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Replay: Patriots Unfiltered Tue Jun 18 - 11:55 AM | Thu Jun 20 - 09:55 AM

Some pressing NFL questions that need answers as training camps start to open

Let’s take a quick trip around the league and touch on some of the most looming issues clubs face as football begins to again wrap us in its steely grip.

Don't perform the last rites on the vaunted Patriot Way just yet.
Don't perform the last rites on the vaunted Patriot Way just yet.

The early-arriving Ravens have already hit the training-camp practice field, the Bears have reported, and by next Friday the 27th all 32 NFL teams will have put the offseason behind them and gotten back to the business of chasing a Super Bowl ring - the prize for winning in Atlanta next Feb. 3.

It's been 165 days since the Eagles won it all, so let's take a quick trip around the league and touch on some of the most looming issues clubs face as football begins to again wrap us in its steely grip, steamy July weather and all:

Q: Will Colts quarterback Andrew Luck be all the way back by the close of the preseason?

A: The guy's last name still describes his general lot in life, but it feels like forever since we've seen the Andrew Luck who in 2014 or so seemed to be just biding his time before they fitted him for a gold jacket and commissioned his bust in Canton. Simply put, after a year off, his surgically repaired shoulder remains the great unknown at this point, and only seeing will equate to believing. And hey, somebody measure the size (and inflation?) of those footballs Luck will be throwing in August, just to make sure they're regulation, you know?

Q: Can the sheer force of Jon Gruden's magnetic personality and coaching chops instantly put the Raiders back on the path to the playoffs?

A: Consider me dubious. Gruden's entertaining turn on Monday Night Football seems to have dimmed the memory of his coaching touch from 2003-2008. After winning a Super Bowl ring with the 2002 Tampa Bay team Tony Dungy couldn't get over the hump, Gruden produced twice as many last place finishes (two) as he did playoff wins (zero). I have no doubt he'll make the Raiders interesting, but that doesn't guarantee quality results. Third or fourth place in the competitive AFC West could be Oakland's fate, and I don't know about you, but I'm keeping a wary eye on that Gruden-Derek Carr marriage for signs of combustibility. Prove me wrong, Chucky.

Q: Do a healthy Watson and Watt in Houston spell domination in the AFC South?

A: I can't wait to see the dual threat that is Deshaun Watson back in action and building on that spectacular 6 1/2-game rookie season he put together in 2017. He's already the premier quarterback in the division in my eyes. As for Watt, his string of injuries make you wonder if his finest NFL work has long since been done - a sobering but realistic viewpoint given the state of his health. If everything comes together just right for Houston, this club could be almost scary good and make that familiar worst-to-first journey. But the AFC South looks like a division with three legit playoff contenders and no clear-cut pecking order, so put me down for the Texans running away with nothing.

Q: Will the defending champion Eagles be in Carson Wentz's capable hands right from the start in Week 1, or will Nick Foles be asked to ride to the rescue once again?

A: If the Eagles were the cautious types, maybe I could see Foles being the safer and smarter choice to open at quarterback in early September. But Doug Pederson and Co. aren't afraid to take a few chances - Philly Special anyone? - and that spells Wentz to me, even if he'll be just shy of nine months past ACL surgery on Sept. 6. And yes, I know it'll be the Philadelphia team doctors making the final call. Frankly, I think everyone concerned is better off if the transition back to Wentz unfolds earlier than later, because even the ultra-positive Foles might find it increasingly difficult to step aside if he follows up his playoff success with another burst of winning for the now-confident champs. Why even open that Pandora's Box if you don't have to?

Q: After an offseason unlike any other in New England, can the AFC champs put all the drama behind them and get back to monotonous dominance?

A: Every time foreboding storm clouds gather over the Patriots' training camp this summer, some will view it as an omen for what already has been an eventful 2018. When it comes to divining the impending end of New England's long dynasty, somehow we all morph into 8-year-olds in the backseat on vacation: "Are we there yet? Are we there yet?'' The short answer is we're not there yet, because we haven't seen the Patriots struggle in the regular season (at least not for long) since 2002 or so. Until that happens, or the Bills, Dolphins or Jets some how rip off a 12-4 record that seems almost unfathomable, New England will again have a clear route to win the AFC East and likely earn its eighth consecutive AFC title game berth. To be sure, there are potential weak spots on this Patriots roster. But before anyone panics, let's see how the left tackle competition shakes out, whether or not Sony Michel is as good as advertised, and if the defense can shake off the sting of Super Bowl Sunday and re-invent itself under the coaching of Brian Flores. Don't perform the last rites on the vaunted Patriot Way just yet. Visible cracks and all, it's a resilient mantra that might just hold another year.

Q: With a much improved team on paper, how high is the Browns' ceiling?

A: Cut and paste this one, football fans, then use it against me when my mis-informed projection falls laughably short. But here goes: I think the Browns are going to be one of the success stories of the season's first half, and with a break or two could even threaten (gulp) to reach .500. Coach Hue Jackson's reverse Midas touch makes me nervous, of course, since the Lake Jumper is 1-31 with the Browns. But I like most everything else Cleveland has done since the hiring of general manager John Dorsey on, and I actually believe the combo of Tyrod Taylor and Baker Mayfield will break the cycle of dysfunction at quarterback. There, I said it. Now somebody bring me a cold compress. I just predicted good things for a team that went 0-16 last year.

