Skip to main content

Jay Cutler's development, Cowboys' D among NFC storylines

The dog days of summer ... yeah, we've all heard that one before. In June and July, the NFL news cycle truly does grind to a halt faster than a '79 Pinto.

Breer: Who's really in charge?


When it comes to building an NFL roster, hierarchies vary from team to team. Albert Breer reveals all 32 power structures. **More ...**

With only minicamps going on, and with most free agents off the market, there just isn't much to report. Moreover, coaches and front-office people use these months to go on vacations or finally cash in on those family-pack coupons to Medieval Times. So, while Rex Ryan eats turkey legs with his bare hands and roots for the Green Knight (we assume), let's delve into some summer storylines, specifically in the NFC.

Below, I provide a storyline worth following for every organization in the NFC. There's nothing obvious, like the RGIII knee angle or any of that "Christian Ponder must step up" stuff. Some of these storylines are flying under the radar, and as such, we'd love to hear your feedback: @HarrisonNFL is the dropbox.

When you're all caught up here, check out my list of impactful storylines for every team in the AFC.

Arizona Cardinals

Who's running the rock? All signs point to the new import from the Pittsburgh Steelers: Rashard Mendenhall. He merely needs to beat out Ryan Williams (who ended 2012 on injured reserve) and rookie Stepfan Taylor. New head coach Bruce Arians likes a back who can play all three downs and be a home-run threat. Mendenhall fits the bill. Don't forget, either, that he enjoyed success while playing in Arians' offense in Pittsburgh.

Here's the rub: Mendenhall can be a bit of a dancer behind the line. Ask Steelers fans. Considering how much trouble the Cardinals' offensive line had last season, Mendenhall had better know the value of a 2-yard run. Sometimes that's what's there, and even the greatest backs know when to take it. While we're hearing rave reviews about Carson Palmer's ability to wing it vertically, it sure would be nice to see the running backs in Arizona make some progress this summer, so that the new quarterback isn't on his back in the fall.

Atlanta Falcons

Can Steven Jackson boost the ground game? What's far more important than the offseason acquisition of Osi Umenyiora or efforts to land Richard Seymour? Figuring out how much Jackson has left in the tank. The former St. Louis Rams running back joins a club that threw it all over the park last season.

Pay attention to the amount of work Jackson sees in minicamp and training camp, and how involved he is in the passing game. Jackson once caught 90 balls in a season, and he could provide much to that side of the ledger. Either way, remember this: In the Falcons' most important win last season -- in the playoffs, versus the Seattle Seahawks -- they ran the football for 167 yards. Atlanta needs to be effective on the ground, even if only in spots.

Carolina Panthers

Will Cam Newton be the man? Most people applauded the job that former Panthers offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski did in Carolina. That respect -- and his demonstrated acumen -- landed "Chuds" a head-coaching gig with the Cleveland Browns. Now Mike Shula is implementing an up-tempo, simplified offense. That has worked in New England for Tom Brady, with one-word play calls and the like.

Newton is on board with the change. Yet, taking in a new offense and being a franchise leader requires total commitment. How much will we hear about Newton's work ethic, in terms of getting the offense down and being at the facility? So far, so good. Just keep it up, Cam.

Chicago Bears

Will Jay Cutler and the Bears' passing attack click? New head coach Marc Trestman is earning a reputation for ramping up the intensity at practice. That's nice. So how about the passing game?

While everyone makes a big deal about the Minnesota Vikings being the team in the NFC North with a quarterback who needs to make strides, the Bears' passing attack has been mostly a disappointment. If Cutler is to improve on the mediocre 81.9 passer rating he's posted during his time in Chicago, several things need to happen:

a) The pass protection must be better (or the play-calling has to be adjusted).
b) Alshon Jeffery must be in better shape (as he reportedly is), and he must take a step forward in camp.
c) Martellus Bennett can't regress to how he was during his days in Dallas, when he had a reputation for being a knucklehead.
d) Cutler has to step into his throws more.

Trestman is implementing a complex offense at a time when several coaches around the league are going simple. Read into that what you will.

Dallas Cowboys

Brandt: Cowboys will win NFC East

Gil Brandt lists 10 reasons to think Tony Romo and the Dallas Cowboys will dramatically improve their fortunes in 2013. **More ...**

How effective will Dallas' defenders be in new coordinator Monte Kiffin's 4-3 scheme?DeMarcus Ware has been a stand-up outside linebacker for his entire eight-year career -- and he's missing minicamps this week. Anthony Spencer is slated to be the other end, but his agent and the front office reportedly aren't getting anywhere on a deal. Additionally, Spencer -- who has also been an outside linebacker his whole career -- has struggled with consistency.

Then there's the oft-injured Sean Lee in the middle. Lee is huge on upside, but don't forget: He was an inside linebacker the past three years. No matter how much you hear about the Cowboys simplifying (sound familiar?), that's a big change. Stay tuned.

Detroit Lions

Can the D-line finally put it all together? Yep, new running back Reggie Bush is in the fold, while Nate Burleson and Ryan Broyles are healthy at wide receiver. Nonetheless, if I'm a Lions fan, I want to hear rave reviews about that star-studded defensive line during minicamp.

There are no fewer than three first-round picks on the defensive front. But have the Lions' defensive linemen ever exerted their will? Ndamukong Suh was the second overall pick in 2010, and Ziggy Ansah went fifth this year. With that kind of investment, these guys should be dominant -- not merely viable. While we're at it, it also would be nice to hear that defensive tackle Nick Fairley, drafted 13th overall in 2011, is ready to wreak havoc. Fairley already believes he and Suh are the best DT tandem in the league ... so let's see it.

Green Bay Packers

Who can make a world of difference on defense? Two words: Nick Perry. In case you don't remember, Green Bay selected the outside linebacker with the 28th overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft. Perry missed the bulk of last season with a wrist injury, collecting a total of just two sacks. If Perry can develop in coordinator Dom Capers' defense and give this team 10 sacks, imagine how hard it will be for opponents to deal with Clay Matthews on the other side. After all, you can't double 'em both.

Head coach Mike McCarthy has liked what he's seen thus far from Perry, and if he's half as good as Matthews, Green Bay could have a conference-contending defense. It's worth noting, however, that Perry was still wearing a brace at camp.

Minnesota Vikings

Who will catch the ball? This just in: Minnesota needed another quality wide receiver even beforePercy Harvin was dealt to the Seattle Seahawks. That trade, therefore, necessitated more than just the free-agent acquisition of Greg Jennings. GM Rick Spielman drafted Cordarrelle Patterson in the first round, but rookies generally struggle more at wideout than they do at any other position in pro football. So, who will be manning the "Y" spot on your Madden controller? Likely Jarius Wright -- or perhaps former backup quarterback Joe Webb, though that's doubtful, given his size.

At this point, quarterback Christian Ponder isn't performing at a level that will allow him to raise the collective game of his receivers by himself. Someone has to step up, be it Patterson, Wright, Jerome Simpson or Greg Childs.

New Orleans Saints

Instant Debate: Best play-caller?

Sean Payton-65x90.jpg

Who is the top play-caller in the NFL today? Our analysts praise New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton, among others. **More ...**

Can the secondary make a leap?Everyone in the football world knows Sean Payton is back, which is a real lift for a team that went 7-9 in 2012. The hiring of defensive coordinator Rob Ryan brought expected buzz. Something to follow, however, is the progress of the secondary, which features a new starting corner in Keenan Lewis (who missed some minicamp time last week) and highly touted rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro. Can these guys succeed -- specifically when they are left on an island in Ryan's defense?

When Ryan was in Dallas, the Cowboys' secondary really struggled at times, particularly when it came to forcing turnovers. Vaccaro could be huge for this club, but he still looks to be a ways off from starting ... for now.

New York Giants

What is going on in the backfield?Victor Cruz news has, of course, dominated the offseason. However, what's really interesting is what's going in the backfield.

Can David Wilson be a full-time back? Doubtful. He's a breakaway talent who is somewhat raw and had some fumbling issues last year. Then there's Andre Brown, who is expected to be the thumper. Bottom line is, with Ahmad Bradshaw gone to the Indianapolis Colts, we really don't know what to expect from the Giants' running backs.

The thought is that Wilson can be the featured player in a rotation. Word is, he's gotten better at pass protection. That would be huge, as it would mean he could stay on the field more. Regardless of who starts, the club was dealt a huge blow when it was revealed that fullback Henry Hynoski needed knee surgery. He likely won't be ready come September.

Philadelphia Eagles

Will Isaac Sopoaga be the anchor they need? This is sweet and simple, Eagles fans: Sopoaga must stay healthy and effective. If he goes down, the new 3-4 defense will have trouble.

Yes, quarterback is the epicenter of all Eagles-related talk. And, yes, new cornerback Cary Williams made some headlines when he tried to put the "voluntary" back in "voluntary practices." We're not dismissing those storylines; rather, we're merely implying that defensive coordinator Bill Davis needs a point man on the line to make his defense work.

Not to mention, third-round draft pick Bennie Logan must grow into his new job (nose tackle/defensive end). The Eagles gave Sopoaga $5 million guaranteed early in the free agency period for a reason: They must have the 31-year-old veteran ready to rock if they want to make hay in the NFC East.

San Francisco 49ers

What do the 49ers have in receiver A.J. Jenkins? Last year's first-round pick needs to start providing some ROI. For those who slept through finance class in college -- or don't own a TI-83 calculator -- that just means the Niners need to get something out of the Illinois product.

Receiver Michael Crabtree, who recently underwent surgery on his Achilles, is beginning the long months of rehab. Hopefully, he'll be back for the playoffs. In the interim, Jenkins must give the team a lift, even with Anquan Boldin in the fold. Head coach Jim Harbaugh said Jenkins will compete with Quinton Patton and Ricardo Lockette -- household names, except not at all. Jenkins added some muscle to get close to 200 pounds. What's more important, however, is that he seizes the opportunity to win the No. 2 receiver job this offseason.

Seattle Seahawks

Brooks: Sherman vs. Peterson

Has Richard Sherman surpassed fellow 2011 draftee Patrick Peterson? Bucky Brooks compares cornerbacks. **More ...**

How will Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett fit in? The Seahawks gave up just 245 points last season -- 28 fewer than any other team. That's going to be hard to repeat this season, with Bruce Irvin suspended four games for violating the league's performance-enhancing substance policy and Chris Clemons injured. The secondary is solid, but it's better with a healthy pass rush.

What's worth watching in Seattle is how well a pair of new acquisitions (Avril and Bennett) blend in, as well as how new coordinator Dan Quinn runs the defensive ship. Former coordinator Gus Bradley's departure to take the head-coaching gig with the Jacksonville Jaguars represented a palpable loss. If I'm a Seahawks fan, I would want to follow the front line as closely as I can, to see how things are coming along.

So far, Bennett says he "loves everything about the organization" and feels comfortable. Avril, however, has been fighting through a nagging foot problem. Seattle needs Avril. Thank God it's only June.

St. Louis Rams

Will the quarterback get any help? Everyone is ready to see Sam Bradford take a step forward. That can't happen if youngsters Brian Quick, Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey don't gain a rapport with their signal-caller this summer. While Chris Givens and tight end Jared Cook (who has looked great) are on the roster, someone has to pick up the production gap left by the departure of receiver Danny Amendola.

Here's the word out of OTAs: Quick has been awesome at times. Austin has been playing some running back, which is reminiscent of Percy Harvin's halcyon days with the Vikings; the kid should get the ball all over the formation. Bailey reportedly has practiced with the starters, although his role in the offense is still up in the air, so to speak. Either way, if I'm a Rams follower, I'd be over the moon about all of this. If the position group exceeds expectations, St. Louis could be looking at a wild-card berth.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Can the pass rush be a factor?Darrelle Revis' rehab has been all the rage down in Tampa. But with no pass rush, who cares? Revis is the best corner in the game when healthy, but he's not good enough to white-out a pass rush that finished tied for 29th in sacks last year after landing at the very bottom in 2011. In addition, one of the Bucs' best players in the front seven in 2012 -- Michael Bennett -- is now suiting up 3,000 miles away in Seattle.

It all starts with the health and progress of Adrian Clayborn. The 20th overall pick in 2011 was about the only guy who could get to the quarterback in Tampa Bay during his rookie campaign. Last year, he was a non-factor after injuring his knee. But thus far, the youngster has shown confidence in that knee, which is huge for a pass rusher who must push off and make quick changes of direction to beat mammoth NFL tackles.

If the Bucs can get big-time play from Clayborn and fellow end Da'Quan Bowers -- with Revis and Dashon Goldson roaming in the secondary -- look out.

Washington Redskins

Will Washington get its defensive centerpiece back? The knee of Robert Griffin III is the most famous knee in sports since Adrian Peterson's. However, Redskins fans should be monitoring the progress of another injury: the one to Brian Orakpo's pectoral. The fact that this club made the playoffs without its best defensive player last season is something no one ever seems to talk about.

Thus far, Orakpo has yet to encounter any troubles. Of course, not everyone trusts Mike Shanahan when it comes to stars and injuries. Either way, setbacks are a part of sports, and RGIII or no RGIII, Washington is a better football team with Orakpo on the field. There aren't too many teams that can claim a better pair of outside linebackers than the Redskins' duo of Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan. That is, when they're healthy.

Follow Elliot Harrison on Twitter _@HarrisonNFL_.

This article has been reproduced in a new format and may be missing content or contain faulty links. Please use the Contact Us link in our site footer to report an issue.

Related Content