With the bulk of roster-reshuffling in the rearview, we’ve truly entered the NFL’s offseason. But training camp will be here in no time, and all 32 rosters still carry unresolved issues. Today, Gennaro Filice examines one burning question for each NFC team. Check back Tuesday for Jeremy Bergman’s rundown of the AFC.
Dallas Cowboys: Can first-time play caller Kellen Moore give the offense some juice?
Yes, we could spend this blurb exploring the contractual juggling act that’ll be necessary to retain a number of core Cowboys whose bills are coming due. But let’s leave it to the Jones boys to figure out a long-term plan on their own. I’m here to study questions that specifically pertain to the coming campaign. With that in mind, I’d like to examine a pretty significant change that appears to be flying under the radar a bit, at least on the national level …
Two years ago, Kellen Moore was Dak Prescott‘s teammate. Last year, Moore was Prescott’s position coach. Now, Moore is Prescott’s play caller. Such familiarity between a new offensive coordinator and his quarterback certainly isn’t a bad thing, though this situation’s quite unique, given Moore’s fast-track voyage up the coaching ranks. Can the 30-year-old boost an offense that finished last season in the bottom half of the league in most statistical measurements, both traditional and new-agey? How differently will Moore call games than his predecessor, Scott Linehan, who has tutored Moore for years, going back to when he first entered the league as an undrafted free agent in Detroit? This is a pressure-cooker assignment for a first-time coordinator (and second-year coach), serving as the offensive nerve center on one of the league’s most high-profile teams.
New York Giants: Who’s rushing the passer?
The Giants ranked second-to-last in sacks last season. Then, right before the start of free agency, they proceeded to trade Olivier Vernon, who led the team with seven sacks in 2018. So, this set the table for Big Blue to track down some premium QB hunters in free agency and the draft, right? Not so much. New York handed DE Markus Golden a one-year deal, spent the No. 17 overall pick on DT Dexter Lawrence (whose main pre-draft knock was his lack of pass-rushing production) and took a third-round stab at small-school DE Oshane Ximines. While B.J. Hill provided some nice interior pressure as a rookie (5.5 sacks), the DT’s hardly the kind of guy to spearhead a pass rush. So, what’s the plan here? Well, there is an emerging line of thought in analytics circles that the back end of a defense is actually more important than the front, essentially flipping conventional wisdom on its head. Coverage > pass rush??! Yep, that’s the argument Pro Football Focus is making. And maybe that’s what Dave Gettleman has in mind, having drafted three corners last month — less than a year after snagging CB Sam Beal in the third round of the 2018 Supplemental Draft. Calculated plan or disorganized madness? Stay tuned!
Philadelphia Eagles: Is Carson Wentz ready to fly without Foles insurance?
There’s a case to be made that the Eagles should be NFC favorites. The reigning conference champion Rams have serious health concerns, with Todd Gurley reportedly dealing with a degenerative knee condition. The Saints appear staggeringly snakebitten, having suffered back-to-back playoff ousters that’d make any human question the existence of a higher power. Meanwhile, Philadelphia boasts one of the NFL’s most complete rosters, with GM Howie Roseman maximizing limited draft capital via high-end depth selections. Of course, the Eagles have a lingering question of their own. Actually, it’s a two-parter: Is Carson Wentz healthy? And can he stay healthy through an entire season? Doug Pederson recently sidestepped the issue, but it’s kind of a big deal, given that each of Wentz’s last two seasons have ended prematurely. If that happens again this year, Nate Sudfeld will be forced to attempt his best Nick Foles impression. Highly skeptical that would live up to the original.
Washington Redskins: Will the Dwayne Haskins era begin in Week 1?
Having spent only one season as Ohio State’s starter, Haskins wasn’t exactly advertised as a plug-and-play pick during the pre-draft process. And when the 22-year-old was selected by a franchise with two viable (albeit not desirable) veteran options under center, the paternalistic portion of the football cognoscenti preached patience. But it’s 2019. Who has any patience, especially in this league? Jay Gruden, who’s heading into a crucial sixth season as Redskins head coach, clearly liked what he saw in rookie minicamp, alluding to an open competition for the starting job. His boss, owner Daniel Snyder, is apparently quite fond of Haskins, while franchise icon Joe Theismann has given the rookie his numerical blessing. Is Case Keenum or Colt McCoy really gonna stop this 7 train from chugging into the starting lineup against the rival Eagles on Sept. 8?
Chicago Bears: Who fills The Position That Must Not Be Named?
