Burning Questions for each NFC team

By Connor Pignatello

Welcome back! This post is a continuation of my previous article which detailed burning questions I had about each AFC team.

Like the AFC, some teams in the NFC are rebuilding and some are contending, but they all have at least one vital question that still needs to be answered.

I’ll also list three key players — at least one on offense and one on defense — for each team, to give you a refresher on the team’s personnel.

Here are the burning questions that each NFC team needs to answer.

NFC East

Dallas Cowboys

Key Players: Ezekiel Elliott, Sean Lee, Dak Prescott

Key Question: Can they keep up after losing significant talent in free agency?

The Cowboys were the surprise team in the NFL last year. They improved their record by nine wins after drafting Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott. However, their road to the playoffs this year will not be easy.

They lost nearly their entire secondary in free agency, as key contributors like Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne, Barry Church, and J.J. Wilcox all signed deals elsewhere.

The Cowboys still have the star-power needed for a shot at the Super Bowl, but they lost many important role players this offseason.

New York Giants

Key Players: Damon Harrison, Olivier Vernon, Odell Beckham Jr.

Key Question: Who’s the answer at running back?

The Giants finished last year at 11-5, a record good enough to make the playoffs.

But even though they had a successful year, their offense ranked 26th in points scored and 25th in yards gained. Their rushing attack in particular was dreadful, ranking 29th in the league.

The Giants tried many different options at running back last year and none of them worked. Rashad Jennings was the team’s leading rusher, but he didn’t even crack 600 yards. The Giants didn’t address this problem in the early rounds of the draft, and they won’t be able to supplant Ezekiel Elliott and the Cowboys unless they improve their rushing attack.

Washington Redskins

Key Players: Kirk Cousins, Brandon Scherff, Ryan Kerrigan

Key Question: Are they going to commit to Kirk Cousins?

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The Redskins have had an awful offseason.

First, the ownership fired general manager Scot McCloughan on the first day of free agency, amid reports that he had relapsed with alcohol abuse and was drunk in the locker room. They still haven’t found a general manager, and team president Bruce Allen suggested that he might not hire one at all. (hold on–what???)

Amid all of the chaos, the Redskins franchise tagged Kirk Cousins for the second consecutive season. Washington is fortunate enough to have a top ten quarterback like Cousins, but they have failed to lock him up on a long-term deal. The Redskins need to stop playing their game of cat-and-mouse with Cousins, and either sign him to a long-term contract or let him leave.
Philadelphia Eagles

Key Players: Brandon Graham, Jason Peters, Fletcher Cox

Key Question: Is Carson Wentz ready?

Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz was maddeningly inconsistent last season, and he endured stretches where he looked like a genius and others where he looked lost and confused.

During the first three weeks of the season, Wentz seemed invincible; completing 65% of his passes for five touchdowns and no interceptions. But in a five game losing streak from weeks 10-14, Wentz completed just 60% of his passes, and threw for just four touchdowns against eight interceptions.

If Wentz can improve upon his performance from last year, the Eagles will have a shot at emerging from the basement of the NFC East.

NFC North

Green Bay Packers

Key Players: Aaron Rodgers, David Bakhtiari, Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix

Key Question: Is Ty Montgomery ready to handle full-time running back duties?

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After back-to-back disappointing years in Green Bay, Pro-Bowl running back Eddie Lacy headed for greener pastures and signed with the Seahawks in free agency. Now, wide-receiver-turned-running-back Ty Montgomery is expected to be the team’s lead back after a 77-rush cameo last season. Montgomery fared surprisingly well last year, averaging a brilliant 5.9 yards per carry.

This offseason, Montgomery has changed uniform numbers and bulked up, preparing to be the team’s starting running back. The Packers need Montgomery to deliver a solid season, or else opposing defenses will zero in on Aaron Rodgers’ passing attack, and the Packers will falter.

Detroit Lions

Key Players: Matthew Stafford, Taylor Decker, Devin Taylor

Key Question: Was last season a fluke?

