The Biggest Concern for Every NFL Team Before the Season Begins

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystJuly 16, 2021

The Biggest Concern for Every NFL Team Before the Season Begins

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    Butch Dill/Associated Press

    Merriam-Webster defines concern as "a matter that causes feelings of unease, uncertainty, or apprehension."

    The definition holds as true in the NFL as it does anywhere else.

    For some teams, those concerns are glaring. It could be an uncertain or dire situation at quarterback. A leaky offensive line. A porous defense. Or a roster and/or organization that is seemingly in shambles from top to bottom.

    It's usually not difficult to see why bottom-feeders are bottom-feeders.

    However, for the league's better teams, concerns can be trickier to spot. Maybe it's a weakness at one position that threatens to derail a deep postseason run. An ill-advised move in the offseason. Or even a move that a team didn't make.

    The magnitude of those concerns can vary as widely as the colors on the league's 32 different helmets.

    But every team has something to be concerned about in 2021.  

Arizona Cardinals: Unproven Inside Linebackers

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    Jennifer Stewart/Associated Press

    On one hand, it might seem strange to see inside linebacker listed as a concern for the Arizona Cardinals in 2021. In each of the past two drafts, the Redbirds have spent a first-round pick on the position—Isaiah Simmons in 2020 and Zaven Collins in 2021.

    The duo is projected to start this year, and Arizona even gave veteran Jordan Hicks permission to seek a trade. While the pair's talent and athleticism can't be ignored, neither can their lack of NFL experience.

    Per Kyle Odegard of the team website, defensive coordinator Vance Joseph acknowledged there will be bumps in the road.

    "As a coach, you have to understand there are going to be some bad downs," Joseph said. "But on the flip side, there will be plays those guys make that other guys can't make. It's our job as a staff, mine especially, to put players first and scheme second. Let those guys unlock those bodies."

    Those ups and downs will be magnified in the NFC West. It's a brutal division with precious little margin for error if the Cardinals want to take a run at the postseason. 

Atlanta Falcons: A Leaky Defense

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    Plenty has been said and written over the past few months about the future of veteran quarterback Matt Ryan in Atlanta. And the trade that sent star wideout Julio Jones to Tennessee. And rookie tight end Kyle Pitts, the phenom the team drafted fourth overall.

    But the Falcons will move the ball and score points. Even in last year's miserable season, Atlanta ranked in the top half of the league in scoring. Two years ago, the Falcons were fifth in the NFL in total offense.

    The much larger concern in Atlanta is a defense that ranked 29th in yards allowed in 2020 and 19th in points allowed. Dean Pees is the new defensive coordinator in town, but the veteran coach doesn't have a ton to work with.

    Atlanta's 29 sacks last season ranked in the bottom 10 of the NFL. No team in the league was torched for more passing yards per game than the 293.6 the Falcons surrendered. And whether it's in the front seven or in the secondary, Atlanta's personnel isn't one bit better than it was a year ago.

    In fact, on the back end, it's probably worse.

Baltimore Ravens: Where Will the Pass Rush Come From?

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    Brett Carlsen/Associated Press

    The Baltimore Ravens have long had a reputation for being a stout defensive football team. But where rushing the passer is concerned, it has been a while since they were elite—Baltimore hasn't ranked inside the top 10 in sacks since the team tied for second with 49 in 2014.

    That dry spell isn't likely to end in 2021.

    In last season's march to the playoffs, edge-rusher Matthew Judon paced the Ravens with six sacks. He's gone after signing a free-agent pact with the New England Patriots. So is fellow edge Yannick Ngakoue, who tallied three of his eight sacks for the season while in Baltimore. No player on Baltimore's roster logged five sacks a year ago.

    Baltimore attempted to address this potential weakness in the 2021 draft, selecting Penn State's Odafe Oweh with the second of its two first-round picks. But rookie pass-rushers often take time to adjust to the NFL, and Oweh's next sack will be his first since 2019.

    It's possible the Ravens will cobble together a pass rush with players like Oweh, Tyus Bowser and Pernell McPhee. But it's far from a sure thing.

    For a team with Super Bowl aspirations, that is assuredly an issue.

Buffalo Bills: Lack of Offensive Balance

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    Jeffrey T. Barnes/Associated Press

    Fresh off a 13-win season that tied for the most regular-season wins in franchise history (and a berth in the AFC Championship Game), the Buffalo Bills don't have a ton to worry about.

