The Biggest Question for Every NFL Team Heading into OTAs
It's beginning to look a lot like OTAs...everywhere you go.
That's how the song goes, isn't it?
Kidding (poorly) aside, it's time to move on to the next benchmark on the NFL calendar: from voluntary workouts to organized team activities.
You might be wondering what the difference is. In many cases it isn't much, other than that OTAs usually aren't voluntary. It's time to either get to work or risk being fined.
It's even more likely that you're wondering how your beloved whoever they ares are stacking up as we move that much closer to the start of training camp and the opening of the preseason. Perhaps you're curious about the biggest question hanging over your team as it move into OTAs.
Now there I can definitely help. Maybe.
Just remember to stretch before continuing.
We can't have anyone pulling an eyelid.
Is Carson Palmer Done?
Two years ago, Arizona Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer completed almost 64 percent of his passes for 4,671 yards and 35 touchdowns. His passer rating was nearly 105, and the Cardinals were the No. 2 seed in the NFC.
Then Palmer hurt his hand late in the regular season and had a disastrous start in the NFC Championship Game against the Carolina Panthers.
The disaster continued into 2016. Palmer's numbers were down across the board a year ago except for one category: interceptions.
Palmer's swoon wasn't the only reason Arizona missed the postseason, but by season's end the whispers had started regarding the 37-year-old.
As a matter of fact, Palmer allowed to ESPN.com's Josh Weinfuss that even he didn't know whether or not the end of the line had come.
"You just have to give your body a chance to tell you," Palmer said. "It takes a while to get back to 100 percent for everybody, whether you're 26, 36, whatever it is.
"I just wanted to make sure I can get back to that point because you hear guys talk about all the time, 'My body just told me no.' You don't know you're in that situation until you're in that situation, and once I realized I wasn't in that situation, I started getting excited again that I was going to get another shot."
Fans will find it a lot easier to get excited about another shot if Palmer's zipping darts around the practice field.
Because no one wants to consider the possibility of newly signed backup Blaine Gabbert actually playing.
How's the Hangover?
Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan is either exceptionally diligent or more than a little masochistic.
Per 680 The Fan in Atlanta (via ESPN.com), he watched the film of the Falcons' historic collapse in Super Bowl LI time and time and time again.
And then he watched some more.
"For me," Ryan said, "it was one of those things, I think; you kind of want to be able to deal with it appropriately. Maybe that's different for everybody. Some people bury it away. ... For me, it was, 'All right, let's watch.'
"Does it feel the same way it felt as we were going through it? I think everybody is going to be really hungry to get back there because the one thing I'm proud of is we have a young team. We were ready to play. I thought we played well. And we were right in the mix and fell a little bit short. But we should have every bit of confidence that we're going to be right back there next year and getting a different outcome because we're going to be more experienced."
There is absolutely no doubt what the dominant storyline is surrounding the NFC champions. We aren't just talking about a regular Super Bowl hangover, either. This wasn't a game in which the New England Patriots squeaked it out at the end. Nor was it a game in which the Falcons were blown out of the stadium.
This was a team that was up 28-3 and couldn't hold it. The worst collapse (by far) in Super Bowl history. A Falcons team that thought it was well on its way to victory had its hearts ripped out and shown to it...while they were still beating.
Ryan and the Falcons are going to be asked about that game over and over again as we move through the summer.
How they answer those questions could provide a window into the mindset of a team trying to become the first to go from Super Bowl loser to champions in well over four decades.
Can the Ravens Fix Their Reception Problem?
This isn't the kind that can be fixed with a coat hanger and some tinfoil, either—though maybe one in three people have any idea what I am talking about.
After losing Steve Smith to retirement and Kamar Aiken to free agency, the assumption was that bolstering a less than imposing wideout corps would be a priority for Baltimore Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome in the draft.
Swing and a miss.
For whatever reason, the Ravens went another direction in Philadelphia, but while Newsome told John Eisenberg of the team's website that he hasn't given up on adding a veteran at the position, he insisted things aren't as dire as some have predicted.
"Am I going to be spending between now and up until we play Cincinnati to continue to improve the football team and try to get an additional wide receiver? Yes," Newsome said. "We will continue to work to get that done.
"But I have come to learn, because we sat here last year, and the question was asked, 'Who is going to be your inside linebacker?' We just said, 'We will work on it.' We already had him here in Zach Orr. We have got to give our own players every opportunity ... to compete and win jobs before we just start scouring the waiver wire or do things."
Now, it's true that the Ravens have a 2015 first-round pick on the roster at the position in speedster Breshad Perriman. And fingers are certainly crossed all over Charm City that Perriman will un-cross his own and stop letting passes bounce off his hands.
He'd better—he's being counted on to start opposite veteran Mike Wallace.
But even if Perriman improves substantially, questions abound. Who's going to start in the slot? Is there any receiver on the roster capable of being even a serviceable starter outside if Wallace or Perriman were to get hurt?
The Ravens are attempting to avoid a three-year playoff drought for the first time in over 15 years, but as things stand today, the passing game looks like a glaring weakness.
Will the Real Sammy Watkins Please Stand Up?
The Buffalo Bills haven't been shy about making decisions that raised eyebrows this spring.
First, the team fired general manager Doug Whaley and the entire scouting staff just after the draft. Then the Bills passed on picking up the fifth-year option on wide receiver Sammy Watkins.
Yes, Watkins' career has been marred by injuries, and only once in three seasons has he hit the 1,000-yard mark. But given what the Bills gave up to move up in the draft back in 2013 to get him, it was still something of an upset when they passed on his option for 2018.
That means this is a contract year for the 6'1", 211-pounder, and Buffalo quarterback Tyrod Taylor told reporters Watkins appears poised to make the most of it.
"The maturation process has definitely sped up for him," Taylor said. "He's older in the league, he knows what it takes, he knows where he wants to get, and he's working towards that, even down to eating right and putting the right things in his body.
"His attention to detail each day has definitely been different than the years past that I've been around him. He's always been a hard worker, but you can definitely tell that he's out there with the right mindset and with the positive attitude, trying to help the guys that are around him."
That "different than the years past" part sounds like a veiled shot at Watkins' preparation and work ethic in the past—a shot that probably didn't escape the receiver's attention. In any event, Watkins will have to show he's recovered from a broken foot that's required a pair of surgeries.
