NFL 2019: The biggest question for all 32 teams, from Cam Newton's health to the Patriots pass rush
Can Kyler make an impact? Can Freddie Kitchens help Browns reach lofty expectations? Let's look at each team's big question
It's late May, which means NFL training camps kick off in two months. As teams go through the OTAs and minicamps the next three weeks, they will do so with an eye on answering some of their major questions.
Free agency and the draft have helped answer many of those, but some big ones remain for every team, some with more than others.
So as we head to June, here are the biggest questions remaining for all 32 NFL teams.
Is Kyler Murray ready to take this team to the playoffs as a rookie?
The early returns have been good and he has the ability to become a productive player early in Kliff Kingsbury's offense. But it's a lot to ask for a rookie starter on a team with a lot of holes to step in and lead them to the playoffs. He will certainly make it exciting, but getting to the postseason will be tough in a division with the Rams and Seahawks.
Where does the pass rush come from in 2019?
The Falcons had a disappointing 37 sacks in 2018, which they have to improve on in 2019. Tak McKinley led the team with seven sacks, but that fell short of the number I expected. Vic Beasley, who led the league in sacks in 2016 with 15.5, had five for the second consecutive season. Beasley and McKinley need to get those numbers into double-digits this season. They did bring back Adrian Clayborn, but he can't be counted on for big numbers. Improving the secondary and coverage will help some, but the two young players need to step up big time this season.
Will Lamar Jackson improve as a passer?
Jackson was exciting to watch after taking over for Joe Flacco last season, but his passing was awful. The Ravens didn't exactly give him a bevy of weapons, but he still struggled and it really showed up in the playoff loss to the Chargers when he completed 48.3% of his passes. The Ravens drafted receivers Marquise Brown and Miles Boykin to help Jackson, but it could take time for the group to mesh. Jackson has to get his completion percentage up from 58.2% last season.
Can quarterback Josh Allen take a big step forward?
Like some other rookie passers last season, Allen struggled throwing the football at times. It didn't help that his receivers led the league in drops, but his accuracy, which was an issue at Wyoming, also wasn't good. He needs to be better. The Bills spent the offseason working to improve the group around him. They added center Mitch Morse and receivers Cole Beasley and John Brown in free agency and drafted guard Cody Ford in the second round. They also signed some other veteran linemen who could push to start. Allen took a beating last season, so the line has to be better. I think Allen will make strides. But his accuracy has to improve.
Is Cam Newton healthy?
The Panthers didn't seem to think Newton's shoulder surgery was a big deal, and they expect Newton to be ready for the regular season. He clearly played through it last season, but that's the type of player he is for this team. He's a tough guy who takes a ton of shots week in and week out. That has to be cut down some moving forward. Newton's passing was actually better last season, which speaks volumes about him as a competitor. Now that it is cleaned up, I would expect better results this season.
Who will be the kicker?
After watching Cody Parkey's 43-yard field goal hit the uprights a few times and bounce out to bounce the Bears from the playoffs in January, Chicago spent the offseason trying to fix its kicking issues. The Bears tried out eight kickers at one point and have narrowed it down to three. The only one with NFL experience is Eddy Pineiro, who briefly kicked for the Raiders. Even if one of the three wins the spot, it won't mean he is definitely the opening-day kicker. That could come from another team's cuts later this summer.
Is the offensive line fixed?
The line was a major issue last season, which is why the Bengals took tackle Jonah Williams in the first round. He will be an immediate starter at either tackle spot, depending where they want him to play. Early indications are it will be at left tackle. They also will have center Billy Price, a first-round pick last year, back healthy after he missed six games because of injury and didn't play as well as expected. I think that will change this season. They also signed former Bills guard John Miller in free agency. The line should be much improved.
Can first-year coach Freddie Kitchens mesh this young, talented team into a winner with all the expectations?
There are a lot of people on the Browns hype train, including Las Vegas, which has made them the favorite to win the AFC North. While they are indeed talented, they have to learn how to grow as a team. Adding a player like Odell Beckham Jr. to the mix will be a challenge in terms of his antics at times. Kitchens seems to have a good feel for his players, but until the games count we won't know if that's a reality. What happens when Beckham Jr. starts complaining about not getting the football? Kitchens is still a first-time head coach. That bears watching.
