This week marks the end of the on-field part of the NFL’s long off-season, as the final mandatory mini-camps wrap up by Thursday. That leaves roughly five weeks or so before training camps begin to open in late July, and another season beckons.
Relax, you’re definitely going to make it to football season. But to help ease the pain of the most NFL-free portion of the calendar ahead, here are 10 juicy topics that need answers once the game returns this summer. As always, your results may vary:
1. Can Hue turn back time?
The Browns certainly seem excited about the potential of the Robert Griffin III reclamation project that new coach Hue Jackson has undertaken, and maybe we’re looking at the origins of the 2016 NFL Comeback Player of the Year in Cleveland. But don’t forget, last year at this time, the Rams were thrilled to have acquired Nick Foles and were talking confidently about wanting to sign him to a future-of-the-franchise-type deal. He wound up getting a two-year, $24.5 million extension in August, a move the Rams soon regretted.
Everything seems possible in the off-season, but let’s see if the Browns can coax anything resembling Griffin’s 2012-style game out of the former Washington savior once he takes his red practice jersey off. Otherwise it’s back to the drawing board with Josh McCown, rookie Cody Kessler, Austin Davis or Connor Shaw at quarterback for the bedraggled Browns.
2. Does Houston have a problem, or a pay-off on the way?
It’s hard to overstate the size of the gamble the Texans are taking on new quarterback Brock Osweiler, who got a four-year, $72 million free-agent deal from Houston that includes $37 million guaranteed—all based on a mere seven starts worth of track record last season in Denver. We know the Texans had to do something bold at quarterback after that epic Brian Hoyer meltdown in a 30–0 playoff loss at home to Kansas City, but one man’s bold is another man’s desperation, and it’s on Osweiler to get off to a fast start this summer and validate the faith Houston has shown in him. Osweiler wouldn’t be the first lightly tested former backup quarterback to buckle under the pressure of big new free-agent dollars. From Scott Mitchell to Rob Johnson to Matt Flynn, it’s an eminently familiar rags-to-riches-to-rags story line.
3. The Cowboys buy a workhorse
The half-shirt on draft night was memorable, but now Ezekiel Elliott has to prove he can handle the full load in the Dallas running game and blossom into this season’s version of Todd Gurley, last year’s NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. The bar of expectation is set at least that high for the first running back to be drafted in the top five since Trent Richardson in 2012, and Elliott is being asked to help recreate the blueprint that allowed the Cowboys to ride DeMarco Murray to the playoffs and the league’s second-best running game in 2014.
Dallas is convinced the rookie from Ohio State is an elite talent who will almost immediately take Murray's place as one of the game’s premier play-makers. He already seemed to have blown past Darren McFadden on the Cowboys depth chart, and that was even before Dallas knew McFadden broke his right elbow in a fall at home in May. Dallas doesn’t have to ease Elliott in like the Rams did last year with the rehabbing Gurley, and with a healthy Tony Romo and a bounce-back season from Dez Bryant, a new version of the Triplets has been born in Texas.
4. Can the Giants’ defensive make-over work quickly enough to matter?
Here’s roughly the state of the unpredictable NFC East these days: The always patient and prudent New York Giants have morphed into a version of wild spending, change-happy Washington of yesteryear, while Daniel Snyder’s team suddenly looks like the voice of sanity and restraint in D.C. It’s a real plot twist that kind of snuck up on us. But that’s what happens when you miss the playoffs four consecutive years as the Giants have done, the past three of those seasons making Tom Coughlin the first head coach in team history to feature three straight losing records.
The Giants responded with a sense of urgency and over-zealousness in free agency, bestowing millions on defensive end Olivier Vernon, cornerback Janoris Jenkins and nose tackle Damon Harrison. Let’s see how New York’s new chemistry experiment comes together on defense, and if three very good players can somehow combine to create greatness where the Giants need it most. The problem with free agency, as someone once said, is you pay very good players as if they were stars, then get disappointed when they don’t produce like stars.
5. The arms race gets elevated in Denver
Mark Sanchez says he’s determined to make the Broncos his team, in that whole third time’s the charm kind of way. Confident Denver general manager John Elway says rookie quarterback Paxton Lynch will be ready to start sooner than most expect, so you can see where we might be headed here for the defending Super Bowl champions.
But don’t forget about second-year man Trevor Siemian, who has had an impressive spring. While the long and well-chronicled contract dance with Super Bowl MVP Von Miller continues to play out this summer, the real story in Broncos-ville is how much and how early Lynch can show Denver something, giving head coach Gary Kubiak enough reason to get him on the field with a team that harbors legitimate repeat dreams. The Broncos won it all last year without a ton of quarterback help, so the precedent has been set. But training camp and the preseason figures to feature something of a Lynch starting candidacy at some point, and they always love some good quarterback drama in Denver.
