The Biggest Questions Facing Each AFC Team

NFL coaches might claim many of their glaring roster questions were answered during the OTAs and minicamps, but they will also admit there is much to be learned in the upcoming preseason.

Every team has questions; some more than others. Some are obvious, some are not. Some have been staring the coaches in the face since last season. Others will present themselves as they prepare their squads for opening day.

Let’s take a look at one big question from each of the American Conference teams that needs to be answered before kickoff in September.

Cleveland Browns (0-16):How many games can the Browns win in 2018?

There is little doubt new Browns general manager, John Dorsey, improved the Browns significantly during the offseason. The addition of free-agent veterans at running back, receiver, and on defense to play alongside Cleveland’s young base will do wonders.

His best acquisition may prove to be his quarterback. We’re not talking about top-draft pick Baker Mayfield, either. He is a couple of seasons down the line. Dorsey may prove to be a genius by hiring Tyrod Taylor to be his starting quarterback in 2018. Taylor provides the first veteran presence at the position in a while. He also comes with a chip on his shoulder, believing he is being blamed for past woes of the Buffalo Bills.

For what it’s worth, Josh Gordon, Jarvis Landry,and Carlos Hyde are among those impressed with the young veteran’s poise and drive. For an 0-16 team, however, the Browns face a tough schedule. They will not only meet six of last season’s playoff teams, they also face the Deshaun Watson version of the Texans, a driven Chargers team, and have two games with a revamped Ravens squad.

For all that, we’ll put the over-under on wins at 4.5.

Houston Texans (4-12) Can Houston find enough skill players to fill their roster?

Preseason training camp hasn’t opened yet, and the Houston Texans already have six key players listed as questionable to practice. JJ Watt (back) and Jadeveon Clowney (knee) would bring the swagger back to the Texans’ defense if they can return in top form.

On offense, center Nick Martin (ankle), wide receiver Bruce Ellington, and running back D’Onta Foreman (Achilles) would be a boost. The big name, of course, is second-year quarterback Deshaun Watson.

Watson gave the Houston Texans their best quarterback play in years during his short stint as a starter in 2017. He was far from perfect, with a below-average touchdown-to-interception ratio. But he did have… “it”. Houston was never out of a game with Watson at the helm. His ability to hit a big pass or run for a big gain kept defenses on their heels. With a solid defense, Watson could lead the Texans to the playoffs… if they can keep him and some other key cogs on the field for the games.

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Indianapolis Colts (4-12) Can Andrew Luck win games with this team?

Jacoby Brissett is a very good quarterback. With an entire offseason to learn an offense and get to know his teammates, he will be an adequate starter if needed. But for now, let us assume that Andrew Luck is healthy and strong enough to start 16 games for the Colts in 2018. Will they win enough games?

Who is he passing to? Two old friends, T.Y. Hilton and tight end Brian Doyle are still on the roster. In the off-season, Indianapolis added tight end Eric Ebron and plans to run a lot of two-tight end formations, splitting one wide or in motion. Ebron had a nice stretch after surviving the trade deadline last year. But he came back to earth, meaning it was just another flash of what he can be.

The two tight ends will try to cover the dearth of wide receivers. The Colts list Ryan Grant as their number two wideout. Not only could Grant not crack the top three of Washington’s weak wide receiver group last year, he allegedly failed an offseason physical for the Ravens.

Marlon Mack can catch passes, but can he run enough to take some heat off Luck and the passing game? Can rookie Nyheim Himes be that back? What will Luck do with this assortment of players?

New York Jets (5-11): Who is the quarterback?

Few teams have as many questions as the New York Jets. From the outside looking in, it is hard to tell if they are trying to rebuild or win today. Either plan isn’t going well.

Last season, the Jets surprised a bit with their effort behind veteran Josh McCown. The Jets re-signed the 39-year-old for 2018. The Jets also signed Teddy Bridgewater, projected to be a star in this league before a devastating knee injury grounded him. Then the Jets drafted Sam Darnold, who many felt should be the best of a good crop of quarterbacks.

Word from minicamp is all three are playing well. Darnold took the bulk of the snaps. McCown is among those saying the Jets should get the rookie on the field in 2018. Bridgewater looks great but has yet to take contact. He needs to pass that hurdle mentally and physically before he gets another starting job anywhere. McCown is the trusty backup plan in a three-way quarterback competition.

Denver Broncos (5-11) Will Case Keenum have a better season than Kirk Cousins?

