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NFL summer subplots: One burning question for each AFC team

With the bulk of roster-reshuffling in the rearview, we've truly entered the NFL's offseason. But training camp will be here in no time, and all 32 rosters still carry unresolved issues. Today, Jeremy Bergman examines one burning question for each AFC team.


Buffalo Bills: Who's the odd man out at running back?

It's a cruel turn of fate that just as Buffalo's front office has filled -- or attempted to fill -- glaring holes at every offensive position, and after the Bills finally found their franchise quarterback and built a simpatico GM-coach pairing, that the one consistent star on the roster over the past four years could be on his way out of town. This isn't the case right now -- insiders shot down rumors from a canine-bot Twitter account last week that LeSean McCoy's departure was imminent -- but the state of Buffalo's RB position could prove unfortunate for McCoy, who's nearing 31 and coming off the worst season of his career. The Bills have not been shy this offseason about improving the position, either. Buffalo axed Chris Ivory in favor of the eclectic mix of Frank Gore, T.J. Yeldon and rookie Devin Singletary, whose combined salary in 2019 is not even half that of Shady. It would be a bold strategy and patently unfair, as much as a veteran cut is unfair in this unforgiving business, to let McCoy go or phase him out just as the Bills are set to give Josh Allen and his remade arsenal a true chance at building something great. And it might not happen. But Brandon Beane's transactions this spring suggest that a changing of the guard, or at least the philosophy, in the backfield is afoot.

Miami Dolphins: Will Josh Rosen win the starting job, and what will it mean for the Fish Tank if he does?

Remember those halcyon four months east of the Everglades when the word "tank" evoked such optimism that you'd have thought the Allies had just liberated Paris? Rookie coach. No "stars" on either side of the ball. Fatzmagic under center Week 1. Finally, the Dolphins, after years of doggie-paddling between the sky and the surface, would tie an anvil to their fins and sink to the top of the draft, where something called a Tua could be waiting. Yeah, well, Steve Keim ruined all that. By acquiring Josh Rosen, last year's No. 10 overall pick, in a trade that netted the Cardinals a fast pass catcher and change, Miami came away with a supposed franchise quarterback and arguably the steal of the draft. But at what cost? For all the Fish Tanker fans who wanted to throw away the 2019 season in anticipation of acquiring the QB of the future in the 2020 draft, Rosen's presence poses a brief existential crisis. How much should Miami buy into Rosen? What if he's not Dan Marino but Chad Henne -- or, even worse, Joey Harrington? Will the Dolphins know by the end of the 2019 season -- and, by then, will it be too late to eschew Rosen for a top QB in the 2020 draft? Will this QB question lord over Brian Flores and sabotage his rookie coaching campaign? The unpredictability of Rosen's and Miami's fate in 2019 and beyond make the Dolphins one of the league's most fascinating stories to watch for onlookers, and one of the most confusing to understand for Miami diehards.

New England Patriots: Who's coaching the defense? Does it matter?

Matt Patricia is in Motown, Brian Flores in Florida and Greg Schiano ... Well, let's hope Massachusetts real estate offers a 90-day buy-back policy. Defensive disciples of Bill Belichick have often left for greener field-turf during his Patriots reign -- Romeo Crennel took Cleveland's HC job, Eric Mangini defected to Gang Green, Dean Pees moved to Baltimore, etc. But as often as defensive play-callers have left the Hoodie's side, Belichick has found a suitable replacement. This season, after Flores, who called plays in 2018 but was not listed as the defensive coordinator, took the Dolphins' head-coaching job, Belichick was reported to have hired Schiano. But the former Bucs head coach and Ohio State DC unexpectedly bounced due to personal issues that have not been explained in detail by him or the organization. At one point this offseason, the only person listed on the defensive coaching staff on New England's team website was the safeties coach, Steve Belichick, Bill's son. (There's playing it close to the vest, and then there's running a cottage industry out of Patriots Place.) So it was notable last week when it was reported by Patriots insiders that Big Belichick would go at it alone in 2019 and take on play-calling duties. If that's the case, it would be the first time since 2011, when New England lost its second Super Bowl to Eli Manning, that he would call plays. The defensive maestro that he is, Belichick's abilities as a game-planner are unquestioned; see Super Bowl LIII as a most-recent example. But as he enters his 45th season of coaching, is Belichick truly ready and able to take on those duties again? Maybe a better question: With Tom Brady still under center, does it even matter?

