The pressing issue in 32 training camps over the six weeks:
Buffalo: Can Von Miller solve Buffalo’s only big issue?
GM Brandon Beane addressed pass-rush in the ’20 and ’21 draft with A.J. Epenesa, Greg Rousseau and Boogie Basham, but the three combined for only eight sacks last year. Now Miller comes in to turbocharge the rush from the right side. You can read more higher in the column.
Miami: Will Mike McDaniel be able to unlock Tua’s potential?
Not many teams can match the three-man firepower of Tyreek Hill, Jaylen Waddle and Mike Gesicki, and not many teams have a better left tackle than Terron Armstead. It’s clear this is a make-or-break season for Tua Tagovailoa, and a prime reason why offensive wunderkind McDaniel was imported from the Kyle Shanahan tree. Miami’s got to be significantly better than 25th in total offense, which the ’21 Fins were.
New England: Can Bill Belichick make an iffy roster competitive?
The Patriots have made chicken salad out of chicken feathers most often in Belichick’s tenure, but this summer will really be a test of that practice. Some very iffy drafts and refusing to pay market prices for young stars like J.C. Jackson have made players like 32-year-old Malcolm Butler important rather than marginal. The Patriots need strong camps from lots of questionable players, and not just Mac Jones.
N.Y. Jets: Can the Jets get the max out of Mekhi Becton?
Interesting point made to me by estimable beat man Mark Cannizzaro of the New York Post: Coach Robert Saleh has an interesting thought on young players like supposed franchise tackle Becton, the 11th pick in ’20 draft. “He never make a determination on a player till after the third year,” Cannizzaro said. “And this is the third year for Becton.” This year’s rookie crop is strong, led by corner Sauce Gardner, but this camp is more important for Becton.
Baltimore: Can the Ravens get back to normal after a weird year?
Few playoff contenders have more questions entering camp. Reliable receiver Marquise Brown was dealt to Arizona (in effect for rookie center Tyler Linderbaum), so replacing his 91 catches is an issue. Lamar Jackson’s contract thing hovers over the team. A jillion players returning from injury—most importantly Marcus Peters, Marlon Humphrey and J.K. Dobbins—cloud the forecast. Very big summer in Owings Mills.
Cincinnati: Will a bridge get built with Jessie Bates?
When the Bengals drafted safety Daxton Hill in the first round last April, it added more uncertainty to Bates’ situation. Hill’s four-year contract is worth $1 million less than Bates’ franchise number for this year—and Bates refuses to sign that. Bates likely will stay away from camp. Because the Bengals are likely looking to bankroll enough money to sign Joe Burrow long-term, Bates may have to choose between $12.9 million for one year or sitting out the season.
Cleveland: Do you even need to ask?
One story and one story only in Cleveland camp: Counting down the days (hours?) till arbitrator Sue L. Robinson rules on whether Deshaun Watson will be suspended (highly likely) and if so for how long. If it’s a long ban, 10 games or more, the Browns could choose to chase Jimmy Garoppolo for a one-year bridge—though their next two drafts were denuded by the trade for Watson. Or they could play Jacoby Brissett. Neither option is very good.
Pittsburgh: Who wins the Trubisky-Pickett competition?
In his 16th season as Steeler coach, Mike Tomlin will have a QB competition for the first time. Free-agent Mitchell Trubisky probably enters camp in Latrobe as a slight favorite over first-round pick Kenny Pickett from Pitt. There’s no insight to be had on this, yet. Tomlin will let the next five weeks make his decision.
Houston: Is Davis Mills “The (Long-Term) Man?”
Before you say, “Oh, stop,” consider that Mills, in his last five games last year, had a passer rating over 100, completed 68.4 percent, and had a 9-to-2 TD-to-pick ratio. The schedule (Colts, Bears, Jags in the first five weeks) gives Mills a chance to build some momentum early.
Indianapolis: Can the defense get stingier?
Of course, the biggest acquisition in the offseason was Matt Ryan, who will be a better leader and should be a better clutch player than Carson Wentz was. But my sneaky-huge pickup for Indy was cornerback Stephon Gilmore, the 2019 Defensive Player of the Year (and soon to be 32). The Indy D gave up 32 touchdown passes and 4,203 passing yards last year.
Jacksonville: How quick can Travon Walker get up to speed?
The first pick in the draft didn’t have a first-pick-in-the-draft resume at Georgia (9.5 sacks in three seasons, zero times first- or second-team all-SEC). But GM Trent Baalke saw the freakish athleticism of Walker, and now, in camp, the world will be watching to see what Baalke saw.
Tennessee: Can Ryan Tannehill regain his mojo?
Tannehill turns 34 Wednesday, which is primetime for quarterbacks these days. But he’s on a streak of one 300-yard game in his last 16 starts, and we all saw him cough up the top-seed Titans’ first playoff game to Cincinnati in a three-pick nightmare last January. Now he’s got to be great without A.J. Brown, and with potential heir Malik Willis pressing him. Camp is very big for Tannehill and this offense.
