The Biggest Question in Each NFL Division with Training Camps UnderwayJuly 31, 2021
The Biggest Question in Each NFL Division with Training Camps Underway
As the excitement for NFL action ramps up with training camps in progress, every team must iron out wrinkles. Some of those situations can change the complexion of a division race.
Typically, quarterback questions dominate the headlines, specifically open competitions. However, a few clubs have more substantial issues in other areas.
In a best-case scenario, a team on the rise can challenge or win its division. Conversely, mere minimal improvement in certain aspects could keep fringe contenders outside the playoff bubble.
We'll examine the biggest question in each division and what it means for that club's 2021 outlook.
AFC East: Will Dolphins QB Tua Tagovailoa Show Signs of Promise?
In 2020, quarterback Tom Brady left the New England Patriots for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and the Buffalo Bills won the AFC East title. While the New York Jets rebuild with rookie signal-caller Zach Wilson and first-time head coach Robert Saleh, can the Miami Dolphins challenge the Bills for the division crown?
Last season, the Dolphins barely missed the playoffs with a loss to the Bills in Week 17, falling to 10-6. Ryan Fitzpatrick (nine starts) and Tua Tagovailoa (seven starts) split time under center. The former signed with the Washington Football Team, so the latter has the job to himself.
The Dolphins selected Tagovailoa fifth overall in last year's draft. Going into his second season, he's under pressure to elevate a playoff-caliber roster and show why the front office picked him over 2020 Offensive Rookie of the Year, Justin Herbert.
As a rookie, Tagovailoa threw for 1,814 yards, 11 touchdowns and five interceptions. The coaching staff benched him for Fitzpatrick multiple times in the heat of a playoff race. Coming off a full offseason program, further removed from a late 2019 hip surgery, the Alabama product could make significant strides. He has a trio of playmaking wideouts in DeVante Parker, William Fuller V and rookie first-rounder Jaylen Waddle.
If Tagovailoa takes a big step forward, the Dolphins can win 10 or more games and clinch a postseason berth. On the flip side, he would raise serious concerns with an underwhelming second term.
AFC North: Did the Browns Fix Their Defense?
In 2020, the Cleveland Browns established an effective offensive formula. Head coach Kevin Stefanski implemented a run-heavy attack that finished third in rushing. Quarterback Baker Mayfield put his stamp on the season, throwing for 11 touchdowns and just one interception in an efficient six-game stretch from Weeks 12 to 17. They finished 11-5 and won a playoff game.
However, the Browns didn't show offseason complacency. The team acquired notable players for each level of its defense to bolster a unit that ranked 21st in points allowed last year. Cleveland added safety John Johnson III, edge-rusher Jadeveon Clowney, defensive tackle Malik Jackson, rookie first-round cornerback Greg Newsome II and rookie second-round linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah.
According to The Athletic's Zac Jackson, the defense could have nine new starters, which suggests star edge-rusher Myles Garrett and cornerback Denzel Ward are the only surefire holdovers in the first unit.
With that much turnover on one side of the ball, the Browns clearly thought a stronger defense would help them advance further in the postseason. In a division with quarterbacks who went No. 1 overall, won multiple Super Bowl titles and earned a league MVP, Cleveland needs a complete roster to win the AFC North.
AFC South: Will Colts' QB Carson Wentz Bounce Back?
Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson still wants to move on from the franchise. According to NFL Network's Tom Pelissero, the team is willing to trade him.
Most importantly, Watson and his legal team face 22 lawsuits from women accusing the quarterback of sexual assault and misconduct. Watson has said any sexual activity that occurred was consensual and has denied the allegations.
Regardless of whether he faces legal ramifications or NFL discipline, or is traded, his short-term future doesn't have much bearing on the race for the AFC South title.
However, Carson Wentz's 2021 outlook will have a significant impact on the Indianapolis Colts' ability to win the division.
First, Wentz must avoid major injury. He's out indefinitely and will undergo testing on his foot, per ESPN's Adam Schefter and Mike Wells. Per NFL Network's Mike Silver, the team is "bracing" for news about a possible surgery.
Wentz's stock dropped tremendously after his abysmal 2020 with the Philadelphia Eagles. He completed a career-low 57.4 percent of his passes and led the league in interceptions (15). Over the past year, Wentz dropped from Tier 2 to 3 in The Athletic's quarterback rankings, which surveys 50 coaches and evaluators.
