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Five questions: Denver Broncos

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For 16 regular-season games and two postseason games, the Denver Broncos appeared to have the greatest passing offense ever assembled. And then they ran into the Seattle Seahawks in the Super Bowl, and suddenly the Broncos looked like mere mortals.

Looking ahead at the 2014 season, it’s hard not to let that ugly showing in the Super Bowl overshadow the 18 games that came before it: When you get thumped like that, it’s hard to view you as a championship-caliber team.

And yet the Broncos remain the favorites to come out of the AFC, and their aggressive approach to free agency this year may have made them an even better team than they were in 2013. Here are our questions about the Broncos for the coming season:

1. Is Peyton Manning ageless?

Peyton Manning is 38 years old. Father Time catches every athlete eventually, and athletes rarely improve in their late-30s.

And yet the numbers say Manning was better last year than he had been in any of his previous 14 NFL seasons — and for that matter better than any quarterback in NFL history: Manning had absurd totals of 5,477 passing yards, with 55 touchdowns and only 10 interceptions. He couldn’t possibly improve on those numbers, could he?

Probably not. But Manning will benefit from the NFL’s new emphasis on illegal contact, which will force defensive backs to let receivers to run free in the secondary. Manning had his best year in Indianapolis the last time the NFL made illegal contact a point of emphasis, and he should have another big year this year. Manning may not be ageless, but he’ll remain near the top of his game this season.

2. How much better can the new defense be?

The Broncos made huge moves in free agency to bolster their defense, adding pass rusher DeMarcus Ware, cornerback Aqib Talib and safety T.J. Ward. All three players should provide the Broncos significant improvements at their respective positions.

Also improving the Broncos’ defense will be the return of Von Miller, who was suspended for the first six games of last season and then missed the end of the year with a knee injury. If Miller is back to his 2012 form, when he played in all 16 games and recorded 18.5 sacks, he and Ware may be the most fearsome pair of pass rushers in football.

Denver was the No. 1 seed in the AFC last season despite having a mediocre defense. The new additions could give Denver one of the league’s best defense this year, which should be scary to the rest of the AFC.

3. Do Sanders and Latimer make up for Decker’s loss?

The Broncos lost Eric Decker, who caught 87 passes for 1,288 yards and 11 touchdowns, in free agency. But they also signed Emmanuel Sanders away from Pittsburgh and spent a second-round draft pick on Cody Latimer. Adding two talented receivers might actually make the Broncos’ receiving corps better than last year, despite the loss of Decker.

And that’s without even mentioning that the Broncos’ top receiver, Demaryius Thomas, should be motivated by entering a contract year. And we haven’t even gotten to tight end Julius Thomas, who burst onto the scene last year but is still very inexperienced and could get better with another year of playing in Denver’s offense.

If Wes Welker can stay healthy and doesn’t show signs of slowing down with age, the Broncos’ receiving corps could be even better than last year. Another reason for the rest of the AFC to worry.

4. How big a workload can Montee Ball handle?

As a rookie last year, Ball played well as the backup to Knowshon Moreno, carrying 120 times for 559 yards, an average of 4.7 yards a carry. This year the Broncos want Ball to carry the load in their running game.

Ball is currently recovering from an appendectomy, but he’s expected to be 100 percent before the season starts, and Manning has indicated that the Broncos expect Ball to be a workhorse this year. The Broncos could end up giving Ball even more work than Moreno had last year, when he carried 241 times for 1,038 yards and 10 touchdowns.

The Broncos’ offensive line may improve this year thanks to the return of left tackle Ryan Clady, who was lost for the season last year in Week Two. That bodes well for Ball’s production. Expect him to have a strong year.

5. Will there be a Super Bowl hangover?

Super Bowl losers tend to struggle the following year, and a Super Bowl loser hasn’t won the Super Bowl the following season since the 1972 Dolphins. Will the Broncos overcome the struggles that so many previous Super Bowl losers have faced?

It won’t be easy, and the Broncos’ schedule is tough. But with Manning at the helm, good veteran additions including Ware, Sanders, Ward and Talib, and veterans like Clady and Miller getting healthy, the Broncos have every reason to feel confident that they can get back to the Super Bowl. And, hopefully, play a lot better than they did against the Seahawks six months ago.

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Five questions: Detroit Lions

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It wasn’t long ago that the Lions looked like one of the NFL’s more promising teams, as their 2011 playoff berth was fueled largely by young players who appeared to have big futures in Detroit. But just as quickly as the Lions began to show promise in 2011, things fell apart in 2012 and 2013.

Two straight losing seasons cost former coach Jim Schwartz his job, and Jim Caldwell has been hired to right the ship. It’s Caldwell’s job to take the talent in Detroit and finally mold it into a consistent winner.

That task starts at the quarterback position, and our five questions about the Lions start at the quarterback position as well.

1. Which Matthew Stafford is the real Matthew Stafford?

Stafford is a quarterback who had a 5,038-yard, 41-touchdown, 16-interception season in 2011, when he was just 23 years old. Stafford is also a quarterback who threw away a golden opportunity to win the NFC North last season, with 12 interceptions and six fumbles over the final seven games of the season, while the Lions limped to a 1-6 finish.

So which one is the real Stafford? The Lions have to hope the 2011 version returns, because if the real version of Stafford is the one who showed himself down the stretch last season, then the Lions have a fortune in salary cap space tied up in a quarterback who just isn’t very good.

Stafford’s decision making and mechanics haven’t seemed to improve, and he still looks like a quarterback who thinks his strong arm can bail him out of any situation. Caldwell’s most important task as the Lions’ head coach is to see to it that Stafford turns things around and turns that 2011 performance into the norm, and not a fluke.

2. Will contract years motivate Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley?

No team has more talent at defensive tackle than the Lions, who used back-to-back first-round picks on Suh and Fairley in 2010 and 2011. But talent alone hasn’t been enough to give the Lions the best pair of defensive tackles in the NFL: Suh can’t always control himself on the field, leading to costly penalties, while Fairley can’t always control himself at the dinner table, leading to weight problems that have made him less effective than he should be.

But there’s one big reason to believe that this is the year for Suh and Fairley: Next year is the year that both of them can cash in via free agency. Suh’s enormous rookie contract expires after this season, and Fairley’s contract expires, too, thanks to the Lions’ decision not to pick up the fifth-year option on his rookie deal. The Lions believe that will result in Suh and Fairley having their best years.

So far, the results are mixed: Reports out of camp indicate that Suh looks good but Fairley is still struggling to control his weight. Suh should have a big year. Fairley still needs to prove himself.

3. Can anyone here play cornerback?

The Lions have been terrible at the cornerback position in recent years, and there’s little reason to believe this year will be any different. In fact, this year could be even worse after Chris Houston, who started 12 games last year, was released.

Detroit has to hope that Darius Slay, a 2013 second-round pick who had an up-and-down rookie season, can have a big second year. If Slay emerges as a cornerback who can consistently hold his own against opposing No. 1 receivers, the Lions’ pass defense will be in good shape. But that’s an enormous “if.”

Beyond Slay, the Lions are stuck with either mediocre veterans like Rashean Mathis and Drayton Florence, or unproven young players like Bill Bentley, Jonte Greene and Nevin Lawson. The outlook at the cornerback position is not promising.

4. Is Nate Freese or Giorgio Tavecchio the heir apparent to Jason Hanson?

Hanson was so good for so long in Detroit — he was their kicker from 1992 to 2012, setting the NFL records for most games with one team and most points scored for one team, in addition to kicking the most 50-yard field goals in the history of the league — that Lions fans forgot what it’s like to have a kicker who inspires no confidence.

They were reminded last year, when David Akers arrived and was shaky from the get-go: Akers missed two very makable field goals in a 25-21 loss in Week Two, and never fully recovered after that. Akers will not be back.

So the Lions need either Freese — a rookie seventh-round pick — or Tavecchio — who has bounced around the league but never played in a regular-season game — to step up. Freese, the first kicker the Lions drafted since Hanson, appears to be the favorite.

5. How good a coach is Jim Caldwell?

In Caldwell’s first year as an NFL coach, he took a Peyton Manning-led team to the Super Bowl. In Caldwell’s third season as an NFL head coach, he took a Peyton Manning-less team to a 2-14 record and was promptly fired. Now Caldwell is getting a second chance in Detroit.

The good news is that Caldwell’s reputation for working well with talented quarterbacks meshes with exactly what the Lions need: He might be just the guy to get Stafford on track.

The bad news is that Stafford is not Peyton Manning, and the only two seasons Caldwell has had success as a head coach, he had Manning as his quarterback. (In Caldwell’s only other stint as a head coach, at Wake Forest from 1993 to 2000, he went 26-63.)

If Caldwell can get the Lions back to the playoffs, he’ll deserve Coach of the Year consideration. But that’s a tall order in Detroit, which has just one playoff berth in the 21st Century.

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Five questions: Dallas Cowboys

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The Cowboys have spent the last three years treading water, having a chance at winning the division and ultimately finishing 8-8.  They continue to hope for better, but with no tangible evidence that the best is yet to come.

For the current edition of the Cowboys, the window may have slammed shut and shattered.

Before the glass flies in hundreds of directions, let’s look at five questions that will influence how bad it gets and whether it will improve any time soon.

1.  Is Tony Romo done?

Plenty of mixed signals have emerged from Cowboys camp in the last few weeks regarding Romo’s back after his second surgery in two years.  Dr. Jerry Jones has declared Romo to be 100 percent.  But he has missed plenty of practices, and quarterbacks coach Wade Wilson has said that Romo has been inconsistent on deep passes due to the latest procedure.

Even if Romo can get back to 100 percent, he can quickly drop below that again if/when he gets hit in the wrong spot or twists or tweaks or does something to aggravate the situation.  Hall of Famer Troy Aikman has pointed out on multiple occasions that he retired at 34 due to back problems, not concussions.

Romo is now 34, and he’s had some serious back problems.  The end could be coming for Romo, sooner than anyone realizes.

2.  Will they really run the ball more?

The Cowboys claim that they’ll show a stronger dedication to the ground game, which makes sense given that they’ve devoted their last two first-round picks to interior offensive linemen.

But will they really commit to the run and stay committed to the run in a passing league that should have even more passing this year, thanks to the renewed emphasis on illegal contact and defensive holding?

Then again, given Romo’s back, maybe they’ll be running just to reduce the number of instances in which he’s exposed to that next, and possibly last, back injury.

3.  How bad is the defense?

Last year, it was bad.  Historically bad.  415.3 yards per game bad.

This year, it could be even worse, what with defensive end DeMarcus Ware cut and defensive tackle Jason Hatcher departed via free agency and linebacker Sean Lee injured and cornerback Morris Claiborne underachieving and defensive back Orlando Scandrick suspended for the first four games due to a PED violation.

When the Saints had a similar disaster in 2012, they cleaned house.  The Cowboys have merely elevated defensive line coach Rod Marinelli over Monte Kiffin, keeping Kiffin on the payroll.  It’s a recipe for even more of a mess than the Cowboys endured a year ago.

4.  Is Jason Garrett finally on the hot seat?

Owner Jerry Jones insists yet again that coach Jason Garrett doesn’t have to make the playoffs to remain employed.  Which is a good thing, since the playoffs are a long shot.

Still, Garrett enters the last year of his contract with no security beyond 2014.  He’s a lame duck if things go poorly, a potential free agent if somehow things go well.

And if things really do go well, maybe Garrett will exercise his prerogative to bid farewell to the dysfunction he has experienced since 2011.

5.  What will it take to get Jerry Jones to get help?

Assuming that the Cowboys end up on the wrong side of 8-8 this year instead of the right, the biggest question facing the franchise flows from the owner’s insistence on not riding sidecar to the efforts of an established coach who actually has input over the construction of the roster.

More than a decade ago, Jones bottomed out, opting to bend a knee for Bill Parcells.  Once things were pointed in the right direction again, Jones decided that he no longer needed help, embarking on an effort to put the right talent and coaching around the franchise quarterback whom Parcells found as an undrafted free agent out of Eastern Illinois.

If the end is coming for Tony Romo and with Brandon Weeden currently serving as the team’s Plan B, Jone may once again need to admit that he can’t do it alone, that 25 years of on-the-job experience for a job he never had the qualifications to fill won’t be enough to find another franchise quarterback, to develop him, and to complement him with weapons on offense and some degree of competence on defense.

Many league insiders believe that Jones wants to show that he can build a team without deferring to a coach who would want to buy the proverbial groceries.  As it stands, however, Jones’ recent trips to the store have yielded plenty of rotten eggs, spoiled bottles of milk, and rancid packages of bologna.

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Five questions: Pittsburgh Steelers

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The sporadic, inconsistent “Five Questions” series continues with a team that has been sporadic and inconsistent in recent years.  Since losing Super Bowl XLV, the Steelers have fallen victim to Tebowmania in the 2011 playoffs and then missed the postseason for two straight years.

A habit of reloading has ventured toward rebuilding, but the Steelers showed toughness in 2013.  After an abysmal start to the season, Pittsburgh narrowly missed a playoff berth, thanks to a horrendous call in a game involving the Chiefs and Chargers.

This year, the Steelers can get back to the playoffs.  And they can have plenty of success when they get there.  And they can match the physicality of the best the NFC has to offer, if the Steelers can manage make it back to the game they’ve played in eight prior times.

That’s all premature.  For now, here are five questions that could go a long way toward determining how far they go, in 2014 and beyond.

1.  How much does Ben Roethlisberger have left?

The Steelers’ only franchise quarterback since Terry Bradshaw turned 32 this year.  But Big Ben is an old 32, with plenty of wear and tear on bones and joints weighed down by a large body and a decade of even larger poundings.   In lieu of giving him another big contract, the Steelers have opted to wait.  By the end of the season, the Steelers will have a much better feel for how well — and for how long — Roethlisberger can keep going as he approaches 35.

It would be a shock if he doesn’t finish his career in Pittsburgh.  The more important question is how much longer does he have until he’s finished.

2.  Is this the end for Troy Polamalu?

Many expected the Steelers to move on from Polamalu after the 2013 season.  Instead, a contract extension aimed at creating cap space puts Polamalu on the team for at least one more year.

To his credit, Polamalu has taken heir apparent Shamarko Thomas under the veteran’s wing, making the second-year strong safety the first NFL teammate to work out with the reclusive and unconventional Polamalu in the offseason.  At a deeper level, Polamalu’s gesture could be interpreted as a sign that he’s in the process of passing the baton.

If that’s the case, Polamalu will want to go out with a bang.  Even as his body betrays him, Polamalu seems to be the kind of guy who can will himself to recapture his prime and make one last run at what would be his third NFL title.

3.  Who will emerge at the top tailback?

Coach Mike Tomlin has said that the regular-season touches at running back will be determined via competition in training camp and the preseason.  For now, Le’Veon Bell shows up as the starter, followed by LeGarrette Blount and likely third-down option Dri Archer.

Bell is poised to become the lead dog, but Blount showed remarkable ability late last year for the Patriots.  In the end, the Steelers will have to choose between revolving-door approach and the use of whoever has the hot hand.

4.  Are these the best linebackers in the NFL?

In their glory days of four decades ago, the Steelers boasted Jack Lambert and Jack Ham at linebacker.  Since then, the franchise has seen plenty of great players at the position.  It’s possible that, currently, the Steelers have the best linebacking unit in the league.

The four starters includes three first-rounders (Lawrence Timmons, Jarvis Jones, Ryan Shazier) and a guy deemed good enough to get the eight-figure transition tag (Jason Worilds).  Sean Spence sits on the verge of one of the great comebacks from a knee injury in recent memory, and at least for now Howard Jones has made Steelers fans forget about outdated orange motor lodges and/or puffy-haired synth-pop singers.