    Still, a lack of offensive balance could become a problem.

    Only the Kansas City Chiefs amassed more yards last year than the Bills. Only two teams (the Chiefs and Tampa Bay Buccaneers) were better at throwing the ball. But the Bills barely cracked the top 20 in rushing yards, averaging 107.7 per contest.

    When ranking the league's running backs, Maurice Jones-Drew of slotted Buffalo's nominal lead back (Devin Singletary) at No. 31, ahead of only Miami's Myles Gaskin:

    "The Bills have had a real problem with their run game and they need a reliable player at the position. Devin Singletary and Zack Moss have each had their moments but neither player has shown any consistency. Right now, Josh Allen is the best rusher on the team. That really bothers me as a former running back. The Bills' backfield really needs to step it up, and Singletary has the most experience. The time is now."

    If the Bills plan to advance to the Super Bowl, Singletary and/or Zack Moss need to take some pressure off Allen.

Carolina Panthers: Is Sam the Man?

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    Nell Redmond/Associated Press

    If at first you don't succeed, try, try again.

    That appears to be the mantra of Carolina Panthers head coach Matt Rhule. After Teddy Bridgewater's less-than-impressive season as the team's starter, the Panthers bid goodbye, replacing him with Sam Darnold.

    The Jets picked Darnold third overall in 2018, and his three seasons in New York didn't go any better than Bridgewater's one year in Charlotte. But as ESPN's David Newton reported, former Panthers starter Steve Beuerlein thinks the move to a smaller market could be what the doctor ordered for Darnold.

    "This could end up being the best thing to ever happen to Sam," Beuerlein said. "He gets a chance to rejuvenate his career in a city that is as welcoming as any in the country."

    The Panthers appear to be believers. In addition to trading for Darnold, the team picked up his fifth-year option for 2022 and passed on drafting Justin Fields and Mac Jones with the eighth overall pick this year.

    But this is a young quarterback who has just six more touchdowns than interceptions over three pro seasons, has completed 59.6 percent of his passes and has posted a passer rating of 78.6.

Chicago Bears: Dalton vs. Fields

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    Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    The Chicago Bears have a quarterback battle that isn't a battle at all. Almost from the moment the team traded up to draft Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields, head coach Matt Nagy has insisted veteran Andy Dalton will be the starting quarterback when the season opener against the Los Angeles Rams rolls around.

    For Fields, it will be the slow and steady approach. Learning before doing.

    "I think it's going to be exciting for him to just come in here and learn how to be a professional quarterback," Nagy told reporters in May. "It's not going to happen overnight. He's going to be able to learn from great coaches and from great players that are going to be in the same room as him."

    It's easy for Nagy to say this before training camp opens. However, the ice under the fourth-year head coach's feet isn't thick. Plenty have called for Fields to get a shot to win the job. If Fields looks good in camp (or Dalton does not), those calls will become deafening.

    And the QB battle that isn't one could become a massive distraction.

Cincinnati Bengals: The Offensive Line

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    Emilee Chinn/Associated Press

    Last year, Joe Burrow showed considerable promise at quarterback for the Cincinnati Bengals. But he also took a beating. Burrow was sacked 32 times and pressured consistently before an ACL tear ended his season 10 games in.

    Improving the protection in front of Burrow was a priority for the Bengals this offseason. Cincinnati signed veteran tackle Riley Reiff to man the right side and drafted Clemson's Jackson Carman as a potential starter at left guard in the second round. The Bengals are also hopeful third-year pro Jonah Williams can stay healthy and take a big step forward at left tackle.

    Cincinnati also has a new offensive line coach in Frank Pollack, and he told Geoff Hobson of the team website that he's looking forward to coaching up the team's young linemen.

    "We've got a lot of good players still developing," Pollack said. "I can't wait to get them out on the grass and teaching guys different techniques that maybe they haven't been exposed to the last two years."

    However, the Bengals passed on this year's top tackle prospect, Penei Sewell, with the fifth overall pick. While the line received a higher ranking from Pro Football Focus (24th) ahead of the 2021 season than in 2020 (30th), it still ranks in the league's bottom 10.

Cleveland Browns: Managing Expectations

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    Ron Schwane/Associated Press

    The Cleveland Browns are coming off their best season since the mid-'90s. The team won 11 games, made the playoffs and smoked the rival Pittsburgh Steelers in the Wild Card Round.

