, Taylor's future with the team likely depends on what happens in the present—a present where the passing game is long on slot receivers but short on difference-makers on the outside.
Carolina Panthers: Strong-Side Struggles
The Carolina Panthers weren't planning on a camp battle at the right tackle position. But after releasing Michael Oher, they now have a glaring hole on the strong side of the offensive line.
The incumbent in the competition is third-year pro Daryl Williams, who has demonstrated "consistent improvement" in camp so far this summer, according to Jeremy Igo of Carolina Huddle. While Williams did allow just one sack a year ago in 360 pass-blocking snaps, per PFF, he ranked a moribund 39th in that site's Pass Blocking Efficiency metric.
In other words, Williams was OK last year, but he wasn't much more than that.
Should Williams falter in pass protection again, second-round rookie Taylor Moton waits in the wings. Some considered the Western Michigan product one of the biggest values of the entire 2017 NFL draft, and it's not unreasonable to say Moton has more long-term upside than Williams.
However, it's also not unreasonable to say young tackles often take a while to acclimate to the NFL. While Jourdan Rodrigue of the Charlotte Observer noted Moton hasn't faceplanted in the early going, he also isn't making a hard charge for the starting job—yet.
Chicago Bears: Long Live King Mitchell
The Chicago Bears weren't supposed to have any controversy at quarterback. Free-agent acquisition Mike Glennon was going to start this year while No. 2 overall pick Mitchell Trubisky spent his rookie year learning from the bench.
That still could be the plan. But after what Trubisky did in his first preseason game, Chicago sports radio was undoubtedly lit up with calls for the rookie to start.
While Glennon converted just two of eight pass attempts for 20 yards, Trubisky was razor-sharp. The former North Carolina standout went 18-of-25 for 166 yards, threw a touchdown pass and gained 38 yards on three carries.
Even Glennon admitted to ESPN.com's Jeff Dickerson that the kid looked good.
"He [Trubisky] played really well," Glennon said. "There's no doubt about that. I was impressed for his first time in a real NFL game setting. He played well. He moved the ball well. He ran it, had a touchdown to Victor [Cruz]. He definitely played well."
That performance carries with it at least one large asterisk, in that it came against Denver's reserves. Glennon struggling against one of the NFL's best secondaries isn't a shock.
But if the 27-year-old lays another egg against the Arizona Cardinals this week, the rumbles that the future is now in Chicago will grow into a roar.
As such, the Bears will have a big decision to make ahead of the "dress rehearsal" third preseason game.
Cincinnati Bengals: Tackling the Tackles
The Cincinnati Bengals took a step backward in 2016, largely because of struggles on the offensive line.
Now, with tackle Andrew Whitworth (Los Angeles Rams) and guard Kevin Zeitler (Cleveland Browns) both gone, that offensive front is easily the Bengals' biggest question mark in 2017.
Third-year pro Cedric Ogbuehi, who was miserable last year in 11 starts at right tackle, will take over for Whitworth as Andy Dalton's blind-side protector. Offensive coordinator Ken Zampese insisted to Geoff Hobson of the team's website that he thinks Ogbuehi is up to the task.
"I have full confidence that he's going to be a fabulous player for us,” Zampese said. "It's no different than a new guy at wide receiver or a new guy at another position. You find out what his skill set is so you can put in your game plan to keep it in his wheelhouse. No different than any other player.”
However, Ogbuehi wasn't good in 2016. If he struggles in preseason games, the Bengals may lose patience. The team does have a couple options. It could flip Jake Fisher to the left side and kick veteran Andre Smith from guard to tackle—which could also happen if Fisher struggles.
I'd expect Cincinnati's young tackles to have a relatively short leash over the next couple of months. They can't afford to play as badly as they did in 2016.
Never mind potentially getting worse.
Cleveland Browns: Quarterback
The quarterback position might not be the only decision facing the perpetually rebuilding Browns in 2017, but it’s easily the biggest one.
It’s also an area where head coach Hue Jackson threw a curveball. After divvying up the first-team reps to date between second-year pro Cody Kessler and rookie DeShone Kizer, Jackson announced Brock Osweiler would start the team’s preseason opener.
Yeah, about that.
Osweiler was erratic and inaccurate against the New Orleans Saints, completing six of his 14 attempts for 42 yards. Cody Kessler was only marginally better in relief. And while it came against the third-team defense, the best performance of the night under center was easily from Kizer, who threw a couple of nice deep passes and led the Browns on a game-winning fourth-quarter drive.
Kizer's performance may have moved him up the depth chart. Per Charean Williams of Pro Football Talk, it's expected that he will play in the first half of Cleveland's next preseason contest against the New York Giants.