It's unlikely he'll do that at OTAs (he's not expected to be cleared to practice until training camp), but even if he's not on the field, Watkins will cast a long shadow.
It's hard to imagine the Bills passing attack doing much in 2017 without him.
How Will the New Pieces Fit?
According to Jourdan Rodrigue of the Charlotte Observer, Carolina Panthers assistant coach Lance Taylor had an interesting reason for banging the draft-day table in favor of Stanford tailback Christian McCaffrey.
Per Taylor, McCaffrey has "Luke Kuechly DNA."
"It was kind of what I've been saying since the beginning," he said. "I believe Christian can be an impact player, I think that he can help our offense and our football team in multiple ways, not only as a running back or slot receiver or a punt returner, but he can impact our team in multiple ways. I know what kind of work ethic and what kind of character he has."
The pitched worked. The Panthers drafted McCaffrey at No. 8 overall. Then they doubled down on versatile offensive chess pieces, using their next selection on Ohio State scat back Curtis Samuel.
The question now is how those pieces will fit in the Carolina offense.
Panthers offensive coordinator Mike Shula told Ron Clements of Sporting News the team's still in the process of figuring that out.
"These guys have shown they can get the ball in the end zone. They have a lot of flexibility and a lot of talent," Shula said. "They're very instinctive players and, when you get those guys, that's huge for your offense.
"The No. 1 thing is, we know they've got talent, and they've got to learn as fast as they can. We've got some talent on offense right now, so we've got to fit all the pieces together and find the right combinations."
OTAs will offer the first real glimpse into what Shula and the Panthers have in mind for McCaffrey and Samuel.
For what's it worth, Bleacher Report NFL national lead writer Mike Tanier has a suggestion: Run the option.
How is Mike Glennon's Mindset?
On some level, it's hard to feel bad for Chicago Bears quarterback Mike Glennon. The 27-year-old will make over $18 million in 2017.
However, when Glennon signed his three-year deal with the Bears, he did so with the understanding that he would be Chicago's starter.
Now, after the Bears moved up to select North Carolina's Mitchell Trubisky at No. 2 overall, Glennon has the look of a lame-duck place-holder.
He knows it, too. As Rich Campbell reported in the Chicago Tribune, Glennon was at Soldier Field when the Trubisky pick was made. At the Bears draft party. That the team specifically asked him to attend.
They didn't bother to mention they'd be drafting his replacement until it happened. A crestfallen Glennon said he felt "cheated on."
The Bears have been in damage control mode ever since, simultaneously defending their decision and talking up their duck. Per Chris Boden of CSN Chicago, Bears quarterbacks coach Dave Ragone did a bit of both.
"It's one of those things, within a quarterback room, about helping the starter, getting that starter ready to play," Ragone said. "For anyone who's ever been in that room, egos are not egos when there's a starting quarterback, then the guys behind him.
"Mike's a professional, as well as Mark [Sanchez] and Connor [Shaw]. Mike's done a good job of not just embedding himself within the system but with his teammates. The draft was over, he came in Monday, we went in the classroom, and Mike was asking questions about protections. It was as professional as you could imagine."
That's all well and good. At some point Glennon will have to swallow his pride and accept the situation for what it is.
But he's human. How will he (and Trubisky and the coaching staff) handle a quarterback controversy that isn't going away anytime soon?
Can Cedric Ogbuehi Hold the Edge?
This is Cedric Ogbuehi's third NFL season, but it will be his first set of OTAs. In 2015, he missed OTAs while recovering from a torn ACL. In 2016, a sports hernia kept him on the sideline.
Ogbuehi told Jay Morrison of the Dayton Daily News he's looking forward to the additional time on the practice field.
"It's something I'm really excited to do," he said. "It will be good to get out there and get reps and have that camaraderie with everybody and not have to be with Nick [director of rehabilitation Nick Cosgray]. Being able to work with [offensive line coach Paul Alexander] and learning and getting reps will be big. The more reps you get, the better you become.”
Ogbuehi could certainly stand to get better. In 11 starts at right tackle for the Bengals in 2016, he allowed a staggering nine sacks. After the season concluded, he told Jim Owczarski of the Cincinnati Enquirer that "2016 was a s--t year."
Hey, at least he's honest.
However, 2017 brings with it a move back to left tackle for the left-handed Ogbuehi, who told Morrison he expects to get back on track this season.
"Playing left tackle, it's a place I love to be," Ogbuehi said. "I'm excited to go out there and just play."
The Bengals need a rebound from him. The team missed the playoffs last year in large part because the line struggled. The Bengals lost their two best linemen to free agency, and in Ogbuehi, Jake Fisher and Andre Smith there will be three new starters up front.
It's a unit that needs to gel sooner rather than later...starting in OTAs.
Who's the Starting Quarterback?
There are three constants in life: death, taxes and the Cleveland Browns entering OTAs with questions at quarterback.
This year OTAs marks the beginning of a three-man race to determine the Browns starter under center. In Lane 1, there's incumbent Cody Kessler, who quietly wasn't terrible for the 1-15 Browns in 2016.
According to Pat McManamon of ESPN.com, Kessler opened workouts with the first team, but head coach Hue Jackson said nothing has been determined.
"This thing's open. It really is," Jackson said. "But Cody's done a great job. That's the reason I brought his name up first. He's really improved. He's worked his tail off, and he deserves the right and the opportunity to walk in this building and walk out there first.
"And they've got to take it from him."
In Lane 2, there's Brock "He Makes How Much?" Osweiler, whom we last saw spontaneously combusting under center with the Houston Texans last year.
When the Browns traded for Osweiler, conventional wisdom held that they would either flip the 26-year-old or release him. But Jackson told McManamon Osweiler's very much in the mix.
"He's done a good job," Jackson said. "He's been great in the room with the guys. He's been a good person in the building. We're going to continue to allow him to do that and see what he has to show for us and kind of go from there."
Finally, in Lane 3, there's longshot second-round rookie DeShone Kizer. No one really expects the raw but talented Notre Dame star to win the job, but Jackson told Nate Ulrich of the Akron Beacon Journal he's going to be devoting much of his time in OTAs to the youngster.
