NFL Preseason 2015: What Each Team Needs to Prove Before the Season Begins

Dan Ferrara@@BigRed_BRContributor IAugust 11, 2015

NFL Preseason 2015: What Each Team Needs to Prove Before the Season Begins

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    The infamous duo in New England will face new challenges in 2015.
    The infamous duo in New England will face new challenges in 2015.Charles Krupa/Associated Press

    The Hall of Fame Game on August 9 may not have been the star-studded, exciting game that some were hoping for, but at least football is back. It's a start.

    With training camp in full swing and more preseason games on the horizon, here is your primer to the preseason for each team.

    Each slide depicts the biggest question mark for the franchise and lays out what it needs to prove before the season in order to give fans some peace of mind and confidence.

    Of course, some teams have much less to prove but still some areas to improve upon. Others, like the New England Patriots, find themselves in uncharted waters with several looming decisions and one very important question mark under center.

    As usual, comments and feedback are welcome, as it's unlikely that you will agree with the assessment of each franchise. Let's get the ball rolling with the AFC East and proceed through that conference first. 

Buffalo Bills

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    Rex Ryan's first year as head coach in Buffalo should be interesting.
    Rex Ryan's first year as head coach in Buffalo should be interesting.Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

    Rex Ryan's bravado might rub some people the wrong way, but at a certain point you have to feel bad for him.

    You can argue that he never had a quarterback while in New York and still made it to back-to-back AFC Championship Games before the Jets tore down his rosters and took away all his defensive playmakers. 

    And it was only after he was fired that the Jets brought in Darrelle Revis, Antonio Cromartie, Buster Skrine and Marcus Gilchrist. 

    Now there's the real possibility that Ryan is heading to another franchise without a quarterback.

    Matt Cassell, EJ Manuel and Tyrod Taylor were all listed as starters on Buffalo’s first depth chart.

    “The most ridiculous three-legged race in the NFL is being contested in Buffalo, and at the moment, they’re all tied,” wrote Darin Gantt of ProFootballTalk.

    It seems to be a no-win situation at the position, with a journeyman veteran, an embattled youngster or an unproven QB who threw 35 passes in his first four seasons. 

    While the team still figures to rely heavily on newcomer LeSean McCoy and a stout defense, the Bills need someone to pull ahead in this quarterback race.

    The Jets last season proved that a somewhat reliable quarterback is still required to win games in the NFL, no matter how excellent the defense and running game are. Ryan looks to have switched cities but finds himself in an eerily similar situation.

    If no decent quarterback option emerges during the preseason, it will likely be a long season for Ryan and the Bills.

New York Jets

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    An injury to Geno Smith keeps the QB position murky in New York.
    An injury to Geno Smith keeps the QB position murky in New York.Associated Press

    With defensive reinforcements in the form of Darrelle Revis, Antonio Cromartie, Buster Skrine and Marcus Gilchrist, that side of the ball should be no issue. In fact, the Jets have one of the best defenses in football and have given new head coach Todd Bowles a lot to work with.

    The question remains, as it always seems to with the Jets, whether they can get solid quarterback play. 

    The injury to Geno Smith doesn't help any. He was "sucker-punched" by teammate IK Enemkpali, according to Rich Cimini of ESPN.com. He will be out at least six weeks with two jaw fractures.

    Veteran QB Ryan Fitzpatrick is expected to fill Smith's place under center.

    And although some fans don't believe in Smith, one writer thought that Chan Gailey, the new offensive coordinator, would help Smith break out.  

    “Gailey's aim will be to put Smith in winnable spots, using the run game to set up easy reads through the air. Simplifying the attack could highlight Smith's arm and athleticism, while limiting the intricacies required in his decision-making,” wrote Chris Burke of SI.com

    Still, some Jets fans are so impatient with Smith that he was actually booed at MetLife Stadium in a scrimmage in which he eventually went 10-of-13 with two touchdowns.  

    "Smith, the Jets' presumptive starter, got off to a slow start before an announced crowd of 10,000-plus," wrote Rich Cimini of ESPN.com. "The crowd, in midseason form, grew impatient and let him hear about it. The fans didn't seem to care it was only a glorified practice."

    One writer thinks the Jets are better off with Fitzpatrick, anyway.

    "[Fitzpatrick] outperformed Smith in every metric imaginable, compiling a career-high 56.7 Total Quarterback Rating on the strength of a 63.1 completion percentage and a touchdown-completion ratio (2.12) that ranked No. 13 in the NFL," NFL Nation's Kevin Seifert wrote.

    Smith is facing an uphill battle to win over the New York crowd, but he had a real opportunity to shine this season before getting injured. This is just another obstacle in his early career, which has been nothing short of frustrating to date. 

    The Jets' formula is quite similar to that of the Seahawks: run, play great defense and don't turn the ball over. If Fitzpatrick limits his interceptions this season, the Jets could overtake the Patriots atop the AFC East.

    Fitzpatrick will need to perform in the preseason, and it would be encouraging to see some chemistry between him, Eric Decker and new arrival Brandon Marshall. If he plays poorly in preseason, fans will be calling for rookie Bryce Petty, and a quarterback controversy may set in. 

New England Patriots

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    There will be a new QB under center in New England for the first four games.
    There will be a new QB under center in New England for the first four games.Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

    Deflated footballs. Large-scale scandals. Bizarre scientific press conferences. A fine of $1 million. Forfeiture of a first-round draft pick. Oh, and the four-game suspension of franchise quarterback Tom Brady, who is one of the best of all time. 

