I just love the start of training camp. I hear optimism in every person I talk to, from every franchise in the league. Each team truly thinks it can win the Super Bowl, or at least contend. This is the only time of the year when everything is positive because everyone is undefeated. Reality does not set in until the first loss.
But I try to be realistic. Ever since I have been in the league, I begin each year looking over every team and developing a list of questions that must be answered. Some teams have a host of questions, some have very few, and some might develop questions as the season progresses. But based on the offseason work done by everyone, here is my list of critical points for each team:
Atlanta Falcons: Having turned 30 in February, does Michael Turner have one more big year left? Last season, the Falcons ranked 31st in terms of rushing for four yards or more on first down. They also posted the second-most negative runs in the league. Who is Turner's backup? Both Jacquizz Rodgers and Jason Snelling averaged less than 4.0 per carry last season.
Baltimore Ravens: Who will replace Terrell Suggs -- not in terms of pure sacks, but more in terms of applying constant pressure and forcing the ball out quick? (Though his 14 sacks are not going to be replaced by any one man.) This team only allowed 11 touchdowns passes all season in 2011, thanks in large part to Suggs' relentless effort off the edge.
Carolina Panthers: How will mixing in elements of the 3-4 into their defensive scheme affect their personnel? Do they have enough edge pressure to be successful? Will Charles Johnson be able to handle the edge? Carolina logged just 31 sacks as a team, with Johnson notching nine. Who is going to emerge as a rusher and help this defense get off the field? The Panthers were the worst three-and-out defense in the NFL last season.
Debate: Biggest preseason question
Chicago Bears: The Bears allowed 49 sacks in 2011. What have they done to improve the offensive line? Chicago averaged just 45 rushes-plus-completions per game, placing them 28th in the NFL. This is the sign of a poor offensive line. Tackle J'Marcus Webb and guard Chris Spencer are both suspect, as is second-year tackle Gabe Carimi.
Cincinnati Bengals: Who will give the Bengals big plays in the run game? Last season, they only managed six runs of 20-plus yards. This is not an area of strength for free-agent acquisition BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Cincinnati struggled to churn out plays of 10-plus yards, as well, finishing 30th in the NFL. And Cincy compiled just 10 rushing touchdowns all season.
Dallas Cowboys: Will Dez Bryant be able to learn the offense, stay out of trouble and give the Cowboys the legitimate big-play receiver they need. He has to be able to build on 2011's numbers: 63 catches, nine touchdowns. Laurent Robinson logged 54 catches and 11 touchdowns as the third receiver -- his numbers will be hard to replace. Right now, Dallas doesn't have a legitimate third receiver on the team.
Denver Broncos: The Broncos had more missed tackles from their safeties than any other defense in the league. Have they improved in this area? Quarterbacks posted a sterling 104.0 passer rating against Denver when they threw the ball down the field past 20 yards. Teams averaged 7.4 yards per passing attempt last year. Long story short, the safety play was brutal. Can former Brown/49er Mike Adams make a difference? Will Rahim Moore and/or Quinton Carter improve in Year 2?
Jacksonville Jaguars: Will Blaine Gabbert be able to handle getting hit in the pocket, and consequently be able to execute the offense? What is his level of toughness this year? Can he produce a passing game for the Jags? Where will the explosive plays come from? Where will the plays of 10-plus yards come from? Jacksonville finished 32nd in both categories last season -- with Maurice Jones-Drew in the backfield. Jones-Drew averaged 4.7 yards per carry, but the other backs averaged below 3.0. If he is missing, what does the offense look like?
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Kansas City Chiefs: The Chiefs must successfully pound the ball on the ground, but which Peyton Hillis will show up? Hillis could give Kansas City a legitimate power back (like he did for Cleveland in 2010), but he also could miss games (like he did in 2011). There is no other full-time runner on this team, as Jamaal Charles is a change-of-pace back. The Chiefs managed just five rushing touchdowns all season in 2011.
Minnesota Vikings: The Vikings were the worst passing defense on first and second down, but they tied for the league lead in sacks. Have they improved their secondary enough to cover opposing aerial attacks (particularly the three within their division)? Have they improved their team speed in the back seven? Jasper Brinkley and Erin Henderson are not speed 'backers -- more power types.
New Orleans Saints: The 2011 Saints had the worst tackling secondary in the NFL, finishing 32nd in yards allowed after catch. Have they improved secondary play? Can Patrick Robinson be the starting right cornerback (opposite Jabari Greer)? Can Johnny Patrick assume the nickel role? They allowed 24 touchdown passes, with only nine picks. Can this Saints secondary cover?
New York Jets: How will the Jets handle the two offenses: one for Mark Sanchez and one for Tim Tebow? Will they produce enough explosive plays in either to score enough points to consistently win games? (Remember, Rex Ryan's defense allowed more than 20 points a game last year, ranking 20th.) Who will be the other receiver opposite Santonio Holmes? Can the Jets find someone to take the pressure off him? Chaz Schilens is always hurt, so it's doubtful he can fill the role. Meanwhile, Stephen Hill is a rookie who played in a running offense at Georgia Tech.
Oakland Raiders: In 2011, the Raiders allowed explosive plays of 20-plus yards on the ground and through the air -- ranking 31st overall in this area. Have they been able to improve their scheme and their talent to prevent big plays? Both new corners, Ron Bartell and Shawntae Spencer, struggle to play man to man.
Philadelphia Eagles: Do the Eagles have the right combination of linebackers to handle their scheme and still possess the instincts to make plays against both the run and the pass? Can 2012 second-round draft pick Mychal Kendricks be a starter and handle the job? Does trade acquisition DeMeco Ryans have enough speed to be a three-down 'backer and make plays in the passing game?
San Diego Chargers: The Chargers also have six defensive starters over 30 years old. Not to mention, they had the worse red-zone defense in the NFL in 2011. Have they gotten better? Can free-agent addition Jarret Johnson become the other edge rusher to help pressure the passer? When the Chargers blitzed, they allowed the opposing quarterback to have a 96.3 passer rating (29th in the NFL).
San Francisco 49ers: Can the 49ers find more of a passing game? They'll need it, as the schedule gets tougher in 2012 -- San Francisco will be forced to keep up with top offensive teams. Will featuring more of Alex Smith mean more turnovers and more mistakes? The Niners had the NFL's worst third-down conversion rate in the red zone last season, constantly settling for three points. Will they be bolder in the red zone during Jim Harbaugh's second season at the helm?
Seattle Seahawks: Seattle must get more consistent play from the quarterback position. Last year, the Seahawks finished 32nd in drives of at least 10 plays. They simply didn't have a quarterback who could routinely sustain drives. Will free-agent acquisition Matt Flynn be the starter? Or will Seattle revert to Tarvaris Jackson again? With those two duking it out, how will third-rounder Russell Wilson get any reps to actually compete for the starting job?
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Tampa Bay Buccaneers: How good is Josh Freeman? This is the year to find out if he is the problem or part of the solution. He has a career passer rating of 79.0 and is inconsistent throwing the ball down the field. (In three years, Freeman has only attempted 34 passes over 20 yards -- completing just nine.) With the new offense, will the Bucs be able to stretch the field more?