NFL players and coaches are on their summer vacations savoring the time until the run-up to the 2014 season begins later this month. Let’s examine one question each team faces when they reconvene for training camps:
Patriots - Is anyone else a threat to win the AFC East?
The Patriots have won five straight AFC East crowns, and have dominated the division since the start of the Tom Brady era in 2001. While they have struggled in the postseason against the Giants, Broncos, and Ravens in recent years, the Jets, Bills, and Dolphins haven’t offered similar challenges. In the last five seasons, the Patriots are 24-6 against the AFC East. It’s a formidable advantage for the Patriots, as their divisional brethren enter the season with almost no margin for error. While all three have pockets of optimism they can build around (Ryan Tannehill’s 32 straight starts are a sign the Dolphins might finally have the stable quarterback they’ve spent a generation seeking; the Jets have bolstered a roster that overachieved at 8-8 last season; and the Bills added playmaking receiver Sammy Watkins, who they hope can help them be more competitive in shootouts with Brady), there’s still a sizable talent gap between the Patriots and their division rivals. That’s especially glaring at quarterback, and New England’s divisional dominance may not end until that gap under center changes.
Jets - Is a new face about to step forward in the Jets-Patriots rivalry?
Rookie safety Calvin Pryor admittedly loves to talk trash and could inject new layers of vitriol into this border war. “We don’t like Tom at all,” Pryor, the 18th overall pick, said when asked about Brady in early June. “When I first came here, that was one of the first things I heard about: We hate the Patriots, and we hate the Giants.” That’s the type of candor that would be frowned upon in New England, but Jets coach Rex Ryan endorsed his safety’s brashness. “That’s good. I like it,” Ryan said. “He knows who the enemy is.” What gives Pryor the license to talk this trash is the big game he brings with him from Louisville. He is an extremely hard hitter who can deliver bone-rattling messages. Expect him to step into the role Bart Scott used to occupy in elevating the rhetoric in Jets-Patriots weeks.
Bills - Will E.J. Manuel validate the Bills’ investment in him?
Manuel brought a sense of optimism when he arrived as a first-round pick last season. But the optimism quickly fizzled and the quarterback position was the same thing it has been for most of the Bills’ 14-year playoff drought — a problem. Manuel missed six games because of injuries, and won just four of the games he started. He never developed a consistent rapport with his receivers. But the Bills have put Manuel in position to change that this year. They traded up to draft Sammy Watkins with the fourth overall pick to give Manuel a field-stretching receiver. Add in C.J. Spiller, Robert Woods, Fred Jackson, Scott Chandler and new addition Mike Williams, and Manuel has an impressive array of weapons. Offensive coordinator Paul Hackett thinks having a full offseason to study the offense will make Manuel better (and perhaps lessen the indecision that led Hackett to say “argh, who knows what was going to happen” when Manuel was challenged last year). Manuel must prove he can rise above the unimpressive baseline that too many Bills quarterbacks (think: J.P. Losman, Trent Edwards, Kelly Holcomb, and Rob Johnson) have established this century.
Dolphins - What’s the effect of Mike Pouncey’s hip injury?
Just before the Dolphins ended their offseason program, news broke that Pro Bowl center Mike Pouncey underwent hip surgery that will sideline him up to four months. That means he’ll likely miss the season opener against the Patriots. He could start the season on the physically unable to perform list and miss the first six games. The Dolphins don’t have anyone of Pouncey’s caliber among their options (Sam Brenner, Nate Garnet, Shelley Smith) to replace him. Pouncey, a bit of a controversial character, was a friend to Aaron Hernandez and was unapologetic about his connection to last season’s bullying scandal in the Miami locker room. But Pouncey is one of the NFL’s best centers and, along with the free agent addition Branden Albert, is expected to be an anchor of a rebuilt line. Without him, the line is significantly weaker. The Dolphins must hope Pouncey’s recovery doesn’t linger.
Browns - Will Brian Hoyer hold off Johnny Manziel?
The Browns are doing the smart thing by insisting Brian Hoyer is the No. 1 quarterback entering camp, but coach Mike Pettine acknowledged he’s open to the idea of Johnny Manziel leaping past Hoyer. “I don’t think it’s insurmountable,” Pettine said of Hoyer’s lead over Manziel. “I think that Brian is securely ahead of him right now, but we will compete and we will decide.” Figure it will be an upset if Hoyer ultimately claims the job over a healthy Manziel and is the starter at Pittsburgh in Week 1. In recent years, quarterbacks drafted in the first round have rarely failed to win the starting jobs, a trend that really picked up in 2008 when Joe Flacco and Matt Ryan led the Ravens and Falcons, respectively, to the playoffs as rookies. Furthermore, is Hoyer really much of a stumbling block for Manziel? Yes, he’s the “incumbent” and he won the only three games he started last season before suffering a knee injury. But Hoyer is a journeyman who was with three teams in the 18 months before he joined the Browns. Manziel is the face of the franchise. If Manziel shows the Browns he understands their offense and he can handle competition against first-team defenses, the Browns won’t hesitate to keep Hoyer on the sideline. Expect a decision in the first half of August, as Pettine likely won’t want the uncertainty of Manziel’s status hanging over the Browns too long.
Steelers - Is rookie Ryan Shazier the next great Steelers defender?
Shazier, drafted 15th overall, was very impressive in spring drills. He already projects as a starter at inside linebacker alongside Lawrence Timmons. Shazier is a dynamic and versatile player who can help the Steelers in coverage, as a run-stopper, and as a pass-rusher. And as Steelers backup quarterback Bruce Gradkowski has seen, Shazier can come seemingly out of nowhere to pick off a pass. Gradkowski thought he was easily dropping a pass behind Shazier during an OTA workout when the linebacker leapt (“90 feet off the ground,” Gradkowski exaggerated) to make a statement interception. By the numbers, the 8-8 Steelers had a respectable 13th-ranked defense last season. But that was a humbling result in Pittsburgh, which had a defense ranked outside the top 10 for the first time since 1999. With Troy Polamalu, 33, in the twilight of his career, the Steelers need a new playmaking catalyst on defense, and there’s hope Shazier might be the guy.
Bengals - How much commitment will they make to Andy Dalton?
Dalton, who has started every game since he arrived in Cincinnati as a second-round pick in 2011, is entering the final year of his rookie contract. He can lay out a decent case for why he deserves a new deal that pays him the market rate for big-time quarterbacks (about $15 million per year). He is one of just three quarterbacks (with Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers) to lead a team to the playoffs in the last three seasons. But the Bengals can also put a compelling case for why it would be dangerous to pay Dalton big money. He’s never won a playoff game. He makes too many costly mistakes, and seems to buckle at a point when big-time (and big-money) QBs step up and make their teams better. And if the Bengals commit to Dalton, it will hamstring their ability to add roster depth under the salary cap. If the Bengals give top money to a QB, they need to be confident he’s the guy that can put this team on his back. Is Dalton that guy? Still, it’s improbable the Bengals allow Dalton to leave via free agency — because someone will pay him. Look for them to strike an incentive-laden deal, similar to the one the 49ers reached with Colin Kaepernick, that will limit their financial risk but keep Dalton under their control.
Ravens - Will the transition to Gary Kubiak’s offense be smooth?
Kubiak landed as John Harbaugh’s offensive coordinator after he was dismissed as Texans coach last year. Now he’s tasked with helping Joe Flacco bounce back from his first non-playoff finish in his six-season career. Harbaugh thinks Flacco “is really built for” Kubiak’s West Coast, timing offense. Flacco threw a career-high 22 interceptions in last season’s 8-8 campaign, and there’s some thought that in Kubiak’s faster-paced system Flacco will be more accurate and have more success. But adapting to a new coordinator can be challenging. Flacco acknowledged he “knew nothing about this offense” before mid-April when the team began its offseason program. But Kubiak said he’s been impressed with how fast Flacco has caught up and likes how the QB’s skills match up with his plans. “The things we like to do moving around, the zone-pass schemes that we like to run, I think fit to a lot of his strengths,” Kubiak said. The Ravens need to hope the new offense doesn’t need much time to jell, as they open the season with three straight AFC North games against the Bengals, Steelers, and at the Browns.
Texans - Is Ryan Fitzpatrick good enough to be the quarterback of this team?
Houston has a lot of talented players — JJ Watt, Andre Johnson, Arian Foster, Duane Brown, Brian Cushing, not to mention top overall pick Jadeveon Clowney. So isn’t trotting Ryan Fitzpatrick out at QB a little like dropping ketchup onto a $60 steak? Fitzpatrick has started 54 games over the past four years, but has won just 19. He’s the starter by default in Houston, because the other options aren’t ready (rookie Tom Savage) or just aren’t good enough (Case Keenum). “He’s a guy that’s earned the job,” new coach Bill O’Brien said. Not exactly a ringing endorsement. Luckily Fitzpatrick has a decent supporting cast — contingent somewhat on Johnson not holding out — that should help the Texans improve from last season’s 2-14 record, despite Fitzpatrick.
Colts - Can they take the next step and be legitimate Super Bowl contenders?
The Colts look like heavy favorites in the AFC South. Why? Well, for starters, Jake Locker, Chad Henne, and Ryan Fitzpatrick are the No. 1 QBs on the three divisional rivals. But going back to the playoffs for the third straight year to start the Andrew Luck era should not be Indianapolis’s goal. Going to the Super Bowl should be, and the Colts’ 43-22 loss in New England in the divisional playoffs in January suggested they’re still a step behind the Patriots and Broncos. But that’s a step that can be overcome. One of the Colts’ biggest offseason additions, defensive lineman Arthur Jones, brings a Super Bowl pedigree from Baltimore that should help set a new demanding tone in Indianapolis. And Luck improved markedly in his second year (he cut his interceptions from 18 to nine, for example), a trend that should continue. He has such a makeup that outplaying Peyton Manning or Tom Brady in a playoff is a realistic goal.
Jaguars - How big of a jump will the defense make?
The Jaguars defense has the makings of a unit that will surprise and frustrate some offenses. Coach Gus Bradley imported Red Bryant and Chris Clemons from Seattle and Ziggy Hood from the Steelers to bolster a unit that already was anchored by the recently extended Sen’Derrick Marks. Bradley inherited a very bad team as a rookie coach last season and promptly lost his first eight games. But Jacksonville won four of its next five, in a sign the Jaguars players are buying into Bradley’s program. While the offense may not be as far along as the defense, this will be a season the Jaguars should build more of the foundation for the playoff contender they will expect to be in 2015. And Chip Kelly’s Eagles should take note in Week 1, these Jaguars could sneak up on you.
Titans - What are they going to do with three starting tackles?
The Titans drafted big tackle Taylor Lewan (6-8, 315 pounds) 11th overall and added him to a unit that already has longtime starting left tackle Michael Roos and free agent addition Michael Oher, who received $9.5 million guaranteed. Obviously, they all can’t play tackle. Lewan is a smart addition in the long run, as Roos, 31, has said he probably won’t be back once his contract expires after the season. Oher isn’t going away after signing that big deal. So the plan will probably be versatility among the three. Offensive line coach Bob Bostad intends to teach Lewan to play the left and right sides effectively. He might slide Oher or Lewan inside to guard at some points too, to create the type of versatility that has allowed the Patriots’ Logan Mankins to move from guard to tackle at times. This is a good year for the Titans to tinker with the offensive line, as Ken Whisenhunt’s roster is short on playmakers and likely to be also-rans in the AFC South.
Broncos - How much more improved will the defense be?
Even with Eric Decker and Knowshon Moreno gone, the Broncos aren’t worried about maintaining the flow of their top-rated offense. Most of their offseason energy went into retooling their defense. They added former Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib and pass-rusher DeMarcus Ware after he was cut by the Cowboys. They also signed ex-Browns safety T.J. Ward, who should bring a fiercer attitude to the Denver secondary, and drafted cornerback Bradley Roby at No. 31 overall. But it’s not just the additions they made. They also expect to welcome back three significant parts of the defense who missed the Super Bowl loss to Seattle. Linebacker Von Miller, safety Rahim Moore and cornerback Chris Harris all should be ready for the start of the season, which pumps major talent back into the Denver unit that was embarrassed in the Super Bowl. It’s hard not to see the Broncos as the preseason AFC favorites.
Chiefs - Is this team poised for a major regression?
The Chiefs tailed off badly last season when, after their 9-0 start, they spiraled to a 2-5 finish. And despite their spirited 45-44 wild-card loss to the Colts, the Chiefs looked like a team that needed some key upgrades in the offseason. Unfortunately, those didn’t come. Top pick Dee Ford adds pass-rushing help and third-rounder Phillip Gaines should bolster the secondary, but that does little for Alex Smith’s offensive weapons. Having wideout Donnie Avery and tight end Anthony Fasano near the top of the depth chart at two key positions doesn’t bode well. There was major turnover on the offensive line, which lost starters Branden Albert and Geoff Schwartz. Smith’s steady hand was a key factor in the Chiefs’ hot start last season. They’ll need that even more in 2014.
Raiders - Could Derek Carr overtake Matt Schaub as starting QB?
The Raiders picked up Schaub for a sixth-round pick from Houston and declared him the starter. Then they drafted Carr with the 36th overall selection with the idea that the Fresno State product would become the quarterback of the future – in the future. But a funny thing happened in spring workouts: Carr played lights out, drew heavy praise from head coach Dennis Allen and offensive coordinator Greg Olson, and may have injected himself into a starting competition. Allen said in mid-June that while Schaub is expected to be the starter, “everything is written in pencil.” That opens the door for Carr to steal the job away in training camp. And that’s very realistic, as the Raiders have few ties to Schaub beyond the sixth-round pick he cost them. If Carr accelerates to the point where he and Schaub are close, there’s little sense in sticking with Schaub, whose days as an effective starter are likely behind him. Olson praised Carr’s “intelligence, accuracy, and quickness in getting the ball out” in spring camp. If that continues against live contact in August, Carr will likely be the starter.
Chargers - How much better does Brandon Flowers make them?
Flowers (who called himself “the best corner in football” in late June) joined San Diego last month after being cut by the Chiefs, and joins first-round pick Jason Verrett as new additions to the Chargers secondary. He was a Pro Bowler last year, though that distinction may have been aided by reputation as he really performed poorly in Kansas City’s new press-man scheme. Flowers, 28, wasn’t a good fit, so the Chiefs moved on. In San Diego he has a very good chance to re-establish himself as a premier corner, however, and he and Verrett should help the Chargers improve significantly on a pass defense that ranked 29th last season.
Cowboys - Is this Jason Garrett’s last chance?
Garrett has finished 8-8 and out of the playoffs in each of his three full seasons as Cowboys head coach. Team owner Jerry Jones said Garrett doesn’t necessarily have to earn a playoff berth to be back again in 2015. Well, maybe if Dallas finishes 11-5 and misses out on the playoffs due to a tough-luck tiebreaker. But does anyone really believe Jones will tolerate a fifth straight season without a playoff berth and not make changes? So the pressure is on Garrett more than ever. But it’s hard to see how his roster improved. Two of his best defenders are gone (Jason Hatcher in Washington and DeMarcus Ware in Denver) while another was lost for what’s likely a season-ending injury (Sean Lee, ACL). The Cowboys added depth to the offensive line in top draft pick Zack Martin, but there are still concerns about the back injury that ended Tony Romo’s season last year. Bottom line: there’s a lot of uncertainty and a lot of aging core pieces. So it’s hard to justify optimism that this might be the year the Cowboys emerge as a real threat.
Philadelphia - Can the defense bring more to the table?
The Eagles ended a two-year playoff drought last season largely because of the strength of the second-ranked offense that rookie coach Chip Kelly directed. It wasn’t thanks to the defense, which ranked 29th and surrendered almost 24 points per game. The Eagles devoted significant assets to bolstering the defense during the offseason when they brought in free agent safety Malcolm Jenkins from New Orleans and drafted pass-rusher Marcus Smith in the first round. Smith should join with veteran Trent Cole to put together a more formidable harassment of opposing quarterbacks. If the defense can add more overall bite, it could make the Eagles a considerable threat – provided the decision to cut DeSean Jackson, now with the Redskins, doesn’t turn into a mistake.
Washington - Can Robert Griffin restore the luster from his rookie year?
Griffin was not the same player in 2013 as he was during his dazzling rookie campaign when he led the Redskins to the playoffs. Coming off an ACL injury that occurred late in his rookie season, Griffin was a diminished product last year. Now with another offseason of healing and rehab for his knee, Griffin will seek to re-establish his Pro Bowl credentials. Working in his favor is a new coach in Jay Gruden, as Griffin’s relationship with former head coach Mike Shanahan appeared to have become unworkable. Gruden told Sports Illustrated he wants to turn Griffin into “an all-around quarterback,” rather than one that relies primarily on the read option. Griffin has the arm and accuracy to do just that. He also has the weapons, with DeSean Jackson now in a receiving corps that also includes reigning NFL catch king Pierre Garcon.
NY Giants – How long until Will Beatty is back?
Eli Manning’s blindside protector was out of action during offseason workouts while he recovered from a leg injury suffered in last season’s finale. The Giants are hopeful that Beatty will return to the lineup at some point before Week 1, while he said he plans to be ready to start camp. It’s important for him to get back as soon as possible on a line that has experienced a lot of change this offseason. Geoff Schwartz and JD Walton are newcomers who look like the starters at left guard and center, respectively, so having an effective Beatty in his left tackle perch would be a boost for Manning’s confidence. But Beatty hasn’t worked with his teammates all offseason, and Giants offensive line coach Pat Flaherty said he needs to see Beatty in pads before he judges whether he’s ready. If he’s not, GM Jerry Reese said the Giants would likely rely on another new addition, Charles Brown, at left tackle. Brown had a rough ride last season as the blindside protector to Drew Brees. Manning, who was sacked 39 times last season, will be looking to build continuity along his revamped offensive line as early in camp as possible.
Chicago - Can the defense bounce back?
The Bears defense fell from the fifth-ranked unit in 2012 to 30th last season. They rebuilt their defensive line with Jared Allen, Lamarr Houston and Willie Young (via free agency) and Ego Ferguson and Will Sutton (via high draft picks). They also bolstered the secondary with 14th overall pick Kyle Fuller, a cornerback. So the Bears defense has some significant new assets. They’ll need to stay healthy, of course, which they weren’t able to do last season when they lost the now-departed Henry Melton, Lance Briggs, and Charles Tillman for significant time. With the Bears’ stout offense (which has quarterback Jay Cutler healthy again), coach Marc Trestman doesn’t necessarily need a top-5 defense. But with the new weapons, defensive coordinator Mel Tucker, in his second season with the Bears, should be able to significantly improve on last season’s output.
Green Bay - Is there a better backup plan behind Aaron Rodgers?
The Packers’ season went south last year in Week 9 when Aaron Rodgers suffered a broken collarbone. They were 5-2 when he went down, and had fallen to 7-7-1 by the time he returned in Week 17 (and led them to a win that clinched a playoff berth). But the Packers likely would have had an easier path into the playoffs if they had been able to better rely on Rodgers’ backups. The Packers turned to Scott Tolzien, Seneca Wallace, and a hastily re-signed Matt Flynn to start games in Rodgers’ wake (significant in Green Bay, where Rodgers and Brett Favre had started all but two games over the previous two decades). This summer, the Packers have Flynn perched as Rodgers’ top backup with Tolzien (who showed promise before suffering his own injury last season) pushing him. Flynn, though he has flopped in other locations, has been a steady force for the Packers when needed (3-3 in six starts from 2010-2013.
Detroit - Has the losing culture changed?
In dismissing Jim Schwartz and hiring Jim Caldwell as head coach last winter, the Lions signaled they wanted a significant change in the direction of an organization for whom lack of discipline and underachievement had become hallmarks. Caldwell brings a Super Bowl pedigree from his days leading the Colts and was highly endorsed for the Lions job by Peyton Manning. He said he’s trying to teach a Lions roster that is still loaded with considerable talent (Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson, Ndamukong Suh) to “play smart, not scared” and to minimize the potential for mistakes. That message will help a team that was tied for ninth with 110 penalties last season. But in a sign that things perhaps haven’t changed totally, top pick Eric Ebron said his goals for his rookie campaign are to make the Pro Bowl and to earn Offensive Rookie of the Year honors. Those are fine goals to have individually, but on a team with stronger veteran leadership the tight end might be reminded that his only publicly stated goal should be clinching a playoff spot.
Minnesota - Who will be the quarterback?
There are three guys who can stake a legitimate claim to winning the starting job - veteran Matt Cassel, 2011 first-round pick Christian Ponder and Teddy Bridgewater, the 32d overall pick this year. Ponder probably is the longest shot for the job, as he has done little to put his stamp on the team in three seasons. Cassel offers the stability of a tested veteran and was the Vikings’ most successful quarterback last season. But Bridgewater is the player they wanted for their future starter when they traded back into the first round of the draft in May. New head coach Mike Zimmer said he doesn’t plan to name a starter until well into training camp. It’s conceivable to think that Cassel would open the season as the starter, with Bridgewater leaping him on the depth chart sometime during the season. But if the competition is close during camp, the Vikings may be inclined to allow Bridgewater to jump right in as the starter from Week 1.
Buccaneers - Is Josh McCown a worthy starter?
New coach Lovie Smith already has named the free-agent addition his starter, while giving the “quarterback of the future” label to Mike Glennon, the sophomore who started 13 games last season as the 73rd overall pick. But McCown, whose 35th birthday is on July 4, is hardly a slam dunk. He played OK in five starts in relief of Jay Cutler in Chicago last season. But he’s a journeyman career backup who hasn’t started 10 games in a season since 2004. Some analysts are high on Smith’s ability to turn the Bucs from 4-12 to a playoff team. (ESPN’s Herm Edwards even projected them as a Super Bowl team.) But is McCown, who’s never appeared in a playoff game and played for just one team - the 2008 Panthers - that went to the playoffs, really the guy to orchestrate such a run? At least he’ll have some weapons, as the Bucs drafted Mike Evans at No. 7 to pair with Vincent Jackson at wideout.
Falcons – Can the offensive line put Matt Ryan in position to thrive?
Matt Ryan fell off the Pro Bowl (and playoff) plateau in 2013, partly due to injuries (to Julio Jones, Roddy White, Steven Jackson) that severely dialed back his arsenal. But just as bad was the dismal protection he got from his offensive line. Ryan was sacked a career-high 44 times last season, up from a previous career high of 28 in 2012. So the Falcons prioritized improving Ryan’s protection when they drafted tackle Jake Matthews sixth overall and added guard Jon Asamoah. The protection should be greatly improved. So now it’s on Ryan to take the Falcons, who’ve gone 1-4 in the playoffs with him since 2008, to take the Falcons to the next level.
Panthers - Who will catch the ball?
The Panthers lost their three leading wide receivers from last year’s roster in Steve Smith, Brandon LaFell (who joined the Patriots), and Ted Ginn. Replacing them were top pick Kelvin Benjamin, Jerricho Cotchery, Jason Avant, and ex-Patriots castoff Tiquan Underwood. Cotchery (32) and Avant (31) are like No. 4 starters - they’ll eat some innings but won’t turn the Panthers back into a playoff team. Expectations for Benjamin, like most rookies receivers, can’t be too high. And it’s hard to see how Underwood, a role player at best in his first five seasons, is suddenly going to pull it all together and become a prime contributor. That could all spell frustration for Cam Newton (who does have tight end Greg Olsen and his 73 catches back). The Panthers, who rallied from a 1-3 start to win the division with a 12-4 record last season, could be a contender for a step back this season.
Saints - Can the defense help out the offense?
The offense won’t be a problem in New Orleans. While the loss of do-it-all back Darren Sproles can’t be taken lightly, they have too many weapons (including new receiver Brandin Cooks, the 20th overall pick) for Drew Brees not to continue to roll with an unit that has ranked no worse than sixth since he arrived in 2006. The questions come on defense, which the Saints tried to bolster this offseason in adding free agent defensive backs Jairus Byrd and Champ Bailey. The Saints ranked 29th in the NFL in takeaways last season with 19, and coordinator Rob Ryan surely wants Byrd (and his 22 career interceptions) to help turn that around. If the defense can hand the ball over to Brees more often, the Saints could return to the top of the NFC South.
Arizona - Is Carson Palmer good enough to propel Cardinals?
Bruce Arians’ team has a lot to be confident about. They have one of the NFL’s premier playmakers in Larry Fitzgerald, a stout offensive line, a punishing defensive line and a secondary that’s built to hurt opponents. They won 10 games last season in the fierce NFC West and narrowly missed out on a playoff spot. They’re primed to take the next step this year ... assuming their quarterback, Carson Palmer, plays up to the level of his talented cast. Palmer, 34, recorded just his third-ever winning season last year, and Arians does not foresee him slowing down. “I would think he could play until 36, 37 easily,” Arians said. But Palmer did not perform like an elite quarterback last year, when he nearly threw as many interceptions (22) as touchdowns (24). This is Palmer’s second year in Arians’ offense, so perhaps more familiarity will help him. But even if he falters, the Cardinals don’t have good options to turn to. Journeyman Drew Stanton is the top backup. Fourth-round pick Logan Thomas is considered a project. So the Cardinals’ fate may largely be tied to how effective Palmer can be.
Seattle - Is a Marshawn Lynch holdout looming?
Lynch wants a new contract that will pay him more than the $5 million base salary he’s set to draw this season. At 28, he’s got two years left on a deal that is set to pay him $5.5 million more in 2015. Lynch is a workhorse who was the centerpiece of the Super Bowl champions’ offense last year. And part of his problem is in being a 28-year-old workhorse running back entering his eighth season. Yes, he has 4,051 yards rushing in the past three seasons. But aging running backs are a commodity that is not well appreciated in the NFL. He’s right to want to get more money now, because next year at age 29 - with an even bigger salary on the books - he could be on the cut list for Seattle. Don’t expect the Seahawks to buckle much, if at all, on this issue. Lynch would be exposed to fines of $30,000 a day if he holds out.
49ers - How long will Aldon Smith be suspended for?
Smith is set to be sentenced on July 25 for a DUI and weapons conviction that may keep him out of jail but won’t keep him out of the NFL’s doghouse. Reports have surfaced on him being banned anywhere from one to eight games, so a multiple-game suspension would not be surprising. Smith missed five games last season as he sought treatment for alcohol abuse. The 49ers want him healthy, out of trouble and ready to contribute at the All-Pro level he played at in 2012. But it’s likely the Cowboys (Week 1), Bears (Week 2) and maybe even the Cardinals and Eagles (weeks 3 and 4) will have the luxury of playing the 49ers without Smith. He’s not the 49ers’ only headache though, as Pro Bowl tight end Vernon Davis and offensive lineman Alex Boone could hold out from camp in contract disputes.
Rams - Could Jeff Fisher move to the hot seat?
Fisher was perhaps the hottest NFL coaching free agent when he chose St. Louis over Miami in 2012. After leading the Oilers/Titans for 17 years, he had earned respect as one of the NFL’s best. But that hasn’t translated into wins in St. Louis in his first two seasons, with a combined record of 14-17-1. So pressure is on Fisher to win, which is made harder by the toughness of the NFC West – also home to the Super Bowl champion Seahawks, the NFC runner-up in the 49ers and a 10-win Cardinals team. Fisher has a talented defense that must still prove it knows how to win. And quarterback Sam Bradford’s seat is probably shakier than Fisher’s. The Rams have the makings of a playoff team. They now need Fisher’s steady influence to show them how to turn raw talent into wins.
Follow Sean Leahy on Twitter @leahysean