As the season closes in on two weeks away, every team has multiple questions that separate it from the successful year it envisions. They can also be boiled down to one key concern.
Some questions are too big picture and obvious, such as those relating to health and whether a unit can live up to potential. We’re focused more on the questions teams can answer themselves, the ones they hold in their own grasp.
Here’s one burning question for each team in the NFC:
Vikings: Will Teddy Bridgewater take a step forward with improved receivers and offensive linemen?
Everything about Mike Zimmer’s second season as head coach of the Vikings featured an impressive step forward, from Adrian Peterson’s bounce-back season to the defense’s rise to fifth in scoring to the team’s ability to unseat the Packers atop the NFC North. Everything felt advanced except the passing game. After a promising 2014 rookie year, Bridgewater appeared to be the player holding the rest of the team back last season, and to his credit, he had a few issues to blame. But after Minnesota signed left guard Alex Boone and right tackle Andre Smith and spent its first-round pick on Mississippi wide receiver Laquon Treadwell, Bridgewater’s excuses are going to diminish. Whether or not he can balance out the Vikings offense will decide whether they take a step again this season and beyond.
Packers: Will Eddie Lacy’s new physique return him to 2014 production?
Green Bay’s offense was out of sorts last season, thanks mostly to deep threat Jordy Nelson’s absence but also to Lacy’s drop-off from the tough running he displayed his first two years, which both topped 1,100 yards. An overweight Lacy helped trap the Packers offense in the mud last season. This year, after appearing in better shape, he could return to the running and backfield receiving threat that felt absent at times last season. And as Nelson comes back, that balance could provide the springboard Green Bay needs to finally break through to the Super Bowl.
Bears: Will Jay Cutler avoid regression with Adam Gase, Martellus Bennett and Matt Forte gone?
Last season was an impressive if nondescript year for Cutler, as he worked through myriad injuries to all of the units around him to post the best yards per attempt and the second-best completion percentage of his career. This year, he’ll need to overcome close to the same with offensive coordinator Gase and Pro Bowl tight end Bennett and Pro Bowl running back Forte out of town. If he can, the Bears will have the right quarterback to continue building around. If not, it could be more of the same old questions.
Lions: Can Matthew Stafford elevate his first offense without Calvin Johnson?
Johnson has been the foundation of Detroit’s offense, this version’s Barry Sanders, even if it didn’t lead to postseason wins. Now, following his sudden retirement, the Lions have to figure out new ways to generate big plays. Theo Riddick and Ameer Abdullah haven’t yet done it for the league’s last-ranked rushing offense, and Detroit’s starting wideouts, Marvin Jones and Golden Tate, have never been No. 1 options in their careers. With a so-so line, the best potential on offense is Stafford, who bounced back from a shaky start last season with an absurd 17:1 touchdown to interception ratio over the final six games. He’ll have to play without his go-to receiver for the first time in his eight-year career, so he’ll personally hold the responsibility of performing well enough to help save Jim Caldwell’s job.
Panthers: Can Cam Newton play at his 2015 level?
Newton’s 2015 was one for the ages, especially given the wide receivers he ended up working with after top threat Kelvin Benjamin went down. The 2015 MVP threw and ran for a combined 45 touchdowns for the 15-1 Panthers. It’s a year few expect to repeat, but of last year’s overachievers, Newton holds the best chance of keeping things steady. If he can present a similar dual-threat headache to opposing defenses while eliminating some of the intermediate weaknesses from his game, he’ll help Carolina absorb the loss of Josh Norman and get back in Super Bowl contention again.
Falcons: Can the Falcons be a top-10 passing offense again?
The Falcons appeared like an average roster last season, and 8-8 is how they finished up. What didn’t make sense is how the passing game underachieved, finishing 23rd in passing touchdowns despite a connection between Matt Ryan and Julio Jones that continued to dominate. Something about Ryan in the first year of Kyle Shanahan’s offense didn’t mesh, and the Falcons made a few small additions to try to plug some of the weaknesses, such as adding Pro Bowl center Alex Mack and wide receiver Mohamed Sanu. Ryan and Shanahan will have to improve in their own rights to get Atlanta anything above average again this season.
Saints: Can a new coordinator and veteran additions mean dramatic improvement on defense?
The Saints had another disaster of a year on defense in 2015, finishing 31st overall, 31st against the pass and 31st against the run. With little cap space, they made a number of less-heralded changes, such as promoting former Raiders head coach and then-defensive assistant Dennis Allen to coordinator and bringing in cheap veterans like linebacker James Laurinaitis and defensive tackle Nick Fairley. Allen and Laurinaitis specifically are looking to fix the communication issues that plagued last year’s unit. If they can, the Saints’ could win enough shootouts to return to the playoffs, thus extending the run in New Orleans for Drew Brees and Sean Payton.
Buccaneers: Does a second year for Jameis Winston under Dirk Koetter mean converting more yards into points?
Winston’s rookie season was a giant success for the Buccaneers in every area except on the scoreboard. Tampa Bay ranked fifth in offensive yards but 20th in scoring, thanks largely to a minus-5 turnover margin, and the result was a 6-10 season. After Tampa Bay fired Lovie Smith to retain Koetter as head coach, it’s banking on more strides from Winston, which should come in his footwork and decision-making. With an ascending young offensive line and talented skill players like Doug Martin and Mike Evans to work with, a more consistent and efficient Winston should turn the Buccaneers into an offense that’s more than just flash this season. It’ll also start to justify the bold move the organization took in firing Smith.
