By Ryan Mayer
You probably thought you had more time until you read your first article of the NFL offseason, didn’t you? But believe it or not, training camps around the NFL will be underway less than a month from today and there’s no shortage of juicy storylines for us to dive right into.
So – enough small talk, let’s get into three of the biggest burning questions surrounding each of the NFL’s 32 teams as we get ready to get ready for another NFL season.
Today, we’re looking at the AFC South.
Camp Begins: July 25 (Rookies), July 30 (Veterans) – Houston, TX
Will Brock Osweiler live up to his large contract?
The Texans swung for the fences this year in free agency in trying to address the position that has been a problem area for them since Matt Schaub started throwing pick sixes by the bunches. They plopped a juicy four-year, $72 million dollar deal ($37 million guaranteed) in front of Broncos back up/part-time starter Brock Osweiler to lure him to Texas to be their guy.
Osweiler was solid in relief of an injured Manning last season in Denver, completing 62 percent of his passes for 10 touchdowns and six interceptions while averaging 7.2 yards per attempt. He certainly looks the part at 6′ 7”, 240 pounds with a rocket for an arm, but last year were the first meaningful snaps he played in his four seasons in the league. Will he be able to provide better than average play from the QB spot? Well, that will largely depend on how coach Bill O’Brien and offensive coordinator George Godsey decide to deploy the weapons around him. Speaking of….
Will the Texans fully utilize Lamar Miller?
Miller’s years in Miami always seemed to be underwhelming. Despite that, when you look at his numbers, he was given 200 carries just once (2014 he gained 1,097 yards 5.1 YPC average) and given 250 total touches just twice, in each of the last two seasons, which were coincidentally his two best in a Dolphins uniform. Now, is that under production due to Miller’s ability? Or was it due to the way he was used in Miami?
One thing is for sure, if the way Arian Foster was used in the four games before his injury last season is any indication (91 touches in four games averaging over 22 touches per game) then Bill O’Brien and company are expecting Miller to be a feature back that will be heavily relied upon as part of the offense. Now, it’ll be up to Miller to shine.
Who steps up behind DeAndre Hopkins?
The Texans have plenty of young, intriguing options at the wide receiver spot. They’ve been trying to address the position over the past couple of drafts with guys like Jaelen Strong, Will Fuller, and Braxton Miller. Fuller was drafted in the 1st round at No. 21 overall, so the pre-training camp expectation would be for him to step into that spot opposite of Hopkins. Especially because both Strong and Miller profile more as slot receivers than they do playing outside the numbers.
Hopkins is a special player there’s no doubt. But, at times last season, the offense seemingly devolved into Brian Hoyer/TJ Yates/Brandon Weeden throwing the ball as far as they could down the sidelines and hoping Hopkins could go up and reel it in.
Camp Begins: July 26 – Anderson, IN
Has Andrew Luck fully recovered?
Luck missed basically all of last season with a lacerated kidney (side note: ouch!) and a some torn cartilage in between a couple of his ribs as well. After having an entire off season to rehab and get ready for the upcoming year Luck should, in theory, be fine. However, you never really know until you see the guy back out on the field. Also, Luck took blame last season for the injury in holding on to the ball too long and putting himself in positions to get hit hard.
So, has the injury affected his mentality? Because part of Luck’s value in his first four years came in his ability to extend plays within the pocket and deliver the ball after the original play broke down. It will be interesting to see what changes in Luck’s game have come.
Is there a semblance of a good offensive line?
The Colts offensive line gave up 37 sacks (17th) and 118 quarterback hits (2nd) last season. That’s… not ideal. The Colts, recognizing that weakness did spend half of their draft picks on offensive linemen, taking C Ryan Kelly (1st), OT Le’Raven Clark (3rd), OT Joe Haeg (5th), and C Austin Blythe (7th). Kelly will likely step immediately into a starting role. The other three guys are depth pieces/possible starters down the road. Now the question will be if we see improvement from former first round pick Anthony Castonzo at the left tackle spot and continued improvement and growth from guard Jack Mewhort.
Defense, anybody on defense?
The Colts were 25th in the league in points allowed per game last year at 25.5. That number was born of a defense that was bad against the pass (257.1 yards per game, 24th) and equally bad against the run (122 yards per game, 25th). They made some changes to try and stem the tide defensively drafting S TJ Green, DT Hassan Ridgeway, Trevor Bates, and Antonio Morrison who should provide solid depth and maybe one starter (Green). They also signed corner Patrick Robinson to play opposite of Vontae Davis. Outside of that, this is largely the same defensive group from last year, so it’s a matter of how much it coalesces and how fast the rookies can get up to speed.
Camp Begins: July 25 (Rookies), July 27 (Veterans) – Jacksonville, FL
Will Blake Bortles continue to develop?
Bortles took a big step forward last season, which is part of the reason that the Jaguars have become some people’s dark horse contender in this division. That’s what happens when your sophomore QB throws for 4,000+ yards and 35 touchdowns; generally expectations rise. Now, Bortles did throw one more interception last year than he did in his rookie season, and his interception rate of 3 percent is still too high. The decision making needs to take another step forward in 2016 in order for the Jaguars to start to make that jump to division contender status.
Is this the year the defense starts to fit Gus Bradley’s vision?
When Bradley was hired back in 2013, the expectations that came with him is that he would improve the defense at the very least. However, that hasn’t been the case. The Jags have been towards the bottom of the league in the last two years in most defensive categories. That led to changes in the defensive coaching staff with Todd Wash being named the new defensive coordinator after serving as the defensive line coach each of the last two seasons.
The Jaguars, players wise, made some big moves. They signed DT Malik Jackson and Safety Tashaun Gipson, two of the best free agents available on the market. In addition, they drafted arguably the best overall player in the draft, Jalen Ramsey. Ramsey was hurt in OTA’s but, seems to be on track for an early season return. They also got DL Sheldon Day from Notre Dame who can contribute on the line right away and LB Myles Jack. Jack is an interesting case because we don’t know exactly how bad or good his knee is at this point. He could miss the season or he could play. The point is, Jack, even if he can only play 5 years, is an extremely talented player and was a Top 10 guy in the draft class before getting hurt. There’s plenty of questions about the corners and how everything will come together, but the Jags certainly made strides this off season with their additions on the defensive side of the ball.
Will the addition of Kelvin Beachum shore up the offensive line?
One of the other free agent signings made by the Jaguars this year was to bring in former Steelers tackle Kelvin Beachum. Beachum played left tackle a bunch for the Steelers so it’s assumed he will step into that role here and flip Luke Joeckel back to the right side. That or Joeckel will stay on the left and Beachum will slide in on the right side.
Either way, the Jaguars need the offensive line to be better this season. They gave up the 4th most sacks in the league at 51 last season and with a young quarterback that you hope is going to be the face of the franchise for years to come, you can’t let him take that kind of beating. Combine that with the fact that they were just average in the run game allowing their backs to average 4.2 yards per carry (14th) and you can see where if the offensive line improves, this offense can be terrifying.
Camp Begins: July 29 – Nashville, TN
Can DeMaro Murray return to form?
Mention Murray’s name to any Philadelphia Eagles fans and they will either shudder or start screaming their head off. Understandably so after Murray was very unproductive for the Birds last season which led to his trade to the Titans this offseason. Murray carried 193 times for just 702 yards last season good for just a 3.6 yard per carry average. However, part of that was likely due to how he was used in the Eagles offense (more stretch runs, less straight forward between the tackles) and a Philadelphia offensive line that performed under their expectations last season. Under Mike Mularkey expect much more of a traditional running game.
That said, this will likely be the worst offensive line that he’s run behind in his career, nowhere near on par with the Cowboys line or the Eagles one for that matter. The Titans did hedge their bet here a bit by drafting Heisman trophy winner Derrick Henry to pair with Murray in the backfield, but Henry is a very similar back to Murray so it’s doubtful they’d be effectively used in a platoon format.
Will Jack Conklin solidify a tackle spot?
The Titans received a haul from the Rams in order to move out of the #1 spot in this year’s draft and getting those picks right will be essential. The first pick they made this year (by using the Rams pick to swap with the Browns) was Michigan State tackle Jack Conklin. Like the Jaguars and Colts (seeing a theme here?) the Titans offensive line was awful. They gave up the most sacks in the league at 54 and the 7th most QB hits in the league at 105.
So, the question for Conklin is which tackle spot will he play? Taylor Lewan had a tough time in his rookie year at left tackle. Between Lewan, Byron Bell and Conklin they have three theoretical starting tackles for just two spots. Who stays outside and who moves inside? Does Conklin take over right away in his rookie season? All questions to be answered in training camp.
Will Marcus Mariota stay healthy and take the next step?
Mariota had a solid rookie season. In 12 games, he completed 62% of his passes for 2800+ yards 19 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Then he suffered a sprained MCL which, rightfully ended his season. The Titans were cautious with Mariota trying to return from the injury knowing that he’s the future of their QB spot so they sat him out.
Now, the question for Mariota is how has the knee progressed heading into the upcoming season. He should be fine, but did that sap any of his agility or speed? That’s a large part of Mariota’s effectiveness. If he is indeed fully healthy as expected, will he continue to show signs of progress in his sophomore year at the signal caller spot? That’s the biggest question to answer this year for the Titans.
Ryan Mayer is an Associate Producer for CBS Local Sports. Ryan lives in NY but comes from Philly and life as a Philly sports fan has made him cynical. Anywhere sports are being discussed, that’s where you’ll find him.