The Biggest Concern for Every NFL Team Before the Season Begins
Training camp is a time when teams try to extinguish as many fires as they can by identifying and solving problems.
Sometimes that involves some good ol' coaching elbow grease and perhaps colorful adult language under the searing August sun. Often coaches focus on the new and promising draft picks who they hope will take on prominent roles soon. Like, for example, the Dallas Cowboys and first-round defensive end Taco Charlton, who they would like to see boost an annually struggling pass rush.
Just as often, the main training camp mission is the installation of a new scheme or to find out where critical pieces fit best. The Buffalo Bills will be going through that problem-solving process while transitioning to a 4-3 defense.
And problems can also center around once-promising players who have lost their way and need to be redirected. The Los Angeles Rams' Todd Gurley will be getting that treatment from a new coaching staff led by Sean McVay.
There is no flawless team. Some issues are larger than others, but all 32 franchises have hurdles they'll work to clear during training camp.
Reviving the Deep Passing Game
Deep passing for a Bruce Arians offense is like breathing for humans. So by that measure, the Arizona Cardinals had an offense that was near its death in 2016.
In Arians' fourth season as head coach, the Cardinals averaged just 6.8 yards per attempt, which ranked 23rd in the league. In two of his first three years, they were well above that mark with at least 7.5 yards per pass attempt. In 2015, they averaged 8.5 yards per throw.
The advancing age of quarterback Carson Palmer played a role, and that problem isn't about to go away. Unless, of course, Palmer has discovered an athlete equivalent of Goop to reverse the aging process.
But arm strength and deep passing aren't Palmer's issues at the age of 37. And, in theory at least, speed at wide receiver and the ability to separate shouldn't be a problem either, with John Brown and J.J. Nelson setting the turf on fire.
The larger issue has been Brown's health, as he battled a sickle-cell problem and hamstring injury in 2016. A healthy Brown should help Arizona's deep passing game. In 2015, the now-27-year-old caught 65 passes for 1,003 yards and seven touchdowns.
Consistency from the Pass-Rushers Not Named Vic Beasley
The Atlanta Falcons probably, maybe fixed their main issue after a season that should have ended with a championship. But we still need to see that solution take shape in training camp and then again when games matter.
The Falcons defense has some promising young talent in its secondary, highlighted by safety Keanu Neal and cornerback Jalen Collins. But they still need to develop, and getting repeatedly exposed by a weak pass rush in 2016 didn't exactly help that process.
If 2016 NFL sack leader Vic Beasley was even somewhat contained, Atlanta didn't get much pressure. Consequently, its secondary was often torched, giving up 266 passing yards per game, which ranked a lowly 28th.
Supporting Beasley and fixing the pass rush was the Falcons' offseason focus. They signed defensive tackle Dontari Poe and used their first-round pick on defensive end Takkarist McKinley, who recorded 10 sacks and 18 tackles for a loss for UCLA in 2016.
But Poe has battled chronic back issues and has recorded only 2.5 sacks over the past two seasons. And McKinley missed Atlanta's offseason workouts after undergoing shoulder surgery.
Finding a Healthy Balance Offensively
The Baltimore Ravens offense needs to replace a haunting number of targets in 2017.
The NFL's two most targeted wide receivers in 2016 were the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Mike Evans and the New York Giants' Odell Beckham Jr. They combined for 344 targets. The Ravens lost pass-catchers who were on the other end of 335 targets in 2016.
Of course, signing wide receiver Jeremy Maclin will go a long way toward easing that pain. But the real solution might not lie in the pass-catchers at all. Instead, Baltimore needs to become a more balanced offense.
The 2016 Ravens finished 8-8. But of the eight games they lost, only two came by more than one score. So they weren't getting obliterated, and there wasn't a need to always air it out in the second half while behind. And yet their offense was extremely slanted.
Baltimore led the league in pass attempts (679) and finished 28th in rush attempts (367). It's difficult for any offense to find consistent success when the blueprint is that predictable.
