You want answers? With NFL camps opening, there are only 32 questions
No NFL team – not even the defending Super Bowl champion – enters training camp with everything figured out. For the next five weeks, clubs will try to find solutions for the holes they couldn’t address in the offseason. They will hope injuries don’t befall star players or decimate the roster. And they will use preseason games as dress rehearsals for what’s to come. Here is a look at the biggest question facing each NFL team as training camps get into full swing. -- Alex Marvez
Robert Deutsch-USA TODAYRobert Deutsch
Buffalo: Is this the year the Bills end the NFL’s longest playoff drought?
Bills head coach Doug Marrone and GM Doug Whaley had better hope Buffalo qualifies for the first time since the 1999 season. Otherwise, both could be seeking new employment with team ownership changing hands following the death of Ralph Wilson. At least Marrone and Whaley will go down swinging after making the bold draft-day trade with Cleveland to land Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins at the expense of Buffalo’s 2015 first-round pick. Watkins has wowed early in training camp, but quarterback E.J. Manuel must prove he can feed him the football consistently while making major strides in his second NFL season. A defense that had AFC highs in sacks and interceptions in 2013 also must show it can continue to wreak havoc under new coordinator Jim Schwartz.
Getty ImagesBrett Carlsen
Miami: Can Ryan Tannehill finally end the Marino Curse?
The Dolphins have fielded 17 different starting quarterbacks since Dan Marino was pushed toward retirement 14 years ago following a vote of no-confidence by incoming head coach Dave Wannstedt. The number may be rising to 18 if Tannehill doesn’t show significant development in his third NFL season or the Dolphins can’t do a better job protecting him after allowing a league-high 58 sacks in 2013. Miami has a new offensive coordinator (Bill Lazor), a new veteran running back (Knowshon Moreno) and four new starting offensive linemen led by ex-Kansas City left tackle Branden Albert. Those changes mean Tannehill and embattled head coach Joe Philbin have no excuses if the Dolphins don’t improve on their No. 27 offensive ranking from the past two seasons.
Getty ImagesJoel Auerbach
New England: Is cornerback Darrelle Revis the missing piece to give Bill Belichick and Tom Brady their fourth Lombardi Trophy together?
No individual player should bear that type of pressure, but Revis does move New England closer to winning its first Super Bowl since the 2004 season. He has the kind of suffocating coverage skills to eliminate a team’s best pass catcher without safety help. That will give Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia the opportunity to take more chances schematically, especially in the pass rush. Tight end Rob Gronkowski also will provide a major boost offensively if he’s able to stay healthy after injuries derailed his past two seasons and left Brady without his favorite target.
Stew Milne-USA TODAY SportsStew Milne
New York Jets: Can the offense finally start pulling its weight?
After he served as a Baltimore Ravens defensive assistant from 1999 to 2008, the disparity between New York’s offensive and defensive units since Rex Ryan became head coach in 2009 should come as no surprise. The Jets have ranked among the NFL’s bottom four teams in scoring the past two seasons. This placed too much stress on a defense that has gradually slipped in quality since leading the league in fewest points and yards allowed in Ryan’s debut season. Three things the 2014 Jets are hoping for: 1) Quarterback Geno Smith slashes the 25 turnovers he committed as a rookie; 2) Ex-Titans running back Chris Johnson proves he isn’t in decline; 3) Eric Decker emerges as a legitimate No. 1 receiver after serving as a complementary target in Denver.
New York Jets/Getty ImagesAl Pereira
Baltimore: Will the real Joe Flacco please stand up?
No quarterback has ever enjoyed a greater postseason than Flacco when leading Baltimore’s run to winning Super Bowl XLVII. That’s what made his regression in 2013 so disappointing, particularly with Flacco tying for second in the NFL in interceptions with 22. In his defense, Flacco was pressing while trying to carry an offense that struggled to protect him (48 sacks allowed) and lacked receiving options. The Ravens are now set to field a much better offensive line, new coordinator Gary Kubiak has an outstanding track record and Flacco will have better targets with a healthy Dennis Pitta and the free-agent addition of wide receiver Steve Smith. If all these pieces come together, Flacco should be a bona fide contender for NFL Comeback Player of the Year.
Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY SportsEvan Habeeb
Cincinnati: Can the Bengals finally win a playoff game after three straight seasons of postseason disappointment?
Whoa! First things first: Can the Bengals even qualify for an unprecedented fourth consecutive postseason in what should be a rough-and-tumble division? It won’t be easy, but the pieces are in place. Quarterback Andy Dalton is surrounded by the best skill-position players of his four-year NFL career. There’s plenty of talent on defense as well, led by linebacker Vontaze Burfict. The Bengals, though, have to hope new coordinators Hue Jackson (offense) and Paul Guenther (defense) fare as well as predecessors Jay Gruden and Mike Zimmer, who landed head coaching jobs in Washington and Minnesota. The Bengals also need a return to health of 13 players who opened training camp on the PUP list, most notably defensive tackle Geno Atkins and cornerback Leon Hall.
Getty ImagesJoe Robbins
Cleveland: How soon until Johnny Manziel becomes the starting quarterback?
Patience isn’t easy for Browns fans to come by after 20 years without a playoff victory. But there is already heavy pressure for Cleveland’s new coaching staff to put Johnny Football on the field ahead of Brian Hoyer. On the positive side, offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan structured a system in Washington that helped Robert Griffin III enjoy immediate rookie success. Manziel, though, isn’t as dangerous a runner, and his smallish frame could make him even more susceptible to the kind of physical abuse Grifffin suffered in 2012. The pending season-long absence of Josh Gordon (drug suspension) also leaves Cleveland with limited receiving targets. Manziel or Hoyer will receive a boost if newcomers Ben Tate and rookie Terrance West improve the NFL’s 27th-ranked rushing attack.
Diamond Images/Getty ImagesDiamond Images
Pittsburgh: Can holes in the Steel Curtain defense get patched?
Pittsburgh’s traditional strength was anything but in 2013. The Steelers surrendered 370 points -- the franchise’s highest total in 26 seasons -- and their No. 13 ranking in yards allowed was their lowest NFL standing since 2003. To reverse this trend, ties were cut with long-time Steelers like defensive end Brett Keisel, outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley and safety Ryan Clark. Pittsburgh then uncharacteristically dipped into free agency to add a high-priced safety (Mike Mitchell) and a nose tackle (Cam Thomas). The team retained outside linebacker Jason Worilds with a transition tag and spent a first-round pick on inside linebacker Ryan Shazier, who became an instant starter. Esteemed coordinator Dick LeBeau has plenty of pieces to work with in forging a turnaround.
Getty ImagesWesley Hitt
Houston: What should we expect in Bill O’Brien’s first season as head coach?
O’Brien worked miracles in 2012 when leading a scandal-ridden Penn State squad to an 8-4 record. His task in Houston isn’t as daunting, but this is still a flawed team that went from AFC South champion to posting the NFL’s worst record in just one season. The biggest problem comes under center, where Houston has the league’s most unimpressive starter-backup combination in Ryan Fitzpatrick and rookie Tom Savage. The offensive line outside of left tackle Duane Brown and center Chris Myers is no great shakes, either. At least the Texans have the makings of a sound defense led by all-world end J.J. Watt and No. 1 overall pick Jadeveon Clowney.
Getty ImagesBob Levey
Indianapolis: Are the Colts rugged enough to reach the Super Bowl?
Two consecutive playoff appearances after finishing with the NFL’s worst record in 2011 shouldn’t be discounted. But the Colts fell short in both of those years largely because of subpar play along the offensive line and run-stopping troubles in the defensive front seven. Indianapolis believes it has adequately addressed both areas in the offseason. Inside linebacker D’Qwell Jackson (Cleveland) and end Arthur Jones (Baltimore) were signed as free agents to improve the NFL’s 26th-ranked run defense. The interior offensive line was revamped with new starters at center (Khaled Holmes) and left guard (rookie Jack Mewhort) as well as the return of right guard Donald Thomas from a quadriceps injury. Indianapolis, though, needs running back Trent Richardson to justify trading a first-round pick to Cleveland for his services.
