It might seem as though summer just got into full swing, but we are a few weeks from the start of NFL training camps and only two and half months from the 2019 season.
NFL Nation is setting up the biggest storylines for each division. Here’s what to look for in the NFC South.
Can the New Orleans Saints revive their passing offense?
Quarterback Drew Brees had a season for the ages last year at age 39 — up until Thanksgiving, anyway. He was the MVP front-runner through his first 11 games, when he averaged 285 yards per game, with 29 touchdowns, two interceptions and an astounding passer rating of 127.3. But he and the Saints’ passing offense began to crater in December, particularly when it came to getting the ball down the field. Brees averaged just 234.5 yards over his final six starts, with seven TDs and five interceptions, including the playoffs, which ended with his overtime interception against the Rams in the NFC Championship Game. Part of the problem was a banged-up offensive line. A bigger issue was New Orleans’ lack of reliable pass-catchers (Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara were the only two Saints with more than 35 catches last season). Adding free-agent tight end Jared Cook should help, as should getting Ted Ginn Jr. back healthy and getting more development from New Orleans’ young backup receivers. — Mike Triplett
So far, so good on the rehab of Newton’s shoulder. He threw some at the June minicamp and might be slightly ahead of schedule. Team officials insist the cleanup of scar tissue from Newton’s shoulder he underwent in January was a minor procedure and that the 2015 NFL MVP should be ready for the season. But remember, Newton came into 2018 feeling better than he has in years. He had the Panthers off to a 6-2 start before the shoulder became an issue, forcing him to miss a lot of throwing in practice. Carolina lost seven straight, and Newton was shut down for the final two games. He insists he’ll always be a running quarterback, so he’ll continue to take more hits than most. To be successful, Newton must make it the entire season without a setback. His backups are unproven, and as Newton goes, so go the Panthers. — David Newton
Can the Atlanta Falcons be as dominant on offense with coordinator Dirk Koetter as they were during the 2016 Super Bowl run, when they averaged 33.8 points per game?
The Falcons have all the tools to be explosive on offense, with 2016 MVP Matt Ryan at quarterback, arguably the most dangerous receiver in the league in Julio Jones, plus a shifty running back in Devonta Freeman. Throw in receivers Calvin Ridley and Mohamed Sanu along with Pro Bowl tight end Austin Hooper and that makes for a rather intimidating crew. Ryan’s familiarity with Koetter, who is back for his second stint as offensive coordinator, should help the offense flow a little better than last season. Having Mike Mularkey as the tight-ends coach, with his history for taking a smash-mouth approach, should be an asset in short-yardage, goal-line situations. If Jones and Freeman, who have dealt with nagging injuries over their careers, remain healthy, and if the rebuilt offensive line, with rookie first-rounders Chris Lindstrom and Kaleb McGary, stands strong, the Falcons should push for 30 points per game. Then the question becomes, will Dan Quinn’s defense keep opposing offenses out of the end zone? — Vaughn McClure
Can the Tampa Bay Buccaneers quickly become contenders under head coach Bruce Arians?