Transitioning to a New Defensive Scheme
The potential challenge that lies ahead for the Buffalo Bills is seeing who fits where in their new defense.
The Bills are shifting to a 4-3 base scheme under new head coach Sean McDermott. In the process, they have to find the right places to slot their linebackers.
An easy answer isn't immediately available to Buffalo's outside linebacker issue. The Bills have Reggie Ragland returning from injury, and throughout his time at Alabama, the 2016 second-round pick was a thumper up the middle. That's how he piled up 102 tackles during his final college season.
But does he have the coverage ability to be successful on the outside? Or is that role better suited for Lorenzo Alexander?
Buffalo will have to answer those questions and more about its linebackers throughout training camp.
"You've got three linebackers on the field and we hope that we'll try to mesh the right three in our 4-3 scheme," Bills defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier told Canio Marasco of BuffaloBills.com in early July. "Maybe that'll be Lorenzo Alexander and Preston Brown together or maybe it'll be a different configuration. You always want to get your 11 best on the field and I believe that those guys will be part of our best 11."
Protecting the QB
The Carolina Panthers want quarterback Cam Newton to take less punishment. They also want him to get the ball out of his hands faster and run less.
We know this because head coach Ron Rivera said it directly to SiriusXM NFL Radio's Ross Tucker. But he didn't need to say anything, as the Panthers' offseason moves clearly showed a desire to make sure Newton doesn't take as much abuse.
They used their first two draft picks on Christian McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel, players who are essentially hybrid running backs-receivers and can create plenty of extra yards after short, quick passes.
But actually getting Newton to rein in his scrambling and to expose himself less might be tough. If that's the route Carolina wants to go, then it'll mean rewiring Newton's most basic skills.
He's always been a quarterback who uses nearly unmatched size (6'5", 245 lbs) and athleticism to create plays. That's led to an average of 594 rushing yards per season over his six-year career. And it's led to plenty of whacks to his 28-year-old body.
You can't fix a lack of experience. There's no solution for that other than lying on a resume, and in football the only fix is time.
The Chicago Bears are rebuilding and have time to wait on their group of young wide receivers to mature. They're hoping Kevin White's body can last through a full season and that Cameron Meredith wasn't just a flash in the pan after his 888 receiving yards over 14 games in his second NFL season.
But insurance can be found on the tight end depth chart. To minimize fears tied to a receivers group filled with castoffs, the Bears can utilize a suddenly talent-filled tight end corps.
That group is still led by Zach Miller, the 32-year-old veteran who caught 47 balls for 486 yards and four touchdowns in just 10 games in 2016. And in the second round of the 2017 draft, Chicago added Adam Shaheen, who recorded 57 receptions for 867 receiving yards and 16 touchdowns for Ashland University in 2016.
Protecting and Supporting Andy Dalton
The Cincinnati Bengals' main problem is one that could derail their 2017 season if it's not handled properly. They need to make sure quarterback Andy Dalton doesn't spend too much time picking dirt from where it doesn't belong.
Dalton was sacked 41 times in 2016, when his two best offensive lineman—tackle Andrew Whitworth and guard Kevin Zeitler—were in front of him. With them gone now, the pocket will turn into even more of a pressure cooker.
Unless, of course, opposing pass-rushers are kept honest by Dalton—who can get the ball out quicker. To do that, he can lean on 2017 second-round pick Joe Mixon, who piled up 894 receiving yards over two seasons with Oklahoma. His nine forced missed tackles on receptions in 2016 were tied for fifth most in the draft class, according to Pro Football Focus.
And of course, a healthy Tyler Eifert can be used as a security blanket up the middle. Eifert has missed 11 games over the past two seasons, but he's scored 20 touchdowns in only 37 career games.
Help the Secondary
It's safe for Cleveland Browns fans to invite hope into their lives again. The Browns' 2017 draft haul installed the core young pieces they needed to finally finish a successful rebuild. But there's still a problem with one of the core pieces of the last attempted rebuild.
