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Steven Senne/Associated Press
With the 2019 Pro Football Hall of Fame Game completed, the NFL preseason is underway. Over the next month, teams will install plays, compete in exhibition games, settle position battles and work the waiver wire.
Teams will also make a whole lot of important decisions, both on and off the playing field.
Naturally, some of those decisions will be more critical than others. There is more impact in picking a starting quarterback or getting a key player under contract than there is in settling on a No. 2 gunner for special teams.
What are the big decisions that teams have to make between now and September? Let’s take a look.
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Barring something unforeseen, rookie quarterback Kyler Murray will start for the Arizona Cardinals this season. He’s working as the starter in training camp and has drawn rave reviews from teammates like Larry Fitzgerald.
The Cardinals need to decide which player will snap the ball to Murray on game days. Two-year starter A.Q. Shipley is back after missing all of 2018 with a torn ACL, while last year’s starter, Mason Cole, also returns.
According to head coach Kliff Kingsbury, both are starting-caliber centers.
“We have two of them,” he told reporters. “We’ve got to figure out which one it’s going to be.”
This is an important decision, both for the offense and for Murray’s development, and it should be settled during the preseason.
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Several issues derailed the Atlanta Falcons’ 2018 season. Injuries played a role, as the Falcons spent much of the season without starters Devonta Freeman, Deion Jones and Keanu Neal. Poor offensive line play was another issue. Quarterback Matt Ryan absorbed 42 sacks, the second-highest total of his career.
To help rectify the latter problem, the Falcons used first-round selections on guard Chris Lindstrom and tackle Kaleb McGary. Will the young duo get the chance to immediately impact the line?
Atlanta’s decision only involves McGary and the right tackle position. According to Matt Tabeek of the team’s official website, Lindstrom has been getting all the first-team reps at his position in training camp, while McGary is competing with Ty Sambrailo at tackle.
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Nick Wass/Associated Press
Much of the focus this offseason has been on the Baltimore Ravens offense and second-year quarterback Lamar Jackson—and for good reason. If the Ravens are going to get back to the postseason in 2019, they have to build on what Jackson and Co. accomplished last year.
However, Baltimore has some tough decisions to make on the opposite side of the football. Namely, it has to figure out how to replace departed pass-rushers Za’Darius Smith and Terrell Suggs. Of the Ravens’ 43 sacks in 2018, 15.5 came from Smith and Suggs.
Defensive coordinator Don Martindale has pass-rushing options, like Matt Judon and rookie third-round pick Jaylon Ferguson. He’ll have to decide how to best utilize them before Baltimore’s Week 1 matchup with the Miami Dolphins.
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Adrian Kraus/Associated Press
Buffalo Bills running back LeSean McCoy is set to carry a cap hit of over $9 million in 2019, but only $2.6 million of that is dead money. The Bills have to decide if McCoy is worth keeping on the roster or if he’s a viable cap casualty.
McCoy wasn’t consistently productive a year ago, averaging just 3.2 yards per carry. The Bills also have other options after adding T.J. Yeldon, Frank Gore and rookie third-round pick Devin Singletary. This trio should be more than capable of carrying Buffalo’s ground game if McCoy is deemed expendable.
This looming decision isn’t solely about cap space. The Bills need to surround second-year quarterback Josh Allen with the best collection of talent possible. If McCoy is no longer one of the top three or four running backs on the roster, he can and should be released or traded before Week 1.
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Chuck Burton/Associated Press
Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton has been firing off the deep ball in training camp, which is great news considering he underwent shoulder surgery in January. Quarterbacks coach Scott Turner told reporters the 2015 league MVP has had “no limitations” in practices.
Newton’s health in camp isn’t nearly as important as his health in November and December, however, which may influence how the Panthers handle him moving forward. Will they allow him to come out firing and hope his shoulder doesn’t break down like it did late last season? Will they lean more heavily on Christian McCaffrey and the ground game?
This could be a difficult line to walk. The last thing the Panthers can afford is for Newton to falter as they’re making a playoff push. However, if the offense is too conservative early in the season, Carolina may never get into position to challenge for a playoff spot.