    It was anything but a normal offseason for the New England Patriots.

    Now without Brady for a quarter of the season, the obvious question is: "Can Jimmy Garoppolo play?" Early indications out of training camp aren't too encouraging. 

    "He hasn't looked very good this summer," said Andy Hart of CSN New England. "You are preparing right now for the unknown of four games with him as your starter. Right now in training camp practices, he hasn't looked like a capable NFL quarterback."

    Brady's absence over the first four games is making other teams confident that they have a shot to dethrone the mighty Patriots in the AFC East.

    After all, the Patriots play the Pittsburgh Steelers, Buffalo Bills, Jacksonville Jaguars and Dallas Cowboys to open up the season. They are realistically capable of losing three of those four games, especially if Garoppolo struggles. 

    He'll need to prove that he can be solid this preseason and give New England a reason to believe in him moving forward. If the Patriots can emerge from the Brady ordeal as a .500 team, they'll likely be thrilled. 

    Still, the team is in a precarious situation after such a strange offseason in which it basically let everyone leave as a free agent. The secondary lost Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner, and the defensive line lost Vince Wilfork. On the offensive side of the ball, their backfield was decimated by both New York teams, with the Jets snagging Stevan Ridley and the Giants signing Shane Vereen.

    The Patriots appear to have some holes and questions to be answered. For the first time in a long time, they are no lock for the postseason. 

Miami Dolphins

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    Ryan Tannehill could have a breakout season in 2015.
    Ryan Tannehill could have a breakout season in 2015.Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    The arrival of Ndamukong Suh, although it will cost $114 million over six years, will give the Dolphins a feared defensive line. Playing alongside defensive end Cameron Wake, Suh should wreak havoc in the middle and make his presence felt in a major way.

    Questions remain on the other side of the ball, however.

    The passing attack was ranked just No. 17 last year, but the Dolphins bolstered the offense by adding free-agent wideout Greg Jennings and drafting wide receiver DeVante Parker with the No. 14 pick.

    "He has all the physical tools to potentially develop into a No. 1 wide receiver," ESPN.com's James Walker wrote of Parker. "[He] also makes spectacular plays and is very good with yards after the catch (YAC), which is needed in Miami's offense." 

    With Jennings, Parker and Kenny Stills, quarterback Ryan Tannehill now has some new weapons to utilize. 

    ESPN analyst Jon Gruden picked Tannehill as his breakout player, citing his "outstanding quick release" and "very good supporting cast."

    It's certainly possible that Tannehill continues to grow, just as he has done in his first three seasons in the league. His passing yards and touchdowns have increased every season, and the trend could continue in 2015.

    Tannehill needs to prove that the Dolphins offense is ready to take the next step and place fear in opposing defenses. Showing some chemistry with his new weapons in the preseason would give the team confidence heading into the season. 

Baltimore Ravens

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    Joe Flacco is paid like a star, and the Ravens need him to play like one.
    Joe Flacco is paid like a star, and the Ravens need him to play like one.Associated Press

    The Ravens appear to be a team without a major concern.

    Their defense is great, and their passing attack is formidable. They didn't even take a step back in the ground game last season.

    Even without Ray Rice, the Ravens still had a top-10 rushing attack in 2014 behind Justin Forsett.

    Although he was initially pegged as being overrated by some, quarterback Joe Flacco exudes a calming influence under center. 

    “Flacco is bonding with his fourth offensive coordinator in as many seasons, and nobody seems to think it's much of a problem anymore, which is quite a testament to his adaptability and lunch-pail mentality,” Peter Schmuck of the Baltimore Sun wrote. “He has navigated the subtle and not-so-subtle changes in the Ravens' offensive scheme so seamlessly, it's fair to wonder where the franchise might be right now with a higher-maintenance quarterback.”

    Flacco threw 15 more touchdowns than interceptions last season, which tied the best of his career, which he originally set back in 2010. He also set a career high with 3,986 passing yards in 2014. Additionally, the quarterback has never had a sub-.500 record in seven career seasons. Why would we expect it to change this season?

    We really can't. We can only assume that the Ravens' passing game will be solid because it traditionally has been in recent seasons. 

    The only concern might be the passing defense. 

    Although the defense was excellent overall last season, especially against the run, it had issues against the pass. The Ravens gave up the 10th-most passing yards per game (248.7) in 2014.

    They will face Peyton Manning, Philip Rivers, Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick this season, along with Ben Roethlisberger and Andy Dalton twice apiece. That's a slate of some really solid quarterbacks, and if the Ravens don't show they can stop teams through the air, they may have an issue over half of their schedule.

    While it doesn't figure to be a major concern this season, it's something to keep an eye on during the preseason. 

Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Sensational seasons from Ben Roethlisberger, Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown propelled the Steelers to boasting one of the league's most explosive offenses in 2014.

    With those three stars still in the fold, that isn't expected to change in 2015. 

    Uncharacteristically, however, the Steelers sported a middle-of-the-pack defense last season, ranking just No. 15 in the league. 

    The Steelers were quiet in free agency and didn't sign one defensive player. They did, however, spend six of their eight draft picks on shoring up the defense.

