As the opening of NFL training camps creeps closer, so does confrontation with critical concerns on top teams. The outcome of these issues will have a major impact on the drama and results of the 2013 season.
Some of the teams expecting to contend for postseason and Super Bowl play have major issues to cope with if they are to reach their potential.
Not surprisingly, three of the Top Ten issues that could have a major impact on the NFL's 2013 season belong to that media darling known as the NFC East, based on a survey by team correspondents for The Sports Xchange.
Whether it is hype, reality, or both, key issues with potentially major NFL ramifications are percolating with the Dallas Cowboys, Philadelphia Eagles and Washington Redskins.
And it should come as no shock that the heart of each team's concerns is at quarterback, where Dallas is hoping Tony Romo lives up to his contract, Philadelphia is looking for a triggerman for its new offense and Washington has plenty of reason to fret over the health of Robert Griffin III.
Here is a closer look at the Top Ten issues that could have a major impact on the NFL's 2013 season:
10. New Orleans Saints -- Linebackers in a new defense.
It is interesting to see how the same defensive scheme is bad for one team and a savior for another. Coordinator Rob Ryan and his multiple 3-4 scheme were dumped from Dallas, but are being hailed in New Orleans. After all, Ryan had great coaching results at times with Cleveland and Oakland, pushing each defense into the league's top five at one point. And even before that he was tremendous as a linebacker coach with the New England Patriots. Problem is, the Saints do not have great candidates for the most vital component of Ryan's scheme -- linebackers. When outside linebacker Victor Butler tore his ACL in OTAs, the new-look defense took a big hit. He was expected to start in the new 3-4 and now that role is up for grabs with former defensive ends Junior Galette and Martez Wilson battling to start opposite Will Smith, also a former defensive end.
9. Dallas Cowboys -- Quarterback Tony Romo, et al.
Controversy will haunt the quarterback on "America's Team" until he manages to win another playoff game, which would give him a total of two. Anxious owner Jerry Jones yanked play-calling duties from head coach Jason Garrett, whose strength was supposed to be inventive play calling, and gave them to offensive line coach Bill Callahan, whose last memorable such NFL assignment was with the Oakland Raiders, highlighted by a controversial, five-interception, Super Bowl trouncing by Tampa Bay. Regardless, Romo needs to embrace Callahan's calls, but missed OTAs and minicamp while rehabbing from back surgery and was criticized by ex-Cowboys stars for not being involved enough, especially after signing a contract worth more than $100 million. If the offensive line cooperates -- big if -- Romo does have receivers to make it work. Talented but inconsistent Dez Bryant's goal is 2,000 yards receiving. With that mindset, however, what's left for Jason Witten, Miles Austin and rookies Gavin Escobar and Terrance Williams? Good luck to Callahan.
8. Tampa Bay Buccaneers -- Cornerback Darrelle Revis' knee.
The Bucs blew up the budget to bolster their terrible defensive secondary -- $96 million over six years for cornerback Darelle Revis (trade, New York Jets), $41.25 million, five years to safety Dashon Goldson (UFA, San Francisco 49ers). But success will hinge on Revis's ability to come back from major knee surgery. If he is unable to start the regular season, the secondary could be a house of cards, especially at cornerback where veteran Eric Wright struggles with consistency and staying healthy and Johnthan Banks is a rookie, best suited for nickel duty. After that, not much. Goldson cannot be expected to improve the level of play significantly if Revis is not part of the equation. However, he can help improve the play of second-year strong safety Mark Barron, the seventh overall pick in 2011 and a key on top-ranked defenses that helped Alabama win two national titles.
7. Green Bay Packers -- Defense, kicking.
Quarterback Aaron Rodgers can't do everything. Well, he can't play defense, anyway. The defense must reduce scores and the need for shootouts. Linebacker Clay Matthews may need to fill a leadership void left by the departure of Charles Woodson. Matthews will get pass-rush help from rookie defensive end Datone Jones. But there are battles at both cornerback spots and safety and the rushing defense was a shambles, most memorably against Minnesota's Adrian Peterson and San Francisco's multi-talented quarterback Colin Kaepernick (181 yards rushing, two touchdowns). Inside linebackers Brad Jones, who started the last 12 games in 2012, and A.J. Hawk will need to make tackles closer to the line of scrimmage. The erratic kicking of Mason Crosby (league worst 63.6 percent on field goals) gave rise to serious competition from left-footed Giorgio Tavecchio.
