Heading into the preseason, every team has questions they need to answer sooner than later. Even a teams like the defending champion Eagles, who will kick off the season with 18 or 19 (depending on Carson Wentz’ recovery) of their regular starters from 2017, has questions.
Let’s take a look at one of the biggest questions facing each NFC teams heading into the preseason.
New York Giants (3-13) Can this offense score 30 points in a game?
Much is being made of the new Giant regime’s faith in Eli Manning and the addition of Saquon Barkley to lead a running game. Behind a revamped offensive line and with a healthy Odell Beckham, much is expected of the Giants’ offense. Are we asking for too much?
Orleans Darkwa and Wayne Gallman averaged well over 4-yards per carry last season. It wasn’t like the Giants didn’t have a running game as much as they chose not to use it effectively. Meanwhile, Eli did not pass the eye test. He short-armed long passes and all but abandoned his signature seam patterns despite owning an above-average receiver in tight end Evan Engram.
Maybe it was all former head coach Ben McAdoo’s fault, but the Giants haven’t scored 30 points in a game since Tom Coughlin’s last season in 2015. Will Eli and Saquon deliver in 2018?
Chicago Bears (5-11) What kind of offense will the Bears run?
Chicago is another team where questions revolve around their quarterback. Mitch Trubisky needs to take a step forward in leading this team, to be sure. But while many fans and pundits point to his improved receiving options and expect a strong aerial attack, the running game is being ignored.
How will new head coach, Matt Nagy, handle his young passer? It’s a time-proven adage that a quarterback’s best friend is a strong running game. But will improved receiving threats and good game management open up the running attack? The Bears were wildly inconsistent in the running game despite owning a dynamic duo of Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen behind a strong offensive line.
Trubisky might be asked to do just enough to keep defenses from stacking the box in 2018.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-11) Will Jameis Winston finish the season at quarterback?
By now, you’ve heard about the Buccaneers horrendous schedule over the first three weeks. If not, they visit the Saints in Week 1, before hosting the Eagles, followed by a Monday Night Football game against the Steelers. They’ll do it without their starting quarterback, Jameis Winston, who is suspended for three games for assaulting a woman.
When Winston comes back in Week 4, he faces the Chicago Bears defense in Chicago, followed by the Falcons in Atlanta. It is not far-fetched to think the Buccaneers could be 0-5 overall, 0-4 in the conference and 0-2 in the division. How those games are lost might determine how much fight is left in the team. Can Winston rally the troops and rattle off some wins? If not, will the Buccaneers decide to move on from their projected franchise quarterback to take a look at Ryan Griffin, who turned enough heads in the 2017 preseason and off-season workouts to earn an extension?
San Francisco 49ers (6-10) Can Jimmy Garoppolo handle losing?
The legend of the unbeatable Jimmy Garoppolo could come to a screeching halt as early as Week 1, with a tough Vikings defense waiting for him in Minnesota. San Francisco’s schedule is supposed to be one of the easiest, but it is not full of pushovers. The next three road games are in Kansas City, Los Angeles (Chargers), and Green Bay.
San Francisco should be better in 2018, but they are still a project. Will Garoppolo try to do too much? Will he be asked to do too much? Will the quarterback get angry? Will the rest of the team fight like they did when the young quarterback took over last season? It’s a good time to be a 49ers fan, but there are potholes and speed bumps ahead. Will excessive expectations affect how they handle them?
Washington Redskins (7-9) Will Alex Smith get more out of the Redskins receivers?
Alex Smith never got much credit for the Kansas City Chief’s success. This was mostly due to his surrounding talent and coach. If he succeeds in Washington, he will not have to worry about sharing any of the glory.
Washington has supplied their new quarterback with much of the same options they afforded Kirk Cousins last season. Josh Doctson and Jamison Crowder will be expected to rebound from substandard performances, while it is hoped Chris Thompson can come back from injury to duplicate his exceptional exploits of 2017. Paul Richardson was signed as an outside threat but has never been a number-one option. Rookie Derrius Guice is the Redskins’ latest hope for a running game.