Bruce Arians led the Indianapolis Colts to a 9-3 record and the playoffs as interim head coach while Chuck Pagano was undergoing cancer treatment. He led the Arizona Cardinals to two playoff berths in four seasons. Can he infuse the same winning mentality for a Bucs team that has had two winning seasons over the past 10, hasn’t been to the playoffs since 2007 and hasn’t won a playoff game since 2002? Further, can he turn Jameis Winston into an NFL winner like the quarterback was at Florida State? While teams such as the Cleveland Browns, Miami Dolphins, New York Jets and New York Giants have essentially cleaned house and started over in recent years, the Bucs believe Arians can orchestrate a quick turnaround. He said the day he was officially hired, “We aren’t rebuilding. We’re reloading.” — Jenna Laine
Yes, if their three biggest moves work out the way the Broncos hope. First, Vic Fangio, who waited more than three decades as an NFL assistant coach to get his first head-coaching job, has to be up to the challenge. Fangio’s no-nonsense, tell-you-straight style won over players early. It included an old-school team-bonding “Field Day” carnival to end offseason workouts. But now it’s about game-day management and handling the day-to-day of the regular season. Second, quarterback Joe Flacco, 34, has to have as much left in the career tank as the Broncos believe he does. The Broncos need the former Super Bowl MVP to push the ball down the field and give the offense some much-needed big-play pop. Third, offensive line coach Mike Munchak, who also interviewed for the job Fangio got, has to settle down a unit that has simply struggled to find any sort of continuity since before Peyton Manning retired. — Jeff Legwold
The important thing to remember about the Chiefs’ defense in 2019 is they won’t have to be perfect or great in order to help Kansas City to a championship. The Chiefs merely need to be better than they were last year. That’s not an unreasonable expectation after they hired veteran coordinator Steve Spagnuolo to lead a new defensive coaching staff, switched their base system to a 4-3 and acquired as many as seven new starters, including end Frank Clark and safety Tyrann Mathieu. While the Chiefs won’t be dominant defensively, they’ll be improved. It’s difficult to picture the Chiefs in 2019 losing five games in which they scored 40, 51, 28, 31 and 31 points, as they did last year — including the AFC Championship Game. That overtime loss to the New England Patriots kept them from returning to the big game for the first time since Super Bowl IV. — Adam Teicher
That’s the plan. Even though the Chargers were 4-0 in games Gordon missed last season, the Bolts’ offense is more dangerous when the Wisconsin product is the engine driving it. Gordon limped through the playoffs last season because of two balky knees. Chargers coach Anthony Lynn likes to lean on the running game and said he will limit Gordon’s touches in the preseason and during the regular season with the hope that Gordon is more fresh at the end of year. Gordon, who averaged a career-high 5.1 yards per carry last season, said he worked this offseason on becoming a faster and more explosive runner. Like Natrone Means during the team’s lone Super Bowl run in 1994, the Bolts are banking on Gordon’s violent running style leading them back to the title game 25 years later. “I want to be an all-around back,” Gordon said. “I say it every year. Even the things I’m good at, I want to be great. Things I’m average at, I want to be great. That’s just who I am. I just want to keep working, keep grinding and just be the best running back out there.” — Eric D. Williams
Brown, whose ugly exit from Pittsburgh has been well-documented, has done and said all the right things upon his Oakland arrival, from his legendary work ethic to his preternatural ability to get open and catch the ball. But the Raiders have the toughest schedule in the NFL, exacerbated by a brutal start that sees them play their first two games at home and then not play in Oakland again until Nov. 3. With so many new pieces, especially on defense, a 1-6 start (four of the Raiders’ first seven opponents were in the playoffs last season) would not be shocking. And Brown is used to getting the ball, as evidenced by his having averaged more than 11.3 targets per game since 2014. Jordy Nelson, Carr’s top target at wideout last season, averaged just under 5.9 targets per game. Brown came to Oakland to win and be productive, not that those two things are mutually exclusive. But if the Raiders are getting clobbered early and Brown is getting the Nelson treatment, the honeymoon will be over in short order. — Paul Gutierrez
Will it? We won’t know for months. Can it? Absolutely. This is a rare match. Kingsbury — the Cardinals’ first-year coach — recruited Murray — the Cardinals’ rookie quarterback — out of high school seven years ago and they were finally paired together in April when the team took Murray with the No. 1 overall pick. Murray has run a version of Kingsbury’s Air Raid since the eighth grade. They talk all the time. Each understands what the other is trying to do. Kingsbury knows how to handle young players possibly better than anyone in the NFL, having spent the past six years as the head coach at Texas Tech. Sure, Kingsbury’s offense could’ve worked with someone else running it, but there may not have been a better fit from a personality and history perspective than Murray. — Josh Weinfuss
With a roster that returns two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald and each skill position starter, including receiver Cooper Kupp, who is coming off a season-ending knee injury, the Rams are in position to appear again in the Super Bowl. However, uncertainty looms over the health of running back Todd Gurley’s left knee and whether it will allow him to contribute at the volume with which he has contributed over the past two seasons. The offense, which produced 32.9 points per game last season, also must adapt to two first-time starters on the line in center Brian Allen and left guard Joe Noteboom. The defense received a boost by adding veteran pass-rusher Clay Matthews and safety Eric Weddle, but inexperienced players — Greg Gaines and Micah Kiser — will be expected to step up at nose tackle and inside linebacker, respectively, after the departures of Ndamukong Suh and Mark Barron. — Lindsey Thiry
The 49ers have been unwavering in their belief in Garoppolo since he led them to five straight victories to close the 2017 season. They paid him like a franchise quarterback and went into last season with outsized expectations despite a 6-10 record the year before. The question with Garoppolo isn’t talent so much as it is durability. Garoppolo played just two-plus games in 2018 before a knee injury ended his season. This offseason, the Niners put many of their resources into the defense, but did spend two Day 2 picks on receivers and signed running back Tevin Coleman. There’s plenty of potential on the roster offensively, but Garoppolo is the man charged with making it all work. It starts with staying healthy. If Garoppolo can play all 16 games in coach Kyle Shanahan’s offense, there’s reason to believe he can establish himself as the organizational centerpiece the team believes he is. — Nick Wagoner
Last season may have been Wilson’s best, considering he set a career high in touchdown passes with 35 and tied his career low with seven interceptions. It was undoubtedly his most efficient season, given that Wilson did that on his fewest passing attempts (427) since 2013. But the departure of his longtime No. 1 target, Doug Baldwin, leaves Tyler Lockett and Jaron Brown as his only receivers with more than three seasons of NFL experience. Though the inevitable growing pains that come with young receivers could work to Wilson’s detriment, it should help that he enters his second season under coordinator and de facto quarterbacks coach Brian Schottenheimer. No, the Seahawks won’t need to rely on Wilson more because they just made him the highest-paid player in NFL history. They’re going to be one of the NFL’s most run-heavy teams as long as coach Pete Carroll is in charge. But the defense lost firepower for the second consecutive offseason and has a major question mark at pass-rusher. Seattle may need Wilson to have another 2018 stat line if the Seahawks are going to earn their eighth playoff berth in 10 seasons under Carroll. — Brady Henderson
Yes. Coach Sean McDermott and general manager Brandon Beane earned goodwill from fans in 2017 when they led the franchise to its first playoff appearance since 1999. That kept fans off their backs when the Bills finished 6-10 last season, which was partly the result of trading quarterback Tyrod Taylor and drafting Josh Allen — and then watching their developing rookie quarterback become injured midseason. Fans understood Beane and McDermott did not see Taylor as the foundation of a long-term contender and are more hopeful Allen can be the franchise quarterback. As long as Allen takes a step forward in 2019, Beane and McDermott can survive into 2020 without making the playoffs. The top decision-makers seem to have sold the fan base on incremental improvements over instant gratification. — Mike Rodak
Can Josh Rosen keep the Dolphins from drafting a QB in the first round in 2020?
Rosen has to win the starting job first, and then we can discuss him being a part of the Dolphins’ long-term future. This spring, it has been the Ryan Fitzpatrick show, as the veteran has outplayed Rosen during organized team activities and minicamp. But the competition should heat up in training camp. Rosen has said he’s treating this like a one-year tryout to prove to the Dolphins he can be their franchise quarterback. After seven years of Ryan Tannehill, the Dolphins can’t afford to settle at quarterback anymore. Rosen can prove himself worthy of further evaluation beyond 2019 if he can show consistent examples of leadership when he gets his chance to start. On a rebuilding team, the eye test — in practice and games — will have to be the true barometer for Rosen. If there are doubts about him, the Dolphins have to be prepared to draft a quarterback high in 2020. — Cameron Wolfe
How will quarterback Tom Brady and the Patriots adapt after tight end Rob Gronkowski’s retirement?
This question might not have a definitive answer until deep into training camp. The Patriots’ offense under coordinator Josh McDaniels and Brady has always shaped itself to the personnel available, so if no more additions are made at tight end, it could lead to a de-emphasis of the position. Four-year veteran Matt LaCosse was running with the first unit in spring practices, but is he a realistic option to maintain a Gronk-type standard? No, but who really is? Veteran Benjamin Watson could be part of the mix, but he will miss the first four games of the season while serving an NFL suspension. “Move” option Stephen Anderson and 2018 seventh-round pick Ryan Izzo are next on the depth chart. However, there is always the possibility the Patriots swing a trade or an unexpected player comes available on the market. — Mike Reiss
Darnold’s situation is similar to those of Goff and Trubisky in that he is going from a defense-minded coach (Todd Bowles) to a coach with an offensive background (Adam Gase). There’s nothing better for a young quarterback’s development than having a coach who sees the game through the eyes of the quarterback, as Goff and Trubisky showed with Sean McVay and Matt Nagy, respectively. It’s unrealistic to expect a Goff-like jump for Darnold because his supporting cast (see: offensive line) isn’t as strong as that of the Los Angeles Rams — or Wentz’s Philadelphia Eagles cast, for that matter. But Darnold has enough talent, and enough talented people around him, to replicate what Trubisky did in his second season — 24 touchdown passes and 12 interceptions. Darnold should be able to raise his completion percentage (57.7) by a few points; the additions of RB Le’Veon Bell and WR Jamison Crowder will help in that respect. The key will be to cut down his interceptions (15 in 13 games), and he can do that by not throwing into tight coverage as often as he did last season. — Rich Cimini
Can Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz get over the injury bug?
Having suffered season-ending injuries each of the past two years (torn ACL/LCL, stress fracture in back), Wentz spent part of the offseason studying how to take better care of his body. He improved his diet and tweaked his training regimen in hopes it will lead to better health and greater career longevity. The Eagles are banking on Wentz staying upright. They moved on from Nick Foles and handed Wentz a four-year, $128 million contract extension. Only time will tell whether that investment will prove a wise one. What we know for now is Wentz looked like his old self this spring and has full intentions of returning to MVP-caliber form. This Eagles team is stacked from top to bottom. If Wentz can stay on the field, Philadelphia has a legit chance of going the distance. — Tim McManus
What will coordinator Kellen Moore bring to the Cowboys’ offense?
The Cowboys’ offense grew stale the past couple of seasons. While they ran the ball effectively and had timely plays under Scott Linehan, Dallas lacked explosive plays. The Cowboys had 39 pass plays of 20 yards or more in 2018. As a first-year coordinator, Moore will have a learning curve. He has one year of coaching experience, serving as the quarterbacks coach last season. He has never called plays but has long been considered a coach-in-waiting dating to his Boise State days, when he became the winningest quarterback in college football history. The base of the Cowboys’ offense remains — which coach Jason Garrett implemented as coordinator in 2007 — but Moore is bringing different elements that will marry some of the spread and run-pass options that have come from the college game to the NFL. In the offseason, Moore used more shifts and motions to run the same plays out of different looks, similar to what coach Sean McVay has done with the Los Angeles Rams. Moore’s creativity on the fly will be a bonus. Teammates have lauded his ability to see the game clearly in real time, which should allow the Cowboys to adjust better than they have in the past. — Todd Archer
When will rookie Dwayne Haskins take over as the Redskins’ starting quarterback?
The Redskins have consistently used one word when discussing their first-round draft pick: patience. They liked what they saw this spring in terms of Haskins’ talent and intelligence. The phrase “arm talent” has been used quite a bit. But before and after the draft, it was clear the Redskins felt he needed work. Haskins started 14 games at Ohio State, so his learning curve is bigger — Kyler Murray has similar experience, but his legs add a weapon Haskins lacks. Washington needs Haskins to improve his footwork — and some of that will come from quickening his reads so he doesn’t feel rushed under duress. The underlying issue: coach Jay Gruden’s job security. He’s entering Year 6 after missing the playoffs three straight seasons. He needs to win, and his desires might clash at times with the organization’s, knowing that Haskins’ development is key to the franchise’s future. But if the Redskins struggle early with Case Keenum or Colt McCoy, then there’s no good reason to keep Haskins sitting. — John Keim
Can the Giants’ offense be better without wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr.?
New York is going to need an improved offense overall this season to achieve any level of success. The Giants have 61% of their salary cap earmarked for their offense, with only 37% on their defense. That puts the fate of their 2019 season on quarterback Eli Manning & Co. It seems like a ridiculous premise to improve without Beckham, who is one of the most lethal offensive weapons in football. But the Giants improved their offensive line, still have ample targets and are going to lean heavily on running back Saquon Barkley. It’s possible they’ll produce more with their spread-it-around “village” approach, considering they were a well-below-average unit (27th in points per game through eight games) for a good chunk of last season. — Jordan Raanan