"The first day, you might see the young guy with me the whole time," Jackson said. "... When I'm talking about the young guy, I'm talking about DeShone because I want to make sure I have my hand on him as much as I can."
It wouldn't be a huge surprise if all three quarterbacks start a game in the preseason. Heck, it wouldn't be a stunner if all three start in the regular season. But it'd be better for Cleveland's offensive continuity for Jackson to pick a guy and stick with him.
The earlier the better.
Will the Defense Hold Up?
For most of the 2016 season, the story in Dallas was star rookies Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott. The offense was the engine that propelled the Cowboys to 13 wins and the NFC East title.
Then in the playoffs, the Cowboys couldn't stop the Green Bay Packers even a little bit, and Dallas was one and done.
The Dallas defense suffered some personnel losses. Both starting cornerbacks (Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne) departed in free agency, and while the Cowboys added veteran Nolan Carroll, you won't see any references to "Carroll Island" on SportsCenter.
The Cowboys also looked to bolster their middling pass rush in the first round of the draft, selecting Michigan defensive end Taco Charlton.
Head coach Jason Garrett told Rob Phillips of the team's website he expects Charlton to anchor the pass rush for years to come.
"He's a big, long, impressive looking guy," Garrett said. "He's a good athlete. He has a basketball background. When you watch him rush against some of the best competition in college football, he is a productive player.
"We think he does a lot of good things technically as a rusher, but he also has a lot of room to grow as a rusher because of his athleticism. He has some unique traits because of his length. He's able to do some things that maybe some of the other rushers can't do."
Rod Marinelli is one of the best defensive coordinators in football. He's done more with less before, including last year.
But he needs to figure out a way to take more pressure off the offense. A way to hold the secondary and pass rush together. Or this year will likely end the same way as last.
Can the Broncos Rebound on the Ground?
Last year, the Denver Broncos finished an anemic 27th in the NFL in rushing, at 92.8 yards per game. Two teams who fared worse (the Detroit Lions and New York Giants) made the playoffs, but it's no secret that improving the run game was an offseason priority for new head coach Vance Joseph.
Joseph told Nicki Jhabvala of the Denver Post that he's going with the "it takes a village" approach in the backfield in 2017.
"You need two or three guys that can carry the load. It is no longer a one-guy position," he said. "I'm excited to have Jamaal, C.J., [Booker], even De'Angelo [Henderson] in the mix there. It's a good group. It's going to be competitive, and that's the way it should be."
Anderson averaged four yards per carry last year and was on a 1,000-yard pace, but he missed over half the season with injury. Charles is the all-time leader in yards per carry among qualifying backs, but his last two seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs were derailed by bad knees.
Charles told ESPN.com's Jeff Legwold reports of his demise have been exaggerated and that he's happy to have a second chance with a team that used to be one of his most heated rivals.
"I just want to come in here and help the team with my explosiveness," Charles said. "I want to come up and play for each other and push each other to get better. That's the goal at the end of the day. Now we're on the same team, so we're going to try and push each other to get to the one goal, and that's another Super Bowl."
However, Charles will also sit out OTAs. Per James Palmer of the NFL Network, the Broncos are easing Charles in, and he won't see the field until training camp.
There's no guarantee that either Charles or Anderson will rebound. Or that Booker can improve on an uneven rookie season. But Joseph needs someone to step up in the backfield.
The Broncos don't have Eli Manning. Or Matthew Stafford. They don't have a quarterback who can carry the offense if the run game flounders.
They learned that the hard way in 2016.
Will Ameer Abdullah Rebound?
The Detroit Lions also struggled to run the ball in 2016.
Of the 12 teams that made the postseason, no club had less success on the ground than the Lions, who managed only 81.9 yards per game.
That was partly because they lost third-year tailback Ameer Abdullah, who made it through only two games before a foot injury ended his season.
However, the Lions made no effort to add a back in free agency or the draft, so it would appear they're confident that Abdullah, who averaged a robust 5.6 yards per carry, will be ready to go in 2017.
Abdullah told Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press that he can't wait for OTAs so he can get out there and start running around again.
"Sometimes you need to miss the game to realize how much you love it," Abdullah said. "And I've always been passionate about this game, but missing last year was huge for me. I got a lot of time to sit down and think and watch a lot of football. A lot of times I was depressed at times, not being out there with my teammates, feeling like I'm letting them down even though it was something out of my control.
"Anytime you feel like that, you really know you love this game. So having the opportunity to go back, OTAs coming up pretty soon, that's huge for me. I'm not taking anything for granted."
Abdullah wasn't the only tailback who got hurt in Motown in 2016. Pass-catcher Theo Reddick and reserve Dwayne Washington also missed time.
So, it was a bit surprising Detroit passed on the position in the offseason. Here's hoping history doesn't repeat itself.
Green Bay Packers
How Improved Is the Secondary?
The Green Bay Packers were a very good football team in 2016.
The Green Bay secondary was not good.
Only the New Orleans Saints surrendered more passing yards per game last year than the 269.2 yards per contest the Pack allowed. The Atlanta Falcons sliced the Packers up like a block of cheddar in the NFC title game.
(Like there was any chance we'd get through this without a cheese joke.)
Former Washington cornerback Kevin King, the Packers' first pick in the draft, told reporters (via Michael Cohen of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel) that he watched the Green Bay defense melt under Atlanta's offensive onslaught.
(Oh yeah. That's two.)
"That was, uh, an interesting one," King said.
For those keeping score at home, "interesting" is code for "great googly moogly, they got smoked like gouda."
Packers director of football operations Eliot Wolf explained the team's offseason focus, per Bob McGinn of the Journal Sentinel.
"One of our goals this year was to try and get faster," Wolf said. "I think we got the tallest corner in the draft and a guy that runs really fast and a guy that can make plays on the ball."
The Packers hit the secondary again later that round, adding a versatile safety in Josh Jones who, per Jason Wilde of the Wisconsin State Journal, was a target of head coach Mike McCarthy.
"I remember seeing [film of] Josh Jones playing back in November and Brian Gutekunst saying, 'Hey, you've got to take a look at this guy,' " McCarthy said. "So he was a favorite player of mine in the draft class long before we even went to the combine [in February]."
Now, collegiate prowess doesn't guarantee NFL success, and OTAs will give us a first look at how the Packers plan to use their new additions.
But at least the secondary doesn't look like it will be the Swiss cheese unit it was a year ago.
(And there's four.)
How Is J.J. Watt?
The Houston Texans had the No. 1 defense in the National Football League last year—despite not having three-time Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt for most of the season.
However, the Texans were 24th in the NFL in sacks. The year before, with Watt in the fold, they were fifth.
Watt told ESPN.com's Sarah Barshop that he's feeling "fantastic" after an offseason spent rehabbing his surgically repaired back, and while Watt said he's going to be careful in camp, the league's best defender pledged to be 100 percent when the games begin to count.
"It mostly comes down to my workouts and just making sure that I'm very smart in my workouts and, like we talked about before, creating a plan where I don't put myself at risk," Watt said. "When you really think about it, football is a game of uncertainties. You go out there, you don't know how you're going to have to twist and run and turn. You can't really control what happens on the field. What I can control is my workouts. I can control what I am doing in the weight room, what I am doing on the practice field to make sure that I limit all those risks. That's what we control.
"We control the things we can control, and then we go out there and play. We just let it fly. Obviously, you hope for the best."
The dominant storyline in Houston this summer will no doubt be the offense. Everyone's going to focus on the pending battle at quarterback between Tom Savage and Deshaun Watson, the rookie from Clemson the Texans sacrificed their 2018 first-rounder to move up and grab.
But whether it's Savage or Watson who takes the field for Houston in Week 1, their work is going to be made a lot easier if the Texans also field a dominant defense.
And with Watt re-joining the likes of outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus and defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, the Texans have the potential to be downright frightening in that regard this season.
Will Andrew Luck Finally Get Some Help?
As Albert Breer of The MMQB reported, new Indianapolis Colts general manager Chris Ballard appears to have figured out something that eluded his predecessor: Andrew Luck can't do it all by himself.
"But the one big thing I've made a point of here," Ballard said, "it's not just Andrew. We've got to have the best 53-man roster, and that includes Andrew.
"That's how we'll help him, by making the roster around him better both offensively and defensively. That's what we're gonna do. It can't be just about Andrew."
What a concept.
Ballard's been especially aggressive about overhauling the defense, which is good—to my knowledge Luck does not, in fact, play defense.
There's a new nose tackle in Johnathan Hankins. An athletic and underrated young inside linebacker in Sean Spence. And Ballard revamped the team's ancient edge-rushers, swapping out Robert Mathis and Trent Cole for much younger players in Jabaal Sheard and John Simon.
The renovations continued in the draft. Four of the team's first five picks were defenders, including ball-hawking safety Malik Hooker at No. 15.
Hooker told Kevin Bowen of the team's website he expects the Colts to have a vastly improved secondary in 2017.
"I feel like this group is definitely capable of making a great run this year," Hooker said. "We got great leaders in our room: Vontae [Davis] and Darius [Butler]. As young guys, you just follow and do your job."
Nothing's certain at this point other than that the Colts appear to have a better defense on paper. But Luck has to be doing cartwheels about the prospect of not having to score 35 points every time out to get a win.
Is Blake Bortles a Franchise Quarterback?
Two years ago, Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles' star was on the rise. The 25-year-old threw for almost 4,500 yards in his second NFL season. Bortles finished the 2015 campaign second in the NFL with 35 touchdown passes.
No, really. He did.
Bortles' third season, however, was an uneven mess. His completion percentage and interception total were marginally better than 2015, but his passing yards, yards per attempt, touchdowns and passer rating all fell substantially.
He might not have been terrible, but he sure as heck wasn't good, either.
New Jaguars head coach Doug Marrone told John Oehser of the team's website that working with Bortles this offseason has been a priority. And according to Marrone, that work is paying off.
"He's improved—there's no doubt about it," Marrone said.
"There are certain things, as far as his elbow and his arm, that are much improved. I think there are still other things we're still working on as well as everyone else at this stage.
"What we're doing now is trying to build him up and build the arm strength and all the other things along with all of our quarterbacks to get there.
"The more he throws, the better he'll be."
The Jaguars were one of the most active teams in the NFL in free agency, taking a buzzsaw to the defense. The Jags added a bellcow running back in Leonard Fournette and an edge-setting tackle in Cam Robinson in the draft. The team already had a talented pair of receivers in the Allens—Hurns and Robinson.
But none of that will matter if Bortles struggles again.
If Marrone and the Jaguars get the Bortles from two years ago, this could finally be the year the team competes for a playoff spot.
If they get the 2016 version, it'll be the same ol' same ol' in J-Ville.
And the same ol' same ol' ain't good.
Kansas City Chiefs
Is Derrick Johnson Done?
For 12 years, Derrick Johnson has patrolled the middle of the defense in Kansas City. He's racked up over 1,000 tackles, topped 100 stops five times and been named a Pro Bowler four times.
However, last December, the 34-year-old suffered a torn Achilles tendon for the second time in three seasons. It's a serious injury for any player—much less one who's well past the wrong side of 30.
Johnson will be a spectator at OTAs, but he told Blair Kerkhoff of the Kansas City Star that he still plans to be on the field for training camp in July.
"I'm still on track," Johnson said. "The goal is to be ready by camp.
"I'm just working my tail off. I'll go back Texas after we break OTAs, get my body right. That's the plan. Be ready for camp."
I'd expect nothing less from Johnson, who's been a hard-nosed, physical linebacker for over a decade. There were a few grumbles when the Chiefs used a first-round pick on him back in 2005.
No one's grumbled about that for quite some time now.
But the cold reality is that the ravages of age spare no one. Johnson's getting up there, and while he played well after the first Achilles tear in 2014, it appeared that he lost a step.
So not only are the Chiefs betting that Johnson will be ready to play in a game that counts less than 10 months after the injury, they're also wagering that serious injury won't further hinder a player who is much closer to 35 than 25.
It's a risky wager, too. The Chiefs don't have a lot on the depth chart behind Johnson. Ramik Wilson and D.J. Alexander have shown the occasional flash, but they've had issues of their own staying on the field.
If anything goes wrong, a Chiefs team with Super Bowl aspirations could open the season with a huge question mark right in the middle of the defense.
Los Angeles Chargers
Are the Chargers the Surprise Playoff Team of 2017?
More appropriately, if a team makes the postseason but no one's there to watch it, did it really happen?