Trigger warning, Chicagoans: We’re going to discuss the K-word here, and I’m not talkin’ ketchup. Who’s going to assume the role of kicker in the wake of Cody Parkey‘s double doink? The Chicago Tribune recently chronicled the city’s epic search for a solution at the game’s most nerve-racking position, a Homeric undertaking that has included kicking contests, old-flame fantasies and unfortunately named contestants. The trade for Eddy Pineiro is Chicago’s latest throw against the proverbial wall. Will it stick?
Detroit Lions: Can this team run the football for the first time since Barry?
It’s been 20 years since Barry Sanders abruptly retired. Not coincidentally, it’s been 20 years since the Lions cracked the top half of the league in rushing offense. Establishing the run has become a punchline in the Motor City, a hilarious objective dripping in fantastical wishcasting. But Bob Quinn and Matt Patricia are clearly hell-bent on changing that. The Lions just drafted a tight end in the top 10 who was revered as much for his run-blocking as his pass-catching. This came one year after Detroit spent its first-round pick on a road-grading guard and its second-rounder on a shifty running back. And now the Lions have a new offensive coordinator who lives to pound the rock. As pointed out by the Detroit Free Press, Darrell Bevell’s offenses have averaged a robust 132.4 rushing yards per game during his 11 previous seasons as a coordinator. Detroit has finished dead last in the league in this category two of the past four years, averaging 83.4 yards in 2015 and a pathetic 76.3 in ’17. Last year’s figure, 103.8, ranked 23rd. Is this the season the Lions re-enter — gasp — the top 16??!
Green Bay Packers: Can Mike Pettine field a championship-caliber defense?
The last time the Packers boasted a top-10 defense — by either yards or points — they won the Super Bowl. Back in 2010, Dom Capers’ unit ranked second in scoring defense and fifth in total D. Current general manager Brian Gutekunst, who has worked for this franchise since the late 1990s, clearly longs for those days. In his first two drafts at the helm, the Packers GM has made seven total picks within the first three rounds; five were defensive players, including all three first-round selections. And Gutekunst — who obviously doesn’t share the same aversion to free agency as his predecessor, Ted Thompson — shelled out $155 million on the open market for a pair of edge rushers (Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith) and a box-friendly safety (Adrian Amos). While Aaron Rodgers received some O-line reinforcements and a fun new mismatch toy (third-round TE Jace Sternberger) this offseason, the bulk of Green Bay’s resources have gone to Pettine’s defense. The unit showed modest improvements in the coordinator’s first year with Green Bay, but the stage could be set for a true breakthrough in Year 2. Keep an eye on first-round safety Darnell Savage, a rangy playmaker who feels like the perfect complement to Amos.
Minnesota Vikings: Who’ll take over at the 3-tech?
Sheldon Richardson‘s free agency departure left a glaring hole in one of the crucial spots of Mike Zimmer’s defense: the 3-technique. This is the havoc-wreaking position that transformed Geno Atkins from fourth-round pick to first-team All-Pro during Zimmer’s days in Cincinnati — and it’s the one big question mark on Minnesota’s otherwise-stout front four. With Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffen stalking QBs from the outside and Linval Joseph devouring space inside, the Vikings need an interior disruptor. Shamar Stephen, a former seventh-round pick by Minnesota who took a one-year sojourn in Seattle before returning to the team that drafted him this offseason, figures to get first crack at the job. And apparently Zimmer calls him “The Big Fundamental,” so there’s that. If Football Tim Duncan doesn’t work out? Last year’s fourth-round pick, Jalyn Holmes, could be pressed into service.
Atlanta Falcons: What should we expect from Dirk Koetter’s return?
For the third time in the last five offseasons, Matt Ryan‘s transitioning to a new offensive coordinator. On the plus side, this is also Ryan’s old offensive coordinator. Koetter is back to directing Atlanta’s offense, a role he performed — with mixed results — from 2012 through ’14. While Koetter’s Falcons never ranked lower than seventh in passing, they also never finished higher than 24th in rushing. So, what’s in store for Dirk’s second go-around with the franchise? Well, the coach returns to Atlanta in a plum situation, with a quarterback in his prime, a bushel of enticing options at the skill positions and an O-line featuring two fresh first-round reinforcements. Koetter’s advocating balance, as you’d expect from any play caller during this time of year, but what happens in the fall? The gold standard of Ryan-led offenses is the 2016 edition, directed by Kyle Shanahan: Atlanta ranked third in passing, fifth in rushing and first in scoring. Oh, and Ryan was NFL MVP. For what it’s worth, the 34-year-old QB says this year’s attack has “no ceiling.”
Carolina Panthers: Is D.J. Moore ready to fully carry this receiving corps?
OK, to be frank: Nothing else matters if Cam Newton‘s shoulder isn’t right. Rehabbing from his second shoulder surgery in less than two years, Newton recently exuded positive vibrations, but there’s no way to know what the Panthers‘ franchise signal-caller looks like until he takes the field again. One thing we can assess, though, is the pass-catching arsenal at Newton’s disposal. Honestly, this is an underwhelming — or, at least, unproven — group. Our resident depth-chart detective, Gregg Rosenthal, projects Carolina’s starting lineup to include D.J. Moore, Curtis Samuel and Jarius Wright, none of whom have a track record of production. That said, Moore flashed plenty of promise as a rookie last season, piling up 55 catches for 788 yards and two touchdowns, with most of that damage done in the second half of the season. At 5-foot-11 and 210 pounds with a catch-and-run game that draws Golden Tate comps, Moore isn’t a prototypical WR1. But he’s damn good at what he does. Moore led all NFL receivers in yards after the catch per reception, according to Next Gen Stats. He also paced all wideouts in total yards after contact, per PFF. Could we see a huge sophomore leap for the 2018 first-rounder? The Panthers kinda need it, given the makeup of this receiving corps.
New Orleans Saints: Is Marcus Davenport worth two first-round picks?
The Saints made one of the boldest moves in last year’s draft, addressing the team’s biggest need by jumping up from No. 27 to No. 14 in order to select edge rusher Marcus Davenport. Of course, that move also had an effect on last month‘s draft, as New Orleans didn’t have a first-round pick, thanks to the previous year’s leap for Davenport. The UTSA product, who suffered from a litany of physical ailments last fall, was only able to contribute 4.5 sacks and a forced fumble in Year 1. At times, though, he did flash the kind of talent that initially enticed the Saints, particularly during his two-sack performance in New Orleans’ win at Minnesota. And now, one year after the franchise’s aggressive attempt to boost the pass rush, New Orleans needs Davenport to bring pressure even more. With Sheldon Rankins recovering from a torn Achilles tendon and 16-game starter Alex Okafor now in Kansas City, there isn’t much in the way of disruption beyond inside/outside terror Cameron Jordan. Davenport must earn his keep off the edge. The offseason hype train’s already left the station — GM Mickey Loomis is talkin’ “big things” and coach Sean Payton says “this guy is going to be a dominant player for us” — but judgment day’s still months away.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: How swiftly will O.J. Howard (and Cameron Brate) put the “Bruce Arians hates tight ends” take to rest?
There’s a half-baked take going around. You know the kind: high on gut feelings, low on tangible facts. Basically, as the theory goes, Bruce Arians is allergic to tight ends. He prefers to use them as extra blockers. That’s what you’re told, at least. But such analysis is — surprise, surprise — hopelessly shortsighted. Yes, Arians didn’t exactly wear out the tight ends at his last post in Arizona. But you have to look at the TEs who were at his disposal: Rob Housler, Jim Dray, John Carlson, Darren Fells, Troy Niklas, post-prime Jermaine Gresham and undrafted rookie Ricky Seals-Jones. Not exactly a murderer’s row of pass-catching luminaries. Now, when Arians was the Steelers‘ offensive coordinator, from 2007 through 2011, Heath Miller averaged a healthy 52 catches for 602 yards and four touchdowns. Miller made the Pro Bowl after a 2009 season that saw him catch 76 balls for 789 yards and six scores. So, yeah, Arians has no problem utilizing the position when there’s talent to feed. And that’s certainly the case today in Tampa. Howard could be primed for a huge Year 3. As Jameis Winston said regarding his TE1, “The sky’s the limit, really, not even the sky — probably the moon.” And Brate ranks second among all TEs with 20 touchdown grabs over the past three years, only trailing Travis Kelce (22). Something tells me Arians will figure out a way to incorporate one of the best TE duos in the NFL.
Arizona Cardinals: Will the O-line get in the way of everyone’s fun?
Thought about analyzing the Patrick Peterson suspension here, but let’s be real: The Cardinals‘ offensive overhaul is still sucking up all the air in the greater Phoenix metropolitan area — and beyond! Every football fan in America is excited to observe this experiment in aeronautics. Glowing draft grades for Steve Keim’s 2019 class flowed from most corners of the internet (including this one). But as fascinating as the Kliff Kingsbury-Kyler Murray Air Raid appears at first blush — with weaponry like dynamic running back David Johnson, ageless wonder Larry Fitzgerald and a cadre of explosive youngsters big and small — one potential buzzkill remains: the offensive line. At OU, Murray played behind one of the nation’s best units, a quintet that had four players selected in Rounds 2-4 of this draft. Now he’s getting behind a group that ranked dead last in 2018, according to Pro Football Focus. Granted, Arizona dealt with a lot of injuries up front. And Keim did sign a pair of veterans … but OG J.R. Sweezy and OT Marcus Gilbert don’t come without risk. Murray’s obviously far more elusive than Josh Rosen, but no quarterback can survive playing behind an absolute sieve.
Los Angeles Rams: Which Todd Gurley shows up in September?
Sean McVay has established himself as one of the best offensive minds in the sport, and Jared Goff made the last two Pro Bowls with a 60:19 TD-to-INT ratio. But Todd Gurley is the team’s engine, and the Rams clearly had engine trouble down the stretch of last season. Through the first 13 weeks of the 2018 campaign, Gurley piled up 1,175 rushing yards, 474 receiving yards and 19 total touchdowns. The Rams were 11-1, averaging a whopping 34.9 points per game. But Gurley’s production fell off in Weeks 14 and 15, and then he missed the last two games of the regular season with a knee issue. During the postseason, mid-December signee C.J. Anderson actually logged 46 carries to Gurley’s 30. All told, from Week 14 on, the Rams averaged just 23.9 points per game, culminating with the three-point dud in Super Bowl LIII. This offseason, there’s been concerning reporting about Gurley’s long-term viability. While the Rams continue to publicly express optimism that their star running back will be ready to rock in the coming season, the team’s actions — which have included matching the Lions’ respectable offer on restricted free-agent RB Malcolm Brown and spending a third-round pick on home-run hitter Darrell Henderson — show L.A.’s putting contingency plans in place, should Gurley’s knee start barking again. At this point, it seems like the best-case scenario is that Gurley will play next season with a much more limited workload. This shouldn’t bury the Rams‘ attack, as Les Snead’s compiled a well-rounded offensive roster, but it’ll be interesting to see just how much of McVay’s aforementioned brilliance is predicated on Gurley’s individual excellence.
San Francisco 49ers: Is this the post-hype breakout team to buy in 2019?
At the moment, the Browns are offseason hype kings. No doubt about it. But one year ago at this time, the 49ers were making a run at the all-unimportant throne. Having closed the 2017 campaign on a Jimmy Garoppolo-infused five-game winning streak, San Francisco was the most acclaimed 6-10 team in recent memory. Then the Niners sputtered out of the gate, Jimmy G crumpled to the ground with a torn ACL and San Francisco’s season was effectively over before the calendar had even flipped to October. Consequently, there isn’t much chatter about San Francisco this offseason, but maybe there should be. John Lynch made a series of splashy moves in March — signing Kwon Alexander and Tevin Coleman, as well as trading for Dee Ford — before snagging arguably the top overall prospect in the draft (DE Nick Bosa). Suddenly, the Niners boast a ferocious defensive front. On offense, Kyle Shanahan has a diverse set of playmakers spanning the skill positions, including Day 2 picks Deebo Samuel and Jalen Hurd. The pieces are here for a breakthrough season — IF Garoppolo can establish himself as a true franchise quarterback. For all the ink that’s been spilled over the years about the former second-round pick’s immense potential, he’s a 27-year-old quarterback with 10 pro starts to his name. Is this the year it all comes together for Jimmy G and Lil’ Shanny’s Niners?
The LEO is a key figure in Pete Carroll’s defense. It’s the weak-side edge, but in Seattle’s defense, it’s a hybrid position where you spend time hunting QBs, stopping the run and dropping into coverage. Basically, the goal is to wreak havoc in numerous roles. Or, as former ‘Hawks DC Kris Richard put it to ESPN a few years back, “That’s really the job description for the LEO, is to come out and be a fantastic athlete.” Cliff Avril earned a Pro Bowl nod and a Super Bowl ring while manning the spot. Frank Clark just parlayed his LEO production into a $104 million contract with the Chiefs. But with Clark now in Kansas City, who’s going to fill the void in Seattle? Enter Ezekiel Ansah, the former No. 5 overall pick who enjoyed success in Detroit early but hasn’t been able to avoid the injury bug of late. Currently rehabbing from shoulder surgery, Ansah is likely to start camp on the PUP list. If he can get his body right, though, Ansah has the physical profile and versatile game to thrive in Seattle’s marquee defensive role. And as a 29-year-old on a one-year, prove-it deal, Ziggy won’t lack for motivation.
Follow Gennaro Filice on Twitter @GennaroFilice.