    They drafted one linebacker, one defensive tackle, one defensive end, two cornerbacks and a free safety. The linebacker, Bud Dupree, was their first-round selection and someone they never expected would be on the board for them at No. 22. 

    Dupree is listed as a starting linebacker on Pittsburgh's depth chart, and he's looking to get better every day.

    “Speed always works at any level,” said Dupree, according to Dale Lolley of the Observer-Reporter. “Now, it’s once they know you’ve got speed, what are you going to do after that? That’s the main part. I’m getting better every time. I just keep working on that, the next move that I do after my first move, I want to make sure that’s explosive as well.”

    If the Steelers are going to be better in 2015, the improvements must come on defense.

    "An improved pass rush is a key to the Steelers' success on the defensive side of the ball this season," wrote Dani Bostick of SB Nation

    The Steelers made a bold statement by choosing to build from within and through the draft. It will be interesting to see Dupree's progression through the preseason and how their defense improves in 2015. 

Cleveland Browns

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    Johnny Manziel needs to prove he isn't a complete bust.
    Johnny Manziel needs to prove he isn't a complete bust.Jay LaPrete/Associated Press

    Let's just say that Cleveland had its best shot at a championship last basketball season. And basketball remains the only sport in which the city is even remotely close to a title.

    Another season of Browns football is set to begin, although it will likely be another season without Browns postseason football. 

    Alex Marvez of Fox Sports predicted a 5-11 finish for the Browns thanks to the quarterback situation, new offensive coordinator and lack of receiving weapons: "Add those three concerns together and the Browns could be headed for a disaster in the passing game even if the 36-year-old McCown plays lights-out like he did with Chicago for a portion of the 2013 campaign."

    There's not much to take stock in with the Browns, so the best thing to hope for during the preseason is that Johnny Manziel makes some plays and earns some more playing time. 

    If the Browns aren't going to be good this season, it's better to have Manziel under center rather than ride the season out with a 36-year-old. Give Manziel some snaps and let him grow on the field rather than on the bench. 

    New wide receivers Brian Hartline and Dwayne Bowe are solid possession receivers, but Hartline lacks big-play ability, and Bowe didn't have a touchdown last season. The passing attack will likely struggle this season no matter who is the quarterback. 

    It looks like it will be another lost season in Cleveland, but maybe the Browns can turn some heads in preseason and show that their offense isn't as inept as some feel it is. 

Cincinnati Bengals

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    Andy Dalton had his lowest TD total of his career in 2014.
    Andy Dalton had his lowest TD total of his career in 2014.Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    With their outstanding duo of running backs in Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard, the Bengals don't need much from quarterback Andy Dalton.

    They are, however, asking him for more leadership entering the 2015 season. 

    "The Cincinnati Bengals want quarterback Andy Dalton to be more of a leader in their quest for an elusive playoff win," wrote Kevin Goheen of the Associated Press (h/t WCPO.com).

    Dalton is coming off a year in which he had six games with less than 200 yards passing and a career-low 19 touchdowns. His ratio of 19 touchdowns to 17 interceptions was brutal, and if the Bengals are going to make the postseason this year, he needs to be better.

    Since their running game is expected to be excellent and they still have outstanding wide receiver A.J. Green on the outside, Dalton's task shouldn't be too hard. Just protect the football and drive your team down the field. 

    The most important part of the preseason will be keeping an eye on Dalton's turnovers. It will be hard to gauge, however, thanks to the small sample size that quarterbacks typically play in preseason action. 

    The best bet to analyze Dalton will likely be Week 3 against the Chicago Bears on Aug. 29. The jury is still out as to whether he is a franchise quarterback who is capable of leading his team on a deep playoff run, so this season is a big one for him. 

Tennessee Titans

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    The Marcus Mariota era is set to begin.
    The Marcus Mariota era is set to begin.Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    After much of the offseason buzz had rumors of the Philadelphia Eagles seemingly trading every draft pick over the next 27 years for Marcus Mariota, he eventually wound up being selected with the No. 2 pick by the Tennessee Titans.

    There has also been the idea that Mariota will struggle to transition to the NFL after playing in such an uptempo, spread offense at Oregon. And while he has gone through some growing pains, it appears as if he's off to a fast start in training camp. 

    “One of the most interesting NFL storylines of the summer is how quickly Marcus Mariota has dispelled the notion that he will be a developmental project for the Tennessee Titans,” wrote Chris Wesseling of NFL.com.

    There's no doubt that Mariota has potential, and it will be interesting to see how he fares as a rookie, as it appears there is a growing sentiment that he is capable of making an immediate impact. He's the player to watch on the Titans during preseason—we'll finally see his skills on display in game action after talking endlessly about them for months. 

    He doesn't have the weapons that fellow rookie QB Jameis Winston has, but there is less pressure on him to be a star right out of the gate because the Titans have low expectations as a franchise.

    The Titans aren't expected to make much noise this season, but Mariota has the potential to be a lightning rod around the league if he can perform half as well as he did in college. 

Jacksonville Jaguars

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    Blake Bortles had a tough rookie year in Jacksonville.
    Blake Bortles had a tough rookie year in Jacksonville.Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    Fox Sports' assessment of the Jaguars was simple: "If there isn't a breakthrough [with QB Blake Bortles], the Jaguars are in trouble."

    I'm compelled to agree, as the Jaguars don't have much hope beyond him. 

    Bortles had just 11 touchdowns to complement his 17 interceptions as a rookie, but he has a solid chance of taking a step forward.

    The Jaguars signed tight end Julius Thomas as a free agent, taking away one of Peyton Manning's best targets and gifting him to their young quarterback. Thomas cost a hefty investment of $46 million and could wind up being a huge risk if Bortles doesn't take the next step.

    Bortles isn't the only Jaguars player with a lot to prove, however.

    Former NFL tight end Shannon Sharpe had a strong take on Thomas, per SB Nation: "He quit on the Broncos making less than a mil. Give him 9 mil what would he do?"

    With the idea that Thomas quit on his former team and then left for a huge payday, Thomas is going to need to produce to justify his contract and clear his name. 

    The Jaguars ranked second-to-last in offense last season with just 289.6 yards per game and scored the fewest points per game (15.6). Bortles and Thomas are the key duo toward turning those numbers into respectability and allowing the Jaguars to progress in 2015. 

Indianapolis Colts

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    Will Andre Johnson make the Colts Super Bowl contenders?
    Will Andre Johnson make the Colts Super Bowl contenders?Darron Cummings/Associated Press

    Can the Colts really be better in 2015?

    Peter King of SI.com had some high praise of the Colts offense and Andrew Luck.

    “The Colts could have the greatest pass-catching corps in football this year, accompanying the best young quarterback in the game,” he wrote.

    After bringing wide receiver Andre Johnson and running back Frank Gore into the mix, the Colts look like a team with no holes. They are fully expected to be Super Bowl contenders in 2015, which makes their preseason outlook a bit different.

    This preseason, the Colts will just look to get their veterans some work and hope that nobody gets hurt. The only thing they'll have to prove is that they are over last season's horrid finish. 

    “We got our asses kicked,” Pagano told SI.com. “Period. End of story. None of us here will ever forget that day, that final score. We got a damn artery gushing and no sutures to stop the bleeding. You never forget that.”

    The final score, of course, was the 45-7 shellacking the Colts received from the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game, otherwise known as the infamous "Deflategate" game. But air pressure played no role in the embarrassment for Indianapolis.

    The Colts have great potential, and that game can either motivate them or make them timid come the postseason. It'll be hard to see a team's mindset in the preseason, but it's about the only question surrounding Indy's inevitable 2015 playoff run. 

Houston Texans

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    J.J. Watt is the best defensive playmaker in football.
    J.J. Watt is the best defensive playmaker in football.Scott Halleran/Getty Images

    With the great J.J. Watt making grown men cry on the gridiron and the return of 2014 No. 1 overall pick Jadeveon Clowney, the Texans defense should be solid this season.

    There are several players on offense with a lot to prove, however. 

    Houston had some turnover at key offensive positions, including quarterback, wide receiver and running back.

    The departure of longtime No. 1 receiver Andre Johnson will allow DeAndre Hopkins to step into that role. He had 1,210 receiving yards last year, but defenses were keying on stopping Johnson, which opened up some space for Hopkins. He'll have to prove he can produce when he's facing the other team's best cornerback every week. 

    Brian Hoyer escaped the endless merry-go-round at the quarterback position in Cleveland but still has a lot to prove. He's a 29-year-old who is now on his fourth team. Additionally, he threw 12 touchdowns and 13 interceptions in 14 games last season, numbers that would make even his biggest fans cringe. 

    Last but not least, Arian Foster's groin injury, which will sideline him until at least Week 8, creates a cloud of uncertainty in the backfield. It appears as if Alfred Blue is ready to step up for Houston.

    "Seize the opportunity," Blue said, per Jamey Eisenberg of CBS Sports. "Seize the opportunity when you get the chance and when your number is called."

    That should be the slogan for all three players in question. Each has question marks and will have to make the most of his chance if the Texans want to have a shot at the postseason in 2015. 

Denver Broncos

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    DeMaryius Thomas and the Broncos have one of the best passing offenses in the NFL.
    DeMaryius Thomas and the Broncos have one of the best passing offenses in the NFL.Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

    Getting into Peyton Manning's statistics would be a waste of everyone's time. We all know he's an all-time great who puts up unparalleled regular-season statistics year after year. 

    When people doubted he would even return from his third neck surgery in 15 months, Manning by signing with the Broncos and tossing 131 touchdowns in three seasons. It might be unwise to doubt him again, but there is some level of concern heading into 2015.

    "Everyone slows down, eventually," noted Adam Stites of SB Nation. "Even Favre, the ageless wonder, followed up a ridiculous, Pro Bowl season at age 40 with a whimper at age 41, tossing just 11 touchdowns with 19 interceptions in his last NFL season."

    Could this be the year for Manning?

    Although his overall stats of 4,727 yards and 39 touchdowns from a year ago look great, the end of his season wasn't as pretty.

    Manning failed to reach 300 yards passing in five of his last six regular-season games. He was then mediocre in Denver's quiet exit from the postseason, throwing for 211 yards while the Broncos put up just 13 points and were obliterated by Andrew Luck and the Colts. 

    It's hard to assume that Manning will lose it all so fast, but the possibility is there. He still has great weapons to work with, but a stellar preseason would help put to rest any concerns about the end of his 2014 season. 

San Diego Chargers

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    With the departure of Ryan Mathews, all eyes will be on running back Melvin Gordon during the preseason.

    So far, the early results have been good.

