Philadelphia, PA -- The NFL season is just around the corner, and training camps open in earnest this week.
Most teams have some major question marks, and they will all try to begin finding the answers to those questions during camp. Let's examine some of the more pressing questions waiting to be answered over the next six weeks or so, while teams prepare for the 2013 campaign.
WHO WILL CATCH TOM BRADY'S PASSES THIS YEAR IN NEW ENGLAND?
Brady's cast of targets has changed many times over the years, but he has always managed to put up big passing numbers. If tight end Rob Gronkowski (currently recovering from back and forearm surgeries) is unable to answer the bell on opening weekend, the Patriots will be without their top five pass catchers from 2012 on Sept. 8 against the Buffalo Bills.
Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd and Danny Woodhead were lost in free agency, and Aaron Hernandez was released after being charged with murder last month. If Gronkowski is out on opening day, the Patriots' top returning receiver would be Julian Edelman (21 catches).
If the past is any indicator, Brady will still find a way to be a prolific passer. He has surpassed 3,500 yards in each of his last 10 full seasons.
Newcomer Danny Amendola is a younger and faster (and more injury-prone) version of Welker, so he will probably lead the new-looking receiving corps. Veteran Michael Jenkins will try to carve out a role in his first season with the Patriots, and second-round draft pick Aaron Dobson will fight for a starting job as a rookie.
Also, word is that backup running back Shane Vereen will replace Woodhead as the third-down back. He could be a player to watch, as 700 rushing yards and 50 catches could be well within reach.
WILL MIAMI'S SPENDING SPREE LEAD TO A PLAYOFF BERTH?
The Dolphins identified the lack of receiving weapons as their greatest weakness, then came away with free-agent wide receivers Mike Wallace and Brandon Gibson and free-agent tight end Dustin Keller. They also re-signed receiver Brian Hartline to a long-term deal.
On defense, they added linebackers Dannell Ellerbee and Phillip Wheeler as well as cornerback Brent Grimes.
Wallace was the big-name signing, getting $30 million guaranteed on a five- year, $60 million contract. Miami hopes to have found a legitimate No. 1 receiver for second-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill.
The Dolphins also hope they've upgraded the defense, since the two new linebackers cost more than $60 million combined.
Signing a host of top free agents doesn't always work out as well as expected. The Philadelphia Eagles' so-called "Dream Team" in 2011, for instance, needed a late-season surge just to get to .500.
It's hard to predict team chemistry. Will the Dolphins' new pieces fit well together? Only time will tell. One thing is certain: With the Patriots' tumultuous offseason and the New York Jets and Buffalo Bills possibly facing growing pains with rookie quarterbacks, the opportunity is there for Miami in the AFC East.
Still, the most likely scenario for the Dolphins is an 8-8 or 9-7 season.
CAN ROOKIES E.J. MANUEL OR GENO SMITH WIN STARTING QUARTERBACK JOBS?
The Bills made Manuel the lone first-round quarterback in April's draft, so he is clearly the team's future. There's a chance that future will begin in the Sept. 8 opener against the Patriots, but the odds are still in favor of veteran newcomer Kevin Kolb starting the season under center.
With the presence of playmakers like C.J. Spiller and Stevie Johnson, this isn't a complete rebuilding project. Manuel has a high ceiling but he's raw, never having played in a pro-style offense. Kolb would probably give the Bills a better chance to compete early in the season. Then again, Manuel could get a chance early on, perhaps after Kolb's inevitable injury.
The Jets might even have a more interesting situation. Incumbent Mark Sanchez comes into the training camp as the favorite for the starting quarterback job, but he's coming off a season in which he committed 26 turnovers in 15 games.
New York's defense has a good chance to remain elite, and newcomers Chris Ivory and Mike Goodson could significantly upgrade the running game. If those two things occur, the Jets might decide that a quarterback who can avoid turnovers would give them the best chance to win games.