He looked completely out of sorts with his decisions in the pocket last season, but the Eagles' banged-up offensive line didn't provide much protection.
Last June, Philadelphia lost right guard Brandon Brooks to a torn Achilles for the season. Right tackle Lane Johnson missed nine outings because of ankle, shoulder and knee injuries. In place of left tackle Andre Dillard (torn biceps), Jason Peters struggled to seal the edge, allowing a bottom-three total of eight sacks, per Pro Football Focus. Wentz faced pressure on 29.3 percent of his dropbacks—fifth among QBs with at least 200 attempts—and took the most sacks (50).
Though Wentz has his faults, he'll play behind a stout offensive line that features two-time Pro Bowl center Ryan Kelly, three-time All-Pro guard Quenton Nelson and right tackle Braden Smith, who just signed a four-year, $72.4 million extension. By the way, two-time Pro Bowl tackle Eric Fisher could make his debut with the team in October, per NFL Network's Ian Rapoport.
Coming off an 11-5 campaign, Indianapolis has a playoff-caliber roster. If the Colts can stay competitive without Wentz and make a push with him healthy, they can potentially challenge the Tennessee Titans for the division crown.
AFC West: Can Head Coach Brandon Staley Lead Chargers to Prosperity?
Brandon Staley quickly rose through the NFL ranks. He's only coached four seasons in the league and one as a defensive coordinator. This offseason, the Los Angeles Chargers hired him at arguably the most pivotal point in the franchise's recent history.
His staff has the responsibility of developing a quarterback with the arm talent to become a star. Justin Herbert won 2020 Offensive Rookie of the Year with 4,336 passing yards, 31 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. His number of passing scores and completions (396) set rookie records.
Staley also has to reverse the Chargers' recent tendency to lose close games.
Last year, Staley garnered recognition as a bright defensive mind after the Los Angeles Rams gave up the fewest yards and points under his tutelage.
Because of his expertise, he'll garner direct praise or criticism for the Chargers' defensive performances. Nonetheless, with three-time Pro Bowl edge-rusher Joey Bosa, 2020 first-round linebacker Kenneth Murray and All-Pro safety Derwin James, Los Angeles should field a solid defense.
The Chargers have the players to rise from a mediocre group of teams chasing the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC West, but Staley, a first-time head coach, has to put the pieces together. Keep in mind, the Chargers won their last four games to finish 7-9 last season, so some of that late cohesiveness could work in the coach's favor.
NFC East: Is Daniel Jones the Answer for the Giants at QB?
General manager Dave Gettleman took some criticism when he selected Daniel Jones with the No. 6 pick in the 2019 draft. Two-plus years later, we'll find out what the New York Giants signal-caller can do with a stacked pass-catching group.
Between his first and second seasons, Jones cut down on fumbles from 18 to 11, but he still led the league in that category and regressed in passing production.
After throwing for 24 touchdowns and 12 interceptions as a rookie, Jones recorded just 11 passing scores and 10 interceptions last season. Star running back Saquon Barkley missed all but two games with a torn ACL, but that's no excuse for the 24-year-old signal-caller's ball-security issues.
Though Barkley's status for Week 1 remains unclear, Jones will have plenty of pass-catching options to offset any shortcomings on the ground. The Giants signed Pro Bowl wideout Kenny Golladay and selected receiver Kadarius Toney in the first round of the draft. Darius Slayton, Sterling Shepard and Evan Engram return as viable playmakers in the aerial attack.
Before training camp, Jones admitted that he feels the pressure but embraces the challenge going into his third season.
"I certainly feel that," Jones said. "I think everyone on the team does, and I think that's healthy. I think that's the way it should be, and I know we're excited for the opportunity."
In 2020, the Giants fielded a top-10 scoring defense, so Jones should have support on the other side of the ball. He also has the weapons to rack up points. If that's the case, Big Blue can compete with the Dallas Cowboys offense and test the Washington Football Team's top-five defense.
NFC North: How Long Will QB Andy Dalton Hold Off Justin Fields?
