NFL Nation: 2012 One big question

Chiefs: One big question

May, 4, 2012
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Is quarterback Matt Cassel ready to lead this team on a deep playoff run?

There is no doubt the Chiefs believe in Cassel. It is up to him to prove the team right.

There was speculation in both free agency and before the draft that the Chiefs would replace Cassel, or at least bring in legitimate competition. Like many teams, the Chiefs showed initial interest in Peyton Manning, but he never returned the interest. The Chiefs also investigated some of the top quarterbacks available in the draft.

In the end, the Chiefs choose not to replace Cassel, but to build the roster around him.

As a result, the Chiefs have constructed one of the deepest rosters in the AFC. Many league observers believe the Chiefs are completely set, but Cassel remains a question mark.

If Cassel doesn’t succeed this season after being given every opportunity to do so, the Chiefs will have to consider making a change in 2013.

Steelers: One big question

May, 4, 2012
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Do the Pittsburgh Steelers still have the best defense in the NFL?

That depends on three factors: the health of nose tackle Casey Hampton, the ability to replace inside linebacker James Farrior, and the emergence of a No. 2 cornerback. The most pressing issue is Hampton, who had ACL surgery in January. It's unknown whether the 35-year-old veteran will be lining up against Denver in the season opener, or starting the season on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list. His absence could force Ziggy Hood to shift from defensive end, or push rookie fourth-round pick Alameda Ta'amu into the starting lineup.

The Steelers already know they must replace Farrior, who was cut March 2. Some would dismiss this as a challenge, because Farrior was a part-time player last season and contributed a career-low 78 tackles. Still, he was a 10-year starter and the top leader on defense. Many expected the Steelers to draft Dont'a Hightower as his replacement, but they chose guard David DeCastro in the first round instead. Now, Pittsburgh will fill that spot with either Larry Foote, who was previously released so Lawrence Timmons could start, or Stevenson Sylvester, who has 21 career tackles.

The other question is at cornerback, where Pittsburgh must fill William Gay's starting spot. It's up in the air right now, and should come down to a three-player race between Keenan Lewis, Cortez Allen and Curtis Brown. Lewis and Allen played on the team's nickel defense last season, but the dark horse to win this battle is Brown, a tenacious defender who led the Steelers in special teams tackles last season. The Steelers' defense ended last season ranked first in fewest yards and points allowed after being criticized early for being too old. So, it's hard to predict much of a falloff as Pittsburgh goes through some transition at a couple of positions.

Bengals: One big question

May, 4, 2012
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Did the Cincinnati Bengals address the right spot in the secondary?

The Bengals' major focus this offseason was cornerback. Cincinnati used the 17th overall pick on Alabama's Dre Kirkpatrick after signing Adam Jones, Terence Newman and Jason Allen in free agency.

There's no arguing that cornerback was an area of need for the Bengals. No one knows if Leon Hall will be ready to start the season after last year's Achilles injury, and Nate Clements will be 33 by the time the season ends. But Cincinnati went overboard at this position. The Bengals now have six cornerbacks who were originally drafted in the first round. Not everyone is going to make the final cut.

The position in the secondary that the Bengals failed to address early in the draft was safety. After cutting starter Chris Crocker in early April, the team is putting a lot of faith in Taylor Mays, a 2010 draft pick of the San Francisco 49ers who has very little on-field experience in Mike Zimmer's defense.

Last season, Mays played 57 out of a possible 648 defensive snaps while missing seven games because of injuries. The biggest knock on Mays has been his coverage skills. But judging by their moves this offseason, the Bengals were more concerned about their depth at cornerback than Mays' ability to step up as a starter.

Chargers: One big question

May, 4, 2012
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Did the Chargers do enough on defense?

If the San Diego Chargers are going to end a two-year playoff drought and coach Norv Turner and general manager A.J. Smith are going to save their jobs, the defense must make strides.

The unit was the worst in the NFL on third down last season, and it lacked fire.

Improving the defense was one of the primary goals in the 2012 offseason. Defensive coordinator Greg Manusky, who some in the organization believe was a major reason for the unit's lack of success, was fired, and linebackers coach John Pagano replaced him. Pagano reminds some of former successful San Diego defensive coordinator Wade Phillips because of his approach.

The team signed underrated former Baltimore linebacker Jarret Johnson in free agency and concentrated on defense in the draft.

San Diego drafted South Carolina pass-rusher Melvin Ingram, Connecticut defensive tackle Kendall Reyes and LSU safety Brandon Taylor in the first three rounds. All three players are expected to contribute right away.

Ingram is highly regarded and has a chance to make an instant impact as a pass-rusher, which the Charges badly need. If these players develop quickly and Ingram is as polished as expected, the Chargers should be much more effective defensively.