While the 3-4 defense needs a stout defensive line to allow the linebackers to do their thing, these linebackers could be good enough to do their thing without a lot of help from the nose tackle and defensive ends.

5.  Who will step up and catch passes?

The good news for the Steelers is that they’ve done a great job finding receivers in the lower rounds of the draft.  The bad news is that those guys eventually want to get paid.  Antonio Brown, a sixth-round pick and two-time team MVP, became the one the Steelers rewarded.  Mike Wallace and Emmanuel Sanders became the ones who walked away.

Now, the Steelers need to hope that Markus Wheaton and Martavis Bryant become good enough that someone else will want to pay them more money than the Steelers will.

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Looking ahead at future Hall of Fame classes

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The seven members of the 2014 class of the Pro Football Hall of Fame have received their busts in Canton, Ohio, and now that enshrinement weekend is behind us, let’s look ahead at the players, coaches and contributors who could comprise the next five Hall of Fame classes.

2015

Junior Seau will be eligible for the first time next year, and he’s the one man who looks like a lock for the class of 2015. Seau’s enshrinement will bring up stories about his suicide and questions about whether brain damage on the football field could have led to his depression, but his enshrinement should also be a celebration of one of the greatest linebackers ever to play the game.

Paul Tagliabue, the former commissioner, may be the biggest beneficiary of the Hall of Fame’s new policy of voting on contributors separately from players and coaches. In past Hall of Fame votes, Tagliabue has lost out, but now that he’s no longer competing with players and coaches, there’s a good chance that he’ll be enshrined next year.

Steve Sabol would also be a good choice in 2015, when there will be two Hall of Fame finalists from the separate contributors category. Sabol’s father Ed is already in the Hall of Fame, but both Sabols deserve busts in Canton for building NFL Films.

Kurt Warner is, after Seau, the player with the best chance of being enshrined in his first year of eligibility next year. Some may say Warner’s greatness was too short-lived to merit Hall of Fame induction, but a player with two regular-season MVP awards and a Super Bowl MVP award is probably going to end up in Canton.

Orlando Pace protected Warner’s blind side in St. Louis and was one of the best offensive tackles in the NFL for a decade, and he’ll also be eligible for the first time next year.

Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce were the top two receivers on the Greatest Show on Turf, and they both retired after the 2009 season, making them eligible in 2015. (You can be forgiven if you’ve forgotten that Holt was in Jacksonville and Bruce was in San Francisco in 2009.) It would really be something if they were both inducted along with Warner and Pace. That, however, is awfully unlikely. Wide receivers have had a hard time getting into Canton in recent years, and Holt and Bruce may end up competing against each other and therefore hurting each other’s chances in much the same way that Steelers greats John Stallworth and Lynn Swann did for many years.

Jerry Kramer, the great Packers offensive lineman, would be a strong choice as a senior candidate. Next year will be a harder year for seniors to get in, as only one senior finalist will be nominated. But Kramer may be the most deserving senior candidate eligible.

2016

Brett Favre is a sure thing to be inducted in 2016, and the Packers have already begun the process of turning the year before his induction into a long ceremony honoring Favre, who will have his number retired in 2015.

Terrell Owens also becomes eligible in 2016, but he’s a long shot. Owens is second only to Jerry Rice on the all-time receiving yards list and third behind Rice and Randy Moss in receiving touchdowns, but Owens acted like such a jerk, so often, that he’s remembered as much for becoming a disruptive force in the locker room as he is for being a dominant force on the field.

Eddie DeBartolo Jr., the former 49ers owner, may benefit from the new contributors category and be enshrined soon. The question is whether Hall of Fame voters will reward DeBartolo for his role in building the great 49ers teams of the 1980s and 1990s, and overlook the circumstances that led DeBartolo to be forced out of the NFL.

Jerome Bettis may finally get his bust in Canton in 2016, as a relatively weak crop of first-year eligible players will make room for those who have previously been passed over.

Will Shields, the great guard for the Chiefs, would also seem likely to benefit from a lack of first-year eligible players, although there have been so many great offensive linemen enshrined in Canton in recent years that it’s hard for any one to gain recognition over all the others.

Marvin Harrison was voted down this year, but he had so many great seasons as a receiver for the Colts that it seems like just a matter of time before he gets in, and 2016 may be the year.

Randy Gradishar and Ken Stabler are a couple of good senior candidates who may be enshrined in 2016, when two seniors will be eligible. (Only one senior is eligible in 2015, 2017 and 2019.)

2017

LaDainian Tomlinson becomes eligible for the first time in 2017, and with 13,684 career rushing yards, Tomlinson looks like a good bet to make it. Only four players have more yards than Tomlinson (Emmitt Smith, Walter Payton, Barry Sanders and Curtis Martin) and all four are already in the Hall.

Jason Taylor becomes eligible in 2017 as well, and he has a good case, although he may be joining a crowded field of pass rushers, as we’ll detail momentarily.

Kevin Greene was voted down as a Hall of Fame finalist last year, but with 160 sacks in his career, he seems sure to get in eventually: The only players with more career sacks than Greene were Bruce Smith and Reggie White, two of the greatest players in NFL history. The 2017 class may be the one that finally makes room for Greene.

Charles Haley also might finally get his Hall call in 2017. He’s been voted down five times already, but his contributions to Super Bowl winners in both San Francisco and Dallas should be enough to earn him a bust at some point.

Hines Ward was a great wide receiver and a Super Bowl MVP winner, and he’ll be eligible for the first time in 2017. But Ward’s career numbers (1,000 catches for 12,083 yards and 85 touchdowns) are dwarfed by those of some other recent receivers, and Ward may suffer by comparison.

Brian Dawkins was a nine-time Pro Bowl safety who also becomes eligible in 2017, but he seems unlikely to be selected in his first year of eligibility. Dawkins was a beloved player both on and off the field, and at some point the voters may put him in Canton, but that point probably won’t be until he’s on the ballot for at least a few years.

George Young, the former Giants general manager, is just the kind of person that the new “contributors” category is designed to recognize, and the 2017 class may be the year that the late Young gets his due.

Don Coryell would appear to be a likely choice as a senior candidate some day, and 2017 may be when that day comes. Coryell never won a championship as a coach, but he was such an innovator of the passing game that he’s a significant figure in the history of football.

2018

Ray Lewis will be an easy choice as one of the greatest defensive players in NFL history. There’s no room for debate on that.

Randy Moss may leave some room for debate, as his numbers are comparable to those of Terrell Owens, who looks like a long shot. But Moss at his best was such a game-changer that he just feels like exactly the kind of player who belongs in Canton.

Brian Urlacher, who like Lewis and Moss becomes eligible in 2018, has a very good case for enshrinement as well. Although he’ll suffer in comparison to Lewis, there will probably be enough support for Urlacher to get him enshrined in his first year of eligibility.

Steve Hutchinson was a great guard and also becomes eligible in 2018, but he won’t get in on his first year of eligibility. Hutchinson may be a finalist many times, but getting the necessary 80 percent of the vote will be tough.

Tim Brown is a longtime finalist who feels like he accomplished enough in the NFL (usually while serving as the only decent threat in his teams’ passing games) that he should be recognized eventually. The 2018 class may be the year.

Art Modell has been voted down several times, and the opposition to his candidacy is strong from some who say that taking the Browns out of Cleveland was an unforgivable sin. But the new contributors category gives Modell a much better chance, and 2018 could be his year.

Bob Kuechenberg and Cliff Harris are among the best senior candidates who haven’t been selected yet.

2019

Tony Gonzalez becomes eligible for the first time in 2019, and he’s just about a sure thing as one of the greatest tight ends ever to play the game.

Ed Reed also becomes eligible for the first time in 2019, and he also looks like a sure thing as one of the greatest safeties ever to play the game.

