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Five questions: San Diego Chargers

Philadelphia Eagles v San Diego Chargers Getty Images

Since Peyton Manning joined the Broncos in 2012, Denver has dominated the AFC West, rolling to a combined 26-6 regular season record. The Broncos have fattened up on their divisional foes, winning 12-of-13 against West competition.

The only AFC West club to defeat the Broncos in this span? The Chargers, who won at Denver last December — a victory San Diego had to have to make the postseason.

The Broncos would win the third and decisive game in the series in the divisional round, prevailing by seven at home. Overall, the Broncos are 4-1 against the Chargers under Manning, outscoring the Chargers 137-111 — a point differential of 5.2 per game.

In short, the Broncos have clearly been the better club. But the Chargers are at least in the ball game against Denver. By contrast, the Raiders have been outscored 134-54 by Denver since Manning switched teams. The Chiefs have been somewhat competitive against the Chargers, with losses of seven and eight points to Denver in the last two years. However, Kansas City suffered some key losses in free agency, while Denver bolstered its defense.

So when it comes to keeping Denver honest in the AFC West, it might be a one-team operation this season.

As you ponder how the Chargers stack up with the Broncos, here’s five other questions about San Diego:

1. What impact will tight end Ladarius Green have on the passing game?

The 24-year-old Green showed potential last season, averaging 22.1 yards per catch. Green has seam-stretching ability — he was timed at 4.52 seconds in the 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine two years ago — and he could earn a much bigger role the San Diego offense this season. If he continues to develop, he’ll be a worthy heir apparent to future Hall of Famer Antonio Gates, who continues to be Rivers’ security blanket.

Consider the matchup problems the Chargers can cause in the passing game. On the outside, teams have to deal with standout second-year receiver Keenan Allen and 6-foot-5 big-play threat Malcom Floyd. Meanwhile, the speedy Green and physical, savvy Gates are tough covers in the middle of the field. And all three of the Chargers’ primary tailbacks (Danny Woodhead, Ryan Mathews, Donald Brown) can catch the ball out of the backfield, with Woodhead especially strong in this area.

2. Will the Chargers again win the third-down battle?

The Chargers were materially better on third downs than the opposition a season ago. On offense, San Diego converted a league-high 49.0 percent on third down (101-of-206) — about 11 percent higher than the league average. The Chargers’ defense, meanwhile, was slightly below average on third downs, holding opponents to an 38.9 percent conversion rate (70-of-180). Now just think: if only the Chargers’ defense can get a little better getting third-down stops.

3. What kind of impact will cornerbacks Brandon Flowers and Jason Verrett have on the Chargers’ defense?

A good starter for Kansas City for several seasons, Flowers comes to San Diego with something to prove. Despite being named to the Pro Bowl a season ago, the Chiefs parted ways with the 28-year-old corner in June. In a league where teams routinely play five or more defensive backs, Flowers’ departure was an eye-opener.

Still, Flowers’ quickness, experience and ball skills should give the San Diego secondary a big lift. Verrett, the club’s first-round pick, will also get a chance to help right off the bat.

The Chargers made the postseason in 2013 despite surrendering the second-most passing yards per play and allowing opponents to complete 66.4 percent of their throws. If San Diego makes it tougher on opposing passing games, it will bolster the club’s chances of a return trip to the postseason.

4. Can quarterback Philip Rivers build on his 2013 success?

In a new offense playing behind an improved offensive line, Rivers came alive in 2013, throwing for 4,478 and 32 TDs and completing 69.5 percent of his throws. Rivers has a special feel for the passing game, and his arm strength is more than adequate. He has a deep pass catching corps, and he’s always been willing to spread the ball around. In his second season in coach Mike McCoy’s offense, it’s quite possible Rivers will be as efficient in 2014.

5. Can the Chargers get on a roll early?

After grabbing the AFC’s last playoff spot on the season’s final day in 2013, perhaps the Chargers can make life easier on themselves this December.

A 6-3 record entering the Week 10 bye is a reasonable goal for San Diego. The Chargers draw the Bills (Sept. 21), Raiders (Oct. 12) and Dolphins (Nov. 2) on the road in the first nine weeks, with home contests against the Jaguars (Sept. 28), Jets (Oct. 5) and Chiefs (Oct. 19). The Chargers’ best game could be too much for all of those clubs to handle.

While matchups against Seattle (Sept. 14) and at Denver (Oct. 23) loom as tall orders, San Diego proved a season ago that it could compete against top competition.

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PFT’s 2014 NFL roster cuts tracker

scissors Getty Images


Cut Jay Feely, Max Starks and 11 others to get to 75 players.


Got down to 75 players by making a series of moves on Sunday.


Made all 15 of their moves Monday, including releasing safety Omar Brown.


QBs Thad Lewis and Dennis Dixon were among the players cut to get down to 75.


Got to the limit by placing WR De’Andre Presley on the PUP list, and three other players on IR. Tiquan Underwood was cut following the third preseason game. He was one of 10 players released Sunday to get them to 79.


Cutting two members of the 2012 draft class got the Bears down to 75. Adrian Wilson and Nate Collins were among the early cuts.


Cut quarterback Matt Scott among their final moves to 75. Cut Ryan Whalen and four others to start the process.


Trimmed the roster to 76 players with 14 cuts on Monday. Placed tackle Michael Bowie and linebacker Darius Eubanks on injured reserve.


Defensive end Martez Wilson and fullback J.C. Copeland were cut on Monday morning. They wrapped up their moves on Tuesday.


Denver got down to 75 on Monday. Winston Justice and 10 others were let go on Sunday.


Cut six players and put sixth-round pick T.J. Jones on the PUP list. Kicker Giorgio Tavecchio was dropped as the Lions got to 75 players on Monday.


Dumped seven players on Sunday. Got down to 75 by putting B.J. Raji and five other players on injured reserve.


Got down to 75 with three cuts on Tuesday. Placed offensive lineman David Quessenberry on IR and waived nine others on Monday.


Reached the 75-man limit with transactions involving four injured players.

Dropped to 79 players on Monday morning.


Got down to 75 with moves including putting Aaron Colvin on the non-football injury list. Cut 11 players Sunday, including cornerback Mike Harris and former Giants wideout Ramses Barden.


The Chiefs got down to 75 players on Tuesday morning.


They parted ways with quarterback Brady Quinn and receiver Armon Binns as they got to 75. Three players were waived as the Dolphins began their cuts.


Veteran corner Derek Cox was the big name among the first 14 cuts they made, and Mike Higgins was the final cut to get down to 75.


Defensive tackle Tommy Kelly, defensive end Will Smith and linebacker James Anderson were among the first cuts. They stashed Tyler Gaffney on IR among moves to get to 75.


TE Travis Beckum was among the first cuts in New Orleans. They made the rest of them on Tuesday afternoon.


They put safety Cooper Taylor and wide receiver Marcus Harris on IR, and cut 13 to get to the limit.


Got down to the 75-man limit with cuts including Jacoby Ford and Ras-I Dowling.


Started the cuts with seven on Sunday. Placed cornerback D.J. Hayden on PUP list and made seven other moves on Tuesday.


Got an early start by cutting 14 players on Saturday. Waived-injured center Julian Vandervelde on Tuesday to complete their cuts.


Made their first round of cuts on Tuesday morning. They concluded their cuts by releasing six players Tuesday afternoon.


Trimmed the roster by 11 players on Monday. Placed three players on injured reserve to get to 75 players.


Got down to 75 with moves including putting Marcus Lattimore on NFI and NaVorro Bowman on PUP.


Cut cornerback Terrell Thomas and defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat on Sunday. Got to 75 players on Tuesday.


Putting Sam Bradford on injured reserve got the Rams down to the 75-man limit. Cut 10 including former Missouri standout T.J. Moe Monday.


Return man Eric Page and trick-shot quarterback Alex Tanney were among the players cut. They claimed two off waivers and cut four to get to the limit.


Cut eight guys Monday. Placed linebacker Colin McCarthy on injured reserve en route to the 75-man limit.


Linebacker Rob Jackson was among the early cuts in Washington. 2012 fifth-round pick Adam Gettis was also cut as the Redskins got to 75 players on Tuesday.

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Five questions: New York Jets

New York Jets v Cincinnati Bengals Getty Images

Doom and gloom were the two leading predictions for the Jets in 2013, but the team defied those execrable expectations to go 8-8 while securing wins over teams like the Patriots and Saints over the course of the season.

