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32 teams, 32 questions, 32 answers
If anyone was the least bit concerned that fans of the NFL would stay away from the game because of a lingering bitter taste from the four-plus-month lockout, they were sorely mistaken. The NFL is undoubtedly "back", and if web traffic and fan interest are any indicators — 19 of the top 20 trending topics on Google last Thursday were NFL-related — the game is more popular now than ever before.
After a week that saw nearly a quarter of the league’s starting quarterback situations change, a LeBron James-like hysteria over Nnamdi Asomugha’s future home, and more than 100 veteran players sign with new teams, it’s time to actually play some football. And as 32 teams hit training camp, question marks abound.
At first glance, here’s what I’m asking for each squad.
Arizona Cardinals: Is Ray Horton the answer in Arizona?
Who? Yes, defensive coordinator Ray Horton — not new quarterback Kevin Kolb — could be the new man in Cardinals camp with the most riding on his shoulders this fall. Horton, the former defensive backs coach of the Steelers and a 10-year league veteran, promises to feature an aggressive blitz-happy defensive scheme in the desert. Does Arizona have the personnel and pass rushing talent to employ such an attack? Will Stewart Bradley and Patrick Peterson help turn that porous defense into a respectable unit? We shall see.
Atlanta Falcons: Can the Falcons make the leap?
If the Falcons need to look somewhere for inspiration this summer, they can just pop in the Green Bay Packers’ 2010 NFL Films video yearbook. After losing an NFC Wild Card clash to the Cardinals the season before, the Packers licked their wounds, and went on to win the Super Bowl last season. Atlanta’s 48-21 loss to the Pack at home last January was an embarrassing piece of humble pie for the No.1 seed in the NFC. Can the Falcons bounce back and go to the playoffs for the second year in a row (a franchise first), using that experience as a launching pad to stardom in 2011? Or will they sputter back to mediocrity in Year 4 of the Mike Smith era? Ray Edwards and Julio Jones are flashy new pieces, but it’ll be Matt Ryan and Smith who need to take it to the next level come January.
Baltimore Ravens: Will they miss all those veteran leaders?
Yeah, Ray Lewis and Ed Reed are still playing in Baltimore. But the somewhat surprising releases of tight end Todd Heap, wide receiver Derrick Mason, nose tackle Kelly Gregg and running back Willis McGahee could make for a different locker room dynamic. Veterans Fabian Washington, Donte’ Stallworth, Chris Chester and Josh Wilson are gone, too. There will be new faces on the field this year — fullback Vonta Leach, rookies Torrey Smith and Jimmy Smith, and second-year man Sergio Kindle — and a new feel in the Baltimore locker room.
Buffalo Bills: Are the Bills still a few years away?
The quarterback duo of Ryan Fitzpatrick and Tyler Thigpen may not get the casual NFL fan's heart beating, but Bills supporters have to be at least optimistic for Year 2 of the Chan Gailey/Buddy Nix era in Buffalo. Wide receivers Steve Johnson, Brad Smith and David Nelson make up an interesting trio of targets, running backs Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller could be a far better running back duo in 2011 than they were a year ago, and the defense — anchored by top pick Marcell Dareus — should be much improved. So, are the Bills a playoff contender in 2011? Ha-ha. Oh, you were serious. Come on. Don’t be silly. They could win a few more games this season, but they're not playing any postseason games.
Carolina Panthers: Umm, are the Panthers really so far behind the eight-ball in 2011?
All you heard throughout the lockout about the Carolina Panthers was how the work stoppage would be the worst for them. A first-year coach, a rookie quarterback, a slew of unsigned veteran free agents — the Panthers were supposed to be doomed from the get-go once the lockout was lifted. Then something funny happened on the way to the league's basement. Cam Newton signed a reasonable rookie contract and showed up to camp ready to compete; Jerry Richardson actually opened up his wallet and brought back DeAngelo Williams, James Anderson, Thomas Davis, and Charles Johnson; and the Panthers went out and acquired reliable veterans Jeremy Shockey, Greg Olsen and Olinda Mare. Receiver Steve Smith is expected to be back, as well — another surprise. With a new defensive scheme, coaching staff, and team dynamic coming together in a short amount of time, Carolina looks like it could be one of the more intriguing teams of the 2011 season. And as regular readers know, I'm still very high on Newton. I think he's a special player, critics be damned.
