As NFL teams prepare to begin training camp, they are nagged by critical and specific uncertainties they hope to address and settle as soon as possible.
Not surprisingly, quarterbacks are involved one way or the other in the primary concerns of many American Football Conference clubs based on a survey by team correspondents for The Sports Xchange.
Causes for quarterback concerns in the AFC include picking one, as in Oakland and Jacksonville; blocking for one, as in Cincinnati, Denver, Indianapolis (and others); and having enough weapons for one, as is the case in Kansas City, New England and the New York Jets, whose quarterback issues are as complex as ever.
Here is a closer look at key causes for concern for AFC teams as they prepare for training camp (teams listed alphabetically):
Baltimore Ravens — Inside linebacker.
It has been a long time since inside linebacker was an issue with this team, but the Ravens lost their Super Bowl starters with the retirement of Ray Lewis and departure of Dannell Ellerbe in free agency to the Miami Dolphins. Daryl Smith could stabilize the spot, but only if he’s over the sports hernia that hampered him last year. The Ravens need rookie Arthur Brown to be an instant hit after a recent sports hernia surgery and for Jameel McClain to make a healthy return.
Buffalo Bills — Safety Jairus Byrd’s status.
On Monday, Byrd became the only franchised player this year who didn’t either sign his tender or get a new deal. Byrd wants to be paid as one of best safeties in the league after his 76 tackles, five interceptions and four forced fumbles last year were better than either Dashon Goldson or Ed Reed. The Bills must now shoot for a one-year deal of some sort to get him on the field for training camp.
Cincinnati Bengals — Tackle Andre Smith.
After signing a three-year, $18 million contract, Smith missed offseason workouts due to personal issues. There is the natural curiosity of whether Smith’s weight issues have returned. At cornerback, Dre Kirkpatrick is still rehabbing a knee injured in the offseason and Adam Jones could face suspension for a possible violation of the personal conduct policy related to an assault charge on June 5.
Cleveland Browns — Running back Trent Richardson’s durability.
Richardson is building a track record of injury issues, the most recent of which was a strained muscle in his right shin that kept him out of minicamp. Last year he had knee surgery in training camp, then played most of the season with two broken ribs. His tough running style will continue to test his durability and all of this creates an issue regarding if, how and when to use the talented back during preseason.
Denver Broncos — Health of offensive line (and Peyton Manning).
There have been too many surgeries on what was a good offensive line. Left tackle Ryan Clady and right tackle Orlando Franklin underwent shoulder surgeries. Guard Chris Kuper and center J.D. Walton had leg surgeries. Louis Vasquez and Dan Koppen were signed to replace Kuper and Walton, and Koppen has shown he can handle the work at center.
Houston Texans — Safety Ed Reed’s health.
After signing a $15 million, three-year contract to leave Baltimore, Reed underwent arthroscopic surgery on his hip. He may not be back until the first game at San Diego. Other Texans coming off injuries or surgeries are inside linebacker Brian Cushing (knee), offensive tackle Derek Newton (patellar tendon), offensive tackle Duane Brown (ankle), running back Arian Foster (calf), defensive end Tim Jamison (Achilles tendon) and cornerback Brice McCain (foot).
Indianapolis Colts — Unity on offensive line.
New offensive line coach Joe Gilbert has three returning starters in center Samson Satele, guard Mike McGlynn and offensive tackle Anthony Castonzo. They must now fit in two newcomers in guard Donald Thomas (New England) and tackle Gosder Cherilus (Detroit). Promising second-year receiver LaVon Brazill, whose 11 catches included four of more than 20 yards last year, will sit out four games for a substance abuse violation. Perhaps that is why the Colts signed superfast Darrius Heyward-Bey.
Jacksonville Jaguars — A starting quarterback.
Blaine Gabbert, the 10th overall draft pick in 2011, and Chad Henne, considered a so-so, sixth-year journeyman, evenly split reps in offseason workouts. New coach Gus Bradley should make an early decision to avoid the damaging disruption that goes with a prolonged quarterback controversy. This could be Gabbert’s final chance to establish himself, or the Jaguars may focus on a quarterback for the future in the next draft.
Kansas City Chiefs — Weapons for QB Alex Smith.
Smith’s assimilation into a new offense — and vice versa — was slowed by the offseason absence of tight end Tony Moeaki and limited participation by wide receivers Dexter McCluster and Donnie Avery. Free agent Anthony Fasano and rookie draftee Travis Kelce got the snaps with the first offense. McCluster (hamstring) and Avery (ankle) are key players and must make up for lost time.
Miami Dolphins — Rushing game.
The Dolphins’ ground game wasn’t great with Reggie Bush the last two seasons and now that he is in Detroit it might get worse. That certainly won’t help second-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill step up his game. Top backs on the roster are Lamar Miller, in his second year from the University of Miami, and rookie Mike Gillislee, a fifth-round pick from Florida.
New England Patriots — Receivers at all positions.
Quarterback Tom 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.
New York Jets — Wide receivers.
Never mind the quarterback situation for a change. This may make it moot. In OTA and minicamp workouts, wide receiver Santonio Holmes didn’t take a snap while recovering from Lisfranc surgery. Jeremy Kerley, Stephen Hill, Clyde Gates and Jordan White were all limited by injury as well. Adding insult to injury, as it were, Kerley and Hill each had multiple drops when they were on the field. The Jets may need to add someone, anyone, to provide depth and reliability.
Oakland Raiders — A starting quarterback.
After trading strong-armed veteran Carson Palmer (4,018 yards passing, 22 touchdowns, 14 interceptions) to Arizona, the Raiders were left with uncertainty at quarterback. They grabbed still-unproven Matt Flynn, fresh off being beaten out by rookie Russell Wilson in Seattle last year. This year he may be pressed by athletic Terrelle Pryor or even rookie Tyler Wilson. There are more concerns aplenty on a team with eight new defenders and an offense that relies on oft-injured running back Darren McFadden.
Pittsburgh Steelers — Tight end Heath Miller’s health.
Voted by teammates as the Steelers’ MVP in 2012, Miller is still rehabbing from three torn knee ligaments, including his ACL. He may not be ready for the season and they do not have another tight end anywhere near his ability.
San Diego Chargers — Consistency at cornerback.
Success on defense will rely heavily on two new starters at cornerback — Derek Cox, a free agent from Jacksonville, and Shareece Wright, who is entering his third season, but first as a starter. They replace Quentin Jammer and Antoine Cason, whom the Chargers decided to let go via free agency. Cox started 12 games last season, but Wright was only a backup and nickel back last year.
Tennessee Titans — Middle linebacker.
Although Colin McCarthy made an impact as a rookie in 2011, his season was ruined last year by a high ankle sprain and concussion. In offseason workouts, journeyman Moise Fokou got a lot of first-team reps. What happens early in training camp should determine whether all that was a change in direction or a message intended to show McCarthy he needs to earn the starting job again.