Tony Dungy was voted down in his first year of eligibility last year and may be voted down a few more times, but he’s likely to get in eventually, and 2019 could be the year.

Morten Andersen was also voted down this year in his first year as a Hall of Fame finalist, but he also has a good case to make it eventually. Andersen, the NFL’s all-time leader in points scored, would join Jan Stenerud and Ray Guy as the only kicking specialists in the Hall of Fame.

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Five questions: Minnesota Vikings

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The Vikings have had a strange few years, coming dangerously close to a Super Bowl before bottoming out before unexpectedly making it to the playoffs before slumping to another subpar season.

It won’t be easy to turn things around in 2014, where it will be a major accomplishment not if the Vikings win the NFC North, but if they simply avoid finishing behind the Packers, Bears, and Lions.

As the season approaches, here are five questions that will go a long way toward determining whether the franchise can compete for third place, and maybe even contend for first.

1.  When does the Teddy Bridgewater era begin?

The Vikings didn’t trade back into round one for the privilege of selecting a quarterback who would be relegated to the bench for the next four years.  While Matt Cassel and his two-year, $5 million deal puts him atop the depth chart for now, Teddy Bridgewater’s draft pedigree and his splitting of reps with Cassel strongly suggest that it’s only a matter of time before Bridgewater will be under center.

Of course, if Cassel gets the nod to start the season and plays at a high level in new coordinator Norv Turner’s offense, it could be difficult to flip the switch to the rookie.  And if Cassel somehow leads the Vikings to the playoffs, it could be even harder to elevate Bridgewater next year.

Some would call that a good problem to have.  Others would simply call it a problem.

2.  Will Adrian Peterson ever slow down?

With more than 2,000 regular-season carries and another 200-plus receptions in seven years, Peterson averages more than 300 touches per season.  While an extremely rare physical specimen, he remains human.  We think.

At some point, he’ll need to slow down if he hopes to play at a high level beyond his 30th birthday.  It’s one thing to say it, and quite another for Peterson to set aside his ultra-competitive nature and do it.

Don’t count on it happening.  Absent injury or illness, Peterson will be playing and running and catching as much as he always has.  Even with injury or illness, he’ll likely still find a way to focus on maxing out his performance today, and worrying about his ability to keep doing it later.

3.  Can Kyle Rudolph live up to his contract?

The Vikings have made a major wager on tight end Kyle Rudolph becoming one of the best players at his position, opting to make him the fifth highest-paid tight end before his contract year in lieu of coughing up even more after the 2014 season.

Now, it’s on the Vikings and Rudolph to prove that the Vikings made a good investment.

With Norv Turner drawing up the plays and calling them, Rudolph could indeed make an even bigger impact than he has in his first three seasons.  If he does, the Vikings definitely won’t finish in the basement of the division.

4.  Can the pass rush thrive without Jared Allen?

He arrived in 2008, cashed every check of a six-year contract, and then moved on to the Bears.  Now, the Vikings will have to fashion a competent pass rush with newly-minted (and possibly overpaid) multi-millionaire Everson Griffin and Brian Robison on the outside, 2013 first-rounder Sharrif Floyd and 2014 free-agent arrival Linval Joseph on the inside, and 2014 first-rounder Anthony Barr wreaking havoc from anywhere/everywhere along and behind the line of scrimmage.

With new coach Mike Zimmer bringing his ability to get a defense to play better than the sum of its parts, the Vikings may not miss Allen very much.  Until they have to play him twice.

5.  Are the Vikings ready to take the show outdoors?

After decades of playing in a dome, the Vikings will spend two years outside again, in elements that will become elements as the season rolls on.

It won’t affect Adrian Peterson very much, and Teddy Bridgewater’s glove habit will make more sense after the weather turns.  But the move to the University of Minnesota campus will represent a major change for a team that was built to play indoors.  Based on three of the last four seasons, however, it’s not as if the Greatest Show on Turf has been banished to Siberia.

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Five questions: Cleveland Browns

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Since returning to the NFL in 1999 after a three-year hiatus, the Browns have had more lows than highs.  One playoff appearance a dozen years ago, one other winning season, and otherwise futility.

In recent years, the futility has flowed in large part from inconsistency, with four coaches and four General Managers since 2009.  Before the Browns can contend, the front office and the coaching staff need to stabilize.  It’s unclear whether that will happen.  But that’s not one of the five specific questions I’ve selected to address as the season approaches.

These are.

1.  Who will be the quarterback?

After the Browns traded up from No. 26 to No. 22 in round one to snag Johnny Manziel, the Browns opted not to install Manziel as the starter.  It’s possible, if not likely, that it was part of the effort to short-circuit the immediate ascension of Manziel to the same kind of power Robert Griffin III had (and likely still has) in Washington.

Nevertheless empowered by the team’s apparent acceptance of a “Work Hard, Play Harder” two-sided offseason T-shirt motto, Manziel eventually took it too far, hanging out with Justin Bieber and rolling up a dollar bill after the team told him to tone it down.

With an owner who isn’t bashful about handing out pink slips but with termination not an option, the next best way to send a message to Manziel becomes sending him to the bench.  Which is what the Browns now apparently plan to do, given the ongoing praise heaped upon Brian Hoyer.

It’s a dangerous game, for multiple reasons.  First, making Manziel the backup means exposing him to injury in the preseason behind the No. 2 offensive line.  Second, it opens the door for another Derek Anderson/Brady Quinn do-si-do that could delay the date on which Manziel ascends to the job they surely want him to have.  Otherwise, they wouldn’t have drafted him.

2.  Who will run the ball?

Ben Tate arrived via free agency, Terrance West comes to Cleveland through the draft.  Tate presumably will get the first crack at becoming the primary ball carrier, but his contract doesn’t point inescapably to Tate being the clear-cut bell cow.

“Competition is needed to have a good team,” Tate recently told reporters.  “You look at San Francisco. You look at Seattle. There’s competition at every position. Obviously you know who their guy is, but there are guys behind them that are good that can push them.  That’s what’s needed so I don’t see it as a threat.”

It’s only a threat for Tate if the competition results in a conclusion that West is a better option that Tate.

3.  What’s the plan at receiver?

Josh Gordon may or may not be suspended for the year, and the Browns haven’t done much to plan for life without him.  Miles Austin and Nate Burleson arrived via free agency, but both guys aren’t who they used to be.

G.M. Ray Farmer has defended the failure to make a move to replace Gordon by explaining that Super Bowl champs rarely have dominant receivers.  Of course, Super Bowl champs also often don’t have elite left tackles, but it’s unlikely that the Browns will be cutting Joe Thomas any time soon.

Perhaps the Browns ultimately played it right, if Gordon’s low concentration of marijuana metabolites and luck-of-the-draw “A” bottle/”B” bottle discrepancy results in a short suspension or none at all.  One way or another, we’ll know the answer soon enough.

4.  Will Kyle Shanahan be more flexible with Manziel?

The Browns possibly would like a Mulligan when it comes to drafting Manziel.  New offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan possibly would like a Mulligan of his own when it comes to taking a job with the team that drafted Manziel.

Kyle Shanahan ensured two years of RGIII in D.C., with plenty of dysfunction fueled by a quarterback who wouldn’t or couldn’t be coached the way Shanahan wanted to coach him to the degree that Shanahan likes to coach/control all of his quarterbacks.

Shanahan wants everything done according to his plan.  Manziel does some of his best work when the plan disintegrates into no plan at all.  Whenever Manziel plays, Shanahan will need to become more flexible, or he’ll lose whatever is left of his mind after 2012 and 2013.

5.  How good is the defense?

Pretty good.

Lost in all the talk about the team’s offense is a defense that finished in the top 10 both for yards and points allowed.  Sure, coordinator Ray Horton is gone after a year, and linebacker D’Qwell Jackson and safety T.J. Ward have been swapped out for Karlos Dansby and Donte Whitner, respectively.  But head coach Mike Pettine, who made a major impact during his only season with the Bills after stepping out of Rex Ryan’s shrinking shadow, could push the finished product to even greater heights.

To get there, Pettine needs to get more out of pass rushers Paul Kruger and Barkevious Mingo.  If forgotten top-10 cornerback Justin Gilbert can make a quick impact, he and Joe Haden could quickly become of the best tandems in the league.

The end result could be a defense that’s even better than it was a year ago, and in turn an offense that benefits from fewer points allowed, better field position, and more turnovers.

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Five questions: San Francisco 49ers

Harbaugh AP

A tumultuous offseason has trickled into training camp, with guard Alex Boone holding out and underrated backup running back Kendall Hunter done for the year with a torn ACL.

Apart from the obvious questions regarding whether Boone will show and whether the 49ers will be able to replace Hunter’s contributions as a ball-carrier and blitzer-picker-upper, here are five questions that underpin the broader question of whether the Niners can kick in the door on which they’ve been knocking for the last three years.

1.  How much longer for Harbaugh?

Coach Jim Harbaugh reportedly wants to be paid like a guy who has won a Super Bowl even though, you know, he hasn’t.  That difference of opinion has lingered for more than a year, and Harbaugh is now a year and five months away from becoming a free agent.

Some believe that, unless a new contract is signed before the 2014 season ends, the end of the road will come after the coming season, with the 49ers allowing Harbaugh to leave or trading him to one of the six or seven franchises that inevitably will be hiring a new head coach.  (Those trade talks with the Browns from earlier this year won’t make the phone any less likely to ring.)

Plenty of other on-field and off-field issues have pushed the Harbaugh angle into the background.  It won’t stay in the background for a lot longer.

2.  Was Kaepernick underpaid, or overpaid?

Misguided reports based on false characterizations of the Colin Kaepernick contract created the impression that Kaepernick’s package resides among the best in the league.  And that triggered a strong backlash when the true numbers emerged, showing that Kaepernick did a team-friendly deal that allows the 49ers to keep him for up to seven years at a reasonable rate or to dump him if they find a better option.

Lost in the debate over whether Kaepernick did a really good deal is whether he’s a really good quarterback.  After torching the Packers to start the 2013 season with 412 passing yards fueled by Harbaugh’s rope-a-dope complaints about the hits Kaepernick takes in the read-option, Kaepernick averaged 185 passing yards per game over the rest of the regular season.  In seven post-Packers games before the bye week, Kaepernick threw six total touchdown passes and five interceptions.

A strong postseason performance (but for a misfire pass to Michael Crabtree with the season on the line . . . again) renewed his reputation as one of the great young quarterbacks in the league.  That could change again once the 2014 season begins.

3.  Can Aldon Smith stay out of trouble?

With a likely suspension coming after getting 12 days on a work crew and three years of probation in response to no-contest pleas to weapons and DUI charges, Aldon Smith may not be adding to that 42-sacks-in-43-regular-season-games performance during the first few weeks of the 2014 campaign.  The number of additional sacks and games that he racks up as a 49er depends largely on whether he can stay out of trouble.

The 49ers considered not picking up the fifth-year option on his 2011 first-round contract, a potentially hollow gesture aimed at getting Smith’s attention.  If they don’t have it, Smith eventually will drop that last straw onto the camel, and Smith’s career in San Francisco will be over.

At which point someone else will give him a second chance, not because of humanitarian concerns but because he can play at a high level.  If/when it’s determined he’s no longer a difference-maker, he’ll be making a living in a different profession.

4.  How much longer can Gore carry the load?

Not surprisingly, veteran running back Frank Gore isn’t ready to yield to Father Time, who continues to be a muther when it comes to tailback longevity.  With Kendall Hunter done for the season, the Niners will need Gore to be able to do more, in the event that Marcus Lattimore can’t get healthy or Carlos Hyde can’t get ready.

Gore has shown no signs of slowing down despite an expectation for several years that the wheels will come off.  Maybe they won’t for Gore, at least not for the next few years.

5.  Who emerges as the top target in the passing game?

Two years ago, Harbaugh boasted that the team had five No. 1 receivers.  Today, only Michael Crabtree remains from that quintet.

After a rocky start in 2012, Vernon Davis has become a Kaepernick favorite, which has bolstered Vernon’s quest for a new contract.  Crabtree, who held out into the 2009 season as a rookie, enters a contract year of his own.  Anquan Boldin had a solid season after a salary-dispute trade from Baltimore.  Supplanted by Sammy Watkins, Stevie Johnson arrives via trade from Buffalo.  Brandon Lloyd returns, 11 years and five teams after he was drafted in San Francisco.

It’s a vastly underrated group of weapons for Colin Kaepernick.  If Tom Brady had that group, they’d already be engraving his name on the regular-season and Super Bowl MVP awards.

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Five questions: Kansas City Chiefs

Reid Getty Images

The Chiefs followed a disastrous 2-14 season with an unlikely trip to the playoffs, followed by an even less likely 38-10 lead at Indy, capped by an even less likely second-half collapse.

For Year Two of the Andy Reid/John Dorsey regime much higher than a year ago, the bar moves higher.  Possibly, too high.

Here are five questions we (or at least I) have about the 2014 edition of the Kansas City Chiefs.

1.  Did they take too many hits in free agency?

A whopping 60 percent of the team’s offensive line bolted for bigger dollars in free agency, led by left tackle Branden Albert.  The team now hopes that Eric Fisher, the first overall pick a year ago, will be able to play better on the left side of the line than the right, where he struggled as a rookie.

Also gone is Dexter McCluster, a versatile weapon who may or may not be replaced effectively by rookie De’Anthony Thomas.

On defense, lineman Tyson Jackson and safety Kendrick Lewis signed elsewhere, and cornerback Brandon Flowers was cut late in the offseason.

The departures, which weren’t offset by many free-agent arrivals, will make it harder to run the streak of playoff appearances to two.

2.  Can they put the playoff collapse behind them?

Maybe it’s good that so many of the old players are gone.  It’ll make it a little easier to get past the playoff collapse if guys who weren’t part of it aren’t still around.

But plenty are still there, and they’ll need to learn from what happened against the Colts without having a wedge arise between the offense and the defense.  Otherwise, whenever the offense builds a lead in 2014 and the defense starts to blow it, “Here we go again” will be the refrain (spoken or otherwise) up and down the Kansas City sideline.

The offense will likely follow the lead of quarterback Alex Smith on this point, especially since his stellar day (378 passing yards, 57 rushing yards, four passing touchdowns, no interceptions) was barely noticed in the aftermath of one of the most deflating losses in franchise history.  If he stays positive when the defense starts to show signs of falling apart, others will be inclined to do the same.

3.  Is Alex Smith the answer at quarterback?

There’s a chance Smith eventually won’t be the guy leading, or cutting off, resentment of defensive failures.  Andy Reid has shown over the last 15 years a knack for getting great performances out of any and every quarterback he coaches, and rookie Aaron Murray could easily become Big Red’s next star pupil.

Smith has one year left on his contract, with the two sides still far apart.  If Smith won’t do a deal on the team’s terms, the team could turn to Murray.

And if the 2014 season goes south quickly, Murray may get a chance at some point to show what he can do before the Chiefs have to essentially choose between Smith and Murray.

4.  How good will Dee Ford be right away?

Before the draft, Dee Ford declared he’s better than Jadeveon Clowney.  Chiefs owner Clark Hunt cautiously has compared Ford to the late Derrick Thomas.

If Ford lives up to either of those assessments, the Chiefs will be able to let Justin Houston walk in free agency and install Ford as the four-letter complement to Tamba Hali.

Or maybe it’s Hali who’ll become expandable after the 2014 season, with the Chiefs opting for the two youngest options at pass rusher.  If we’ve learned nothing else in the past few years, it’s that no high-priced veteran on any team is safe.