Chicago Bears: What’s to make of the Bears offensive line?
Though he led the Bears to an NFC championship game berth, Jay Cutler no doubt took a beating during last season, his first in coordinator Mike Martz’s offense. The Bears’ starting QB was sacked more than any other quarterback in the league last season and missed eight quarters due to sack-related injuries. Chicago addressed their offensive line needs by grabbing All-American Gabe Carimi with the 29th overall pick (lower than most anticipated) and signing Chris Spencer over the weekend. There are still several questions across the line, though, and the Chicago media is currently referring to what offensive line coach Mike Tice is tinkering with in training camp as the “Bourbonnais Shuffle”. It looks like Chicago will be without the services of veteran center Olin Kreutz this year, leaving Cutler without his go-to veteran in the huddle, as well. If Cutler faces the same pressure as he did last season, he’ll be in for a long 2011.
Cincinnati Bengals: So, this is an entirely new offense in Cincinnati, huh?
Jay Gruden is the new offensive coordinator in Cincinnati, Andy Dalton and Bruce Gradkowski are the new QBs, and there’s a dazzling new wide receiver in 6-foot-4 playmaker A.J. Green. Ochocinco and T.O. are gone and Carson Palmer would rather retire than play for the Bengals. They might not make as many headlines or appearances on VH1, but it’s hard not be at least a little excited about the Bengals and the potential of an offense built around Dalton, Green, second-year men Jermaine Gresham and Jordan Shipley, and up-and-coming wideout Jerome Simpson. Cedric Benson’s back for another year at running back and the offensive line appears to be in solid shape. Call me overly positive, but with Gruden behind the wheel, the Bengals’ offense could be one of the more exciting, young units in the league this season.
Heading into the draft in April, there was a consensus around the league that the Browns would draft either A.J. Green or Julio Jones with the 6th overall pick. After all, McCoy needed a real number one receiver to grow with. Yet, when they traded that pick to Atlanta in exchange for a bevy of future picks, the dream of a 5-star talent lining up at wideout for the next decade in Cleveland vanished. Instead, the Browns start the year with major question marks at the position, yet again. Brian Robiskie and Mohamed Massaquoi are the likely opening day starters (again), Josh Cribbs will do his thing as a No. 3, and rookie Greg Little should get some action on the field, too. Did McCoy mature and prove himself as a real leader this offseason? Sure. Did he get the go-to guy he really needs to excel in Pat Shurmur’s offense? Not quite.
Dallas Cowboys: Is Rob Ryan just what the Cowboys needed?
Some familiar faces — Marion Barber, Marc Colombo, Roy Williams, and Leonard Davis among them — will be missing from Cowboys training camp, but there’s a new face (and beautiful mane of hair) that will be undoubtedly present. With great excitement, Ryan — Buddy’s other son and Rex’s brother — comes over from the Browns and brings his high-energy, blitz-happy 3-4 scheme with him. The differences between the cool, calm and collected (some Cowboys fans would add “comatose”) Wade Phillips — Dallas’ longtime defensive architect — and Ryan couldn’t be more drastic. Yet, with all the high-volume braggadocio that Ryan brings, there are still question marks in the defensive backfield. We’ll see if Ryan’s personality and defensive scheme can be what it takes to get Dallas to the NFC championship game for the first time since the Barry Switzer era.
Denver Broncos: Will the switch from a 3-4 to a 4-3 improve the woeful Denver defense?
Denver's D finished last in the league in virtually every statistical category last season, including points allowed, yards allowed and sacks. Out goes the old coaching regime, and in come head coach John Fox, new defensive coordinator Dennis Allen, and a completely new 4-3 scheme. Elvis Dumervil should greatly benefit from Fox’s tutelage (look at Michael Strahan and Julius Peppers’ careers under Fox) and rookie linebacker Von Miller could be a beast in his first year in the league. Denver’s defense will be vastly improved in 2011. Then again, it couldn’t get much worse.
