Thursday night, the NFL will kick off its first full week of preseason action in two years, the COVID-19 pandemic wiping out the entirety of the 2020 exhibition slate. The league’s August lineup will also look different now that the NFL has moved to three preseason games per team – excluding those participating in the annual Hall of Fame Game – after adding an 18th week to the regular-season schedule for 2021 and moving forward.
What does it mean? Answer: Who knows? But we’re about to find out.
Some clubs – the Rams, for example – will likely adhere to recent form and shield their stars from snaps that don’t count for much. Others will play their starters yet also have to weigh their reps against the opportunity to assess bottom-of-the-roster players, who oftentimes distinguish themselves under the bright lights more than they do on the practice field.
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A league-wide bye has replaced what used to be the fourth and final week of preseason, which was typically dedicated to determining which backups and young prospects teams wanted to retain and/or sign to practice squads.
But even as the NFL recalibrates to its new normal prior to opening day, each organization has plenty to figure out amid the construction and finalization of 53-man rosters, which will be initially set Aug. 31. Leading up to that date, here’s one key question each team must attempt to answer as preseason unfolds:
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Do they have the right mix of youth and experience? During the offseason, GM Steve Keim acquired DE J.J. Watt, WR A.J. Green and C Rodney Hudson, all entering their 11th NFL seasons, while also hoping to get more out of CB Malcolm Butler – he last made the Pro Bowl in 2015 – and RB James Conner, who has plenty of hard miles on his 26-year-old frame. Meanwhile, Keim demoted veteran LB Jordan Hicks, who’s started every game for the Cards the past two seasons, in favor of first-rounder Zaven Collins – he will be coupled with 2020 Round 1 LB Isaiah Simmons, who struggled as a rookie. Maybe everyone clicks … or maybe this is a volatile combination for a club that’s suffered second-half collapses in both years under coach Kliff Kingsbury.
Can they strike any fear into opposing QBs? No team gave up more yards through the air in 2020, when the Falcons also surrendered 34 TD passes and had just 29 sacks (tied for 23rd overall). New coordinator Dean Pees is installing his preferred 3-4 front with a team that had been accustomed to former coach Dan Quinn’s Cover 3 scheme. Pees’ version probably can’t be much worse, yet it might need to be appreciably improved as QB Matt Ryan and a retooled offense adapt to new coach Arthur Smith.
Can they strike any fear into opposing secondaries?: Baltimore wants to expand its potency through the air after attempting the fewest passes in the league each of the past two seasons. But it may become premature to file a progress report this month as QB Lamar Jackson recovers from his second bout with COVID-19 while first-round WR Rashod Bateman will likely be sidelined multiple weeks with a groin injury.
Is the defense reverting to its 2019 form? As much progress as newly enriched MVP runner-up Josh Allen made in 2020, his defense collected fewer sacks, was less effective on third downs and gave up significantly more points and yards than it did in 2019. Contributions from rookie DL Gregory Rousseau and Carlos Basham should help … as would the belated emergence of 2019 first-rounder Ed Oliver.
Has QB Sam Darnold arrived? After three mostly wasted years with the Jets, the No. 3 pick of the 2018 draft gets to reboot his career with a markedly more talented set of skill players surrounding him – including 2019 All-Pro RB Christian McCaffrey. But August should be all about gauging how Darnold is integrating into his new team, synthesizing the playbook and jibing with highly regarded coordinator Joe Brady. Even middling progress from the quarterback could propel a 21st-ranked offense forward.
Can the defense dominate again? Yes, all the attention here swirls around first-round QB Justin Fields. But do we need to temper the copious buzz he’s generated in camp given the steady descent of Chicago’s defense? Since Vic Fangio’s crew vaulted the Bears to the NFC North crown in 2018, the defense has steadily deteriorated from the unit that gave up the fewest points in the league. Rookie coordinator Sean Desai replaces retired Chuck Pagano and must make do with an unproven squad of corners that lost Pro Bowler Kyle Fuller – to Fangio’s Broncos – due to a salary cap crunch. Not a great development in a division ruled by Aaron Rodgers and the Packers.
