By this time next week, training camps for all 32 NFL teams will have begun. Here are some things worth keeping an eye on with the start to the 2013 regular season less than two months away.
Tim Tebow may no longer be with the Jets, but that doesn’t mean the quarterback controversy left town with him. For the second straight season Mark Sanchez enters training camp as the starter, but with very little job security. This time around, second-round pick Geno Smith is Sanchez’ primary competition. At least he will be as soon as he signs his rookie contract.
Even though Smith is not the media magnet that Tebow is, the former West Virginia star doesn’t figure to just quietly concede the starting job to Sanchez either, not after what transpired during the draft.
Sanchez isn’t the only quarterback who needs to get off to a good start in camp. Veterans Michael Vick and Kevin Kolb will face pressure from younger teammates in Eagles’ and Bills’ camp respectively, while Blaine Gabbert, Brandon Weeden and Jake Locker also find themselves squarely on the quarterback hot seat.
Eight teams, which equates to a quarter of the NFL, will be under the direction of new coaches this season. Of these eight, all but one are rookie head coaches in the NFL. The only recycled coach, if you will, is Andy Reid, who takes over the Chiefs after 14 seasons in Philadelphia.
Speaking of Philadelphia, no rookie head coach will be under more scrutiny this season than Chip Kelly, who is the latest college superstar coach to make the jump to the pros. Kelly’s offenses at Oregon put up ridiculous numbers. Can his system do the same in the NFL?
Kelly is not the only college coach who has graduated to the pro ranks. Former Syracuse head coach Doug Marrone is the next up to try and end Buffalo’s 13-year playoff drought. Chicago’s Marc Trestman also will be adjusting to a new league, as the CFL coach get his first shot in the NFL with the Bears. Trestman led the Montreal Alouettes to two Grey Cup titles in five seasons, can he find similar success in Chicago? He does have nearly 20 years worth of coaching experience in the NFL, but his last stint came in 2004.
The rest of the rookie class of head coaches consists of Arizona’s Bruce Arians, Cleveland’s Rob Chudzinski, Jacksonville’s Gus Bradley and San Diego’s Mike McCoy. Arians got some head coaching experience last season when he served as the Colts’ interim head coach during Chuck Pagano’s absence while he was battling cancer. Arians, Chudzinski and McCoy also all served as offensive coordinators for their respective teams last season while Bradley is the only new head coach of the entire bunch who comes from a defensive background. Bradley served as Seattle’s defensive coordinator the past four seasons.
And then there’s New Orleans’ Sean Payton, who’s not “new” by any stretch, but is returning after serving his one-year suspension for his part in the Saints’ BountyGate scandal. After winning 11 or more games in each of the previous three seasons, including a Super Bowl title in 2009, the Saints slipped to 7-9 in 2012.
While the offense was its usual explosive self, the defense allowed an NFL-record 7,042 yards. Payton may have made his reputation as an offensive mastermind, but there’s no arguing that the entire Saints franchise missed him being at the team facility, on the practice field, in the locker room and especially on the sideline last season.
There are several superstar players who are returning from offseason surgery and/or serious injury, including Rob Gronkowski, Ben Roethlisberger, Darrelle Revis and Brian Cushing, just to name a few. However, no body part will draw more attention during training camp than the right knee that belongs to Robert Griffin III.
Griffin tore the ACL and LCL in his right knee in the fourth quarter of the Redskins’ NFC Wild Card loss to the Seahawks in January. It was the second such significant injury to that knee for Griffin, who first tore his ACL early in his sophomore year at Baylor. Of course, everyone knows that Griffin was able to come back from that injury, as he won the Heisman in 2011 prior to being the second overall pick of the ‘12 draft.
While no one is doubting Griffin’s toughness and resolve, there are plenty of questions surrounding his eventual return. Will he be ready to go in Week 1 or will Kirk Cousins be under center for the Monday night season opener at home against Philadelphia?
Reports are Griffin is progressing nicely in his rehabilitation, but the team can’t afford to risk bringing him back too soon. He is the face and future of the franchise, so there’s no reason to rush him and clear him for practice, let alone games, until there is no doubt he is 100 percent healthy.
The End of New England’s Reign?
No team has had a worse offseason than Bill Belichick’s Patriots, and a strong case for this could be made without including Aaron Hernandez’ current legal issues. It started during free agency, which saw Wes Welker, Danny Woodhead and Patrick Chung sign with other teams. The Patriots did some work of their own in free agency, including adding wide receiver Danny Amendola, but the rest of the acquisitions didn’t help the roster get any younger.
Then in April, the Patriots’ draft featured some curious choices, including trading their first-round pick, as an emphasis was placed on the defensive side of the ball. It remains to be seen how many of these picks, if any, will have an impact in 2013, but the early reviews after the draft were not overly optimistic in that regard.
The next blow came in June when All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski underwent back surgery. This marked the fifth medical procedure for Gronkowski in a span of six months, as he had already gone through four different surgeries related to the broken forearm he sustained in Week 11 last season and then subsequently reinjured in the playoffs.
Gronkowski is making progress in his recovery, but it’s entirely too soon to consider him a lock to be on the field by Week 1. Hernandez’ recent arrest after being charged with murder and other crimes gave the Patriots no other choice but to release the troubled tight end, putting even more importance on Gronkowski’s return.
Besides losing Welker and Woodhead in free agency, the Patriots also released wide receiver Brandon Lloyd in March. With Hernandez no longer on the roster and Gronkowski’s status up in the air, Tom Brady enters training camp with a host of unknown, and for the most part, unproven pass-catchers.
On the other side of the ball, New England finished last in the AFC in pass defense in 2012 and were just 13th in the conference in total yards allowed. Personnel changes on this unit were made, but they consist of “unknown” draft picks and the signing of a pair of 10-year veterans in defensive tackle Tommy Kelly and safety Adrian Wilson.
In short, the Patriots lost a lot of production and continuity on offense and it’s entirely up for debate how much better on defense they will be this season. Brady turns 36 in a couple of weeks and while he should be able to lead this team to a fifth straight AFC East title, it’s looking more and more that the Patriots’ championship window may be closing.
Baltimore’s Post-Super Bowl Makeover
The Ravens and their fans have understandably spent the offseason basking in the glow of their unexpected, emotional Super Bowl run. And for good reason, since not only is it hard enough to win one Lombardi Trophy, let alone two in a row; but for the fact that this year’s team will have a lot of new faces on it.
How many you ask? How about six on defense and three on offense from the starting lineup that beat San Francisco in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in February?
Ray Lewis, the future Hall of Fame linebacker who was the heart and soul of this team his entire career, is retired as is center Matt Birk, while linebacker Dannell Ellerbe and defensive backs Bernard Pollard, Ed Reed and Cary Williams all left via free agency. Veteran wide receiver Anquan Boldin was traded to the 49ers and fullback Vonta Leach and defensive tackle Ma'ake Kemoeatu are currently free agents.
The Ravens used free agency and the draft to fill most of these holes, bringing in the likes of linebacker Elvis Dumervil and Arthur Brown and safeties Michael Huff and Matt Elam, among others. However, there is nothing the team can do to replace the expeience and continuity that is now gone from their roster.
Quarterback and Super Bowl XLVII MVP Joe Flacco is signed long-term and several other key parts of last season’s roster remain, but it will be interesting to see how quickly the old will gel with the new as the Ravens prepare for life on the field as defending champions.
2013 Athlon Sports NFL team-by-team schedule analysis: