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AFC summer subplots: One huge question for each team in 2017

Summer storylines. And, well, summer concerns.

Every team has one -- an issue that hovers over the organization until training camp, when the answers begin to reveal themselves. The Bills have a new sheriff in town. Atlanta's facing a potential Super Bowl hangover. And the Ravens didn't get any new receivers.

Not all of these offseason subplots possess depth. Some are mostly special effects ... like "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2." In Houston, the Tony Romo plot point never really got going, but flooded the early offseason with sexy -- and completely speculative -- headlines. Same sort of deal in New England, where the Patriots were supposedly on the verge of dealing Malcolm Butler to the CB-needy Saints. Three weeks after the draft, Butler's still a Pat.

Marshawn Lynch coming back to play for the Raiders? Now that story has legs, unlike that "Ben-Hur" redux. Beast Mode gives Oakland a chance in the AFC race. The only chariot race worth seeing is the one with Charlton Heston, not the one that was all CGI and a smoking turd at the box office.

So what is a concern of your favorite team as spring moves to summer? See below. All team capsules presented without CGI, too. Your thoughts go to the usual place: @HarrisonNFL.


Buffalo Bills: What is the new leadership's approach?

The hiring of general manager Brandon Beane ultimately should be a good thing, as the former Panthers assistant general manager helped stock Sean McDermott with players when the latter was the defensive coordinator in Carolina. Surely their relationship was a huge factor in Beane's hiring. That said, what will be the new direction of the franchise? Do either believe in Tyrod Taylor, or did Buffalo merely take a flier on rookie Nathan Peterman because McDermott wasn't in love with any QB in the draft? Do Beane and McDermott both agree 2018 is the year for quarterback fishing, providing Tyrod Taylor doesn't play out of his mind this season? Will they try to deal Sammy Watkins to ensure they get something? (As opposed to eventually losing him to free agency.) Beane and McDermott are like a new marriage; they know each other, but now they are living in the same house making joint decisions for that household. We'll see.

Miami Dolphins: How far must Ryan Tannehill travel in Adam Gase's offense to become a top-10 quarterback?

On the surface, Tannehill enjoyed a decent-to-solid campaign in 2016. But through five NFL seasons, the Dolphins QB has yet to progress as a passer a la Kirk Cousins or Derek Carr. Part of Gase's attractiveness as a head-coaching candidate was his reputation as pro football's Robert Redford -- a (near) 40-year-old power hitter ... wait ... quarterback whisperer. Last season, Tannehill's completion percentage, touchdown percentage and yards per attempt were all way up year-over-year. So was his interception percentage. And he is still taking a few too many sacks. This will be his second offseason under Gase, with continuity at WR1 and WR2, a productive power back who could be on the verge of big things and a brand new mismatch weapon at TE.

New England Patriots: How will the shrewd LeGarrette Blount move play out?

Blount sits in no-man's land. He can stay in New England for a paltry raise, at least based on his stellar 18-touchdown performance last year. Or, he can try to sign with another team, providing they are willing to pass over a compensatory pick to a team that doesn't really need any more help. Bill Belichick played it shrewd on this deal, ensuring he would either get Blount on the cheap or something in return. And, if the ultimate power back this side of Marshawn Lynch can find a team (the Lions!!!) to pay him and pay the Patriots, Belichick has Mike Gillislee in reserve. Still, Gillislee is no Blount. Devalue the RB position all you want -- 1,161 yards and 18 tugs is legit.

New York Jets: Will the young QBs sink or swim?

Nobody expects the Jets to compete this season. Even their fans, who can be notoriously cynical, would probably be surprised (and maybe even satisfied) with six wins. But even if New York goes 4-12 or worse, the season won't be lost if the Jets come out of it with a promising quarterback. In a perfect world for GM Mike Maccagnan, Christian Hackenberg would emerge. After all, not only did Hackenberg arrive under Maccagnan's watch, but the QB was a second-round pick. This offseason is the time for Bryce Petty or Hackenberg to either sink or swim. If a clear No. 1 steps forward based on this summer and the preseason, then that means the "winner" will own more reps to show what he can do ... and develop. Or not. Choose, play, evaluate. Then the season won't be a lost cause, even if losses pile up.


Baltimore Ravens: Can they get something -- anything -- out of two former high picks in the passing game?

Breshad Perriman was supposed to be the low-cost, highly talented vertical replacement for Torrey Smith. It feels like Perriman, who was taken 26th overall in the draft two years ago, has barely seen the field. (He missed his entire rookie season due to a knee injury.) Tight end Maxx Williams, taken 29 picks later, has gotten off to an even slower start. While showing some promise his freshman year, Williams was shut down in October with a knee problem after not catching any footballs. In two years, Perriman and Williams have posted 65 catches and four touchdowns combined. With Steve Smith Sr. retired, Kamar Aiken gone and Ben Watson trying to come back from a major injury at 36, Joe Flacco really needs one (or both) of these guys to step up.

Cincinnati Bengals: Green, Eifert, Bernard, Mixon, Ross ... great -- who's blocking?

Priority 1 for the Bengals this offseason, at least on the field, is taking a long look at the offensive line and developing continuity by the preseason. That's the only way this group will succeed. The Bengals lost Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler to free agency. They were the best players on the line in 2016 -- a unit that really didn't perform too well. Cedric Ogbuehi has huge shoes to fill, stepping into Whitworth's old spot at LT. Christian Westerman, a fifth-round pick last year, will cover for Zeitler at RG. Over at right tackle, Jake Fisher likely will be the starter. And, like Ogbuehi, he has struggled in his first two seasons. Left guard Clint Boling and center Russell Bodine must play well or it could very well be another losing proposition for the Bengals in 2017.

Cleveland Browns: Who, or what, is Cody Kessler?

Career backup, or starter with upside? DeShone Kizer could develop into a wonderful player. He also went in the second round, and was the Browns' *fourth* pick. He doesn't have to play right away, though. That's because Kessler showed flashes during an injury-filled rookie season on a bad team. How many rookie quarterbacks go 0-8 but post a 92.3 passer rating? People also must realize that Kessler was talented enough to go in the third round. Heck, I had to remind myself. We just saw Tony Romo retire to the booth after a fantastic career. He went undrafted.Russell Wilson was a third-round pick. Kessler might need time like Romo (he didn't start until his fourth season), and also didn't inherit the supporting cast Wilson had from Day 1. If Kessler is given every opportunity to be the No. 1, maybe Cleveland doesn't have to look longingly at Kizer or jump back in the QB pool in the first round next year.

Pittsburgh Steelers: What can they do to keep two stars on the straight and narrow?

Pittsburgh is a Super Bowl contender. The team has won games with DeAngelo Williams, Eli Rogers and Sammie Coates playing fill-in roles adequately. Cool. The Steelers are much better with Le'Veon Bell and Martavis Bryant trotting out there. Bell was suspended the first three games last season. To give you an idea of just how good this guy is -- perhaps even better than Ezekiel Elliott or David Johnson -- Bell put up more than 1,800 yards from scrimmage in 12 games. That's more than 150 per. Bryant missed all of 2016 due to suspension, taking Ben Roethlisberger's vertical threat with him. Pittsburgh's franchise quarterback saw his yards per completion and yards per attempt go down sans Bryant, who has averaged 17.3 yards per catch in his career. How do the Steelers keep these guys on the field? Who knows. Let's hope Bell can stay out of the trainer's room, too.


Houston Texans: When will Deshaun Watson become QB1?

Well, Bill O'Brien and staff will probably make sure Watson ingests plenty this offseason. How much he absorbs is anyone's guess. The reviews are mixed on rookie quarterbacks sitting versus playing right away. Peyton Manning swears by getting in the lineup immediately, even if a freshmen QB delivers 28 interceptions like he did. Manning sells pizza and Outlaw Country (Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard and more) now anyway, so take his advice with a grain of salt. Aaron Rodgers sat for three years. Philip Rivers ... two. Each quarterback should be handled on a case-by-case basis. If the Texans could make the playoffs with Brock Osweiler, they could ransack the AFC South with Tom Savage. Oh yeah, and J.J. Watt is coming back. Fun.

Indianapolis Colts: When will Marlon Mack be ready to contribute?

This question might seem unusual, given that Mack was a late fourth-round pick and the Colts have other issues. But if offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski can get the rookie running back up to speed early -- particularly in the passing game -- then both Andrew Luck and the Colts' leaky defense will benefit. The rushing attack was 23rd last season. And as much as Chud loves Frank Gore, the veteran is really veteran. This will be Year 13 for Gore, who can't be expected to carry the load by himself again. Remarkably, Gore rushed for 1,025 yards last season while catching 38 passes. He's a pro's pro, but probably should only carry the ball 200 times. If 2016 fifth-rounder Jordan Howard could put up 1,313 yard for the Bears as a rookie, why can't Mack play right away?

Jacksonville Jaguars: If Blake Bortles continues to struggle, will the team stick with him?