It goes to show that the battle to be the latest quarterback added to the "Jersey of Sadness” is about as wide-open as a position battle can get. I don’t think the Browns know any more than we do who will start against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 1.
For my money, both as a sportswriter and a fan of the team for over 30 years (back to the days of "Red Right 88”), this should be a two-man race. Unless Kizer blows away both Osweiler and Kessler over the next few weeks, rushing a rookie out there who isn’t ready would be a huge mistake.
Don’t louse up the future for the sake of the present. The Browns aren’t going anywhere in 2017.
Dallas Cowboys: The Elephant in the Room
For the Dallas Cowboys, the 2017 offseason has had two chapters. There’s everything that happened before August 11, and everything that will happen after.
August 11 was the day the NFL dropped the hammer on running back Ezekiel Elliott. The NFL suspended Elliott six games for violating the league policy on domestic violence.
"In a letter to Elliott advising him of the decision,” the NFL said (via Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk), "Todd Jones, the NFL’s Special Counsel for Conduct, said these advisors 'were of the view that there is substantial and persuasive evidence supporting a finding that [Elliott] engaged in physical violence against Ms. Thompson on multiple occasions during the week of July 16, 2016.'”
I’m not going to pass judgment here. On one hand, the league believed there was enough evidence to warrant the suspension. On the other, Elliott hasn’t been charged with any crime and continues to insist he did nothing wrong. So I’m just going to stick to the NFL impact and leave the rest to sager people than I.
The thing is, we don’t know the football impact either. Elliott plans to appeal the decision Tuesday or Wednesday, per NFL.com's Ian Rapoport, and once that appeal is heard, Dallas is going to face a huge decision.
Back in 2010, Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger received a similar six-game ban after being accused of sexually assaulting a woman in a Georgia nightclub. The suspension for Roethlisberger (who, like Elliott, was not charged with any crime) was then reduced to four games on appeal.
If this follows a similar course, Dallas will have to choose whether to accept that punishment and get through September without Elliott or take the appeal to the courts. That could drag things out for months (during which time Elliott could play), but it’s also likely to generate substantial negative publicity for the team.
Whatever happens, one thing is for sure—Elliott’s once-promising NFL career is now on wafer-thin ice.
Denver Broncos: Siemian or Lynch?
It’s Trevor Siemian, Denver’s incumbent starter, who started under center when the Broncos opened the preseason against the Bears in Chicago. And per most pundits (including Charles Robinson of Yahoo Sports), it’s Siemian who has the early lead over Paxton Lynch to start for the Broncos in Week 1.
Siemian told ESPN.com’s Jeff Legwold he’s taking things one day at a time.
"I really don't think about it too much to be honest with you," Siemian said. "I try to do my job, be a good teammate when I'm in there, get the group running well, move the ball and whatever happens, happens."
In the opinion of Mark Kiszla of the Denver Post, however, that’s the problem. Siemian is winning the battle by not losing it. No reins have been seized.
"It’s too early to panic, Broncos Country," he said. "But the queasy feeling in the pit of your stomach? That’s not a bad burrito you ate for lunch. It’s the anxiety resulting from two quarterbacks that have inspired zero confidence."
It's much the same sentiment from Robinson. According to his sources, the team hoped the big-armed Lynch would take the next step in his second season. Instead it’s been Siemian, the steadier player with a much lower ceiling, who has been the better quarterback in camp.
The battle that isn't one continued right into the matchup with the Bears. Siemian and Lynch combined to complete 12 of 16 throws, but for just 93 yards. The Denver offense was stuck in neutral most of the night.
That's the problem. We've seen the Denver offense with Siemian at the helm, and last year that offense never got in gear.
Detroit Lions: How Much for Matthew?
Not every major decision faced by an NFL team at this time of year is related to the depth chart.
The Detroit Lions know Matthew Stafford is their starting quarterback, just as he’s been for the last eight seasons.
The only question now is how much it’s going to cost them to keep it that way.
With Stafford entering the final year of his contract, he and the Lions have begun negotiations on a deal that would probably make him the highest-paid player in NFL history.
At least that appears to be what Stafford is angling for, given that Tom Pelissero of the NFL Network tweeted there’s a "substantial gap" in negotiations.
So, the team may be understandably leery of a massive deal containing over $60 million in guarantees.
However, for all his faults, Stafford is still relatively young (29), and even without that playoff, win he’s the most successful quarterback the Lions have had in half a century. After watching Barry Sanders and Calvin Johnson both walk away from the Lions, they would get the blackest of black eyes if Stafford finishes his career anywhere but the Motor City.