Denver GM John Elway defended his decision to pursue Case Keenum by saying Keenum “had a better season” than Kirk Cousins had in Washington. Of course, the new Broncos’ quarterback was surrounded by talent in Minnesota, while Cousins played with the injury-riddled and far-less-talented Redskins.

For 2018, Cousins will be surrounded by the Minnesota Vikings’ talent. Keenum comes to a Denver Broncos team in search of a running game, a pass-catcher at tight end, and a third wide receiver. Is the tandem of Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas, both on the wrong side of 30, going to be enough to let Keenum have as good a season as his last?

Without CJ Anderson, there isn’t much left to work with in Denver.

Miami Dolphins (6-10) Was 2017 a speed bump or signs of things to come?

Ryan Tannehill flipped off his knee brace and declared himself ready to pick up where he left off in 2016. That would quite a distance ahead of where Miami left off in 2017.

One year removed from the Jay Cutler experiment, the Dolphins come into 2018 with a pair of new wide receivers in Denny Amendola and Albert Wilson, a rookie tight end who projects to be a real red-zone threat, and Frank Gore. Devante Parker is still on the roster looking for his breakout season, as is Kenny Stills. Kenyan Drake could be the best runner on the roster, but get bumped by Gore and rookie Kalen Ballage.

 

The new parts are unproven rookies or, with the exception of Gore, veterans who never had to be the main dog on their team. That leaves it up to Tannehill to step up and be the top-level quarterback coach Adam Gase seems to think he is.

Oakland Raiders (6-10):Can an old-school coach bring back the glory?

John Gruden returns to head the Oakland Raiders after almost ten years in the announcers’ booth. One of the first statements he made about his coaching style is that he would rely less on informatics and trends, preferring to use the eye test and his gut.

If there was any question whether that meant an old-school coaching effort in Oakland, his drafting of four lineman with his first four draft picks seems to answer it.

Gruden brings a gruff, sarcastic front to Oakland. Can today’s players respond to that style? Or will they rebel? Can Gruden get the most of young stars like Amari Cooper? For that matter, can Gruden respond to the new, player-friendly training rules negotiated in the collective bargaining agreement?

Cincinnati Bengals (7-9) Will the team rally around Marvin Lewis, or muddle along?

Another mediocre season in Cincinnati resulted in the gutting of the coaching staff, with one notable exception. Marvin Lewis was extended to 2019. This is probably his last shot at making a playoff run.

Health and the offensive line will go a long way in any success the Bengals have in 2018. Keep Andy Dalton upright and opening holes for the running game are mandatory. There was some effort made to bolster the line in the offseason, but it is no given that it will be better.

Cincinnati’s failures in primetime will be minimalized in 2018, with only one Thursday night event on the schedule. Early-season success may be the key to whether this team believes in Lewis one more time or if they succumb to their recent pattern of mediocrity.

Los Angeles Chargers (9-7): How many games will be lost (or won) in the kicking game?

Philip Rivers and the Chargers are convinced they are more like the team that finished 9-3 last season than the one that started 0-4. Three of those first four games were lost by a total of seven points. Do you think field goal kickers are important?

Last season, ten percent of all the kickers who played in the NFL played for the Chargers. It was a revolving door that saw four placekickers tee it up in Los Angeles. Collectively, the quartet managed to make a paltry 67% of their attempts. Several losses over the past few seasons can be attributed to the Chargers’ vexed kicking game.

When the team signed Robert Aguayo in the off-season, Twitter responded brutally, albeit quite humorously. They then traded for Caleb Sturgis, who connected on 85% of field goals over the past three seasons for Philadelphia before being Wally Pipp’d off the roster by Jake Elliot. Will Sturgis bounce back from his injury to break the curse of Chargers kickers? We shall see.

Baltimore Ravens (9-7) Can Joe Flacco lead a passing attack?

Joe Flacco is long-removed from his Super Bowl-winning days in Baltimore. Last season, he managed his lowest quarterback rating as a professional in what was a run-first offensive attack with a mostly mediocre receiving corps.

Baltimore jettisoned the bulk of that unit and brought in a trio of wide receivers with upside that could emerge from a wall of questions. Michael Crabtree is a good possession and red zone receiver. Is he worth the locker room attitude and can he lower his drop ratio? Can Willie Snead stay on the field for the full season? Can John Brown ever make it onto the field? Will tight end Hayden Hurst be another trend-breaking productive rookie?

Can Flacco find the arm to get any of them the ball?

Buffalo Bills (9-7) Was Tyrod Taylor holding them back all these years?