Detroit Lions: Is that actual, genuine excitement surrounding Lions camp this season?
You better believe it is. Coming off four wins in their final four games in 2011, welcoming a draft class rich with big name picks, and expecting a healthy Matt Stafford, the Lions have legitimate reasons to be excited for the first time since Barry Sanders and Herman Moore were suiting up in the Silverdome. The defensive line may be the league’s very best (rookie Nick Fairley joins an already wonderful line that includes Ndamukong Suh, Corey Williams, Sammie Lee Hill and Kyle Vanden Bosch), the receiving corps is young and dynamic, and the defensive backfield upgraded via free agency. Some folks are talking about the Lions — a team that hasn’t smelled the postseason since 1999 — as a wild card possibility this season. It’s actually not that ridiculous.
Green Bay Packers: Could the Packers possibly be as good as they were down the stretch in 2010?
Absolutely. One result of the lockout? There’s simply been no time for any sort of Super Bowl hangover in Green Bay. And for a team that won the Super Bowl despite losing starters Ryan Grant, Atari Bigby, Jermichael Finley, Nick Barnett and Morgan Burnett during the regular season, “complacency” just isn’t in Green Bay’s vocabulary. Not only did the Packers bring back several of their key unrestricted free agents (including receiver James Jones on Sunday), but they added three star offensive players from the SEC in April, too. Rookies Derek Sherrod, Randall Cobb, and D.J. Williams should make immediate impacts on the already-dazzling Green Bay offense. Williams — a tight end I had slated as a second- or third-round pick — somehow slipped to the fifth round. Two-tight-end sets with Williams and Finley on the field simultaneously could cause nightmares league-wide. The Packers are my favorites to win it all again in 2011, with everyone else a distant second. And yes, that includes those pesky teams in New England and Philadelphia making all that noise last week.
Houston Texans: Is this the last shot for coach Gary Kubiak and GM Rick Smith?
You’d think so, though it seems like we’ve been asking that same question every August since 2008. After failing to make the playoffs yet again in 2010 (Houston is the only NFL franchise to never play in a postseason game), many expected Houston’s coach and GM to be shown the door last January. Instead, they’re both back, and with them come a new defensive scheme in Wade Phillips’ 3-4 attack, a flashy new free agent cornerback in former Bengal Johnathan Joseph, and four rookies on defense who could all get some playing time right away. I gave the Texans an A+ when grading their draft in April and I loved the Joseph signing last week. If ever there was a year they were primed for a playoff berth, it’s this one. Then again, I’ve been saying that since the Houston Astros were a legitimate, professional sports franchise. If Kubiak and Smith fail this time around, it’d be hard to imagine them given another shot.
Indianapolis Colts: Are the Colts still the class of the AFC South?
Tennessee and Jacksonville should be improved and Texans fans are talking Super Bowl. But until any of them topple Peyton and co., the Colts are still the kings of the AFC South. With Manning’s contract “issue” resolved and running back Joseph Addai re-signed, there are few distractions or reasons for concern in Indy this offseason. Was 2010's uncharacteristic slow start and unsatisfactory finish just a slight dip in production for one of football’s sturdiest franchises? Or was it the sign of a veteran team on the decline? If it's the latter, the Colts could be in bad shape for the next few years to come.
Jacksonville Jaguars: What’s to make of the new-look Jaguars defense in 2011?
Jaguars owner Wayne Weaver didn’t spare any expense in upgrading the Jags’ defense last week. After trading up for quarterback Blaine Gabbert in the first round of the draft, Jacksonville GM Gene Smith addressed his defense in a major way by signing veteran free agents Paul Posluszny, Clint Session, Dawan Landry, Jason Spitz, and Drew Coleman in a five-day span. With the Aaron Kampmann and second-year standout Tyson Alualu providing the pass rush, the Jags’ defense — though light on big names — could be pretty darn nasty in 2011.