Browns: One big question

May, 4, 2012
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What are the Cleveland Browns doing at wide receiver?

The short answer: nothing. That is, unless you believe fourth-round pick Travis Benjamin is the next Steve Smith. The Browns ignored wide receivers in free agency and didn't address the position in the draft until the 100th pick (that was Benjamin).

What Cleveland is left with is perhaps the worst wide receiver group in the NFL with Greg Little, Mohamed Massaquoi, Josh Cribbs, Jordan Norwood and Carlton Mitchell. There are simply no elite playmakers in this group. Some of the wide receivers' ineffectiveness last season can be blamed on Colt McCoy and his lack of arm strength. But the Browns' wide receivers didn't help him out, either. Cleveland had the most drops in the NFL last season (33) and ranked second-to-last in average yards after the catch (4.4), according to ESPN Stats & Information. Little, who led the team in receptions, also averaged one drop for every five passes thrown his way, according to Pro Football Focus.

The Browns wanted to address wide receiver this offseason, but they didn't want to overspend on free agent Pierre Garcon, and all of their coveted draft prospects (Justin Blackmon, Michael Floyd and Kendall Wright) were gone by their second first-round pick. Team president Mike Holmgren insisted the Browns aren't panicking and stressed that the wide receivers will catch the ball better. If not, rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden will have a rough initiation into the NFL.

Jaguars: One big question

May, 4, 2012
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How much better can quarterback Blaine Gabbert be for the Jacksonville Jaguars?

The prevailing national opinion is that, because of how bad Gabbert looked for most of his rookie season, he can’t be a capable NFL quarterback.

But a slew of quality NFL signal-callers played poorly in their first seasons. Gabbert has all sort of new resources, starting with a new coaching staff hired largely because of experience developing young quarterbacks. He got one receiver, Laurent Robinson, in free agency and another, Justin Blackmon, with the fifth pick in the draft. The defense will be healthy, and second-round draft pick Andre Branch, an end from Clemson, could prove to be the final piece of a great group. A great defense is a good friend for a developing quarterback.

Gabbert was skittish at times for sure. But the jump to saying he played scared is too big for me. He’s got a great arm and can fire the ball to spots when he’s given time, and when his targets are in the right spots. He certainly can develop a better pocket presence. Will he?

General manager Gene Smith and many in the Jaguars organization have staked their reputations on Gabbert. The franchise traded up to the 10th spot in last year’s draft to select him out of Missouri. How much he can improve is likely to tell the Jaguars’ story in 2012.

Raiders: One big question

May, 4, 2012
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Can the Raiders stay in the race in 2012?

The Oakland Raiders are a team in transition.

Steadying the organization with an eye on the future is the goal of new general manager Reggie McKenzie, who is taking over the direction of the team after the death of legendary Oakland owner Al Davis. Davis died at the age of 82 last October. Because Davis desperately tried to win in his final years, McKenzie was saddled with a poor salary-cap situation and a lack of draft picks.

The result is that Oakland has not been able to add many major pieces who can help right away. The problem is, Oakland’s three competitors in the AFC West -- Denver, Kansas City and San Diego -- all made significant additions.

The Raiders’ additions were more of the modest variety. If Oakland, which was 8-8 and lost the AFC West title to Denver via a tiebreaker last season, has a chance to win the division for the first time in 10 years, it must hope quarterback Carson Palmer finds his groove, running back Darren McFadden stays healthy, its young receivers continue to develop and the defense makes huge strides under new coach Dennis Allen.

Oakland has depth issues on both sides of the ball, so it can’t sustain many major injuries. There is talent in Oakland, and the team is on the right track for the future, but the question is: Can the Raiders compete in the immediate future?

Patriots: One big question

May, 4, 2012
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How much has New England's defense improved?

It can't get much worse. The New England Patriots were 31st in total defense and 31st against the pass in 2011.

New England selected all defensive players until the seventh round of last week's NFL draft. It was a wise move to draft for defense, particularly in the first round, where the Patriots selected pass-rusher Chandler Jones and physical linebacker Dont'a Hightower.

Not everyone agrees with all of New England's selections. Second-round defensive back Tavon Wilson was a controversial pick. Wilson was not invited to the combine and certainly wasn't projected as a second-round pick. But you can't disagree with the Patriots adding six new defensive players to the roster.

The Patriots appear to be focused on their pass rush. Jones, Hightower and third-round defensive end Jake Bequette displayed the ability and athleticism to pressure the quarterback in college. Improvement in that area this season would be huge for the Patriots.

