With training camp under way, every NFL team is in the process of figuring out who they will be in 2013. Here are three burning questions facing 3 AFC teams that will more than likely define their success this season:
1. Will CJ Spiller survive and thrive in his transition to full-time RB?
Outside of Minneapolis, CJ Spiller is the most dynamic running back in football. He tied Adrian Peterson’s league-high 6.0 YPC in 2012, clocked a blistering 4.28 40-yard-dash coming out of Clemson, and has proven himself to be as elusive as any other ballcarrier in football. Spiller simply can’t be touched in the open field, and in 2012 he demonstrated what he can do with any significant volume.
He also has a total of 388 career carries to his name, and will be the focal point of incoming Head Coach Doug Marrone’s up-tempo offense. Bills’ beat writer Chris Brown suggested that Spiller could receive up to 30 carries per game, with the potential for a 2000-yard season—figures that have the ominous sound of overworking.
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While it would be foolish to assume Spiller won’t have a spectacular season, the 5’11, 200-pound speedster doesn’t exactly look like workhorse material. Agile runners like Spiller rarely see success as big-carry backs, and it remains to be seen if Spiller can survive a 16-game grind of high-volume workloads. To top it off, Buffalo has the luxury of choosing between Kevin Kolb and rookie EJ Manual as its field general. Add in a receiving corps led by slot-man Stevie Johnson and a couple rookies, and Spiller may be facing an uphill battle. The three-year pro may have the season of a lifetime, but it wouldn’t shock anyone if he struggles to maintain his health and explosive-playmaking ability into December.
2. Will the Ravens’ offense overcome the offseason carnage?
The defending Super Bowl champs have been losing starters all offseason, and while their defense is expected to withstand the losses of Ed Reed and Ray Lewis, the other side of the ball faces serious questions. Baltimore sent Anquan Boldin to the same 49ers they edged out in February’s championship, as well as an equally crushing blow this week with news of Dennis Pitta’s season-ending hip injury. Per SI’s Peter King, “Boldin and Pitta averaged nine catches and 136 receiving yards per game” in the playoffs—numbers the Ravens will struggle to replace with their remaining pass-catchers.
King observed Flacco “looking disconsolate” as he aimlessly meandered around the Ravens’ complex, marking the first recorded use of “disconsolate” to describe the recipient of a $120-million contract.
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Torrey Smith is far-and-away Baltimore’s number one receiver, but has yet to prove himself as more than a deep threat and Champ Bailey abuser. Next-man-up Jacoby Jones is a true return man and followed his two-touchdown Super Bowl performance with a failed conditioning test to open up the offseason.
Even GM Ozzie Newsome acknowledged that “we don't know yet what our identity is going to be on offense,” a sign that training camp is especially important to the champs. The Ravens have potential contributors in Tandon Doss and the speedy Deonte Thompson, but one or more players will need to step up on Sundays for Baltimore to be a legitimate contender for the Lombardi Trophy.
3. Will Tom Brady make it work with a new surrounding cast?
We all know the narrative that played out in North Attleboro, MA, but Aaron Hernandez’s incarceration on murder charges is just one of several bad developments in New England since their season ended at home against the Ravens. From Rob Gronkowski’s back surgery to the departure of Wes Welker, the Patriots suddenly find themselves with a lack of proven skill-players.
Running back Shane Vereen has been tossed around as a potential replacement for Hernandez’s production, and aside from the questionable nature of that proposition, the Patriots may be in trouble. 2013-signee Danny Amendola has been highly lauded since his arrival in Foxboro, but has missed a disturbing 36% of games in his four-year career. New England sports 6 rookie receivers on their training-camp roster, putting more pressure on Tom Brady than years past.
While Brady has seen success with the likes of Reche Caldwell and Troy Brown as his lead receiver, those were the days before the Patriots shifted to a high-octane aerial assault. Stevan Ridley and the New England backfield will likely see an increased role with the lack of established pass-catchers, but will the Patriots make a successful adjustment?
The answer remains to be seen, and this outcome will directly impact the power rankings atop the AFC.