It’s still early, and odds remain excellent something will get worked out.
After all, if the Lions want to see how not to handle contract negotiations with a quarterback, all they have to do is look to the nation’s capital.
Green Bay Packers: Backfield Brouhaha
This one is both a surprise and potentially a good problem to have.
The Packers loaded up on young running backs in the 2017 NFL draft, but the expectation was that these youngsters would serve as a complement to Ty Montgomery, the converted wide receiver turned tailback in Green Bay.
Apparently, Jamaal Williams didn’t get that memo.
According to ESPN.com’s Rob Demovsky, Williams is already pushing Montgomery and earning some first-team reps in practice. Offensive coordinator Edgar Bennett credited Williams' all-around skill-set—including his aptitude in pass protection.
“Obviously running the football, that’s important," Bennett said. “Catching the football as a receiver out of the backfield as well, [and] going back to the pass protection, you can’t stress it enough as far as the overall importance of being able to be in sync with that protection unit, the offensive line and understanding the role they play in the protection game."
It's that last part that stands out. If there’s one area where rookie backs tend to struggle, it’s in pass protection and blitz pickup. It also happens to be a weakness of Montgomery’s.
This isn’t to say that Williams is going to relegate Montgomery to a backup role. Montgomery was the lead back in the preseason opener.
Of course, Montgomery also fumbled in the game, and if the 6’0", 213-pound Williams carries his momentum from practice into the exhibition season, the Packers might be left facing a decision they didn’t expect.
Just like they didn’t expect to have to move Montgomery in the first place.
Houston Texans: Elementary, My Dear Watson
From the instant the Houston Texans traded up to select Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson No. 12 in the 2017 NFL draft, it hasn’t so much been a question (in most minds) of if Watson would make starts as a rookie.
It was more a matter of when.
Tom Savage remains the team’s starter, but head coach Bill O’ Brien told ESPN.com’s Sarah Barshop competition between Savage and Watson is bringing out the best in both young signal-callers.
"Those guys are competitive. They're both good," O'Brien said. "I think that that whole room is very talented. ... They're making each other better. There's no doubt about it."
Savage, who started Houston’s preseason opener (going 9-of-11 for 69 yards) told the NFL Network’s Marshall Faulk (per Conor Orr of NFL.com) that he’s well aware he has little margin for error.
"The equation is pretty simple," Savage said. “You go out there, you play well, you keep your job. You don't, you lose your job. And that's the mentality that I have. I just have to go out there and keep performing well and go from there."
The first exhibition game didn't do much to clear the waters. While Watson saw more playing time (to cheers from the Clemson faithful in Charlotte) and both players were relatively effective, neither Savage nor Watson threw either a touchdown pass or an interception.
However, there's one area at least where Watson was clearly superior. No one is going to confuse Watson and Randall Cunningham anytime soon, but Watson was consistently able to buy time and pick up yardage with his legs. On the night, Watson gained 24 yards on three carries, including a 15-yard scamper for his first exhibition touchdown.
Indianapolis Colts: Push Your Luck?
There’s nothing worse for an NFL team than facing the prospect of raising the white flag on a season before it even begins.
Except for potentially screwing up more than one season because of your unwillingness to do so.
That’s the dilemma the Indianapolis Colts may be facing. If Andrew Luck’s recovery from shoulder surgery costs him significant time during the 2017 regular season, the Colts are done. Even in an AFC South that’s one of the weaker divisions in the NFL, the Colts can’t afford to have their best player (by a mile) start the year on the PUP list.
Per ESPN.com’s Mike Wells, head coach Chuck Pagano wasn’t informative when asked a week ago about Luck’s timetable for a return.
"We are where we are with that," he said. "There's no timeline. When they say he's healthy and ready to go, we'll get him out there. He's played a lot of football."
And mind you, Pagano’s a man likely coaching for his job this year.
The problem is, if the Colts get too wrapped up in getting Luck back on the field before he's ready—not to mention behind a shaky offensive line—all it takes is one shot for Luck to wind up right back on the shelf.
It appears to be a 50/50 bet (at best) that Luck will be on the field in Week 1.
If he misses a chunk of the season, the future of the can’t-miss quarterback we all thought was destined for greatness will have gotten pretty cloudy.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Buying or Selling Blake
To some, it may look like the Jacksonville Jaguars have already decided on Blake Bortles’ future because they picked up the fifth-year option on the third overall pick in the 2014 NFL draft.
However, that option is guaranteed only in the event of injury. It bought the Jaguars another season next year only if they want it. If Bortles plays in 2017 like he did in 2015 (when he ranked second in the NFL with 35 touchdown passes), they’ve bought another year of control.