Can new offensive coordinator Kellen Moore liven up the offense?
It is a unit loaded with talent, but it was also a unit that seemed stale at times under Jason Garrett and fired coordinator Scott Linehan. The Cowboys aren't overhauling the offense, but Moore will likely bring in a lot more spread concepts than the Cowboys used a year ago. That doesn't mean they will abandon Ezekiel Elliott and the run game. It just means they are getting with the times. It should help Dak Prescott as well since the Cowboys haven't done a good job of taking advantage of his movement skills.
Does Joe Flacco have enough left to lead this team to the playoffs?
It sounds like Broncos general manager John Elway thinks he does, which is why he traded to get him from the Ravens. Flacco's last really decent season came in 2014 when he threw 27 touchdown passes and 12 picks. Since then, he has been ordinary Joe. Last season, he had nine starts for the Ravens and then lost his job to Lamar Jackson. In those nine starts, Flacco threw 12 touchdown passes and six picks. Maybe a fresh start can get him back on track, but it has sure been a while since he has been an above-average quarterback.
Is the pass rush improved enough?
The Lions signed Trey Flowers as a big-ticket free agent to amp up their pass rush. He had 7.5 sacks last season for the Patriots and will be an upgrade from the departed Ziggy Ansah, who had health issues the past few seasons. The Lions can also expect to see defensive lineman Da'Shawn Hand take a big leap forward in 2019. He was good as a rookie, but he could be special as a second-year player. Third-year player Romeo Okwara led the team in sacks with 7.5. The Lions actually had a decent year with 41 sacks, but they didn't do as well on obvious passing situations pressuring the quarterback.
Green Bay Packers
Can first-year coach Matt LaFleur get this team past the reported dysfunction in the organization?
That's going to be a challenge for a first-time head coach. It will be even tougher because LaFleur is just a few years older than quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who some have pointed the finger at for part of the team's issues. The front office reportedly has some issues as well. I think LaFleur could breathe life into an offense that was stale, but the big-picture questions about how he handles his team as a whole won't be known until at least mid-October.
Will the offensive line be improved enough to keep Deshaun Watson protected?
The line was awful last season. Watson, who can move, was sacked 62 times, which is way too many. The Texans signed Matt Kalil in free agency and also will get back Seantrel Henderson after he missed all but one game with an ankle injury. They then added tackles Tytus Howard and Max Scharping in the April draft. They took Howard in the first round, and his progress will be interesting since he played at Alabama State. That's a big jump to starting tackle in the NFL. It might take some time, but the Texans can't be any worse up front than they were a year ago – no matter who starts.
Is the young defense ready to take the next step?
The Colts finished 2018 as the 10th-ranked scoring defense, which is impressive for a team that started a lot of young players. Coordinator Matt Eberflus did a heck of a job with his talent last season, and now with a year of seasoning, plus the addition of veteran edge player Justin Houston, the Colts should be even better. They also added several key pieces in the draft, including corner Rock Ya-Sin and linebackers Ben Banogu and Bobby Okereke. With linebacker Darius Leonard already a Pro Bowl player as a rookie, and safety Malik Hooker on the verge of being a Pro Bowl talent, the Colts will be fun to watch on defense in 2019. When was the last time we said that?
Can Nick Foles take the offense to new levels that will be commensurate with his contract?
The Jaguars signed Foles to a four-year, $88 million contract to help get the offense past the Blake Bortles days. Foles is indeed an upgrade over Bortles, but how much? Will he be worth the money? For that type of money, Foles has to throw at least 30 touchdown passes and make plays in the big moments. He doesn't have a lot of help outside, which could hinder his chance some. But this will be a run-first team, which could help him in the play-action game. If he can be good, the Jaguars offense might just be able to get them back to being a playoff team.
Kansas City Chiefs
How will the Tyreek Hill situation play out?
