With NFL training camps beginning to open in the coming days, there are no shortage of storylines to start tracking on the field. Here are 10 intriguing questions I can't wait to get answered as the league's summer break comes to its conclusion:
1. Can the Eagles master Chip Kelly's up-tempo, fast-break offense and exit the preseason looking like an NFL version of the Oregon Ducks?
From what I gleaned in the one Philly OTA session I attended, the Eagles are making a fairly smooth transition from Andy World and learning to practice and play the Kelly way, with minimal wasted time or energy during a workout. Kelly's MO is to involve and engage as many players as possible on every snap and in every phase of practice, going full speed for 12 minutes at a time in team drills, followed by five-minute teaching periods that serve to give his guys a chance to catch their breath.
But OTAs are an entirely different game compared to the preseason, when the shoulder pads go on, the hitting commences and the intensity gets ramped up a notch or three. That's when we'll start to see the full effect of Kelly's break-neck style of offense, and whether or not it can be sustained by his NFL-sized roster.
Complicating the situation, of course, is the quarterback competition that will rage in the coming weeks, with Michael Vick, Nick Foles and maybe even rookie Matt Barkley vying to prove their skill set is the best fit for Kelly's aggressive and attacking approach. The sooner the Eagles' offense identifies its trigger man, the better. Starting next week, all seat belts should be fastened for a full-speed takeoff in Philly.
So far, all signs point to Kirk Cousins retaining his backup quarterback designation on the Redskins' roster, with Griffin clearing every hurdle in his quest to return from right knee surgery in time for the start of camp next week. In June, Griffin accomplished some major rehabilitation check points, putting on impressive displays of both explosive sprinting and cutting, which are the last significant physical milestones in a comeback from knee ligament repair.
Griffin's knee still faces a critical pre-camp medical evaluation by Redskins team orthopedist James Andrews, and the team could always elect to play it safe with its franchise quarterback, given how much criticism rained down on the head of Mike Shanahan when he let Griffin remain in Washington's Jan. 9 playoff loss to Seattle far past the point of logic. The easiest call would be to let Griffin start camp on the physically unable to perform list, working his way off as the preseason unwinds. But if the newly married Griffin looks even healthier in late July than he did in mid-June, Washington will be hard pressed to keep No. 10 idling on the sideline for any significant portion of August.
If you've read my work for any length of time, you know I don't often buy into the prevailing sky-is-falling storylines that arise from time to time in sports. (The September 2011 Red Sox being the exception. I was bracing for impact that time.) So while the Patriots certainly appear to be in deep trouble with four of their top five 2012 pass-catchers gone and the other one (Gronkowski) having become a medical soap opera (those five accounted for 84 percent of New England's receptions last year), the numbers sound worse than what I expect the reality to be in Foxboro.
Still, Brady and his newly constituted receiving corps have some serious ground to cover in the preseason if they're going to carry anything resembling a comfort zone into Buffalo in Week 1. Daniel Fells needs a big August to help offset the loss of Hernandez at tight end, and the new Welker, aka Danny Amendola, had better be ready to produce immediately. We've seen Brady make chicken salad out of lesser ingredients before, and the AFC East still appears less than daunting, but the Patriots are faced with reinventing themselves in the passing game this preseason and there's no time to waste.
4. With the clock ticking on the team's Peyton Manning era, do the Broncos get right back to climbing Super Bowl mountain or lick their psychical wounds for a while in the aftermath of their epic AFC divisional round one-and-done overtime loss to visiting Baltimore?
I'd be genuinely surprised if there's a noticeable hangover effect this summer from the playoff meltdown against the Ravens, because Manning will again set a business-like tone for this team, and lord knows the man has plenty of experience at bouncing back after disheartening and unexpected postseason losses. Barring a health setback by No. 18, the Broncos are loaded and ready to again challenge for AFC supremacy.
Another 13-3 magic-carpet ride probably isn't in store for Denver this season, but I like the moves made this offseason by the Broncos, with the exception of the Elvis Dumervil fax fiasco. Wes Welker, Louis Vasquez, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and drafted running back Montee Ball all are nice upgrades, and if the Denver secondary can stave off the ghosts of its debacle against Baltimore, the Broncos should head into their Sept. 5 opener against the Ravens with renewed confidence, ready to exact some revenge.
5. Did Kansas City cure its most pressing ills with the Andy Reid hiring and the Alex Smith trade?
Well, consider how elusive success is for any NFL team that doesn't have the right guys at head coach and quarterback and I think you have your answer. The Chiefs now boast proven talents in those two pivotal spots for the first time in quite a while, and that's not all they have going for them in 2013. What this summer should start bearing out is that Kansas City sending six players to the Pro Bowl last year was no fluke. There's talent to work with on defense, and Reid and Smith should bring a sense of stability and professionalism to an offense that can be built around the skills of running back Jamaal Charles, receiver Dwayne Bowe and No.1 overall pick, offensive tackle Eric Fisher.
I'm not ready just yet to declare Kansas City my surprise AFC wild-card playoff pick, but the improved Chiefs are definitely on my short list. The Broncos remain the obvious class of the division, but San Diego and Oakland aren't to be feared, and with a fast start Kansas City (it plays just two of its first nine games against clubs who had winning records last year) could ride the turnaround-team mojo a long way after the misery of 2012's two-win disintegration. Having a solid quarterback and head coach means you at least have a chance in the NFL.
