NFL Nation: Eight in the Box 071913

NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

What are the three key camp issues facing each NFC East team?


Offense: Running game
Dallas averaged a paltry 3.6 yards per rush in 2012. In turn, the Cowboys too often got away from their run game and became too reliant on Tony Romo and this very good passing attack. The offensive line was mostly to blame for the ground struggles, but at least Dallas did use a first-round pick on Travis Frederick to improve the interior of the line. But DeMarco Murray is increasingly difficult to count on, having missed nine of 32 games in his two NFL seasons. Murray’s yards per attempt also dropped from 5.5 to 4.1 in his second season.

Defense: Scheme change
New defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin is a smart man and surely will not rely on his usual Tampa 2 scheme as some might speculate. Still, after investing so heavily in Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne as man-to-man corners, Dallas now -- just one year later -- will ask these two to operate much more out of their comfort zone. It will be interesting to see what percentage of man coverage Dallas plays this season.

Wild card: The linebackers
If Dallas does move to a predominant Tampa 2 scheme, two players who should benefit a great deal are Sean Lee in the middle and Bruce Carter at the Will linebacker spot. Both have outstanding range and playmaking skills. Lee could flourish much like Brian Urlacher did in his prime as an outstanding coverage linebacker, while Carter could have a Derrick Brooks-type impact as a run-and-hit defender.


Offense: Plenty to like
Few seem to be talking about it, but I expect the Giants’ offense to produce an awful lot of points this season. With the addition of Justin Pugh, the offensive line should be upgraded. My only slight concern is at tight end, where Martellus Bennett's blocking will be missed. New starter Brandon Myers really isn't even comparable in that department. I am expecting a breakout season from running back David Wilson, with Andre Brown acting as a superb complement. Wide receiver Rueben Randle also should take monumental steps forward in his second season, and I have little doubt that Eli Manning is still an exceptional quarterback. What’s not to like?

Defense: Back seven
While I am extremely high on the Giants’ offense and think the defensive line will be improved, the back seven of this defense is worrisome. This just might be the worst group of linebackers in the NFL, and I expect Kenny Phillips to be missed at safety. Certainly the Giants have been successful defensively by dedicating resources to the defensive line, but this is a bit ridiculous.

Wild card: Defensive line
Can this deep and talented front make up for all the concerns behind it? I have my doubts, but that isn’t a knock on this front four. Potentially, the Giants should go four deep at end and six deep at tackle with high-end talent. That is pretty amazing and should allow this group to constantly have fresh, hungry players on the field. Also, Jason Pierre-Paul should be healthier than he was a year ago, which is frightening.


Offense: Jason Peters
Before his Achilles injury, I thought Peters was the best offensive lineman in the NFL. He missed the entire 2012 season, a year in which the Eagles’ offensive line was simply horrible. Other injuries certainly factored into that ineptitude, but getting Peters back in the form we saw pre-injury would go a long way to making this a potentially excellent unit, especially with the addition of Lane Johnson. But therein lies the question: What kind of movement skills will we see from the 31-year-old Peters, a tight end in college who once possessed exceptional quickness, balance and agility?

Defense: Cole, Graham and Curry
By all accounts, the Eagles are going to be a predominant 3-4 defense under Chip Kelly. But Trent Cole, Brandon Graham and Vinny Curry are prototypical 4-3 defensive ends. Cole and Graham, who somewhat quietly played exceptional football during the second half of the 2012 season, are listed as outside linebackers in this 3-4, and Curry is listed at defensive end. It will be a shame if these three players are misused, and it will be interesting to see their role when camp opens.

Wild card: All new secondary
The Eagles' starting cornerbacks greatly underachieved last year, and the safety play was just terrible. The new Philadelphia regime completely revamped the back end of the defense, and it looks as though the Eagles will have four new starters in the secondary. Philadelphia had an inordinate number of mental errors last season; while it might take some time for this group to jell, it should be improved in that capacity as well as in its overall play.


Offense: Right tackle woes
Robert Griffin III’s immense abilities and Mike Shanahan’s scheme masked a major deficiency at right tackle in 2012. The scheme won’t change and Griffin will have even better on-the-field awareness in his second season -- even if he isn’t as mobile while recovering from injury -- but Washington certainly realized this area of concern and brought in Tony Pashos and Jeremy Trueblood to compete with Tyler Polumbus. My fear is that none of the three is the answer.

Defense: O-Sack-Po?
Much like Peters for the Eagles, Brian Orakpo will be under a microscope when camp opens, as all eyes will be watching to see if he still has his same explosive movement skills post-injury. Far and away Washington’s best pass-rusher, Orakpo and his edge presence were missed in a big way last season, and the Redskins were forced to blitz, exposing their weak secondary, much more than what would have been ideal.

Wild card: New DBs
Again much like in Philadelphia, the Redskins put many of their limited offseason resources into improving a poor secondary. A healthy Orakpo’s pass rush certainly will help, but the Redskins could see as many as three rookies -- David Amerson, Phillip Thomas and Bacarri Rambo -- playing prominent roles in their secondary early in the season. Rookie cover men rarely enter the league without their share of growing pains.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

What are the three key camp issues facing each AFC East team?