Predictions aren’t quite as bad this time around, although that doesn’t mean people are clamoring to get in line for playoff tickets. The team improved their offensive supporting cast, but there’s still plenty of uncertainty about Geno Smith’s ability to drive the bus. On defense, the strength of the defensive line is balanced out by a shortage of cornerbacks that could prove fatal given the Jets’ schedule.

Questions about quarterback and cornerback kick off our five queries about the Jets and the answers to them will probably go a long way toward answering the final entry on the list.

1. Who will start the most games at quarterback?

Unless things go terribly wrong against the Giants in the team’s third preseason game on Friday night, Smith will be starting the opening game against the Raiders. That hardly settles things for the entire season, though.

With Michael Vick on the roster, Smith won’t have the same kind of rope he got when Matt Simms was the only other option during his rookie season. With Eric Decker, Chris Johnson and other new additions on offense, Smith also won’t get the benefit of doubt that comes from playing with a skeletal supporting cast. Smith will have to show that his strong close to last season was a building block for the future, something that hasn’t been readily apparent in the team’s first two preseason games.

If he can retain the job through the season, it should mean that the Jets have taken a significant step forward offensively. If he can’t, Vick may be able to rally the team but it would leave the Jets back at square one in their decades-long search for a franchise quarterback.

2. Were the Jets too dismissive of cornerback needs?

The offseason started with the Jets cutting Antonio Cromartie because of his outsize salary, a move that opened up cap space that many imagined General Manager John Idzik would use to bolster the position. While they did sign Dimitri Patterson, the Jets otherwise resisted the temptations of free agent cornerbacks and end the summer with a lot of cap space that should help them maintain fiscal sanity in the coming years.

It won’t do them any good against the pass, though, and that’s become a big problem with Dee Milliner’s readiness for the season in doubt because of an ankle injury and third-round pick Dexter McDougle lost for the season because of a torn ACL. Patterson’s also been banged up this summer, no surprise given his history, and there’s not much behind them on the roster.

Idzik says he has no regrets about how things went this offseason, but let’s check in again in a couple of months. The Jets open with the Raiders and then go on to face the Packers, Bears, Lions, Chargers, Broncos and Patriots with the last two coming five days apart. Those are all potent passing offenses and the Jets’ corner issues could make it late real early this season.

3. How will the running back workload shake out?

Johnson still has the aura of a marquee back because of his past exploits, but he’s not guaranteed much of anything with the Jets after offseason knee surgery and two disappointing years with the Titans. Chris Ivory and Bilal Powell are back after each had strong stretches for the Jets in 2013 and the desire to put too much on Smith’s shoulders should leave work for all of them come the regular season.

There’s little question that the best-case scenario for the Jets offense is that Johnson rediscovers his old magic and takes the lead role in the backfield while Ivory and Powell do complementary work. If he can’t, the Jets offense will likely be on the plodding side and that hasn’t worked out for them the last couple of years.

4. Will Quinton Coples take the next step?

Given the issues at corner, the Jets would help themselves a lot if they can pressure quarterbacks into mistakes. Rex Ryan’s defenses have had some success doing that over the years, but his recent Jets teams have been a bit short on that front if their talented defensive line doesn’t get the job done on its own.

The addition of Jason Babin gives the Jets another piece to use in hopes of generating a more robust pass rush this season, but it would be ideal if Coples were to find more success in that area. He’s a better all-around player at this point than Babin and his work down the stretch last season provides hope that the light’s coming on for the talented but inconsistent linebacker.

5. Is this Rex Ryan’s last season with the Jets?

Ryan signed an extension with the Jets after last season, but it fell well short of securing his job for years to come. He got one more year of guaranteed money, which means he enters this season in pretty much the same position he entered last season. He did some of his best coaching by squeezing an 8-8 record out of a roster short on talent, but he was hired before Idzik and may still face the axe if there isn’t a significant improvement after three years out of the playoffs.

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Five questions: New England Patriots

Bill Belichick, Tom Brady AP

The Patriots winning the AFC East has almost reached the death and taxes level of certainty, which means the big question for them is always about something bigger.

Can they win the Super Bowl?