But if Bortles has another season like last year (23 touchdowns, 78.8 passer rating), the Jaguars can pull the option, cut bait and move on.
It won’t be for lack of trying by the team. The Jaguars don’t have the NFL’s best receiving corps. But the group headlined by Allen Robinson isn’t the worst by any stretch either. The Jaguars added a featured back in this year’s draft in Leonard Fournette and bolstered the offensive line.
Never mind a retooled Jags defense that (on paper, anyway) looks like it will keep Jacksonville in a lot of games.
None of that will matter though if Bortles keeps turning it over. As the Associated Press (via USA Today) pointed out, the Jaguars’ first padded practice of the year featured five Bortles picks.
It’s those turnovers that will make this decision for the Jaguars in 2017. One way or the other.
Kansas City Chiefs: King of the (Tyreek) Hill
I’m puzzled by some of the moves the Kansas City Chiefs have made in the offseason, including the release of veteran wide receiver Jeremy Maclin—a move that elevated second-year pro Tyreek Hill to the title of No. 1 wideout.
It’s not a matter of Hill’s talent. As he showed during an electrifying rookie campaign, Hill is one of the most dangerous players in the NFL in space with a ball in his hand. According to Jeff Deters of the Topeka Capitol-Journal, head coach Andy Reid has been impressed with what he’s seen from Hill in camp so far in 2017.
You can make a good argument that outside of tight end Travis Kelce, Hill is the best offensive weapon for a Chiefs team that won 12 games and the AFC West in 2016.
That’s part of the problem, though. Kansas City has put an awful lot of eggs in the basket of a young receiver who hasn’t topped even 600 receiving yards in a season. And in doing so, it's (wisely) decided to back down Hill’s role on special teams.
If the Chiefs are going to make it back to the playoffs, Hill is going to have to grow up in a hurry. And Reid and the Kansas City staff are going to have to figure out ways to get Hill the ball in space in the face of a lot more defensive attention.
Los Angeles Chargers: The Present vs. the Future
The Los Angeles Chargers drafted Mike Williams No. 7 overall in 2017 in the hopes of affording quarterback Philip Rivers another weapon in the passing game.
Yes, the Chargers already had weapons. But Keenan Allen’s last two years have involved more time on the sidelines than between them. And at 35 years old, Rivers isn’t getting any younger.
However, in a stroke of Chargers luck, Williams has been out since the first day of rookie minicamp with a herniated disc in his back that some feared could be season-ending.
The Chargers have said all along that wasn’t the case, and as ESPN.com’s Eric Williams reported, despite being ruled out for the remainder of training camp Williams has at least begun running on the side.
"He’s back on the grass," head coach Anthony Lynn said. "He’s running. He’s doing well. ... We just want him to keep progressing and not have any setbacks. And we’ll see what happens."
For a team as snakebitten by injuries as the Bolts, this is good news indeed. But Lynn and the Chargers need to avoid falling into the same trap with Williams that the Houston Texans did with J.J. Watt last year.
Pushing a player with a bad back onto the field too soon.
If Williams is ready to play in Week 1, or Week 7, or whenever—that’s one thing. But the Chargers are the No. 4 team in an AFC West that looks loaded in 2017. Whatever short-term benefit he might provide isn’t worth risking his long-term health.
Especially when you consider that the only kind of luck the Chargers have had with injuries in recent years is bad.
Los Angeles Rams: Wheel of Wideouts
According to the Rams’ first unofficial depth chart, 34 wide receivers are on the roster.
If the team is going to go anywhere in 2017, it needs some of those receivers to be good.
Part of the blame for Jared Goff’s awful rookie season rests squarely with the No. 1 overall pick a year ago. But it didn’t help Goff that the Rams had one of the NFL’s weakest wideout corps—a group that saw Kenny Britt leave for Cleveland in the offseason.
The Rams added Robert Woods as a “replacement” for Britt in free agency, but he’s better known as a blocker than a pass-catcher at the professional level. And Tavon Austin has kicked off the fifth season of his disappointment tour by pulling his hammy.
The Rams swung a trade last week. sending a second-round pick and cornerback E.J. Gaines to the Buffalo Bills for talented (but oft-injured) wide receiver Sammy Watkins.
Also, as PFT’s Curtis Crabtree reported, rookie Cooper Kupp has impressed head coach Sean McVay enough that he’s worked his way into some reps with the first team.
“He always has a plan at the line of scrimmage, understands coverages and route concepts, and I think that’s what enables him to be such a productive player and very advanced for a rookie,” McVay said. “He’s one of the more mature rookies that I’ve ever been around, and we’re expecting some good things from him moving forward.”
