The preseason is all about finding answers to the burning questions that dominated the offseason. Coaches are assessing schemes to see if they'll be effective in game action, while scouts are checking out players to see if the biggest roster holes have been filled. Given all that intrigue, I've come up with 10 questions for a hefty weekend slate of preseason games:
1) Can Rex Ryan trust Geno Smith as a rookie starter?
The New York Jets would like to move on from Mark Sanchez, but starting a rookie quarterback would be a major gamble for a coach on the hot seat. Although Smith has been fairly impressive in training camp practices, the speed and tempo of game action could prompt him to make a handful of rookie mistakes. If Smith can avoid committing costly gaffes against the Detroit Lions on Friday night while showing leadership, poise and confidence, the Jets will feel good about the rookie's chances of carrying the team back to respectability.
2) What will Chip Kelly's offense look like in Philadelphia?
There has been great curiosity as to whether or not Kelly's offensive system can work in the NFL, but no one really knows how much of his Oregon scheme (with the fast-paced, zone-read concepts) will make its way into the Philadelphia Eagles' playbook. Of course, Kelly will not reveal much in his first preseason game, but the picture should clear up at least a bit. Moreover, we will have a chance to see each potential starting quarterback (Michael Vick and Nick Foles) running the offense. Will the attack operate differently from one QB to the next? Given the fact the No. 1 offense could play into the second quarter, we might find out a lot about Kelly's general approach in the Eagles' preseason opener against the New England Patriots on Friday night.
3) How will Tom Brady adjust to his new supporting cast?
Brady likely will enter the season without six of last year's top seven targets on the field. (Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez, Brandon Lloyd, Danny Woodhead and Deion Branch are gone, and Rob Gronkowski is hurt, leaving just Julian Edelman.) With just less than a month to go before the opener, Brady must quickly adjust to a new receiving corps that features an intriguing slot receiver (Danny Amendola) and a handful of unproven young pass catchers. Brady has proven in the past that he can get it done with a cast of no-names (see: the Patriots' three Super Bowl champion rosters), but relying on so many inexperienced playmakers could be a daunting task for the former league MVP.
General manager Phil Emery attempted to solve the Bears' offensive line problems by reshuffling the deck in the offseason. The team signed Jermon Bushrod and Matt Slauson in free agency, then added Kyle Long in the draft, adding more talent and athleticism up front. Of course, it will take some time for the offensive line to develop the chemistry and continuity to play on a string. The Bears' preseason opener against the Carolina Panthers on Friday will give the unit the opportunity to work through some of the kinks in pass protection that can't be addressed on the practice field.
5) How much has Blaine Gabbert improved?
The Jacksonville Jaguars' much-maligned would-be franchise quarterback is technically engaged in a competition for the job with Chad Henne, but Gabbert is the odds-on favorite to start the season as the guy -- unless he falls apart in the preseason. Gabbert must demonstrate that he has the consistency, reliability and leadership skills to be a starter. This means generating first downs and directing a few scoring drives to help alleviate the concerns of a coaching staff that is still trying to determine if Gabbert has the goods to succeed. If he can knock it out of the park against the Miami Dolphins on Friday night, he can make it easy for new Jags coach Gus Bradley to hand him the ball when the regular season begins in a few weeks.
6) Can the Pittsburgh Steelers get back to running the rock?
Coach Mike Tomlin wants the Steelers to once again dominate opponents behind a hard-hitting running game. They have the pieces on the offensive line (Mike Adams, Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro) to become more athletic and physical at the point of attack, as well as a big, hard-nosed rookie running back in Le'Veon Bell who can grind effectively between the tackles. Given the lack of contact and physicality in training camp, Saturday's matchup with the New York Giants will present the first opportunity for the Steelers to develop the rhythm and chemistry needed to become a top-notch running team in the regular season.
7) How will the Green Bay Packers cope with the loss of Bryan Bulaga?
Bulaga was expected to start at left tackle as part of a Packers offensive line that was reshuffled after surrendering 51 sacks in 2012, second-most in the NFL. But then he suffered a season-ending ACL injury in a scrimmage. Rookie David Bakhtiari will get the first crack at his job, but no one knows if he is ready for the responsibility of protecting Aaron Rodgers' blind side. How well he performs against the Arizona Cardinals on Friday could determine if team officials explore outside options to resolve their biggest offensive issue.
8) Can Bruce Arians get Carson Palmer back on track in Arizona?
Carson Palmer was once viewed as an elite quarterback, but injuries and a brief retirement stunted his growth as a player, and his star has faded. Arians hopes to revive Palmer's career by putting him in vertical passing game that plays to the veteran's strength as a superb deep-ball thrower. Although Palmer likely will see limited action in Friday's preseason opener, the new Cardinals coach could use the first few series to see how well the chemistry is developing between his quarterback and a talented receiving corps headlined by Larry Fitzgerald.
9) Is it "EJ Manuel time" in Buffalo?
The Buffalo Bills shocked many in the football world when they selected Manuel with the 16th overall pick in April's draft. He was expected to compete throughout the preseason with Kevin Kolb for the starting quarterback job, but injuries to the veteran have given the rookie a terrific opportunity to secure the gig with a strong performance against the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday. Manuel has been impressive throughout training camp, but he needs to put it all together in live action to prompt coach Doug Marrone to give him the keys to the Bills' fast-paced attack.
10) How will Alex Smith fit into Andy Reid's system?
Despite possessing the first overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, Reid picked Smith to be his franchise quarterback. Obviously, the Kansas City Chiefs' new coach believes in Smith's potential as a playmaker. Reid also must feel strongly about his own ability to create a system that will allow the former No. 1 overall pick to thrive as a passer. Considering the success Reid had in Philadelphia with Donovan McNabb, Michael Vick, Jeff Garcia and A.J. Feeley, the coach certainly knows how to tweak his scheme to maximize the talents of his chosen signal-caller. And he's had a full offseason to assess Smith's game and construct a plan to accentuate his strengths. Against the New Orleans Saints on Friday, he'll be able to take a first-hand look at how well the scheme suits his quarterback at this point of the preseason.