New England's offense already is elite. Quarterback Tom Brady and the offense carried a struggling Patriots' defense all season during their Super Bowl run. The defense doesn't need to be top 10 in 2012. But if it can make immediate strides and get into the top 15 or top 20, that could be enough to make New England a strong title contender once again.

Texans: One big question

May, 4, 2012
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Is there sufficient leadership to replace what the Houston Texans lost?

Once they get in a huddle, the Texans won’t be looking around and thinking about how DeMeco Ryans and Eric Winston are not there. But the two players the team parted with to save money, Ryans in a trade to Philadelphia and Winston in a release, will be missed.

There was not a big enough role for Ryans in Wade Phillips’ 3-4 defense, and the inside linebacker will move back to the middle in the Eagles’ 4-3. Even so, Ryans was probably the Texans’ best locker room voice and best example of doing things the way the team wanted things done.

Center Chris Myers re-signed with the team and is the quiet glue for the Texans’ offensive line, but Winston was the spokesman who was out front for a group that was among the best in the league last year.

Brian Cushing will need to assume more of a leadership role and Myers may need to step out front more. The Texans are a talented team that replenished the roster in the draft, but even a mostly veteran team needs quality leadership and there is no telling how that develops minus Ryans and Winston.

Bills: One big question

May, 4, 2012
5/04/12
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Did the Buffalo Bills fix holes on offense?

The Buffalo Bills, who finished 6-10 and last in the AFC East, get a solid "A" for their offseason acquisitions in free agency and their selections in the draft. General manager Buddy Nix made very aggressive moves to get the team in position to make a run in 2012.

But did the Bills, my sleeper pick for 2012, do enough to plug their holes on offense? Buffalo invested a majority of its free-agent dollars on defensive ends Mario Williams and Mark Anderson. The team also used its first-round pick on cornerback Stephon Gilmore. But the Bills didn't start to address the offense until the second round.

Buffalo's biggest offseason holes on offense were at left tackle and wide receiver. The Bills used their second-round pick on offensive tackle Cordy Glenn and their third-round pick on receiver T.J. Graham. Buffalo hopes both rookies can fill these important positions in Week 1.

Glenn is a solid prospect, but there are questions whether he can handle playing left tackle in the NFL. He split time at guard and tackle at Georgia. That helps in terms of versatility, but the Bills hope Glenn can fill the open left tackle spot full time.

Graham has a chance to compete for the No. 2 receiver position opposite Steve Johnson. Graham does not have prototypical NFL size (5-foot-11), but he does have very good speed to blow the top off the defense. A deep threat is something Buffalo's offense lacks. Graham will have a chance to compete with David Nelson and Donald Jones to be the No. 2 receiver. Nelson is more suited to the slot, and Jones has durability questions. Can Graham, a third-round pick, beat out a pair of veterans?

Colts: One big question

May, 4, 2012
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Who’s playing pass defense for the Indianapolis Colts?

New coach Chuck Pagano will convert the Colts, a longtime 4-3 team, to a 3-4. He’s cited the Texans’ changeover a year ago as an example of how it can happen in one year and how the front actually gets scrambled up and can often still have the look of a 4-3.

In Year 1 for Pagano in Indianapolis, however, it’s the personnel that may dictate more of the old base front. The Colts signed a veteran nose tackle (Brandon McKinney) and a veteran end (Cory Redding), and drafted a nose tackle in fifth-rounder Josh Chapman. Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis will be less predictable coming forward from outside linebacker positions.

The problem is in the secondary.

Indianapolis was 15th against the pass last year. But that ranking is misleading because offenses could run against the Colts and often handed off while trying to run time off the clock and preserve leads.

Antoine Bethea is a quality free safety and Jerraud Powers is a good corner. Beyond them, the Colts are thin and unproven in the defensive backfield.

They didn’t draft any defensive backs, though their initial undrafted rookie group of 15 includes five of them.

No matter how well the Colts rush out of the new front, the team needs people behind it who can cover, which is not the strong suit of the veteran addition to the group, strong safety Tom Zbikowski.

Titans: One big question

May, 4, 2012
5/04/12
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Will the pass rush for the Tennessee Titans improve enough?

The Titans had just 28 sacks last season, and the lack of pass pressure was at the core of many of their problems.

Did they do enough to address it? They jumped to sign Kamerion Wimbley after he was let loose by the Raiders in a cost-cutting move. He should provide a boost, but I don’t know that he will single-handedly solve the problem. The Titans will start Wimbley and Derrick Morgan, who’s due to stay healthy and consistently produce. Dave Ball was re-signed to pitch in. Seventh-round pick Scott Solomon out of Rice will get chances to rush.

