Every year the league takes twists and turns that no one expects. In 2013 we saw a linebacker in Kiko Alonso of the Bills who surprised everyone by being one of the best players in the entire rookie class despite not being a 1st round pick. The Cardinals as a team were a nice surprise too, reviving the career of Carson Palmer with some success in a very tough NFC West. But the unexpected going into the season leads to a lot of questions. And while we always take some assumptions going into each season, an injury here or there can completely change the landscape too. That said, here are ten of the biggest questions that surround this upcoming NFL season:
1. Who will be the Kansas City Chiefs type emerging team of 2014?
Every year it seems that a bottom feeder rises from the ashes to have a playoff season. Add Andy Reid and Alex Smith to the Chiefs and they went from a 2-14 team in 2012 to an 11-5 playoff team last year. That kind of turnaround can happen in the NFL in just one season and we’ve seen it before, but it doesn’t make the feat any less remarkable. So who will it be in 2014? The previously 4-12 Bucs added Lovie Smith and an emerging Josh McCown to the mix of a team that was already very solid defensively, so that feels like one with potential.
2. Who will be the Atlanta Falcons type imploding team of 2014?
On the flipside we of course have the inverse of the 2013 Chiefs and the best example of that is the Falcons who went from a top seed overall in the NFC in 2012 at 13-3 to a 4-12 disaster last year. While the Falcons struggled with a tougher schedule the primary item responsible for the implosion was injuries, something that is always impossible to predict. That said, the Cincinnati Bengals lost both of their coordinators and the Carolina Panthers had a poor offseason in free agency, so those are two regression possibilities.
3. Was 2013’s magic something Josh McCown and Nick Foles can duplicate?
If you had told me at the beginning of the season that Foles and McCown would both finish in the top 3 in QB rating for 2013, I would have had you admitted into a mental ward and placed on serious medication immediately. That has to be two of the most unexpected turns of the 2013 season. But I also remember the monster season Josh Freeman had in 2010 and how his career has gone since then. So was this just a flash in the pan type season for Foles and McCown, or can they develop into elite NFL quarterbacks? There is no question their respective 2013 campaigns was an elite level of performance. But can they consistently put out that kind of production? Foles is in a Chip Kelly designed system that seems to suit him and he’s growing in comfort and confidence, so of the two he seems most likely to repeat the same success. That said, he also lost his best receiver in DeSean Jackson this offseason. McCown is headed to a new offense, a new team and a new set of receivers, so more questions surround him.
4. How does the Jimmy Graham limbo period resolve and what does it mean for the future?
The Jimmy Graham situation is being watched closely by a lot of different people because while it has a big impact on him personally and the Saints’ cap without question, it also has an impact on how the NFL could view receiving tight ends moving forward. If he signs an extension before any arbitration he’ll likely get a deal north of Rob Gronkowski’s and be deserving in becoming the highest paid tight end in NFL history. If he waits until the arbitration, though, then there will be major precedent setting implications. It remains to be seen if Graham is just interested in being paid fairly or if he’s willing to take an NFLPA’s trend setting crusade on his shoulders. If where the player takes his snaps (the slot vs. out wide vs. in a stance at the edge of the line) ultimately dictates whether he’s a tight end or a receiver, teams with receiving tight ends may design their offense differently to keep them in more in an effort to save money.
5. Can Jim Caldwell bring discipline to the Detroit Lions and finally help them reach their potential?
Talent has not been the issue for the Lions in recent years with Jim Schwartz at the helm. The main thing holding them back, other than Matt Stafford’s health problems, has been discipline. Schwartz has never been able to reel that team in and keep them from self destructing with inopportune mistakes at critical times. Jim Caldwell comes to them as a noted disciplinarian that runs a tight ship, but how will the Lions roster respond to him? If he commands respect, he could be the missing ingredient. He inherits a talented roster and this is arguably the best it’s been since Schwartz started. Another question that remains is the future of Ndamukong Suh which is very much up in the air at this point.
6. Will Bill O’Brien success at Penn State translate to the NFL?
There is no question that Bill O’Brien made the most of a really brutal situation at Penn State. Anything short of a complete disaster was going to be a win given the hand he was dealt. But while he should be praised for that job, is he really ready to lead an NFL team? He was only 15-9 as a head coach after two seasons at Penn State. Given the recruiting troubles and the mass exodus of talent that’s commendable, but let’s not pretend anyone was taking that squad too seriously. His experience in New England is incredibly valuable, no doubt, but he’s viewed as a quarterback expert and the Texans don’t really have a good one unless Tom Savage can develop in a hurry.
7. How many quarterbacks will eclipse 5,000 yards passing in 2014?
The Seahawks may have shown the blueprint for how to slow down the aerial assault trend. More cornerbacks over 6’0″ are getting drafted because “fluid hips” seems to be valued less when teams feel like corners can get away with a lot of contact. Since 2008 we’ve seen seven individual 5,000 yard passers in a season (Drew Brees himself has done it four of the seven times himself) proving that we are firmly entrenched in a pass heavy trending league. Prior to 2008, there was only one 5,000 yard passer ever. Something has to give, and because it’s a copy cat league and the Seattle defense was so effective at slowing down the passing game last season, perhaps we’ll see less yardage through the air than years past?
8. Are drafting running backs early in fantasy football a thing of the past?
Remember when in fantasy drafts you saw the first twelve picks all being running backs? As teams are going more and more towards backs by committee, the value of the running back hasn’t only diminished in NFL free agency. There’s really only five or six players at this point that you can trust as getting the lion share of the snaps for his team at this point. Otherwise, as mentioned earlier it’s a pass heavy league, so receivers are getting more and more popular higher in the fantasy drafts. If you’re in a PPR league it’s even more pronounced.
9. Will the Seahawks repeat as champions?
The cap is starting to shrink on them a bit as the Seahawks have had to invest in their talent and it figures to be even more the case when it’s time to pay Russell Wilson. It’s hard to retain a winning team in the modern day NFL. Still, the roster is very talented top to bottom and depth is a real asset. With that defense the Seahawks will absolutely be in the mix to repeat. The quality of the NFC West makes it a rough path, though. The plus side is they’ll be battle tested if/when they do make the playoffs.
10. Can Peyton Manning and Tom Brady at 38 and 37 continue to maintain their elite status for the foreseeable future?
Manning and Brady don’t seem to be slowing down, but it has to happen at some point and they’re not exactly young. One hit can change anything, and rebounding from an injury at this point may be difficult for either. Frankly, no one could have predicted Manning would return to stardom after his back surgery. The end will happen eventually, so when can we expect to start seeing a decline on the two of the all time best? Will it be this season?