Offense: Relying on rookies early
The Bills pressed reset this offseason with a franchise overhaul that included a new quarterback in rookie EJ Manuel. But he’s not the only potential rookie starter on offense, as Buffalo might turn to receivers Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin. Seventh-round tight end Chris Gragg is also a name to keep an eye on as Scott Chandler works his way back from injury (should be 100 percent for camp). Woods brings polish while Goodwin and Gragg have no shortage of speed, but can they turn those traits into immediate contributions? And if Manuel wins the starting role under center, can he replicate the recent success of other rookie quarterbacks?

Defense: Finding a third cornerback
The Bills were unable to come to terms on a long-range pact with safety Jairus Byrd before Monday’s deadline, but that’s not the only secondary issue they’re facing. Beyond Stephon Gilmore and Leodis McKelvin, it’s unclear how the cornerback depth chart stacks up. Veterans Ron Brooks and Justin Rogers are candidates to compete for the nickelback job, and in a division that features a Tom Brady-led offense, a defense without capable cornerbacks is in major trouble.

Wild card: Scheme transition on both sides
There is optimism surrounding the new direction of the Bills behind coach Doug Marrone, but one inevitability of a coaching change is the transition from one scheme to another. On offense, the success might depend on quarterback play, whether it’s Manuel or Kevin Kolb under center. Defensively, new coordinator Mike Pettine faces the challenge of fitting the incumbent pieces into his scheme. If he can maximize the talents of Mario Williams, Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus, the front seven should be formidable by season’s beginning.


Offense: Martin on the left side
Jake Long is now a Ram, and the Dolphins are entrusting Jonathan Martin to fortify the left side of their offensive line. In limited reps as Ryan Tannehill's blindside protector in 2012, Martin struggled, showing an inability to consistently anchor and hold up against speed-to-power rushers. Martin was more comfortable on the right side of the line, but the Dolphins have enlisted veteran Tyson Clabo to take on that role this season. If Martin is unable to man the left tackle position, the Dolphins have limited in-house options to replace him.

Defense: Secondary
The Dolphins lost cornerback Sean Smith in free agency a year after trading away Vontae Davis. The presumptive starters for 2013, Brent Grimes and rookie Jamar Taylor, enter training camp coming off injuries (Grimes missed nearly the entire 2012 season), and it’s fair to wonder how much, if at all, the secondary has improved. At his best, Grimes is one of the top off-man cornerbacks in football, a pesky ball hawk with reactive athleticism. But if an Achilles injury lingers, the Fins are in danger of playing with a short-handed secondary.

Wild card: Miller ready for heavy load?
With Reggie Bush in Detroit, the Dolphins must turn to a new feature back, and the early buzz suggests Lamar Miller is the leader in the clubhouse to take on that role. Talent, specifically speed, won’t be the issue for Miller, but he’ll be tested by the rigors of a full workload. Daniel Thomas hasn’t proved to be the answer in the backfield, and although Mike Gillislee offers some ability, the Dolphins need Miller to emerge in order to ease the burden on Tannehill.


Offense: Passing game chemistry
The Patriots face the prospect of starting the regular season without their top five pass-catchers from 2012, a tough chore for any offense. Although Tom Brady has shown a penchant for developing a rapport with new wideouts quickly, the turnover among his targets this year is substantial. The Patriots hope that Danny Amendola will replicate Wes Welker’s success, but the depth chart behind him is less certain. A trio of rookies, Aaron Dobson, Josh Boyce and Kenbrell Thompkins, will come under the microscope during training camp.

Defense: Possible Dennard fallout
The Patriots worked hard to retain their secondary from 2012, a group that made strides when Aqib Talib and Alfonzo Dennard became starters. Dennard, however, enters training camp on uneasy footing after a recent arrest for suspicion of a DUI, which could affect his on-field status. (He was already on probation for an April 2012 arrest.) If Dennard misses any time, the Patriots’ cornerback depth will be thinned and the depth chart reshuffled. For a group that finally seemed to hit its stride late last season, potential shuffling is not what it needs.

Wild card: Pass rush
Though the defense generated 37 sacks last season, an untimely no-sack, no-quarterback hit effort against Joe Flacco and the Ravens in the AFC Championship Game is difficult to forget. The Patriots passed on marquee veteran edge rushers this offseason, opting instead to rely on the development of young rushers and the selection of second-round linebacker Jamie Collins. Chandler Jones has a high ceiling, but he needs to build on the first half of his rookie season, during which he recorded all six of his sacks. Marcus Benard, who notched 7.5 sacks in 2010, is a player to keep an eye on.


Offense: Playmakers, anybody?
While all eyes will be on the quarterback competition this summer, there’s also a startling dearth of talent at the skill positions for the Jets, especially with questions surrounding Santonio Holmes’ foot. The Jets lack a dynamic tight end and are short on proven receivers. No matter who wins the quarterback competition, he won’t have much in the way of reliable playmakers to give the football. New running back Chris Ivory is the most exciting player on this offense and is likely to be prominently featured.