Tennessee is talking again about more pass rush from linebackers, particularly last year’s second-round pick, Akeem Ayers, the starter on the strong side. But the Titans have talked about linebacker in the pass rush on and off for year and never actually make it a reality.

Hopefully the coverage is good enough that the Titans are not afraid to send an extra rusher from the linebacking corps or secondary. Keith Millard was hired as a pass rush coach who will work with players from all three levels on technique for getting to the passer.

The Titans need Wimbley to be productive and Millard to be influential to make passers less comfortable against them.

Jets: One big question

May, 4, 2012
5/04/12
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Will starting quarterback Mark Sanchez rise to the occasion?

It's now or never for fourth-year quarterback Mark Sanchez. For the first time in his career, the New York Jets' former first-round pick is in danger of being benched if he doesn't perform up to expectations. This is a pressure-packed situation Sanchez must handle.

As much as the Jets try to dodge and deny the situation, the reality is Tim Tebow is the huge cloud hanging over Sanchez's head. Tebow is not Mark Brunell, who was Sanchez's harmless former backup the past two years. Tebow is capable of taking Sanchez's job and leading the Jets offense if needed. Tebow helped lead the Denver Broncos to the divisional round of the playoffs and even holds a head-to-head victory over Sanchez and the Jets last season.

"We're just excited to be able to add another good football player to our team; that's what this is all about," Jets offensive coordinator Tony Sparano said of Tebow in a conference call this week. "At the end of this whole thing, it's about trying to find good football players. Mark Sanchez is one [good] player. I am so excited about the opportunity to coach with him, and Tim Tebow is a good football player, too."

The Jets have done a lot of good things for Sanchez this offseason. For starters, Sanchez received a three-year contract extension that showed confidence from the organization that he can be the long-term solution. Many were surprised by the move. Also, the Jets drafted a legitimate big-play receiver in Stephen Hill to complement weapons Santonio Holmes and tight end Dustin Keller. Even Tebow in the No. 2 role can help Sanchez if New York's Wildcat package is a success and can keep the chains moving.

There are no more excuses for Sanchez. Franchise quarterbacks rise to the occasion when pushed to be their best. The 2012 season is Sanchez's time to live up to "The Sanchise" nickname the Jets handed him prematurely.

Ravens: One big question

May, 4, 2012
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Are the Baltimore Ravens set on the offensive line?

That remains to be seen. The other teams in the division improved their offensive lines in the draft. The Steelers got the top-rated guard (David DeCastro) in the first round, the Bengals added the best run-blocking guard (Kevin Zeitler) and the Browns grabbed the best right tackle prospect (Mitchell Schwartz). The Ravens bring back four starters from a line that got better as the season progressed, but there's been a significant downgrade at one spot.

At left guard, the Ravens are going from a Pro Bowl player in Ben Grubbs to a lineman who played tackle in college (either Jah Reid or Kelechi Osemele). By looking at Baltimore's moves, it doesn't seem like the Ravens are sold on Reid, a third-round pick in 2011, starting there. After failing to keep Grubbs (who signed with New Orleans in free agency), Baltimore tried to lure free agent Evan Mathis away from the Eagles and then used a second-round pick on Osemele. The Ravens have had only one rookie start a full season on the offensive line in the previous four seasons (Michael Oher in 2009).

There are other issues on the line beyond left guard. The Ravens need left tackle Bryant McKinnie to lose weight and cut his sacks allowed (he led the team with 8.5). They need right tackle Oher to reduce his penalties (four for false starts and five for holding). And they need Matt Birk, 36, to continue his streak of 96 straight games played. While the offseason focus will remain on the contract status of Joe Flacco and Ray Rice, the real storyline on offense entering the 2012 season is the state of Baltimore's line.

Broncos: One big question

May, 4, 2012
5/04/12
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Did the Broncos improve enough on defense?

Yes, it’s all about Peyton Manning in Denver. If the quarterback is healthy, the Broncos should score a lot of points and be in position to win a lot of games.

But if the Broncos are going to be a true contender in the AFC, they must improve on defense. Denver made solid strides last season on defense -- it went from No. 32 to No. 20 in total defense. Still, improvements are needed heading into 2012.

The Broncos went into the draft with a hole in the defensive front. They added Cincinnati defensive tackle Derek Wolfe in the second round and Tennessee defensive end Malik Jackson. He is versatile, but he is expected to play at end. Both players are expected to step into the defensive line rotation.

The Broncos tried to improve all layers of the defense this offseason, and they are better. The pass-rushing duo of Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil gives Denver a tremendous advantage. It doesn’t need to be great on defense, but it has to be better.

The draft picks of Wolfe and Jackson should help.

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