    In the offseason, the Browns took a buzz saw to the defense. They added talent on the defensive line (Jadeveon Clowney and Malik Jackson), at linebacker (Anthony Walker and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah) and in the secondary (Troy Hill, Greg Newsome II and John Johnson III).

    Given that retooled defense, no shortage of skill-position talent (including maybe the league's best one-two punch at running back in Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt) and the NFL's best offensive line (per Pro Football Focus), the Browns are being talked up as a Super Bowl contender.

    But this isn't the first time in recent years the Browns have been preseason hype darlings. That was the case in 2019 too—and the Browns fell flat on their 6-10 faces.

    This team has shown it can win games. And Kevin Stefanski has shown he's light-years better as a head coach than Freddie Kitchens.

    But important as it is for Stefanski to create a solid game plan each week, his biggest challenge may be managing expectations for a team that hasn't experienced sustained success in a very long time.

Dallas Cowboys: Defensive Overhaul

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    LM Otero/Associated Press

    Many folks point to the season-ending ankle injury suffered by quarterback Dak Prescott as the reason things fell apart for the Dallas Cowboys in 2020. But even before that fateful game against the Giants where Prescott went down, the Cowboys were in big trouble.

    While Prescott and the offense were piling up the yardage and points, the defense was abysmal. Over the team's 1-3 start, Dallas allowed 36.5 points per game.

    The Cowboys made major changes on that side of the ball. They hired ex-Atlanta Falcons head coach Dan Quinn as the new defensive coordinator. They also used their first draft pick on Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons, who drew raves from Quinn during OTAs.

    "The pass-rushing part of him, he has really picked up where he left off," Quinn told reporters. "He really had good speed off the edge. That part of the game is intact. Now we are working on behind-the-ball things: man-to-man, playing zone, blitzing from off the ball. Those are things we can feature and assess."

    Dallas has the most potent offense in the NFC East. But unless Quinn and Parsons can help get the defense turned around, the season to come will look a lot like the one that just took place…

    Dallas trying to win shootouts every week and finishing below .500.

Denver Broncos: QB Nontroversy

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    A quarterback competition is often cause for enthusiasm. But when the two quarterbacks competing combined for 31 touchdowns, 26 interceptions and eight wins in 28 starts in 2020, not so much.

    Those are the uninspiring numbers put up by incumbent Drew Lock and newcomer Teddy Bridgewater in Denver.

    Head coach Vic Fangio told reporters the winner of this battle probably won't be determined until well into training camp:

    "To me, OTAs, especially when you have a new quarterback such as Teddy coming in, who really didn't start working with us until OTAs, a big part of this is just getting him comfortable with the offense, introducing it to him. Obviously coaches and everybody else likes to evaluate every day, but to me the big evaluation will come more in camp."

    The Broncos have skill-position talent in players like Courtland Sutton and Noah Fant. The excellent defense includes possibly the best collection of secondary talent in the league. But for the Broncos to have any chance of challenging the Chiefs in the AFC West, their quarterback play has to be light-years better than it was in 2020.

Detroit Lions: Tissue-Paper Defense

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    The Lions had another miserable season in 2020, losing at least 10 games for the third consecutive year. A big reason for those struggles was a defense that allowed the most yards (419.8) and points (32.4) per game in the NFL.

    Motown has yet another new regime in 2021, among them a new defensive coordinator in Aaron Glenn. General manager Brad Holmes told Tim Twentyman of the team website that he expects Glenn's arrival to have a major positive impact on the defense.

    "There's a reason why he was on the circuit," Holmes said, "and consideration of being a head coach and interviewing."

    Glenn didn't inherit a cupboard that was bare. Whether it's Trey Flowers, Romeo Okwara and Jamie Collins in the front seven or Jeff Okudah and Tracy Walker on the back end, the Lions have talent on that side of the ball.

    But Detroit isn't markedly better personnel-wise than when it gave up all those yards and points in 2020.

    Calling that a concern is an understatement.

Green Bay Packers: Aaron Rodgers' Future

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    Morry Gash/Associated Press

    The future of star quarterback Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay might not be the only concern the Packers face—but it's the only one that matters.

    At the American Century Championship celebrity golf tournament in Lake Tahoe last week, Rodgers hinted that a resolution to the standoff between player and team might not be far off.