In the not-so-distant past, Joe Haden was a top-tier NFL cornerback capable of sealing half the field. He had some great divisional battles with Cincinnati Bengals receiver A.J. Green and did more than enough to earn a five-year contract worth $67.5 million, which he signed in 2014.
But if his downward spiral continues, it's likely 2017 will be Haden's final year in Cleveland. It'll be much easier to release him after the season, when the dead money tied to his deal drops by $7.2 million, per Spotrac. Haden gave up six touchdowns in 2016, which tied for sixth worst in the league, and allowed the 12th-most yards per coverage snaps, per Pro Football Focus.
The solution for the Haden problem is a typical one: Hope defensive end Myles Garrett is effective immediately and can relieve pressure from a stressed secondary.
Getting After the Opposing Quarterback
The Dallas Cowboys need first-round pick Taco Charlton to be an impact player as a rookie. If he struggles at all, their pass rush will likely turn belly up. Again.
Getting pressure on the quarterback with any consistency has been a problem for a few seasons now in Dallas. Their pass rush has been mediocre at best while ranking 13th in 2016 and 25th in 2015.
As promising as he might be, it's less than ideal to lean so heavily on a rookie to fix that issue right away. Charlton exploded with 10 sacks during his final year at Michigan. However, he's still somewhat unproven after logging only 15 starts during his college career.
But the primary safety nets for Charlton are suspended. David Irving surged in his second season, but he'll sit out four games in 2017 due to a PED violation. And fellow defensive end Randy Gregory is quickly turning into a draft gamble gone horribly wrong. He was the Cowboys' second-round pick in 2015 and has now been suspended three times, the most recent for a full year.
So for now the Cowboys are left hoping Charlton can live up to the hype, hoping Irving can build off his solid season when he returns and hoping DeMarcus Lawrence can stay healthy while resurrecting his career.
That's a whole lot of hoping.
Stopping the Run
The pressing issue facing the Denver Broncos isn't a new one. But it's also a problem that won't go away very easily.
The Broncos' defensive collapse in 2016 was rooted in getting gashed by opposing running backs. The Broncos went from allowing only 3.3 yards per carry and 83.6 per game, to 4.3 per carry and 130.3 per game in 2016.
Injuries played a role there, as it stung to not have inside linebacker Brandon Marshall for five games, defensive end Derek Wolfe for two and safety T.J. Ward also for two. If those three play a full season then the Broncos run defense should bounce back to some degree.
But relying on health alone is clearly a dangerous and uncertain gamble. And an aging, declining Domata Peko was the only addition of significance along the defensive line.
Matt Stafford's Supporting Cast
In 2016 the Detroit Lions signed wide receiver Marvin Jones to be part of their solution to replace Calvin Johnson. And he was for all of three games.
Jones finished his first season in Detroit with 930 receiving yards, a total that seems fine and respectable at first until you remember how the 27-year-old's production came. Or rather, how it didn't come.
He went off for 408 yards on 18 catches by Week 3. Then Jones totaled just 522 yards over the next 13 games, averaging a lowly 40.2 yards each week.
Quarterback Matthew Stafford has other more trusted targets to work with. Most notably tight end Eric Ebron, who's set up for a breakout year in 2017. But Jones needs to supply reliable deep speed on the outside, and if he continues to struggle, third-round rookie Kenny Golladay could rise fast.
Green Bay Packers
Defending the Passing Game
The Green Bay Packers offense can flip a switch and go into full rapid-fire passing mode whenever it pleases. That's what quarterback Aaron Rodgers does, and with the addition of tight end Martellus Bennett, the Packers have yet another offensive weapon to help put large numbers on scoreboards. They averaged 27 points per game in 2016, the league's fourth-highest total.
But stopping other teams from doing the same was a problem. The Packers defense was regularly scorched through the air in 2016 while allowing a league-worst 8.1 yards per pass attempt.