6. Is there life after The Sheriff leaves Dodge?
I’m intrigued by the question of whether the NFL will feel a bit different in the post-Peyton Manning era? The last time the league didn’t have him around, at the close of the 1997 season, Jim Harbaugh was still the Colts starting quarterback and John Elway had just won his long sought-after Super Bowl ring.
And it’s not just a post-Peyton hangover we have to deal with. There’s no more silky smooth Charles Woodson. Or wildly entertaining Marshawn Lynch. Or the brilliantly talented Calvin Johnson. Difference-making stalwarts such as Jared Allen, Heath Miller, Matt Hasselbeck, Jon Beason, Justin Tuck and Logan Mankins have moved on to their post-playing days as well. That’s a lot of star power that just walked out the proverbial front door, and it’s going to take some getting used to when football returns next month and they’re nowhere to be found in any camps. Memories are what we’re left with.
7. For whom the bell tolls
I remember going to Browns camp last summer and having then-Cleveland general manager Ray Farmer tell me he had “no concern” about free-agent receiver Dwayne Bowe missing the majority of training camp with hamstring issues, because “The guy’s a pro, and he’s been in the league. He’s been productive, he’s been successful. Come the regular season, veterans know when the bell rings and how to answer it.”
Maybe most veterans do, but Bowe never answered the bell for the Browns last season, and wasn’t remotely productive or successful. And that made Farmer’s decision to give him $9 million guaranteed in a two-year, $12.5 million deal the most brain-dead decision of the 2015 free-agent signing season.
But who will it be this year that underwhelms their new team? Some have raised eyebrows about former Bengals receivers Mohamed Sanu (Falcons) and Marvin Jones (Lions) getting paid like No. 1 or No. 2 receivers in a thin pass-catching market. But put me down for defensive end Mario Williams somehow inducing the Dolphins to give him a two-year, $17 million contract after mailing it in for Buffalo last year as the dubious move that will show itself early.
8. The last shall be first
The Bills went to camp last year with two quarterbacks who had a lot more starting experience than Tyrod Taylor. But Matt Cassel wound up being traded to Dallas in September and EJ Manuel quickly showed himself to be suited to the backup job. It was Taylor who separated himself fairly early on and gave Buffalo a dual-threat element at the game’s most pivotal position.
So who’s going to be that surprise starting quarterback surfacing this summer? You could get a few votes for Trevor Siemian pushing Mark Sanchez in Denver, or sixth-round pick Jeff Driskel giving Chip Kelly something to think about in San Francisco, instead of Kelly falling back on the known quantities of Blaine Gabbert and Colin Kaepernick. But I’m going to be keeping an eye on Philadelphia, where I expect career backup Chase Daniel to initially look much sharper in Doug Pederson’s offense than either incumbent Sam Bradford or No. 2 overall pick Carson Wentz. Daniel’s familiarity and experience with Pederson and his system is an ace in the hole that could well prove pivotal if Bradford struggles in August.
9. Could the backfield be in motion in Cincinnati?
Bengals running back Jeremy Hill likely can’t wait for the preseason, if only to wipe out the lingering sting of his final carry of last season—a critical third-down fumble inside of two minutes that paved the way for Pittsburgh’s improbable comeback road win in the first round of the playoffs. Sure, the Bengals defense melted down in its own unique fashion when the game was on the line, but that disaster never would have happened if Hill had been able to keep his grip on the ball.
The question now is whether he’ll be able to keep his hold on the starting job, given that he fumbled a total of four times last season and saw his average gain drop from 5.1 yards in 2014 to 3.6 last year. Veteran Giovanni Bernard is freshly re-signed to a three-year, $15 million contract extension in Cincinnati, and maybe Hill’s ball security issues will shift more of the rushing load in Bernard’s direction. A little training camp battle could be useful in the Bengals’ attempt to get Hill’s attention, and his best effort at sweeping away the disappointment of January.
10. Getting back to the top in Carolina
The high-powered Panthers were defeated just once in the regular season and stormed to the Super Bowl last season, even without their No. 1 receiver, losing second-year man Kelvin Benjamin to a year-ending ACL knee injury in August. So imagine what the defending NFC champs and their league-best scoring offense (31.2 ppg) might be able to accomplish with Benjamin back on two good legs and in dangerous form. The Cam Newton-led Carolina passing attack should be able to take their game to a new level.
But it doesn’t always work that way in football, and this summer’s transition back into the offensive flow will be among the biggest challenges facing Benjamin. He set Panthers rookie records with 73 catches for 1,008 yards and nine touchdowns in 2014, but he’s got to re-acclimate himself back into the leading role that Ted Ginn essentially held last season, and not disrupt any part of the offensive rhythm that developed in his absence. It’s trickier than it sounds to avoid subtraction by addition, but it’s definitely the right kind of problem for the Panthers to have as they attempt to skirt the dreaded Super Bowl hangover.