5.  Are they nearly done with Dwayne Bowe?

Speaking of high-priced veterans who may be in danger of not being with the team, receiver Dwayne Bowe could be on the outs.  With $11 million in cash due come 2015, Bowe may be on the verge of being a former Chief if he doesn’t increase the production in 2014.

His first season under a five-year, $56 million contract resulted in only 57 catches for 673 yards.  That’s 13 fewer catches and 20 yards less than running back Jamaal Charles, who also ran the ball for 1,287 yards.

Bowe knows that his time is running short if he can’t produce a better return on the investment the Chiefs made not long after Reid and Dorsey arrived.  Otherwise, that cash and cap space will go to someone else.

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Five questions: New York Giants

Eli Manning,  Tom Coughlin AP

In four of the last five years, the Giants haven’t qualified for the playoffs.  A championship win during that lone postseason appearance takes some of the sting out of it, but Lombardi Trophies can lose their luster pretty quickly.

With two straight subpar seasons since the most recent Super Bowl victory, the Giants could be teetering toward significant change if they go three years without a playoff appearance for the first time since 1994 through 1996.  Which could be good news; the last two times coach Tom Coughlin was clearly on the hot seat, he took the team to the top of the mountain.

Here are five questions for the team unrelated to the coach’s potentially tenuous job status.

1.  Which Eli Manning will show up?

The Giants quarterback recently admitted that he’s a “little nervous” in the team’s new offense.  He should be.

Whatever the offense, Eli Manning’s career has arrived at an unexpected crossroads, at the age of 33 and with a pair of Super Bowl pelts on his wall.  Wrapped around that second NFL title are four failed seasons, with 2013 featuring a career-high 27 interceptions.

Eli’s older brother has a reputation for performing incredibly well during the regular season and then failing to meet expectations in the playoffs.  Eli has a knack for thriving in the postseason, but not being able to get there often enough.

After the second championship, Eli had seemed to be a lock for the Hall of Fame.  Now, his candidacy depends on what happens over the balance of his career.  Starting now, in a new offense with plenty of jobs riding on Eli’s ability to thrive in it.

If he’s only a “little nervous,” he’s not nearly nervous enough.

2.  Can the offensive line get the job done?

The Giants’ 2007 Super Bowl run was fueled by great performances from both the offensive and defensive lines.  Last year, the offensive line wasn’t great.  This year, with the retirements of David Diehl and Chris Snee, the offensive line could be even worse.

The primary goal of training camp and the preseason will be to find the best combination of five starters and hope they can find a way to stay healthy.  A good offensive line works in seamless harmony, opening running lanes and keeping the quarterback from getting hurried, hit, and/or sacked.

The offensive live never gets enough credit when things go well, balanced by never getting enough blame when things don’t.  Things need to go well for the offensive line this year, or plenty of offensive linemen and other employees could be going away.

3.  What happened to the pass rush?

In 2007, the Giants figured out how to beat the Patriots and Tom Brady.  Specifically by knocking him down early and making him worried about getting knocked down for the rest of the game.

Four years later, the Giants showed that they still knew that the best way to win on a big stage is to throw the opposing quarterback off it.

Three years after the fact, who’s left?  Michael Strahan gets his ugly mustard jacket in less than two weeks, Osi Umenyiora can soon be seen on Hard Knocks as a member of the Falcons, and Justin Tuck has taken his 11.0 sacks to Oakland after allegedly being lowballed by the Giants.

Mathias Kiwakuna and his six sacks and restructured deal that has left him with a stick in a place where sticks don’t normally go is back, and the team hopes that the once-promising Jason Pierre-Paul can improve on his paltry sum of two sacks in 2013.  With Pierre-Paul in a contract year, he has plenty of millions of reasons to get back to being the guy who had 16.5 sacks in 2011.

4.  Who plays tight end?

Maybe Pierre-Paul should ask to play offense.  He’d have a good chance to play tight end.  Possibly as the starter.

Look at the depth chart.  The five tight ends currently on the roster are Kellen Davis, Larry Donnell, Daniel Fells, Adrien Robinson, and Xavier Grimble, who sounds like the antagonist in a Dickens novel.  That quintet combined for six total NFL catches last year.

It’s hard not to imagine the Giants making moves at the position, even if they merely pounce on a tight end cut by another team.  Or, ideally, if Jermichael Finley is cleared by the Giants and decides to keep playing football.

5.  Will they be able to run the ball?

Speaking of guys with neck injuries whose futures were in doubt, running back David Wilson has been cleared to play.  The next question becomes whether Wilson, a first-round pick in 2012, can get back to the top of the depth chart, or whether he’ll play second fiddle to newcomer Rashad Jennings, whom G.M. Jerry Reese has called a “bell cow” type.

Former Madden cover boy Peyton Hillis is also on the roster, and it remains to be seen whether former Packers assistant Ben McAdoo will play the hot hand or use a revolving door at tailback.

Whoever gets the ball needs to do something with it, which could be difficult if the offensive line and/or Eli Manning don’t play well.  But that could be the key to opening up the passing game.  Which will take a lot of pressure off the defense.

Which will make the team better.  Which could keep Tom Coughlin around for at least another year.

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PFT’s 2014 Preseason Power Rankings

Seattle Seahawks v San Francisco 49ers Getty Images

Here is how PFT ranks all 32 NFL clubs entering the 2014 season. A preseason analysis of each team can be found below. The rankings were determined by vote of the editorial staff:

1. Seattle Seahawks. (NFC rank: 1.)

2. San Francisco 49ers. (NFC rank: 2.)

3. Denver Broncos. (AFC rank: 1.)

4. New England Patriots. (AFC rank: 2.)

5. Green Bay Packers. (NFC rank: 3.)

6. New Orleans Saints. (NFC rank: 4.)

7. Baltimore Ravens. (AFC rank: 3.)

8. Indianapolis Colts. (AFC rank: 4.)

9. Cincinnati Bengals. (AFC rank: 5.)

10. Carolina Panthers. (NFC rank: 5.)

11. Arizona Cardinals. (NFC rank: 6.)

12. Chicago Bears. (NFC rank: 7.)

13. Philadelphia Eagles. (NFC rank: 8.)

14. Atlanta Falcons. (NFC rank: 9.)

15. Pittsburgh Steelers. (AFC rank: 6.)

16. San Diego Chargers. (AFC rank: 7.)

17. Kansas City Chiefs. (AFC rank: 8.)

18. New York Giants. (NFC rank: 10.)

19. New York Jets. (AFC rank: 9.)

20. St. Louis Rams. (NFC rank: 11.)

21. Detroit Lions. (NFC rank: 12.)

22. Cleveland Browns. (AFC rank: 10.)

23. Washington Redskins. (NFC rank: 13.)

24. Dallas Cowboys. (NFC rank: 14.)

25. Houston Texans. (AFC rank: 11.)

26. Tampa Bay Buccaneers. (NFC rank: 15.)

27. Minnesota Vikings. (NFC rank: 16.)

28. Buffalo Bills. (AFC rank: 12.)

29. Jacksonville Jaguars. (AFC rank: 13.)

30. Tennessee Titans. (AFC rank: 14.)

31. Miami Dolphins. (AFC rank: 15.)

32. Oakland Raiders. (AFC rank: 16.)

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Preseason Power Rankings No. 1: Seattle Seahawks

NFC Championship - San Francisco 49ers v Seattle Seahawks Getty Images

The Seattle Seahawks enter their 2014 training camp as defending Super Bowl champions for the first time in franchise history. While the team lost a handful of contributing pieces to free agency, the Seahawks return most of their impact players from their championship squad. In addition, the team locked up Michael Bennett, Earl Thomas, Richard Sherman and Doug Baldwin to long-term contracts to keep them in Seattle for the foreseeable future.