Injuries played a role, as cornerbacks Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins combined to miss nine games. But the Packers' secondary wasn't just warm and inviting for opposing quarterbacks because of injuries. Even when healthy, Randall and Rollins were often ineffective. Randall allowed 2.05 yards per coverage snap in 2016, according to PFF, which was the fourth most among cornerbacks. And Rollins gave up a passer rating of 135.4.
The Packers brought in secondary reinforcements by signing Davon House and using their second-round pick on Kevin King. They have to plug a leak fast and do it through some combination of improved play from Rollins and Randall or an infusion of life from King and House.
Someone Other Than DeAndre Hopkins Catching the Rock
The Houston Texans offense emitted a nose-punishing odor in 2016 for a lot of reasons. The main reason, of course, was the state of their quarterback play, a situation likely remedied now by the addition of Deshaun Watson.
But even bad offenses led by woefully inept quarterbacks can avoid the doomed title of being predictable. That was a key problem for the Texans in 2016 whenever they dropped back to pass, and it needs to be addressed going forward.
DeAndre Hopkins is a dazzling receiver who should be the focus of any offense. But a receiver can be the focus without having his name seemingly attached to every passing play that's called. Hopkins was targeted 151 times in 2016, and Will Fuller, the Texans' second-most-targeted receiver, saw only 92 balls thrown in his direction.
That's a cavernous gap, and it shows the need to provide more support for Hopkins. Hopefully that comes either when Fuller fixes his drop issues or when second-year slot receiver Braxton Miller takes a leap forward.
New Legs in the Backfield
Frank Gore is a legend and a future Hall of Famer. Barring injury the Indianapolis Colts running back will likely put himself among the top-five all-time rushing leaders some time in 2017.
He keeps chugging at an age when the unofficial laws of football aging say Gore should be crumbling. But even if he's posting incredible production for a 34-year-old running back, he's still a 34-year-old running back.
Gore doesn't seem human in the sense that he's been able to withstand an extraordinary amount of punishment and hasn't missed a game since 2010. But he is human, or at least a football human, in that the Miami native has lost a step or three with age.
Gore broke off only one 20-plus-yard run in 2016. That was the lowest single-year total of his career and a sharp decline from just one season ago, when Gore recorded five such runs. The 2016 season was also his second straight averaging less than four yards per carry.
The Colts need to get more out of their 23rd-ranked backfield in 2016 and support quarterback Andrew Luck. They used a late fourth-round pick (143rd overall) on Marlon Mack for that purpose. The aim is to have him push Gore and contribute right away after needing only three seasons to set all-time rushing and all-purpose yards records at the University of South Florida.
Salvaging Blake Bortles
The Jacksonville Jaguars have a sink-or-swim question at quarterback in 2017. It's well known and will continue to haunt the team until Blake Bortles shows some regular weekly competence.
But there's a question now about one area of his supporting cast, too.
The Jaguars have plenty of depth at wide receiver. Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns are only one year removed from both posting 1,000-plus receiving yards. And the Jaguars also drafted Dede Westbrook, who's promising on the field though concerning away from it.
Then there's Leonard Fournette, the all-world running back who will anchor the offense now after posting 4,356 yards from scrimmage and 41 touchdowns over three seasons at LSU. But the tight end depth chart looks barren.
The Jaguars traded Julius Thomas to the Miami Dolphins, ending their experiment with the oft-injured former Bronco. Which means that now a 33-year-old Marcedes Lewis is the Jaguars' top tight end. He hasn't reached even 600 receiving yards since way back in 2010. And behind him is Mychal Rivera, who has logged only 472 receiving yards over the past two seasons.
Sure, having Fournette will clearly inject life into the Jaguars offense. But Bortles needs all the support he can get, and it's difficult to see much coming from the tight end position.
Kansas City Chiefs
Balancing the Offensive Production
A lot of glowing words have been written throughout the offseason about Kareem Hunt, the new Kansas City Chiefs running back who was selected with their 86th overall pick in the 2017 draft. Hunt erupted for 1,878 yards from scrimmage during his final season at Toledo.
But although running backs can often make a significant impact as rookies, the position still isn't immune to its first-year struggles. So there's a scenario brewing with the Chiefs' backfield that doesn't require much of a reach, and it could be crippling for a team that wins with defense and a solid rushing offense.
That scenario is simple: Spencer Ware continues his second-half sputtering from 2016 and Hunt needs time to find his footing as a rookie.
Ware surged early in 2016 and averaged at least 4.5 yards per carry in five of the Chiefs' first six games. Then as the season progressed, he slowed significantly. Over his final five regular-season games, Ware averaged only 3.4 yards per carry, which contributed to the Chiefs having a mid-pack rushing offense that ranked 15th.
If Ware and Hunt can't restore the Chiefs' rushing offense to its typical steamrolling status, Kansas City might fall down a notch in the highly competitive AFC West.
Los Angeles Chargers
If a team's kicker is one of its most pressing concerns heading into a season, that may seem like a sign all is well, and finding something to worry about requires some reaching.
But then you remember that eight of the Los Angeles Chargers' 11 losses in 2016 came by seven points or less. And worse, four came by a field goal or less.
The margin for error was paper thin, which will likely continue in the tough AFC West. And the Chargers had a bottom-tier kicker in Josh Lambo. He ranked 24th in field-goal percentage (81), and what hurt the most was him ranking 26th on extra-point attempts after missing four of them.
The Chargers have what should be a dominant defense now with cornerback Jason Verrett healthy and defensive rookie of the year Joey Bosa set to start for a full season. They also have a promising offense after drafting wide receiver Mike Williams in the first round, and fellow wideout Keenan Allen is back from injury.
It would be a shame to see a kicker send their season careening off the rails.
Los Angeles Rams
Returning Todd Gurley to Glory
Fixing running back Todd Gurley has to be the Los Angeles Chargers' main objective during training camp. Or at worst it should be a very, very close second behind turning Jared Goff into a viable NFL quarterback.
Elevating Goff's play becomes much more difficult if he doesn't have the support of a solid rushing offense behind him. Defenses being able to dig their heels in and tee off on Goff was one factor that contributed to him getting sacked 26 times over only seven starts.
Gurley can help by turning back into the 2015 version of himself. You know, the guy who ran with decisive authority and powered through tackles on his way to averaging 4.8 yards per carry. Not the guy whose yards after contact fell from 2.87 in 2015 to 2.18 in 2016, per PFF. Overall Gurley also averaged only 3.2 yards per carry in 2016.
If 2016 was his rookie season, there would be bust whispers attached to the 22-year-old. But it wasn't, and there's recent history of high-level success to draw on now.
The Next Steps for Ryan Tannehill
On the surface it seems like Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill made significant strides during his first year in new head coach Adam Gase's offense. And to be sure, he did post career single-season highs in completion percentage (67.1), yards per pass attempt (7.7) and passer rating (93.5).
But it may just seem like there's an extra shine on Tannehill because Gase minimized his role in the offense and shifted the focus to what became a thriving backfield led by Jay Ajayi.
Tannehill averaged only 29.9 pass attempts per game, which ranked 28th. That was a sharp decrease from 2015, when he averaged 36.6, and 2014's 36.9 attempts per week.
Tannehill did improve as a deep passer, however, which was reflected in his high per-attempt average. The next hurdle for both Tannehill and Gase is a major one, and it often separates the truly great quarterbacks from everyone else.
Getting better under pressure is what Tannehill needs to fix now. He was among the worst quarterbacks in the league when pressured in 2016, per PFF, with a passer rating of 49.1.
Finding the Real Laquon Treadwell
It's great that Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Stefon Diggs has been a pleasant surprise as a fifth-round pick in 2015, recording 1,623 receiving yards over two seasons.
It's also swell that fellow wideout Adam Thielen surged in 2016 when he was finally given an opportunity after being an undrafted free agent. Thielen finished with 967 receiving yards, and his previous career single-season high was 144 yards.