The Lions squeaked into the playoffs last year on an NFL record eight fourth-quarter comeback wins by Matthew Stafford.

Detroit had a bottom-half offense and a bottom-half defense last year, with a negative point differential (-12), a number that contradicts their 9-7 record. Detroit won just one game last season in which they weren’t behind in the fourth quarter.

No disrespect to Matt Stafford and his incredible fourth quarter exploits, but last year’s magic will be incredibly hard to reproduce. And if the Lions can’t repeat what they did last year, they won’t be able to sniff the postseason.

Minnesota Vikings

Key Players: Everson Griffen, Sam Bradford, Linval Joseph

Key Question: Who is the starting running back?

Last season, the Minnesota Vikings ranked dead last in the NFL in terms of rushing yardage. Their mark of 1,205 was not even half the mark set by the league-leading Buffalo Bills.

This offseason they’ve rectified that issue by drafting Dalvin Cook and signing Latavius Murray in free agency.

If Murray can replicate his exploits with the Raiders last year, and if Cook can deliver on his Pro-Bowl potential, the Vikings will have a terrific one-two punch at running back.

Murray and Cook have enormous shoes to fill after Adrian Peterson’s departure, but if they’re up to the task, the Vikings can challenge for a playoff berth.

Chicago Bears

Key Players: Jordan Howard, Akiem Hicks, Cameron Meredith

Key Question: Will Mitchell Trubisky receive any snaps this year?

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The Bears shocked the NFL world when they traded two third round picks and a fourth rounder to move up one slot and select quarterback Mitchell Trubisky number two overall in the draft. This was a bit perplexing, as the Bears had given Mike Glennon a 3 year, $45 million contract during free agency.

Glennon deserves the starting nod and he will get it, but Trubisky deserves consideration too. The Bears clearly believe in him after spending so much draft capital to move up in the draft, and I hope he gets a chance this year.

NFC South

Atlanta Falcons

Key Players: Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Vic Beasley

Key Question: Can they avoid a Super Bowl hangover?

The Falcons lost last season’s Super Bowl in nearly the most demoralizing way possible, and they need to avoid the dreaded Super Bowl hangover.

Atlanta’s offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan — whose record-setting offense earned Matt Ryan the MVP —  left and became the 49ers head coach.

Last season’s Carolina Panthers are a perfect example of what the Falcons must avoid next year. The Panthers dropped from 15-1 to 6-10 after their Super Bowl loss, meaning that next season is extremely important for the Falcons. If they succeed next year, they will have laid the groundwork for years of potential dominance. But if they falter, their magnificent 2016 season will be remembered as a fluke.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Key Players: Lavonte David, Gerald McCoy, Jameis Winston

Key Question: Are the young Bucs ready for the playoffs?

Playoffs? Yes, playoffs. The Buccaneers finished 9-7 last year, missing out on those elusive playoffs because of a tiebreaker.

This offseason, Jameis Winston and company have added players like speedy receiver DeSean Jackson and powerful tight end O.J. Howard.

Last year the Bucs secured their first winning record since 2010, as Jameis Winston grew and the defense turned around. They led the league with 18 takeaways over the last eight weeks of the year.

The Bucs now have one of the scariest offenses in football. And their young defense is built to stop high-octane offenses like the Saints and Falcons. No matter if the rest of the NFL is ready or not, here come the Bucs.

New Orleans Saints

Key Players: Drew Brees, Zach Strief, Nick Fairley

Key Question: Can their defense catch up to their offense?

The Saints have finished with a top-ten offense and a bottom-five defense in the past three seasons. Last year, New Orleans finished first in yards gained and second in points scored. But they finished 31st in yards allowed and 27th in points conceded.

The Saints have continued to reinforce their defense through the draft and free agency, but to no avail; the defense has been horrendous the past few seasons. If the Saints can’t shore up their historically bad defense, their historically good offense will be wasted, and they will stay marooned in mediocrity.