6. Will the defending Super Bowl champion Ravens feel the effect of their offseason defections on defense or offense first?
While most of the focus naturally will be on the new-look Baltimore defense this season, the losses of Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Paul Kruger, Dannell Ellerbe, Bernard Pollard and Cary Williams were hopefully offset by the Ravens' offseason additions of Elvis Dumervil, Michael Huff, Matt Elam, Arthur Brown, Chris Canty and Marcus Spears. And let's not forget, Super Bowl title or no Super Bowl title, Baltimore's aging defense really didn't live up to its lofty historical standards last season.
That's why many think the most important discovery to be made by the Ravens in the preseason will be on offense, where the team faces the task of replacing valuable veteran receiver Anquan Boldin, the playoff-run star who was surprisingly shipped off in a trade with San Francisco. Baltimore believes third-year man Torrey Smith is poised and ready to step into the No. 1 receiver role, but quarterback Joe Flacco and the passing game could take a noticeable step back this year if the likes of Jacoby Jones, Tandon Doss, Deonte Thompson, David Reed and LaQuan Williams aren't capable of filling the void left by Boldin. For the champs, the biggest question mark isn't how to replace Ray Lewis and Co., it's making sure the salary cap-inspired Boldin move wasn't one too many.
7. Will Sean Payton's return to New Orleans quickly and completely wipe away the stench of 2012's lost season?
His year-long league-issued suspension served, Payton will get back to the business of winning football games in 2013, something he proved quite adept at in making the playoffs four times in his first six seasons on the job in New Orleans. Payton looks re-energized by his forced sabbatical, and from all accounts he has thrown himself back into the duties of his position with gusto and a determination to fix all that went wrong in New Orleans last year.
Most of the troubling issues, however, weren't on offense, Payton's area of expertise. They were centered on a historically bad defense. New coordinator Rob Ryan has been brought in to install a 3-4 formation and instill some much-needed attitude and pass rush. I'm not sure the roster pieces available to him can cure the team's pass-rush woes, but Ryan will match anyone in terms of coaching intensity and bravado. A double dose of freshly renewed fire from Payton and Ryan might be just what the Saints need after last year's sad saga.
Like Arians has always liked to do, the Colts loaded it up and went deep plenty last year, with Luck standing tall in the pocket and firing it downfield like a young Bert Jones. (Don't tell me you don't remember strong-armed ex-Colt QB Bert Jones.) But it's going to be interesting to see if that's still the passing style that's in vogue in Indy now that Arians is trying to resurrect Carson Palmer's flagging fortunes in Arizona.
Hamilton, Luck's former Stanford offensive coordinator, brings with him a more West Coast-style game, and that could serve to shorten up Luck's sights considerably, given that offense's penchant for working the shorter, underneath routes in the passing tree. While the Colts say their offense will do whatever it takes and make an opponent defend every part of the field, perhaps a good portion of the thinking behind the change is to reduce Luck's exposure to punishment this season. He was sacked 41 times as a rookie, and upgrading the offensive line was job one in Indianapolis this offseason. The Colts would be wise to not mess too much with success, but there are always different ways to skin the cat in the NFL.
If by early you mean before the regular season arrives, it's looking more doubtful all the time. As training camp looms, this appears to be the second consecutive year Sanchez will be involved in a so-called quarterback competition that's really not all that competitive. Smith didn't wow anyone in the Jets' organization with his uneven offseason work, and he hasn't looked pro-ready and capable of assuming control of an NFL-style offense at this point. Maybe the perception changes once the preseason games start and his natural playmaking ability is on display, but Sanchez has a firm grip on the starting spot and seems to have the support of the team's veteran leadership, too.
Smith's struggles with some of the basic skills -- like snap count at the line of scrimmage and huddle presence -- has led New York to contemplate a secondary, change-of-pace role for their second-round pick. In shades of the failed Tebow experiment, a read-option package of plays are being considered for him, even though that's not his forte. He's a pocket passer, not a running threat. In short, none of the early signs spell an opening-day starting assignment for Smith, meaning the Sanchez era isn't quite over, even if Jets fans might wish otherwise.
The ride the Bears have taken on the Cutler 'Coaster the past fours years has been a doozy for Chicago. Some ups. Some downs. Some exasperating moments when you honestly can't tell if the Bears' starting quarterback is part of the problem or the solution. Enter Trestman, the former longtime NFL assistant and recent CFL head coach, to try his hand at maximizing Cutler's obvious talents and smooth out the rough patches.
Cutler is in the final year of his contract in Chicago, and while the term make-or-break season is comically overused in sports, this would certainly seem to qualify for the non-hyperbole variety. Cutler might light it up in Trestman's pass-happy offense and lead the Bears back to the playoffs for the first time since 2010, especially if Chicago's revamped offensive line gives him more than two Mississippi's to work with. But with Cutler, there's always the possibility he'll keep both teams in the game at the same time and give both his fans and his critics fodder for their viewpoints. If so, that could once again make Chicago games must-see TV in 2013, but not for all the right reasons.