They’ve certainly got a chance to get there in a conference that many believe is set up for another title game clash between Bill Belichick and Peyton Manning. Winning that game for the first time since 2011 and challenging whoever survives in the NFC will take the right answers to the five questions we’re posing about the Patriots.

1. Can Gronk stay healthy?

If you can answer an unimpeachable yes to this question, you should probably do whatever you can to get in touch with the Patriots because they’d likely pay good money for help keeping tight end Rob Gronkowski on the field for an entire season.

The last time he did that was during the 2011 season, when he caught 90 passes for 1,327 yards and 17 touchdowns. Gronkowski played in seven games last year and the Patriots had 25 touchdown passes for the entire season.

During that brief period when Gronkowski was healthy last season, the Patriots were a buzzsaw on offense. They found the slogging much harder when he was out of the lineup recovering from back surgery or after he tore his ACL, though. The latter injury will him from cutting loose in a preseason game and Week One isn’t guaranteed, so there will be at least a few more weeks of wondering about when he’ll get the full green light.

And then it will be many more weeks for Patriots fans to worry about losing him every time he takes a hit.

2. How good can Darrelle Revis make this defense?

One need only look at the revolving door of cornerbacks that the Patriots have employed recently to know how much Revis changes things for New England. We’re not sure yet if he’ll be playing one side of the field or following a particular receiver each week, but it’s a good bet that Belichick will be doing things differently now that he has one of the league’s best corners to use on every snap of the ball.

It helps that he has so many other pieces to put in play around Revis. Chandler Jones, Jamie Collins and Donta’ Hightower have gained experience, Devin McCourty has transitioned well to safety, Jerod Mayo is back from last year’s pectoral injury and they’ll have Brandon Browner after he serves his four-game suspension. It adds up to the best defensive group on paper for New England in some time and Revis is the piece that could make it special.

3. Will time catch up to Tom Brady?

Brady turned 37 this year and he’s coming off a season that saw him take 40 sacks while posing his lowest completion percentage in a decade, all of which can be seen as reasons to argue that a quarterback could be starting the decline phase of his career.

Others would point to Gronkowski’s absence and a shortage of reliable wide receivers as reasons why Brady was less successful than in past seasons. The receiver question hasn’t been settled as the team is still hoping for Aaron Dobson and/or Brandon LaFell to provide a steady threat next to Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola, who Brady jokingly called pygmies this summer.

The gut feeling here is that a better cast of characters would lead to better things from Brady, but age catches up with all of us sooner or later.

4. Can their defensive tackles hold up?

If Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly and Dominique Easley are all healthy, they should make for an imposing trio in the center of the defensive line. It’s a big if, though.

Wilfork tore his Achilles last year and turns 33 in November while Kelly is coming back from a torn ACL and nearing his 34th birthday. Easley is a first-round pick and much younger, but he suffered the second torn ACL of his playing career last season. When Wilfork and Kelly went down last year, the Patriots defense took a serious hit and a similar turn of events this year would mitigate the good things discussed above.

5. How many fumbles is too many for Stevan Ridley?

Ridley lost a fumble in the team’s preseason game against the Eagles, an unhappy reminder of the four fumbles he lost last season. Those fumbles landed him in Belichick’s doghouse for a time and kept Ridley from building on a strong 2012 season.

LeGarrette Blount left as a free agent, but Shane Vereen and fourth-round pick James White are on hand as options should Ridley’s fumbles become a problem again this season. With free agency looming for the 2011 third-round pick, that would probably work out worse for him than it would for the Patriots.

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Five Questions: Oakland Raiders

Jacksonville Jaguars v Oakland Raiders Getty Images

You may recall we voted the Raiders 32nd in our preseason power rankings.

You may also recall the bottom five teams in our ratings were AFC clubs.

On paper, this doesn’t look like a banner year for the American Football Conference. Which, in turn, doesn’t hurt Oakland’s chances to perhaps exceed expectations, as we noted in our preseason Raiders analysis. And the Raiders have started decently enough in Dennis Allen’s first two seasons as head coach, posting 3-4 marks through seven games each time. However, they struggled down the stretch in both seasons, going 1-8 in Games 8 through 16 in 2012 and 2013.