New York Jets: Are they done team-building, and who is "they?"

After two consecutive offseasons of big spending and bolder moves, the Jets have a daring new look, flashy in its design and brash in its attitude. The jerseys are fine, too. But for every Le'Veon Bell and C.J. Mosley signed (against Adam Gase's will, apparently) and Quinnen Williams drafted, there remain holes on the roster that, for whatever reason (negligence, bad timing, unwillingness to part with more picks, etc.), have not been addressed. Just hours before securing the Mosley contract, New York had supposedly sealed the deal with Anthony Barr, only for the outside linebacker to have a midnight change of heart and return to Minnesota. After Barr spurned the Jets, they didn't even look to acquire a bona fide edge rusher -- which they've been lacking since they shipped John Abraham to the Falcons in 2006 -- until the third round of the draft, when they took a flier on Jachai Polite, a first-round talent with character questions. New York also has yet to find a legitimate answer at center, replacing underperforming snapper Spencer Long with converted guard Jonotthan Harrison and then not closing on Matt Paradis in free agency. On an otherwise-manageable offensive line, that the Jets have struggled to find the heir to Kevin Mawae and Nick Mangold for the past two years is shoddy team-building. And then there's cornerback, where Trumaine Johnson, who underwhelmed in his expensive first season in East Rutherford, is playing across from checks notes Brian Poole? With Morris Claiborne still a free agent, will the Jets attempt to re-sign their starting corner from last year? They have the cap space to do it, and many other things. The surprising firing of Mike Maccagnan might help spur these roster decisions, or further complicate them. The Jets have dug themselves into a hole thanks to indecision and inconsistency. Whoever takes the reins next will have to address these weaknesses, the temporary ones on the roster and the systemic ones in the organization.


Baltimore Ravens: Will John Harbaugh's team continue to run it up?

No team last year experienced a more jarring midseason change in philosophy than Baltimore, which swapped Joe Flacco out for Lamar Jackson and immediately became the most feared ground attack in football. Over their final seven regular-season games, during which they crawled back from sub.-500 to a division title, the Ravens averaged 229.6 rushing yards per game with Jackson leading the charge (logging 17 attempts and 79.4 yards per game). Baltimore doubled down on that ground-and-pound approach this offseason by signing Mark Ingram and drafting Justice Hill. Meanwhile, the Ravens lost aging receiving talent (Michael Crabtree, John Brown) but added rookie standouts Hollywood Brown and Miles Boykin to pair with a trio of useful tight ends. The Ravens are Lamar's team now, but as the first three quarters of their wild-card defeat to the Chargers exposed, Baltimore's reliance on the run might not hold up over a full campaign -- or against teams that now have half a season's worth of tape on how the Ravens use their dynamic QB. Baltimore has the personnel to pace the league in rushing attempts again. Whether, in Jackson's sophomore season, the Ravens change their course will be something to monitor early on in 2019.

Cincinnati Bengals: How much will Zac Taylor's offense look like Sean McVay's?

Zac Taylor, just days over 36 years of age, was the latest Sean McVay-adjacent assistant to grab a head-coaching job this offseason, joining Matt LaFleur and Kliff Kingsbury in this offseason's Attack of the Clones. But how similar will Taylor's Bengals attack be to McVay's in Los Angeles? Taylor was the assistant wide receivers coach in 2017 and quarterbacks coach in 2018 when the Rams ran out of 11 personnel 80 and 91.2 percent of the time; Cincinnati did so 68.7 and 72.1 percent of the time in those two seasons. Los Angeles ran play-action on 36 percent of its plays in 2018, the highest in the league; Cincinnati did so just 25 percent of the time and to less effect. The Bengals boast similar (if off-brand) personnel to the Rams with three viable receivers and a young multi-dimensional running back. If Cincy's offensive line improves, and it should, that could open up a world of opportunity for Andy Dalton, who plays up or down to the talent surrounding him. The Bengals don't often make a ton of noise in the AFC North and are pegged to be the odd team out in a three-club race to the top of the division in 2019. But if Taylor is the McVay facsimile that the internet jokes he is, perhaps Cincy could shock the league in Taylor's first season as L.A. did in McVay's.

Cleveland Browns: How soon can the season get here?

The fatalism that surrounded the reborn Browns for nearly two decades was swept aside on a Thursday night in September last season, when Baker Mayfield strutted onto the field for the first time and led Cleveland to a comeback victory on prime-time television. The too-good-to-be-true turn of events for the team and city has since inspired a wave of confidence (dare I say, overconfidence?) from the front office down to the fans. The wonks have given way to gum-smacking, crew-cutting John Dorsey. Mealy-mouthed Hue Jackson is out, replaced by a walking colloquialism in Freddie Kitchens. Cleveland, never a "destination" for free agents, is suddenly overflowing with talent, the best of whom were acquired in bold trades (Jarvis Landry, Odell Beckham Jr., Olivier Vernon) and the draft (Myles Garrett, Baker Mayfield, Nick Chubb, David Njoku). The Browns, oh-and-sixteen nary 17 months ago, are considered not only favorites to win the AFC North, but legitimate contenders to take the conference. The Browns, who haven't made the postseason since 2002 or won a playoff game since Bill Belichick was in town! Cleveland is entering 2019 having gone from America's Laughingstock to America's Team. But the hype surrounding the Browns is exactly that: hype, ignited by a rousing finish to 2018, bolstered by changes elsewhere in the division and latched onto by media hounds in search of A True UnderDawgPound Story. Cleveland is on national TV four times in 2019, including three in the first five weeks. All this is overlooking the fact that Cleveland is being led by a first-year head coach (in a division still ruled by two stalwart franchises and skippers) and a second-year QB (surrounded by many mouths to feed).

Pittsburgh Steelers: Is this offense greater than the loss of its parts?

Did anything happen in Pittsburgh this offseason? Anything tumultuous, headline-grabbing or of the like? You don't say ... The Killer Bs were killed off this offseason, when Pittsburgh traded disgruntled and bleach-mustachioed Antonio Brown to the Raiders and saw Le'Veon Bell jet off to New York, where there is certainly less drama. In their stead are two young stars, JuJu and James, 22 and 24 years of age, respectively, to physically take their place. Statistically, it's another story. Brown accounted for 114.3 receptions and 1,524.2 receiving yards per season over the last six years; JuJu has not yet eclipsed those numbers, but he did lead Pittsburgh in both categories in 2018. Conner filled in nicely for Bell last season, but he slowed down the stretch of the 16-game slog, failing to record a 100-yard game in Pittsburgh's last half. The depth at RB and WR is interesting if not reassuring: Smith-Schuster is flanked by James Washington, Donte Moncrief, Eli Rogers and rookie Diontae Johnson, while Conner will be spelled by Jaylen Samuels and Benny Snell Jr. The Rooneys and their employees are otherworldly team-builders, finding diamonds in the rough at skill positions over and again, so the Steelers' offense should be given the benefit of the doubt in its first season without Brown or Bell in 10 years. But it's fair to wonder whether, despite the Steelers' continuity at nearly every other position, Pittsburgh's losses will have an outsized effect on the team's odds of avoiding consecutive postseason-less seasons for the first time in six years.


Houston Texans: Will the offensive line be this team's undoing ... again?

For the nth season in a row, we have to broach the longhorn in the room: Have the Texans done enough to improve the offensive line and make sure Deshaun Watson stays in one piece next season? In Watson's first full season under center in Houston, no quarterback was sacked more often than him. Watson was taken down 62 times, six more than the next-closest tackling dummy, Dak Prescott. That's after Houston allowed 54 sacks to its quarterbacks in 2017, second-most in the league. The Texans have attempted to remedy this issue by tackling the tackle positions, signing Matt Kalil, who busted two seasons into a five-year deal in Carolina, and drafting Alabama State tackle Tytus Howard with the 23rd pick. The latter move could have been worthy of a celebration had the Eagles not hopped Houston by one pick to grab Andre Dillard, arguably the draft's top tackle. The Texans also expect second-round selection Max Scharping to compete at either tackle or guard. Whether this youth movement pays off by September, who knows, but Houston should take solace knowing that overnight O-line turnarounds are not so rare. Just look at the division-rival Colts, who went from surrendering the most sacks in 2017 (56) to the least in 2018 (18) after drafting linemen in the first (Quenton Nelson) and second rounds (Braden Smith).

Indianapolis Colts: Can they take the next step?