Washington has their best seasons when nothing is expected of them. Maybe that bodes well for the beginning of the Alex Smith era.
Green Bay Packers (7-9) How many times will Aaron Rodgers hand the ball off?
There is considerable debate over who will lead the Packers’ rushing attack after Jamaal Williams and Aaron Jones provided a steady, if not above-average, rushing game in the absence of injured Ty Montgomery. But there is another player returning from injury who will affect the decision.
Aaron Rodgers runs the Packer offense. He faces a third-place schedule with a well-rested passing arm. He will pass, pass again, and then pass some more. That means Ty Montgomery is the favorite to win back the “rushing” job in Green Bay. Expect a huge season from Rodgers, even without his old friend Jordy Nelson in the mix.
Arizona Cardinals (8-8) Who will take the heat off Larry Fitzgerald?
Sam Bradford will start the season at quarterback for the Arizona Cardinals, assuming he can find enough strength in his fragile knees to keep standing. Josh Rosen waits in the wings, ready to take over when the opportunity presents itself. Blaine Gabbert is available to bridge any gaps. Will it matter?
Larry Fitzgerald will become the all-time second-leading receiver in receptions and yards at some point during 2018. But it might take him a bit longer than expected if a second receiver doesn’t make a name for himself. Arizona signed Brice Butler and returns JJ Nelson as a second outside threat. They drafted Christian Kirk, who might have a role, as well. Expect teams to double Fitzgerald in the slot until another receiver establishes himself as a threat.
Dallas Cowboys (9-7) Will Dak Prescott regain his rookie-of-the-year standards?
Ezekiel Elliott, healthy and without the specter of any pending suspension over his head, will help Dak Prescott and the Cowboys cover a few ills on offense. But will he make Prescott a star again?
Last season, we learned Prescott can be pressured into mistakes. Even with a solid offensive line, teams found ways to get to him. Prescott also does not like throwing into tight coverage. This was apparent in his hesitation to throw to Dez Bryant, who lead the league in percentage of contested balls caught.
Without Bryant and Jason Witten, will Prescott learn to throw the contested ball? Is there anyone left to throw them to? Newly acquired Allan Hurns caught a lot of passes from a shaky Blake Bortles. But Hurns and Deonte Thompson are with the Cowboys for their crisp routes and ability to get open. Prescott should be more comfortable in his third season, but will he progress?
Seattle Seahawks (9-7) Who is left on this team?
One of the most popular phrases heard during NFL telecasts this season will be, “former Seahawk….” It seems like the entire team up and left the city after the 2017 season. Of course, that’s a slight exaggeration.
Russell Wilson and Doug Baldwin return to the offense. That’s the good news. Most of the Seahawks rushers return, too. That’s not such good news. The Legion of Boom is gone, but the team still boasts a top linebacking unit, at least.
Will they sign enough new talent to make a run at the NFC West title? Probably not.
Detroit Lions (9-7) Will a running back gain 100 yards in any game?
Rookie Kerryon Johnson and veteran LeGarrette Blount will line up behind Matthew Stafford in 2018. The burden of erasing several seasons of rushing mediocrity falls on them. Granted, in a pass-first offense, the running game is often lacking. But you have to be able to run when you need to, and the Lions could not.
New head coach, Matt Patricia, hopes to see the powerful 2016 Patriots version of Blount, and not the less-reliable 2017 Eagles version. Johnson projects to be the lead back before long. For either to provide any kind of distraction for the passing game, the offensive line needs to stay healthy. Injuries wiped out most of GM Bob Quinn’s line investments last season.
Atlanta Falcons (10-6) Will the offense bounce back?
Steve Sarkisian was supposed to run the same offense as his predecessor, Kyle Shanahan, in 2017. Something went awry. It certainly didn’t look the same, with almost an identical cast of players producing 30% less offense.
All parties involved seem to think that was a fluke. Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, and Devonta Freeman will lead the offense again, with plans to beat 2016’s numbers and become the first team to host a Super Bowl they play in. Rookie wide receiver Calvin Ridley is expected to play a role with Mohammed Sanu and Jones, making a positive difference in Ryan’s options.
Carolina Panthers (11-5) Who will lead the team in rushing?
Christian McCaffrey is largely assumed to be the lead back in Carolina now that Jonathan Stewart is gone. They expect the second-year rusher to be turned loose in the running game and possibly toned down in the passing attack. Others project him to be a three-down back.
But the Panthers also obtained CJ Anderson to play a role. Anderson comes off his first 1,000-yard season after five years with the Denver Broncos. The Broncos never seemed to trust him as a lead back, but Anderson ran behind a bad offensive line and with a disrespected passing attack to get his 1,000 yards. He is a career 4 yards-per-carry rusher and catches the ball out of the backfield, too.
With Pro Football Focus (PFF)’s 19th-ranked wide receiver group, don’t be surprised if Norv Turner and the Panthers use McCaffrey much as they did last year. CJ Anderson can easily fill Stewart’s role as the main rusher.
New Orleans Saints (11-5) Will anyone notice Mark Ingram is missing?
New Orleans sent two running backs to the Pro Bowl last season. One of them, Mark Ingram, will miss the first four games of 2018 due to suspension. Will the Saints miss him for the first quarter?
Don’t count on it. The Saints still have the second half of last year’s dynamic duo, Alvin Kamara. The team signed Shane Vereen to help spell Kamara on occasion and still have Trey Edmund, who ran for a 41-yard touchdown himself season.
They also have Drew Brees. Brees was winning games for New Orleans even before they found a running game and a defense. He won’t let Ingram’s absence slow the Saints down. With new slot receiver Cameron Meredith joining Ted Ginn Jr and Michael Thomas, Brees will gladly add a few passes to his game while Ingram sits. The addition of veteran tight end Ben Watson doesn’t sound sexy, but he did out-catch and outgain all Saints tight ends combined in 2017. Mark who?
Los Angeles Rams (11-5) Did they really get even better?
If anyone thought the Los Angeles Rams were content with their 2017 turnaround season, they learned otherwise from their offseason moves. Brian Cooks joined the receiving corps. Ndamukong Suh will line up opposite Aaron Donald, with Aqib Talib, Marcus Peters, and Sam Shields behind them.
There is no doubt the Rams are not just trying to improve. They are making a play for the NFC Championship and the right to go to the Super Bowl. Their biggest risk seems to be the possible regression of Jared Goff and/or Todd Gurley. But that almost doesn’t seem possible.
Minnesota Vikings (13-3) Can Kirk Cousins handle the pressure?
Kirk Cousins bet on himself twice in turning down long-term deals and playing under the franchise tag in Washington. He won both times, producing top-ten seasons behind limited talent and despite devastating injuries around him last year.
Minnesota had three quarterbacks on their roster at the end of last season. They threw a lot of money at Cousins to come north, allowing their three incumbents to play elsewhere. Cousins is suddenly surrounded by talent and is rightfully expected to be great. With Keenum, Sam Bradford, and possibly Teddy Bridgewater all starting for other teams, he better have a bigger season than any of them in 2018.
Philadelphia Eagles (13-3) How many games will Nick Foles play?
Coming off his strong Super Bowl victory, Nick Foles remains the backup quarterback of the Philadelphia Eagles. This is Carson Wentz’ team. Foles is reportedly happy to return as the number two passer on a team he once led to the playoffs and just won a championship with.
Philadelphia can be excused for not trading their chip in the offseason with the status of Wentz uncertain. While the third-year passer insists he will be ready for opening day, head coach Doug Pederson is not so sure. Speculation is that the Eagles will be very careful with Wentz’ knee. That could mean more than one game with Foles under center. In a weak NFC East, there is no reason to take chances, especially if your backup is a proven winner.
The Biggest Questions Facing Each AFC Team