NFL Nation: 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.

Chargers: One big question

May, 4, 2012
5/04/12
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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.

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.

Dolphins: One big question

May, 4, 2012
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Who will step up at wide receiver?

The Miami Dolphins have put themselves in a tough spot. They want to run an up-tempo West Coast offense this year, but wide receiver is probably Miami's weakest position.

Dolphins rookie head coach Joe Philbin said several times that he doesn't believe in having a dominant No. 1 receiver. That was one of the primary reasons the Dolphins traded Pro Bowl receiver Brandon Marshall. But that doesn't mean Philbin can get by without quality players at the position.

Philbin had talented receivers during his five years as offensive coordinator with the Green Bay Packers. Greg Jennings doesn't get as much press as others at his position, but he's very good. Jordy Nelson and Donald Driver are solid, productive veterans, and Jermichael Finley is one of the league's top receiving tight ends.

There is nothing to resemble that level of talent in Miami. Dolphins top receiver Brian Hartline is no Jennings. Davone Bess and Legedu Naanee do not fit Philbin's West Coast scheme like Nelson and Driver. Miami tight end Anthony Fasano cannot stretch the field like Finley.

Miami surprisingly ignored the receiver position until the sixth and seventh rounds of the draft last weekend. That's probably not going to fix this problem for QBs Matt Moore, David Garrard and rookie Ryan Tannehill.

Cardinals: One big question

May, 3, 2012
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Can the Arizona Cardinals' defense maintain the growth it showed late last season, outpacing whatever gains the San Francisco 49ers make on offense?

Joshua Steuter asked that question and a few others via Facebook as part of our ongoing discussion. We could have asked additional questions about Kevin Kolb, John Skelton and the quarterback situation, but we've been having that discussion for nine months already.

The answer to Joshua's question could hinge on a few variables:
  • Dan Williams' recovery: Williams, the Cardinals' first-round draft pick in 2010, is returning from a nasty arm injury suffered against the 49ers late last season. Arizona should remain strong at both defensive end spots. Darnell Dockett and franchise player Calais Campbell are established players. Williams was showing signs of becoming one before the injury. Conditioning can be a concern for him. As a first-round talent, he holds the key to determining whether the Cardinals field one of the best 3-4 fronts in the game.
  • Stewart Bradley's transition: Arizona's coaches had big plans for Bradley heading into last season. They envisioned pairing him with Daryl Washington to get pressure with inside blitzes. Do those dreams live? Bradley struggled with the transition from a 4-3 defense to the 3-4. Paris Lenon beat him out and played well enough to keep the job. Were the Cardinals really that wrong on Bradley? Did the lockout-affected offseason merely delay the transition? The Cardinals will find out for sure this season. They've got a full offseason to make this work. Bradley did take a pay cut.
  • Acho/Schofield progression. The Cardinals were the only NFL team to go through the 2012 draft without selecting a player for their front seven. They had needs on offense, but they also showed faith in some of their emerging defensive players, including outside linebackers Sam Acho and O'Brien Schofield. Acho had seven sacks last season. Schofield had 4.5 sacks. Getting one of those players into double digits would signal the continued development Arizona needs to keep its defense on the upswing.
  • Next step for Peterson: Cornerback Patrick Peterson should take a significant step forward, improving the Cardinals' ability to match up with a reconfigured 49ers receiving corps featuring Randy Moss and Mario Manningham. Peterson scored four touchdowns on punt returns last season. I like his chances to score on defense this season as well. He'll relish a chance to match up with Moss.

The Cardinals' defense held San Francisco to 23 and 19 points last season despite occasionally horrible play from Arizona's offense. The 49ers converted 11 of 48 times on third down against Arizona, including 3 of 17 times during the Cardinals' Dec. 11 victory over San Francisco.

I'm expecting Arizona's defense to keep pace in this matchup.

Buccaneers: One big question

May, 3, 2012
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Can Josh Freeman bounce back?

The Tampa Bay quarterback had a dismal 2011 season. He threw 22 interceptions after throwing only six in a promise-filled 2010 season.

So which season is more indicative of what Freeman is capable of doing? The new Tampa Bay coaching staff seems to think the 2010 version was the real Freeman. Ever since Greg Schiano took over as head coach, he and every assistant have been raving about Freeman’s ability. I tend to agree with them, because I think Freeman has all the physical skills and intangibles.

Freeman certainly wasn’t without flaw or fault last season. But I think his problems were the result of the dysfunction all around him. Former coach Raheem Morris and his staff were unraveling, and the weak supporting cast around Freeman got exposed in a big way.

That’s why just about every move Schiano and general manager Mark Dominik have made this offseason seems aimed at making Freeman’s life easier. They got him a true No. 1 receiver in Vincent Jackson. They beefed up his protection by getting Carl Nicks, who might be the best guard in the league. Then, they drafted an all-purpose running back in Doug Martin.

The parts all seem to be in place. Now, it’s up to Freeman to make the most of them.

49ers: One big question

May, 3, 2012
5/03/12
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Will the San Francisco 49ers approach their turnover differential from last season?

Ken Baker asked the question via Facebook. He's a Seattle Seahawks fan, so the question was probably rhetorical, but there's a broader context worth our attention.

The 49ers were plus-28 in turnover differential last season, a big reason they posted a 13-3 record. Winning the turnover battle most of the time is a reasonable expectation for the 49ers based on how they play defense. It was an even more reasonable expectation last season based on how the 49ers played offense in concert with that defense.

The 2011 49ers risked sacks instead of risking interceptions, trusting their defense and special teams. It usually worked. And the offense did produce in critical moments against New Orleans during the divisional playoff round. But there were signs of trouble all season, especially on third down. The 49ers will have a harder time taking the next step in the playoffs -- reaching the Super Bowl -- without taking the next step on offense.

There should be higher expectations in 2012.

The 49ers have spent the offseason acquiring offensive weapons. They welcomed Randy Moss out of retirement. They signed Brandon Jacobs and Mario Manningham. They used a first-round pick for receiver A.J. Jenkins and a second-rounder for running back LaMichael James. By all appearances, the 49ers want more from their offense.

Spinning off the original question from Ken, I'm curious to see whether the 49ers demand more from quarterback Alex Smith, and whether Smith can deliver more without suffering too many additional turnovers.

The 49ers built flexibility into their new contract with Smith. They have expectations for Colin Kaepernick. How much higher will coach Jim Harbaugh raise the bar on offense?

Rams: One big question

May, 3, 2012
5/03/12
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What are the St. Louis Rams going to do at outside linebacker?

The team faces other questions coming off a 2-14 season, of course, but that position went largely unaddressed in the draft. St. Louis emerged from the draft with five linebackers on its roster, leaving roughly six or seven spots to fill for training camp.

The Rams used a seventh-round choice for Aaron Brown, a weakside linebacker from Hawaii, but linebackers selected that late would generally project only as special-teams contributors if they earned roster spots at all.

Veteran Jo-Lonn Dunbar, signed from New Orleans in free agency, projects as one starter. Josh Hull, a seventh-round choice in 2010, projects as the other starter until the Rams can further address the position.

James Laurinaitis is a solid starter in the middle. He should fare better in 2012 playing behind recently acquired tackles Kendall Langford (Miami Dolphins) and Michael Brockers (first-round draft choice). He cannot make every play from sideline to sideline, however. He needs help. The Rams desperately need speed on the outside.

After struggling through last season with aging stopgap options ranging from Ben Leber to Brady Poppinga, the Rams have gotten younger at the position. But they have not yet gotten appreciably better. Some of the players they cast aside in previous seasons -- Paris Lenon, Pisa Tinoisamoa and Will Witherspoon come to mind -- would have been better than the players St. Louis wound up relying upon.

At one point in the draft, the Rams traded down from the 45th spot, coming away with running back Isaiah Pead, plus the 150th choice. Philadelphia and Seattle took inside linebackers with the 46th and 47th overall picks. The Rams could have drafted Nebraska's Lavonte David, who went to Tampa Bay at No. 58. But they obviously thought Pead would bring greater value at another position of need.

Teams running 4-3 defenses selected only four projected outside linebackers from the third through fifth rounds, with Jacksonville selecting Nevada's Brandon Marshall at No. 142, eight spots before the Rams chose South Carolina guard Rokevious Watkins.

The bottom line was that St. Louis entered this draft with more needs than the Rams could address with the available picks. Outside linebacker moves nearer the top of their priority list as the roster rebuild enters its next phase.

Seahawks: One big question

May, 3, 2012
5/03/12
12:00
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Will Seattle Seahawks quarterback Matt Flynn live up to his Green Bay hype?

J.C. Colom asked the question via Facebook, and initially I was reluctant to answer it. Some things must wait until the regular season simply because there's not enough evidence to form a solid opinion, as Brett Schumacher pointed out before pleading with me to avoid quarterback-related questions.

But then an answer came to mind. A theory, really.

What we've seen from Flynn, the presumed starter even though he hasn't yet won the job, suggests he'll be more aggressive than 2011 starter Tarvaris Jackson. He'll take more chances. That seemed to be his nature with Green Bay.

Some of that could reflect the advanced state of the Packers' offense overall, and the types of games Flynn participated in while completing 55 of 81 passes for 731 yards with nine touchdowns and two interceptions in two starts. That is obviously an unsustainable pace; he's not going to pass for 72 touchdowns with 16 interceptions over a full season. Things will even out if Flynn plays as aggressively as he played while posting that 9-2 ratio.

I'm anticipating a point in the 2012 season when Flynn and coach Pete Carroll must reconcile the gap between a quarterback's aggressive mindset and a defensive-minded head coach's emphasis on avoiding mistakes even at the expense of productivity.

Carroll and Matt Hasselbeck needed time to develop a full understanding in 2010. The two hit stride for a couple weeks, with Hasselbeck playing his best against Arizona and New Orleans. Hasselbeck finished strong in the playoffs, leading the Seahawks past the Saints in the wild-card round.

Flynn will likely experience peaks and valleys over the course of a season. Most quarterbacks do. We'll raise additional questions along the way.

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