However, Seattle still has some questions to answer as training camp gets set to open on Friday. Can Thomas, Sherman and others play with the same drive after getting paid this offseason? How does Seattle replace Chris Clemons, Red Bryant and Clinton McDonald on their defensive line? Can Percy Harvin stay healthy enough to contribute all season?

Despite the few question marks, Seattle still enters the year as a strong candidate to return to the Super Bowl and become the first team to win consecutive titles since the New England Patriots in 2003-2004.

Strengths.

Even without Brandon Browner, the “Legion of Boom” will continue to cause fits for opposing offenses this year. Earl Thomas has become the premier safety in the game and Richard Sherman arguably the best cornerback. Kam Chancellor remains as the muscle of the quartet and Byron Maxwell has become dangerous as well with four interceptions in five starts to end the regular season.

Assuming the Seahawks and Marshawn Lynch can resolve any potential lingering contract concerns, Seattle’s rushing attack should be as good, if not better, in 2014. Seattle finished the season fourth in rushing with Lynch accumulating 1,257 yards and 12 touchdowns. Second-year back Christine Michael has drawn praise from the coaching staff and could give the offense a home run threat out of the backfield. Defenses still have to be aware of quarterback Russell Wilson rushing as well as he ran for 539 yards last season.

Weaknesses.

The offensive line was the biggest problem area for the Seahawks last season and many of the same issues remain as the season approaches. Russell Okung, Breno Giacomini and Max Unger combined to miss 18 games due to injury and the line struggled in their absence.

Giacomini is now gone to the New York Jets and Okung didn’t participate in offseason workouts while recovering from foot surgery. Former first-round pick James Carpenter has slimmed down and in the best shape of his professional career, but has mainly been a disappointment up to this point. Seattle also needs to find a starter at right tackle between Michael Bowie and second-round pick Justin Britt.

While still ranking as the best defense in the league last year, the Seahawks did struggle every once in a while against the run. St. Louis and Tampa Bay rushed for 200 yards against Seattle in consecutive weeks. With Red Bryant released for cap reasons, one of the stalwarts of Seattle’s rush defense is now gone.

Changes.

James Carpenter is slotted to take over full-time at left guard in place of the departed Paul McQuistan. The position had been a timeshare for most of last season. Breno Giacomini will also need to be replaced at right tackle.

The Seahawks had found a nice pass rush package late in the season that caused problems for opposing offenses. However, Chris Clemons and Clinton McDonald have departed and Seattle will need to find replacements. Benson Mayowa, Greg Scruggs, Jordan Hill, Kevin Williams and Jesse Williams should all be vying for time in passing situations.

Bryon Maxwell will take over the starting cornerback job opposite Richard Sherman after assuming the role last season following the suspension of Brandon Browner.

Camp battles.

Despite Pete Carroll’s “always compete” mantra, there aren’t many battles for starting jobs expected during training camp. Michael Bowie and Justin Britt will compete for the starting job at right tackle.

Beyond that, the wide receiver position should be fierce for roster spots and playing time. Percy Harvin participated in all offseason workouts and appears truly healthy for the first time since injuring his ankle in 2012 with the Minnesota Vikings. Doug Baldwin, Jermaine Kearse, Paul Richardson and Sidney Rice will be among the group competing for the next spot in line behind Harvin.

The same applies for the defensive line rotation with a slew of players competing for playing time. Greg Scruggs, Jesse Williams, Jordan Hill and Benson Mayowa were “redshirted” for lack of a better term due to being buried in the depth or injury. Along with the redshirt class, draft picks Cassius Marsh and Jimmy Staten will also have a chance to factor in the rotation.

Seattle will also need to find a punt returner to replace Golden Tate.

Prospects.

The Seahawks roster remains supremely talented and young. They were the youngest team to ever win a Super Bowl last February and Seattle has done a very good job of preparing their roster to absorb the larger contracts given to their emerging superstars.

The defense remains a physically imposing unit. Marshawn Lynch is a battering ram at running back and Russell Wilson the calm, distributor that directs the offense.

There are few areas of concern from a roster standpoint for Seattle as training camp approaches. The biggest question may be if they can handle being the hunted as reigning champions.

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Tony Dungy’s statement regarding his Michael Sam comments

[Editor's note:  In response to quotes that appeared in Monday's Tampa Tribune, Tony Dungy has released a statement.  The full content of it appears below.]

On Monday afternoon while on vacation with my family, I was quite surprised to read excerpts from an interview I gave several weeks ago related to this year’s NFL Draft, and I feel compelled to clarify those remarks.

I was asked whether I would have drafted Michael Sam and I answered that I would not have drafted him.  I gave my honest answer, which is that I felt drafting him would bring much distraction to the team. At the time of my interview, the Oprah Winfrey reality show that was going to chronicle Michael’s first season had been announced.

I was not asked whether or not Michael Sam deserves an opportunity to play in the NFL.  He absolutely does.

I was not asked whether his sexual orientation should play a part in the evaluation process.  It should not.

I was not asked whether I would have a problem having Michael Sam on my team.  I would not.

I have been asked all of those questions several times in the last three months and have always answered them the same way—by saying that playing in the NFL is, and should be, about merit.

The best players make the team, and everyone should get the opportunity to prove whether they’re good enough to play.  That’s my opinion as a coach.  But those were not the questions I was asked.

What I was asked about was my philosophy of drafting, a philosophy that was developed over the years, which was to minimize distractions for my teams.

I do not believe Michael’s sexual orientation will be a distraction to his teammates or his organization.

I do, however, believe that the media attention that comes with it will be a distraction.  Unfortunately we are all seeing this play out now, and I feel badly that my remarks played a role in the distraction.

I wish Michael Sam nothing but the best in his quest to become a star in the NFL and I am confident he will get the opportunity to show what he can do on the field.

My sincere hope is that we will be able to focus on his play and not on his sexual orientation.

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Preseason Power Rankings No. 2: San Francisco 49ers

NFC Championship - San Francisco 49ers v Seattle Seahawks Getty Images

The San Francisco 49ers have arguably been the best team in the NFL over the last three seasons with a Super Bowl appearance and two NFC Championship game appearances on their resume. But any trip to the postseason that doesn’t end with that final victory leaves a team ultimately unfulfilled.

Despite some changes to the roster and some off-field incidents this offseason, the 49ers are once again primed to push for a sixth Super Bowl title this season.

San Francisco should be more dynamic offensively with a healthy Michael Crabtree and the addition of Steve Johnson to provide targets for Colin Kaepernick. However, the 49ers may have lost a little strength on the defensive side of the ball. NaVorro Bowman could miss a significant portion of the season while returning from injury and Aldon Smith could be suspended for transgressions off the field. In addition, all four members of the 49ers starting secondary in Super Bowl XLVII have now moved on with some question marks remaining.

Strengths.

The 49ers running game should continue to be among the most explosive in the league. Frank Gore and Colin Kaepernick are a daunting threats to carry the ball. In addition, Kendall Hunter, Carlos Hyde and possibly even Marcus Lattimore provide capable depth for an aging  (but somehow still not diminishing) Frank Gore. San Francisco will need to hope Daniel Kilgore can be an adequate replacement at center for the departed Jonathan Goodwin.

When healthy and able to play, the 49ers linebackers remain as strong as any unit in football. Ahmad Brooks and Aldon Smith are dynamic threats at outside linebacker with NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis as two of the best inside linebackers in the game. However, Bowman could miss several games while recovering from a knee injury in the NFC Championship game and Smith’s off-field issues could likely lead to a suspension this fall.

Weaknesses.

San Francisco is noticeably weaker at cornerback than they were during their run to the NFC title in 2012. Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown are now gone, leaving Tramaine Brock and Chris Culliver as the penciled starters with journeymen Perrish Cox and Chris Cook as depth options. Brock has proven to be a solid player. However, Culliver could ultimately be suspended as well for a felony charge of possession of brass knuckles stemming from a hit-and-run arrest this offeseason.

Colin Kaepernick’s play against the division rival Seattle Seahawks is also an area of concern. In four career starts against Seattle, Kaepernick has struggled mightily in the passing game. He’s completed just 52 percent of his passes for an average of 175 yards per game with three touchdowns and seven interceptions. Against all other opponents, Kaepernick has thrown 34 touchdowns to just nine interceptions. San Francisco is just 1-3 in those games and has been outscored by a margin of 111-52. Considering the road to the top of the division likely goes through Seattle, this an area that the 49ers have to hope Kaepernick can improve in.

Changes.

Daniel Kilgore is penciled in to replace Jonathan Goodwin as the starting center for the 49ers. It’s the first shake up to an offensive line that has been among the league’s elite units over the past few seasons.

Antoine Bethea was signed to replace the departed Donte Whitner at strong safety.

Meanwhile, the addition of Steve Johnson and the return of Brandon Lloyd to the 49ers could stabilize a receiving corps that was underwhelming last season.

Camp battles.

While Kilgore may have the jump-start, rookie Marcus Martin could also challenge for the starting center job once he comes off the non-football injury list.

The 49ers will need to find an interim replacement for NaVorro Bowman at inside linebacker. Michael Wilhoite, Nick Moody and rookies Chris Borland and Shayne Skov will likely be called upon to challenge for the job.

Prospects.

The San Francisco 49ers are one of the best teams in the NFL. The problem for San Francisco right now is that until they can prove otherwise, the Seahawks are better.

The injury to Bowman and potential suspension of Smith, along with the changes in the secondary could cause some initial struggles defensively for the 49ers as well. However, the 49ers are still plenty talented enough to compete for the divisional title in the NFC West.

Another year of experience from Colin Kaepernick and improved quality at the receiver position should make the passing game more efficient this season. With a rock solid rushing attack, the 49ers offense could be the best it has been with Kaepernick under center.

The Seahawks and 49ers don’t meet until Thanksgiving night in Santa Clara before playing twice in three weeks. Those two meetings will likely go a long way toward determining the champion of a loaded NFC West and a favorite in the NFC to reach the Super Bowl.

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Preseason power rankings No. 3: Denver Broncos

John Elway, John Fox AP

Can Peyton Manning win another Super Bowl?

That is the question people ask when they talk about these Denver Broncos. John Elway, John Fox and the rest of the decision makers in Denver answer that question with an emphatic yes, and they’ve made it clear that they’re putting all their chips on the table and trying to win a championship now: Not only have the Broncos given Manning a good corps of receivers, but the Broncos also invested heavily in veteran free agents on defense this offseason, most notably DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib and T.J. Ward. The plan in Denver is try to win another title while Manning is still on top, and worry about the potential consequences of having a lot of expensive aging veterans on the roster later.

That’s a strategy that makes a lot of sense, but it’s also a strategy that has the potential to blow up in the Broncos’ faces, if Manning and some of the other veterans on the roster begin to show their age more quickly than the Broncos are expecting. Still, the Broncos enter this season looking like the best team in the AFC.

Strengths.

Obviously, it begins with Peyton Manning, the reigning MVP of the NFL, who’s coming off perhaps the greatest season any NFL player has ever had. As long as Manning is healthy, the Broncos will have a great passing offense.

But it goes beyond Manning. If left tackle Ryan Clady is back to form and healthy for 16 games, the offensive line should be better than it was last year, when Clady was lost for the season in Week Two. And the receiving corps, featuring Demaryius Thomas and Wes Welker along with new arrivals Emmanuel Sanders and second-round draft pick Cody Latimer, could be better too. And don’t forget that tight end Julius Thomas, who burst onto the scene last year, is still relatively inexperienced and may keep getting better this year.

The Broncos’ run defense was solid last year (stopping Seattle’s running backs was about the only thing the Broncos did well in the Super Bowl), and it could be better this year as well. The Broncos liked the way 2013 first-round draft pick Sylvester Williams played late last year at defensive tackle, and this year there’s every reason to expect a strong second season.

Weaknesses.

Last year the Broncos’ most significant weakness was their pass defense, which is why the pass defense was the top priority in free agency. Can DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib and T.J. Ward turn that pass defense into a strength? If so, the 2014 Broncos may be even better than the 2013 Broncos. If not, they’re going to need the offense to win a lot of shootouts. The wild card is the return of Von Miller, who was suspended for the first six games of last season and then missed the playoffs with a torn ACL. If Miller is healthy for 16 games and as good a pass rusher as he was in 2012, then maybe we’ll need to list the Broncos’ pass defense under “strengths.”

Middle linebacker Nate Irving could turn out to be a weakness in the Broncos’ defense if he can’t prove he’s ready to handle the starting job on a full-time basis. Wesley Woodyard departed in free agency, and Denver needs Irving to be ready to handle the responsibilities that Woodyard handled last year.

Special teams may turn out to be a weakness for the Broncos as well. Last year they struggled covering kicks (although that was partially masked by the fact that it’s easy to boot the ball into the end zone for a touchback in Denver), and the Broncos still have no idea who will return punts and kickoffs for them.

Changes.

Champ Bailey has meant a lot to this franchise for the last 10 seasons, and it will look a little strange to watch the Broncos’ defense and not see Bailey. But adding both veteran Aqib Talib and rookie Bradley Roby should change the cornerback position for the better.

Eric Decker is also a significant loss at wide receiver, but that may again be a position where the net result of the changes is an improvement. Emmanuel Sanders is an accomplished veteran, and Cody Latimer is a talented rookie. Denver’s front office did a good job of compensating for the departure of Decker.

Position battles.

The No. 1 cornerback is Aqib Talib, but after that there’s plenty of competition at the cornerback position. First-round draft pick Bradley Roby has a good shot at being the No. 2 cornerback, but if Chris Harris is completely healthy (he said in June that he’s 85 percent recovered from a torn ACL), then Harris may beat out Roby to start opposite Talib. Kayvon Webster, a 2013 third-round pick, is also in the mix and will compete to be the Broncos’ nickel corner.

Another interesting competition will take place at right tackle, where Chris Clark currently looks like the favorite. Clark stepped in for injured left tackle Ryan Clady last year and performed well enough that it would seem likely that Clark will remain a starter now that Clady is back on the left side. However, veteran Winston Justice will get a shot at beating out Clark in training camp, and so will rookie third-round pick Michael Schofield.

The backup running back position behind starter Montee Ball appears to be Ronnie Hillman’s to lose, but it wouldn’t be a shock if Hillman does, in fact, lose that battle. C.J. Anderson looked good in limited work last year, and the Broncos really like a couple of undrafted rookies, Juwan Thompson and Brennan Clay. Ultimately, the second-string running back in Denver will probably the running back who proves himself the best pass protector in training camp and the preseason, as protecting Peyton Manning is the most important priority in Denver’s offense.

The most interesting camp competition of all may be for the return job, where the departure of Trindon Holliday in free agency leaves things wide open. On punt returns, Wes Welker is the most experienced man for the job, but given Welker’s age and concerns about whether he’ll stay healthy for 16 games, it seems unlikely that Welker will be the regular punt returner this season. Instead, the Broncos will likely give a number of young and athletic players a shot at earning a roster spot by returning punts. Isaiah Burse, an undrafted free agent receiver, was a good return man at Fresno State and may be the best bet to end up winning the punt return job. Burse can also return kickoffs, and he’ll likely compete with veterans Andre Caldwell and Omar Bolden for that job.

Prospects.

The bottom line for the Broncos? First of all, they still look like the best team in the AFC. And secondly, no one in Denver will be satisfied with just being the best team in the AFC.

It’s a “Super Bowl or bust” year for the Broncos, and that means winning the Super Bowl, not just getting there. If the offense is as good as last year and the defense is better, the Broncos have a real chance of hoisting the Vince Lombardi Trophy. But with the Super Bowl debacle fresh in our minds, it’s hard to argue that the Broncos are the best team in the NFL.

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