Carolina Panthers

Key Players: Thomas Davis, Cam Newton, Luke Kuechly

Key Question: Can Cam Newton and the Panthers bounce back after last year’s disastrous season?Embed from Getty Images 

 
The Panthers followed their 2015 NFC-winning 15-1 season with a bumbling 6-10 record in 2016. GM Dave Gettleman, who oversaw the most successful four-year period in franchise history, was shockingly fired in mid-July.

Carolina’s QB Cam Newton struggled mightily last year, scoring 21 fewer touchdowns than he did in his 2015 MVP campaign.

The Panthers defense also struggled last season after the loss of star cornerback Josh Norman, dropping from sixth in points allowed in 2015 to twenty-sixth in 2016.

Overall, the team seemed disinterested last year and Cam Newton’s usually-vibrant enthusiasm was clouded over. Carolina is facing a make-or-break year that will determine whether their magical 2015 was an anomaly or not.

NFCWest

Seattle Seahawks

Key Players: Bobby Wagner, Russell Wilson, Cliff Avril

Key Question: Who will be the starting running back?

The Seattle Seahawks have been an NFL power for many years, making the postseason the past five seasons. However, their offense scuffled around last season, and Seattle finished 25th in the league in rushing yards.

Thomas Rawls, who led the league in yards per carry (5.6) during his breakout 2015 campaign, struggled with injuries last year, and his yards per attempt dropped to just 3.2. Eddie Lacy, Rawls’ main competition, has struggled with injuries and weight problems the past two years, and hopefully the Seahawks can resurrect his once-promising career. Lacy and Rawls will fight for the starting job, and the Seahawks will need a strong running game to challenge the other heavyweights of the NFC.

Arizona Cardinals

Key Players: David Johnson, Carson Palmer, Patrick Peterson

Key Question: Is Carson Palmer finished?Embed from Getty Images

The Cardinals endured an odd season last year as they followed up their NFC Championship game appearance in 2015 with a 7-8-1 record. The Cardinals lost six more games in 2016 than they did in 2015, and this was chiefly because of quarterback Carson Palmer.

As you can see by the chart below, Palmer’s production fell off a cliff in 2016.

Carson Palmer’s 2015 vs. 2016
Year Age G QBrec Cmp Att Cmp% Yds TD TD% Int Int% Y/A AY/A Y/C Y/G Rate QBR Sacked NY/A ANY/A Sack% 4QC GWD AV
2015 36 16 13-3 342 537 63.7 4671 35 6.5 11 2.0 8.7 9.1 13.7 291.9 104.6 78.6 25 8.04 8.41 4.4 2 5 16
2016 37 15 6-8-1 364 597 61.0 4233 26 4.4 14 2.3 7.1 6.9 11.6 282.2 87.2 58.9 40 6.20 6.03 6.3 1 3 12

Palmer will be entering the 2017 season at the ripe old age of 38, and he may not be able to carry the Cardinals any longer. Arizona should start looking to find his replacement.

Los Angeles Rams

Key Players: Aaron Donald, Alec Ogletree, Todd Gurley

Key Question: Can Todd Gurley bounce back?

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Like the rest of the Rams last year, Todd Gurley endured a horrible 2016 season. The open holes that Gurley found in his rookie year were simply not there last year, and Gurley averaged 30 fewer yards per game.

Gurley depended on long runs during his rookie season. Among running backs with at least 150 carries, Gurley had the highest percentage of runs that lasted 25 or more yards (8 out of 229). In 2016 though, Gurley ranked dead last in this metric, failing to have a single run of 25 yards or more in 278 carries.

The Rams recruited vital offensive line help this offseason, so hopefully Gurley will be able to rebound.

San Francisco 49ers

Key Players: Zane Beadles, DeForest Buckner, Carlos Hyde

Key Question: Can the new front office rebuild the team?

Many analysts, including myself, criticized the 49ers heavily when they hired John Lynch as their general manager. Lynch never had any front office experience, but he has had an excellent offseason.

First, he hired Kyle Shanahan, the former Falcons offensive coordinator, to be the 49ers new head coach. Shanahan is considered to be one of the brightest young minds in the game.