Buffalo shuffled Tyrod Taylor off to Cleveland in the offseason, signing veteran backup quarterback AJ McCarron in his place. The inference seems to be that McCarron is better-suited to lead the Bills’ attack, at least until rookie Josh Allen takes over.

Head coach Sean McDermott benched Taylor for a game last season, giving us the infamous five-interception debut of Nate Peterman. Taylor was back the following week.

Can McCarron do better? News from the Bills’ minicamp was that Peterman could start over McCarron when the regular season starts. Bets are being taken on Taylor’s Browns finishing with more wins than the Bills.

Tennessee Titans (9-7) Will the team be drafting a new quarterback in 2019?

Marcus Mariota suffered through a dreadful 2017 that included a 15-17 touchdown-to-interception ratio. That was with a top-rated rushing attack helping him out.

Tennessee will bring back a trio of young receivers along with steady veteran, Rishard Matthews, to help determine if Mariota gets extended beyond his fifth-year option or it is time to move on. That sounds like a tall order for Mariota, but second-year tandem Corey Davis and Taywon Taylor are widely expected to break out after a number of factors diminished their rookie performances. Tajae Sharp comes back from a foot injury that derailed his second season.

Dion Lewis will run next to Derrick Henry. If he can stay healthy, the running attack will provide cover again for Mariota. That leaves his future up to the young passer.

Kansas City Chiefs (10-6): Will Andy Reid regret trading away Alex Smith?

When a quarterback leads a team to the playoffs three seasons in a row and still has a year left on his contract, most teams discuss extensions. Andy Reid decided the future belonged to his second-year passer, Pat Mahomes, and traded Alex Smith.

Reid may have all the confidence in the world in his new quarterback, and it is true Mahomes will be surrounded by an array of talent that can absorb some growing pains; but what if he gets hurt? Did the Philadelphia Eagles not just show us all the advantage of having an experienced starting quarterback on the bench?

Mahomes seems to have all the tools. That doesn’t mean he won’t flop, but early returns indicate otherwise. But if Alex Smith is having a year in Washington and Kansas City is struggling, Reid has to expect the questions to start coming.

Jacksonville Jaguars (10-6) Can Bortles keep getting better?

Lost in the powerhouse defense and grinding running game coming out of Jacksonville last season was the notable performance of Blake Bortles. For the first time in his career, he topped the 60% completion mark. We learned he can throw with a lead as well as he can when scrambling from behind.

For much of the season, he was without his top receivers Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns. That will be true this season as well since they were both let go. Marquise Lee figures to be the leading receiver, with the recently signed Donte Moncrief competing with Keelan Cole and Dede Westbrook for targets.

It’s not a bad group for a run-first offense. Bortles had moments last year when he looked like the Bortles of old. If the more confident and accurate Bortles shows up for 2018, the Jaguars have to be favorites to unseat the Patriots atop the AFC.

Pittsburgh Steelers (13-3): Can Le’Veon Bell keep this up?

Le’Veon Bell is looking for a long-term contract with guarantees. If he doesn’t get it, he will play for the franchise tag and peddle his wares elsewhere for 2019.

If the trend he showed in 2017 continues, he might never get as much as he was worth the past couple of seasons. It’s true Bell provided almost 2,000 yards in total offense, but there are other stats to look at. The most glaring is his 4.0 yards-per-carry. That is down from 4.9 each of the last two seasons. Not many teams run a back often enough to make 4.0 yards worth the $17 million Bell seeks.

He also had fewer explosive runs. With 406 touches last season and based on his past performance, we should have expected 11-12 plays of over 40 years. We got three, all through the air. If Bell gets his big contract, he could be happy and excited enough to increase his per-touch yardage rate. But with so much usage, that’s a tall order for any running back.

New England Patriots (13-3) Will the defense get better or worse?

When your offense scores a lot of points, defenses tend to give up points. When an offense is desperately trying to catch up, they go to no-huddles, throw deeper, and play with more urgency.

Sure enough, New England’s defense gave up the fourth-most yards in the league last season. By that metric, they were awful. So, how did they win 13 games?

Despite the yardage, New England’s defense gave up the fifth fewest points, yielding only 18.5 per game. With the counterattack led by Tom Brady, the Patriots will win a lot of games if the other team has less than 20 points.

Bill Belichick will not name a replacement for Matt Patricia this season. Linebackers’ coach, Brian Flores, will handle the play-calling, but Belichick will handle his own defense. Let’s see how that goes.

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The Biggest Questions Facing Each NFC Teams

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