Kansas City Chiefs: Were the 2010 Chiefs merely "One-year wonders"?
The prevailing thought around the league is that although the Chiefs won the AFC West last season, the San Diego Chargers are the real team to beat in the division this season. Some facts to support that notion: The 2010 Kansas City Chiefs went just 2-4 in the division and faced only one playoff team with a winning record. They were also smacked around in their playoff waxing at the hands of the visiting Ravens. In short, the “haters” abound. But the Chiefs are fine with that, and they actually might be even better than they were a season ago. A year older, a year wiser and with additions at wideout in Steve Breaston and rookie Jonathan Baldwin, the Chiefs’ offense could be explosive. The defense lost one veteran in Mike Vrabel, but picked up another with Kelly Gregg. And Eric Berry, Tamba Hali, Brandon Flowers and Derrick Johnson are all Pro Bowl-caliber players. Don’t be shocked if the Chiefs not only defend their division title in 2011, but do so with an exciting brand of football.
It sure looks like it, Dolphins fans. Unless, you’re more excited by Matt Moore and/or undrafted rookie free agent Pat Devlin, the often underwhelming Henne is what you’ve got to be jazzed about this season. To be certain, it’s been a rather disappointing offseason for Dolphins fans looking for massive changes. After a well-reported courtship of Jim Harbaugh by owner and fellow Michigan man Stephen Ross, Tony Sparano returns as the coach. And after rumors linking the Dolphins to everyone from Donovan McNabb to Kevin Kolb to Carson Palmer, Henne appears to be the No. 1 QB heading into opening weekend. The 2011 Dolphins roster appears to be set, and aside from Reggie Bush, there are few additions worth doing any cartwheels over. With the Jets, Patriots, and even the Bills re-loading their rosters last week, the Dolphins were awfully quiet. In Jeff Ireland We Trust? Eh, we’ll see.
Minnesota Vikings: Will Donovan McNabb be willing to serve as a mentor for rookie Christian Ponder?
When the Vikings used the 12th pick in the draft on quarterback Christian Ponder, the prevailing thought was that they’d also sign a veteran quarterback to groom the rookie in Year 1. If Marc Bulger or Matt Hasselbeck were the guy signed, there would have been a gradual handing over of the reins at some point in the 2011 season. Instead, McNabb’s the guy who’ll start under center for the Vikings on opening day. Will McNabb, a guy who believes he’s still a top quarterback in this league, be willing to spend the time to teach and mentor a young gunslinger waiting in the wings? McNabb did serve as a formidable mentor for Kolb in Philly, but there was no real question as to whom the starter should have been when they were both playing for Andy Reid. Will the veteran quarterback view Ponder as an imminent threat to his playing time or as a young apprentice he wants to groom?
New England Patriots: Are the Patriots shifting back to a 4-3 scheme?
The combination of the Albert Haynesworth signing and the release of longtime Patriots NT Ty Warren might have opened a window into the ever-changing, ever-evolving mind of Bill Belichick. With the Patriots’ pass rush all but nonexistent at times last season, it appears as though the New England defensive scheme could be shifting back to 4-3, the method employed in the height of the Pats’ success in the mid 2000’s. With everyone high on second-year end Jermaine Cunningham this summer, there’s more than just minor buzz around a defensive scheme change-up in New England right now. The Pats lined up in a straight 4-3 defense on only three of the 1,056 defensive snaps last season. Expect that number to be altered dramatically in 2011.
New Orleans Saints: Who’s going to get the carries in the Saints offense this year?
Everyone and their mother, apparently. All jokes aside, the Saints have a running back depth chart that is legitimately five quality guys deep, and all five players could see time handling the ball this season. Rookie running back Mark Ingram should see the rock plenty, but he’ll be sharing carries with Pierre Thomas, second-year man Chris Ivory, free-agent acquisition Darren Sproles, and former San Diego State star Lynell Hamilton. All five players are expected to make the opening day roster and contribute to Sean Payton’s offense. The crazy thing? The Saints insist they wanted to keep Reggie Bush and that it was his preference — not theirs — for him to leave New Orleans.