With the club’s stadium lease expiring after the season, and with Allen and G.M. Reggie McKenzie under pressure to win after a couple of tough years, Raiders owner Mark Davis could have some major strategic decisions to make in the coming months. Here’s a look at five questions facing Oakland in 2014:

1. Who will start more regular season games at quarterback — Matt Schaub or Derek Carr?

Schaub has been the starter throughout the summer, and he’s on track to start in Week One. However, he lacks mobility, and the Raiders’ pass protection is very much an area to watch.

If the Raiders can’t protect Schaub, and if the 11th-year quarterback again struggles to take care of the ball, Oakland could turn to Carr, a second-round pick from Fresno State. Carr played well in extended action in the Raiders’ Aug. 15 preseason game vs. Detroit before suffering a concussion and injured ribs.

The Raiders’ bye is in Week Five, which could be a nice time to change quarterbacks if the Raiders have reason to do so. However, the Raiders get a fairly favorable draw in September, meaning the club may want to keep continuity. And why wouldn’t they if Schaub plays back to his best Houston form?

2. If the Raiders’ passing game sputters, can the ground game pick up the slack?

As a team, the Raiders rushed for 2,000 yards in 2013, 13th-best in the NFL. The club gained 4.6 yards per attempt, sixth-highest in the league, though TD runs of 93, 80 and 63 yards helped drive up the average.

There’s reason to believe Oakland can again have a productive rushing attack. The Raiders have three capable ball carriers (Maurice Jones-Drew, Darren McFadden, Marcel Reece). The offensive line is deeper than a season ago, too.

Still, the success of Oakland’s running game could very well be tied to its passing game. If the Raiders can’t give Schaub the time he needs to find open receivers, teams will be inclined to bring extra pressure and play tighter coverage. In this scenario, the Raiders could see defenses stacking the line and daring Oakland to do something about it. Then, it will be on the Raiders’ passing game to get defenses to back off, thus opening a little more room for that ground game.

3. Will the Raiders’ front seven have to carry the defense?

Let’s say this for the Raiders: they are going to be fun to watch when they force teams into obvious passing situations. Defensive ends Justin Tuck and LaMarr Woodley and defensive tackle Antonio Smith all know how to generate pressure, and young strong-side linebacker Khalil Mack has upside as a rusher, too.

The Raiders should also be solid against the run. Oakland surrendered just 3.9 yards per attempt a season, and its front seven is stronger this season.

However, the Raiders’ pass defense could be an area of concern. Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford shredded Oakland’s secondary in the second preseason game, completing 9-of-10 passes for 88 yards and two scores. While the Raiders did well to add ex-Niners cornerbacks Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers in the offseason, they could very much use a real contribution from 2013 first-round pick D.J. Hayden, who remains on the PUP list because of a foot injury.

4. Can the Raiders get off to a good start?

A 2-2 record in September is a reasonable goal for Oakland. The Week Three matchup at New England will be very, very tough, but matchups at the Jets (Week One) and against the Texans (Week Two) and Dolphins (Week Four) are games in which Oakland should be competitive. In fact, if Oakland plays well, 3-1 isn’t an impossible dream in the least.

With the schedule turning much tougher later in the year, the Raiders must seize the moment in September.

5. Will the uncertainty about the Raiders’ future in Oakland continue throughout the season, or will there be clarity?

The Raiders’ stadium situation will be a storyline until it is resolved, whether the club is contending or struggling. The longer this drags on, the more it threatens to be the issue that defines the season, especially if the team falls out of contention. Davis’ willingness to meet with San Antonio this summer speaks to the franchise’s need for a viable long-term home.

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Five Questions: St. Louis Rams

San Francisco 49ers v St. Louis Rams Getty Images

In a loaded NFC West, the St. Louis Rams have been quietly going about their business. The Rams have watched their division rivals deal with season-ending injuries (Darnell Dockett, Kendall Hunter), contract disputes (Marshawn Lynch, Alex Boone) and off-field issues (Aldon Smith, Daryl Washington).

Outside of the loss of reserve running back Isaiah Pead, the Rams have been steadily preparing for the start of the season without many bumps in the road.

St. Louis has won seven games in each of the last two seasons under head coach Jeff Fisher. Here are five questions that will determine if the Rams will improve that total this year.

1. Can Sam Bradford finally put it all together?

Sam Bradford is entering his fifth NFL season and last under his rookie contract with the Rams. He’s healthy once again after a knee injury last season. The Rams receiving corps appears to be the most talented group of Bradford’s tenure and the offensive line no longer appears to be a significant liability.

It’s now time to see if Bradford can live up to the lofty expectations of a former No. 1 overall draft pick and guide the Rams to the postseason for the first time since 2004.

Bradford had completed 61 percent of his passes last season with a 14-4 touchdown to interception ratio in seven games before going down with a torn ACL. It was a promising sign that Bradford may still have it in him.

2. Just how good can the Rams front seven be?

Robert Quinn and Chris Long combined for 27.5 sacks last season for St. Louis. Michael Brockers added 5.5 sacks from the defensive tackle position and the team went out and added Aaron Donald with second of two first-round draft picks. With William Hayes, Eugene Sims and Kendall Langford still as rotational players, the Rams defensive line could be one of the league’s most formidable units.

Add in James Laurinaitis and Alec Ogletree at linebacker and the front seven for St. Louis looks like the strength of the team. Is it enough to vault the Rams defense into the conversation of the league’s best? That will rely on the answer to our next question.

3. Will secondary play be St. Louis’ Achilles heel?

As strong as the front seven is for the Rams, the secondary has its question marks. With Cortland Finnegan gone, the Rams are relying on Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson to take hold of the starting jobs at cornerback. At safety, Rodney McLeod and T.J. McDonald were shaky at times last year too.

Rookies Lamarcus Joyner at cornerback and Mo Alexander at safety could help stabilize the back-end of the defense. The dominant pass rush should give the secondary a hand as well by putting repeated pressure on opposing quarterbacks. However, the Rams defense will likely only reach its ceiling if the play from the secondary can be adequate.

4. Do the Rams finally have a competent receiving corps?

The Rams have thrown draft pick, after draft pick, after draft pick at the receiver position in hopes of improving a group that has been perpetually lacking in St. Louis. Five receivers have been selected in the first four rounds in the last three years: Tavon Austin (1st round, 2013), Stedman Bailey (3rd round, 2013) Austin Pettis (3rd round, 2011), Brian Quick (2nd round, 2012) and Chris Givens (4th round, 2012). They also signed former Tennessee first round pick Kenny Britt this offseason.

Finally, the group may be good enough to give Sam Bradford the weapons he needs offensively. Austin caught 40 passes as a rookie to lead the Rams receivers. Britt looks to restart his career after a disappointing season where he fell out of favor in Tennessee. Quick, Givens, Pettis and Bailey give St. Louis capable depth.

A strong year from the receiving corps could help get the Rams over the hump.

5. Can Michael Sam make the roster and can he contribute if he does?

As detailed earlier, the Rams defensive line is loaded with star talent and quality depth. It makes it a difficult task for Michael Sam, a seventh-round pick out of Missouri attempting to become the first openly gay player to make an active NFL roster, to earn his way onto the squad.

Sam has held his own and picked up a sack last week against the Green Bay Packers. The battle for the final roster spot along the defensive line appears to be between Sam, Sammy Brown, Matt Conrath and Ethan Westbrooks. If he doesn’t make the final 53-man roster, the Rams could put Sam on their practice squad to develop.

If he does make the roster, Sam will likely be a deep reserve option only at the outset unless he can find his way onto the field in a special teams role.

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Five questions: Miami Dolphins

Ryan Tannehill Getty Images

The Dolphins held their playoff destiny in their hands heading into the last two weeks of the regular season, a fairly remarkable position given the turmoil on and off the field caused by an offensive line that was far harder on members of the Dolphins than they were on the opposition.

Miami couldn’t beat either the Jets or the Bills in those final weeks, however, and Miami missed the playoffs before making major changes this offseason. General Manager Jeff Ireland was fired, four-fifths of the starting offensive line changed and a new offensive coordinator, Bill Lazor, was brought in to help coach Joe Philbin try to make the playoffs for the first time since coming to Miami.

If you saw our preseason power rankings, you’ll know that there isn’t much optimism at PFT about that happening. If the Dolphins are going to prove us wrong, these are five areas where they’ll need to get positive answers.

1. Is Ryan Tannehill the answer at quarterback?

Tannehill entered the NFL with limited experience as a starting quarterback, but the Dolphins took him eighth overall in 2012 and teamed him with his college coach Mike Sherman in hopes of making a quick transition to the NFL. Tannehill has done that in one respect as he’s made all 32 starts through his first two seasons and he’s shown the kind of tools that you want to see from a starting quarterback. Consistency has been an issue, though, and it remains unclear whether or not he can vault to the next level.

Having an offensive line interested in stopping defenses from pounding him to the turf would be a good start, but Tannehill can also help himself by making quicker decisions before the pressure gets to him. Playing in Lazor’s system should help with that, although there will still be a need for Tannehill to show he can make the right decisions whether or not a defender is bearing down on him.

One way to help could be to get Tannehill throwing on the move more often as he’s been more successful in that area than he’s been when he delivers his passes from the pocket. His athleticism has always been a plus and Sherman’s scheme didn’t always take full advantage of that in Tannehill’s first two seasons. He’s played well in the first two preseason games, which creates some optimism for what’s to follow.

2. Will shuffling the linebackers lead to better results?

The Dolphins brought in two free agent linebackers last year and said goodbye to Karlos Dansby only to see Dansby thrive in Arizona while Dannell Ellerbe and Phillip Wheeler helped man a linebacking corps that struggled against the run and the pass. Ellerbe played in the middle last year with Wheeler and Misi flanking him, but things will look different this time around.

Misi is in the middle, a new position for him, while Ellerbe has kicked outside in hopes that he’ll be freed up to make more plays from that spot in the defense. The group had a poor first preseason outing, which has opened the door for fifth-round pick Jordan Tripp to gain some snaps with the first team. Whoever winds up filling out the group come the regular season, there needs to be a serious improvement in execution if the Dolphins defense is going to be stingy.

3. Will Mike Wallace’s second year in Miami be more productive than his first?

Wallace came to Miami with a contract that says he’s a centerpiece of the offense, but he didn’t wind up making that kind of impact on the field. Wallace caught 73 passes, but averaged a career-worst 12.7 yards per catch as his speed never led to the kinds of big plays down the field (six catches in 36 attempts of more than 20 yards) that marked his career with the Steelers.

Lazor has plans to use Wallace in a wider variety of ways this season, but neither reports from camp nor preseason play has shown a serious difference on the field. As the most dynamic receiver on the team, Wallace will have to be a major part of the offense for Tannehill to make the kinds of strides that the team wants to see him take this season.

4. Can the offensive line come together on the fly?

The good news for the Dolphins is that the bar was set so low in 2013 that it shouldn’t be hard for this year’s group to be better. The bad news is that being better than the 2013 Dolphins doesn’t mean that the line will be good enough to keep the offense moving.

Left tackle Branden Albert is a clear and big upgrade, but the rest of the line is still a mystery. Center Mike Pouncey hopes to avoid the PUP list, but will miss some time as he recovers from hip surgery and the loss of that anchor could have a ripple effect on a line that will start inexperienced players (tackle Ja’Wuan James, guard Dallas Thomas and guard Billy Turner) and/or underwhelming veterans Shelley Smith, Daryn Colledge and Dallas Thomas.

While the pass protection got all the notice last year, the Dolphins also fell short in the ground game. The backs on hand aren’t world-beaters, so there will be pressure on the line to be much better in that area as well because a little more balance would go a long way in Miami.

5. Do they have enough in the secondary?

The Dolphins were dealt a blow this summer when starting safety Reshad Jones was suspended for the first four games of the regular season, leaving cornerback Brent Grimes as the only sure thing in the secondary to start the season.

They are going to need safety Louis Delmas to stay healthy, cornerback Cortland Finnegan to rebound from a poor 2013 season and at least one member of the Jamar Taylor/Will Davis/Walt Aikens group of young players to make strides in order to be a group that scares opposing offenses. If those things don’t fall into place, they’ll be short even after Jones returns to the lineup and there will likely be some long days for the Miami defense.

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Five questions: Washington Redskins

Jay Gruden Robert Griffin III AP

The Redskins fell off a cliff in 2013 as they went from NFC East champs to 3-13 under a wave of injuries, dissension and dreadful play.