Chris Ballard can do no wrong. The Colts general manager has, in less than three years since taking over for Ryan Grigson, turned a static franchise into one of the most exciting rosters and cultures in football. Ballard can't take all the credit -- Andrew Luck's return from a crippling shoulder injury and Josh McDaniels' about-face were fortuitous -- but the GM enters 2019 feeling himself, or at least he should be. The Colts played it safe in free agency, saving their extensive cap space to re-sign their own players and go after proven veterans like Justin Houston. Their biggest risk, Devin Funchess, is on a one-year deal. The Colts still have enough capital to go after remaining big free agents like Gerald McCoy if they choose. Indy also added studs Rock Ya-Sin and Parris Campbell in the second round after trading out of the first. The Colts' roster is as complete as any in the league, and definitely more so than any in the AFC South, so what now? After starting 1-5 in 2018, Indy won 10 of its next 11 games, including a Wild Card Weekend demolition of the division-rival Texans, and only after running into the Patrick Mahomes buzzsaw could Luck's cavalry be turned away. The young Colts should naturally improve in 2019, but will they be able to overthrow the reigning champs in New England and top seed in Kansas City? Indy will be tested early; the Colts have three away games against the Chargers, Titans and Chiefs in the first five weeks. A better start than last year's 1-5 should portend greatness for Ballard and Co.

Jacksonville Jaguars: Is Nick Foles enough to turn the offense around?

Jacksonville's biggest move of the offseason was an obvious one, telegraphed when Blake Bortles was benched and John DeFilippo was hired as the Jaguars' offensive coordinator. The signing of Super Bowl LII MVP Nick Foles to a four-year deal ideally gives the Jags a four-year window to capitalize on a stacked defense and a reliable signal-caller. But outside of buying Big ... "Game" ... Nick, did Duval do enough this offseason to build an offense to compete with Indianapolis in the AFC South and the rest of the AFC? Leonard Fournette remains an enigma on and off the football field and has big bust potential. Jacksonville's pass-catching acquisitions -- Chris Conley, Geoff Swaim and rookie Josh Oliver -- don't strike fear into the heart of top secondaries. Marqise Lee is an injury risk, and Dede Westbrook and Keelan Cole are dynamic but unproven. Foles' Super Bowl champion Eagles had a surplus of playmakers at every position (Zach Ertz, Alshon Jeffery and LeGarrette Blount could all start on this Jacksonville team), while the Jags have B-talent or worse at every skill position. Hopefully for Jacksonvillians, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Tennessee Titans: Will Marcus Mariota stave off extinction?

Bound together by the 2015 NFL Draft, Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota are both in precarious positions in 2019: under center, for now. Winston and Mariota were seen as franchise quarterbacks when the Buccaneers and Titans drafted them back-to-back atop that draft, but here we are four years later, and neither signal-caller has financial or verbal assurance that he will be the starter, or even on the team, in 2020. Mariota is at risk of losing his job in Tennessee if he can't finish out the 2019 campaign on the field. The 2014 Heisman winner has dealt with a rash of injuries since entering the NFL, most notably last year, when he suffered a neck stinger, a cracked vertebra, a torn plantar fascia, a strained oblique, a broken rib and an AC shoulder joint sprain. Mariota was so beat up that he couldn't start Tennessee's do-or-die Week 17 finale against the Colts at home. Finally acknowledging Mariota's health as a lingering issue, the Titans upgraded at the backup QB position this spring, trading for longtime Dolphins starter Ryan Tannehill. All this is to say the 2019 season is a prove-it year for Mariota, who should benefit from the most talented skill-position players he's ever had -- Derrick Henry, Corey Davis, Adam Humphries, rookie A.J. Brown, Delanie Walker -- and a bolstered offensive line with Rodger Saffold at guard. If Mariota can't thrive or stay healthy this season, he'll be saying aloha to Nashville and ahola to a locale to be named later.


Denver Broncos: How long until the rookie takes over for Joe Flacco, Part II?

Now I don't truly believe that Drew Lock, the second-round pick and fourth QB taken in the 2019 NFL Draft, is a true threat to start over Flacco this season. After all, Denver just executed a trade for the veteran and took on over $60 million in his remaining, though not guaranteed, salary. John Elway has missed on nearly every QB transaction he's made as head honcho in Denver since making the no-brainer decision to sign Peyton Manning; the ghosts of Trevor Siemian, Case Keenum and Paxton Lynch -- boo! -- still haunt Mile High. So expect Elway to have patience. But that doesn't mean the above question isn't still relevant or what everybody has been thinking/talking about during the offseason workout program. Reporters are pressing Flacco as to whether he'll concentrate on mentoring Lock; he won't. Lock is responding to queries as to whether he minds that Flacco won't concentrate on mentoring him; he doesn't. This would all be unfounded talk-radio banter, and it is, if not for the fact that Flacco has been in this situation before -- in fact, very recently in Baltimore. Lamar Jackson's usurping of Joe Cool in the city where he won a Super Bowl title positively changed the course of the Ravens' 2018 season and the direction of the franchise. If Denver similarly finds itself below .500 at midseason, what's to stop a Broncos fan base not used to missing the postseason from calling for the mercenary's head in favor of the younger pick?

Kansas City Chiefs: Will Tyreek Hill be on the team in September -- and if not, can Patrick Mahomes and Andy Reid overcome the loss?

The air around the Chiefs should be thick with optimism. They're coming off their first AFC Championship Game appearance in 25 years. Their third-year quarterback is the reigning MVP and "Madden" coverboy. They added playmaking safety Tyrann Mathieu and 13-sack edge rusher Frank Clark in the offseason. And yet! A dark cloud still hovers over the organization, as Tyreek Hill's legal situation grows more complicated and the All-Pro receiver remains away from the facility, per team orders. Arguably the team's most valuable player over the last two seasons, Hill, if he were to be suspended by the league or released by the team, would be an immeasurable loss, though not one Kansas City hasn't been planning for. One day after the Chiefs barred Hill from team activities, they drafted a speedy returner-receiver in Georgia's Mecole Hardman. But a Hill clone is not Hill, and Kansas City's offense figures to take a step back in 2019. (Granted, it's hard to take a step forward from last year's outstanding output.) As great as they are, will Patrick Mahomes and Andy Reid be able to compensate for the potential losses of Hill and Kareem Hunt, now with the Browns, with an offense whose main producer, outside of Travis Kelce, figures to be Damien Williams?

Los Angeles Chargers: Let me repeat ... What are the excuses?

Is it lazy or justified of me to ctrl-V my entire response to this prompt from last season, when I asked, given the health of Mike Williams, the addition of Derwin James and the absence of Younghoe Koo, why shouldn't the Chargers be division champions and AFC contenders in 2018? The answer, it turns out, was not on Los Angeles' roster, but K.C.'s: Patrick Mahomes. But the Chiefs (see above) are hampered heading into 2019 thanks to self-inflicted wounds/personnel decisions and a still-iffy secondary. The Chargers, meanwhile, matched Kansas City's win total last season and targeted their own weaknesses (interior defensive line, offensive line) in the draft. Add a healthy Hunter Henry (fingers crossed this column doesn't jinx you like last season), and the Bolts should be division champs and title-game contenders, if not favorites in 2019. What can go wrong?

Oakland Raiders: With all eyes on offense, can Oakland's defense become respectable?

Sure, Jon Gruden made some splashy moves to jump-start his offense this offseason, trading for Antonio Brown, signing Trent Brown and Tyrell Williams and drafting Josh Jacobs. But the Raiders had deeper concerns than surrounding Derek Carr with passable pass-catchers. Oakland has been one of the most consistently poor defensive ballclubs this decade, failing to finish above 20th in points allowed every season since 2006. The Raiders gave up a league-worst 29.2 points per game in 2018 and shuffled starters in the secondary like they had already moved to Vegas, dealing blackjack with their D-backs. For the Raiders to even have a chance of leaving the Black Hole on a high, Oakland will need consistency from a defense half-filled with new starters. First-round picks Clelin Ferrell and Johnathan Abram will likely be thrown into the fire right away, as will second-rounder Trayvon Mullen. Veteran imports Lamarcus Joyner, Brandon Marshall and Vontaze Burfict will be tasked with bringing legitimacy and leadership to a side void of it. Paul Guenther oversaw top-10 defenses as defensive coordinator in Cincinnati and was brought to Oakland by his good friend Gruden to do just that. While Oakland's offense should garner the lion's share of press, the success of the Raiders' season depends on Guenther's ability to get the most out of a piece-meal defensive unit.

Follow Jeremy Bergman on Twitter @JABergman.

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