Q: How long can this dreamy honeymoon last between Jimmy Garoppolo and the 49ers?

A: Let's face it, as good as Jimmy G. was in December, going 5-0 as San Francisco's starter, the pressure faced by a quarterback on a 1-10 team is not comparable to the stress of leading a club with realistic playoff expectations and owning a fan base that still remembers what a Lombardi Trophy looks like. So let's see what you got when the wins aren't all late-season gravy and window dressing, Mr. Garoppolo. The offense in year two of head coach Kyle Shanahan's system should be much more dangerous, but common sense tells me the 49ers will finish better than they start this year, and be right there in the thick of the NFC wild-card race at the end. With road trips to Minnesota, Kansas City, the Chargers and Green Bay in the first six weeks of the season, just staying near .500 until Halloween or so will suffice as a season-saving accomplishment in San Francisco.

Q: How's that Norv Turner-Cam Newton pairing going to work in Carolina?

A: Cue the "Odd Couple'' music. Maybe I'm overstating things, but this is the most interesting attempt to blend old-school and new-school since Mike Ditka and Ricky Williams posed for that awful wedding-couple cover shot in the August 1999 ESPN Magazine. Turner, the well-traveled coaching veteran who is the new Panthers offensive coordinator, believes he can dramatically increase Newton's efficiency and quicken his decision-making, taking his completion percentage from the mid-to-high 50s to the mid-to-high 60s. He wants Newton focusing on more play-action and high-percentage passers, while still retaining his dangerous play-making impact with both his passing arm and legs. Sounds good, but I think next year at this time there's at least a chance we're reading about the ill-fated decision to try to teach Cam new tricks too late in his career. "We're going to let Cam be Cam,'' they'll say, as convincingly as they can muster.

Q: Is Joe "Light My Fire'' Flacco about to rip off his first monster season since 2012's Super Bowl run, now that Baltimore provided the motivation in the form of Lamar Jackson's first-round drafting?

A: If nothing else, Flacco clearly has gotten the message that he's perhaps a slow first half of the season away from being done as Baltimore's starting quarterback. Unless you consider it a mere coincidence that he decided this summer to do extra pre-camp work with his receivers for the first time since 2011. Flacco in his 11th season is reportedly more willing to adapt and embrace changes in his game than he's ever been, and has been aggressive in working on honing his downfield passing, which was once his forte. Nothing like a high-profile rookie QB on hand to focus one's concentration and bring out the best in your game, eh, Joe? It'll be fascinating to see if Flacco can rebound after a couple of subpar seasons and regain his winning mojo with the doubters currently outnumbering the believers.

Q: What has to happen for the Giants to return to relevancy in the NFC East?

A: It's all hiccups and giggles right now in the land of the Giants, what with new head coach Pat Shurmur setting a more positive tone and marquee rookie running back Saquon Barkley on hand to prime the pump of the Gotham hype machine. But, ummm, what's the ETA of Odell Beckham Jr.'s new contract? Can New York possibly have a peaceful camp if he's not extended in record-breaking fashion? And how long until the Giants definitively know Beckham is all the way back from last year's ugly broken ankle in Week 4, the injury that effectively sparked the match that lit 2017's dumpster fire in the Meadowlands? You could make a case that New York has all the ingredients of a surprise playoff team this season, but not without the best possible Beckham being center stage. That much I'm sure of. Time to make a deal, Big Blue.

Q: The role of being "The Guy'' in Kansas City apparently comes easily to Patrick Mahomes already, but will it immediately transfer to the field?

A: Mahomes, we're often reminded, has a big arm and tremendous upside potential. Alex Smith, on the other hand, had limitations and a ceiling as the Chiefs quarterback, and he reached it last season, albeit in career-year fashion. Everyone just assumes since Kansas City figures to be more explosive and dynamic under Mahomes - then again, the Chiefs looked pretty explosive in Week 1 at the Patriots last season as I recall - they'll also be better, but I'm not convinced that's the case. Smith's skills tend to always be under-appreciated, and it's probably fair to think that Mahomes might experience some growing pains that will offset a few of the positives his game provides. Long-term Kansas City is probably better off with the young gun at quarterback. But this year? That's still very much open to debate, until Mahomes shows us he's ready for stardom right now.

Q: Is the Matt Nagy and Mitchell Trubisky pairing in Chicago really the next Sean McVay/Jared Goff-style revelation in the NFC, or is that just the football punditry coming up with a neat, pre-packaged story line?

A: Look, I love some room-service symmetry as much as the next sportswriter, but I don't see the 2017 Rams when I assess the 2018 Bears, no matter if the rookie head coach (Nagy) has a great shot to upgrade the game of the second-year quarterback (Trubisky) or not. I'm buying that Trubisky will be much improved and he's a great fit for the versatile and more imaginative offense Nagy will run with him. There's a lot to like about this tandem. But hold your horses if you think Chicago is ready to take the kind of quantum leap the Rams pulled off last season. The Bears aren't going to finish ahead of either Minnesota or Green Bay, and probably not Detroit either, even if they had an in-his-prime Sid Luckman under center. Then again, the John Fox and Jeff Fisher as tired veteran coaches comparison probably holds up pretty well, if you want to make that Chicago-Los Angeles analogy. So there's that.

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