    "I'm going to enjoy the hell out of this week, and then I'm going to get back to working out and figure things out in a couple weeks," he told NBC (h/t Charean Williams of ProFootballTalk).

    With every day that passes without a trade bombshell, the more likely it becomes that Rodgers will be under center when the Packers face the New Orleans Saints in Week 1. The Packers have given zero inclination they will consider trading the reigning MVP. If Rodgers was hell-bent on never playing for the Packers again, he could have avoided fines or Green Bay's possible attempts to recoup part of his signing bonus by opting out of the 2021 season.

    This isn't to say No. 12 will be out there on the first day of training camp. But the smart money says he will be at the Superdome on Sept. 12.

Houston Texans: Um, Everything?

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    Eric Christian Smith/Associated Press

    Trying to single out a concern with the Houston Texans is like trying to point out the wettest drop of water in the Pacific Ocean.

    Good luck with that.

    Per Adam Beasley of Pro Football Network, the investigations by both the Houston police and the NFL into the sexual misconduct and assault allegations against quarterback Deshaun Watson are ongoing, as are the 22 civil lawsuits filed against him. But even if Watson avoids suspension and/or the commissioner's exempt list to open the season, his trade demands have not wavered.

    That leaves veteran journeyman Tyrod Taylor as the likely Week 1 starter for the Texans—a quarterback who has started four games over the past three seasons.

    Defensively, the Texans released three-time Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt in February and are changing schemes to Lovie Smith's Tampa 2 4-3 in 2021. Last year, only two teams allowed more yards than Houston. Only five teams allowed more points. Nothing indicates this team will be significantly better on that side of the ball in 2021.

    The Texans are probably the most talent-bereft team in the league. And it's more likely than not going to be a long season.

Indianapolis Colts: The Carson Wentz Reclamation Project

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    Darron Cummings/Associated Press

    In many respects, the Indianapolis Colts have everything it takes to make a deep playoff run. The offense has ample skill-position talent and one of the league's best lines. The defense ranked inside the top 10 in both yards and points allowed.

    But all those assets won't be much use to the Colts if their new quarterback doesn't do the job.

    Wentz was putrid in Philly last season. He completed 57.4 percent of his passes and tied for the league lead with 15 picks before losing the starting job.

    In an interview with Robert Mays on The Athletic Football Show (h/t Andrew Thomison of Stampede Blue), Colts general manager Chris Ballard allowed that while Wentz struggled in 2020, a reunion with Frank Reich (who coached Wentz in Philadelphia) could turn things around.

    "Look, Carson's got some things that he's got to do better, and he's worked really hard this offseason on them," Ballard said. "But I think it's gonna be fun to watch this year—I think it's gonna be fun to watch Carson and our team come together and play together."

    Given what the Colts gave up to obtain Wentz (a first-rounder in 2022 if Wentz plays 75 percent of the snaps or plays 70 percent with a playoff berth), Indy is taking a sizable risk that the reclamation project will be a success.

Jacksonville Jaguars: Urban Renewal

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    The Jacksonville Jaguars have no shortage of concerns in 2021. The team is turning over the reins of the offense to a rookie quarterback in Trevor Lawrence. New defensive coordinator Joe Cullen is trying to turn around a unit that ranked 31st in both total defense and scoring defense in 2020.

    After a long career in the college ranks that included national championships at both Florida and Ohio State, Urban Meyer left the broadcast booth this year to try his hand at coaching in the NFL. Jimmy Johnson (one of three coaches to win both a national title in college and a Super Bowl) thinks Meyer will be a hit at the professional level.

    "Urban's very thorough. Urban has spent his due diligence getting ready for this job," Johnson told reporters. "He knew what he was getting into when he accepted the job. We had numerous conversations during the job process. And I think he'll do a great job. He knows how important personnel is. He knows how to deal with people."

    However, for every coach like Johnson and Pete Carroll who achieved success after making the leap to the NFL, there's a Nick Saban or Steve Spurrier who did not. Given all the issues the Jaguars face on both sides of the ball, Meyer isn't being set up for success.

Kansas City Chiefs: The Pass Rush

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    Steve Luciano/Associated Press

    Two years ago, on the way to a victory in Super Bowl LIV, the Kansas City Chiefs checked in 11th in the league in sacks, logging 45. In 2020, that number dropped to 32—19th in the NFL.

    That's not the sole reason the Chiefs got shelled in Super Bowl LV. Or even the biggest reason. But it's a major concern for the two-time defending AFC champions entering 2021.

    Even 32 sacks might be a hard number for the team to hit this year.

    The Chiefs still have one of the league's best 3-technique tackles in Chris Jones, who paced the team with 7.5 sacks in 2020.

    But while Frank Clark made the Pro Bowl a year ago, his sack production has dipped from 13 in 2018 to eight in 2019 to six in 2020. Clark's status for the season opener in Cleveland is also in doubt after he was arrested on two separate occasions on weapons charges in the offseason.

    If Clark draws a lengthy suspension, the Kansas City pass rush could be in trouble.

Las Vegas Raiders: O-Line Turnover

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    Noah K. Murray/Associated Press

    Few teams have bigger self-inflicted concerns than the Las Vegas Raiders. 

    For reasons known only to general manager Mike Mayock, the Raiders decided to gut one of their strengths by trading three of their starters on the offensive line.

    Trent Brown had trouble staying healthy after signing with the Raiders in 2019, but he was also a Pro Bowler two years ago. So was center Rodney Hudson, whom Las Vegas shipped to Arizona. Guard Gabe Jackson, whom the Raiders all but gave away to the Seattle Seahawks, is an above-average veteran starter.

    The Raiders were able to fill the void created by the Brown trade by selecting Alabama tackle Alex Leatherwood in the first round of the 2021 draft. But the center and guard spots are looming question marks, especially if Richie Incognito can't return to form after missing most of the 2020 season.

    A few years ago, the Raiders had one of the better offensive lines in the league. Now, they barely cracked the top 25 in PFF's O-line rankings for 2021.

Los Angeles Chargers: Help for Joey Bosa

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    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    The Los Angeles Chargers already took a big step toward addressing a major concern this offseason. The additions of veteran center Corey Linsley and rookie tackle Rashawn Slater should go a long way toward bolstering an O-line that ranked last in the league at the end of the 2020 season, per Pro Football Focus.

    The other side of the ball is now a far bigger concern.

    The Chargers struggled getting after opposing quarterbacks last year, especially with star defensive end Joey Bosa sidelined for four games. They finished with 27 sacks, which ranked 25th in the league.

    Getting a healthy Bosa back will help, but after choosing not to re-sign Melvin Ingram, the Bolts are precariously short on proven commodities to complement the three-time Pro Bowler. Uchenna Nwosu, the presumed starter opposite Bosa, tallied only 4.5 sacks last year and has 10 over his three NFL seasons.

    If Nwosu can't find his groove in an increased role quickly, Bosa is going to face double- or triple-teams on just about every snap.

Los Angeles Rams: Turnover on the Back End

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    Stephen Brashear/Associated Press

    The arrival of veteran quarterback Matthew Stafford is undoubtedly the biggest story surrounding the Los Angeles Rams in 2021. But there's little reason to think Stafford won't be fine in his new home.

    The back end of the NFL's No. 1 defense from 2020 is another story.

    The Rams still have one of the league's best cover corners in Jalen Ramsey and a promising youngster in Darious Williams. But they're down a pair of veteran starters after cornerback Troy Hill and safety John Johnson bolted for the Cleveland Browns in free agency.

    The drop-off might not be that steep. Taylor Rapp was a 10-game starter at safety two years ago, and the Rams have some youth and depth at corner like David Long Jr.

    But for a team with aspirations of being the second straight club to play in a Super Bowl in its home stadium, any drop-off at all is reason to worry.

Miami Dolphins: Tua's Take Two

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    John Munson/Associated Press

    Offseason overreactions are an annual tradition in the NFL. In mid-June, there was plenty of hand-wringing after Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa threw five interceptions in a single practice session.

    However, Dolphins head coach Brian Flores doesn't seem worried about his second-year signal-caller.

    "I don't think Tua's going to go into a shell," Flores said, per Charles Trainor of the Miami Herald. "I tell him [after a practice like that] to continue being aggressive. The conversations are a lot of what we've already talked about here—use this time to practice pushing the ball downfield. Then we'll make the adjustments and the corrections."

    Tagovailoa wasn't terrible as a rookie (1,814 passing yards, 11 touchdowns, five interceptions), but he was uneven. The player selected one pick after him, Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert, tore up the league en route to Offensive Rookie of the Year honors.

    With Ryan Fitzpatrick now in Washington, Tagovailoa is the unquestioned starter under center for a Dolphins team with improved passing-game weapons and its eyes on a playoff spot. He'll need to take a major step forward in his second NFL season.

Minnesota Vikings: Pass-Rushing Problems

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    Butch Dill/Associated Press

    Dating back to 2015, the Minnesota Vikings have made the postseason in odd-numbered years and come up short in even-numbered ones. Last year, they struggled badly on defense and wound up finishing 7-9.

    At least one issue could come back to haunt the 2021 Vikings as well: a pass rush that ranked 28th in the league with only 23 sacks.

    Yes, the Vikings are getting back edge-rusher Danielle Hunter, who posted 14.5 sacks and made the Pro Bowl in both 2018 and 2019. But Hunter is coming off a neck injury that cost him the entire 2020 campaign, and behind the 26-year-old is, well, not much.

    Minnesota's sack leader from 2020, edge-rusher Yannick Ngakoue, left to sign with the Raiders in free agency. Ifeadi Odenigbo, who finished second in the category with 3.5, is now with the New York Giants. And linebacker Eric Wilson, who was third with three, signed with the Philadelphia Eagles.

    The Vikings are also getting Anthony Barr back from injury and signed Stephen Weatherly in free agency. But unless Hunter quickly recaptures his past form, the Vikings pass rush is going to be in all kinds of trouble.

New England Patriots: Youth vs. Experience

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    Steven Senne/Associated Press

    Given how much Cam Newton struggled to throw the ball in 2020, one might think the New England Patriots would be eager to move on from him, especially after Alabama signal-caller Mac Jones fell into their laps at No. 15 overall in the 2021 draft.

    But as the offseason has progressed, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick has remained a steadfast supporter of Newton, chalking up many of last year's struggles to the lack of an offseason.

    However, Jones may give Belichick something to think about before he anoints Newton as the starter.

    "Mac, he's a young guy, but you can't really just refer to him as a young guy," tackle Trent Brown said at the end of minicamp, per Mike Giardi of "You can tell he's been at a place where (he got) some coaching. I think he's going to be special here in the future."

    Another offensive teammate said, "Mac sees the game the way (offensive coordinator) Josh (McDaniels) sees it."

    A few practices in June isn't enough for Jones to unseat Newton as the starter. But this has the makings of a true competition in camp. And even if Newton wins, his leash will get shorter every time Jones shines on the practice field.

New Orleans Saints: Replacing Drew Brees

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    Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

    All good things must come to an end. And in 2021, that means the New Orleans Saints have to move on from the greatest quarterback in franchise history.

    There's no easy way to replace a first-ballot Hall of Famer like Drew Brees. But the Saints have plenty of talent on both sides of the ball and won 12 games last season. If they get their quarterback decision right, it's well within reason for them to make it back to the playoffs.

    When Brees missed time with fractured ribs in 2020, Taysom Hill stepped in and won three of his four starts. While he offers plenty of scrambling ability, he's a limited passer who topped 250 yards through the air in only one of those four starts.

    When last we saw Jameis Winston as a starting quarterback, he led the NFL with 5,109 passing yards with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. However, he also led the league with a staggering 30 interceptions that year. The 27-year-old has averaged more than one interception per game over his 70 career starts and is 14 games below .500 as a starter.

    This camp battle likely won't be decided until well into August. The Saints' fortunes in 2021 hinge on the winner.

New York Giants: The League's Worst O-Line

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    Last year, no team in the NFC sported a worse offensive line than the New York Giants, per Pro Football Focus

    After veteran guard Kevin Zeitler left to sign with Baltimore this offseason, New York's offensive front is now the worst in the entire league, per PFF's Steve Palazzolo:

    "Giants offensive linemen have combined to produce the fifth-worst overall grade in the league over the past two years, and they rank in the bottom eight in both pass blocking and run blocking. The bottom line is that the Giants' offensive line is a massive question mark. They need their young players to develop and their veterans to provide career years just to rank in the middle of the pack for 2021."

    As things stand now, New York's starting line could feature three starters who allowed double-digit sacks in their last season: tackles Nate Solder and Andrew Thomas and guard Zach Fulton.

    Giants quarterback Daniel Jones is entering a make-or-break season, and the team aggressively added passing-game talent this offseason.

    But improved receivers won't help Jones much if he spends entire games running for his life.

New York Jets: The Future Is Now

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    When the New York Jets traded Sam Darnold to the Carolina Panthers and selected BYU quarterback Zach Wilson with the second overall pick in the 2021 NFL draft, it represented a changing of the guard under center in the Big Apple.

    When the Jets open the regular season against the Panthers, Wilson will be under center. And quarterback guru John Beck, who worked with him before the 2020 season, expects him to shine, per Jack Bell of the team's website:

    "Physically, it's going to be hard to find a guy who has more natural arm talent, it's something he's worked at. Zach can make difficult throws look easy. He runs around and has some quick feet, and you'd be surprised at how explosive he is. He's very cerebral when it comes to the game. You often hear people say they want an offensive coordinator on the field in the quarterback, or an extension of the offensive coordinator. That's how Zach's mind processes games."

    No matter how talented Wilson is, he's still a first-year quarterback taking over a team that won two games in 2020. He'll inevitably go through setbacks. 

    The key will be for Wilson to respond to that adversity better than Darnold did over the past three years.

Philadelphia Eagles: Is Jalen Hurts 'The Guy?'

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    Tim Tai/Associated Press

    New Philadelphia Eagles head coach Nick Sirianni can talk up competition until he's Kelly green in the face, but it will be stunning if Jalen Hurts isn't the team's starting quarterback in Week 1.

    The larger question is whether he's their long-term answer at the position.

    Veteran tackle Lane Johnson has been impressed by what he's seen from Hurts so far on the practice field, per Mark Inabinett of 

    "He's got that confidence to him—the way he carries himself. He carries himself like a veteran. And the things he can do on the field—you know, he can scramble outside the pocket. And when that happens, man, it makes it a little bit easier for the offensive line. Whenever you have a mobile quarterback back there, the pass-rushers approach the pass rush a little bit differently, so instead of maybe running the hoop, they're taught not to break contain because if they do, he can scramble for 10 or 15, get a quick first down. But really, you know, he's taken command in OTAs."

    There's no question that Hurts' scrambling ability will make the Eagles offense more dynamic. But there's also no question that for him to have sustained success, he needs to be more accurate than he was as a rookie, when he completed only 52 percent of his pass attempts. 

    At least he'll have better passing-game weapons this year after the Eagles selected his old Alabama teammate, wideout DeVonta Smith, in the first round of April's draft.

Pittsburgh Steelers: An Offensive O-Line

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    Adrian Kraus/Associated Press

    The Pittsburgh Steelers won 12 games and the AFC North in 2020. They set a franchise record by winning their first 11 games last season.

    However, their offensive line threatens to derail their chances of taking home a second straight division title.

    Left tackle Alejandro Villanueva left for the rival Ravens in the offseason. Long-time center Maurkice Pouncey retired. The Steelers shockingly released Pro Bowl guard David DeCastro in June and replaced him with veteran agent Trai Turner, which Mark Madden of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette panned.

    "Turner being signed to patchwork the Pittsburgh Steelers offensive line is like slapping a butterfly stitch on a shotgun wound," Madden said. "Pro Football Focus: 'Turner (was) the lowest-graded right guard in the entire league by a wide margin.'"

    The Steelers have a 39-year-old quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger with all the mobility of an oak tree. Unless their young, unproven line gels quickly, said quarterback is likely going to spend a lot of time trying to watch the game out of his earhole.

San Francisco 49ers: Quarterback Quandary

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    Josie Lepe/Associated Press

    Two years ago, the San Francisco 49ers represented the NFC in Super Bowl LIV. Last year, they missed the playoffs, in no small part because quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo suffered another significant injury.

    Garoppolo has reportedly recovered from the high ankle sprain that ended his season. But the 49ers face a bigger issue than the veteran quarterback's durability issues.

    After mortgaging their future to trade up to No. 3 overall for North Dakota State quarterback Trey Lance, they're looking at a good old-fashioned QB battle in camp.

    Head coach Kyle Shanahan told The Athletic's Tim Kawakami that he's heading into training camp assuming "Jimmy's the starter." But former Niners great Jerry Rice told Josh Schrock of NBC Sports Bay Area that he thinks the competition could be good for the team: 

    "I think there is nothing wrong with a good battle. That was something Bill Walsh always wanted. The guy that handles the situation the best is going to be the guy to get on that football field. I don't know what the situation is going to be, or how competitive it's going to be, or if Trey Lance, if they are going to let him sit for a little while where he can gain all that knowledge and then get ready to take on that starting job."