New York Giants: What’s the deal with the middle linebacker position in New York?
The Giants have had a gaping hole and an enormous question mark at linebacker for a few years, now. With a slew of big name free-agent MLBs hitting the open market last week, the Giants stayed quiet (again) and didn’t spend a wad of cash on a veteran playmaker at the position. Clint Sintim and Jonathan Goff — to the chagrin of many antsy Giants fans — appear to be the front runners to start on opening day. Ho hum.
New York Jets: Are Lynn Swann and Yancey Thigpen next?
If we’ve learned anything this off-season, it’s that the Jets sure love their old Steelers wide receivers. With the expected re-signing of Santonio Holmes on Wednesday and the somewhat unexpected signing of Plaxico Burress on Sunday, the Jets’ top two wideouts are former No. 1’s from Pittsburgh. Though there’s excitement in New York over the Holmes and Burress signings, dynamic kick returner/wide receiver/quarterback Brad Smith signed with Buffalo, solid cornerback Drew Coleman left for Jacksonville, and the Jets swung and missed in the Asomugha sweepstakes. Returning to the AFC championship game for a third straight year could be difficult, but then again, no one expected a repeat performance last season. New York might need one more weapon on offense.
My “official sleeper team of 2010” did me proud last season, going 6-0 in the AFC West and ridding a franchise of a decade's worth of shameful play. Though the Raiders ended up falling short of the playoffs, quarterback Jason Campbell came along towards the end of the season, his first in Oakland, and proved he’s the guy moving forward. There will be no quarterback controversies in camp, and Campbell — who famously had four different offensive coordinators at Auburn and four different offensive coordinators in six seasons in the NFL — says he’s more comfortable than ever heading into 2011. Al Saunders, his offensive coordinator for two seasons in Washington, joins the Oakland coaching staff and head coach Hue Jackson helped his game tremendously in 2010 when he was offensive coordinator. During the lockout, Campbell organized offseason workouts and had receivers Darrius Heyward-Bey, Louis Murphy and Jacoby Ford working with him by day, and sleeping on his couch by night. There’s something special going on in Oakland. Even without Asomugha in the lineup, there’s reason for optimism in Raider-land this season.
Philadelphia Eagles: Should we even have the 2011 NFL season or should we just hand the “Dream Team” the Lombardi Trophy in August?
Sorry, Philly, but Eagles fans already talking about a Super Bowl parade down Broad Street may need to curb their enthusiasm a bit. Yes, Asomugha, Jason Babin, Vince Young and the rest of Philly's big-name signings were solid acquisitions. And sure, the team looks great on paper. But injuries happen, players under-perform, and there are chemistry issues at every turn. Is this the 2000 New York Yankees all over again? Perhaps. It could just as easily be the 2010-11 Miami Heat.
Pittsburgh Steelers: What’s the status of the Steelers’ offensive line?
With Pittsburgh starting the 2011 free agency period roughly $10 million over the cap, some veterans simply had to go. Both Flozell Adams and Max Starks — starters from a year ago — were released last week, while guard Chris Kemoeatu is dealing with a knee injury. The Pittsburgh O-line found its groove over the course of the season last season, but it’s hardly one of the league’s best units. Without Starks and Adams, at least one of the starting tackle spots should be up for grabs this August.
San Diego Chargers: Will the Chargers’ D suffer a significant drop-off with the departure of Ron Rivera?
It’s amazing that the Chargers missed the playoffs when you consider they finished first in the NFL in both total offense and total defense last season. With a slew of veteran free agents and a longtime defensive coordinator leaving town for a head coaching gig, there was speculation that the Chargers’ D would be in big trouble come 2011. However, Greg Manusky comes over from San Francisco as the new defensive coordinator and brings with him a strong resume. More importantly, the Chargers were able to re-sign 2010 Pro Bowl safety Eric Weddle, ink deals with veterans Bob Sanders, Travis LaBoy and Takeo Spikes, and re-sign valued contributors Antwan Barnes and Jacques Cesaire. Add exciting rookies Corey Liuget, Marcus Gilchrist, and Jonas Mouton to the mix, and the 'Bolts' D should be in pretty darn good shape come Week 1.