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Nam Huh/Associated Press
Most positions were settled for the Chicago Bears heading into training camp, but there is an undecided battle at the kicker position between Elliott Fry and Eddy Pineiro. For many fans, this will be the most important battle of camp, as the sting of Cody Parkey’s missed postseason attempt remains fresh.
According to Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune, the Bears will put more weight on the kickers’ preseason performances than on training camp practices.
If both kickers struggle in the preseason, Chicago will likely look to the free-agent pool following roster cuts. The team cannot afford to have uncertainty at the position heading into the regular season.
For many franchises, kicker is a bit of an afterthought. But for the Bears—one of the most complete teams in the NFL and a legitimate title contender—picking the right guy for the job is critical.
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Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver John Ross has been a massive disappointment in his two pro seasons. The ninth overall pick in the 2017 draft, Ross has produced just 21 receptions, 210 yards receiving and seven touchdowns.
Now, Ross could miss the start of the 2019 regular season with a hamstring injury.
The Bengals and new head coach Zac Taylor have to decide if Ross is worth a roster spot. Releasing Ross isn’t a viable option, as his rookie contract is fully guaranteed, but trading him could be a possibility. The wideout has game-breaking speed and plenty of potential, and another team should be willing to take a chance on him.
This is a pivotal year for the Bengals, Taylor and quarterback Andy Dalton. They cannot afford to waste a roster spot on potential.
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Tony Dejak/Associated Press
Heading into camp, the Cleveland Browns had most of their offensive positions settled. One spot remains open, however, at right guard. 2018 second-round pick Austin Corbett, Kyle Kalis and Eric Kush are competing to replace the departed Kevin Zeitler, and so far, no one has emerged as the starter.
“I wish one was, but I want all three to compete,” head coach Freddie Kitchens said, via the team’s official website. “They’ve all had some good plays, and they’ve all had some bad plays. Under no circumstances are we able to name a starting guard.”
This is a huge decision for the Browns. The promising young offense will go nowhere if the line cannot protect quarterback Baker Mayfield. Trading Zeitler netted receiver Odell Beckham Jr., but it also opened up a huge question mark that still needs to be addressed.
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Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press
The Dallas Cowboys have a massive decision to make regarding Ezekiel Elliott’s contract. The two-time rushing champ has two years remaining on his rookie deal, but he is eligible for a contract extension and is holding out to get one.
Do the Cowboys pay him now, or do they risk the possibility that Elliott’s holdout lasts into the regular season? It’s a tough call because Dallas’ offense is so centered on Elliott and the running game.
For now, the Cowboys appear to be playing hardball with their negotiations. They recently signed Alfred Morris as backfield insurance and don’t appear ready to hand out cash to get Elliott back into camp.
“We can’t push the issue unless we want to be a market-setter. And we’re damn sure not going to be a market-setter,” executive vice president Stephen Jones said on 1310 The Ticket (h/t Jon Machota of The Athletic).
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Former Colorado running back Phillip Lindsay landed with the Denver Broncos as an undrafted free agent last season and proceeded to put together a Pro Bowl campaign. Assuming he’s healthy in September, he should be Denver’s starting running back in Week 1.
However, Broncos offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello still has decisions to make at the running back position. Lindsay underwent wrist surgery at the end of last season and may not be ready to handle an every-down load.
Lindsay also dealt with a back issue early in camp but has returned to practice.
The good news is that Denver has other options at the position, including 2018 third-round pick Royce Freeman and 2016 fourth-rounder Devontae Booker.
Between now and September, the Broncos must determine how healthy Lindsay is and decide on a backfield rotation for the season opener against the Oakland Raiders.
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Paul Sancya/Associated Press
The Detroit Lions need to decide who will start on the interior of their offensive line. 2018 first-round pick Frank Ragnow should be the starting center, but he did spend time at guard last season.
According to Justin Rogers of the Detroit News, Ragnow has been working at center in camp, and Graham Glasgow has been working at right guard. Per Rogers, the biggest battle is at left guard, where Kenny Wiggins and offseason acquisition Oday Aboushi are competing.
Detroit has options with its interior lineup, including moving Ragnow back to guard and shifting Glasgow to the left side. Deciding on the best lineup will be important, both for protecting quarterback Matthew Stafford and for improving the running game—which hopefully sees a few more 100-yard outings from Kerryon Johnson this season.
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Bill Kostroun/Associated Press
What will the Green Bay Packers offense look like this season? It’s an important question that’s being asked for the first time in several years.
The Packers showed Mike McCarthy the door late last season and replaced him with Matt LaFleur, who has been installing his offense throughout the offseason. The hope is that LaFleur has enough creativity in his system to get the most out of quarterback Aaron Rodgers in the waning years of his prime. For that to happen, though, Green Bay needs to decide on the optimal receiver lineup.
Davante Adams commands the No. 1 spot. He’s an elite pass-catcher and was ranked No. 35 on NFL Network’s Top 100 list. After Adams, the Packers have a young group consisting of guys like Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Equanimeous St. Brown, Jake Kumerow, Geronimo Allison and J’Mon Moore. At least two need to establish themselves as reliable starters to balance out the passing attack.
The Packers were heavily reliant on Adams last season, as Matt Schneidman of The Athletic recently pointed out. Tight end Jimmy Graham was second on the team in targets—and he had 80 fewer than Adams. Ideally, Adams won’t have to be so target-dominant in 2019.
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Stephen B. Morton/Associated Press
The Houston Texans have to get better play out of their offensive line this season. Quarterback Deshaun Watson was sacked a ridiculous 62 times last season. Another season like that will damage their chances of returning to the playoffs.
How do the Texans improve their line? Houston drafted tackles Tytus Howard and Max Scharping in the first and second rounds, respectively, this April. It also brought in Matt Kalil, who missed all of 2018 because of injury. Can any of these three provide an immediate upgrade, or will the Texans have to lean on Julie’n Davenport and Seantrel Henderson at tackle?
A tough matchup against the New Orleans Saints looms in Week 1. The Texans have to decide who deserves to start along the line as soon as possible—preferably before the team’s preseason finale.
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Michael Conroy/Associated Press
The Indianapolis Colts revamped their receiving corps this offseason, adding former Panthers wideout Devin Funchess and drafting Ohio State speedster Parris Campbell in the second round. While Funchess is a proven possession guy, Campbell is unproven at the pro level.
The Colts need to decide what role Campbell can play in the offense as a rookie. If he progresses quickly enough to start opposite T.Y. Hilton, it will give Andrew Luck a pair of game-breaking downfield targets to utilize. If he struggles to adapt to the speed and the nuances of the NFL, however, Campbell may be relegated to a rotational role as Funchess plays possession man opposite Hilton.
Campbell’s role will change the dynamic of the Colts passing attack. It will also help determine how pass-heavy the Indianapolis offense is in 2019.
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The Jacksonville Jaguars got themselves a shiny new quarterback this offseason in the form of Nick Foles. They’re hoping Foles can replicate the recent success he had with the Philadelphia Eagles, but do they have the weapons for him to do so?
Specifically, the Jaguars have to decide whether they have enough talent at tight end. Foles benefited from the presence of elite tight end Zach Ertz in Philadelphia, and the Jaguars don’t have anyone of his caliber on the roster.
Jacksonville needs to decide whether Geoff Swaim or rookie Josh Oliver gives the team the best receiving option and whether either can support Foles in a manner similar to Ertz. After the preseason, if Jacksonville doesn’t like the chemistry between Foles and Swaim or Oliver, it may have to examine other options on the waiver wire.
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Charlie Riedel/Associated Press
Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Tyreek Hill no longer faces the possibility of league discipline following a police investigation into allegations of child abuse by Hill. The Chiefs don’t have to decide if he’ll be a part of the offense in 2019. Now their choice is whether or not to extend Hill this offseason.
Hill is in the final year of his rookie contract and will be an unrestricted free agent next offseason. Re-signing him now could be easier than trying to do so on the cusp of free agency.
However, the Chiefs need to have faith in his ability to stay out of trouble before giving him a new contract. Kansas City may be better suited to keep Hill on his rookie deal this season and try to franchise-tag him for 2020. If Hill appears worthy of an extension after two years, the Chiefs could offer a contract then.
Of course, by 2021, the market price for receivers of Hill’s caliber will be much higher than it is now.