The Chicago Bears moved up nine spots to select Justin Fields in the first round of this year's draft, but over the past few months, head coach Matt Nagy has set the stage for Andy Dalton to start in Week 1.
Dalton isn't concerned with the team's inevitable transition to Fields. He's focused on wins.
With that said, Dalton isn't likely to reinvent himself at 33 years old. In 2020, he had a solid nine-game stint as the starter for the Dallas Cowboys, throwing for 2,170 yards, 14 touchdowns and eight interceptions. That's about what we've seen from him in recent seasons—solid performances but nothing spectacular.
The Bears didn't trade up for Fields in hopes of acquiring a borderline starter. The team needs a dynamic playmaker to compete with the Green Bay Packers, who will have quarterback Aaron Rodgers for at least another year, and a Minnesota Vikings squad that features a talented offensive trio in quarterback Kirk Cousins, running back Dalvin Cook and wide receiver Justin Jefferson.
Unless the Bears start strong, they wouldn't have much to lose with Fields in the huddle as opposed to an average quarterback who's playing beyond his best years.
The Ohio State product has generated a ton of buzz this offseason. Nagy told reporters he's "really impressed" with the rookie's progression since the spring. If the Bears experience a rough stretch through the first quarter of the campaign, they'll likely make a quarterback switch to light a spark.
Assuming Green Bay remains the best team in the NFC North, Chicago may need to make such a swap to close the gap and hold off the Vikings for second place.
NFC South: Can Sean Payton Field a Top-Tier Offense in the Post-Drew Brees Era?
Head coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees worked together for 14 seasons. Aside from during the lead skipper's 2012 suspension for Bountygate, they've been an intimidating offensive pair.
Payton's play-calling and Brees' execution became the staples for a top-10 scoring offense in 12 campaigns. This offseason, the latter retired, which leaves the former with Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill at QB.
In 2019, Teddy Bridgewater filled in for Brees and helped lead the Saints to a 5-0 record. Last year, Hill started in four games under center and went 3-1.
Payton proved he can win without Brees in short periods, but the Saints have to make a full offensive transition. We'll find out if his play-calling can sustain solid results throughout an entire season with less refined quarterbacks.
The 57-year-old coach must find a way to minimize Winston's turnovers (88 career interceptions) or develop Hill, who's 30 years old, into a full-time starter.
On top of that, the Saints won't have star wide receiver Michael Thomas, who's going to miss multiple weeks while on the mend following ankle surgery. New Orleans didn't re-sign wideout Emmanuel Sanders or tight end Jared Cook, who ranked second and third, respectively, on the team in receiving yards last year.
Other than running back Alvin Kamara, the Saints have to rebuild the starting offense, which is a huge test for Payton, with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers keeping the core of their Super Bowl-winning roster together.
If he doesn't field a high-end offense, the Buccaneers will likely end the Saints' four-year run as NFC South champions.
NFC West: Will the 49ers Field a Strong Defense After Robert Saleh's Departure?
San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan extinguished some of the buzz around his quarterback situation when he named Jimmy Garoppolo as the starter at the beginning of camp over rookie No. 3 pick Trey Lance, but the team may have to rely on its defense to push for a playoff spot in a tough NFC West.
Two years ago, when the 49ers advanced to Super Bowl LIV, they fielded the No. 2-ranked defense with a dominant ground attack that racked up the second-most yards. Garoppolo had his best showing that year, throwing for 3,978 yards, 27 touchdowns and 13 interceptions, but San Francisco attempted the fourth-fewest passes.
Shanahan can win with average quarterback play, but the 49ers defense could regress in 2021.
This offseason, San Francisco lost one of the league's best defensive play-callers in Robert Saleh, who accepted the New York Jets' head coaching job. He fielded a top-five unit in each of the past two seasons.
In his first year as a defensive coordinator, DeMeco Ryans has to fill big shoes. If he cannot put together game plans to stop quarterbacks Russell Wilson, Matthew Stafford and Kyler Murray within the division, San Francisco may not only miss the playoffs but also finish last in the NFC West.
Take note: During his time as the 49ers' head coach, Shanahan's offenses have finished 20th or worse in scoring for three of four seasons, mostly because of injured or inconsistent quarterbacks. With Garoppolo's injury history and Lance's inexperience, San Francisco will need significant defensive help.