But to have a deep and truly well-rounded wide receiver depth chart, the Vikings need more from a pass-catcher who was drafted much higher.
Laquon Treadwell was the 23rd overall pick in 2016 and then landed with a thud during his rookie season, recording just one reception. He's already trying to swat away the bust label, but, in fairness, Treadwell was never fully healthy in 2016.
He suffered a severe leg injury with Ole Miss in 2014. That broken fibula didn't get a chance to fully heal as the 22-year-old pushed through his final college season and then the pre-draft process. As a result, Treadwell had to wear special custom cleats for much of his first NFL season, and he also labored through a broken finger, a pulled hamstring and an ankle problem.
A healthy Treadwell now needs to also be a productive Treadwell, especially with Diggs also suffering through frequent health issues after missing six games over two seasons.
New England Patriots
Making Sense of a Crowded Backfield
Finding a serious problem with the New England Patriots that needs to be addressed now makes you feel like that guy at a five-star restaurant who's complaining because his croutons are the wrong color.
For the first time in a long time, quarterback Tom Brady has an established deep threat in Brandin Cooks. Tight end Rob Gronkowski is healthy (for now), and a defense that allowed a league-best 15.6 points per game added cornerback Stephon Gilmore.
So if we're really taking our butter knife to the bottom of the jar here, the problem to solve going forward lies in the running back depth chart and how that will shake out.
It's likely Mike Gillislee will get the first shot at the main early-down role after he averaged 5.7 yards per carry for the Buffalo Bills in 2017. He should get the goal-line work too and become the newest version of LeGarrette Blount for the Patriots. Gillislee also scored nine times on only 110 touches in 2016.
But after that, does Rex Burkhead give Gillislee a breather on early downs? He exploded for 144 yards from scrimmage during his only start of 2016. Or does that secondary role go to James White?
White is likely better suited to remain the lead passing-down back after forming a strong connection with Brady in 2016 that led to 551 regular-season receiving yards and 110 more in the Super Bowl. Or will he be challenged by Dion Lewis?
The Patriots' backfield will slowly fall into place throughout August. Or maybe it won't, and head coach Bill Belichick will be content to play running back roulette again.
New Orleans Saints
Tight End Production
The New Orleans Saints also have a loaded offense.
Wide receiver Michael Thomas already busted out in his first season while snatching 92 passes for 1,137 receiving yards and nine touchdowns.
A deep and dynamic three-headed backfield has been formed, with Adrian Peterson, Mark Ingram and rookie Alvin Kamara all set to make major contributions. It feels unlikely that a 32-year-old Peterson can bounce back to his 2015 form (1,485 rushing yards), but doubting him has ended badly before.
There's one spot, however, where the Saints offense is still lacking: tight end.
The only solution is to hope Coby Fleener gets more comfortable during his second season in the Saints offense. That comfort wasn't quite there when Fleener recorded a respectable 631 receiving yards in 2016. He's capable of stretching the seam much more effectively. Fleener averaged a modest 12.6 yards per reception in 2016, far lower than his single-season high 15.2 yards in 2014.
As PFF's Scott Barrett noted, quarterback Drew Brees had a passer rating of 83.9 when targeting Fleener and 115.3 when he threw to any other Saints pass-catcher at least 50 times. That's concerning, though it gives hope to the notion time will fix the Saints' tight end wound.
New York Giants
Giving Eli Manning Time to Throw
The New York Giants have a quick-strike offense that gets the ball out of quarterback Eli Manning's hands fast. That can minimize any offensive line deficiencies, which is good because the Giants have a glaring hole in a pretty important place: the left side.
Ereck Flowers was drafted with the Giants' ninth-overall pick in 2015 to be their future on the blindside and provide steady protection while anchoring the offensive line. So far he's given the Giants only pain and agony. Flowers was one of the league's worst tackles in 2015 while leading his position in pressures allowed, per PFF, and he improved only mildly in 2016.
Quarterback Eli Manning is resembling a stone statue more with each passing year. At 36 years old he needs a left tackle who's among the league's best and not on the bottom rung. If Flowers continues to struggle, the Giants' deep passing game will too, and the Brandon Marshall signing could be wasted.
New York Jets
The Future of the QB Position
The New York Jets' main concern in 2017 will be getting people to invest three hours of their Sunday watching them play football beyond about Week 4.
The Jets roster's most obvious problem is the one that will make them unwatchable. Their likely starting quarterback for Week 1 is Josh McCown, a 38-year-old journeyman with a career per-attempt passing average of 6.7 yards. Which means eventually Christian Hackenberg will get meaningful snaps too, and he completed only 36.2 percent of his preseason throws as a rookie.
There's no real quick fix at quarterback throughout August. The only hope is for Hackenberg to make a miraculous leap during the preseason or for Bryce Petty to somehow discover better field vision after a woeful touchdown-to-interception ratio of three to seven over his six appearances in 2016.
Consistency from Amari Cooper
Much like the Patriots, it takes some serious nit-picking to find an emergency with the Oakland Raiders. After all, the Raiders seemed to be one of the few teams in the AFC capable of challenging the Patriots in 2016 until quarterback Derek Carr went down. And that was without Marshawn Lynch, who has since been installed as the Raiders' bruising running back.
The hair that needs splitting on the Raiders offense comes from wide receiver Amari Cooper. He has the skill set to take a dramatic step forward and should have already done it in his second season. But instead we're still waiting.
The main criticism of Cooper as a rookie in 2015 was his drops. Poor hands led to many yards left on the field, and Cooper could have blasted off for much more than 1,070 receiving yards if he didn't drop 18 catchable passes, per PFF.
He checked off an important box in his development by reducing his drops to just five in 2016, but Cooper was still wildly inconsistent.
The 23-year-old either soared or sunk. Cooper recorded four games with 120-plus receiving yards in 2016, highlighted by his 12 catches for 173 yards in Week 8. But over his final nine games, including the playoffs, he averaged only 41.8 yards per game.
Cooper has the talent to be an upper-echelon NFL receiver. Now the Raiders need to get that out of him without the swings in production.
Developing Carson Wentz the Right Way
The Philadelphia Eagles are well aware of the internal problem they need to fix for their offense to reach another level. We know this because head coach Doug Pederson recently talked about the need to ease up on quarterback Carson Wentz and take some of the offensive burden away from his arm.
"I think you can take a little bit off of Carson," Pederson told CSN Philly, via Reuben Frank. "What I mean by that is I don't think you have to load his plate every Sunday. I think now with the addition of LeGarrette Blount in the running game and the receivers we have, I think now that you have opportunities to take a little pressure [off]."
As Frank also noted, Wentz made history during his rookie season, and the sort of history that was less than ideal for a first-year passer out of North Dakota still adjusting to the NFL.
He threw 607 passes, which ranked fifth in the league. It was also the second-highest rookie total in league history. What's even more astonishing, again per Frank, is that 422 of those pass attempts came from Week 7 through to the end of the season. That high volume during a short period accounted for the seventh-highest attempts total over the final 10 weeks of a season.
The Eagles should be able to find more balance with LeGarrette Blount now inserted as the lumbering backfield workhorse.
Keep Big Ben Healthy
The Pittsburgh Steelers are another championship-contending team without a real glaring flaw.
They do have one problem, though, but it's tied to fate and aging, creaky football bones.
If quarterback Ben Roethlisberger were to be out for a lengthy period, the Steelers' season would be delivered a major setback. Roethlisberger is known for having titanium bones and putting up absurd numbers while playing at far less than full strength. But he's still a 35-year-old who has missed six games over the past two years.
The best way to avoid having many Landry Jones sightings is for the Steelers offensive line to keep putting up a sturdy human wall. One of the league's best units allowed just 21 sacks in 2016 (second) and 56 quarterback hits.