Redskins: Can Kirk Cousins play at a franchise level against good teams?
Cousins’ final 10 games, when he threw 23 touchdowns to three interceptions, were enough for the Redskins to get really excited about the possibility of finding the long-awaited franchise quarterback. They were careful not to bite too much, though. Cousins helped Washington to the playoffs in a down NFC East, but he didn’t beat a single team with a winning record, hence why he’s playing this year on the $20 million franchise tag. The Redskins have continued to dedicate resources to the passing game, hoping it’ll carry a team that looks thin at running back and only transitioning on defense. If Cousins can deliver in his contract year, it’ll mean much more for Washington than just another playoff trip.
Eagles: Will the Eagles be able to keep Carson Wentz on the bench for most of the season?
The Eagles enter 2016 looking to build for the future, which also means winning right now. The logic behind trading so much to obtain Wentz in the draft was to groom the rookie quarterback behind quarterbacks Sam Bradford and Chase Daniel, to whom they promised $34 million combined this past offseason. This approach of sitting and developing a top rookie quarterback is rare in the NFL these days. The responsibility will be on those quarterbacks to perform well despite lacking surrounding talent and for Doug Pederson to win enough games to justify keeping the primary investment on the bench. That will also mean delivering on defense, where Fletcher Cox is now a rich man and must engineer a pass rush that serves as the Eagles’ strength.
Giants: Is one defense big enough for Janoris Jenkins, Olivier Vernon and Damon Harrison to play to their potential?
The Giants spent more than $105 million combined this offseason on three star free agents to fix their 32nd-ranked defense. They can justify the individual talent level in each player, but the question will be whether they can settle their egos to play together in the same unit, all right after getting paid. In theory, Vernon and Harrison could combine with what New York already has up front in Jason Pierre-Paul and Jonathan Hankins to produce the kind of defensive front the Giants have long won behind, and a team led by Eli Manning and Odell Beckham Jr. would suddenly be one to fear again. If it doesn’t work, the Giants will literally pay for it for years to come.
Cowboys: Can the offensive line bounce back to near the best in the league?
Whether or not a 36-year-old Tony Romo can avoid the injuries that have cost him and the Cowboys during the past two seasons will in some ways come down to luck. What Dallas can do is get its offensive line play back to the level it was in 2014, when it finished second in the league in rushing. The same group is back this year, with the addition of guard La’el Collins, but it has to play together with more consistency than it delivered last season. The result would be a cleaner pocket for Romo as well as a lethal running game with rookie Ezekiel Elliott. The latter would decrease Romo’s drop-backs and keep off the field a defense that might have to invent new ways to get after the quarterback this season.
Cardinals: Will Carson Palmer’s postseason struggles linger?
Palmer won’t stop hearing about last year’s playoffs until he can correct them in the postseason this year, but he and the Cardinals need to hope it was all an anomaly that doesn’t creep into the regular season. Palmer’s touch was off in those two games as he was still nursing a dislocated finger, but he also made some decisions that are hard to justify, resulting in six interceptions. He and the Cardinals offense have had a rough preseason so far, which they hope is just preseason football and not the sign of something lingering. Palmer is so critical to the success of Bruce Arians’ deep vertical offense, with his ability to thread downfield windows and diagnose free blitzers. At 37, he’ll need to play at the MVP level he was for most of last season if the Cardinals want to break through to the Super Bowl.
Seahawks: Behind a reworked offensive line, can Russell Wilson be the pocket passer he was in the second half of 2015?
Wilson is yet another quarterback trying to justify that his late-2015 dominance is sustainable in future seasons. It’ll be the question that defines the ceiling of the Seahawks offense following the retirement of long-time bell cow Marshawn Lynch and after an ascending offensive line got somewhat dismantled this offseason. During a historic seven-game stretch to finish last year, Wilson displayed the kind of quick-hitting pocket passing that betrayed his former scrambling self, and the result was a 24:1 touchdown to interception ratio and a 6-1 team record. If he’s able to build on that success after a postseason that started to feature more of the old guy, Wilson will reach a new level of elite quarterback, and there might be no stopping the Seahawks.
Rams: Can Jared Goff make a quick transition to elevating sub-par NFL receivers?
Goff’s ideal entrance into the NFL would come later in his rookie season, after he’s had the time to develop the arm strength and full-field reads that he lacked entering the draft. The NFL is far from an ideal world, though. Case Keenum likely won’t hold the starting quarterback job for too long, not with Jeff Fisher needing to win and the Rams looking to make a splash in Los Angeles. That’ll place the responsibility on Goff to develop while playing the way he did over three years at a rebuilding Cal program. In L.A., he’ll have to work with one of the league’s most barren receiving corps, and he’ll simply have to surprise if the Rams want to go anywhere this season.
49ers: Can Chip Kelly find stability at the quarterback position?
Kelly finds himself already in another quarterback dilemma as he decides between Colin Kaepernick and Blaine Gabbert to lead his new 49ers club. The big and mobile Kaepernick has an intriguing skill set for Kelly’s hurry-up, zone-based offense, but he’s been dealing with arm soreness. Meanwhile, Gabbert has impressed Kelly with his own mobility and quick release. Whichever way Kelly decides to go, he needs to stick with a guy and build the momentum there because that kind of growth will define success for a 49ers roster that is years away from competing in this loaded division. It’d be a new approach for Kelly if he’s able to do it, but he swears he’s a changed man from the guy who fell apart in Philadelphia.