In theory, it looks like a much better wideout corps than a year ago thanks to the addition of Watkins and Kupp—provided everyone stays healthy.
Now it's a matter of trying to figure out how to employ those targets in a manner that gives Jared Goff the best chance at a second-year jump.
Miami Dolphins: Polishing the Cutler-y
The Dolphins are still waiting for their first real glance of Cutler in action. In Miami’s preseason opener against the Atlanta Falcons, Cutler spent the evening watching the game from the sidelines while listening to the play calls.
Cutler allowed to Jason Lieser of the Palm Beach Post that he’s not ready to play yet after spending the summer preparing to begin a broadcasting career.
"I’m a little bit behind these guys," Cutler said. "They’ve been going through training camp and stuff like that. I’m not quite there yet, but it won’t take me long."
Head coach Adam Gase didn’t sound concerned.
"You don’t have to worry about his arm strength," Gase said.
Cutler at least gets the benefit of having played for Gase before in Chicago. He knows the offense—at least to an extent.
But the Dolphins are stuck walking something of a tightrope with their new signal-caller. They don’t want to rush Cutler into action. An injury at this point would be….
What comes after catastrophe?
But the Dolphins are have little margin for error to return to the postseason in 2017.
So they have to at least try to get Cutler some live snaps before they host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 1.
Minnesota Vikings: Which B Will Be the QB?
Had I told you 18 months ago that the Minnesota Vikings would be considering letting Teddy Bridgewater walk after the 2017 season in favor of Sam Bradford, you would probably have suggested I open a window the next time I use Krazy Glue.
And yet, here we are—with Bradford opening the season as the unquestioned starter for the Vikes and Bridgewater’s NFL future in doubt after his horrific knee injury in camp a year ago.
In fact, on the Dan Patrick Show last week (per the Show's Andrew Perloff), ESPN’s Adam Schefter indicated that Bridgewater was one of the names the Miami Dolphins considered as a potential replacement for Ryan Tannehill.
This isn’t to say that Bridgewater is ready to play. Or even close. But he threw some on the side in minicamp, and Bridgewater told ESPN.com’s Ben Goessling that he’s confident he’ll take the field again some day.
"That's the good thing about all this—I get to continue to live out my dream," he said. "We don't know when it's going to happen, but for me, I know that it's going to happen."
The question then becomes where. Because unless Bridgewater spends the entire 2017 season on the PUP list, his contract will expire at year’s end after the Vikings passed on his fifth-year option.
If Bradford can build on his career year in 2016 and lead the Vikings to the playoffs (or even get close), then it’s a simple decision. The Vikings will re-up Bradford (who’s also in a contract year), and Bridgewater will all but certainly move on.
But if Bradford backslides, things could get interesting in the Twin Cities—especially if Bridgewater’s rehab continues to progress smoothly.
New England Patriots: Backfield Breakdown
It’s understandable that the New England Patriots were aggressive in upgrading their roster in the offseason. After all, the team lost two whole games in 2016.
Among the upgrades in Beantown is a revamped backfield. The Patriots bid adieu to LeGarrette Blount in the offseason, replacing the bruiser with a combination of Rex Burkhead and Mike Gillislee.
Combined with holdovers Dion Lewis, Brandon Bolden and Super Bowl hero James White, New England now boasts one of the deepest and most crowded backfields in the NFL.
As Hector Longo reported for All 22, it’s also made for some interesting depth chart psychology from head coach Bill Belichick. In the span of two days, Gillislee went from No. 2 at tailback (behind only White) to No. 5 (behind just about everybody).
That free-fall just reinforces something we already knew, though.
We know that after what White did in the Super Bowl, he’s a good bet to be the team’s passing-down back. We know that on paper, Gillislee appears to be the ball-carrier best-suited to do the early down and between-the-tackles work.
But we also know this is the Patriots—so we know nothing.
The practices and games over the next month should offer at least some inkling as to Darth Hoodie’s plans for his legion of ball-toting Stormtroopers. But this is a pecking order that will fluctuate from now through January, whether it’s due to injuries, weekly game plan or the whims of the team’s head coach.
Y’all best not fumble. You may never be heard from again.
New Orleans Saints: The More Things Change (The More They Stay the Same?)
From the moment the New Orleans Saints acquired Adrian Peterson, there’s been talk of a more balanced offense in the Big Easy this season. After the Saints drafted Alvin Kamara in April, position coach Joel Thomas talked up the New Orleans backfield as possibly one of the deepest in the NFL while speaking with Nick Underhill of the Baton Rouge Advocate.
“It’s an opportunity to do something here that hasn’t been done before,” Thomas said. “We have very talented running backs in our room right now. You can put us up there with these other groups, whether it’s Atlanta’s duo or Dallas’ duo. I think we've got one of the better groups in the NFL. We've just got to produce. That’s the bottom line. It’s all talk right now until we get to Sundays in September.”
His point is valid. In Kamara, Peterson and Mark Ingram, the Saints have both talent and depth in the backfield.
Now, the key is figuring it how best to use it—or even if they can.
Over the past several years, the Saints have been one of the pass-wackiest teams in the NFL. Partly that’s because of the presence of that Brees guy at quarterback.
But it’s also been partly a matter of necessity. The Saints have had to try to win shootouts because their defense couldn’t stop anyone.
That defense might be a little better in 2017, but it probably won’t be markedly so.
And that’s going to make it all the more important to find a run/pass balance that could help control tempo and alleviate some of the pressure on that D.
And then stick to it.
New York Giants: Tackling the Tackles
On paper, the New York Giants appear to have most of the pieces for a deep playoff run. Bleacher Report’s Chris Simms even went so far as to rank Big Blue second overall in his preseason power rankings, behind only the vaunted New England Patriots.
But if there’s one weakness that jumps out, it’s the team’s offensive line—a line that’s undergone some work in the offseason.
After a 2016 season in which right tackle Bobby Hart struggled (ranking 67th at the position, per Pro Football Focus), there had been talk that Hart could be pushed by either rookie Adam Bisnowaty or free-agent acquisition D.J. Fluker.
However, James Kratch of NJ.com wrote recently that talk is all that is.
"After a week-plus of training camp,” Kratch said, "I'm even more convinced Ereck Flowers and Bobby Hart are locked in as the left and right tackles for this season.”
That isn’t surprising—but it is a bit alarming.
The Giants were one of the worst running teams in the NFL last year, partly because of a front five that ranked 24th in run blocking, per Football Outsiders. That left the Giants with a one-dimensional offense that placed a ton of pressure on quarterback Eli Manning.
Granted, there’s only so much the Giants can do about the line issues if the youngsters aren’t ready and/or Fluker’s too big (as Kratch noted) to play tackle.
But the team should use the preseason to run through the available combinations in the hopes it happens across an optimal one.
New York Jets: Youth vs. Experience
You could also call this electric chair vs. gas chamber.
Because regardless of who starts at quarterback, the New York Jets are dead.
The Jets are a bad football team. Probably the worst in the NFL. Possibly the worst we’ve seen in some time. They purged most of their passing game weapons in the offseason and lost wideout Quincy Enunwa to a season-ending neck injury.
This team is going nowhere fast except the AFC East cellar.
Given the ground-up rebuild the Jets are embarking on, it’s a bit puzzling that they’re handing the keys in the offense over to Josh McCown, a 38-year-old journeyman who is most assuredly not part of their plans for the future.
That may be changing though. As Josh Alper of Pro Football Talk reported, the team began giving more first-team practice reps to youngster Christian Hackenberg, a trend that head coach Todd Bowles said may continue moving forward.
“It’s possible,” Bowles said. “It’s the second week of camp. Like I said, we’ll rotate them and evaluate them as we see fit. Going forward, we may or may not. We’ll switch guys around here and there at every position. It’s still an evaluation period. We’ll see probably everybody with every group.”
McCown started the first preseason game before giving way to Hackenberg, who completed over 70 percent of his 25 passes against the Tennessee Titans but for only 127 yards.
Frankly, they might as well figure out if they have anything in Hackenberg (they don’t) before moving on to their next decision…
Who to draft No. 1 overall in 2018.
Oakland Raiders: Men in the Middle
The battle to see who will start at inside linebacker for the Oakland Raiders is hardly the most talked-about happening. Or the third-most. Or maybe even the fifth-most.
But there may not be an unsettled position of bigger importance for the Raiders in 2017. We know the Raiders are going to be a playoff contender with a prolific offense. How far Oakland gets in said playoffs may well depend on the defense.
And the middle of that defense is one big question mark.
Despite a shaky cadre of inside linebackers, the Raiders didn't spend much free-agent or draft capital on the position in the offseason.
As a matter of fact, Vic Tafur of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote the starters at the position in training camp are fifth-round rookie Marquel Lee and second-year pro Cory James, who had an uneven first season with the team.
Head coach Jack Del Rio talked Lee up while speaking to the team's website—while simultaneously allowing that he's a work in progress in coverage.
"He shows up in the run periods maybe a little more now than the pass periods, but he's making progress," Del Rio said.