That quarterback might be Smith, even though he's a rookie. Plenty will depend on how well he shows he can both understand the team's new West Coast offense and read defenses during the preseason.
CAN THE RAVENS REPLACE RAY LEWIS' AND ED REED'S LEADERSHIP AND PRODUCTION?
One of the main reasons it's so hard to repeat as champion in the free agency and salary cap era is the need to pay handsomely to retain core players. After he led the Baltimore Ravens to a Super Bowl win in February, quarterback Joe Flacco signed a six-year, $120.6 million contract.
It's tough to fault Baltimore for the Flacco deal. With the Ravens still a win- now team, they would never have been able to replace him with another franchise quarterback capable of making a Super Bowl run this year.
Since Baltimore didn't have big bucks available to spend on defense, general manager Ozzie Newsome decided to replace the departed Lewis and Reed in the draft. Linebacker Arthur Brown and safety Matt Elam both figure to be good ones, and they should make the Baltimore defense faster and younger.
So, in terms of production, the Ravens should be fine. As for leadership on defense, the team will look to Haloti Ngata, Terrell Suggs and newcomer Elvis Dumervil to try to fill the void. They should be able to handle those responsibilities, and it would be somewhat of an upset if Baltimore isn't one of the league's best defensive units again.
WILL ALEX SMITH AND NEW COACH ANDY REID MAKE KANSAS CITY AN INSTANT CONTENDER?
It seems like the Kansas City Chiefs are somewhat of a chic pick to go from the worst record in the NFL to instantly becoming a playoff contender. Since their new quarterback's greatest strength is the ability to limit mistakes, Smith is the perfect replacement for turnover-prone Matt Cassel.
Although Reid never won a Super Bowl during his stint in Philadelphia, he certainly won plenty of games. He represents a big upgrade over Romeo Crennel.
It would be unwise, however, to get carried away when assessing the Chiefs' chances to contend for the postseason. Don't forget this is a team that won just two games last season.
Aside from Smith, overall No. 1 draft pick Eric Fisher and free-agent cornerbacks Sean Smith and Dunta Robinson, the Chiefs did not make many high- impact personnel additions. Even though Kansas City has a relatively easy schedule (only facing four opponents which made the 2012 playoffs), forecasting a winning season would be overly optimistic.
WILL ROBERT GRIFFIN III, DARRELLE REVIS AND ROB GRONKOWSKI BE READY FOR OPENING DAY?
None of the three rehabbing superstars will be doing much of anything at the beginning of training camp, but it will be interesting to watch how quickly they are able to increase their workloads.
Coming back from knee surgeries, Griffin and Revis are expected to be ready to play in their respective regular-season openers. Since Revis tore his ACL last September, he should have the best chance to be ready. He will have had more than 11 full months to recover and rehab the injury.
Griffin suffered his torn ACL during the playoffs, so his timetable would have to be similar to that of Adrian Peterson's recovery for the Minnesota Vikings in 2012. A return to the field just eight months after ACL surgery is remarkable, but all signs point to Griffin being able to do it.
Gronkowski's status seems to be the iffiest of the three. It was bad enough when he had four surgeries on his forearm, which he first broke in November and then again in the playoffs. Things got worse when, on June 18, he underwent back surgery to fix a herniated disc. It would be remarkable if he were 100 percent by early September, able to absorb hits.
WHAT WILL CHIP KELLY'S OFFENSE LOOK LIKE IN PHILADELPHIA?
Some experts don't think the kind of offense Kelly ran at Oregon will work in the NFL, but several things that have happened in the last few months indicate the Eagles' first-year coach is planning to do something almost completely different.
Kelly's collegiate quarterbacks were primarily noted for their mobility. However, the Eagles drafted Southern Cal quarterback Matt Barkley, whose strength is short- to mid-range passing accuracy that would be a good fit in a West Coast-style offense. Kelly, for what it's worth, hired Pat Shurmur, a West Coast offense disciple, as his offensive coordinator.
Also, a few reporters who cover the Eagles for a living have guessed that second-year pro Nick Foles - in some ways the epitome of a quarterback who lacks mobility - will open the season as the starter.
Basically, if either Foles or Barkley guides the offense, there's almost no way it will resemble that of Kelly's Oregon teams. One wonders how much the Eagles will reveal during the preseason.
Philadelphia was a tremendous disappointment last season. With so much roster turnover, it would be difficult for the Eagles to challenge in a tough NFC East. However, the presence of Kelly could make things exciting, and the Eagles certainly have the firepower (including LeSean McCoy, DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin) to field one of the league's top offensive units.
WILL ST. LOUIS' RECEIVING UPGRADES MAKE THE TEAM A CONTENDER IN THE RUGGED NFC WEST?
The Rams certainly don't have it easy, since two of the NFL's best teams - San Francisco and Seattle - reside in their division. For that matter, now that Arizona has upgraded to Carson Palmer at quarterback, this could be a formidable division from top to bottom.
Whether it shows in wins and losses, the Rams will be a solid team in 2013. Sam Bradford, the former No. 1 overall draft pick, could finally have a stable of fine receivers at his disposal, thanks to the drafting of former West Virginia standouts Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey. Austin could be something special, making the Rams a threat to score every time he touches the ball.
St. Louis has question marks at running back, following the departure of Steven Jackson, as well as at safety. Don't forget, though, that this team went a respectable 7-8-1 last season.
In most other divisions, the Rams would have a chance to compete for a playoff spot. In the NFC West, they'll likely finish third, but they won't be a team the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks will necessarily enjoy playing against.
CAN COLIN KAEPERNICK, RUSSELL WILSON AND ANDREW LUCK TAKE ANOTHER STEP FORWARD?
Ever heard of the sophomore slump? That's what these three excellent young quarterbacks will fight to avoid.
Kaepernick took over the San Francisco 49ers' starting job at midseason and gave an already outstanding team another dimension. With sprinter's speed and a rocket arm, he might be the prototype for the quarterback position in the "new" NFL.
Wilson outperformed free-agent signee Matt Flynn in training camp last year and made the Seattle Seahawks a championship-caliber team as a rookie. Fellow rookie Luck took over the helm of a team that was the NFL's worst in 2011 and led it to 10 wins and a playoff berth in his debut.
The key for all three will be the ability to adjust now that opposing coaches will have a season's worth of film to determine how to defend against them. Wilson might have the best chance to improve on 2012 after the Seahawks gave him a game-breaking receiver when they traded for Percy Harvin.
For Kaepernick, the loss of wide receiver Michael Crabtree to injury took away a top weapon. For Luck, there will be no chance to sneak up on anyone this year. Also, the Colts won't have a last-place schedule again.
WITH SEAN PAYTON BACK IN CHARGE, WILL NEW ORLEANS BECOME ELITE AGAIN?
Coaching is a huge factor in the NFL, and the Saints were severely hampered when Payton was forced to sit out last season on league suspension. A top contender for the previous three seasons, New Orleans slumped to 7-9 in 2012.
It's easy to predict that New Orleans will pick up where it left off in 2011, given the return of Payton to call plays, as well as the presence of top quarterback Drew Brees. And it certainly could play out that way.
Before anointing the Saints as a Super Bowl contender, though, remember that their defense surrendered 454 points, or a whopping 28.4 per game, in 2012. Other than drafting Texas safety Kenny Vaccaro and hiring defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, New Orleans did not change its defensive personnel all that much.
Also remember that Atlanta won 13 games last year and most of its main characters are back. Tampa Bay revamped a weak secondary and now has the look of a playoff contender. With Cam Newton under center in Carolina, the Panthers should be able to build on a strong finish to last season.
Yes, New Orleans has just as good a chance to win this division as anyone. The point is, however, that all four teams are good and they'll probably spend the year beating each other up. The Saints went a combined 37-11 from 2009-11. They're unlikely to win so frequently in 2013.
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