Of course this is the Summer of Russell (Wilson) in Colorado. But we all know he’ll be fine and productive. I say the bigger question mark in camp is honing a pass rush to threaten Patrick Mahomes, Derek Carr and Justin Herbert in a QB-heavy division. Gregory is coming off rotator cuff surgery in March, and Chubb, the fifth overall pick in 2018, hasn’t justified his draft stock after missing 24 games in four seasons. Big summer for them.
Kansas City: Can Mahomes make up for some holes?
Andy Reid’s not used to patching so many things in camp—though he did have to reinvent his offensive line last year. After the trade of ultimate weapon Tyreek Hill to Miami, it’ll be up to Mahomes to make the Mecole Hardman/JuJu Smith-Schuster/Marquez Valdes-Scantling/Skyy Moore combo platter work. Then there’s the burgeoning contract issue with left tackle Orlando Brown, who may not be in camp. And there’s the leadership gulf left by the departure of Tyrann Mathieu on defense. It’s rare this franchise has this many issues in camp.
Las Vegas: Can a shaky offensive line give Carr time to thrive?
Alex Leatherwood was a risky pick by ex-GM Mike Mayock, who was confident he’d develop into a standout right tackle. It didn’t work. Leatherwood led all NFL lineman last year with 65 QB pressures allowed and was moved to right guard early in the season because of it. Leatherwood’s getting another chance this summer at tackle. But in camp, Brandon Parker is getting more snaps at right tackle than Leatherwood. Will Carr have enough time to find Davante Adams downfield?
L.A. Chargers: Can a redesigned D mesh in six weeks?
The Chargers may have five new starters out of 12 on defense (counting the nickel corner): tackles Sebastian Joseph-Day and Austin Johnson, edge-rusher Khalil Mack, corner J.C. Jackson and nickel Bryce Callahan. Brandon Staley will have to see how many snaps the 31-year-old Mack can play, because, like Miller in Buffalo, Mack’s biggest value will come as a closer in big games.
Dallas: Can Micah Parsons be cloned?
When your offenses averages four touchdowns a game over two years (Dallas is scoring at a 28-points-per-game clip since opening day 2020), and the record is only 18-16, there’s a major issue to be solved. Defensive coordinator Dan Quinn’s got to solve it. Will he use Parsons, reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year after a 13-sack season, as a puzzle piece all over the front? Can he get one more strong season out of DeMarcus Lawrence (only 14.5 sacks in his last 39 games). It’s clear Dallas needs another impact player, or three, on defense.
N.Y. Giants: Can Brian Daboll turn Daniel Jones’ career around?
John Mara, like it or not, still believes Jones can be a good starting NFL quarterback. Mara thinks the revolving coaching door and weaponry that’s always hurt has doomed Jones. This summer, Daboll, imported after tutoring Josh Allen in Buffalo, will try to put a stamp of competency on Jones—but two disappointing receivers last year, Kenny Golladay and Kadarius Toney, will be closely watched too.
Philadelphia: Will Howie Roseman’s architecture show up this summer?
All eyes will be on quarterback Jalen Hurts, and rightfully so; this is his year to prove he should be the long-term QB. But so many new additions must find niches by the end of August. Start with A.J. Brown, the new star receiver acquired on draft night, who should make beautiful music with DeVonta Smith. But look for college stars Jordan Davis and Nakobe Dean to push for snaps. Hidden gem James Bradberry could be a steal at corner. Lots of summer new from Philly ahead.
Washington: Will Carson Wentz finally find a long-term home?
Mike Florio said it right when Indy dumped Wentz after a terrible finish but a season with 27 TDs and just seven picks: Wentz needs to go to a place to prove himself from scratch. After having the easygoing Doug Pederson and father figure Frank Reich as coaches in his first six pro seasons, Wentz has to prove himself all over again in Washington, and that starts in earnest this summer.
Chicago: Ready for massive reconstruction?
It’s good to have the quarterback of the future in-house (presumably). But major change rules the franchise, led by coach Matt Eberflus and GM Ryan Poles. Offensive coordinator Luke Getsy’s a major factor in his first year as an OC, maybe the most important of the newbies, because he’ll be charged with growing the game of the vital Fields. A good sign will be quicker decision-making by Fields, sacked on a league-high 11.7 percent of his drops last year.
Detroit: Can Aidan Hutchinson transform a listless D?
The Lions, after finishing 30th in the league in sacks last year, need to work in camp on making sure Hutchinson hits the ground running in September. There are no good alternatives for coordinator Aaron Glenn’s defense, so grooming Hutchinson is job one on a team that can’t rely on the offense to put up 25 points a game.
Green Bay: Can Rich Bisaccia awaken the sleepy special teams?
You’re surprised I didn’t have the big question being: Can Christian Watson be a serviceable replacement for Davante Adams? I just figure Aaron Rodgers will figure it out, because he usually does. The horrendous kicking game, well, that’s another matter. In the last five minutes of the divisional game against the Niners, the Packers turned a 10-3 lead into a 13-10 loss by having a punt blocked for a TD and surrendering a game-winning field goal. Bisaccia, one of the best kicking game coaches in football, is being paid (reportedly) around $2 million, a league high for special-teams coaches, to rebuild the unit.
Minnesota: Is the Kevin O’Connell/Kwesi Adofo-Mensah team what the Vikings need?
Players tired of Mike Zimmer’s negativity and the fact he couldn’t fix the defense last year. Kevin O’Connell brings more of an analytical bent to his coaching and planning, and GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah breaks rules like in-division trading because he doesn’t think there should be rules. I look for QB Kirk Cousins to be a big beneficiary this summer after feeling beaten down a bit in recent seasons.
Atlanta: Can the Falcons not be downtrodden?
Stark headline on the Atlanta Journal Constitution website: “There’s no bright side on eve of training camp.” Well, yikes. This is a year to get the cap right, adjust to post-Matt Ryan life, and see if Marcus Mariota is worth keeping around, or if Desmond Ridder has real promise. A good goal for camp would be to see how quickly Ridder can be ready to take an early screen test.
Carolina: Who wins the QB battle?
Should be a good competition between incumbent Sam Darnold and newcomer Baker Mayfield…and I like Baker to win if he can digest the playbook in the next five weeks. Of course, the future of the head coach and his staff ride on the outcome of how the QBs play. One good facet of the competition: Rookie third-rounder Matt Corral, the Chris Simms darling, should get a needed redshirt year.
New Orleans: Will weapons out the wazoo pay off?
The last time Sean Payton wasn’t the coach of this team was 17 years ago, in 2005. Dennis Allen is the beneficiary of a good team built by GM Mickey Loomis and personnel czar Jeff Ireland, and if Jameis Winston can return strong from his ACL/MCL surgeries with a healed Michael Thomas, his receiver group is better than Drew Brees had in his latter years: Thomas, rookie Chris Olave (with star potential) and vets Jarvis Landry and Tre’Quan Smith. I believe camp will prove one thing: Do not hand the division title to the Bucs so fast.
Tampa Bay: Will the patchwork offense be good enough early?
Easy to say Tom Brady—who turns 45 Aug. 3—is the sports world’s biggest metronome, and he’ll never not be good. But let’s see how the Bucs fare after losing two of their top three tight ends (Gronk, O.J. Howard) and both starting guards (Alex Cappa, Ali Marpet)…and with the uncertainty of when favorite receiver Chris Godwin returns from his Jan. 3 ACL surgery. That’s a lot of ifs for a team with a killer first four weeks: at Dallas, at New Orleans (4-0 versus the Brady-quarterbacked Bucs in the regular season), Green Bay, Kansas City.
Arizona: Can the energy of Kyler cure all ills?
With significant contributors Chase Edmunds, Chandler Jones and Christian Kirk all allowed to walk in free-agency, two things are obvious entering camp: Arizona needed money to afford the Murray megadeal, and the Cards might need to score 28 a game to have a playoff shot. Oh, and if James Conner stays healthy, he’s got an outside shot to win the rushing title. Finding a defensive playmaker or two will be a big priority this summer.
L.A. Rams: How big a deal is the Bobby Wagner get?
I’m very bullish on Wagner, still. He’s been PFF’s second- and 11th-rated linebacker in the last two seasons, and he comes home to southern California for the first time in 15 years, since he was a high school star in Ontario, so he’ll be motivated in a big way. With the force of Aaron Donald in front of him, and the Rams unlikely to have him play much more than maybe 60 percent of the snaps, Wagner could be the new juice the world champs need.
San Francisco: Is Trey Lance a player?
He’s an excellent prospect, for sure. And he has the faith of coach Kyle Shanahan, for sure. But this summer will be about whether Lance—who has thrown exactly 389 passes since high school—can return the Niners to the NFL’s Final Four, or perhaps go farther, and with a depleted offensive line. Every practice will be micro-analyzed, as things are with quarterbacks in the NFL. I just wish the football public would give a 22-year-old quarterback who has thrown 101 passes total in his age-20 and -21 years combined a little breathing room.
Seattle: Can a rugged defense win some games like the old days?
Whoever wins the QB job—Geno Smith, Drew Lock, maybe Jimmy Garoppolo, and my bet’s on Smith—will be commanding an okay offense at best. The keys to Seattle being competitive, I think, are Jamal Adams and Quandre Diggs, who, when healthy, make up the most formidable safety tandem in football. This summer they should take charge on a rebuilding D.