Offseason additions and subtractions are mostly complete and NFL teams are in the process of evaluating new talent and making sure it meshes well. Here are the biggest issues facing each NFC team headed into minicamps. Seahawks minicamp is June 17-19.
Seattle Seahawks: It’s good to be on top. The Seahawks boast the NFL’s top defense from last season and a first-rate offense and are coming off a Super Bowl championship. That’s why the biggest issue for Seattle at minicamp will be to stay motivated and stay hungry. Because most of the key pieces from last year’s team remain, the opportunity to repeat is there, but it will take a lot of work. Rather than to be complacent with the Lombardi Trophy, Seattle’s main goal is to continue to pursue success, after already having achieved it.
San Francisco 49ers: Chasing the Super Bowl champions, the 49ers have their own set of issues to worry about. The troubling part is that these problems have largely been off-the-field concerns. Talented defensive end Aldon Smith faces possible discipline after his latest legal woes, and franchise quarterback Colin Kaepernick has been mentioned in a police investigation. Starting in minicamp, San Francisco needs to focus on football and eliminate all external issues. The primary objective will be on improving the league’s 30th-ranked passing offense from last season, which gained only 186.2 yards per game.
Arizona Cardinals: Despite being one of the most talented teams in the NFC, the Cardinals missed out on the playoffs last year, partly because of the strength of their division. Arizona was a balanced team in 2013 with no glaring weaknesses, but the franchise needs to set the tone starting in minicamp that their quest for the postseason is more difficult than it is for the rest of the NFL. To help them get there, the primary objective is to bolster a rushing offense that ranked 23rd in the NFL last season and generated only 96.3 yards per game.
St. Louis Rams: Coach Jeff Fisher enters his third season as the Rams head coach and after starting to put his imprint on the franchise, it’s time for St. Louis to consistently compete. It starts with the passing game in 2014. Sam Bradford began to show glimpses last season before tearing his anterior cruciate ligament. The Rams ranked 27th in the NFL last season in passing offense (195.3 yards per game). Wide receivers Chris Givens, Tavon Austin and free agent acquisition Kenny Britt need to help maximize Bradford’s production. With Bradford’s participation in minicamp likely limited, the receivers need to give additional effort to make that happen.
Dallas Cowboys: Defense is a problem in Dallas. Last season the Cowboys ranked 30th in passing yards allowed (286.8 per game) and 27th in rushing yards allowed (128.5 per game). With the release of linebacker DeMarcus Ware, the Cowboys will have another void to fill. The Cowboys traded up to draft Demarcus Lawrence in the second round to replace Ware. The team must fix its issues on defense if it wants to make a playoff run in 2014. Look for that emphasis to start in minicamp.
Philadelphia Eagles: After allowing the most passing yards in the NFL last season (289.8 per game), the Eagles need to improve their passing defense. The additions of safety Malcolm Jenkins and cornerback Nolan Carroll will help, but Philadelphia needs to get its secondary to become a strength on defense. Minicamp and training camp will be the first step toward that.
Washington Redskins: With first-time head coach Jay Gruden at the helm, the big issue for Washington is for each player in the locker room to understand what Gruden wants out of them. Former offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan is now with the Cleveland Browns, and Sean McVay, who was the tight ends coach now runs the offense. A learning curve is to be expected.
New York Giants: There’s no question, the big problem for the Giants over the past couple of seasons has been turnovers. Last season, the Giants ranked last in the NFL in giveaways (44), which was 10 more than the next two teams (Detroit Lions, Washington Redskins). New offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo now runs the offense and will get his chance to rectify the problem. His first objective will be to help quarterback Eli Manning become more efficient.
Green Bay Packers: With quarterback Aaron Rodgers still at the helm of Green Bay’s offense, the unit will be fine. The Packers, instead, have to solve their defense, which ranked 25th in the league last season after ceding 372.2 yards per game. Two additions will help: first-round safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix can blossom into the roaming leader of the secondary, and defensive end Julius Peppers can help in rushing the passer. Both will need to get used to their new playbooks in the offseason.
Chicago Bears: For once in Chicago, the problem is the defense, not the offense. Specifically, the Bears were atrocious in stopping the run, allowing a league-worst 161.4 yards per game. The franchise addressed the issue in the NFL draft, using its second- and third-round picks on defensive tackles Ego Ferguson and Will Sutton. Chicago also added veteran defensive end Jared Allen. Minicamp will be essential in getting its new pieces acclimated to Mel Tucker’s 4-3 scheme.
Detroit Lions: Jim Caldwell begins his first season as the Lions’ head coach, and has a number of issues to solve. The continued development of quarterback Matt Stafford will be a central focus, but the key issue is fixing the secondary. To help do that, Teryl Austin enters his first season as the Lions’ defensive coordinator, but spent the last three years as the Baltimore Ravens’ secondary coach. He brings expertise in the position and will focus on improving last year’s 23rd-ranked passing defense, which allowed 246.9 yards per game.
Minnesota Vikings: Despite a number of holes, quarterback looms as the biggest for the Vikings. Although the franchise traded back into the first round to draft Teddy Bridgewater, the team is in no hurry to rush him to start. It appears that there will be a three-way competition between Bridgewater, Matt Cassel and Christian Ponder. If one quarterback starts to excel in minicamp, it could shape the rest of the offseason.
New Orleans Saints: Will the Saints ever solve their running back problem? Mark Ingram, drafted in the first round in 2011, was supposed to be the franchise back, but he just hasn’t been that. Can Ingram finally blossom into a consistent threat, or will Pierre Thomas continue to be the team’s top rusher? Either way, New Orleans needs to improve on its 25th-ranked rushing offense (92.1 yards per game) from last season.
Carolina Panthers: Cam Newton is one of the most dynamic quarterbacks in the NFL, but he lacked playmakers at wide receiver and long-time Panther Steve Smith signed with the Ravens after Carolina released him. First-round pick Kelvin Benjamin will need to produce. The Panthers also signed wide receivers Jerricho Cotchery, Jason Avant and Tiquan Underwood through free agency. That’s a lot of new targets in one offseason and Newton needs to build a rapport with them starting in minicamp.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: With coach Lovie Smith in Tampa Bay, the team’s defense should improve. The offense, however continues to be the issue. Although quarterback Mike Glennon showed promise as a rookie last season, Smith brought Josh McCown in during free agency to be the starter. Developing chemistry with first- and second-round draft picks Mike Evans and Austin Seferian-Jenkins is essential, and minicamp gives both quarterbacks their first opportunity to do that.
Atlanta Falcons: Team owner Arthur Blank has repeatedly said he wants the Falcons to be more physical next season. After a disappointing 4-12 campaign last year, it all starts on the offensive line. Atlanta tied for 20th in the NFL last season in sacks allowed with 44. The addition of first-round pick Jake Matthews should also help the Falcons improve on their NFL-worst 77.9 rushing yards per game from last year. Free agent guard Jon Asamoah will also bring a level of toughness the franchise missed last season, but chemistry on a rebuilt offensive line will be important and minicamp is a good place to start developing it.