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Is this defense finally on the right track? In two years under coordinator Lou Anarumo, Cincinnati has surrendered 26.4 points per game. Several positional groups are in transition, namely a line formerly anchored by Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap but now bookended by DEs Trey Hendrickson, the Bengals’ top free agent signing this year, and newly extended Sam Hubbard. And with QB Joe Burrow still battling back from knee surgery, Cincinnati may have to prepare to offset some early offensive hiccups.
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How well are the new defensive pieces jelling? A middle-of-the-pack outfit in 2020, the Browns added DE Jadeveon Clowney, CB Troy Hill, DT Malik Jackson, S John Johnson and DE Takk McKinley before drafting CB Greg Newsome II (Round 1) and LB Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah (Round 2). Cleveland also hopes 2020 second-round S Grant Delpit can eventually contribute after losing his rookie year to an Achilles tear before suffering a recent hamstring injury. If the new parts coalesce – especially while combatting the pass – around defensive player of the year candidate Myles Garrett, the Super Bowl hype surrounding the Browns could well prove justified.
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Can Dan Quinn stabilize the defense? After surrendering a franchise-worst 473 points in 2020, the Cowboys hired Quinn – he ran Seattle’s Legion of Boom D at its apex – to improve the communication while marrying a scheme that seems to better fit the personnel on Dallas’ roster than the one last year’s coordinator, Mike Nolan, wanted to employ. If the Cowboys simply rebound to average, the pressure on QB Dak Prescott and his surgically repaired ankle would diminish substantially.
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Who’s the quarterback? Pretty simple. A team that’s well stocked at most spots must choose between a talented young passer who takes too many risks – Drew Lock led the AFC with 15 interceptions in 2020 – and a veteran, Teddy Bridgewater, who’s probably overly risk-averse. The decision will set an early tone for this group … and the results will likely dictate whether or not this franchise pursues Rodgers, Deshaun Watson or another option in the not-too-distant future.
Who’s part of the foundation? Thank you, Dan Campbell, the rookie head coach stating this week, “There’s no turds here,” while assessing his new team. But how many studs do Campbell and first-year GM Brad Holmes have at their disposal after parting with QB Matthew Stafford and WR Kenny Golladay among other experienced players. Even CB Jeff Okudah, the No. 3 overall pick in 2020, has plenty to prove after a lackluster rookie season.
Green Bay Packers
Whither Jordan Love? The quarterback’s arrival as a first-round pick in 2020 was at least partially responsible for Rodgers’ fraying relationship with the front office. But after Love was drafted, Rodgers won his third MVP award to cap a season when his rookie teammate didn’t even dress for a game. With Rodgers unlikely to play much this month, Love has a golden opportunity to prove he’s on track to play … or that GM Brian Gutekunst and team president Mark Murphy better devise new strategies to keep Rodgers in the fold beyond this season.
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Who are they? It’s obviously going to take more than three preseason games to re-establish the identity of a franchise that bid Watt adieu in February and appears to be in the final stages of its relationship with Watson, its embattled and unhappy superstar. New GM Nick Caserio continues to churn a bad roster while rookie head coach David Culley tries to make chicken salad out of the ingredients. Maybe August will at least be indicative of whether or not the Texans can be remotely competitive in 2021.
Can they sustain last season’s offensive success? Following last year’s Week 7 bye, this became a team reliant on its running game – and the result was a 7-3 finish and wild-card berth. Even with QB Carson Wentz shelved following foot surgery, Indy could still theoretically lean on second-year RB Jonathan Taylor and his formidable offensive line … except for the fact that All-Pro G Quenton Nelson (foot surgery) and Pro Bowl C Ryan Kelly (elbow) are also hurt. Coach Frank Reich better find some bubble gum and baling wire in the coming weeks if his team is to survive its forbidding early season schedule.
How are Urban Meyer and Trevor Lawrence navigating the NFL learning curve? Yes, it’s a hedge. But the college coaching legend’s union with the most hyped No. 1 draft pick in nearly a decade will be one of the most closely watched stories of the 2021 season. The preseason might give a glimpse of how Meyer is adapting to a far more level playing field while leading grown men, and whether or not he’s going to turn Lawrence loose or adapt the more conservative approach his staffing choices suggest he might take.