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Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press
Like Ezekiel Elliott, Los Angeles Chargers running back Melvin Gordon is holding out for a new contract. The Chargers need to decide whether Gordon is worth paying in order to get him into camp.
Gordon isn’t as vital to the Chargers’ offensive success as Elliott is to Dallas’. L.A. fielded a serviceable ground game with Austin Ekeler and Justin Jackson when Gordon missed time last season, and it should be fine leaning on that duo if it has to.
“We love Melvin, but we’re going to go with what we’ve got. It’s a pretty dang good group,” quarterback Philip Rivers said, per Matt Szabo of the Daily Pilot.
Of course, while the Chargers can go with what they have, Gordon is a talented and versatile back who makes the offense better.
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Kelvin Kuo/Associated Press
Whether or not running back Todd Gurley is back to 100 percent after last year’s knee injury, the Los Angeles Rams have to decide if the three-time Pro Bowler will still be the centerpiece of the offense.
The Rams have other options at tailback. They re-signed Malcolm Brown in the offseason and drafted Darrell Henderson in the third round. However, Gurley is a proven difference-maker who can wear down a defense like few other runners can.
But last year’s knee injury left a lot of questions about Gurley’s health. He didn’t perform at the same level upon his return, and he wasn’t asked to carry the offense in the postseason, averaging just 10 rushes per game. Last year is last year, though, and observers could be reading too much into Gurley’s knee.
It may not be a bad thing to lighten Gurley’s workload. Running him 15 or even 13 times per game as opposed to 18—his career average—could make him a more effective weapon and keep him fresher for the postseason.
Between now and Week 1, Los Angeles has to decide what kind of runner Gurley can be this season—and more importantly, what kind of back it wants him to be.
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Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press
The Miami Dolphins have to choose which quarterback will start in Week 1: Josh Rosen or journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick. Before that, however, Miami needs to decide what it wants to accomplish in 2019.
If the Dolphins want to gauge Rosen’s potential as a franchise quarterback, then they should give him the entire season to show what he can and cannot do. If they want to tank and try to land a quarterback in the 2020 draft, then they should probably still start Rosen—Fitzpatrick has shown he can provide stretches of brilliance.
If, however, Miami wants to win some games and improve on last year’s 7-9 record, then Fitzpatrick is probably the right man for the job. This wouldn’t necessarily be the right approach for the long-term health of the franchise, but again, Miami needs to figure out what it’s trying to do this season.
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Similar to the Bengals’ situation with John Ross, the Minnesota Vikings have to decide if 2016 first-round pick Laquon Treadwell is worth keeping on the roster. In three seasons, Treadwell has amassed just 56 receptions, 517 yards and a touchdown. It appears he’s set to lose the No. 3 receiver job as well.
According to Vikings Corner, Chad Beebe and Jordan Taylor have been splitting reps at the No. 3 spot in camp, not Treadwell.
Treadwell is in the final year of his rookie deal and has the majority of his 2019 salary guaranteed. However, the Vikings could decide he is not worth a roster spot and release him or try to deal him before cutdown day.
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Steven Senne/Associated Press
The New England Patriots lost Rob Gronkowski to retirement earlier this offseason, which leaves a glaring need at the tight end position. New England must determine how it’ll fill the void before the season opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Patriots brought back veteran tight end Benjamin Watson, but he faces a four-game suspension for violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs. Stephen Anderson spent last season on the practice squad and has just 36 career receptions. Neither Matt LaCosse nor Lance Kendricks has been a premier receiving option in recent years.
If the Patriots cannot identify the right receiving tight end by the end of the preseason, they’ll need to revamp their offense to feature the position far less than when Gronkowski played.
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Gerald Herbert/Associated Press
The New Orleans Saints no longer have to decide whether to pay wide receiver Michael Thomas. New Orleans and Thomas agreed on a five-year extension Wednesday, putting an end to the receiver’s surprise camp holdout.
Now, the biggest decision is at center. The team lost Max Unger to retirement earlier in the offseason, and there is a three-way battle to replace him. Nick Easton, Cameron Tom and rookie second-round pick Erik McCoy are vying for one of the most important positions on the offensive line.