The NFL still hasn't said anything about Hill's legal issues, which means it's still an ongoing investigation, although the Chiefs did suspend him. Will Hill play this year? Will he be suspended? For how long? Nobody is saying. If he misses time, his speed and ability to allow Andy Reid's creativity on offense will be sorely missed. He's the type of play-maker that can't be replaced by a player, but rather by scheme. They will have to scheme around his speed being gone from the offense – if that is indeed the case.
Los Angeles Chargers
Can they get past their playoff failures?
How many times can quarterback Philip Rivers get close to a Super Bowl? By the end of last season, the Chargers were riding high. But they suffered a glut of injuries on defense and got rolled by the Patriots in the playoffs. They have most of their roster from last season back and they've added some key pieces like linebacker Thomas Davis and draft picks Jerry Tillery and Nasir Adderley. The Chargers will push the Chiefs in the division again, but nothing they do in the regular season will matter until they can get past their playoff failures.
Los Angeles Rams
Was it injurythat caused Gurley to sit out a big part of the NFC Championship Game victory over the Saints and be limited in the Super Bowl? Or was there more to the story? There is talk his knee was a major issue and could be again, which is why the Rams will limit him more this season. I expect he will bounce back and be fine. Goff will be OK as well. He had a bad Super Bowl, but that doesn't mean he's the type of kid who will let it linger. I don't think he will. He's confident in his own abilities, which I think will help him get over it. The Rams offense will be good again.
Are they tanking?
I hate the idea of tanking. NFL teams play to win. It's more of rebuild under first-year coach Brian Flores. I would think the Dolphins will ask their fans to be patient, and they should. But I would expect this team to play hard and disciplined under Flores. They might not win a lot of games – no matter if it's Ryan Fitzpatrick or Josh Rosen at quarterback – but I would expect the Dolphins to be feisty in Year 1 of the Flores regime.
Can Dalvin Cook get back to his pre-injury form and get the running game going the way coach Mike Zimmer wants it?
Coming off a torn ACL from 2017, Cook looked to be back to his pre-injury form in the preseason last summer. But it didn't quite work out that way. He missed five games with a hamstring injury and the offensive line had issues. The running game wasn't what Zimmer expected. Despite the injury, Cook did average 4.6 yards per rush. So it wasn't all that bad. With another year removed from his knee injury, and the line improved, look for Cook to get back to his pre-injury ways. Zimmer brought on Gary Kubiak to help the run game with his zone-based concepts, which should play perfectly into Cook's strengths. Look for a big year from him.
New England Patriots
Who will provide the pass rush with Trey Flowers gone to Detroit?
The Patriots were seventh in points allowed last year, but had just 30 sacks. That doesn't usually mesh, but Bill Belichick and gang make it work. Flowers had 7.5 of those sacks, but he signed as a free agent with the Lions. The Patriots did bring in veteran defensive end Michael Bennett and expect young players like Derek Rivers and Deatrich Wise to step up. They also drafted edge player Chase Winovich in the third round. The Patriots will get pressure with their different looks and should at least get to the 30 sacks they had a year ago – even without Flowers. Belichick, who will run the defense, has a great way of influencing the quarterback without great pass rushers.
New Orleans Saints
Can they get past the heartache of another bad playoff loss (which might not have been their fault)?
Saints coach Sean Payton has a great feel for his roster and did an outstanding job getting his team to the NFC Championship Game after a heartbreaking playoff loss to the Vikings after the 2017 season. Now he has to do it again. The Saints should have been in the Super Bowl if not for a blown pass-interference call in the title game against the Rams. Payton and quarterback Drew Brees now face the challenge to put two years of playoff misery behind them. It won't be easy, but if anybody can do it those two can.
New York Giants
It sounds like the Giants are committed to Manning for this season. But what if things don't go well early and the offense struggles? Do they turn to Jones to get the future started? It would make sense after using the sixth overall pick to take him in the April draft. There have been a lot of good things coming from the Giants about Jones and his on-field work, but is that just lip service? Manning will certainly open the season as the starter, but how long does he stay there?