I'm guessing Los Angeles Chargers fans don't think it's funny that the team will spend the next three years playing in front of 11 people in a soccer stadium. I know for a fact fans in San Diego don't think anything's funny about the move to L.A.
But the Bolts' three-year sentence at StubHub Center is both amusing and karmic to me, so get used to the wisecracks about their new "stadium."
However, I wasn't kidding even a little when I suggested the Chargers could contend for a playoff spot in 2017.
If the Chargers get a healthy Keenan Allen back, they are loaded with skill position talent. Allen and rookie Mike Williams at wideout. Hunter Henry and the ageless Antonio Gates at tight end. Melvin Gordon in the backfield.
And a veteran quarterback in Philip Rivers who can take advantage of that talent while playing behind a line that was improved greatly in free agency and the draft.
On defense, the Chargers have a pair of formidable pass-rushers in Melvin Ingram and 2016 Defensive Rookie of the Year Joey Bosa. An underrated young cadre of linebackers. And if Jason Verrett returns at close to 100 percent, a secondary that's going to be a lot better than people think.
Yes, there are "ifs." Allen and Verrett have had trouble staying healthy. The rookies will need to play up to their potential.
But a look at the roster doesn't reveal any glaring weaknesses, and while their strength of schedule seems brutal, that's borne of playing in a division with three teams that finished above .500 last year.
If the Chargers can get through camp and the preseason without any major injuries, they could sneak up on people.
Too bad no one will be there to see it.
Los Angeles Rams
Is Jared Goff Already a Bust?
Jared Goff's NFL career didn't take long to go from dream to nightmare.
The No. 1 pick in the draft last year, Goff struggled to get on the field as a rookie amid reports he was struggling to pick up the offense. When he did finally crack the lineup it was...how shall I put this...
Well, he went 0-7 as the starter for the Los Angeles Rams, so I suppose that about sums it up.
Given those first-year struggles and what the Rams paid to move up to take him, the "B" word has already been tossed around a lot with Goff: bust.
However, new Rams offensive coordinator Matt "Hockey Name" LaFleur told ESPN.com's Alden Gonzalez that Goff has been diligent about improving in Year 2.
"He wants to be great," LaFleur said. "He's doing everything that we've asked him to do and then some. He's working hard every day. I think he's getting better every day."
Goff, for his part, told Gonzalez that he's having a much easier time learning the offense of new head coach Sean McVay.
"It's a way different offense—personally, from my brief experience with it," Goff said. "I've had a quicker time learning it, easier time learning it. I don't know whether that's scheme or the way it's taught or whatnot, but I've enjoyed spending time with the coaches and picking it up pretty quickly.”
The Rams improved the offensive line in front of Goff quite a bit with the additions of veteran tackle Andrew Whitworth and center John Sullivan.
But all that extra time might not do Goff much good. The Rams receiving corps remains arguably the worst in the NFL.
Still, there's going to be considerable pressure on Goff to show marked improvement. And he does have at least one thing going for him.
After the way he played as a rookie, there's nowhere to go but up.
Is This the Year DeVante Parker Breaks Out?
Last year at this time, reports out of Miami were filled with buzz about Dolphins wideout DeVante Parker. After an injury-marred rookie season, Parker was going to anchor the outside for the Dolphins and form a solid one-two punch with slot savant Jarvis Landry.
Parker's numbers were better than they were 2015, but it was Kenny Stills who had the bigger year as Parker yet again battled nagging injuries.
Well, here we go again. A year later and a year older, Parker told Adam H. Beasley of the Miami Herald he's altered his routine in an effort to stay healthy this season.
"I'm tired of being hurt and not healthy [for] a full season," Parker said.
"Expecting a big season this year.
"I made a couple of changes. ... I'm just really focused on leg work, leg workouts mainly. I still do upper body, but I want to do legs to get my hamstrings right for this season."
Parker's hard work hasn't escaped the attention of offensive coordinator Clyde Christensen.
"The great thing is we're seeing what we were hoping to see, and that's a healthy DeVante Parker—he is running probably better than I've seen him run since I've been here—and a hungry DeVante Parker," Christensen said. "... I really think he'll have a great, big year—a gigantic year for us. That would be huge."
Frankly, it sounds like a young receiver who is still only 24 years old has matured. Talent was never a question with Parker—attitude and durability was.
If Parker can maintain this positive momentum through camp and into the regular season, the Dolphins could have one the best wideout corps in the entire NFL.
Will the Offensive Line Be Less Offensive?
Last year, no team had less success running the football than the Minnesota Vikings, who averaged barely 75 yards per game.
The Vikings added a pair of tailbacks in an effort to bolster that run game, first signing Latavius Murray in free agency and then getting a draft-day gift when Florida State's Dalvin Cook fell to them in Round 2.
There will be plenty of buzz this summer about which of those young tailbacks will start, but unless Minnesota improves on its ranking of 30th in the NFL in run blocking, per Football Outsiders, then it won't matter.
The Vikings didn't sit on their hands in that regard. After letting former top-five pick Matt Kalil walk, they replaced him with Detroit's Riley Reiff, handing Reiff a five-year, $58.75 million contract.
The Vikes then broke out the checkbook again, inking Carolina Panthers right tackle Mike Remmers to a five-year, $30 million pact.
With all the new faces in town, Craig Peters of the team's website wrote that OTAs will be especially important for the offensive front.
"An offensive line's goal of having five players function as one unit is best helped by reps, so OTAs provide valuable time for this to occur," he wrote. "Another benefit is that new offensive linemen will have reps against a strong Vikings defensive line that features talent and depth across the front, adding quality to quantity of reps."
I still think Minnesota overpaid Reiff, but it's hardly alone in that regard. This was a great year to be a free-agent tackle.
New England Patriots
How Will New England's Loaded Backfield Shake Out?
The defending Super Bowl champions certainly didn't rest on their Lombardis in 2017. There wasn't a team in the NFL that added more impact players via free agency or trade than the New England Patriots.
And that's made for a crowded backfield.
LeGarrette Blount is gone, but in addition to holdovers Dion Lewis and James "Super Bowl Hero" White, the Pats added a pair of versatile ball-carriers in Rex Burkhead and Mike Gillislee.
Gillislee, who joined the Pats after backing up LeSean McCoy in Buffalo last year, freely admitted to the Patriots' website that he's happy to join the NFL's evil empire.
"I ended up with the best, being here [with] a winning squad—no offense against Buffalo—but just to come here and continue helping this team win games," Gillislee said.
Ouch and double ouch.
Andy Benoit of The MMQB wrote that he thinks Burkhead, who shined in the most extensive playing time of his career last year with the Cincinnati Bengals, was New England's savviest acquisition.
"I think Burkhead will wind up being New England's most important running back this season," Benoit said. "Great receiver, good runner and a better blocker than fellow scatbacks Lewis and White.
"The Patriots are almost exclusively a five-man protection team, which is to say they rely solely on their O-line in pass protection and send all five eligible receivers out on routes."
Gillislee would appear the most physical of the group, but he's hardly a grinder in the mold of Blount. Two years ago, I would have said Lewis had the most upside, but given his injury issues, he may be fighting for a roster spot.
Bill Belichick likely won't show many cards in OTAs. And those plans could change from week to week or even quarter to quarter.
But I'll confess I'm dying to see what Darth Hoodie and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels have in mind.
New Orleans Saints
- Pledge to run the ball more.
- Enter the regular season.
- Throw for 5,000-plus yards.
Speaking of Crowded Backfields, What About the New "Ground and Pound" Saints?
For several years, the New Orleans Saints have followed this offseason script:
However, 2017 feels different. This year, it seems the Saints are pretty serious about attempting to control the tempo of games.
Signing a future Hall of Fame running back will do that.
"I think the role will be very clear and defined," Payton said. "It's a tough, long, 16-week season. I think that he's someone that certainly will be able to complement Mark [Ingram]. Those guys are different in some ways, and yet we feel like we've added another quality player.
"It goes without saying, [Peterson is] a guy that eventually is going to be in the Hall of Fame. But I think—we think—that he's got more years in his career, so we're excited for that to happen."
Now, there's been speculation galore about who will get what percentage of carries in the Saints backfield. Even more about how many there will be. After all, Ingram's coming off a 1,000-yard season, while Peterson averaged less than two yards per carry last year before getting hurt.
I don't think Payton even knows the answer to those questions yet. There are too many unknowns.
Unknowns that may start revealing themselves in OTAs.
If Peterson looks like the back who struggled a year ago and rookie Alvin Kamara impresses, it's possible the Peterson signing could be more symbolic than tectonic. If Peterson looks like the 1,500-yard back from 2015, it will be a different story.
And if all three backs look great in OTAs and camp, well then that's just a nice problem to have.
Unless you then throw for 5,000 yards out of force of habit.
New York Giants
Can the Giants Borrow One of Those Backs I Mentioned?
From an abundance of riches to the barest of cupboards.
On defense, the New York Giants are loaded. They have arguably the best defensive line in the NFL.
On offense, veteran quarterback Eli Manning has no shortage of options in the passing game, whether it's superstar Odell Beckham Jr., new arrival Brandon Marshall or youngsters Sterling Shepard and Evan Engram.
In the offensive backfield, the Giants have...
Well, they have...
A Giants team that ranked 31st in the NFL in rushing last year has a bag of rocks is what they have.
Nominal starter Paul Perkins was OK in 2016, averaging 4.1 yards per carry. Shane Vereen is a good third-down back when healthy, but the 28-year-old missed 11 games in 2016. And fourth-round rookie Wayne Gallman told Pat Leonard of the New York Daily News that he thinks he can be a physical, between-the-tackles presence for the Giants in 2017.
"I'm a hard, physical runner," Gallman said. "I believe I have all the aspects in the running game that a running back's supposed to have. I have speed, power, whatever a team needs to get that extra yard."
OK, so maybe bag of rocks was harsh.
The Giants made the postseason last year without a ground game, but the trip was a short one.
If they can't cobble together something better from this group, a repeat of that trek could be in store.
New York Jets
Can the Jets Salvage Anything From Their Young Quarterbacks?
Let's dispense with the pleasantries.
I could say the New York Jets won't be awful in 2017, but I would be lying.
And I could say Josh McCown will make it through the season as the Jets starting quarterback, but I would also be lying. Even if by some miracle McCown doesn't get hurt, at some point the Jets are going to want to see if their young signal-callers have made any improvement.
Head coach Todd Bowles has declared an open competition between McCown, Christian Hackenberg and Bryce Petty. But while conventional wisdom holds that it's really a two-horse race, Petty told ESPN.com's Rich Cimini he's not about to just give up on the idea of starting.
"Yeah, why not?" he said. "Why not? It's an open competition, so for me, it's open.
"Everything is good. I'm clicking right now."
Scrappy little guy. He's adorable, really.
According to Cimini, Hackenberg spent the offseason studying with Jordan Palmer in Florida. But in that same report, Cimini noted this is the fourth offense in five seasons for Hackenberg and wrote, "I talked to an opposing scout who studied him in pregame warmups for one game last season and was taken aback by how many off-target passes he threw."
That endorsement lacks ring.
This quarterback competition is supposed to be a quick one. Bowles has stated that he wants to name a starter prior to camp, as he believes it's important that by that point one player is taking the vast majority of first-team reps.
That guy will all but surely be McCown, who will then all but surely get hurt.
At that point, whichever youngster came in second will get his chance to show that he should back up the rookie the Jets draft first overall in 2018.
Does Marshawn Lynch Have Anything Left?
As Vic Tafur wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle, Oakland Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie told 95.7 FM that tailback Marshawn Lynch has wasted no time fitting in with his new team.
"He's been great. He's been great in meetings, he's been great on the field, he looks to be going very well as far as his progress physically on the field," McKenzie said. "He's doing quite nicely, and we think he's going to be a really good help on the field. Even that, off the field, he's been great with the team. He's meshed very well, he's already well entrenched as being one of the guys.
"It's going very well with him amongst the team."
The feel-good sentiments were shared by offensive tackle Donald Penn.
"He is having a ball, bouncing around like a little kid," Penn said. "I have known Marshawn for a while, and he has always wanted to play for his hometown team. It's a dream come true. For us, too, because he is going to help us win."
It's understandable why the Raiders are smiling. A Pro Bowl back fell into their laps. And it's equally understandable why fans are excited. Lynch is the hometown kid who's going to be the missing link. The final piece in Oakland's Super Bowl puzzle.
There's just one small problem.
Marshawn Lynch isn't a kid. Not even close.
Lynch is a 31-year-old with over 2,100 career carries whose running style punished both opponents and his own body. He missed over half of the 2015 season, which was easily the worst of his time in Seattle.
He looked old when last we saw him.
Maybe the year off recharged his batteries. As recently as 2014, Lynch rumbled for over 1,300 yards. I hope he bounces back to his Skittles-scarfing old self. As I type this, I'm wearing a "Beast Mode" T-shirt...no fooling.
But the Raiders put a lot of eggs in a basket that had a few holes in it the last time it was used.
Can Carson Wentz Take the Next Step?
Carson Wentz was victimized in his first NFL season by Carson Wentz. Winning his first three starts created ridiculous expectations for the No. 2 overall pick, which Wentz then failed to realize.
You know, because he was a rookie.
The Eagles went out and acquired their young quarterback a slew of new weapons in free agency, from veteran receivers Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith to bruising tailback LeGarrette Blount.
Head coach Doug Pederson told reporters (via Mike McFeeley of Inforum) he thinks Wentz is ready to take full advantage of all the new toys in his box.
"Well, the biggest thing I've seen, No. 1, is leadership," Pederson said. "He's come in here ready to go. He's come in here eager, excited about the offseason, working with the new guys and the guys from last year. That's what I've seen. I've seen him sort of come in rejuvenated. Last year at this time he had played a bunch of football. He was coming off his world tour. He had just been drafted. Now he's had a chance to just kind of sit back and look at the regular season last year and make the necessary adjustments and corrections and learn from it. Those are the things that we're seeing through Phase 2, and now we'll see it carry over into Phase 3."
However, not everyone is hopping on board the Wentz Wagon. Peter King of The MMQB slotted the team 23rd in his preseason power rankings, and he told 94WIP in Philadelphia that Wentz's struggles late last year were a big reason why.
"I like Carson Wentz long-term," King said, "but I was worried about Carson Wentz the last whatever, 10, 12 games of the year last year. And I think he holds the key. If Carson Wentz comes back really strong and plays 16 games this year the way he played the first three games last year, I think I'll be proven wildly wrong and they could be third and not 23rd."
King has a point. Over the last 12 games of last season, Wentz through four more interceptions than he did touchdowns. But he did so with a so-so receiving corps and run game (at best).
Both are better now, and Wentz has a full offseason under his belt.
From here, it's up to him.
Will James Harrison Ever Be Able to Retire?
Last year, in his 111th NFL season, outside linebacker James Harrison led the Pittsburgh Steelers with five sacks. It was the 73rd time he led the team in that category.
Those are exaggerations, of course. But it's no exaggeration to say that a 39-year-old pass-rusher leading a team in sacks doesn't speak especially well of his teammates.
Mind you, it isn't that Harrison wants to quit. As Bryan DeArdo of 247 Sports pointed out, Harrison's been posting numerous items on Instagram about how excited he is to play his 15th NFL season.
"Nothing like coming out of the tunnel in front of the best fans in the world!" Harrison wrote.
The problem is that the Steelers have been trying to replace Harrison since at least 2013. That year, he was released and signed in Cincinnati, where he played one season before returning to the Steel City.
Because no one else on the Steelers can sack quarterbacks, apparently.
There's at least some room for hope in 2017, though, that Harrison might be able to take a breath. Alvin Dupree recorded 4.5 sacks in seven games last year, so if he can play a full season, double digits aren't out of the question. The Steelers also added Wisconsin linebacker T.J. Watt in Round 1 of the draft.
Yes, Watt. As in J.J., but a little smaller and a little faster.
Dupree told Christopher B. Mueller of the Times he's eager to help the new guy acclimate.
"[I can help him with] just what to expect," Dupree said. "Just how they're going try and block you. The blocking schemes are different from college because he played OLB in college just like me. I can relate to the things he did in college and help him out a lot with that. And then the communication key is a big aspect."
It will be a sad day for fans of the Steelers when Harrison finally calls it a career.
But it will be a great day for their defense when they don't need a major contribution from a guy who's pushing 40 anymore.
San Francisco 49ers
Who Slots Where on Defense?
There may not be a team undergoing a bigger change in the NFC than the San Francisco 49ers.
And among the many changes being instituted by new head coach Kyle Shanahan is a switch to a 4-3 "under" defense under defensive coordinator Robert Saleh.
Essentially, the Niners are copying the Seahawks. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.
That scheme switch means any number of interesting questions as OTAs get underway in Santa Clara.
The 49ers added a new edge-rusher at No. 3 overall in Stanford product Solomon Thomas. It's the third straight year San Francisco's first pick has been used on a defensive end.
But Arik Armsttead (2015) and DeForest Buckner (2016) were drafted to play end in a 3-4. It's not that they aren't quick, but they're larger, stronger ends.
Assuming that Thomas is set for one end spot, one of those players is going to have to kick inside. The logical choice appears to be Buckner, but even then there's the matter of whether it's Armstead or Thomas who plays the weak-side "Leo" spot.
The Niners also traded back into Round 1 to select Alabama's Reuben Foster, a hard-nosed, physical inside linebacker.
Except the Niners already have a hard-nosed, physical inside linebacker in NaVorro Bowman. One of the NFL's best. Bowman is rehabbing a torn Achilles, but every indication has been he'll be ready for OTAs.
If that's the case, who mans the middle? After the 49ers signed Malcolm Smith to a lucrative free-agent deal, is he locked in as the weak-side linebacker? Which player will leave the field in the nickel, which is essentially the base defense in today's pass-wacky NFL?
There's much to be decided, and it's going to make workouts in San Francisco must-see TV.
Or it would if they were televised.
Who Will Be the Fourth Musketeer?
Over the past several years, the Legion of Boom has been a bit like Spinal Tap. There are three regular members (Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor) and then a fourth who keeps bursting into flames.
OK, so it's not just like Spinal Tap.
Brandon Browner left in free agency. Ditto for Byron Maxwell. And DeShawn Shead is looking increasingly iffy for the start of the regular season after he tore his ACL in the playoffs last year.
That leaves an opening at cornerback opposite Sherman and an important position battle that will begin in OTAs.