Center is a vital position for the Saints because they encounter plenty of interior pass-rushers this season. Aaron Donald and the Rams await in Week 2, and the Saints face NFC South defensive tackles Ndamukong Suh, Gerald McCoy and Grady Jarrett twice apiece.
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AJ Mast/Associated Press
Eli Manning is going to remain the starting quarterback of the New York Giants, at least for part of the 2019 season. What the Giants have to decide is how they’re going to support Manning—and rookie Daniel Jones, should he take over the job—at wide receiver.
Odell Beckham Jr. is gone. Sterling Shepard is dealing with a broken thumb, and Golden Tate faces a four-game suspension for a violation of the league’s PED policy. This leaves New York with the likes of Cody Latimer, Alonzo Russell and rookie Darius Slayton at wideout.
The Giants do have tight end Evan Engram and a tremendous receiving back in Saquon Barkley. However, they have to figure out if there are enough weapons at wide receiver to confidently enter the regular season. If not, the Giants will work the waiver wire hard toward the end of the preseason.
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Seth Wenig/Associated Press
The New York Jets hired supposed quarterback guru Adam Gase as their head coach this offseason, hoping he’ll be able to unlock the potential of second-year quarterback Sam Darnold.
Darnold showed plenty of promise as a rookie, throwing for 2,865 yards and 17 touchdowns in 13 games. However, he also had a penchant for making bad decisions, often holding on to the ball too long and throwing passes that he shouldn’t—he had 15 interceptions and five fumbles.
Gase could let Darnold carry the offense and deal with the mistakes as they come, or he could protect him with a more conservative approach.
The signing of Le’Veon Bell to a four-year, $52.5 million deal gives the Jets the option to utilize a run-heavy offense while easing Darnold into his second season. This could be great for Darnold’s growth but might make the Jets offense predictable and easier to defend. What’s the right balance? That’s going to be a big decision for Gase and the Jets.
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Ben Margot/Associated Press
The Oakland Raiders revamped their passing attack by adding Antonio Brown and Tyrell Williams in the offseason. Now, they have to decide how they’re best going to combat opposing passers in 2019.
The pass rush is one of the biggest remaining question marks for the Raiders, who totaled just 13 sacks in 2018. Rookie first-round pick Clelin Ferrell should start on one side of the defensive line, but Oakland has to identify the right pass-rusher to start opposite him.
One option is 2018 third-round pick Arden Key, who logged a single sack as a rookie. Another is rookie fourth-round pick Maxx Crosby. Ferrell should provide a notable boost to Oakland’s pass rush, but he isn’t going to turn the unit around on his own.
The competition between Key and Crosby should be one of the more intriguing battles for the Raiders throughout the preseason.
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Ron Jenkins/Associated Press
According to NFL Media’s Ian Rapoport, Ronald Darby could be available for the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 1. However, the Eagles still need to decide who will start opposite Jalen Mills in the event that Darby is unavailable as he recovers from an ACL tear.
Philadelphia’s options include Sidney Jones, Avonte Maddox, Rasul Douglas and Cre’Von LeBlanc.
Finding Darby’s temporary replacement isn’t as big of a concern heading into Week 1 against the Washington Redskins and their underwhelming receiving corps. However, the Falcons are on tap for Week 2, so if Darby cannot go, the Eagles better have the right backup plan in place.
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Keith Srakocic/Associated Press
One could argue kicker Chris Boswell was single-handedly (footedly?) responsible for the Pittsburgh Steelers’ missing the postseason in 2018. The 2017 Pro Bowler missed seven field-goal attempts and five point-after tries and definitively cost Pittsburgh at least one win with an overtime miss in Week 1.
The Steelers have to decide if they can rely on Boswell moving forward. They brought in competition in the form of undrafted free agent Matthew Wright. However, Wright will have to decisively outplay Boswell in camp and in the preseason to unseat him because Boswell’s contract includes an amount of dead money that exceeds his 2019 salary.
If Boswell falters in the preseason, though, it’ll be hard for Pittsburgh to justify keeping him. The Steelers might have to explore other options after roster cuts because they’re far too talented to be losing games due to missed kicks.
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Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press
The San Francisco 49ers should have quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo back and healthy by Week 1 after he missed most of last season with a torn ACL. His return, along with the additions of Tevin Coleman, Deebo Samuel and Jalen Hurd, should have plenty of eyes on the 49ers offense in 2019.
However, head coach Kyle Shanahan has tougher decisions to make on defense this preseason, particularly in the secondary.
Several cornerbacks and safeties are competing for starting roles in camp, including Ahkello Witherspoon, Jason Verrett, D.J. Reed, K’Waun Williams, Adrian Colbert, Jimmie Ward and Antone Exum. No one has secured a role.
“Aside from Richard Sherman, nobody has locked down a starting spot,” Taylor Wirth of SFBay.ca wrote, adding, “the defensive backfield could feature any sort of combination at this point.”
Deciding on the right starting combination will be critical in a division that features dynamic quarterbacks Russell Wilson, Jared Goff and now Kyler Murray.
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Paul Sancya/Associated Press
The Seattle Seahawks face a transition with their passing offense. Quarterback Russell Wilson is still there, of course, but former No. 1 receiver Doug Baldwin is not. He retired in the offseason, and the Seahawks responded by drafting former Ole Miss wideout DK Metcalf in the second round.
Uncertainty surrounds the tight end position as well. The Seahawks need to identify a primary pass-catcher at the position, which could be difficult as there is no clear-cut top option. At camp, Seattle has Will Dissly, Ed Dickson, Nick Vannett, Jacob Hollister, Tyrone Swoopes and undrafted rookie Justin Johnson.
Vannett, Dissly and Dickson all played roles in the Seahawks passing attack last year, but they were minor ones. Vannett led tight ends with just 29 catches and 269 yards. The other two combined for 20 receptions in 14 total games. Swoopes and tackle/tight end George Fant had one catch apiece.
The Seahawks don’t need a premier receiving tight end to be successful, as they proved last season. It would help to have a reliable target, though, particularly in the red zone.
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Chris O’Meara/Associated Press
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers hired Bruce Arians as their head coach this offseason with the hope that he’ll get the most out of quarterback Jameis Winston. While Winston is the unquestioned starter at quarterback, Arians has decisions to make regarding the Tampa Bay backfield.
Who is going to carry the Buccaneers rushing attack in 2019? Tampa Bay averaged a mere 95.2 yards per game on the ground last season.
Peyton Barber was serviceable, totaling 871 yards on the ground but posting just 3.7 yards per carry. 2018 second-round pick Ronald Jones was not, as he averaged a paltry 1.9 yards per rush. Arians and the Buccaneers have to decide if this duo can be good enough in 2019 or if they need to consider other options following roster cuts.
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Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota is entering the final season of his rookie deal. After the season, Tennessee will have to decide whether he’s franchise-quarterback material. To best evaluate Mariota, the Titans need to surround him with the best possible lineup, which makes settling the receiver depth chart a major goal.
The biggest position to be decided is the No. 2 spot on the outside opposite No. 1 wideout Corey Davis. Free-agent acquisition Adam Humphries should man the slot and be the de facto No. 2 receiver, but Mariota needs a second reliable target on the perimeter.
Rookie second-round pick A.J. Brown should get every opportunity to claim this role, but holdovers Tajae Sharpe and Taywan Taylor will also be candidates for the job. Deciding on the top three receivers will go a long way toward getting Mariota—and new offensive coordinator Arthur Smith—prepared for the regular season.
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Steve Helber/Associated Press
The Washington Redskins used the 15th overall pick in the draft on Ohio State quarterback Dwayne Haskins. He is clearly viewed as the future at the position, but the Redskins have to decide if that future should start as early as Week 1.
Does Washington put Haskins out there and allow him to learn on the job? That has worked well for some rookie quarterbacks, but it could also lead to severe growing pains and a loss of confidence. The Redskins don’t have a stellar receiving corps to support Haskins, and rumored trade talks involving left tackle Trent Williams could leave them with a subpar offensive line as well.
If the Redskins believe Haskins isn’t ready—or if the offense isn’t ready to carry him—then the team can turn to backup Colt McCoy or journeyman Case Keenum. The team is going to have to hand the keys to Haskins at some point, though.
When does Washington do it? That’s the Redskins’ most important decision of 2019.
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