Five burning questions

With the Green Bay Packers and Seattle Seahawks getting NFL Kickoff Weekend underway on Thursday, here are five of the NFL’s biggest questions heading into the season.

Will the Seattle Seahawks repeat?

It’s been a decade since a Super Bowl champion, the 2003 New England Patriots, defended their title. Defensive ends Chris Clemons and Red Bryant were salary cap casualties while cornerback Brandon Browner and defensive tackle Clinton McDonald left via free agency, but the core of the NFL’s top ranked defense in 2013 returns. Legion of Boom members Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas signed lucrative long-term contract extensions. Five-time Pro Bowler Kevin Williams, who was brought in after spending 12 years with the Minnesota Vikings, and 2014 fourth-round pick Cassius Marsh are expected to replenish the defensive line.

Russell WilsonCan Russell Wilson and the Seahawks get back to the Super Bowl?

Russell Wilson seems poised to take a big step towards becoming an elite quarterback after a phenomenal preseason, with Seattle scoring on 11 of his 13 offensive possessions. Wilson posted a 133.8 passer rating by completing 33 of 42 passes (78.6 percent) for 437 yards with three touchdowns and zero interceptions. He also gained 61 yards on nine carries and scored three touchdowns.

A healthy Percy Harvin could take the NFL’s 18th ranked offense (by total offense) to another level despite Golden Tate’s departure to the Detroit Lions in free agency. Harvin has missed 22 regular season games over the last two seasons and hasn’t played a full campaign since 2011. The offensive identity won’t change with an improved passing attack, as Seattle will still be a run-oriented club, but the offensive line remains a question mark. Second-round pick Justin Britt takes over at right tackle for Breno Giacomini, who signed with the New York Jets.

As the NFL’s measuring stick, the Seahawks are a big game for every opponent on their schedule. Seattle must keep complacency from setting in and avoid the letdowns, which can afflict championship teams.

Can the San Francisco 49ers overcome defensive absences?

It will be a challenge for the 49ers to remain one of the NFL’s best defenses (third in scoring defense and fifth in total defense last season) without arguably their top two defenders for a significant period of time. Inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman is expected to miss half of the season because of the torn ACL and MCL he suffered in his left knee during last season’s NFC Championship game. Whether the three-time first-team All-Pro can immediately play at his previous level remains to be seen.

Linebacker Aldon Smith, one of the NFL’s premier pass rushers, is serving a nine-game suspension for violating the NFL’s personal conduct and substance abuse policies. He has 42 sacks in the 43 games played during his three NFL seasons. Smith was a 2012 first-team All-Pro after leading the NFC with 19.5 sacks. His 33.5 sacks are the most through two seasons for any player in NFL history. He is eligible to return in Week 11 against the New York Giants (November 16).

Defensive end Ray McDonald could be the test case for the NFL’s new domestic violence guidelines after his arrest for a domestic incident on August 31. First time offenders are subject to a six-game suspension under the revised guidelines. 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh and general manager Trent Baalke have a zero tolerance policy with domestic violence. Commissioner Roger Goodell and the 49ers are content in letting the legal process play out before determining whether or not discipline is warranted.

In addition to having a revamped secondary due to the free agency departures of Tarell Brown, Carlos Rogers and Donte Whitner, defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey was placed on injured reserve with a designation for return due to a torn left biceps. The earliest Dorsey can return to action is Week 9 against the St. Louis Rams (November 2).

Increased production from an offense that struggled during the preseason may be necessary for the 49ers to survive their early season schedule, which doesn’t include any teams that were under .500 in 2013.

Can the Denver Broncos avoid the Super Bowl hangover?

History doesn’t favor the Broncos in their Super Bowl quest. A team hasn’t won the Super Bowl after losing it the year before since the 1972 Miami Dolphins. The 1993 Buffalo Bills are the last losing team to return to the Super Bowl after being in the game during the previous season. However, the last five Super Bowl losers have made the playoffs the next season. The 2012 New England Patriots and 2013 San Francisco 49ers are the only teams to go to back to the conference championship game following a Super Bowl defeat since the 1993 Bills.

Peyton ManningThe clock is ticking for Manning and the Broncos.

The Broncos responded to their lopsided 43-8 loss to the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII by being aggressive in free agency. Cornerback Aqib Talib, safety T.J. Ward and defensive end DeMarcus Ware were signed during the first 24 hours of free agency to shore up the defense. The signings are designed to create a more balanced team as arguably the most prolific offensive attack in NFL history carried a defense that ranked 19th in total defense and 22nd in scoring defense during the 2013 season.

Wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders was brought in to combat the loss of Eric Decker to the New York Jets in free agency. The offensive line gets a lift with All-Pro left tackle Ryan Clady’s return, who was lost for the 2013 season after two games with a Lisfranc foot injury. Wide receiver Wes Welker is serving a four-game suspension of the NFL’s performance enhancing drug policy because of amphetamines. He also suffered his third concussion since the middle of the 2013 season during the preseason.

The Broncos could have a hard time matching 2013’s 13-3 record because the teams in the NFL’s toughest division, the NFC West (includes the Seahawks and the 49ers), along with the Patriots, Cincinnati Bengals and Indianapolis Colts are on the schedule.

When will the first round rookie quarterbacks crack the starting lineup?

For the first time since 2007, a first-round rookie quarterback isn’t starting on opening day. Oakland Raiders second-round pick Derek Carr is the NFL’s only rookie starting quarterback. This is the fourth straight year that a quarterback taken outside of the first round won a starting job during the preseason. Carr somewhat surprisingly beat out Matt Schaub, who the Raiders acquired from the Houston Texans for a 2014 sixth-round pick. The 36th overall pick completed 30 of 45 passes (66.7 percent) for 326 yards with four touchdowns and one interception during the preseason.

22nd overall pick Johnny Manziel was widely considered as the rookie quarterback with the best chance to start immediately, but the Texas A&M product couldn’t unseat Brian Hoyer. The Cleveland Browns could use Manziel as a change-of-pace quarterback with a package of plays specifically designed for him. It wouldn’t be a surprise if the team turns to Manziel in Week 5 after their bye if Hoyer struggles.

Third overall pick Blake Bortles may have been the most impressive rookie quarterback of the preseason. He completed 62.7 percent of his passes (32 of 51) for 521 yards with two touchdowns and zero interceptions to post a 110.0 passer rating. The Jacksonville Jaguars intend to redshirt him for the 2014 season.

Matt Cassel is getting the nod with the Minnesota Vikings despite strong performances by Teddy Bridgewater. The 32nd overall pick was 30 for 49 (61.2 percent completion percentage) with 283 passing yards five touchdown passes and zero interceptions. Head coach Mike Zimmer indicated that he won’t have a short leash with Cassel.

Which 2013 playoff teams could be headed for a fall?

History suggests that several teams won’t sustain their success from the 2013 season. There have been at least four new playoff teams each year (with an average of 5.7 teams) since the NFL expanded the postseason field to 12 teams in 1990.

The Kansas City Chiefs exceeded expectations by going from 2-14 in 2012 to 11-5 in 2013, but their 9-0 start may have been a mirage. The Chiefs were aided by a weak early season schedule and faced four backup quarterbacks during those nine games. Five of the last seven regular season games were losses as a defense which was leading the NFL in points allowed, sacks and scoring defense began to struggle. During the final eight games of the season, including the playoffs, the Chiefs allowed 29.9 points per game.

The offense will likely remain too dependent on running back Jamaal Charles since other reliable playmakers weren’t added. Charles accounted for 36.7 percent of Kansas City’s offensive yards in 2013 and was the only NFL running back to lead his team in receptions (70), receiving yards (693) and receiving touchdowns (seven). Tight end Travis Kelce, who missed almost all of the 2013 season because of microfracture surgery on his left knee, could emerge as an offensive weapon.

Top wide receiver Dwayne Bowe had a disappointing 2013 campaign with 57 receptions, 673 receiving yards and five touchdowns. He is missing the season opener because of a violation of the NFL’s substance abuse policy.

The offensive line lost its three best players (Branden Albert, Jon Asamoah and Geoff Schwartz) to free agency. 2013 first overall pick Eric Fisher moves to left tackle, his natural position, to replace Albert. Right tackle Donald Stephenson is suspended for the season’s first four games for violating the NFL’s performance enhancing drug policy.

Jamaal CharlesCan Jamaal Charles carry the Chiefs back to the postseason?

The Chiefs added to a strength in the first round with the selection of pass rushing outside linebacker Dee Ford (30th overall). The secondary is more of a concern after Brandon Flowers was released. At 5’9”, Flowers didn’t fit the team’s preference for tall, press coverage cornerbacks.

The Carolina Panthers were the surprise winner of the NFC South in 2013. After a 1-3 start, the Panthers won 11 of their last 12 regular season games.

Salary cap problems forced the Panthers to become bargain shoppers in free agency. Wholesale changes were made to the receiving corps without getting significantly better at the position. Last season’s top four wideouts are no longer with the team. Most notably, Steve Smith was released after 13 years with the Panthers. Jason Avant, 2014 first round pick Kelvin Benjamin (28th overall) and Jerricho Cotchery were added. Benjamin could develop into Cam Newton’s top receiving threat.

The offensive line must overcome the retirement of three-time Pro Bowl left tackle Jordan Gross. The left side of the line is new because left guard Travelle Wharton also hung up his cleats. Since the Panthers didn’t address the offensive tackle position via the draft or free agency, Byron Bell moves from right tackle into the spot vacated by Gross.

Offensively, the Panthers, who ranked 26th in total offense last season, will only go as far as Newton takes them. He’s beginning the season with a hairline fracture to a rib and still may not be completely recovered from off-season ankle surgery.

The defensive front seven, one of the NFL’s best, must carry a secondary that’s in transition. 2013 NFL Defensive Player of the Year Luke Kuechly anchors a defense that led the NFL with 60 sacks and was second in scoring defense (15.1 points per game) in 2013. Despite the sacks, opponents completed 66.6 percent of their passes against the Panthers last year. The only returning starter in the secondary is cornerback Melvin White. Two castoffs from division rivals, Thomas DeCoud (Atlanta Falcons) and Roman Harper (New Orleans Saints), replace Mike Mitchell and Quintin Mikell at safety.

A brutal mid-season stretch of games against five 2013 playoff teams could make or break Carolina’s season. From Week 6 to Week 10, the Panthers face the Cincinnati Bengals, Green Bay Packers, Seattle Seahawks, Saints and Philadelphia Eagles.

Follow me on Twitter: @corryjoel

Joel Corry is a former sports agent who helped found Premier Sports & Entertainment, a sports management firm that represents professional athletes and coaches. Prior to his tenure at Premier, Joel worked for Management Plus Enterprises, which represented Shaquille O'Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon and Ronnie Lott. You can email Joel at jccorry@gmail.com.

Upcoming Games