FOX Sports South takes a star-driven look at the seven most intriguing storylines for NFL preseason Week 3 -- a countdown that, for once, ignores the three-ring circus in Cleveland and focuses on difference-makers with reasonable records of success. (Photos: Andrew Weber/Tim Fuller/Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports)
Can Chiefs handle life after Dwayne Bowe?
RANKING: 7 ... MATCHUP: Vikings @ Chiefs ... SKINNY: In the hours immediately after Dwayne Bowe's one-game suspension, doled out last week, there was talk of Kansas City's brass dumping Bowe and getting a ton of cap relief for the move -- since the eighth-year receiver had reportedly violated "off-field conduct" terms of his latest contract. But lost in that speculation was an obvious question: Are the receiver-strapped Chiefs prepared to move on without Bowe (6,401 yards, 44 career TDs)? The current depth chart is full of athletic, but largely unproven assets, like A.J. Jenkins, Jerrell Jackson, Donnie Avery, Kyle Williams and Junior Hemingway (above). The lone saving grace: Tight Travis Kelce has scored a touchdown in KC's first two preseason offerings.
Will the Patriots offense take a big step forward?
RANKING: 6 ... MATCHUP: Panthers @ Patriots ...SKINNY: You rarely hear the expression Poor Tom Brady these days, given his standing as an American hero, a future Hall of Famer and the doting husband to a supermodel. But it was easy to empathize with Brady's pained looks of frustration last season, while breaking in a pair of rookie wideouts (Aaron Dobson, Kenbrell Thompkins) and suffering through sustained injuries to Danny Amendola and Rob Gronkowski. A year later, the Patriots (27.8 PPG in 2013) are reasonably healthy and more formidable on offense, thanks to low-key but potentially high-end additions like receiver Brandon LaFell and rookie RB James White. And if Stevan Ridley (19 TDs from 2012-13) has solved his fumbling problems for good ... it might be the equivalent of a third significant addition from the offseason.
David Butler II
Calvin Johnson's quiet summer
RANKING: 5 ... MATCHUP: Jaguars @ Lions ...SKINNY: Calvin's sterling success in 2013 (84 catches, 1,492 yards, 12 TDs) was somewhat diluted by an injury-plagued December (knee troubles) and the Lions' wretched finish to the season, booting the NFC North lead after Turkey Day and missing the playoffs altogether. Throw in the fact that Megatron hasn't seen any action during the preseason, and it's fair to wonder if Johnson -- a Hall of Fame shoo-in at this pace -- can pull off another three or four years of elite-level dominance? Matthew Stafford and the Lions can survive a few meaningless August games without their star ... but Calvin needs to be healthy to guide Detroit to a long-anticipated playoff berth.
Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sport
Third year's the charm
RANKING: 4 ... MATCHUP: Bucs @ Bills ...SKINNY: This time last summer, Martin (1,926 total yards, 12 TDs as a rookie) was being hailed as perhaps the best young tailback in football. Fast forward to the present, and the kid has been busy convincing NFL Nation that last year's injury-halted disappointment (522 total yards, one TD over six games) was an anomaly. On Saturday in Buffalo, Martin will hopefully log 12-to-15 touches and re-establish himself as Tampa Bay's unquestioned go-to back. In fact, it's a shame Martin and the Bucs won't get a chance at the same opponent during the regular season: The Bills ranked 28th against the run last year, allowing a woeful 129 yards per game.
Hold your breath when RG3 runs
RANKING: 3 ... MATCHUP: Redskins @ Ravens ...SKINNY: There's an old NFL adage about cornerbacks needing "short memories" to survive this game, since getting beat is an inevitable part of the job. But quarterbacks, in turn, are supposed to process, absorb and remember the lessons learned -- good and bad. Which brings us to Robert Griffin III: Just 19 months removed from a serious knee injury, how is the Redskins QB still having trouble getting out of bounds when scrambling from the pocket? Or worse, how has he yet to master the art of sliding -- feet first -- when finishing off a run? His wretched slide on Monday night could have resulted in a major injury ... and might have led to RG3 getting Wally Pipp'd from Washington's starting lineup, thanks to the presence of Kirk Cousins.
The Giants' quest for a vertical passing game
RANKING: 2 ... MATCHUP: Giants @ Jets ...SKINNY: Through three preseason outings, Giants QB Eli Manning has completed 7 of 16 balls for a grand total of 49 yards; and those mediocre numbers would be downright awful if he hadn't gone 6 of 7 for 43 yards in the Hall of Fame Game. Heading into training camp, the Giants players and coaches were optimistic about the installation of a new offense, spearheaded by new coordinator Ben McAdoo (formerly the Packers' QB guru). But it's been a rough early go for the New York passing attack -- breaking in new pieces along the offensive line, getting stars like Victor Cruz (left) into the preseason flow and waiting for Round 1 draftee Odell Beckham to finally overcome a litany of nagging camp injuries.
Flag football in Seattle
RANKING: 1 ... MATCHUP: Bears @ Seahawks ...SKINNY: Give the NFL credit for sticking to its summertime plan of re-emphasizing an existing rule that disallows downfield contact with receivers (and coverage defenders), even though preseason flags on passing plays are steadily on the rise. But is it a sustainable initiative for the regular season? Which brings us to the weekend meeting of the physical Seahawks defense and Bears wideouts Alshon Jeffery (left) and Brandon Marshall (right): Would a festival of holding/illegal contact flags against Jeffery and Marshall -- the NFL's premier 1-2 receiving punch -- force the league to revisit how downfield-contact penalties are called? After all, nobody wins if the regular-season games have no flow ... and last more than 3 hours, 20 minutes in duration.