    "Melvin Gordon looked explosive in his first opportunity to perform in front of hometown fans at Qualcomm Stadium," wrote Eric D. Williams of ESPN.com.

    Gordon, the No. 15 pick in this year's draft, has a world of potential and should get plenty of carries during the season.

    He also has a simple attitude toward experiencing success in the NFL.

    "I'm going to have to run hard, so I don't get put on my butt," Gordon said, according to Tom Krasovic of the San Diego Union-Tribune.

    With the passing game, led by Philip Rivers, just about set, Gordon will be the most important player to watch during the preseason. The more effective he is right out of the gate, the more potent the Chargers will be. 

    Considering the fact that they have won just one playoff game since 2009, the Chargers can use all of the help they can get from contributors. Gordon can have a huge impact as a rookie and figures to have one of the highest ceilings in the draft class. 

Oakland Raiders

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    Will Amari Cooper have an immediate impact as a rookie?
    Will Amari Cooper have an immediate impact as a rookie?Eric Risberg/Associated Press

    For years it seemed as if the Oakland Raiders were going nowhere. It was season after season of endless failure, bust draft picks and heartache. Now, they're finally starting to build toward something.

    The Raiders offense will be something to watch in the preseason for several reasons. 

    Quarterback Derek Carr led rookie quarterbacks last season with 3,270 passing yards and looks to be the brightest bulb out of that class. He will try to progress this season with new weapons Michael Crabtree, who was signed as a free agent, and Amari Cooper, the first wide receiver taken in the 2015 draft (No. 4 overall). 

    NFL Network's Ian Rapoport said that the Raiders "expect huge things right off the bat" from Cooper. He went on to call Cooper the "most polished, most pro-ready receiver in the draft."

    Cooper is yet another young piece to the Raiders offense that can actually surprise some people this year.

    Besides the quarterback and wide receivers, running back Latavius Murray will look to build on his strong 2014 season. With Darren McFadden and Maurice Jones-Drew now gone, the 25-year-old Murray has a clearer path to more touches. He averaged 5.2 yards per carry last season and was encouraging in limited action. 

    This young group has a lot to prove this preseason, and it will be Oakland's first chance to build some chemistry and make some noise together. 

Kansas City Chiefs

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    Is Alex Smith capable of leading a potent passing attack?
    Is Alex Smith capable of leading a potent passing attack?Don Wright/Associated Press

    It was a season to forget for the Chiefs offense.

    Quarterback Alex Smith performed basically as expected, as he is a methodical quarterback who doesn't take risks down the field. Although his numbers (18 touchdowns, six interceptions) look solid, the fact that he didn't throw a touchdown to a wide receiver all season is concerning.

    Kansas City made a huge offseason splash, signing wide receiver Jeremy Maclin to a five-year deal. Coming off a career-high 1,318 yards last season, Maclin is now tasked with fixing all that's broken in the Chiefs offense.

    His chemistry with Smith is something to keep an eye on this preseason. Because of Smith's penchant for playing conservatively, it'll be interesting to see if he goes out of his comfort zone and uses Maclin to stretch the field.

    If he does, the Chiefs will benefit from all angles.

    Opposing defenses won't be able to stack the box against running back Jamaal Charles. Maclin will also give Charles more room to run and make plays in the passing game if he draws attention down the field. 

    With the Chiefs boasting one of the NFL's stoutest defenses, Maclin is expected to be the piece that changes the offensive game for Kansas City. Whether he is remains to be seen.

Dallas Cowboys

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    How will the Cowboys RBs fare without DeMarco Murray?
    How will the Cowboys RBs fare without DeMarco Murray?Brandon Wade/Associated Press

    By most margins, 2014 was a great season for the Dallas Cowboys, who went 12-4 and made the playoffs after a four-year drought. 

    Making up for the loss of running back DeMarco Murray will prove to be more difficult than Dallas originally imagined, however. 

    The depth chart doesn't offer up a star and may even lack some good options. 

    Darren McFadden ranked 36th in rushing yards last season with 534. Additionally, Lance Dunbar has a career-high of 150 rushing yards, and Joseph Randle has a career-high of 343. It's not like the Cowboys have a rotation of proven backs whom they can count on to fill individual roles.

    Still, the Cowboys and their fans believe in their incredible offensive line.

    “There's the notion that even a second-tier back could gain big yards behind that offensive line, the best in football, which includes three Pro Bowl players and two All-Pros,” wrote Sam Farmer of the Los Angeles Times.

    Randle, 23, averaged a remarkable 6.7 yards per carry in limited touches last year. He was a highly effective change-of-pace back for Dallas, taking advantage of tired defenses after Murray did the hard work. This preseason is key for Randle.

    It will be interesting to see how head coach Jason Garrett divides the carries and whether Randle can be effective as a top option. He's certainly talented enough, and it appears as if the Cowboys are fully invested in giving him the chance to prove it. 

Washington Redskins

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    Will RGIII live up to his potential?
    Will RGIII live up to his potential?Richard Lipski/Associated Press

    Which Robert Griffin will the Redskins get this season?

    Here's a summation of his career in one gripping quote, courtesy of Michael David Smith of ProFootballTalk: "Now Griffin is coming off back-to-back disappointing seasons and a benching in 2014, and he has gone from bright star to whipping boy."

    Griffin was voted as the No. 28 quarterback in the NFL by league insiders.

