Even after the draft, free-agent signing period and an entire 10-week offseason program, every NFL team still has questions that must be answered during training camp. FOX Sports Senior NFL Writer Alex Marvez takes a look at one pressing issue for all 32 teams entering the preseason.
Buffalo: Can Bills avoid NFL's worst starting QB situation?
The scenario is all too familiar for a Rex Ryan-coached team. Everything is in place for the Bills to make a strong playoff push except the game’s most important position. The offseason struggles of Matt Cassel, Tyrod Taylor and EJ Manuel (3) is understandable considering the defensive talent and creativity Buffalo’s offense was facing during practice. But it would have been nice to see any member of the trio begin to separate themselves from the pack. Since that didn’t happen, expect an open competition at least early in training camp with Cassel and Taylor having the best odds to win the job.
Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images
Miami: Who will be the starting guards?
Dallas Thomas (pictured) and Billy Turner entered the offseason as the projected starters, but both are being pushed by free-agent journeyman Jeff Linkenbach and 2015 fourth-round pick Jamil Douglas of Arizona State. The Dolphins also are still in the mix to land standout Evan Mathis, who remains unsigned after being waived last month by Philadelphia.
Getty ImagesTom Szczerbowski
New England: How will the Pats split snaps between Tom Brady and Jimmy Garoppolo?
The question can’t truly be answered until NFL commissioner Roger Goodell announces his decision on Brady’s appeal later this month. Regardless, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick is expecting noticeable improvement in Garoppolo no matter how many preseason reps he receives with the starters. “It helps all rookies to get that first year under your belt,” Belichick told Patriots media during OTA practices. “That’s usually where you see the biggest jump generally in most players is from year one to year two. They understand the system. They’ve been through it [and] they’ve been through the league for a year. Hopefully, we’ll see that from our group.”
Jim Davis/The Boston Globe
New York Jets: Will quarterback Geno Smith justify New York’s decision to make him the unquestioned starter heading into training camp?
If his perfect quarterback rating in the 2014 season-finale against Miami is a sign that Smith has turned the corner entering his third NFL season, New York will be a legitimate playoff contender once again. A lack of offensive weapons won’t be an excuse either for what is a make-or-break season for Smith as New York’s starter. The Jets acquired wide receiver Brandon Marshall in a trade with Chicago, drafted Ohio State wideout Devin Smith in the second round and signed ex-New England running back Stevan Ridley in free agency.
Getty ImagesMike Ehrmann
Baltimore: How long will it take for Ravens to master Marc Trestman's offense?
Now playing under his fourth different coordinator in four seasons, quarterback Joe Flacco (5) is accustomed to change. The rest of his Ravens teammates must adjust again as well to what Chicago’s former head coach is installing. “Terminology-wise, it’s pretty darn similar,” Flacco recently told Ravens media. “We’ve tried to keep a lot of the formations the same so it’s not that tough on a lot of the guys that have been here for the last year. There are new concepts, and, obviously, he’s a new guy and Marty [Mornhinweg, quarterbacks coach] is a new guy so the way that they teach some of those things are different… It’s just a matter of what they’re saying versus how the guys last year might have been saying it.”
Cincinnati: How soon will weak-side linebacker Vontaze Burfict return to the field?
Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis was optimistic that his team’s leading tackler in 2012 and 2013 can recover from micro-fracture knee surgery that Burfict underwent in January. Lewis, though, hasn’t publically stated a timetable for Burfict’s return. While the worst-case scenario would be Burfict missing at least the first six weeks of the regular season on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list, the Bengals have protected themselves with quality depth. Vincent Rey, who had 121 tackles in 13 starts last season, free-agent signing A.J. Hawk (Green Bay) and 2015 third-round pick Paul Dawson are all viable options to start alongside middle linebacker Rey Maualuga and strong-side linebacker Emmanuel Lamur.
Getty ImagesJohn Grieshop
Cleveland: Can a speed option emerge out of the wide receiver corps?
The Browns lost their game-breaker when Josh Gordon (pictured) was suspended for the entire 2015 season after another violation of the league’s substance-abuse policy. The top three wideouts are free-agent signings Dwayne Bowe (Kansas City) and Brian Hartline (Miami) with Artrell Hawkins returning as the slot receiver. Travis Benjamin has wheels but also hasn’t caught more than 18 passes in any of his first three seasons with the Browns. Terrelle Pryor, who is converting from quarterback, has a legitimate shot at making the roster as a “slash” player based upon Cleveland's shaky receiver depth.
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Pittsburgh: How soon can 2015 first-round pick Bud Dupree help improve the pass rush?
Dupree told co-host Gil Brandt and me on SiriusXM NFL Radio that he has quickly learned the playbook elements installed during the offseason by new defensive coordinator Keith Butler. A 4-3 defensive end at Kentucky, Dupree hopes his transition is accelerated by working exclusively at left outside linebacker. “I started off trying to learn both sides, but I’m going to stick on the left side trying to win my way in,” Dupree said. “You tend to focus on one thing, there’s no telling how far my ceiling is right now.” Dupree, James Harrison, Arthur Moats and 2013 first-round pick Jarvis Jones are competing for Pittsburgh’s two starting outside linebacker spots as the Steelers try to better last season’s 33-sack total, which was the franchise’s lowest production since 1988.
Denver: Is rookie left tackle Ty Sambrailo ready for the big time?
The Broncos hope so with starter Ryan Clady out for the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament suffered in an offseason practice. Sambralio, a second-round pick from Colorado State, was quickly inserted in Clady's place following the injury and handled himself well in non-contact practice. An offensive line already being overhauled in Gary Kubiak’s first season as head coach would receive a boost if Sambrailo can provide stability in shielding quarterback Peyton Manning's blindside.
Denver Post via Getty ImagesJohn Leyba
Kansas City: How will the offensive line shape up?
The Chiefs appear set at left tackle (Eric Fisher), right tackle (Donald Stephenson) and left guard after acquiring Ben Grubbs in a trade with New Orleans. That leaves a healthy competition at center and right guard. Eric Kush, a 2013 sixth-round pick, is the frontrunner to replace the departed Rodney Hudson (Oakland) at center. Jeff Allen, Zach Fulton and Paul Fanaika (pictured) are top options to start at right guard but don’t sleep on promising 2015 second-round choice Mitch Morse, who has received snaps at that spot and center during offseason practices. However it shakes out, this is a much deeper and more talented unit than the one Kansas City fielded in 2014.
Brad Rempel-USA TODAY SportsBrad Rempel
Oakland: Can D.J. Hayden become a true No. 1 cornerback?
The Raiders aren’t waiting any more for Hayden to justify his 2013 first-round draft status. The oft-injured Hayden will be battling Keith McGill for one of the starting spots opposite T.J. Carrie. Whoever emerges from that battle, Oakland will need all three cornerbacks to stay healthy with the Raiders having suspect depth in their secondary.
Getty ImagesThearon W. Henderson
San Diego: Can outside linebackers Melvin Ingram and Jerry Attaochu spearhead an improved pass rush?
The Chargers have declined in sacks for three straight seasons and finished last year with just 26, which ranked 29th among all NFL teams. San Diego also hasn’t had a defender hit double-digits since linebacker Antwan Barnes in 2011. The Chargers showed confidence that Ingram and Attaochu can get the job done by not making any offseason acquisitions at outside linebacker and waiting until the fifth round to draft one (North Dakota State’s Kyle Emanuel). Ingram has dropped 20 pounds this offseason to 246 hoping for extra burst and to avoid injuries that have plagued his NFL career. Attaochu told Chargers media he feels far more comfortable after a rookie season in which he logged only 10 tackles in 11 games.
Getty ImagesOtto Greule Jr
Indianapolis: How will the Colts improve in stopping the run?
The first-string line should be better this year with the offseason signing of Kendall Langford from St. Louis to start at end opposite a now-healthy Arthur Jones (ankle). The Colts, though, could use some backups to step up as part of a rotation designed to keep the starters fresh. Ideally, 2015 third-round pick Henry Anderson from Stanford is ready for immediate action to complement fellow end Montori Hughes (pictured) and nose tackle Zach Kerr coming off the sideline. Outside linebacker Trent Cole also has the ability to play on the line in passing situations.
Denver Post via Getty ImagesBrent Lewis
Houston: Who emerges at WR following Andre Johnson’s release?
Since his arrival in 2003, no other wideout had led the Texans in receiving until last season when DeAndre Hopkins (10) surpassed Johnson. While that torch was passed, Houston needs some complementary targets to emerge and take some of the heat off Hopkins. Cecil Shorts is the frontrunner to start opposite Hopkins provided he can stay healthy, which is an issue that marred his time in Jacksonville. Another free-agent newcomer, 11-year veteran Nate Washington, and the returning Keshawn Martin will try to hold off Arizona State rookie Jaelen Strong as Houston’s No. 3 receiver. More support from a tight end group that produced only 32 catches all of last season also would help the winner of the Brian Hoyer-Ryan Mallett quarterback duel.
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY SportsTroy Taormina
Jacksonville: How will the running game come together?
The Jaguars have averaged only 88.8 rushing yards a game over the past three seasons. Better production would greatly help take some of the pressure off quarterback Blake Bortles in his second NFL season. Jacksonville selected Alabama running back T.J. Yeldon (pictured) in the second round to pair with Denard Robinson, the converted Michigan quarterback who had an impressive three-game stretch midway through his rookie season. Two free-agent signings, right tackle Jermey Parnell (Dallas) and center Stefen Wisniewski (Oakland), will add veteran experience to a young offensive line. The hiring of Doug Marrone to handle that unit might be the most valuable offseason acquisition of them all. Before becoming Buffalo’s head coach, Marrone was one of the NFL’s top o-line gurus with New Orleans.
Getty ImagesDon Juan Moore
Tennessee: How much time will it take for a revamped secondary to jell?
Tennessee’s opponents gained a first down on 38.7 percent of their pass completions last year, which was the NFL’s fourth-worst rating. The Titans have since inked cornerback Perrish Cox (San Francisco, pictured) and strong safety Da’Norris Searcy (Buffalo) in free agency to pair with CB Jason McCourty and free safety Michael Griffin. Veteran depth at cornerback is a worry after Brandon Harris tore his ACL during an offseason practice but the Titans will have an excellent chance of bolstering the position through the waiver wire. Because of last season’s 2-14 finish, the Titans are No. 2 in the pecking order behind Tampa Bay through early in the regular season.
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY SportsKirby Lee
Arizona: Is there any rookie who can make a splash like WR John Brown did in 2014?
Keep an eye on Northern Iowa running back David Johnson, who was a third-round pick. With 35-year-old quarterback Carson Palmer (pictured) coming off his second reconstructive knee surgery, the Cardinals appear focused on improving their running game after averaging an NFL-low 3.3 yards per carry in 2014. Andre Ellington (foot) will reassume his starting spot when healthy, but Johnson has a golden chance for snaps with the backup role up for grabs.
APRoss D. Franklin
St. Louis: When will rookie RB Todd Gurley debut on the practice field?
The Rams will know more after Gurley has his surgically repaired knee re-checked later this month by specialist Dr. James Andrews. As the team’s first-round pick continues to rehab, St. Louis is trying to ready an offensive line that could have rookie at right guard (Jamon Brown) and right tackle (Rob Havenstein) as well as a new center (Barrett Jones) who has yet to start in his first two NFL seasons.
San Francisco: How will the 49ers replace a bevy of departed starters on defense?
Even with greats like linebacker Patrick Willis and end Justin Smith retiring as well as four veterans leaving via free agency, San Francisco has some promising replacements waiting in the wings for new defensive coordinator Eric Mangini (pictured) to build with. It’s the unproven depth behind those new starters that’s a bigger concern. The 49ers spent their first three draft picks on defensive players in Oregon end Arik Armstead, Samford safety Jaquiski Tartt and Virginia outside linebacker Eli Harold. Any immediate contributions the trio could provide would help accelerate San Francisco’s transition to the post-Jim Harbaugh era.
Getty ImagesMichael Zagaris
Seattle: Who will be snapping the football to Russell Wilson?
Acquiring tight end Jimmy Graham from New Orleans cost the Seahawks a 2015 first-round draft pick and center Max Unger, a two-time Pro Bowl selection during his six seasons in Seattle. The Seattle Times reported that the Seahawks worked five potential replacements at center during offseason work led by Lemuel Jeanpierre, a spot starter during his first four NFL seasons. Seattle also will have a new starting left guard in Alvin Bailey with James Carpenter having split in free agency for the New York Jets. Both positions will be under heavy fire right off the bat with Seattle opening its season in St. Louis against the Rams’ ferocious defensive front.
Getty ImagesBrian Bahr
Atlanta: How quickly will the Falcons adjust to the defensive scheme being installed by new head coach Dan Quinn?
The Falcons have radically overhauled a unit that posted the NFL’s lowest sack total over the past two seasons. Atlanta switched the positions of two defensive backs drafted in 2014 (cornerback Dezmen Southward and safety Ricardo Allen), used its first two draft choices this year on defensive players (Clemson end Vic Beasley and Louisiana State cornerback Jalen Collins), and added four notable free agents to the front seven in defensive end Adrian Clayborn and linebackers Brooks Reed, Justin Durant and O’Brien Schofield. Beasley told co-host Gil Brandt and me on SiriusXM NFL Radio that he was surprised by the quantity of hands-on involvement Quinn had with the defense during offseason practices. Quinn’s heavy involvement should help accelerate the unit’s learning curve.
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY SportsDale Zanine
Carolina: Is wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin headed toward a sophomore slump?
General manager Dave Gettleman recently told Panthers media that Benjamin arriving for offseason workouts overweight was “much ado about nothing.” We’ll see. Gettleman said Benjamin was only five pounds off his playing weight, which is listed at 240. A source, though, told FOX Sports that Benjamin was significantly heavier earlier in the spring. This extra baggage may have led to the hamstring problems that kept him sidelined for much of the offseason program. There were already maturity questions surrounding Benjamin entering the 2014 draft. The Panthers have to hope Benjamin hasn’t become complacent after a strong 73-catch, 1,008-yard rookie debut.
New Orleans: Who will win the kicking competition?
With the NFL moving extra points back to the 33-yard line, having a steady specialist is more important than ever. After releasing journeyman Shayne Graham during the offseason, the Saints have Dustin Hopkins and Zach Hocker (pictured) set to battle for the job. Both were drafted by other teams and later released without ever having attempted a regular-season field goal. Whoever wins the gig will be the ninth different kicker New Orleans has fielded since Sean Payton became head coach in 2006.
Getty ImagesCliff McBride
Tampa Bay: How long will it take for the Buccaneers to name Jameis Winston their starting QB?
Head coach Lovie Smith recently acknowledged to FOX Sports that “everybody knows eventually what’s going to happen” at QB. But unlike in Tennessee where head coach Ken Whisenhunt immediately tabbed 2015 first-round pick Marcus Mariota as his starter post-draft, Smith seems ready to let Winston and third-year veteran Mike Glennon duel for at least the early part of the preseason. Bucs offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter told FOX Sports that he believes the offseason competition has helped accelerate Winston’s development. “Mike has been through three offenses in three years,” Koetter said. “Jameis will tell you he watches Mike and learns from Mike.”
Don Juan Moore
Dallas: Who will win the starting running back job?
Unless there is a late push by oft-injured veteran pickup Darren McFadden, the position previously held by departed NFL rushing leader DeMarco Murray is Joseph Randle’s to lose. Randle (20) averaged 6.7 yards on his 51 carries last season as a backup, but whether he can continue producing at such a high level with more rushes over the course of a season is unknown. So is how Randle will handle the pressure of replacing Murray now that he will be squarely in the spotlight. Randle’s maturity — or lack thereof — is a concern after two off-field incidents in the past year and documented comments that reflect poor self-awareness. The Cowboys are set to use a running back-by-committee approach if necessary.
New York Giants: Who will win the starting linebacker spots?
The Giants haven’t had strong linebacker play since Antonio Pierce manned the “Mike” spot in the 2000s. This could change in 2015 under returning coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, who was with New York during that era. The Giants signed veteran free agents in Jonathan Casillas (New England) and J.T. Thomas (Jacksonville) while also keeping Jon Beason (52) in the fold with a restructured contract. Promising second-year strong-side linebacker Devon Kennard and the versatile Jameel McClain are viable contenders to start as well. A strong effort by this group against the run and pass would take some of the heat off an inexperienced collection of safeties.
Getty ImagesMike Stobe
Philadelphia: Tim Tebow
Ok, it’s not a question but you get the point. No third-string quarterback battle in NFL history will get more media attention than Tim Tebow trying to re-launch his pro career two years removed from being cut in the 2013 preseason by New England. However, this is more than just Tebow’s likely last gasp if he can’t best Matt Barkley for the job. Should he make the roster, innovative Eagles head coach Chip Kelly could find a way for Tebow to receive snaps as a multipurpose scoring threat on two-point conversion attempts now that extra points are no longer a sure thing following an NFL rule change pushing the kicks back to the 33-yard line.
Mitchell Leff/Getty Images
Washington: How much more comfortable does QB RG3 look in his second season under head coach Jon Gruden?
Griffin’s fall from grace continued last season when he was briefly benched for ineffective play and awful technique. Griffin showed enough improvement when returning to the starting lineup for another shot in 2015 but has miles to go before regaining the franchise quarterback status he once held in Washington. Although he didn’t help matters last season with his pointed public critiques of Griffin last season, Gruden praised his work during last month’s minicamp. “I don’t think anybody lacks confidence with him as a quarterback,” Gruden told Redskins media. “I think the transition for him into a new system last season was a little bit rocky for all of us. But when you have the same system going in for Year Two, I think he’s going to get better.” For the sake of his own employment, Gruden had better be right.
The Washington Post/Getty Images
Chicago: How quickly can rookies begin making an impact?
The Bears currently have 14 players over the age of 30 on their roster after opening last season with an NFL-high total of 16. The transition to get younger under first-year general manager Ryan Pace begins with the six-man 2015 draft class. Wide receiver Kevin White (pictured) has the best chance to start, but the No. 7 overall selection must make the transition from playing in a no-huddle spread system at West Virginia to coordinator Adam Gase’s pro-style offense. Running back Jeremy Langford, a fourth-round pick out of Michigan State, also could be poised for significant snaps as Matt Forte’s backup.
David Banks-USA TODAY SportsDavid Banks
Detroit: Are the youngsters along the offensive line ready to become men?
The Lions appear set to field what may very well be the NFL’s youngest o-line. None of the projected five starters — left tackle Riley Reiff, left guard Laken Tomlinson, center Travis Swanson, right guard Larry Warford and right tackle LaAdrian Waddle (pictured) — are over the age of 26. Along with protecting quarterback Matthew Stafford, the Lions must field a better running game after averaging an anemic 88.9 yards a game in 2014.
Tim Fuller-USA TODAY SportsTim Fuller
Green Bay: How will the Packers handle changes to their secondary?
The preseason provides a great opportunity for adjusting to the free agent departures of cornerbacks Tramon Williams (Chicago) and Davon House (Jacksonville). After adroitly manning the slot cornerback slot in 2014, Casey Hayward is shifting outside to replace Williams. Micah Hyde is set to play the slot as ball-hawking second-round pick Quinten Rollins (pictured) fights for action as Green Bay’s fourth cornerback. The Packers also may play first-round pick Damarious Randall at CB even though he was drafted as a safety out of Arizona State.
Mike Roemer/Associated PressMike Roemer
Minnesota: Can left tackle Matt Kalil get his mojo back?
After showing all the earmarks of being a future shutdown left tackle as a rookie in 2012, Kalil (75) failed to develop the past two seasons as injuries mounted and his confidence was shaken. The Vikings are banking on a healthier Kalil rebounding but are prepared to move on if he isn’t. One potential option is rookie T.J. Clemmings, a fourth-round pick who has gotten practice snaps at right guard but has the physical skill, reach and frame (6-foot-5 and 309 pounds) to excel at left tackle.