New York Jets
With Adam Gase firmly in charge now, is this team ready to push for a playoff spot?
I think they are a year away, but it won't be because of Gase. He has the offensive pedigree to take quarterback Sam Darnold's game to the next level. I know there are some who think the power move to get GM Mike Maccagnan out will derail this team, but I don't see it that way. Players don't care who the GM is on any team. They just don't. The Jets might not be quite there to push for a playoff spot this year, but watch out in 2020.
Will an influx of offensive talent let Derek Carr show Jon Gruden he is the long-term answer?
They had a nice offseason trying to get Carr help. They traded to get Antonio Brown from the Steelers, then added Tyrell Williams as a free-agent receiver. They also signed tackle Trent Brown to help the offensive line and also added running back Josh Jacobs in the first round of the draft. That's a lot of additions for Carr, and clearly puts the pressure on him this season. If he plays well, he stays. If not, look for a change next season under center.
With Nick Foles gone, can Carson Wentz get back to his 2017 pre-injury form?
It has to start with staying on the field. Wentz has missed eight starts the past two seasons and missed the Eagles' run to the Super Bowl two years ago because of a torn ACL. It took him time to get back looking like his pre-injury self last season, but another year removed from the injury should help. He had a good, solid year in 2018, but it has to be more than that. This should be his season to show that he's again an MVP-type quarterback.
Can they get past the Antonio Brown-Le'Veon Bell mess to get back to the playoffs?
With those two both gone, it might be a breath of fresh air. Yes, they were both talented players, but Bell's situation lingered all last season and Brown clearly was a distraction. Now that they're gone, I look for the Steelers to get back on track and push for the division title again. This is still a talented team with a Hall of Fame quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger. That matters. The Steelers will be fine.
San Francisco 49ers
Where is Jimmy Garoppolo as he comes back from a torn ACL?
The 49ers have said all the right things about Garoppolo and his return from a torn ACL suffered in Week 3 last year. But it's one thing to rehab and another to do it on the field. I think he will be OK, but you never know. He doesn't have a ton of starting experience, so he needs to play and be the guy they hoped he would become when they traded to get him from the Patriots last year.
Is this now clearly Russell Wilson's team?
It should be. With all the attrition over the past few years from their Super Bowl teams, the defense is youthful and building to something, which means it might be time to let Wilson play up-tempo more. I know that's not what Pete Carroll wants to do, but at times the inability to spread things out and play fast hurt the Seahawks. You can still run when you spread teams out and play fast, so why not let Wilson loose more? If they had done that earlier in their playoff loss to the Cowboys, I think Seattle would have won the game. They are paying Wilson top dollar, so let him play free to help that rebuilding defense.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Will the defense show improvement after a horrible 2018 season?
The Bucs gave up 29 points per game last season and quarterbacks had a field day throwing against their secondary. But new defensive coordinator Todd Bowles is changing things, going from a 4-3 to a 3-4 look that will attack more. The issue will be pass rush. With questions surrounding the health and availability of end Jason Pierre-Paul, plus the release of Gerald McCoy, the Bucs need some young players to step up in a big way. They also have a lot of youth in the secondary. Bowles will be challenged to get this team to lower that scoring average by five points or more.
Is Marcus Mariota ready for his contract year?
He better be. This is a big year for Mariota to show he is the long-term answer. So far injuries and inconsistency have slowed his growth. He will have a new offensive coordinator in Arthur Smith, who has never called plays and is Mariota's fourth coordinator since coming into the league. The offense is staying the same in terms of language, which is a good thing. But how much will change from what Matt LaFleur did last year? Mariota needs more help from his receivers outside to take a big step forward. If he doesn't, the Titans might be moving on.
Who plays quarterback for the majority of the season?
It has to be first-round pick Dwayne Haskins, right? When you draft a guy into an unsteady situation, the best thing to do is play him. Some will say Haskins has just one year of starting experience, which could hurt him, but I think the faster he plays the better off it will be for the long run. I know they traded for Case Keenum, but I think Haskins needs to be the guy sooner rather than later.
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