6. Minnesota Vikings -- Quarterback Christian Ponder.
Jeckyll and Hyde may be a good drama, but it doesn't play well in the NFL, especially at quarterback. Christian Ponder enters his third NFL season as a wildly inconsistent player who may not be the answer at the sport's most important position. This is despite the luxury of having Adrian Peterson, one of the most dangerous runners in NFL history. Ponder could be on a short leash now that the Vikings signed free agent Matt Cassel (Kansas City Chiefs). To avoid the hook, Ponder must quickly get over the loss of talented receiver Percy Harvin (traded to Seattle), whose availability was problematic anyway, and get in synch with former Green Bay receiver Greg Jennings, Jerome Simpson and rookie Cordarrelle Patterson, who may ease the loss of Harvin if he shows how he set SEC season records with a combined kickoff and punt return average of 27.6 yards and a Tennessee record with 1,858 all-purpose yards.
5. Philadelphia Eagles -- Triggerman for Chip Kelly's offense.
Curiosity abounds over exactly how new coach Chip Kelly will transfer the blur-paced (15-seconds between plays) offense from Oregon into the NFL. Will the NFLPA or safety-conscious commissioner Roger Goodell insist on a minimum time between snaps before cardiac issues equal concussion concerns? More important, who will quarterback this breath-taking attack? Prime candidates include fast-footed, 33-year-old Michael Vick, lanky second-year pro Nick Foles and rookie Matt Barkley. That's not counting projects Dennis Dixon and G.J. Kinne. The Eagles look good on the offensive line and at running back, so that should help whoever is in charge of the trigger for Machine Gun Kelly.
4. San Francisco 49ers -- Wide receivers.
Versatile quarterback Colin Kaepernick can run and pass, but his first problem may be to find a favorite target. With Michael Crabtree recovering from Achilles tendon surgery, former Ravens star Anquan Boldin is the only proven, healthy wide receiver. Mario Manningham and Kyle Williams are fighting back from knee injuries and 2012 first-round pick A.J. Jenkins, almost a no-show as a rookie, is supposed to be improved. No big feat, that, so he is a wait-and-see. Stories about swift tight end Vernon Davis moving to wide receiver are overstated, although don't be surprised to see him line up here, there and everywhere.
3. Baltimore Ravens -- Inside linebacker, name badges.
Is Baltimore's planned roster overhaul rebuilding, reloading or starting over? After winning the Super Bowl, the Ravens said good bye to wide receiver Anquan Boldin (trade, 49ers), strong safety Bernard Pollard (cut), free safety Ed Reed (UFA, Texans), cornerback Cary Williams (UFA, Eagles) and linebackers Ray Lewis (retired), Dannell Ellerbe (UFA, Dolphins) and Paul Kruger (UFA, Browns). The Ravens insist they are faster and more versatile on defense. But at linebacker, Daryl Smith and rookie Arthur Brown must show they have overcome recent issues with sports hernias and Jameel McClain must make a healthy return.
2. New England Patriots -- Receivers at any position.
If quarterback Tom Brady and coach Bill Belichick get this offense to put up the same astronomical numbers as the recent past, then the Pro Football Hall of Fame should waive that five-year technicality and enshrine them at halftime of the Super Bowl. Brady's most experienced battery mate in OTAs and minicamp was running back Stevan Ridley. They have nine connections in NFL action. Brady's top seven targets from last year are not in the mix after the free-agent departure of Wes Welker, release of Brandon Lloyd, injuries/surgeries to Rob Gronkowski, arrest/waiver of Aaron Hernandez, free-agent loss of Danny Woodhead, injury to Julian Edelman and departure of Deion Branch. Danny Amendola is the top newcomer, ostensibly a strategic replacement for Welker. But Amendola has yet to prove he is durable enough to catch 100 passes in a season, as Welker did five of the past six years.
1. Washington Redskins -- RG3.
With all the attention and pressure being foisted on him, quarterback Robert Griffin III appears compelled to make a miraculous comeback from major knee surgery. And because his game is so dynamic as a runner and a passer, it is a lot to expect him to be the same player he was winning the Heisman Trophy at Baylor and then dazzling the NFL as the league's Rookie of the Year. Regardless, based on offseason hype and publicity, RG3 is almost the face of the NFL, so expectations already exceed reasonable considerations. If Griffin cannot hold up, Washington's option is a far different second-year quarterback, Kirk Cousins. The Redskins are also concerned about safety Brandon Meriweather (three knee injuries, one game in 2012) and outside linebacker Brian Orakpo (three pec injuries, two games since the 2011 finale).
Frank Cooney is the Publisher of The Sports Xchange, and a member of the voting committee for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
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