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NFC summer subplots: One huge question for each team in 2017

Summer storylines. And, well, summer concerns.

Every team has one -- an issue that hovers over the organization until training camp, when the answers begin to reveal themselves. The Bills have a new sheriff in town. Atlanta's facing a potential Super Bowl hangover. And the Ravens didn't get any new receivers.

Not all of these offseason subplots possess depth. Some are mostly special effects ... like "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2." In Houston, the Tony Romo plot point never really got going, but flooded the early offseason with sexy -- and completely speculative -- headlines. Same sort of deal in New England, where the Patriots were supposedly on the verge of dealing Malcolm Butler to the CB-needy Saints. Three weeks after the draft, Butler's still a Pat.

Marshawn Lynch coming back to play for the Raiders? Now that story has legs, unlike that "Ben-Hur" redux. Beast Mode gives Oakland a chance in the AFC race. The only chariot race worth seeing is the one with Charlton Heston, not the one that was all CGI and a smoking turd at the box office.

So what is a concern of your favorite team as spring moves to summer? See below. All team capsules presented without CGI, too. Your thoughts go to the usual place: @HarrisonNFL.


Dallas Cowboys: And the children shall lead in the secondary?

Apologies for using the title of a cruddy "Star Trek" episode about a planet (or Paramount's backlot) where kids are in charge to describe the Cowboys' defensive backfield. But it is appropriate. The three kids Dallas drafted -- Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis and Xavier Woods -- should play right away. While Dallas signed Nolan Carroll and still has vets Jeff Heath and Orlando Scandrick, how much will they each contribute? Carroll is on his third team and was considered a mid-tier free agent, not necessarily a front-line starter. Heath is all heart, but mostly a stopgap guy. Scandrick is older now, got hurt two years ago and probably isn't the same player he was in 2014. He has also been the subject of trade rumors. Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne are gone. Thus, the rookies will join youngsters Byron Jones (2015 draft) and Anthony Brown (2016) in reshaping the Dallas secondary. Heck, the 1981 49ers won it all with three rookie starters back there. In fact, they beat the Cowboys in the NFC Championship Game. Ahh, nobody remembers that game anyway ...

New York Giants: Will they go after LeGarrette Blount before it's too late?

If the Giants want to sign LeGarrette Blount, they'll have to do so by July 22 -- a deadline resulting from a not-much-heard-of tender the Patriots recently applied to the power back. If Blount is unsigned by that date, then he is excluded from signing with any team other than New England until Week 10 (at a paltry $1.1 million, plus incentives). However, if the Giants do add the free-agent back, then the Patriots will earn a compensatory selection in next year's draft. I know. Lots of moving parts. The Giants have Paulie Perkins, Shane Vereen, Wayne Gallman and Orleans Darkwa at RB. Perhaps Gallman could be their thumper inside the 10. He's also a rookie. Blount is more than merely a power back, too. He's nimble, knows the value of a 3-yard gain and was integral to New England's Lombardi run last season. New York is a contender now. Sign the guy before it's too late.

Philadelphia Eagles: Who is the lead dog in the backfield?

Typically, when you hear the term "running back by committee," it refers to just a couple of guys sharing the bulk of the rushing duties. The Eagles might create a new trend this year with running back by mosh pit. (Sorry, been listening to early Pearl Jam and Alice In Chains lately.) Last year's most common starter, Ryan Mathews, is at best a part-time player -- and he could be released altogether. Darren Sproles was the most effective RB last season, but he's soon to be 34 years old. Last year's fifth-round pick, Wendell Smallwood, is rumored to be in line for much work this season, but he only carried the football 77 times last year and got hurt. After Smallwood comes rookie Donnel Pumphrey, who is, well, small (5-foot-8 and 176 pounds, to be exact). The San Diego State product's explosive, and plenty of folks in my business are excited about this draft pick, but Pumphrey will probably be Darren Sproles 2.0, not Wilbert Montgomery or Ricky Watters. Training camp sounds like a great place to sort this deal out.

Washington Redskins: Can Kirk Cousins and the team put the spring behind them?

As we head into summer, one storyline that is sure to calm down is the Cousins-to-San-Francisco-or-anywhere-else creative nonfiction. We can't call it "fiction," because there is a chance next offseason that the Redskins won't pay him, or will get an offer they can't refuse. They also have a new GM. For now, though, Cousins is Washington's quarterback. With the Cowboys weakened slightly, and the Giants still needing O-line (and RB) help, the NFC East can be had. That means everyone in that Redskins' building -- and huddle -- must be on the same page. Bear in mind that Cousins lost two starting wideouts to free agency. Jamison Crowder is an emerging talent. Ditto Terrelle Pryor, who has only played the WR position for a handful of years. Former first-round pick Josh Doctson enters Year 2 after the team brought him along slowly in Year 1. Former fifth-round pick Ryan Grant will inherit a much larger role than before. Thus, training camp's uber-important for this group.


Chicago Bears: How does Dowell Loggains get the entire QB room up to speed?

Much was made of the draft-day move to acquire Mitch Trubisky. We won't delve into that here, but an undercurrent to drafting a quarterback second overall is less experience in the QB room. That's why it's important to have a veteran starter or backup. The Bears own both in Mike Glennon and Mark Sanchez. However, like Trubisky, they too are new to this team, which means they are new to this offense -- or, at least, Dowell Loggains' version of it. Why is this important? Because to be better on the field, all of them need more reps than normal. If Glennon is the certified No. 1 on the depth chart, then you'd expect him to take the vast majority of snaps -- sometimes even 90 percent. How can Chicago do that and develop Trubisky? How can John Fox get his rookie QB adequate time under center without hampering Sanchez's understanding of the offense?

Detroit Lions: What to expect from Ameer Abdullah?

It's no secret the Lions must run the ball better and more often. In 2016, no Detroit ball carrier cracked the 400-yard barrier. This just in: That's no benchmark. The Lions haven't finished in the top half of the league in rushing offense since Barry Sanders was running wild. Want more? Detroit has finished in the bottom five in rushing yards 10 times since Y2K. GM Bob Quinn has already come out and said Abdullah is the starter, and that he didn't feel he could upgrade the position group after the first couple of rounds. The issue is that Abdullah only played two games last year, and he fumbled five times in part-time duty his rookie season. Hopefully the third-year back can stay healthy enough to reduce the stress on Matthew Stafford of trying to win games by himself.

Green Bay Packers: How much can Ty Montgomery do?

This impending training camp will be important for Ty Montgomery, running backs coach Ben Sirmans and offensive line coach James Campen. GM Ted Thompson and coach Mike McCarthy know they must give Aaron Rodgers more support. The franchise quarterback put the team on his back on a historic run during the second half of last season. From Week 11 through the Wild Card Round, Rodgers tossed 22 touchdown passes against zero interceptions. Call it unlikely that he will be able to do that again. After being thrust into the running back role last year at midseason, Montgomery will have the whole offseason to prepare with Sirmans. It'd be helpful for Sirmans to get fourth-round pick Jamaal Williams up to speed as quickly as possible. Campen will work with a healthy Corey Linsley and (T.J. Lang replacement) Jahri Evans. Both must contribute to a revitalized running game that was hit-or-miss in 2016.

Minnesota Vikings: What will become of Laquon Treadwell ... starter or bust?

Some folks are labeling Laquon Treadwell a bust after one season. A tad unfair, especially given Mike Zimmer's old-school approach with rookies. That said, Treadwell caught one pass the whole season. The last one thrown to him was a deep ball during the Cowboys game where it didn't appear that he and Sam Bradford were on the same page. Zimmer said he thinks Treadwell will be better this year with more familiarity with Pat Shurmur's offense. The current duo of Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs is viable, if not great. With Treadwell's presence as a red-zone threat, the trio could vault the passing game to formidable. That is, if Michael Floyd's signing doesn't hold back Treadwell before the sequel ever gets started. That's what happened with the sequel to the original "Clash of the Titans." It got stopped by MGM before filming ever got going. It signaled the end of stop-motion animation in movies. Neither movie had Vikings in it, so I'm not sure why Treadwell reminded me of a Harry Hamlin vehicle. But Treadwell's career is in stop-motion at this moment.


Atlanta Falcons: Is the Super Bowl hangover real?

Everyone is ready to move on from the blown lead, poor play calling and the like. Going beyond that, though, remember that making the Super Bowl is the culmination of the offseason program, training camp, preseason, 17-week regular season and postseason. The disappointment of wading through all that muck -- with a little luck -- only to lose on the last day of the season has translated to awful follow-up seasons for past runner-ups. Of the Super Bowl losers since 2000, only eight have even made it back to the postseason. None found their way to the big dance, and only two were in the conference championship game. That said, Thomas Dimitroff's staff did a solid job in the draft, while the front office acquired Dontari Poe and Jack Crawford in free agency. Still, the NFC South will be tough. Prediction: Atlanta wins the division again. Super Bowl?

Carolina Panthers: What will Mike Shula do with this offense?

Many of the league observers who were throwing bouquets at offensive coordinator Mike Shula two years ago were the same ones hammering him last year for his play calling. The Panthers went from first to 15th in scoring. Cam Newton went from the league's MVP to one of its lowest-rated passers in 2016. Of course, it turns out he had a shoulder problem. And Kelvin Benjamin was not as explosive in his first season back from a major knee injury. Well, Newton had surgery, Benjamin should be better this year (almost every player says Year 2 after knee surgery is when full strength returns) and Carolina drafted perhaps the most exciting player in the class in Christian McCaffrey. Shula has said he is going to adjust the attack with his new versatile pieces in McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel. How he pulls that off could directly dictate whether the Panthers hover around .500 or stay around in mid-January.

New Orleans Saints: Is the defense strong enough to compete in the NFC South?

Sean Payton is as tired of going 7-9 as we all are of hearing theories about millennials. That said, Sheldon Rankins is a millennial, and having him at full strength this season could make a rather large difference up font. Dennis Allen's unit was better when Rankins started playing. The Saints went from allowing 31 points per game to 26.5. Also, injuries took a toll on a secondary that will be healthier -- and also added Marshon Lattimore (the consensus top corner in the draft) and Marcus Williams (second-round safety). Throw in the fact that, well, New Orleans should be throwing the ball less with a backfield featuring Mark Ingram, Adrian Peterson and Alvin Kamara. Say what you want about this group, but it will compete. And every game won't be 38-35, broham.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: What will Doug Martin provide this year?

This is a huge factor in deciding how the NFC South shakes out. Martin was a stud as a rookie, cruising past 1,400 yards, causing this hack writer to compare him to Tiki Barber. Then came two injury-filled subpar seasons, before he finished second in the NFL in rushing in a contract year in 2015. So, of course, when Martin failed to perform last season, people blamed it on him getting paid. Turns out he carried some personal problems, leading him to get benched and, later, suspended. However, all reports are that staff and teammates are encouraged by what they have seen from Martin this offseason. With the draft falling the way it did, GM Jason Licht didn't take an RB until the fifth round (Jeremy McNichols). Thus, a Martin return to his 2012/2015 form could be huge for an offense that already upgraded its air game into an air raid. Everyone is rooting for Martin, but can they rely on him?


Arizona Cardinals: True contenders ... or just another mediocre bunch?

Watching Amazon's "All Or Nothing," one thing was clear: Bruce Arians didn't want his players drinking the Kool-Aid following the 2015 campaign. He was fond of saying "We ain't sh**." Well, coming off a 7-8-1 season in which the Cardinals weren't ever in the playoff race, apparently Arians was right. And while he is known for being aggressive, whatever swagger/confidence this team had in the past must have taken a hit last season. The offensive line looked terrible against the Vikings. The kicking game was about the same versus the Patriotsand Seahawks. The loss in the Miami muck stung; the performance in Buffalo was pure dung. All of which is to say that while fans point to Carson Palmer, this group as a whole must figure out how to close out games (like when they went 34-14 over the previous three years).

Los Angeles Rams: Did they do enough on offense to compete in the NFC West?

The Ramshit the offense hard in the draft, but the question of whether it will be enough to compete with the Cardinals and Seahawks in the division will take time to answer -- starting in camp, going through the preseason. The progression of the L.A. attack starts with Jared Goff, who won't be No. 2 on the depth chart this summer. Cooper Kupp and Josh Reynolds should play immediately, despite being rookies. Kupp came highly touted, but for now will probably be a slot receiver. After losing Kenny Britt to free agency, the Rams need a big talent outside. Rookie tight end Gerald Everett could contribute right away. If the passing game is still devoid of enough experience, perhaps the running game could pick up the slack. Left tackle Andrew Whitworth was a fantastic addition. But the line wasn't overhauled enough to ensure Todd Gurley can break loose. So, essentially, let's hope new head coach Sean McVay is a boy wonder.

San Francisco 49ers: Why does everyone sleep on Brian Hoyer?

Does it seem like a lot of fans own a dim view of the 49ers' starting quarterback? Maybe they don't take ownership of it, because it's not entirely based on fact -- but nobody seems to think he can play. Hoyer might not be the long-term solution, but he doesn't come up short in a lot of categories. You can start with character and attitude, pitfalls of the guy he backed up in Chicago. The statistics are there, as well -- bolstered by the fine season he had in a pinch for John Fox's Bears. Last year, Hoyer threw six touchdown passes against zero interceptions, while averaging more than 300 passing yards per start until he got hurt against the Packers. For his career, the former Patriot, Steeler, Cardinal, Brown, Texan and Bear has tossed 44 touchdowns vs. 26 interceptions. While his completion percentage isn't where you would like it to be (59.5), his yards-per-attempt mark is solid (7.2), meaning he is not afraid to throw downfield. The 49ers drafted C.J. Beathard. He'll duke it out with Matt Barkley for backup duties. Maybe GM John Lynch goes hard after Kirk Cousins next March. But don't let that -- and one spectacularly awful playoff game -- cause you to see Hoyer in an unfair light.

Seattle Seahawks: Will they miss Beast Mode in 2017?

They darn sure did in 2016. Seahawks fans lit up my Twitter last year when I speculated Thomas Rawls wouldn't simply just replace Marshawn Lynch. No one could. Rawls was injured and ineffective through most of the regular season. Christine Michael flamed out (again). C.J. Prosise showed major flashes -- like in the impressive win in Foxborough -- but has had trouble staying healthy. In comes Eddie Lacy, whose game resembles Lynch's more than any other RB in the league. A phat signing if it's the 2014 Lacy, not so much if he eats his way out of the lineup again. The man can certainly play (and hosts a mean garage sale). Despite a subpar ground game that finished 25th in the NFL, averaged 3.9 yards per carry and tallied 677 yards fewer that in the year prior, the Seahawks' defense kept the team in games once again. How about giving the defense a little rest with some old-fashioned clock ball?

Follow Elliot Harrison on Twitter @HarrisonNFL.

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