The presumptive "favorite" is Jeremy Lane, who made nine starts for the Seahawks last year. However, in a perfect world Seattle would likely just as soon not start Lane outside and instead move him into the slot.
That leaves fifth-year veteran Neiko Thorpe and rookie third-rounder Shaq Griffin. Griffin has the size and length that Pete Carroll likes in boundary cornerbacks, and he's the more talented of the two.
But as Brady Henderson reported for 710 ESPN in Seattle, Griffin said it's not easy to learn the very specific techniques the Seahawks demand from their defensive backs.
"It's totally different for me," Griffin said. "It's a whole new technique, but I feel like I'm picking up on it pretty well. It's something that I'm going to continue to work on.
"That's one thing they say: 'Whatever you learned in college, throw it out.' After I just let all that stuff go, it's just time to learn something new, and that's the main thing. I'm just trusting what the coaches are telling me, and I'm definitely coachable, so whatever they're telling me I'm just trying to pick it up in the fastest and best way that I can."
Griffin was drafted with this role in mind.
Now it's just a matter of how long it takes before he's ready for it.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Who's Going to Run the Ball in Tampa?
There isn't going to be a more hyped team over the next few months than the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Most of that hype appears to be justified. The Buccaneers won nine games last year and appear to be assembling a strong young nucleus on both sides of the ball. They supplemented that offensive corps with the addition of veteran wideout DeSean Jackson.
In Jackson, Mike Evans and rookies O.J. Howard and Chris Godwin, quarterback Jameis Winston has no shortage of targets in the passing game.
The question: Who is going to counter that passing game on the ground?
Tailback Doug Martin missed most of the 2016 season with hamstring issues and will sit out the first three games of the 2017 campaign due to a performance-enhancing drugs suspension. Buccaneers running backs coach Tim Spencer told Bonnie Mott of Bucs Wire that the Buccaneers will use OTAs and training camp to prepare for that absence.
"We're going to approach training camp—and we know that he won't be there the first three games—but we will approach like we're getting ready to play," Spencer said. "Everybody is going to be on point trying to be No. 1. That's what we do. Everybody has to prepare like they're No. 1. That's how you make the team, really, and we will choose from that. What we try to do is give guys an opportunity. We coach them up, and we try to make them make the decision about who's here and who's not here."
It's that last part that's a bit foreboding, especially when combined with what head coach Dirk Koetter had to say about Martin, per Joe Bucs Fan.
"Well, we have a deep group of running backs," Koetter said. "I mean, mainly due to injury last year we had to play a lot of guys. Jacquizz Rodgers, Charles Sims, Peyton Barber are all guys who played for us last year. Then, we drafted Jeremy McNichols in the fifth round out of Boise State. So, we will be going somewhat with a running back by committee. And then it is still yet to be determined what is going to happen at the end of Doug's suspension. But Doug has sure done a good job up to this point with our offseason program."
Those sound like the comments of two men prepared to keep Martin on the roster only if they have to, as glowing endorsements don't usually come with caveats.
At present, the Tampa Bay backfield is nothing but caveats.
How Is the Franchise Flipper?
For much of the 2016 season, it looked like the Tennessee Titans might make the playoffs. People sold all their belongings and huddled in shelters, fearful that the end times had arrived.
Then quarterback Marcus Mariota broke his leg, and just like that, order was restored to the universe.
The Titans opened OTAs this week, and as Jason Wolf reported for the Tennessean, Mariota was glad to be on the field with his teammates, even in a limited capacity.
"It felt great," Mariota said. "Four months ago, I wasn't sure if I was going to be able to participate in OTAs, and being able to do some of the drills, go through practice, it's a lot in my progress, in my recovery, and I was very happy and very grateful to be out there."
Mariota's relief was shared by head coach Mike Mularkey.
"He's ready," Mularkey said. "It's not like we're trying to get him—he's ready for as much as he's getting right now. It's just 'Give him what he can do,' and he's worked.
"Did I know he was going to throw seven-on-seven and all that two months ago? No. I didn't know. So the more he can do, the better, and that's why we're giving him more reps even in seven-on-seven because of the timing of the passing game."
It's a boost to the Titans' hopes of contending in the AFC South for Mariota to get as much work as he can in OTAs. There are any number of new faces in the passing game, including fifth overall pick Corey Davis. The more work pitcher gets with catchers the better, especially the ones he didn't play with last year.
Of course, that would all go out the window were Mariota to suffer so much as a hangnail, so Mularkey was clear with his players about Mariota's red jersey.
"I'm pretty adamant in team meetings about staying away from the quarterback," Mularkey said. "No matter what the drill is, I don't care, stay away from all the quarterbacks. Not just Marcus."
Yeah...it's pretty much just Marcus.
Did the Receivers Make the Man?
Something happened to the Washington Redskins in 2017 that hasn't happened since, well, ever.
The Redskins lost both DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon to free agency. It's the first time in league history a team has lost two 1,000-yard receivers.
It was that kind of offseason in the nation's capital.
Now, Washington added a 1,000-yard receiver to offset the losses, agreeing to terms on a one-year deal with Terrelle Pryor. Pryor told ESPN.com's John Keim that in advance of OTAs, he and quarterback Kirk Cousins have already been working on developing a rapport.
"It was about him getting my timing down," Pryor said. "There were a couple routes I had to run a couple times because he's a timing thrower, and he throws it to spots. But we'll get there. ... I was eager. It was great to work with him and get to know him.
"He'll take that info in and say, 'I really like that.' That's how I knew me and him would click. We're going to do well."
The Redskins have a pair of young receivers behind Pryor in Jamison Crowder and second-year pro Josh Doctson. A first-round pick in 2016, Doctson's rookie season was essentially washed out thanks to an Achilles injury. But head coach Jay Gruden said Doctson should be a a "full go" for OTAs, per Master Tesfatsion of the Washington Post.
Throw in tight end Jordan Reed, and there's no shortage of talent among the Redskins' pass-catchers. And the question above was all but rhetorical. At this point in his career, after back-to-back seasons of franchise records, Cousins has earned the benefit of the doubt.
But it also can't be ignored that Cousins lost his top two receivers. OTAs will offer a valuable opportunity for him to work on timing with players like Pryor and Doctson.