Defense: Milliner ready?
The Jets will be well-coached on defense, as Rex Ryan is one of the best at maximizing his talents. Although the defense held up in the secondary without Darrelle Revis, the pressure will be on rookie cornerback Dee Milliner to make the group even better than it was toward the back end of 2012. He was widely considered the top cornerback in the draft, but now he has the task of trying to make Jets fans (partially) forget that Revis is a Buc.

Wild card: Coples’ transition
Ryan can generate pressure through his defensive schemes, but the Jets have lacked a pure edge rusher in recent seasons. One vehicle to solve that issue is transitioning Quinton Coples from a down lineman to a stand-up linebacker role, a position that could fit with his skill set. Though Coples flashed as a rookie in 2012, it’s about consistency for the former first-rounder. At 6-foot-6 and 290 pounds, he has the frame to be dominant. The Jets will need him to provide a pass-rush spark in his second NFL season.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

What are the three key camp issues facing each AFC West team?


Offense: The Wes Welker Factor
Peyton Manning has a new toy. But with the wealth of options in this offense, it seems unlikely Welker will match his production from his days with Tom Brady. Manning will love exploiting the mismatches Welker creates from the slot. Welker’s experience in New England's up-tempo offense should pay off as Denver transitions to a similar pace. It is difficult to find weaknesses in the Broncos’ offense right now.

Defense: Pass-rush issue
Elvis Dumervil is now playing for Baltimore. Von Miller is one of the league’s premier defensive players and pass-rushers, but more is needed. Where will it come from? Derek Wolfe showed some flashes as an inside pass-rusher during his rookie season and on passing downs. Robert Ayers should also be effective when moved inside. Will the edge player opposite Miller -- Ayers on early downs and Shaun Phillips, most likely, on passing downs -- be able to produce? The wild card here is rookie Quanterus Smith.

Wild card: Pass coverage in the middle
Denver had a lot of problems last season covering opposing tight ends in the middle of the field. On paper, it doesn’t look as though the problem has been addressed. Denver’s safety play is average at best, but the middle linebacker spot manned by Joe Mays is the real issue. Look for opposing offenses to keep Denver in base defensive personnel and attack the middle of the field.


Offense: The Alex Smith Factor
Smith needs plenty of resources to be successful. But if he just makes fewer mistakes at the position than Matt Cassel did a year ago -- something that seems highly likely -- then Kansas City will be much more competitive. Smith also has underrated running skills, and the Chiefs should orchestrate plenty of designed quarterback movement and runs.

Defense: Interior pass rush
The Chiefs were among the worst defenses in the NFL last season at creating pressure on the quarterback between the tackles. Although the team made drastic changes across the roster, this area was not addressed. Unless Dontari Poe steps up in his second season -- and pass rush isn’t really his game -- little should change for Kansas City.

Wild card: Secondary receivers
The Chiefs are very light at wide receiver outside of Dwayne Bowe. They have three strong tight ends and could employ plenty of multiple tight end sets. Jamaal Charles should see plenty of passes thrown his way, but another outside threat needs to step up. Donnie Avery has the speed to open up room for others, but his hands are highly inconsistent. Jon Baldwin and Dexter McCluster have yet to find their place in this league. Keep an eye on Devon Wylie.


Offense: Man-blocking scheme
For some unknown reason, the Raiders switched in 2012 from a predominantly man-blocking scheme, in which Darren McFadden thrived, to a zone-blocking scheme. That was a failed experiment, especially for McFadden, who is entering the final year of his contract. Switching back could allow him to be the foundation of Oakland’s offense.

Defense: No pass rush
I fear the Raiders will be among the worst defenses in the NFL next season at rushing the passer. Lamarr Houston is a very talented player, capable of greatness, but he isn’t a typical edge pass-rushing defensive end. Andre Carter has had success in this area, but his best days are behind him. I like the additions of Pat Sims and Vance Walker at defensive tackle, but both are run-stuffers. Opposing quarterbacks are going to have a lot of unobstructed time in the pocket this season. Calling Jadeveon Clowney...

Wild card: Building blocks
The Raiders are not going to win the Super Bowl. Instead, they must determine which players are their building blocks. I was impressed by the way the front office, despite many limitations, addressed the team's needs during the offseason. But many of their signings were only one-year deals. Which players do they want to bring back? Many players on Oakland’s roster are auditioning this season.


Offense: Pass protection
Philip Rivers needs to be protected, which San Diego hasn’t been able to do lately. Although the Chargers used a first-round pick on D.J. Fluker, who is a much better run blocker than pass blocker, I don’t see noticeable upgrades on the offensive line. I also don’t see much upside or potential star power in the group. Changing scheme could help by getting the ball out of Rivers’ hands quicker, but he could be headed for another punishing season.

Defense: Time to step up
The Chargers have several promising young defensive players who could be ready to break out. Eric Weddle is among the league’s best safeties, and Corey Liuget has already established himself as a real force on San Diego’s defensive line. Kendall Reyes might not be far behind Liuget and should become more of a household name this season. Manti Te’o could have an instant impact in his rookie season and pair with Donald Butler to be one of the better inside-linebacker tandems in the league.