Then, Lynch signed underrated veterans like Brian Hoyer, Pierre Garcon, and Kyle Juszczyk in free agency.

Lynch also made off with a king’s ransom in the draft, trading down to select Solomon Thomas and then trading up to select Reuben Foster.

Although Lynch inherited possibly the most talent-baren roster in football, he has started to piece it back together.

Special thanks to Pro Football Reference, Spotrac, and Pro Football Focus for all of these helpful statistics.

I would also like to thank ESPN for each team’s depth chart.

Thanks for reading!

Carson Wentz picture credit: By Keith Allison [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Burning Questions for Each AFC Team

By Connor Pignatello

As the NFL Preseason approaches, each team in the league has a different agenda. Some teams are hoping to stay on top (Patriots); others are hoping to turn a young team into a playoff contender (Buccaneers); still others are just trying to make it to .500 (Vikings); and a few are simply trying to get a high draft pick and rebuild (Jets). Some teams have enormous make-or-break questions that need to be answered, while other teams have it all pretty much figured out.

No matter the team’s aspirations, each team has a player or concept that will decide their fate.

This post will explain the most substantial questions for each team in the AFC, while the next post will deal with the same for each NFC team.

I’ll also list three key players — at least one on offense and one on defense — for each team, to give you a refresher on the team’s personnel.

AFC East

New England Patriots

Key Players: Dont’a Hightower, Tom Brady, Malcolm Butler

Key Question: Can Brandin Cooks and Tom Brady develop chemistry?

The Patriots have reloaded this offseason in an attempt to stay on top of the NFL. Their X-factor this year will be Brandin Cooks, a new receiver they acquired in a trade with the Saints. It will be vital for Cooks to settle down in New England alongside Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski. If he can develop chemistry with Tom Brady, the rest of the NFL will have to bend a knee to the almighty New England dynasty.

Miami Dolphins

Key Players: Ndamukong Suh, Cameron Wake, Jay Ajayi

Key Question: Who starts at quarterback?

The Dolphins are scrambling after Ryan Tannehill went down with a potentially serious knee injury in training camp last week. Last year was Tannehill’s breakout season, as he proved the critics wrong and delivered the Dolphins their first playoff berth since 2008.

In a true panic move, Miami convinced Jay Cutler to come out of retirement on a 1-year, $10 million deal. Another option at quarterback is Matt Moore, who started in Tannehill’s stead last season. Moore is one of the best backup quarterbacks in the NFL, but isn’t starting material. If the Dolphins want to build on last season’s success, they need to find an answer at quarterback.

Buffalo Bills

Key Players: Tyrod Taylor, LeSean McCoy, Lorenzo Alexander

Key Question: How will the new staff help the team?

The Buffalo Bills ownership has done nothing this offseason to suggest that they will be able to end the NFL’s longest playoff drought: 17 years (!).

They fired their head coach, Rex Ryan, with one week still to go in the season. Then they renegotiated Tyrod Taylor’s contract, amid rumors that they wanted him out of Buffalo. And in the most confounding move of all, Buffalo ownership fired the entire scouting department and general manager the day after the draft.

The Bills have made head-scratching move after head-scratching move, all but guaranteeing the continuation of their playoff drought.

New York Jets

Key Players: Leonard Williams, Sheldon Richardson, Matt Forte

Key Question: How committed are they to a rebuild?

The Jets have gutted their roster this offseason, releasing veteran players like Brandon Marshall, Eric Decker, Darrelle Revis, Nick Mangold and David Harris.

This signifies a changing of the guard in New York, and the Jets are hoping to rebuild around young players like Christian Hackenberg and Jamal Adams. If the Jets build through the draft instead of adding veteran players in ill-fated win-now moves, they will secure a bright future.

AFC North

Pittsburgh Steelers

Key Players: Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown, Ryan Shazier

Key Question: Can Le’Veon Bell stay on the field?

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The Steelers, one of the most dangerous teams in the league, depend on Le’Veon Bell to do the heavy lifting on offense. Bell has the highest career yards from scrimmage per game average (128.5) in NFL history. But he has been limited by two drug suspensions and a knee injury, which have forced him to miss a combined fourteen games over the past two years. Bell has only one 16-game season in his four year career, but if he can stay on the field, the Steelers have a chance of dethroning the Patriots as the AFC’s best team.

Baltimore Ravens

Key Players: Zach Orr, C.J. Mosley, Joe Flacco

Key Question: Contend or tank?

Since winning the Super Bowl in 2012, the Ravens have defined mediocrity. They’ve gone 31-33 in the four years since while ranking 16th out of 32 teams in point differential. The team is too old and simply not good enough to contend for a championship. They do have some stars on the team, but this unfortunately discourages them from rebuilding. Last season’s 8-8 campaign should encourage the Ravens to try a rebuild and start anew.

Cincinnati Bengals

Key Players: Andy Dalton, Geno Atkins, A.J. Green

Key Question: Is Marvin Lewis Head Coach of the future?

After losing in the Wild Card game a record five times in a row, the Bengals took a step back last year, finishing 6-9-1. They lost their two best offensive linemen, Kevin Zeitler and Andrew Whitworth, in addition to defensive line stalwart Domata Peko in free agency. After the team was raided in free agency, the Bengals failed to make movements to either contend or rebuild.

Marvin Lewis is in the final year of his contract, and the league’s second-longest tenured head coach may not see a contract renewal at the conclusion of the season.

Cleveland Browns

Key Players: Jamie Collins, Joe Thomas, Isaiah Crowell

Key Question: Who will be the starting quarterback?

The Browns, the laughing stock of the NFL for so many years, are now suddenly a promising franchise. They had an excellent offseason, using their three first-round picks well, and making value signings in free agency. They took on Brock Osweiler’s contract in a salary dump that netted them a second-round pick. But Osweiler will have to compete with rookie DeShone Kizer and last year’s primary starter Cody Kessler for the starting job. Osweiler was announced as the starter for the first preseason game and he appears to have the inside track to the job. Even though Osweiler may be the starter for this year, Kizer looks to be the long term option at quarterback.

AFC South

Houston Texans

Key Players: Jadeveon Clowney, DeAndre Hopkins, J.J. Watt

Key Question: Is Deshaun Watson ready?

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The Texans won the South last year thanks to their defense, which ranked first in yards allowed. Jadeveon Clowney broke out last year, and with J.J. Watt opposite him, the Texans should scare opposing teams.

However, the Texans ill-fated Brock Osweiler experiment cost them next year’s first and second round picks. The first was used to trade up in the NFL Draft and select Osweiler’s replacement, and the second was employed as an incentive for the Browns to take Osweiler’s contract.

Watson is expected to start for the Texans, but if he’s not ready, the Texans will be forced to play Tom Savage. The Texans need Watson to perform well if they want to win their third consecutive AFC South title.

Tennessee Titans

Key Players: Jack Conklin, Marcus Mariota, Jurrell Casey

Key Question: Are they ready to contend?

Marcus Mariota and the Titans improved by six wins last season, and if it wasn’t for a late-season injury to Mariota, they probably would have made the playoffs. Mariota broke out last year, Demarco Murray bounced back, and the Titans flexed their ‘exotic smashmouth’ offense in wins over playoff teams like the Packers, Chiefs, and Texans. The Titans also boosted their previously weak receiving corps by selecting Corey Davis in the draft and signing Eric Decker in free agency. The Titans play in the easiest division in the league, and they have a great chance to make the playoffs this year.

Indianapolis Colts

Key Players: Andrew Luck, T.Y. Hilton, David Parry

Key Question: Can the Colts keep Andrew Luck on the field?

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Andrew Luck, the Colts franchise quarterback and possibly the best young quarterback in the NFL, has struggled the last two years due to inadequate talent around him. Last year, he was sacked 41 times, more times than any other QB besides Tyrod Taylor. The Colts rank 26th in the league in money spent on their offensive line, and don’t have a single Pro-Bowl offensive lineman. Because his offensive line can’t keep him upright, Luck has missed ten games in the past two years due to kidney, shoulder, and head injuries. If the Colts can’t find a way to protect Luck, they’ll waste their young star’s prime.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Key Players: Blake Bortles, Telvin Smith, Malik Jackson

Key Question: Is Blake Bortles really their QB?