Jacksonville: Are the Jaguars primed to become the NFL’s most improved team?
Let’s not go that far, but Jacksonville definitely won’t be the laughingstock it was during last season’s 0-8 start. The Jaguars dipped into free agency to strengthen a roster largely devoid of talent from poor decisions made by the previous front-office regime. Jacksonville’s top three draft picks from last season -- left tackle Luke Joeckel, safety Johnathan Cyprien and cornerback Dwayne Gratz – are also expected to continue developing into quality players. But even in a weak division, there are still too many questions to consider the Jags a playoff contender. Jacksonville lacks a top-notch pass rusher, the wide receiving corps outside of Cecil Shorts is unproven, and quarterback Chad Henne has an 18-32 career record as a starter.
Phil Sears-USA TODAY SportsPhil Sears
Tennessee: What type of impact will be made by new coach Ken Whisenhunt?
For the first time in two decades, the Titans won’t have Jeff Fisher or one of his protégés (Mike Munchak) running the show. Tennessee has gotten off to a fresh start with Whisenhunt, although the roster is still comprised largely of players acquired in the Fisher/Munchak era. That includes quarterback Jake Locker, who is trying to avoid the injuries that ruined the past two seasons and cast his future as Tennessee’s long-term starter into doubt. The defense also is beginning a major transition to the hybrid 4-3/3-4 scheme being installed by new coordinator Ray Horton. Though the Titans probably aren’t playoff-bound, keep an eye on running back Bishop Sankey as an NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year contender.
Getty ImagesFrederick Breedon
Denver: Are the Broncos good enough to repeat as the AFC’s Super Bowl representative?
Yes, provided quarterback Peyton Manning makes it through his third consecutive season healthy at age 38. What was the most prolific offense in NFL history during the 2013 regular season shows no signs of slowing down as long as the offensive line’s dismal showing in a Super Bowl 48 loss to Seattle isn’t a harbinger of things to come. The defense should be greatly improved with five starters returning from injured reserve and the free-agent additions of end DeMarcus Ware, strong safety T.J. Ward and cornerback Aqib Talib. The Broncos, though, may not be able to claim the AFC’s No. 1 playoff seed for the third straight year with the NFL’s second-hardest strength of schedule. This year’s opponents had a .570 combined winning percentage in 2013.
Getty ImagesAl Pereira
Kansas City: How much will offseason player departures hurt the Chiefs?
After a nine-game turnaround from a 2-14 record in 2012, Kansas City appears ready to come floating back to earth. The Chiefs lost six front-line players to other teams and didn’t have the salary cap room to add as many free agents as in the previous offseason. There also are no guarantees that youngsters being pushed into important roles -- second-year left tackle Eric Fisher, rookie outside linebacker Dee Ford and rookie running back/wide receiver De’Anthony Thomas -- will immediately excel. On the bright side, the Chiefs have a strong one-two punch at running back with Jamaal Charles and Knile Davis and a sound defense led by outside linebacker Justin Houston (11 sacks in 2013).
Getty ImagesPeter G. Aiken
Oakland: Can the Raiders win enough games to satisfy team owner Mark Davis?
Oakland acquired enough veterans for a quick turnaround, but GM Reggie McKenzie is gambling on how much those graybeards have left in the tank. The Raiders have the NFL’s toughest strength of schedule based on last year’s results with opponents notching a .578 winning percentage. A slow start is possible as well. Two of the first three games are in the Eastern time zone, where the Raiders have lost 13 straight, and that’s followed by a “home” contest against Miami in London. Davis has already insinuated that a third straight 4-12 record won’t be good enough for head coach Dennis Allen and potentially McKenzie. How much better the Raiders must be is anyone’s guess.
Getty ImagesRob Carr
San Diego: Can the Chargers push Denver for AFC West supremacy?
You bet. No team in the division played the Broncos harder last season than San Diego. The Chargers were particularly adept at controlling the clock to keep Peyton Manning and Co. off the field. Though the Broncos should be better heeled defensively to stop that ball-control approach this season, San Diego could field a more potent passing offense if wide receiver Malcom Floyd returns to health and tight end Ladarius Green becomes as much of a difference-maker as expected. The defense also should receive a boost from the return of pass rusher Dwight Freeney (quadriceps) and additions of two cornerbacks in Brandon Flowers and rookie Jason Verrett. As with other AFC West teams, the Chargers must survive a non-division schedule that includes matchups against the entire NFC West.
Getty ImagesHarry How
Dallas: Will the Cowboys stop being a perennial .500 team?
Yes, but not in a good way. The Cowboys – who finished 8-8 the past three years and have a 136-136 regular-season record dating back to 2007 – look like a team trending downward. Defense, or lack thereof, is the biggest problem. The NFL’s 32nd-ranked unit in 2013 lost its best player when middle linebacker Sean Lee suffered a season-ending knee injury during a May practice. Earlier in the offseason, top pass rusher DeMarcus Ware was released because of salary cap problems and fellow defensive lineman Jason Hatcher left to Washington as a free agent. The depth at linebacker and safety is troublesome, too. Though the Cowboys have a potent offense, scoring enough points to consistently compensate for the defense may prove too much to ask.
Getty ImagesJeff Gross
New York Giants: Will a change in offensive coordinators help fix quarterback Eli Manning?
The decision to replace highly respected assistant Kevin Gilbride with first-time coordinator Ben McAdoo wasn’t made lightly. But it was clear something needed to change after Manning threw a career-high 27 interceptions in 2013. Manning will be expected to get rid of the football more quickly on shorter routes in McAdoo’s West Coast-style system, which also will take some of the strain off a suspect offensive line. The Giants hope 2014 first-round pick Odell Beckham Jr. can begin to contribute immediately as a big-play threat with wide receiver Hakeem Nicks now playing in Indianapolis. The entire offense will get a boost if the running game can improve New York’s lowest per-game average (83.2 yards) since the 1945 season.
Getty ImagesMike Stobe
Philadelphia: How will the Eagles compensate for the decision to cut star wide receiver DeSean Jackson?
It will be a collective task to replace a target as dangerous as Jackson, whose inability to click with head coach Chip Kelly led to his surprising release. Jeremy Maclin, who is coming off reconstructive knee surgery, will replace Jackson in the starting lineup opposite Riley Cooper. The Eagles drafted two wide receivers (Jordan Matthews and Josh Huff) who could become immediate contributors. Second-year tight end Zach Ertz is expected to play a larger role in the offense. Plus, the Eagles traded for one of the NFL’s most dangerous threats out of the backfield in Darren Sproles. If none of this works, Kelly will receive a painful reminder of his mistake when facing Jackson and his new team -- the Washington Redskins – twice in 2014.
Getty ImagesDrew Hallowell
Washington: Will quarterback Robert Griffin III get back on track in his third NFL season?
If he doesn’t, it won’t be due to negligence on the part of Washington’s front office. Jay Gruden was hired as head coach after coordinating a 2013 Cincinnati Bengals offense that posted the franchise’s highest points total (430) in a quarter-century. The Redskins have arguably the NFL’s best trio of receivers after GM Bruce Allen signed free agents DeSean Jackson and Andre Roberts to pair with Pierre Garcon, who is coming off a club-record 107-catch season. And two third-round draft picks were used to upgrade the troublesome right side of the offensive line. These moves have set the table for Griffin to rebound from a disastrous 2013 campaign now that he is truly recovered from a serious knee injury suffered the previous season.
Getty ImagesG Fiume
Chicago: Can the Bears win a Super Bowl with Jay Cutler at quarterback?
The Bears are banking on it after giving Cutler a seven-year, $126.7 million contract extension in January. Based on the team’s situation behind him, GM Phil Emery also is taking a major risk that Cutler can stay healthy. The Bears enter training camp with the shakiest backup situation after Josh McCown left in free agency for Tampa Bay. Jordan Palmer, a journeyman who hasn’t attempted a pass in an NFL game since 2010, is the frontrunner for the No. 2 job with Carolina Panthers washout Jimmy Clausen and rookie David Fales competing for a roster spot. The good news for Chicago: This won’t be an issue if Cutler can complete an entire 16-game season for the first time since 2009.
David Banks-USA TODAY SportsDavid Banks
Detroit: Is new coach Jim Caldwell the answer to Detroit’s problems?
Talent isn’t the issue in Detroit. Undisciplined play and questionable coaching decisions helped doom the Lions in 2013 and cost Jim Schwartz his job. Caldwell has coached a team to the Super Bowl before. And while he no longer has Peyton Manning at quarterback as he did in Indianapolis, Matt Stafford possesses enough physical skill to win a championship. It now falls upon Caldwell and his staff to correct the flaws and questionable decision-making that have retarded Stafford’s development the past two seasons. Stafford should benefit from the offseason additions of veteran wide receiver Golden Tate (Seattle) and rookie tight end Eric Ebron to complement Calvin Johnson in the passing game.
Matt Marton-USA TODAY SportsMatt Marton
Green Bay: Will the Packers defense regain its Super Bowl form of the 2010 season?
GM Ted Thompson invested ample offseason resources toward making this happen. The big free-agent signing was defensive end Julius Peppers, with Thompson hoping he can rebound at age 34 from a down season in Chicago. A return to health of outside linebackers Clay Matthews and Nick Perry would also significantly boost the pass rush. The secondary wasn’t ignored either, with Thompson signing cornerback Sam Shields to a whopping four-year, $39 million contract extension and drafting Alabama safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix in the first round. More good news for the defense: Aaron Rodgers and Co. are primed to light up the scoreboard once again.
Benny Sieu-USA TODAY SportsBenny Sieu
Minnesota: Can the Vikings coax Brett Favre out of retirement?
Probably not – never say never with Brett – which means Minnesota enters a fourth straight season with giant issues at quarterback. New head coach Mike Zimmer is opening training camp with a three-man competition between Matt Cassel, Christian Ponder and rookie Teddy Bridgewater. Cassel is the favorite to win the job, but Bridgewater, a rookie first-round pick, will get the nod when proving he’s NFL-ready. However the battle plays out, Minnesota needs running back Adrian Peterson to carry the offensive load once again unless whomever is under center can take advantage of some quality receiving targets in Greg Jennings, Kyle Rudolph and Cordarrelle Patterson.
Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY SportsBruce Kluckhohn
Atlanta: How different will the defense look?
New Orleans coach Sean Payton has admitted he doesn’t like facing 3-4 defenses, which could help the Falcons enjoy better success against their division rival as coordinator Mike Nolan moves away from his previous 4-3 scheme. Atlanta focused this offseason on beefing up its defensive front with two veteran free-agent signings -- Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson -- and the second-round selection of 310-pound University of Minnesota end Ra’Shede Hageman. The big concern remains the lack of a marquee pass rusher, especially with the Falcons generating only 32 sacks in 2013. The season-ending Achilles’ injury suffered by inside linebacker Sean Weatherspoon during a June workout hurts as well.
Getty ImagesScott Cunningham
Carolina: How will the Panthers replace Steve Smith and Jordan Gross?
Rather than address left tackle through the draft or free agency following Jordan Gross’ retirement, the Panthers are shifting Byron Bell from right tackle in hopes he can adequately protect quarterback Cam Newton’s blind side. Who will be Newton’s top target at wide receiver following Smith’s release is far more nebulous. The leading candidates in a nondescript unit are 11-year veteran Jerricho Cotchery and 2014 first-round pick Kelvin Benjamin. Newton may be forced to rely more on tight end Greg Olsen and his deep stable of running backs in a passing attack that finished 29th in the NFL last season even with Smith in the fold.
Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY SportsJeremy Brevard
New Orleans: How can the Saints play better away from home?
This is the question coach Sean Payton must answer for New Orleans to have the chance of claiming home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. The 2013 Saints reclaimed the Louisiana Superdome last season with an 8-0 record but were 3-5 on the road, costing New Orleans a first-round playoff bye. Tight end Benjamin Watson recently told me improvement can come from better concentration and attention to detail in hostile environments. If the Saints do that, the talent is there for a Super Bowl run.
Getty ImagesStacy Revere
Tampa Bay: What will new coordinator Jeff Tedford’s offense look like?
Tedford has done his best to keep a lid on what kind of system he is installing, and that will be one of the more intriguing story lines when Tampa Bay hosts Carolina in the regular-season opener. There is a train of thought that Tedford intends to field an up-tempo attack, but that wasn’t what he was known for while head coach at the University of California. In fact, the Golden Bears ran the football more than most college programs. That means a big year could be in store for running back Doug Martin, who is returning from a season-ending shoulder injury. One thing we do know: Josh McCown will open training camp as the new starting quarterback with Mike Glennon now waiting in the wings.
Getty ImagesAl Messerschmidt
Arizona: What will it take to break the Seattle-San Francisco stranglehold atop the NFC West?
The 2013 Cardinals made great strides toward doing so but still fell short of the playoffs with a 10-6 record. It will take a second straight season with double-digit wins to reach the postseason – something the Cardinals haven’t accomplished since playing in St. Louis in the mid-1970s. Quarterback Carson Palmer should receive much better protection with the left side of the offensive line getting new starters in free-agent tackle Jared Veldheer (Oakland) and guard Jonathan Cooper, who missed his rookie season with a leg injury. Palmer, though, must reduce his interception total after tossing 22 in 2013. The Cardinals again look stout defensively, but inside linebacker could be troublesome with Karlos Dansby gone to Cleveland and Daryl Washington serving a year-long drug suspension.
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY SportsMark J. Rebilas
San Francisco: How much will quarterback Colin Kaepernick evolve as a passer?
Kaepernick’s success since becoming San Francisco’s starting quarterback is unquestioned. But he also failed to throw for 200 yards in 12 games last season, including two of three playoff outings. Adding more of a passing threat to the offense could be what it takes for the 49ers to get over the hump and win the Super Bowl. San Francisco is better heeled to achieve this than at any point since Jim Harbaugh became head coach in 2011. Michael Crabtree, who is Kaepernick’s favorite target, is fully healthy after missing much of last season with an Achilles’ injury. The 49ers also acquired wide receiver Stevie Johnson from Buffalo to complement Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis. This group should provide a sterner test for Seattle’s Legion of Boom secondary.
Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY SportsKelley L Cox
Seattle: How prepared are the Seahawks to defend their Super Bowl championship?
Defensively, Seattle is just as loaded as last season, when that unit carried the team to its first Lombardi Trophy. The offense will receive a huge boost if wide receiver Percy Harvin can stay healthy. But as history has shown, that’s an awfully big “if.” The Seahawks must find an answer at right tackle and No. 3 receiver as well as do a much better job protecting quarterback Russell Wilson, who took a beating in 2013. The other major concern is how the Seahawks handle the pressure that comes with being the NFL’s reigning kingpins. But seeing how coach Pete Carroll knows the pulse of his team, the Seahawks will enter 2014 with a real shot of becoming the first back-to-back champion in a decade.
Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY SportsJoe Nicholson
St. Louis: Is Sam Bradford a true franchise quarterback?
That’s what the Rams are banking on. In 2013, Bradford was off to the best start of his four-year NFL career until suffering a season-ending knee injury in Week 7. The hope is Bradford can build upon that with a young receiving corps, improved offensive line and complementary running game. If this doesn’t happen, St. Louis will regret not pursuing a veteran in free agency to push Bradford or using an early draft choice on the position (it took Southern Methodist’s Garrett Gilbert in Round 6). The defense is definitely playoff-caliber.