    The Niners could be a legitimate contender in the NFC West, but only if they get this decision right.

Seattle Seahawks: Shaky Secondary

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    Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

    For the first half of the 2010s, the Seattle Seahawks were known for two things: the power running of Marshawn Lynch and their "Legion of Boom" secondary headlined by cornerback Richard Sherman.

    Fast forward to 2021, and the Seahawks are now a passing team on offense. Meanwhile, their secondary is a mess at cornerback.

    Shaquill Griffin was the latest veteran corner to bolt Seattle for big bucks in free agency. Now that he's in Jacksonville, the Seahawks will turn to fourth-year pro D.J. Reed and free-agent signee Ahkello Witherspoon as the likely starters this season.

    Reed played well in eight starts last year, allowing a passer rating of only 75.8, but that was in a secondary role at the position. Now the 24-year-old will lock horns with the top wideouts on opposing teams, which means facing off against DeAndre Hopkins and Robert Woods in the NFC West alone.

    Witherspoon has shown flashes over four years in San Francisco. But he hasn't made more than eight starts in a season since 2018 and has missed at least four games in three of his four NFL seasons.

    That isn't an especially imposing tandem.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: The Status Quo

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    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    It isn't easy to find a significant area of concern for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. They haven't lost a game since November, and they brought back all 22 starters after blasting the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LV. 

    However, the lack of concerns might be their main cause for concern.

    The Buccaneers weren't a juggernaut during the regular season. When they hit the bye in Week 13 last year, they were 7-5 and coming off three losses in four games. They finished a game back of the New Orleans Saints in the NFC South and had to peel off three road wins in the playoffs to even make it to Super Bowl LV.

    That doesn't take anything away from what the Buccaneers accomplished after that Week 13 bye. They're rightfully heading into the season as the favorite to win the NFC, per DraftKings Sportsbook.

    But the Buccaneers could come to regret not making a few more changes to their roster in the offseason.

    (Yes, it's a nitpick. Don't judge me.)

Tennessee Titans: Can the Defense Hold Up?

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    Darron Cummings/Associated Press

    Most of the offseason buzz surrounding the Tennessee Titans has focused on the offense, and rightly so. They have the two-time defending rushing champ (Derrick Henry), arguably the NFL's best one-two punch at wide receiver (A.J. Brown and the recently acquired Julio Jones) and a wildly underrated quarterback (Ryan Tannehill).

    What the Titans don't appear to have is a championship-caliber defense.

    Last year, they ranked 28th in total defense, allowing 398.3 yards per game. Only three teams allowed more than the 277.4 passing yards per game that the Titans surrendered. 

    Last year, the team ranked 28th in total defense, allowing 398.3 yards per game. Only three teams allowed more passing yards per game than the 277.4 yards per contest Tennessee surrendered. They also ranked 24th in scoring defense (27.4 points per game) and 30th in the NFL with only 19 sacks.

    Tennessee attempted to bolster its pass rush in free agency with the addition of Bud Dupree, and it added cornerbacks Janoris Jenkins and Caleb Farley to shore up the back end.

    But Dupree is recovering from an ACL tear that he suffered last December. Farley's acclimation to the NFL could be slowed by back surgery. And Jenkins is only in Nashville because veteran corners Malcolm Butler and Adoree' Jackson both left in free agency.

Washington Football Team: Fitzmagic or Fitztragic?

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    Luis M. Alvarez/Associated Press

    The Washington Football Team won the NFC East last year. They have a solid array of skill-position talent, a decent offensive line and maybe the best front-to-back defense in the entire league.

    Washington has all of the ingredients it needs to make real noise in the postseason if it can get consistent play from veteran quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick.

    The 38-year-old expects Washington to field a potent offense in 2021.

    "The biggest thing with his offense, is we're able to spread the ball around to everybody and get everybody involved," Fitzpatrick said, per Julius Long of NBC Sports Washington. "It's going to be a tough offense to defend just because of all the pieces we have."

    If Washington gets the quarterback who has a plus-17 touchdown-to-interception ratio over the past three years, that may well be the case. But if it gets the player who has thrown 169 career picks and has only two seasons with a record above .500 as a starter in 16 years in the pros, then trouble could be brewing in the nation's capital.