It's been a strange offseason in Jacksonville. Team owner Shad Khan brought in Tom Coughlin to oversee the operation, while giving interim head coach Doug Marrone three seasons. Coughlin, Marrone and GM David Caldwell's deals all run the same distance, meaning that none are married to Blake Bortles as the franchise quarterback. While the team gave Bortles a vote of confidence (sort of), the Jags were also rumored to be considering quarterbacks in the draft, and even Tony Romo at one point. Bortles took a step backward in 2016 after a productive -- if far from perfect -- sophomore campaign. I get that he is a young QB. But after tossing 51 picks with a sub-60 percent completion percentage over his first three seasons, shouldn't he have to compete? Know when to say when.

Tennessee Titans: How far along is Marcus Mariota?

Mariota said last week that he was a week or two from full on running. Yet, wondering where he is as a player stretches far beyond the health of his right leg. He seemed to progress last year; though, in the game he got hurt, the Titans were playing for a postseason spot and getting taken to school by the Jagsbefore the injury. That's precisely the spot in which Mariota and Co. must play their best football this season. In order to do that, the franchise QB and the Titans' top pick this year, receiver Corey Davis, must get on the same page mentally as soon as possible. Davis' development becomes more integral to the team's success if Tajae Sharpe's off-field issue causes him to miss time.


Denver Broncos: Who is Vance Joseph's quarterback?

Or, who is John Elway's quarterback? We know the Broncos moved up to acquire Paxton Lynch in last year's draft. But to this point, Trevor Siemian has earned the right to be the starter. Sure, Elway flirted with Tony Romo. While Elway was looking for a commitment, Romo was recording Bob Dylan videos and Chuck Norris equipment in the background. Frankly, no other veteran options were appealing enough for Elway to derail the stay-the-course plan with his young quarterbacks. He also built a support system for whoever lines up under center, signing guard Ronald Leary and running back Jamaal Charles in free agency, while drafting Garett Bolles in Round 1, to bolster the ground game. With the defense still a top-five-caliber unit, and Siemian now having a year as QB1 under his belt, you would think he's set to be the Broncos' Week 1 starter. Let's see what happens in training camp, though.

Kansas City Chiefs: How does Andy Reid work in the top rookies?

General manager John Dorsey surprised more than a few folks when he traded up to acquire Patrick Mahomes in exchange for Kansas City's future. Then, two rounds later, Dorsey made a move for the present, taking talented Toledo running back Kareem Hunt. How Mahomes and Hunt get involved could be keys to the Chiefs' season. Coach Reid must find Mahomes reps to aid in his develpment, which won't be easy considering Reid's playoff-ready roster already has a quality starter under center in Alex Smith. What if Smith gets hurt? What if his confidence (and play) is affected by Mahomes' presence? The kid will need to be ready. Meanwhile, Spencer Ware has been a quality starter, rushing for more than 900 yards last year. But Hunt must beat out backup Charcandrick West for touches first, by showing he can pass protect as well as produce in the air game. If so, perhaps Hunt can add a Tyreek Hill element to K.C.'s backfield.

Los Angeles Chargers: How do the Bolts stay healthy in minicamp ... training camp ... preseason?

The Chargers start their first year in new/old digs (Los Angeles). It also will be their first training camp north on the 405. Will it bring better luck? New coach Anthony Lynn has surely been apprised of the approximately 58,679 players this team has listed on the injury report the last few years. These L.A. Chargers have a much better team than fans might think, but they can't send 21 players to IR again. Twenty-One! GM Tom Telesco, Lynn and the training staff must at least look at the camp procedures and training schedule to see where they can take a load off or, at the very least, alter the offseason program. At the end of the day, football is football. Players get hurt. But there's no denying injuries have been a derailing issue for the Chargers' viability in the AFC West for multiple years now.

Oakland Raiders: How does the offense evolve?

You might have heard that Beast Mode is now playing in Oakland. (Another Beast Quake run doesn't sound as fun in California, though.) Head coach Jack Del Rio also decided not to renew the contract of offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave. Somewhat shocking, really, given that the offense was the bona fide strength of this team last year. The unit ranked sixth overall, but will now be under the leadership of former quarterback coach Todd Downing. The familiarity with Derek Carr seems beneficial. Will Downing take the ball out of his stud quarterback's hand more often? Oakland signed Marshawn Lynch to help the defense, and make a run at this Lombardi deal. If the last Super Bowl taught us anything, running the football more is not a bad idea.

Follow Elliot Harrison on Twitter @HarrisonNFL.

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