The National Football League will see most training camps open this week and while every team at this time of the year oozes optimism, every roster has questions and concerns – even the elite ones.
Salute Magazine takes a look at the 10 most pressing questions entering this upcoming season.
Can the New England Patriots luck out again and win another Super Bowl? Ok, we kid. The Pats did NOT get lucky and win the title, last season. They took the championship from the Atlanta Falcons and that was as much a testament to their championship mettle as it was to the fact that the Falcons — for a lack of a better term — choked. The Patriots not only return the usual suspects, but added to their arsenal with the additions of wideout Brandin Cooks and defensive end Kony Ealy. The former was arguably the best receiver for the New Orleans Saints, last season, while the latter was a starter on a loaded Carolina Panthers defense, and would’ve been the Super Bowl 50 Most Valuable Player, had they beaten the Denver Broncos. The rest of the league can thank the NFC South for loading up the Patriots. They also picked up linebacker, and longtime nemesis David Harris, after he was shockingly released by the New York Jets. But really, as long as quarterback Tom Brady remains healthy — and he’s yet to show any signs of slowing down — New England will remain the favorites to come out of the American Football Conference and represent in the Super Bowl.
Can the Falcons avoid the runners-up malaise that plagues most Super Bowl losers? This team is so young and talented that it might not know any better. Quarterback Matt Ryan insists the team will bounce back. And after re-watching the Super Bowl collapse numerous times this offseason, he appears as if he’s over it and ready to move this squad forward. There are reasons for Ryan’s faith, mainly because the offense still has him, the reigning league Most Valuable Player, and star wideout Julio Jones. The defense was young and fast, last season. And with another collective year under their belts, that can only be a good thing. Throw in the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium to house such an enthusiastic home crowd, and the Falcons could be that rare Super Bowl runners-up to not only get back to the playoffs, but the big game as well.
Will Andrew Luck and Cam Newton look like themselves following offseason surgical procedures? Two of the more dynamic and indestructible dual-threat quarterbacks in the NFL actually proved to be humans, as their 2016-17 performances suffered some due to lingering shoulder maladies. Both had work done of their shoulders, but are expected to make full recoveries and be ready by opening weekend. The quarterback position is the most important in football, but with these two, they’re absolutely vital to any success by their respective teams. Sans either Newton or Luck, there might not be a greater drop off in talent from starter to backup in the entire league — no disrespect to Derek Anderson and Scott Tolzien intended. The Panthers and Colts need their guys in the lineup to even have a chance at staying in games.
Speaking of drop off, what happened to New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning? Manning was up and down, last season. And while a lot of that had to do with sporadic offensive line play, he was simply missing open targets on his own as well. He also seemed overly dependable on electric wideout Odell Beckham Jr., too, at times. But with the additions of wideout Brandon Marshall and rookie tight end Evan Ingram, plus the ascension of second-year receiver Sterling Shepard, that should be enough weaponry to get Manning back to elite level. The Giants will be a sneaky-good title contender this season if Manning regains his magic.
Are the Jets truly tanking? Despite what management says, it’s hard to think otherwise, as this summer’s personnel moves have been suspect. Besides cutting Marshall, Gang Green also jettisoned linebacker Harris, center Nick Mangold, receiver Eric Decker, and cornerback Darrelle Revis. That’s a whole lot of Pro Bowl experience that the five-win Jets decided they didn’t need any more. There’s pretty much no other way to explain the purge, other than to say that the Jets are trying to position themselves the best they could for next April’s draft — and that by definition is tanking. General manager Mike Maccagnan can say they want to get younger and cheaper, but if it smells like a tank, and it looks like a tank, then it is a tank.
Are the Oakland Raiders going to repay its fans’ loyalties by giving them a Super Bowl send-off before Las Vegas calls? They have at least two years remaining on their lease, but the clock is ticking for the Raiders to give the long-suffering fans a title. It’s the least they can do since they’re ditching the Black Hole for Vegas, baby. Many people think that the Raiders were poised to win it all, last season, had it not been for the devastating broken leg suffered by franchise quarterback Derek Carr. The newly-paid signal caller will lead a diverse and talented offense that also added running back Marshawn Lynch. There might not be a more balanced offense than the one in Oakland. And defensively they still have reigning Defensive Player of the Year in linebacker Khalil Mack to complement such offensive prowess. If the young guys keep ascending, the league could be in trouble.
Will Ezekiel Elliot remain focused after a stellar rookie season, or will the off-field stuff catch up to him? As a rookie, Elliot was arguably the best running back in the league. And with a season of experience – and playing behind the game’s best offensive line – he’s bound to recreate that season. The only caveats are injuries, of course, and any possible disciplinarian action taken against him by the league or the court of law. As of today, he seems in the clear, but who knows what’ll transpire down the road. The 2016-17 rushing champ could top 2,000 yards if all goes right. That’s be an impressive list, as only seven players in league history have accomplished that feat – and none as young as the second-year back. The last to do it was Adrian Peterson in 2012. It’s not out of the realm of possibility if Elliot doesn’t get tripped up off the field or derailed by injury.
Will the Broncos gain any clarity on the starting quarterback position? Clarity is one thing, but the Broncos must also be sure that either of their young signal callers, incumbent starter Trevor Siemian or second-year passer Paxton Lynch, is clearly the right guy to lead them back into the tournament. Siemian started 14 games, last season, and showed spurts of being more than capable of being “the guy.” Lynch in his two starts looked lost most of the time, but his measurables are tantalizing. Siemian has a slight edge, according to most reports, but smart money says if the race is close, first-year head coach Vance Joseph will go with the guy who has far more upside: Lynch.
Can the Seattle Seahawks regain team harmony and get back to dominance? Star cornerback Richard Sherman was in the news often this offseason, whether it was for trade speculation or rumors of discord in the locker room – specifically with franchise quarterback Russell Wilson. But Sherman appears to no longer be on the open market, as it seems Seattle’s demands were too high. And the loquacious one was also quick to squash any more rumors that he and Wilson don’t get along. While not saying the two are best friends, Sherman told ESPN that they do “hang out from time to time” and that their relationship is “professional” and won’t get in the way of Seattle’s championship aspirations. He reasoned that their relationship dynamic is “different” from that of other best friends on the team, but it doesn’t mean that the two strong personalities can’t rally around one another and compete together as one. They’ll need that to happen if the Seahawks want to get back their mojo.
Which ascending quarterback is ready to make The Leap? The top two contenders for this category of taking the next step are also the same two guys will have their careers always compared to: Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston and Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota. Winston was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, right ahead of Mariota. The third year could be the charm for both, as their respective franchises have stockpiled offensive talent all around. Both franchises have given their franchise cornerstones every opportunity to succeed with a ton of new weapons. Mariota has shown in his two seasons that he has the talent and leadership qualities to be an elite quarterback. But both seasons have ended early because of injury. If he can stay on the field for all 16 games, the sneaky-good Titans will be a legitimate conference threat.