San Francisco 49ers
The Future of a Rebuilding Defense
The San Francisco 49ers' run defense spent the 2016 season lost in an inferno. They gave up an average of 165.9 rushing yards per game, which was over 20 yards worse than any other team.
For even greater perspective of how much the 49ers were gashed on the ground, we can look back at recent seasons. In 2015 the Eagles had the worst run defense while allowing 134.6 yards per game, and in 2014 the Browns were in the basement with 141.6 yards.
So for the 49ers to make any encouraging progress at all as their rebuild continues, that run defense has to improve dramatically, which could mean making a difficult decision with inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman, a franchise legend who has had to recover from several severe injuries. He's declining fast, and the 49ers could decide to move on from him while elevating first-round pick Reuben Foster.
Keeping Russell Wilson Safe
It's just not possible to discuss the Seattle Seahawks and problems that desperately need fixing without dwelling on their offensive line woes.
The Seahawks have been forced to get creative with their offensive line because of the money committed elsewhere to quarterback Russell Wilson and the studs scattered throughout their defense. The result has been Wilson taking 86 sacks over the past two seasons and, worse, getting hit 225 times. The Seahawks offensive line has ranked 22nd or lower in sacks allowed during three of Wilson's five seasons as the team's starting quarterback.
The training camp focus will turn to the continued progression of tackles George Fant and Germain Ifedi and bringing along rookie guard Ethan Pocic.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Jameis Winston's Progression
Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston took some encouraging strides forward in his second season. And now he's been given the weapons to blast off after the Bucs signed wide receiver DeSean Jackson and drafted tight end O.J. Howard.
But there's still one area of Winston's play that can give Tampa a white-knuckle ride at times: His decision-making and tendency to give the ball to the defense.
Winston threw 18 interceptions in 2016, which put him behind only the Chargers' Philip Rivers. That came after a rookie season when he heaved up 15 picks, which was tied for the fifth-worst total. The 23-year-old has played 32 regular-season games and thrown 33 interceptions.
He's thrown an interception on 2.99 percent of his pass attempts. That's worse than Blake Bortles' percentage (2.76) over the last two years, and it's never a good sign when you're ahead of him in anything that involves gifting the opponent possessions.
Winston shouldn't be having to force the ball into tight holes as much now that Jackson and Howard are around to take attention away from wide receiver Mike Evans. That alone should lead to better decisions and fewer turnovers.
Bringing the Secondary Together
The Tennessee Titans won five of their last seven games in 2016 and narrowly missed the playoffs. When the margin for error is that thin—and it was considering three of their seven losses came by a touchdown or less—the dividing line between making the making the playoffs and missing out can lie with one series or a few botched plays.
And those plays almost surely came from the Titans secondary. That was their focus all offseason, and it will be again now going into training camp.
The Titans defense allowed the third-most passing yards per game in 2016 (269.2). Now they'll look to put a sizable dent in that number as cornerback Logan Ryan and safety Johnathan Cyprien, both free-agent signings back in March, ease their way into new surroundings.
Limiting the Big Play
Like the Titans, the Washington Redskins will be working in new pieces throughout training camp hoping to solve problems in their secondary.
The Redskins have one half of the field covered by cornerback Josh Norman. He finished his first season in Washington with three interceptions and 19 passes defensed. Even more impressively, he allowed a passer rating in coverage of only 74.3, per PFF.
Yet the Redskins still fielded a pass defense that ranked 25th while giving up 258.1 passing yards per game. Now two fresh faces have been added to bolster the secondary and support Norman.
The Redskins used their third-round pick in the draft on cornerback Fabian Moreau, who could take over for Bashaud Breeland if his inconsistent play continues. And they signed safety D.J. Swearinger, who recorded three interceptions and eight passes defensed in 2016 for the Arizona Cardinals.
Between adding those two and reinforcing the pass rush with defensive end Jonathan Allen and outside linebacker Ryan Anderson, there should be fewer big gains for opponents through the air in Washington.