Around the League  

 

10 Sundays 'til kickoff: 10 storylines to watch

As we close the door on June, there now are 10 weeks remaining before the start of the 2013 NFL season. With that time frame in mind, Around The League highlights 10 stories to look forward to between now and the kickoff game between the Baltimore Ravens and Denver Broncos.

10. Cincinnati Bengals on HBO's 'Hard Knocks'


Paranoia strikes deep in front offices across the NFL, leaving most franchises hesitant to invite HBO's cameras into their lives. Bengals owner Mike Brown is a breed apart, willing to sacrifice privacy for free publicity. Only 13 players remain from the 2009 "Hard Knocks" squad that bears little resemblance to the current edition. The tone set by attention-starved diva Chad Johnson has been replaced by the blue-collar stylings of A.J. Green.

9. What form will the New England Patriots' offense take?


Coach Bill Belichick and coordinator Josh McDaniels have proven to be ahead of the offensive curve, but this year presents a unique challenge. If Rob Gronkowski's return from back surgery is delayed, the Patriots could enter the regular season without 90 percent of the receptions and 80 percent of the receiving touchdowns from last season. Will 2012 role players such as Shane Vereen and Julian Edelman be featured in a more run-oriented offense?

8. Our first on-field glimpse at the changes installed by new coaches


The sweeping innovative changes of Philadelphia Eagles coach Chip Kelly already have stolen the spotlight from an impressive group, including Andy Reid (Kansas City Chiefs), Marc Trestman (Chicago Bears), Bruce Arians (Arizona Cardinals), Doug Marrone (Buffalo Bills), Gus Bradley (Jacksonville Jaguars), Rob Chudzinski (Cleveland Browns) and Mike McCoy (San Diego Chargers). This new batch of coaches will bring even more play-calling creativity to the table in 2013. Don't forget high-profile defensive coordinators such as Monte Kiffin (Dallas Cowboys) and Rob Ryan (New Orleans Saints) installing new schemes.

7. Are defenses making headway in their quest to foil the read option?


Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin referred to the read-option offense as the NFL's "flavor of the day," daring opposing coaches to stay "committed to getting their guys hit." Detroit Lions defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham recently expressed similar sentiments while Indianapolis Colts coach Chuck Pagano insists the trend toward the read option and pistol formations will be slowed by further study. It's not just idle chat from the game's most formidable defensive minds, though. Teams such as the Green Bay Packers, Atlanta Falcons and New York Giants have dipped into the college ranks for pointers. Will we see the pendulum start swinging back the other way?

6. Where will the best of the remaining free agents sign?


Richard Seymour still appears headed to the Atlanta Falcons, though that depends on the Falcons meeting his asking price. Other veterans holding out for a bigger payday include pass rusher John Abraham, guard Brandon Moore and offensive tackle Eric Winston. The Miami Dolphins are the heavy favorites for Pro Bowl fullback Vonta Leach, who has a handful of suitors lined up. NFL teams still have questions about wide receiver Brandon Lloyd, running back Willis McGahee and safety Kerry Rhodes.

5. Key position battles


Can David Wilson separate from Andre Brown to assume Ahmad Bradshaw's old lead-back role? Will Montee Ball overtake Ronnie Hillman for the same job with the Denver Broncos? Who will emerge from the five-headed quagmire in the Green Bay Packers' backfield? Have Lamar Miller and Chris Ivory already outdistanced the competition for startings jobs with the Dolphins and New York Jets, respectively? Will kick returner Jacoby Jones hold off a half dozen unproven talents to assume the Baltimore Ravens' No. 2 receiver role? Who starts opposite Danny Amendola with the New England Patriots and Anquan Boldin with the San Francisco 49ers?

4. Who are this year's impact rookies?


The top offensive linemen draft picks will step in as immediate starters. It's the skill position players who offer the most suspense. Will Tavon Austin concentrate primarily on kick returns? Or can he also emerge as Sam Bradford's most dangerous target in the St. Louis Rams' passing game? DeAndre Hopkins and Cordarrelle Patterson could be the missing playmaking ingredients in the offenses of the Houston Texans and Minnesota Vikings, respectively. The Bengals should get immediate contributions from tight end Tyler Eifert and tailback Giovani Bernard. Ball, Le'Veon Bell and Eddie Lacy could all enter the season as featured backs. Will the college success of Manti Te'o and Tyrann Mathieu translate to the NFL?

3. Quarterback competitions


The old football adage seems truer than ever with this batch: If you have two starting quarterbacks, you have no quarterbacks. The New York Jets' battle has been putting NFL fans to sleep all offseason. The Oakland Raiders' passers have set the position back 50 years this offseason. The Jacksonville Jaguars are giving Mike Kafka a chance to take the job from Blaine Gabbert and Chad Henne. All of which means Kevin Kolb could be a key player in the most entertaining quarterback competition of the summer. On second thought, this storyline should be bringing up the rear.

2. Pro Bowl players in new uniforms


Before his anterior cruciate ligmanet tear, Darrelle Revis was an annual candidate for Defensive Player of the Year honors. He and Dashon Goldon now headline the most improved position group in the NFL. Mike Wallace is going to open up the Dolphins' offense while Percy Harvin becomes a difference-making chess piece for Seattle Seahawks coordinator Darrell Bevell. Is Steven Jackson the missing ingredient for the Falcons? Can Wes Welker carry over his success outside of the Patriots' system? Does Ed Reed have anything left in the tank?

1. Star players returning from major injury


Revis carries over to this category as well, though all eyes will be on the Washington Redskins and New England Patriots. At this point, I'm just assuming Robert Griffin III will be under center in Week 1, running the pistol again. He's on the Adrian Peterson plan. Will RGIII have his top weapons at 100 percent with Pierre Garcon and Fred Davis returning from surgery? On the heels of Aaron Hernandez's release, Gronkowski's race against the Week 1 clock now is the most riveting injury watch of the summer. On the fantasy football front, will Arian Foster, Maurice Jones-Drew and Trent Richardson be close to 100 percent for the start of camp?

Honorable mention: Franchised players such as Denver Broncos offensive tackle Ryan Clady and Buffalo Bills safety Jairus Byrd should be signing and reporting. Is there a sleeper team such as the Carolina Panthers or Tampa Bay Buccaneers rising in training camp?

Follow Chris Wesseling on Twitter @ChrisWesseling.

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