Wild card: Receiver situation
Antonio Gates isn’t what he once was, but he still makes plays, and Rivers trusts him. The Chargers have many other receiving options now: Danario Alexander, Malcom Floyd, Keenan Allen, Vincent Brown, Robert Meachem, Eddie Royal, John Phillips, Ladarius Green, Danny Woodhead and Ronnie Brown. How will that sort out? My favorites are Allen, Vincent Brown and Green. Getting these young weapons plenty of reps could pay off in the long term for San Diego.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

What are the three key camp issues facing each NFC North team?


Offense: Kyle Long's readiness
The Bears drafted Long in the first round to help an offensive line that has struggled for years to protect quarterback Jay Cutler. Long, however, had a short Division I career and missed almost all of the Bears' offseason work because of the timing of Oregon's final academic quarter. The Bears will find out in camp, and during the preseason, whether Long is ready to be an immediate starter as you would expect based on his draft position.

Defense: Configuring linebackers
After the retirement of Brian Urlacher and the departure of Nick Roach, the Bears gave themselves two tiers of options at linebacker to play alongside Lance Briggs. If all else fails, they can use veteran D.J. Williams in the middle and James Anderson on the strong side. But they also drafted two players who one day will get their chance: Jon Bostic in the second round and Khaseem Greene in the fourth. The process of determining the best combination will begin in training camp.

Wild card: Coaching transition
This will be the Bears' first training camp in 10 years without Lovie Smith as the coach. Marc Trestman began the transition process during offseason workouts, but training camp is the time for establishing the meat of his program. How does he expect players to practice? How quickly does he expect scheme assimilation? How do players know when he's happy? When he's angry? The first training camp will set the parameters.


Offense: Line changes
One way or the other, the Lions will enter the season with three new starters on the offensive line. Riley Reiff is at left tackle after the retirement of Jeff Backus, and there will be competition at right guard and right tackle. Pulling off an overhaul of the offensive line in a win-or-else season is an ambitious task. All discussion of improvement for quarterback Matthew Stafford, and the impact of newcomer Reggie Bush, is made on the presumption that the offensive line won't take a step back.

Defense: Ziggy Ansah's development
Usually, the No. 5 overall pick of a draft is ready to step in and play right away. But Ansah was a late arrival to football and was almost an unknown to NFL scouts a year ago at this time. There was a sense during pre-draft evaluations that Ansah would need more development time than the typical No. 5 pick, but the Lions have high hopes of putting him into the starting lineup right away. They gave themselves some flexibility by signing free agent Israel Idonije, but they'll find out in camp if Ansah is going to be ready to play a full-time role in Week 1.

Wild card: Ryan Broyles' status
Broyles was a value pick in the 2012 draft, but he is very much needed after the release of Titus Young. Nate Burleson has returned to play alongside All-Pro Calvin Johnson, but the Lions' depth would be thin if Broyles isn't ready to play soon after tearing his ACL in Week 13 last year. The Lions hope Broyles can be full-speed by the start of the season, a pace he must confirm with at least some significant work in training camp.


Offense: Running back rotation
The Packers added two rookies, Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin, to a group that includes holdovers DuJuan Harris, James Starks, Alex Green and John Kuhn. Unless the Packers suddenly convert to a run-based offense, an impossibility as long as Aaron Rodgers is at quarterback, the Packers will have to thin this herd in training camp. Not everyone from that group will make the team, and a few who do aren't likely to get much action in games. Harris, Lacy and Franklin seem the likeliest candidates -- in that order -- to be feature backs.

Defense: Replacing Woodson
The Packers have openings at safety and cornerback following the release of Charles Woodson. Training camp should provide significant insight, if not an outright answer, into who will start at safety -- M.D. Jennings? Jerron McMillian? -- alongside Morgan Burnett. We'll also get a sense for who is ready to step into the cornerback and nickel job opposite veteran Tramon Williams. Top candidates for that job include Sam Shields, Casey Hayward and Davon House. The Packers' cornerback group is by far the deepest in the NFC North.

Wild card: Crosby's state of mind
No one expects Giorgio Tavecchio to beat out place-kicker Mason Crosby, who went through a well-publicized extended slump last season. But how will Crosby react to the first competition of any sort he has faced since taking over as the Packers' kicker in 2007? That's what the Packers want to find out, frankly. If he isn't sharp in camp, the Packers might need to consider their options elsewhere.


Offense: Cordarrelle Patterson's development
The Vikings know they want Patterson to be their kickoff returner, replacing Percy Harvin, but is Patterson ready to take over any part of Harvin's role as a primary offensive playmaker? Patterson's short stay at Tennessee once suggested he will need some development time before contributing regularly on offense. His performance in offseason practices, however, suggested he might be further along than once believed. Training camp will tell us for sure.

Defense: Linebacker alignment
Will newcomer Desmond Bishop play middle linebacker or on the outside? What would that mean for Erin Henderson, who spent the offseason transitioning to the middle position? It seems pretty clear that Bishop, Henderson and Chad Greenway will be the Vikings' three linebackers. Training camp should give us a better idea of where they will line up and, importantly, who will come off the field in nickel situations.

Wild card: Chemistry in passing game
The Vikings are expecting a jump in the efficiency, if not raw numbers, of their passing game this season. Quarterback Christian Ponder will have to accomplish that by developing quick chemistry with his new receivers, including Patterson and veteran Greg Jennings. That task appeared to be a work in progress during offseason practices.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

What are the three key camp issues facing each NFC South team?


Offense: Reshuffled offensive line
Center Todd McClure retired and right tackle Tyson Clabo was released. The Falcons elected to go with youth and stick with guys already on their roster. Second-year pro Peter Konz should be fine at center after spending much of his rookie season at guard. But the right side is a question mark with Garrett Reynolds ticketed for guard and either Mike Johnson or Lamar Holmes at tackle. If the new starters don’t step up, this offensive line could have problems.

Defense: Pass rush
It seems reasonable to expect defensive end Osi Umenyiora to fill the shoes of John Abraham. But the Falcons need the pass rush to come from other areas, as well. Kroy Biermann likely will be used as a hybrid defensive end/linebacker, and he has some pass-rushing skills. Second-year defensive end Jonathan Massaquoi also has some potential. But defensive coordinator Mike Nolan might need to get more creative and blitz his linebackers and defensive backs more often.

Wild card: Kids have to be ready
The Falcons used their first two draft picks on cornerbacks Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford. The Falcons need one of them to start right away, and the other likely will get a fair amount of playing time. Opponents are likely to test the rookies, so safeties Thomas DeCoud and William Moore might have to provide a lot of help early on.


Offense: Establishing an identity
The Panthers opened last season using a lot of read-option with quarterback Cam Newton. After a 2-8 start, they switched back to a more conventional running game and had much more success. I expect that trend to continue under new coordinator Mike Shula. Newton has the skills to be a very productive passer if this offense is executed the right way.

Defense: Secondary questions
Aside from free safety Charles Godfrey, no one has a clear-cut starting position in the defensive backfield. There are lots of candidates, such as Drayton Florence, Josh Norman, Josh Thomas and Captain Munnerlyn, at cornerback. But some of those guys will have to elevate their games for the Panthers to have success in defending the pass.

Wild card: Missing links?
With defensive ends Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy and linebackers Luke Kuechly, Jon Beason and Thomas Davis, Carolina has the potential to have one of the league’s best front sevens. But that is largely contingent upon rookie defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short. If they live up to the hype right off the bat, this front seven could be special.


Offense: Left tackle an open competition
After letting Jermon Bushrod go in free agency, the Saints have a glaring hole at left tackle. Charles Brown and Jason Smith haven’t done much in their careers, and rookie Terron Armstead is also in the mix. The Saints are hoping one of those three can step up. If not, the Saints might have to scramble to find a left tackle elsewhere.

Defense: Unit a question mark
After finishing last in the league in overall defense last season, the Saints brought in coordinator Rob Ryan and switched to a 3-4 scheme. The changes are probably a good thing, mainly because things can’t get much worse than they were last season. But it remains to be seen whether Ryan has the type of personnel to make his defense work.

Wild card: Payton’s return
If nothing else, Sean Payton’s suspension last year illustrated the true value of a head coach. He’s back now, and that should be a major positive. Payton is great with X's and O's, but he also is an excellent motivator. I expect Payton and the Saints to use what happened last year as fuel for this season.


Offense: Franchise quarterback?
It clearly is a make-or-break year for quarterback Josh Freeman as he heads into the last year of his contract. Freeman has done some very good things, but he has struggled to deliver the kind of consistency coach Greg Schiano wants. The Bucs have a strong running game with Doug Martin and two good receivers in Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams. There will be no one else to blame but Freeman if this offense doesn’t prosper.

Defense: Pass rush
The Bucs let last year’s leading sacker, Michael Bennett, walk in free agency. It was a calculated gamble because the Bucs have a lot invested in Adrian Clayborn and Da’Quan Bowers and believe they can be a strong duo at defensive end. They'd better be right. If they’re not, the revamped secondary might not be as good as it looks on paper.

Wild card: Leadership void
Aside from recently retired Ronde Barber, this team hasn’t had a lot of obvious leadership in recent years. Even Barber was more of a leader-by-example type than a vocal leader. The Bucs need some other players to step up. Newcomers such as cornerback Darrelle Revis and safety Dashon Goldson seem to be the most likely candidates to fill the leadership void.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

What are the three key camp issues facing each AFC South team?


Offense: The offensive line
The right side of the Texans’ line was a huge problem a year ago, but I expect that to improve in 2013. Houston drafted Brennan Williams, a great fit for this zone-blocking scheme, and I expect him to surpass Derek Newton and start at right tackle. At right guard, Houston often rotated Ben Jones and Brandon Brooks, both rookies in '12. Expect one of these two, most likely Brooks, to grab the full-time job in training camp.

Defense: Safety Ed Reed’s impact
Honestly, on the field, I think going from Glover Quin to Reed is a step back. But the Texans have a very talented secondary and should have an improved pass rush, so they should get away with it. Plus, Reed remains a fantastic ball-hawking, deep-middle player. But what Reed does bring is postseason success experience -- and the Texans are light on that. The future Hall of Famer should have immense value behind the scenes with his new team.

Wild card: Receiving corps
Will another receiving option step up? As it stands, I am leaning toward DeAndre Hopkins as my prediction for offensive rookie of the year. He should see plenty of early playing time and many favorable coverages with Andre Johnson and the Houston running game garnering the majority of the attention from opposing defenses. The NFL-ready Hopkins should seize such an opportunity.


Offense: The overall scheme
With former offensive coordinator Bruce Arians gone, how much will the passing attack change? We should expect Indianapolis’ new offensive staff to stress getting the ball out of Andrew Luck’s hands much more quickly than a year ago. Of course, the Colts will still go deep with regularity -- and Luck’s protection should also be improved -- but the franchise quarterback took far too many hits in his rookie season. Expect this attack to now be much more West Coast oriented.

Defense: Lack of difference-makers
Where are the difference-makers on this side of the ball? This is a valid concern. Dwight Freeney, now in San Diego, isn’t what he once was, but he was a formidable presence off the edge. Robert Mathis has always been a very fine player, but he has benefited from Freeney’s presence. Can rookie defensive end Bjoern Werner make an immediate impact? What other potential stars are there on the Colts’ defense?

Wild card: Running back Ahmad Bradshaw
What impact will Bradshaw make? I predict a sizable one. He is outstanding in protection, which should not be overlooked. He is an excellent receiver out of the backfield and is a far more dynamic and talented runner than Vick Ballard, who is a backup at best. This offense could be lethal, and the addition of Bradshaw, if healthy, will be a major reason why.


Offense: Uncertainty at quarterback
Is either Blaine Gabbert or Chad Henne their solution? The short answer is probably no. Henne is the superior player at this stage of their careers, but he’s too inconsistent and mistake-prone. Gabbert has shown little since joining the league to suggest he is the answer, but for the greater long-term good of the team, he could be handed the starting role. In the end, expect the Jaguars to be very interested in quarterback prospects such as Teddy Bridgewater very early in next year’s draft.

Defense: Pass rush
The Jaguars’ secondary was abysmal in 2012, which really wasn’t shocking, but it did surprise me that Jacksonville was so feeble in sacking opposing quarterbacks. Its interior defensive linemen are mostly plugger types, although former first-round pick Tyson Alualu does have the ability to penetrate versus the pass. The outside trio of Jason Babin, Jeremy Mincey and youngster Andre Branch are collectively better pass-rushers than they showed during the Jaguars’ dismal 2012 season.

Wild card: Lack of positives
What does this fan base have to get excited about? I contend that Jacksonville’s roster rivals Oakland’s for the worst in the NFL, but looking on the bright side, the team does have a new coaching staff in place. The Jaguars also found a gem in wide receiver Cecil Shorts, and Justin Blackmon appears to be a legitimate go-to wide receiver. The Jaguars are also loaded at offensive tackle and the young secondary has some very solid prospects to build around. And, well, Jaguars fans can look forward to yet another very early draft pick next year.


Offense: Running back Chris Johnson
Expect Johnson to post a very impressive season in 2013. It often went unnoticed, but he improved dramatically as the 2012 season went along after a dreadful start. The Titans’ coaching staff began to play to his strengths and should now have a firm grasp of how to utilize him. Also, the interior of the offensive line, which was just terrible in 2012, could end up as the best trio of center and guards in the NFL this year.

Defense: Lack of star power
It has been a long time since Tennessee has had one dominant player on defense. The Titans don’t always have gaping holes on this side of the ball, but a true perennial Pro Bowler -- at any level of the defense -- could go a very long way for this franchise. Is there anyone currently on the roster capable of stepping up and becoming such a player? It is possible, I suppose, that Derrick Morgan or Zach Brown makes such a step, but I fear the reality of it is that Tennessee once again will lack true star power on defense.

Wild card: Quarterback Jake Locker
Is the third-year quarterback ready to emerge? Locker is physically gifted, with size, arm strength and great athletic ability. But he remains wildly inconsistent with his mechanics, recognition of defenses and especially accuracy. The Titans did an exceptional job of surrounding Locker with weapons and greatly improved their offensive line. Will Locker respond in a positive manner? That is the biggest question surrounding this franchise as it heads into training camp.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

What are the three key camp issues facing each NFC West team?


Offense: Top running backs
Rashard Mendenhall and Ryan Williams have combined for one ruptured patella tendon (Williams), one torn ACL (Mendenhall) and one shoulder surgery (Williams) during the past two seasons. Williams has played five games in two seasons. Mendenhall missed 10 games last season (one to suspension) after returning from his knee injury. So while new quarterback Carson Palmer rightly commands much of the attention heading into camp, the running backs deserve our attention as well.

Defense: Coaching change
The coaching change from Ken Whisenhunt to Bruce Arians cost the Cardinals their defensive coordinator, Ray Horton, just as the defense was gaining momentum. Arizona ranked third behind Chicago and Denver in defensive EPA last season. New coordinator Todd Bowles comes to Arizona after a difficult 2012 season with Philadelphia. Can the Cardinals sustain their recent defensive success under new leadership?

Wild card: Kitchens' health
Quarterbacks coach Freddie Kitchens underwent emergency heart surgery in early June after experiencing chest pain during practice. Last we heard, Kitchens was recuperating and expected to return sometime during camp, perhaps on a limited basis at first. Kitchens' health is a leading issue for the Cardinals even though the team has enough depth on its coaching staff to cover for him.


Offense: Second-year second-rounders
Two second-round picks from 2012 will help determine the Rams' trajectory on offense. Receiver Brian Quick and running back Isaiah Pead each started one game as a rookie. Quick played 174 snaps and caught 11 passes, two for touchdowns. Pead played 39 snaps and had 10 carries. It's time for both to become meaningful contributors. They should have increased opportunities after St. Louis parted with veterans at their positions.

Defense: Rookie safety T.J. McDonald
The Rams will want to get McDonald up to speed quickly. They did sign veteran Matt Giordano for insurance, but McDonald, a third-round choice from USC, is the player they envision in the lineup. Coach Jeff Fisher has experience putting rookie safeties into the lineup right away. Tank Williams started all 16 games as a rookie under Fisher with Tennessee in 2002. Michael Griffin started 10 games as a rookie under Fisher with the Titans in 2007. Williams was a second-round choice. Griffin was a first-rounder.

Wild card: O-line health
The Rams are young just about everywhere except along their offensive line. That's OK as long as those veterans avoid some of the injury troubles they've suffered in recent seasons. Left tackle Jake Long has had two arm surgeries the past two seasons. Right guard Harvey Dahl is coming off a torn biceps. Center Scott Wells has had two surgeries on his right knee, plus a broken foot, in the past year and a half. Tackle Rodger Saffold has had a torn pectoral and a neck injury since late in the 2011 season. The group should be healthy going into camp. Will the good health last?


Offense: Developing wideouts
Eight wide receivers have played in games for the 49ers during two seasons under coach Jim Harbaugh. The list -- Michael Crabtree, Randy Moss, Kyle Williams, Mario Manningham, Ted Ginn Jr., Josh Morgan, Braylon Edwards and Brett Swain -- includes zero players the team drafted and developed under Harbaugh. The team will be looking to develop young wideouts A.J. Jenkins, Quinton Patton and Ricardo Lockette while Crabtree and Manningham recover from serious injuries. Jenkins and Patton were draft choices under Harbaugh. Lockette was signed last season.

Defense: Roles on the D-line
General manager Trent Baalke has suggested the team could stand to expand its rotation on the defensive line. How will that play out once the 49ers are on the field and the coaching staff takes over? What role will newcomer Glenn Dorsey play to that end? Starters Justin Smith and Ray McDonald could benefit from a little more rest now and then. They rank among the NFL leaders in total regular-season and postseason snaps played in the past couple of seasons. Smith, in particular, is hugely important to the defense's success.

Wild card: Eric Mangini
The coaching staff will have a different feel with Mangini as the new senior offensive consultant. Harbaugh has kept together his staff for two seasons, an upset for a team that has enjoyed so much success on the scoreboard and in scheming. We easily could have credited Harbaugh for staying the course in the name of continuity. Adding a coach with Mangini's profile shakes things up. It'll be interesting to see how Mangini assimilates.


Offense: James Carpenter
Carpenter's health is a key variable for the future of the offensive line. Coach Pete Carroll has indicated Carpenter should be available for the start of training camp after missing nine games last season and seven as a rookie. Drafted to play right tackle, Carpenter's future is at guard if he can get healthy, stay healthy and regain quickness. Having Pro Bowl left tackle Russell Okung and Pro Bowl center Max Unger flanking a healthy Carpenter would give Seattle a line more like the one Carroll envisioned.

Defense: Cliff Avril's transition
Seattle will be looking to see how pass-rushing defensive ends Avril and Bruce Irvin fit at linebacker as the coaching staff promotes versatility through the front seven. Avril is particularly important in the short term because Irvin faces a four-game suspension to open the season while starting defensive end Chris Clemons continues to rehab from the torn ACL he suffered during the wild-card round last season. Carroll has hinted that Clemons could return in time for the season, but that's a best-case scenario.

Wild card: Keep it clean
All NFL players must submit to testing for performance-enhancing drugs when they report for training camp. That's significant for the Seahawks after Irvin became the fifth Seattle player since 2011 to incur a PED-related suspension. What are the chances another player tests positive?
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

What are the three key camp issues facing each AFC North team?


Offense: Wide receiver
After trading Anquan Boldin due to salary-cap constraints, the Ravens opted not to invest in a veteran replacement. That leaves Torrey Smith as the top wideout for Joe Flacco, but the Ravens have substantial questions behind him. Jacoby Jones had a standout postseason but has never recorded more than 562 receiving yards in a single season. He must prove himself capable of replicating his postseason success in order for Baltimore to transition beyond Boldin’s absence.

Defense: Replacing leadership
GM Ozzie Newsome did a formidable job of replacing departed veterans Ray Lewis and Ed Reed with younger talent this offseason, but finding new leadership on defense will be no easy task. Terrell Suggs is a veteran voice who can absorb an even larger leadership role, but it will be more than a one-man job to account for what Lewis and Reed brought to the table. Offensively, the Ravens have Flacco and Ray Rice to steer the ship.

Wild card: Potential inside linebacker depth
The Ravens have three players who seem likely to compete for starting inside linebacker jobs, but two of them, Arthur Brown and Jameel McClain, are dealing with medical issues. McClain (back) is waiting for clearance from medical staffers to return to contact work, while Brown underwent sports hernia surgery after the team drafted him. A delayed return from either, or both, would put stress on the defense to find a replacement for Lewis. Daryl Smith, limited to just two games in 2012, is another candidate to start.


Offense: Dalton’s ascension
Give QB Andy Dalton this: He’s led his team to the playoffs in each of his first two seasons, an impressive accomplishment early in his career. The question is, does he have what it takes to move the Bengals past their recent destinations and win a playoff game? Dalton has no touchdowns and four interceptions in a pair of playoff contests, and 2013 is a critical year to decide his long-term future with the franchise. The Bengals have a playoff-caliber defense and some excellent offensive pieces, but the NFL is a quarterback-driven league. Dalton must make strides.

Defense: Middle linebacker play
Many surmised the Bengals would replace Rey Maualuga this offseason, but the team instead inked him to a new two-year deal. That’s a sign of confidence in the 26-year-old, but there are still questions about whether he has the range to be a consistent playmaker in the middle of the defense. He didn’t force a single turnover in 2012, though his 122 tackles were second best on the defense. Despite the new contract, 2013 is still another year for the USC product to prove he’s the man for the long haul in the middle.

Wild card: Finding space for two tight ends
This is a good issue to have. The Bengals have an incumbent starter at tight end -- who was named to the Pro Bowl last year -- in Jermaine Gresham, and he will be pushed by rookie Tyler Eifert. Simply put, the Bengals need to find ways to use the rangy Eifert, whose ball skills and length make him a superior red zone target. It may not be long before he’s recognized as the best tight end on the roster.


Offense: T-Rich’s health
The Browns need Trent Richardson to be a workhorse, much as he was during his rookie season in 2012. Richardson admirably fought through injuries last year and has spent much of the offseason banged up with a shin issue. The Browns are hopeful he’ll arrive to training camp at 100 percent, but if he doesn’t, it’s a concern that will linger. With question marks surrounding the quarterback position, the Browns need a security blanket in the backfield to tote the heavy load. A healthy Richardson is the answer and more.

Defense: McFadden ready?
Alabama (and now Jets) cornerback Dee Milliner seemed like a sound candidate for the sixth pick in the draft, but the Browns stockpiled another pass-rusher in Barkevious Mingo instead. The team eventually filled its need for a cornerback to play opposite Joe Haden by taking Leon McFadden in the third round, a candidate to start as a rookie. Should McFadden win the job, it’ll be a test for the San Diego State product. Nonetheless, the second cornerback position is one worth monitoring in training camp.

Wild card: Accounting for Gordon’s absence
For two games, the Browns will be without top wide receiver Josh Gordon, who has been suspended for violating the league's substance abuse policy. An already unproven wide receiving corps took a hit, and the Browns will be counting on a hot early start from players like Greg Little and veteran addition Davone Bess. Bess, acquired for draft picks in April, is a talented slot presence who will slide in nicely when Gordon returns but may be called upon for a bigger role early in the season.


Offense: Left side protection
It appears Marcus Gilbert will take over blindside duties for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, a tall order for the 25-year-old. From a skill-set perspective, Gilbert has the frame, but he’ll be tested coming off an ankle injury and making a position switch from last year. Roethlisberger has long been able to extend plays with his in-pocket mobility, but he too is coming off a knee issue and will need proficient support from his line this season.

Defense: Pass rush
Just two seasons ago, the Steelers paced the NFL with 48 sacks in the regular season. That number dipped to 35 the year after and 37 in 2012, due in part to a lack of a consistent edge threat. No Steeler had more than six sacks in 2012, and although first-round rookie Jarvis Jones looks ready to take on a starting role, he’ll need to show he can be an immediate impact player as a disrupter in opposing backfields.

Wild card: Secondary depth
The projected starting quartet for the Steelers in the secondary is capable of taming opposing offenses, but it also features three players who are at least 32 years old (Troy Polamalu, Ryan Clark and Ike Taylor). If any of those players is forced to miss time (Polamalu was limited to seven games last year), the depth chart is less certain, with rookies and unproven youngsters to be counted on to replace them.