    "He is done," one offensive coach told Mike Sando of ESPN.com. "The reason is, the injury slowed his legs, and his ego will not allow him to hit rock bottom and actually grind his way back up the right way."

    Once considered a toss-up atop the NFL draft with fellow QB Andrew Luck, Griffin has endured quite the fall from grace. 

    He certainly has a lot to prove this season because he's speeding down the highway toward the land of JaMarcus Russell. If he blows this shot, it is unclear when he will get another one or who will give it to him. 

Philadelphia Eagles

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    Can Sam Bradford stay healthy and carry the Eagles to the playoffs?
    Can Sam Bradford stay healthy and carry the Eagles to the playoffs?Matt Rourke/Associated Press

    It was a head-scratcher when the Philadelphia Eagles swapped quarterback Nick Foles for Sam Bradford, given Bradford's lengthy injury history and perception as a bust.

    Bradford is so risky that there is a petition for Pope Francis to bless him when he comes to Philadelphia, according to Phil Sheridan of ESPN.com

    Still, early indications out of training camp are that Bradford has been solid.

    “Bradford has been everything the Eagles could have asked for so far. He is accurate, he is safe with the ball, and most importantly, he is healthy,” wrote Eliot Shorr-Parks of NJ.com.

    However, he goes on to say that Bradford is “not a great athlete even at 100 percent” and has thrown the ball short “far too often.”

    The oft-injured quarterback is the player with the most to prove this season. Eagles head coach Chip Kelly took a leap of faith by trading for him, and now Bradford needs to repay him with a huge season.

    The odds are actually against Bradford. Staying on the field has proved to be quite the challenge, and living up to his potential is another large task. He has the opportunity to turn heads and surprise a lot of people this season. 

New York Giants

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    Can the Giants defense recover from the JPP fireworks incident?
    Can the Giants defense recover from the JPP fireworks incident?Bill Kostroun/Associated Press

    With a set offense that should be one of the most potent in football, the main concern for the Giants is their defense.

    How will the New York Giants adjust to life after Jason Pierre-Paul? With Johnathan Hankins, of course.

    “He may be the most important piece of the Giants' defense this season, a player they will rely on to improve their sorry run defense and bolster their pass rushing,” wrote Tom Rock of Newsday.

    After failing to record a sack in his rookie season, Hankins finished second on the team behind Pierre-Paul with seven, along with 51 tackles, as a sophomore. The Giants ranked fourth in the league in sacks last year with 47.

    Unfortunately for the Giants, the injuries are piling up.

    The linebackers were already a question mark before Bill Pennington of the New York Times reported that Jameel McClain, who led the Giants in tackles (116) last season, will be sidelined indefinitely with a new neck injury."

    It will be hard for the Giants to make the postseason if their defense is as putrid as it was in 2014. Not even Odell Beckham Jr. can save the defense, so this is a group to watch during the preseason.

Chicago Bears

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    Quarterback Jay Cutler takes a lot of heat, but since he is coming off one of his best statistical seasons, he gets a pass right now. 

    Instead, we shift our focus to wide receiver Kevin White, the Bears' first-round draft pick.

    He is being tabbed as the replacement for Brandon Marshall but has been sidelined with a shin injury thus far in training camp.

    “Sure, we’d love to have him play in a preseason game,” wide receivers coach Mike Groh said, per Jeff Dickerson of ESPN.com. “Obviously, the more he can get out here with Jay [Cutler] and the rest of the offense, the better. But that’s probably not going to be the case.”

    It's worth keeping an eye out for whether White returns to see some game action before the regular season begins. If he doesn't, he could be far behind and fail to reach his potential as a rookie.

    White's ability could certainly be useful in the Bears offense. He could create better looks for fellow wideout Alshon Jeffery and become another capable target for Cutler. 

Minnesota Vikings

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    Can Adrian Peterson lead the Vikings to the playoffs?
    Can Adrian Peterson lead the Vikings to the playoffs?Ann Heisenfelt/Associated Press

    After a lengthy suspension and speculation he would be traded, running back Adrian Peterson is still wearing Vikings' purple.

    The return of one of the league's best running backs is bringing lofty expectations to Vikings training camp. Peterson, along with the rest of his offense, has something to prove this season.

    Getting him back is the type of addition that can turn an average offense into a good one and even feels like a really great free-agent add. He will join Jerick McKinnon and Matt Asiata, who performed well without him last season, to create a potent a three-headed backfield. 

    With teams keying in on stopping Peterson and the running game, second-year quarterback Teddy Bridgewater will likely have better looks down the field and should improve on his solid rookie campaign. 

    Peterson's importance cannot be understated, which is why he needs to be placed under a microscope right now. His health, conditioning, burst and power are all essential to his greatness, and the Vikings will need him to be vintage Peterson this season. 

Green Bay Packers

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    Does Eddie Lacy make the Packers unstoppable?
    Does Eddie Lacy make the Packers unstoppable?Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

    In 2014, the Green Bay Packers were 4-0 in games where running back Eddie Lacy rushed for more than 100 yards, including the postseason.

    It is becoming increasingly clear that his grandeur will turn the Packers into an unstoppable force.

    The passing game, led by quarterback Aaron Rodgers, is already dynamite, but the idea of running the ball effectively and giving defenses yet another thing to worry about is frightening for the rest of the league.

    By comparison, Lacy actually regressed in his second year. He had 39 yards and two touchdowns fewer than in his rookie season.

    This is the year he breaks out.

    The 25-year-old showed great progress in the passing game last season, something which he can build upon in 2015. Additionally, his 4.6 yards per carry demonstrated his ability to make defenders miss and keep the chains moving.

    Lacy will be the player to watch in preseason because everyone else is basically a lock. Rodgers, Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb will be as great as they normally are. If Lacy improves, the Packers can avenge last season's disappointing finish and make another run at a Super Bowl.

Detroit Lions

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    Is Calvin Johnson still an elite wide receiver?
    Is Calvin Johnson still an elite wide receiver?Matt Ludtke/Associated Press

    The idea that wide receiver Calvin Johnson may be slowing down seems ludicrous, but his statistics may say otherwise.

    Megatron had 71 catches for 1,077 yards last season, which were both his lowest numbers since 2010.

    Still, his teammates aren't worried.

    “He’s the best receiver in the game,” cornerback Rashean Mathis said, according to Josh Katzenstein of the Detroit News.

    Johnson is confident in his abilities as well. He said there’s “no doubt” he still has some big seasons left, per Carlos Monarrez of the Detroit Free Press.

    "What did I miss, four, almost five games last year? Still came up with just over 1,000 (yards). I still have some (good years) left," he confirmed.

    Wideout Golden Tate led the Lions in receptions and yards last season, so it will be interesting to see if Johnson and quarterback Matthew Stafford rekindle their magic.

    It's highly unlikely that Stafford would find a new target after so many years, but perhaps Johnson gets Tate more open looks. Johnson's status among the game's top wide receivers is something to watch this preseason. As long as he looks healthy and ready to go, he should have another big season. 

Atlanta Falcons

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    It’s no secret that the main issue with the Falcons last year was their defense.

    Atlanta surrendered the most yards per game (398.2) in the league, prompting the team to sign five defensive players via free agency. Two of them, defensive end Adrian Clayborn and linebacker Justin Durant, are projected starters.

    The Falcons also selected linebacker Vic Beasley with the No. 8 pick in the 2015 NFL draft to shore up the defense.

    "He’s done a great job," Falcons defensive coordinator Richard Smith said of Beasley, per Vaughn McClure of ESPN.com. "I like the effort that he’s playing with. He’s got that elite quickness. And what’s going to be fun and will help him continue to develop is that every day is a good battle between him and [Jake] Matthews going against each other."

    Beasley has the potential to be a difference-maker for new head coach Dan Quinn, who had many defensive playmakers during his tenure in Seattle. 

    With all the additions, the Falcons defense should be much improved from a season ago, but it is still a group with a lot to prove to the rest of the league, who walked all over Atlanta in 2014.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    Jameis Winston is the player with the most to prove on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. 

    Besides living up to his draft position and quieting his naysayers, he also has a responsibility to make the Bucs competitive right away. They don't necessarily represent the typical story for a franchise with the No. 1 pick, as they are loaded with playmakers who should translate to wins in 2015.

    The Buccaneers lost eight games by less than a touchdown last season, and if they had made a few more plays, maybe their record wouldn't have looked so poor.

    Winston should be thrilled to go to Tampa and have the chance to throw the ball to wide receivers Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson.

    Both receivers are listed as 6'5", and each hit the 1,000-yard plateau last season. Although Jackson is now 32, Evans is only going to get better and appears to be set to become one of the league's best at the position following his 12-touchdown rookie campaign. 

    Winston, unlike most quarterbacks drafted in the top 10, has an opportunity to succeed right out of the gate. He can show a lot in the preseason to make people have faith in his abilities. 

New Orleans Saints

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    Who will become Drew Brees' new favorite target now that Jimmy Graham is gone?
    Who will become Drew Brees' new favorite target now that Jimmy Graham is gone?Stacy Revere/Getty Images

    There's no more Jimmy Graham in New Orleans, so wide receiver Brandin Cooks picks up the baton. 

    Larry Holder of NOLA.com had high praise for Cooks.

    “Cooks possesses the speed, quickness, route-running ability and hands to eventually become an Antonio Brown-like threat. ... Brees and Cooks appeared to be scratching the surface in 2015 right when Cooks sustained a season-ending hand injury,” he wrote.

    He will be the player to watch this preseason, as he should become quarterback Drew Brees' favorite target with Graham now in Seattle. 

    The 2014 season was a disappointment for the Saints, who finished 7-9 and missed the playoffs under head coach Sean Payton for the first time since 2008. Payton was not the head coach in 2012 when they last missed the postseason. 

    The defense, which added Brandon Browner, Anthony Spencer and Kyle Wilson in the offseason, should be much improved. The only question mark is how the offense will function without Graham, who led the team with 26 touchdowns over the last two seasons.

    Cooks and Marques Colston will have to pick up the slack; they make up a wide receiver duo with a lot to prove heading into 2015. 

Carolina Panthers

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    Will Kelvin Benjamin build on his strong rookie campaign?
    Will Kelvin Benjamin build on his strong rookie campaign?MIKE MCCARN/Associated Press

    The Carolina Panthers sneaked into the postseason last year with a 7-8-1 record. In order to get back there, they will need a better record and an improved offense. 

    Cam Newton might be making headlines for getting into training-camp fights, but he's going to have to produce on the field in order to make some real noise. He's coming off his worst season, in which he set career lows in passing yards (3,127) and touchdowns (18). 