Coverage of backs and receivers over the middle last year that was an Achilles' heel for Oakland defensively in 2016. If Lee continues to scuffle in that regard, we could see Tyrell Adams or free-agent addition Jelani Jenkins move up the depth chart.
Philadephia Eagles: A Good Problem to Have
There are 31 other teams in the National Football League that wish they had the “problem” the Philadelphia Eagles have on the defensive line in 2017.
The team has many more capable bodies than they do starting spots.
There’s zero question that the starting tackles are newcomer Timmy Jernigan and Pro Bowler Fletcher Cox. Veteran Brandon Graham is locked into one of the end spots, and according to Matt Lombardo of NJ.com, sixth-year pro Vinny Curry is the early leader for the second despite a disappointing season in 2016.
But Curry has little margin for error. The Eagles spent the 14th overall pick on Derek Barnett, who was a wildly productive pass-rusher while at the University of Tennessee. The Eagles also added Chris Long, who has 58.5 sacks over nine NFL seasons, in free agency.
This all undoubtedly pleases defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz a great deal. But it also gives Schwartz and the Eagles coaching staff some work to do.
It isn’t just about getting the four best linemen on the field at the same time. All of these players are going to see action, and having that kind of depth will allow the Eagles (in theory) to keep their ends more rested.
But the Eagles are also going to have to find a balance, and Barnett can only develop so much watching the action from the sideline.
Curry might be the nominal starter, but I’ll be surprised if he out-snaps Barnett in 2017.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Wide-Open Wideout Competition
There’s more than a little uncertainty at the wide receiver position in the Steel City in 2017.
OK, there’s more than a little uncertainty at the wide receiver position in the Steel City in 2017 once you get past Antonio Brown. I’m pretty sure his role is set in, well, steel.
The belief for most of the offseason was that speedster Martavis Bryant would function as the No. 2 receiver. But as the preseason dawned, Bryant had still not been reinstated by the NFL. He was finally reinstated on a conditional basis on August 8, but the delay there only served as a reminder just how thin the ice under Bryant's feet is.
Now, it’s not as if Bryant’s loss would have been a death blow to the Steelers. They didn’t have Bryant at all in 2016 and made the AFC title game. They still have Sammie Coates. Eli Rogers emerged as a capable slot man last season. Pittsburgh drafted another such player in USC’s JuJu Smith-Schuster. And free-agent acquisition Justin Hunter generated positive buzz in OTAs.
But so long as Bryant’s status remains so tenuous, it’s going to hammer home that while he’s immensely talented, Bryant is equally unreliable. The situation never should have reached this point to begin with, and another misstep would probably effectively end Bryant’s career.
Given that, it’s possible we could see the Steelers elect to do something they might otherwise haven’t and carry an additional wideout on the 53-man roster.
San Francisco 49ers: Defensive Decisions
Of all the teams in the NFL, there isn’t one I’m more interested in seeing in the preseason than the San Francisco 49ers.
It isn’t because the 49ers are any kind of threat in the NFC West in 2017. If the Niners can avoid the division basement in Kyle Shanahan’s first season as head coach, that would be a relative success.
I want to watch to see how new defensive coordinator Robert Saleh positions his young building blocks as the 49ers move to the 4-3 “under” defense their rivals in Seattle have employed with such success in recent years.
At linebacker, Saleh’s decision appears to have been made for him. The season-ending pectoral injury suffered by veteran Malcolm Smith opened the door to an every-down role on the weak side for rookie Reuben Foster to play alongside NaVorro Bowman.
The defensive line is another matter, where San Francisco has spent three straight first-round picks. Can Arik Armstead (2015) hang onto the base-down role as the “Leo” weak-side pass-rusher? How will DeForest Buckner (2016) adjust to moving inside to the three-technique tackle spot? What role will Solomon Thomas (2017) play as a rookie?
And where does the 33-year-old Elvis Dumervil fit into it all?
Of all the decisions on this list and all the changes and new faces we’ll see over the next few weeks, it might seem odd that this is the one I’m the most jazzed about.
But I’m a sucker for defense, and the 49ers have the makings of a vastly improved unit in 2017.
Seattle Seahawks: Lacy, Rawls and Prosise, Attorneys at Law
The “Beast Mode” era is long gone in the Pacific Northwest. Now, there’s a new age of uncertainty in the Seattle backfield.
The Seahawks brought over Eddie Lacy in free agency to try to bolster the backfield, and while much has been made of Lacy’s weight, head coach Pete Carroll told Bob Condotta of the Seattle Times that Lacy’s done everything asked of him—including staying in a shape that isn’t round.
“Eddie is doing great,” Carroll said. “He hasn’t missed anything. He’s been very attentive to everything that we are doing. He can catch the football well; we know he can run thick and heavy. He’s in good shape, he’s done everything we’ve asked him; he’s done a great job.”
However, it’s far from certain Lacy will be the team’s lead back. As Thomas Rawls told Gregg Bell of the Tacoma News-Tribune, he has no intention of giving up that gig without a fight.
“I’ve always been in competition with myself,” Rawls said. “I just believe that this program, this whole organization has a mindset of competition. We believe that as long as people compete they will earn whatever they deserve in the end, it’ll work itself out.”
Sure enough, it was Rawls, and not Lacy, who started the Seahawks first preseason game against the Los Angeles Chargers.
Add in the presence of passing-down back C.J. Prosise, and it's a tossup (to both Seattle fans and fantasy football enthusiasts) to predict how the backfield workload shakes out in the Emerald City throughout the preseason—especially if all three backs stay healthy.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Muscle Hamster on the Loose
I originally was going to talk about the battle at kicker for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers between veteran Nick Folk and second-year pro Roberto Aguayo. But after missing a pair of kicks in the team’s preseason opener, the 2016 second-round pick was shown the door.
So, it’s back to the old drawing board.
On the surface, there is no decision to be made at tailback tor the Buccaneers. Doug Martin is the clear starter, and he told Rick Stroud of the Tampa Bay Times that he’s busy getting ready for the 2017 season.
"Everything is the same," Martin said. "I'm just coming out here, playing my butt off, showing everybody that I'm back and healthy mentally, physically and ready for preseason games. I will be out three weeks (of the regular season). That's the reality of the situation. And during those three weeks, I'm going to prepare myself to get my legs back under me and be ready to play."
It’s that last part where things could get interesting. Martin will be suspended for the first three games of the 2017 season for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy.
That ban will open the door for Jacquizz Rodgers, Charles Sims and rookie Jeremy McNichols to share the backfield workload to open the season. If that trio struggles, the Buccaneers will gladly welcome Martin back into the starting lineup.
However, if that group shines, the Buccaneers could have a surprisingly difficult choice on their hands—whether to fix something that isn’t broken.
Tennessee Titans: Logan Ryan's Running Buddy
The Tennessee Titans won nine games last year, but if they were going to go from surprise success story to legitimate playoff contender, there were holes that needed filling.
Like the secondary.
One of the starting cornerback jobs is a done deal. The Titans lured Logan Ryan away from the world champion Patriots with a three-year deal that's worth up to $30 million.
Ryan told Jason Wolf of USA Today (via the Tennessean) that he likes what he’s seen from his new running mates in the defensive backfield.
“A lot of the mindset is already there,” Ryan said. “I’m trying to fit in with the guys and have fun with these guys, but really it’s a kill or be killed mentality. I feel like we’re a bunch of alpha dogs and we’re ready to take the challenge.”
However, behind Ryan things get murky. The team’s first depth chart listed second-year pro LeShaun Sims, who ran with Ryan and the starters in OTAs, as the second starter.
But Sims will have to hold off rookie Adoree' Jackson, who was the second of Tennessee’s two first-round picks. According to USA Today’s Joe Rexrode, Jackson’s athleticism has already been on display in camp.
“He’s probably one of the better athletes in the NFL already,” Titans secondary coach DeShea Townsend said.
Jackson has had some ups and downs in camp (as rookies usually do), but his impressive physical gifts don’t leave Sims with much margin for error.
Washington Redskins: Three Inside Linebackers, Two Starting Spots
The ongoing Kirk Cousins saga may be hogging up all the headlines in Washington D.C., but for now the intrigue level there is stuck in neutral—there’s nothing the team can do until after the season.
A decision is going to have to be made about the team’s starting inside linebackers quite a bit sooner—say in the next few weeks.
After leading the AFC with 149 total tackles last year in Buffalo, Zach Brown joined the Redskins in free agency. Combined with holdovers Will Compton and Mason Foster, that leaves Washington with three inside linebackers with significant starting experience.
And two starting spots.
According to JP Finlay of CSN Washington, the early leaders to start appear to be the newcomer and Compton.
“Will Compton and Zach Brown took the field together with the first group,” he wrote, “and that duo was on the field for the final two-minute drill of the session. It's starting to look like Mason Foster will be the third interior linebacker, and while he will still play plenty, it seems Compton and Brown will be the starters.”
It can’t be called a surprise, especially given that Compton was the “green dot” defensive play-caller for the Redskins in 2016. But while Compton is a smart player, he’s also the least athletic of the trio—and the most likely to be victimized in coverage.
The leaders of this competition at the beginning of the preseason may well not be the same as at the end.