San Francisco 49ers: The 49ers have been silent for a reason this offseason, right?
Niners GM Trent Baalke used the word “patient” to describe the all-but silent 49ers’ free agency activity last week, but fans were using some different adjectives on the San Francisco message boards. The 49ers front office resisted the fans’ pleas to spend big dollars on big-name free agents, keeping quiet instead. Alex Smith will be back, Nate Clements won’t, Frank Gore could hold out, and Michael Crabtree is hurt. Those have been your big 49ers headlines, folks. Then again, Jim Harbaugh’s never failed as a coach before. He must really like the tools he already has in the garage. I’d give him and Baalke the benefit of the doubt on this one.
Seattle Seahawks: Are we looking at the least-inspiring quarterback controversy ever?
Nope. And it’s not because both quarterbacks are actually more interesting than we think; they’re not. Rather, it’s because there is no quarterback controversy in Seattle. Pete Carroll’s already gone on the record: the job belongs to Tarvaris Jackson. Charlie Whitehurst will back him up. Cats have nine lives. It seems like Jackson might have more. We’ll have to wait and see if a change of scenery does the former Vikings second-round pick some good.
Bradford excelled as a rookie under Pat Shurmur’s scaled-down offense in 2010. McDaniels’ pass-heavy offensive attack is a bit more complex. With five months of off-season training crammed into just four weeks of August preparation, Bradford and the rest of his offensive teammates are going to need a crash course to get up to speed. On Tuesday, their first day together at the Rams’ facilities, Bradford and McDaniels spent five hours devouring film. McDaniels has spent much of his first week with the players introducing himself and his system to his skill players. Bradford, McDaniels, running back Steven Jackson, and newly signed wideout Mike Sims-Walker have all said the right things about each other. Now they need to put it all together on the field. Quickly.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Can the Buccaneers get over the hump and back into the playoffs in 2011?
Despite being the youngest team in the league, the “Baby Bucs” were just one win away from a wild card berth in the loaded NFC last season. This time, there’s more than just a little optimism surrounding the squad. But with optimism comes expectations. Can Josh Freeman take the leap and become the top-tier quarterback he played like at times in 2010? Can the defense deliver the same goods without MLB Barrett Ruud calling the shots? Are rookies Da’Quan Bowers, Mason Foster and Adrian Clayborn ready to contribute right away? If those answers are yes, yes, and yes . . . watch out.
Tennessee Titans: What can Titans fans expect in Year 1 of the post-Fisher era?
Jeff Fisher’s the only head coach the Tennessee Titans franchise and its fans have ever known and the timing of his resignation in February — right before the start of lockout — wasn’t ideal. Along with new head coach Mike Munchak comes two new quarterbacks in veteran Hasselbeck and rookie Jake Locker, a new MLB in free agent acquisition Ruud, and what should make for improved play from the already-strong Tennessee offensive line (Munchak’s specialty). No one’s expecting much from the Titans on the national stage, but they could be a sneaky sleeper pick this season if everyone’s on the same page. And that includes their running back Chris Johnson, one of the league’s top players and a current training camp holdout.
Washington Redskins: Has the “Andrew Luck Watch” already started in DC?
No. Not yet, at least. Though there’s been much made about some of the curious signings and player-personnel decisions by the Redskins this offseason, there’s a plan in place. John Beck and Rex Grossman will battle it out at quarterback, Tim Hightower joins the team at running back, Santana Moss and Stallworth will be the go-to guys at receiver, Stephen Bowen and Barry Cofield join the defensive line, and Chris Chester’s been added to the offensive line. That’s a lot of new faces. If they can all gel and work under Mike Shanahan’s system, the ‘Skins could be better than expected. If they flounder, “Luck Watch 2011” could be on by early October.
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