There were some quick responses to the turn of events, most notably the hire of Jay Gruden to be the team’s new head coach, but things don’t look all that different when it comes to the roster. There have been changes, obviously, but the defense is essentially the same and the offense is still reliant on a quarterback that hasn’t shown he can stay healthy through an entire NFL season.

Those two topics kick off our look at five questions that will help determine whether or not the Redskins will have another extreme change of fortunes in 2014.

1. Will Robert Griffin III rebound from last season?

We’ve got four more questions after this one, but it is hard to think that the answers to them will be all that consequential if the answer to this one is no.

The optimistic view in Washington is that Griffin was rushed back into action last season and that the extended time since he injured his knee in a playoff loss to the Seahawks will bring him back to being the athletic weapon that took the league by storm as a rookie. Those holding that viewpoint also believe that the departure of Mike Shanahan will benefit Griffin on the field by putting him into fewer running situations that could lead to injury while also helping off the field because of how bad the relationship between coach and player got last season.

A less rosy take would be that Griffin’s only going to be a special player if he’s doing the kinds of things that will inevitably lead to injury because anything else would be using a thoroughbred to pull a carriage. For now, the Redskins say they won’t be calling designed runs for Griffin and there have been reports that Kirk Cousins has looked like the better fit for Gruden’s offense. That’s a moot point as Griffin is the starter, but there will continue to be doubters until Grifffin shows he’s got the 2012 magic back.

2. Is the defense any better?

There was so much focus on Griffin last season that the fact that the Redskins defense couldn’t stop anyone escaped the kind of notice it might have otherwise received. That didn’t wind up costing Jim Haslett his job and there’s been talk of a more aggressive approach from the coordinator now that Shanahan is out of the picture.

All of which sounds great right up to the point that you look at a roster that’s still short on top-level talent. The two biggest additions of the offseason — defensive end Jason Hatcher and safety Ryan Clark — are older players who have struggled with injuries during the summer while players like linebacker Perry Riley, cornerback David Amerson and safety Brandon Meriweather may be playing roles that ask too much of them. All in all, it is essentially status quo on defense in Washington and that’s a dubious way to move forward.

3. Can Jordan Reed stay healthy?

The Redskins think they have a rising star at tight end in Jordan Reed, but his rise could be limited by concussions. Reed was sidelined by one for the final seven games last season and he has a troubling history of concussions dating back to his time at Florida that will make for crossed fingers every time he goes over the middle.

If Reed can stay healthy, though, Griffin won’t have a shortage of targets to throw to this season. With DeSean Jackson, Pierre Garçon and Andre Roberts at wide receiver, Reed is going to see a lot of single coverage and last year’s 45 catches for 499 yards will just be scratching the surface of what he’s capable of doing in the NFL.

4. Was Gruden the right hire?

The breath of fresh air that followed Shanahan’s ouster is only going to last so long, so Gruden is going to have to show he can be more than just not Shanahan to be a long-term success in Washington.

Gruden oversaw a Bengals offense that has gone to the playoffs in each of the last three seasons and A.J. Green blossomed into one of the league’s finest receivers on his watch. He also developed Andy Dalton into a consistent winner in the regular season, although the postseason struggles haven’t done either coach or player any favors. The move to make Griffin more of a pocket passer is one you could have guessed, but it would behoove Gruden to rely on Alfred Morris and the ground game a bit more than he did in Cincinnati.

5. How will they stop the pass?

The Redskins placed the franchise tag on linebacker Brian Orakpo this offseason and he’ll be back on a one-year deal before potentially hitting free agency after the season. On the surface, that was a wise move as the Orakpo-Ryan Kerrigan tandem gives the team a pair of players who have had success rushing the passer. That’s vital for the Redskins because they don’t have a secondary that strikes much fear into opposing offenses.

That does make one wonder if the money spent on Orakpo could have been better invested in help for the defensive backfield beyond adding Clark and bringing back cornerback DeAngelo Hall, especially after the Redskins drafted linebacker Trent Murphy in the second round. If the pass rush doesn’t get home, there’s not much reason to believe that it will be hard to move the ball on the Redskins through the air and that’s never a good place to find yourself in the modern NFL.

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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.


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.


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.)


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.


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.


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

Manziel AP

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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