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Kansas City Chiefs
Trench welfare? The two-time defending AFC champs were forced to overhaul their offensive line after QB Patrick Mahomes was abused behind a patchwork group in the Super Bowl 55 loss to the Bucs. But questions now also extend to the D-line following DE Frank Clark’s offseason arrest for felony possession of an assault weapon. Pro Bowler Chris Jones is working outside for a group that may need to find alternate pass rush sources if Clark is unavailable.
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Las Vegas Raiders
Trench welfare, part deux? They traded away 60% of last season’s starting offensive line in March before, in the estimation of many observers, reaching for OT Alex Leatherwood in Round 1 of the draft. On the other side of the ball, free agent DE Yannick Ngakoue’s arrival pushed Clelin Ferrell, the No. 4 pick in 2019, to the second team alongside Carl Nassib. Just last week, Vegas added six-time Pro Bowl DT Gerald McCoy in an ongoing attempt to bolster the rotation for a defense that’s been suspect for decades. Lot of questions for a franchise that’s finished above .500 once in the past 18 seasons.
Los Angeles Chargers
What’s the Brandon Staley effect? The Bolts’ new coach brought in longtime Saints assistant Joe Lombardi to re-engineer the offense around 2020 rookie of the year QB Justin Herbert. Staley himself orchestrated the league’s No. 1 defense last season while with the Rams and is installing an odd front with his new team as onlookers wait to see how he deploys the likes of pass rusher Joey Bosa and S Derwin James. You hate to put too many expectations on a rookie head coach, but the Chargers have the personnel to augment Staley’s burgeoning status as a football savant.
Los Angeles Rams
How does the run game look? Don’t expect to see Stafford, DL Aaron Donald or CB Jalen Ramsey this month. But maybe we will get a glimpse at how the Rams plan to run the ball in the aftermath of RB Cam Akers’ season-ending Achilles’ injury. Darrell Henderson is the presumed starter, but keep an eye – we’re talking to you fantasy owners – on how undrafted RB Xavier Jones fits in.
How will this offense work? From how co-coordinators George Godsey and Eric Studesville divvy up the game planning to how QB Tua Tagovailoa executes in his second NFL season to the way new WRs Will Fuller V and first-rounder Jaylen Waddle are utilized, plenty of moving parts to monitor here for a team that’s expected to contend for a playoff spot.
Is a defensive revival on track? Longtime coach Mike Zimmer called last season’s defense the “worst one I’ve ever had.” But he’s getting Pro Bowlers Danielle Hunter and Anthony Barr back along with 2020 COVID-19 opt-out Michael Pierce and free agent additions like DTs Dalvin Tomlinson and Sheldon Richardson plus CBs Patrick Peterson, Bashaud Breeland and Mackensie Alexander and S Xavier Woods. A lot of meshing needs to occur between the newcomers and healthy holdovers, but Zimmer’s traditionally been up to such tasks … assuming there’s no virus outbreaks to deal with.
New England Patriots
Who’s the quarterback? The Pats’ preseason will likely boil down to three letters – Cam or Mac. First-round pick Mac Jones has been building momentum throughout the offseason in his bid to dethrone Cam Newton, the former league MVP. Should be a fascinating battle – and decision for coach Bill Belichick – given their divergent skill sets, though the long-term outlook suggests Jones might be the favorite … not to mention that he seems better suited to operate this offense in a manner closer to the way Tom Brady ran it for so long.
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New Orleans Saints
How will this offense evolve? The obvious question is whether coach Sean Payton will tab Jameis Winston or Taysom Hill to replace retired QB Drew Brees. But beyond that, it’s worth wondering if the attack will run through RB Alvin Kamara (that might point toward Winston’s promotion) and whether controversial WR Michael Thomas will return to his post as the team’s No. 1 target. Given Thomas won’t be around this month, and Kamara likely won’t play much, either, it could be a slow reveal.
New York Giants
Is Daniel Jones ready to stand and deliver? Plenty to suggest this is a make-or-break season in The Big Apple for the third-year quarterback. But with WRs Kadarius Toney and Golladay in and out of the lineup, and RB Saquon Barkley and TE Kyle Rudolph working back themselves – plus ongoing questions about the quality of the blocking – Jones could struggle to find the continuity he’ll likely require to establish needed rhythm.
New York Jets
Is Zach Wilson ready? Gang Green has bet big on its new QB1, the No. 2 overall pick of this year’s draft. He was admittedly “not great” in a recent scrimmage as he attempts to settle into a new league and adjust to his teammates – this after losing pass game specialist Greg Knapp in a fatal accident last month. With newly signed journeyman Josh Johnson the only quarterback on the roster who’s ever thrown a regular-season pass, the Jets have to hope Wilson trends away from “not great” over the course of the preseason.
Has the O-line healed? Philly used 14 different line combinations in 16 games last season, injuries to LT Andre Dillard, RG Brandon Brooks and RT Lane Johnson necessitating much of the shuffling. Dillard is now in a battle with Jordan Mailata to protect the blind side, but the remainder of the unit – including stalwart C Jason Kelce and LG Isaac Seumalo – appears set … for now. But if it’s not, the likes of second-year QB Jalen Hurts and rookie WR DeVonta Smith won’t likely have many opportunities to revitalize this offense.
How adaptable is the offense? The only player returning to the line is LT Chukwuma Okorafor, who manned the right side in 2020. First-round RB Najee Harris is charged with resuscitating the league’s worst run game. And even QB Ben Roethlisberger, 39, is attempting to synch with new coordinator Matt Canada’s playbook and its pre-snap shifts, jet sweeps and frequent requirement of Big Ben to line up under center. Seems like a lot to ask of Roethlisberger in what could be his final season – especially if he’s under siege behind this group of blockers.
San Francisco 49ers
Can this offense find a new gear with Jimmy Garoppolo? The veteran quarterback has only started more than six games in a season once – the Niners’ 2019 run to Super Bowl 54, when Jimmy G. had 27 TD passes and a 102.0 QB rating. Assuming he can remain healthy – the key for Garoppolo – is it too much to suggest San Francisco could be better as he settles in with Pro Bowl LT Trent Williams, C Alex Mack, WR Brandon Aiyuk and others? Despite drafting QB Trey Lance with the No. 3 pick, 49ers brass has been adamant Garoppolo is the starter – but is relying on him to build on his 2019 output in order to restore this proud franchise to contention.
How’s it working with Russell Wilson and Shane Waldron? Wilson, Seattle’s longtime quarterback, and Waldron, the team’s new offensive coordinator, will be under a microscope. Wilson didn’t mask his frustration with the team after last season, though whether his issues are real or imagined is a debate for another time. But he seems to be happy with Waldron’s uptempo approach, saying, “I think we can be the No. 1 offense in football. I don’t see why not.” That would be a big jump from last year’s No. 17 ranking … and would probably put the Seahawks back into the Super Bowl conversation seven years removed from the last time they advanced beyond the divisional round.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Can they cruise into September? The Bucs are the first Super Bowl champs in more than 40 years to keep their starting lineup fully intact for the subsequent title defense. A team that rounded into form late last season certainly still has kinks to work out – while trying to establish roles for the likes of TE O.J. Howard, RB Gio Bernard and rookie OLB Joe Tryon. But a proven group of this caliber need not overdo it in August – and maybe not even in September – as it prepares to mount what Brady and Co. hope is the first Lombardi-winning repeat in 17 years.
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Can they get to opposing quarterbacks? Only two teams had fewer sacks than Tennessee’s 19 in 2020. The arrival of OLB Bud Dupree should help, but he just came off the physically unable to perform list following last season’s ACL tear. Time for DL Jeffery Simmons and Denico Autry, OLB Harold Landry and others to prove this defense can get off the field on third down while enabling All-Pro RB Derrick Henry and what could be a championship-caliber offense to put games away early.
Washington Football Team
How much better can this D be? The reigning NFC East champs finished 2020 with the league’s No. 2 defense. Yet DE Chase Young vows to be better in his second season, when he’ll get reinforcements from CB William Jackson III, first-round LB Jamin Davis and the presumed return to form of S Landon Collins. If Washington can put an even more suffocating product on the field, itinerant and inconsistent QB Ryan Fitzpatrick might just take his first postseason snaps next January.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis.