The preseason is all but done, yet there remains at least one burning question for every NFL team with the 2018 season around the corner.
Will the franchise overhaul pay immediate dividends?
The Cardinals overhauled both their coaching staff and roster during the offseason. Eleven regular starters from last year are gone, that’s the most of any team in the NFL.
Arizona isn’t expected to compete right away, but don’t tell that to Larry Fitzgerald, Patrick Peterson, and David Johnson.
Will Steve Sarkisian make a marked improvement in Year 2?
In one year under the direction of Sarkisian, the Falcons went from the highest scoring team in the league to the middle of the pack offensively. The decline meant a divisional-round playoff exit following a Super Bowl appearance.
Sarkisian was an easy scapegoat for last season’s woes. All eyes will be on him in 2018.
How will Lamar Jackson be utilized?
Baltimore believes its done everything necessary to shore up a meager receiving corps and Joe Flacco has created a strong rapport with his new weapons.
But the X-factor is rookie first-round pick Lamar Jackson. John Harbaugh has hinted at using the former Heisman winner in intriguing new ways. His involvement could give the Ravens the spark they need on Sundays.
Who’s the quarterback and who’s protecting him?
The Bills got a glimpse of life with Josh Allen as the starter on Sunday and the beating he took behind a suspect offensive line may cause the coaching staff to reconsider its plans.
In consecutive weeks, a Buffalo quarterback was injured behind the first-string offensive line. AJ McCarron suffered a shoulder injury in Week 2 and Allen had to be evaluated for a head injury in Week 3. He took four sacks before sustaining a blow to the head.
Whoever wins the starting job will have to deal with life behind the unit ranked second last in theScore’s offensive line rankings.
Is the offense primed for a breakout?
More carries for Christian McCaffrey? Less work for Cam Newton? A new target in D.J. Moore? The Panthers put it all together this preseason.
McCaffrey appears every bit an every-down back, averaging 7 yards on his 21 preseason carries. Moore and Curtis Samuel have also established themselves as downfield threats.
Now, if only they can keep Cam from taking these kinds of hits.
Will Mitch Trubisky make the sophomore leap?
The Bears are ready to make their move and Trubisky will be in charge of making it happen.
Ample resources were used to bring aboard Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel, Anthony Miller, and Trey Burton. It’s up to the quarterback to make the most of them.
Carson Wentz and Jared Goff each benefited from improved arsenals in their second seasons. Chicago hopes the same will be said for Trubisky.
Is Joe Mixon ready for a feature role?
The lead-back workload is all Joe Mixon’s entering his sophomore season.
Much will be expected of Mixon after he averaged just 3.5 yards per carry while struggling with drops and fumbles in his rookie year.
Cincinnati was last in yards per game and second-last in rushing yards per contest in 2017. With the additions of Cordy Glenn and Billy Price on the O-line, Mixon will try to turn around the Bengals’ offensive misfortunes.
Do the Browns finally have the talent to compete?
Cleveland spent the offseason bringing aboard known commodities to help get the team out of football purgatory. It’s easily the most talented roster in Hue Jackson’s tenure, but if it doesn’t translate to wins, he may not be around to see how it plays out.
The starters have provided a reason for optimism during the preseason, but as the team learned after going undefeated in exhibition games last year, preseason success doesn’t translate to regular-season victories.
Can they overcome the injuries to the O-line?
What are the Cowboys without their celebrated offensive line? The coaching staff was so concerned about replacements for Travis Frederick, Zack Martin, and Tyron Smith that Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott were held out of the team’s third preseason game.
Frederick is out indefinitely with an autoimmune disease and Martin will miss the entire preseason with a knee injury.
The Cowboys are already operating with a revamped receiving corps after the departures of Dez Bryant and Jason Witten. If the run game is affected by the losses on the O-line, the defense will have to do some heavy lifting.
Is Case Keenum the answer?
The quarterback position has been unsettled in Denver since Peyton Manning’s retirement. After dalliances with Trevor Siemian, Paxton Lynch, and Brock Osweiler, the franchise has tabbed journeyman Case Keenum as the answer to their offensive problems.
It’s a mighty risk made by general manager John Elway, particularly with no veteran backup on the roster.
At least if Keenum turns back into a pumpkin, he’ll fit in with all that orange.
Where will the pass rush come from?
The Lions are scrambling to find someone to pair with Ziggy Ansah on the defensive line.
The team traded for 49ers linebacker Eli Harold earlier in the week, then, on Tuesday, Robert Ayers was cut a day after he was signed.
At least the club is making strides to address a glaring concern.
Green Bay Packers
Will the youngsters make an immediate impact?
Aaron Rodgers isn’t getting any younger. If he’s to challenge for another Super Bowl, the talent around him needed to improve. So new GM Brian Gutekunst spent the offseason overhauling the roster.
After a tongue-lashing from Rodgers, the young receiving corps featuring J’Mon Moore, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Equanimeous St. Brown, and Wisconsin native Jake Kumerow have impressed this preseason.
First-rounders Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson have made even more of an impact at corner. The true test will come in the regular season, however, when the new guys will either sink or swim.
Are Watson and Watt healthy enough to make a run?
On paper, the Texans have the stuff of title contenders. On the field, they’re banking on quarterback Deshaun Watson and three-time Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt to return to their pre-injury forms.
They’re not the only ones returning from serious ailments. Jadeveon Clowney, Tyrann Mathieu, and Whitney Mercilus will also be rebounding from lengthy layoffs. Houston needs 16 games from its best players in order to get out of the competitive AFC South.
Does Andrew Luck have enough talent around him?
Luck’s return to action from a near 600-day absence is more than welcome, but what good is it if he’s returning to the same barren roster?
As the preseason has proven, the offensive line is still an area of concern for the Colts. The team committed ample time and resources into Luck’s recovery. Indianapolis can’t afford for him to take the same type of beating that put him on the shelf in the first place.
When it comes to the talent around him, Marlon Mack may not be ready for the season opener. That leaves T.Y. Hilton and Eric Ebron as the primary playmakers. The team’s fortunes rest heavily on Luck’s reconstructed shoulder.
Do the Jaguars have enough on offense?
The Jags are no doubt banking on the emergence of “Playoff Blake” for an entire campaign, but will Bortles have enough weapons?
No. 1 receiver Marqise Lee is out for the year with a knee injury, leaving Jacksonville with Keelan Cole, DJ Chark, Dede Westbrook, and Donte Moncrief at receiver.
The defense won’t need much in the form of offensive support, but they’ll need something. Can Bortles and Leonard Fournette provide it?
Kansas City Chiefs
Is Patrick Mahomes ready for primetime?
Not since Brett Favre has the NFL seen a gunslinger the likes of Mahomes.
He’s prone to highlight-reel plays, such as his preseason bomb to Tyreek Hill, but with one regular-season start under his belt, his game also requires some refining.
Nonetheless, it’s Mahomes’ turn at the wheel and he’ll be driving a vehicle capable of winning a wide-open AFC West.
Los Angeles Chargers
Who will fill the hole at tight end?
Since Hunter Henry went down with a season-ending injury in the spring, the Chargers have yet to name his replacement.
Antonio Gates was allowed to walk in the offseason and talks of a reunion haven’t come to fruition. The preseason has yielded no answers as none of the remaining tight ends on the roster have come to the fore.
Henry was expected to provide another element to the Chargers offense this upcoming season and, to this point, he’s proving irreplaceable.
Los Angeles Rams
Will the stars align in L.A.?
The Rams were the busiest team of the offseason, adding the likes of Ndamukong Suh, Marcus Peters, Brandin Cooks, and Aqib Talib to an 11-5 squad.
But marquee signings don’t guarantee team success. The best example of such trappings is the “Dream Team” Eagles of 2011 that made a big splash in free agency after a 10-6 season only to finish 8-8.
Will the roster turnover lead to better results?
Drastic change was necessary in Miami and it’s yet to be seen how the roster turnover will take.
The team said goodbye to Jarvis Landry, Ndamukong Suh, and Julius Thomas and welcomed veterans Danny Amendola, Frank Gore, and Robert Quinn.
Add to the mix Ryan Tannehill’s return from a knee injury and it makes for an intriguing 2018 season.
Will the offensive line be the Vikings’ downfall?
You know it’s bad when you’re asking the New York Giants for O-line help.
That’s exactly what the Vikings did this week when they traded for Brett Jones. If Minnesota has an Achilles heel entering the regular season, it’s the beat-up offensive line.
The Vikings have legitimate Super Bowl aspirations, and protecting $84-million man Kirk Cousins and Dalvin Cook’s ACL is of the utmost importance.
New England Patriots
Who will play receiver for the Patriots?
Julian Edelman: suspended. Jordan Matthews: released. Malcolm Mitchell: released. Kenny Britt: released. Eric Decker: retired.
Tom Brady may be back for more at the age of 41, but outside of Rob Gronkowski and Chris Hogan, his receiving corps has been a revolving door. As things currently stand, much will be expected of Phillip Dorsett and Cordarrelle Patterson, who have been disappointments at previous stops.
New Orleans Saints
How will Mark Ingram’s suspension impact the running game?
The tandem of Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara produced the fifth-best running game in the league last season and nearly helped propel the Saints to the NFC title game.
Ingram will begin 2018 serving a suspension, putting the onus on Kamara to pick up the slack. Is the 2017 Rookie of the Year capable of a full workload? Will Ingram be welcomed back in Week 5?
New York Giants
Is Saquon the difference?
Which is a truer representation of this Giants team: the 2016 playoff outfit or the 2017 cellar dwellers?
While ownership installed a new general manager and coaching staff, the roster remains mostly unchanged from a year ago – aside from the addition of Saquon Barkley.
New York is banking on the inclusion of a franchise running back making the greatest difference of all between pretender and contender.
New York Jets
Is Sam Darnold ready?
The Jets’ trade of Teddy Bridgewater all but confirms the team will turn to rookie Sam Darnold as its Day 1 starter.
As such, Darnold will become the NFL’s youngest starting quarterback since the merger in 1970. Throughout the preseason, the No. 3 overall draft pick has looked wise beyond his years, but even Hall of Fame quarterbacks suffered through embarrassing rookie seasons.
This scenario is nothing new to the Jets, however. They threw Mark Sanchez into the deep end and he led New York to the playoffs in each of his first two seasons.
Can Gruden adapt with the times?
The Raiders offense fell from a top-six unit in 2016 to 17th overall last year. The slide was one of many factors that prompted the dismissal of the coaching staff.
Jon Gruden is back aboard to oversee the development of Derek Carr and Amari Cooper. But after 10 years away from the sidelines, it’s fair to ask whether Chucky can keep up with today’s NFL.
Can the Eagles overcome their multitude of injuries?
Jay Ajayi, Nelson Agholor, Nick Foles, and Corey Clement are among the Eagles dealing with nagging injuries. Nigel Bradham is suspended for the first week of the season, while Carson Wentz and Alshon Jeffrey are questionable for the season opener after offseason surgeries.
That’s no way to begin a title defense.
Will Le’Veon Bell’s contract dispute be a distraction?
Le’Veon Bell isn’t expected to miss any regular-season games after being slapped with the franchise tag for a second season. But his agent hinted that 2018 could be Bell’s final year in Pittsburgh.
The Steelers are once again among the favorites in the AFC. If Bell’s contract situation acts as a distraction, it could derail a Super Bowl contender.
San Francisco 49ers
Can Garoppolo keep the magic going?
The 49ers ended 2017 as the hottest team in the NFL, winning their final five games with Jimmy Garoppolo as the starting quarterback.
Pundits have tabbed the Niners as a favorite to contend in 2018, but the reality remains that Jimmy G has seven career starts to his name and a nondescript set of backs and receivers flanking him.
Was the winning streak fool’s gold or a signal of San Francisco’s re-emergence?
How will the Seahawks respond to a new defensive identity?
Gone are former stalwarts Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor, Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril. Earl Thomas is holding out for a new contract – or a new team – and K.J. Wright is out with a knee injury.
For the past six years, the defense has been the identity of the Seahawks. With the “Legion of Boom” torn down and a new defensive coordinator in-house, that’s no longer the case.
Russell Wilson is now the unquestioned leader of the team. The onus is on him to keep the team flying straight while the defense finds its way.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Can the Bucs overcome Jameis Winston’s 3-game suspension?
Tampa’s franchise quarterback has been fantastic this preseason, completing 30 of his 41 passes for 388 yards and three touchdowns. But he’ll miss the opening three games of the regular season due to a violation of the league’s code of conduct.
Ryan Fitzpatrick, the starter during that stretch, was unable to find the end zone during his three preseason stints.
If the Bucs open the year 0-3, a seemingly realistic possibility with games against the Saints, Eagles, and Steelers out of the gates, consider them buried in the uber-competitive NFC South.
Is Mariota prepared to make the next leap?
Marcus Mariota got the Titans to the playoffs last season and now he’s backed by a new coach and offensive coordinator to help him take the next step in his development.
With the addition of Dion Lewis to the run game and an expectation that Mariota will utilize his own wheels more often, he’s set up to succeed.
Can AP save the season?
The 2018 campaign appeared lost after the season-ending injury to Derrius Guice. After all, what else did Redskins fans have to look forward to?
Enter Adrian Peterson. The former NFL MVP and future Hall of Famer has been strong in minimal preseason action and looked capable of holding down the fort to start the year. He’ll get the first crack at turning around the No. 28-ranked running game of a year ago.
(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)