    One way Newton can get back on the right track is by hooking up with wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin. A lot. 

    "He’s the lead dog," wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery told ESPN.com's David Newton about Benjamin. "To be honest with you, he’s going to have to bring it each and every day. He’s taken it upon himself to do so."

    Benjamin ranked third among rookies last season with 1,008 receiving yards, which also tied him for the team lead. He will look to improve upon his impressive rookie season when he emerged as Newton's greatest weapon. 

    The Panthers offense has room to grow and will need to take those measures this season to get back up over .500. Running back Jonathan Stewart will likely need to reach 1,000 yards rushing for the first time since 2009 as well. 

St. Louis Rams

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    How will Nick Foles transition out of Chip Kelly's fast-paced offense?
    How will Nick Foles transition out of Chip Kelly's fast-paced offense?Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    Quarterback Nick Foles may not have had a fan in Eagles head coach Chip Kelly, but he found one in St. Louis. 

    "The thing I like about Nick is, if there's a mistake made, it's over. For lack of a better term, I'll call it the give-a-[bleep] factor," head coach Jeff Fisher said, per Paul Domowitch of Philly.com. "He just shrugs off things and goes on to the next [play]."

    Foles had a remarkable 2013 season, throwing 27 touchdowns and only two interceptions. His 2014 season ended early because of a broken collarbone, but he now has a lot to prove to all of the people who didn't believe in him back in Philly. 

    Fisher explained his rationale behind the trade that brought Foles to St. Louis.

    "We experienced [Bradford's torn ACLs] twice," Fisher said, per Domowitch. "It was tough. So, as we're building our team, do you want to go into next season wondering whether or not it's going to happen again?"

    The Rams franchise is now in Foles' hands. He'll look to show his 2013 season wasn't a fluke. 

Seattle Seahawks

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    Two straight Super Bowl appearances, including one win, would normally make the Seahawks a boring team in the preseason. They're great. We get it.

    This year, however, the addition of tight end Jimmy Graham is something to watch. The trade to bring him to Seattle now gives quarterback Russell Wilson something to prove and a way to do it.

    Whenever someone talks about Wilson, they talk about the fact that he's a winner and has the "intangibles." The knock on him is that his statistics don't wow anyone and that he benefits from a stellar running game and the NFL's best defense.

    I actually believe everything in that paragraph is true, yet I always make the argument that if he was on a team like the Jaguars, he wouldn't make them much better. Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady would. 

    Wilson has a chance to silence everyone who pulls the statistics argument. The Seahawks have finally supplemented his group of ordinary weapons with Graham, one of the game's best tight ends. There is no reason for Wilson to come up shy of 3,500 passing yards again. He should crack 4,000 for the first time in his career and supplement those intangibles with a heck of a season.

    Keep an eye on the duo in the preseason. If they have chemistry, the Seahawks passing attack will go from average to really good, which is an awful sign for the rest of the league.  

San Francisco 49ers

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    Can Colin Kaepernick get the 49ers back on track?
    Can Colin Kaepernick get the 49ers back on track?Associated Press

    As if quarterback Colin Kaepernick didn't have enough pressure on him to start this season, he will now likely have to carry a defense that has been decimated by retirements, off-the-field issues and departures in free agency.

    The list of defensive players who are no longer on the team is a lengthy and impressive one. Patrick Willis, Aldon Smith, Justin Smith and Chris Borland are just a few of those names.

    Alex Marvez of Fox Sports claims that Kaepernick has a lot on his shoulders, but that this could be a make-or-break season for him:

    That also means 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick must carry more of the load than at any point during his previous four NFL seasons. San Francisco has given Kaepernick some new weapons to work with in Baltimore wide receiver Torrey Smith, who is the deep threat the 49ers were sorely lacking, and multipurpose running back Reggie Bush. If he doesn't play better that last season, the 49ers have reason to question whether Kaepernick is a true franchise passer.

    Kaepernick is coming off a tough 2014 season but is still the only hope the 49ers have of reaching the postseason this year. Losing running back Frank Gore to the Indianapolis Colts in free agency didn't help any, but Carlos Hyde and Reggie Bush should be fine in his place.

    There are a lot of question marks surrounding the 49ers and new head coach Jim Tomsula in 2015. 

Arizona Cardinals

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    Will Andre Ellington take the next step this season?
    Will Andre Ellington take the next step this season?Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    Cardinals running back Andre Ellington has a lot to prove this season. 

    After being expected to break out last season, he averaged just 3.3 yards per carry and scored three touchdowns. The season was a major disappointment and prompted the Cardinals to offer Chris Johnson a one-year contract, according to Dianna Russini of ESPN.

    Johnson comes with baggage, as he also had a horrible 2014 season, which he followed up with two separate off-the-field issues involving guns. 

    The Cardinals appear desperate to give their running game a boost. An improved running game would likely mean less dropbacks, knockdowns and hits for veteran quarterback Carson Palmer. He is set to return from his second ACL tear this season, and protecting him will likely be a priority for the offense. 

    Signing Johnson doesn't mean that Ellington will lose his starting job, but he will certainly need to perform to get consistent carries. He's talented enough to make it work, but this is now a big preseason for the future of his career.  

    Daniel Ferrara is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter to stay in touch and ask any questions.