In the 2014 NFL Draft, the Jaguars took Blake Bortles third overall, but he has struggled with decision-making since coming into the league. Bortles showed promise after a solid 2015 year in which he threw for 4,428 yards and 35 touchdowns. However, he regressed last season and threw for 529 fewer yards and 12 fewer touchdowns. Since entering the league, Bortles’ interception per pass attempt ratio ranks worst in the NFL behind only Ryan Fitzpatrick. In the final year of Bortles’ rookie deal the Jaguars have a decision to make — is Blake Bortles their quarterback of the future?

AFC West

Kansas City Chiefs

Key Players: Marcus Peters, Eric Berry, Alex Smith

Key Question: Will Tyreek Hill repeat his success?

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Tyreek Hill had an astounding 2016 season, and proved his worth as one of the best all-around weapons in the league. Last season, Hill became the first player in NFL history with at least three return, rushing, and receiving touchdowns. But after Jeremy Maclin’s departure, Hill became the Chiefs’ number one receiver — a move that will reduce his return duties, according to Blair Kerkhoff of the Kansas City Star. Recent return aces like Devin Hester and Cordarrelle Patterson have struggled mightily when their teams tried to mold them into receivers. It remains to be seen whether Hill can move to full-time receiver, but the Chiefs’ success depends on it.

Oakland Raiders

Key Players: Khalil Mack, Derek Carr, Kelechi Osemele

Key Question: Can they improve their defense around Khalil Mack?

Last year, the Raiders’ top ten offense carried them to a 12-4 record, but their bottom ten defense held them back. Their star defender, Khalil Mack, won Defensive Player of the Year and became the first player ever to receive first-team All-Pro honors at two different positions: defensive end and outside linebacker. However, the rest of the defense suffered, and Oakland ranked 26th in yards allowed. The Raiders took defensive backs Gareon Conley and Obi Melifonwu in the first two rounds of the draft, showing a commitment to building their defense. If the Raiders can improve their defense, they will be able to challenge the Patriots as the AFC’s best team.

Denver Broncos

Key Players: Von Miller, Chris Harris Jr., Trevor Siemian

Key Question: Is Paxton Lynch ready?

During the 2016 NFL Draft, the Broncos selected their QB of the future in Paxton Lynch after Peyton Manning retired. But they were forced to start seventh-rounder Trevor Siemian because Lynch wasn’t ready for NFL competition yet. The Broncos retained their top-five defense, but their bottom-five offense held them back and they finished third in the AFC West. Paxton Lynch acted like a deer in headlights during the three games he played in last year, averaging a dreadful 165.7 passing yards per game. If Lynch can grow up and improve, the Broncos will contend in the AFC West.

Los Angeles Chargers

Key Players: Philip Rivers, Casey Hayward, Melvin Gordon

Key Question: Are we going to see the 2015 Melvin Gordon or the 2016 Melvin Gordon?

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Melvin Gordon broke out last season, justifying his selection as the fifteenth overall pick in 2015. However, in 2014 Gordon had possibly the worst rookie season imaginable. He failed to score a touchdown despite touching the ball 217 times. But in 2016, his fortunes reversed completely, and he scored 12 total touchdowns, good for seventh in the league. Gordon also averaged 108.9 yards from scrimmage per game, which ranked fourth in the NFL.  If Gordon continues his brilliant 2016 form, the Chargers have a great chance of escaping the basement of the AFC West.

Special thanks to Pro Football Reference and Spotrac for all of the statistics that I used in this article.

I would also like to thank ESPN for each team’s depth chart.

Stay tuned for Part II which will include burning questions for each NFC team.

To be continued…

Brandin Cooks Picture Credit: By Paul Perillo [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons