The 1 Thing We've Learned About Each NFL Team During Training Camp

Russell S. Baxter@@BaxFootballGuruContributor IAugust 20, 2014

The 1 Thing We've Learned About Each NFL Team During Training Camp

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    Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos schooled the San Francisco 49ers last weekend.
    Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos schooled the San Francisco 49ers last weekend.Ben Margot/Associated Press

    We are getting closer to most teams' third preseason game. It’s often referred to as the NFL’s dress rehearsal for the regular season.

    So what have we gleaned about these 32 clubs while they were rehearsing and learning their parts by heart this summer?

    Here’s a look at what we have found out and what you can perhaps expect when the regular season kicks off on Sept. 4 at Seattle.

    We’ve looked at the rosters, studying each team’s offseason arrivals and departures and the impact of the 2014 draft class to date. Some of our findings may be blatantly obvious to most, while others may have a unique take.

    It’s just one more way to get you ready for the National Football League’s 95th season, as well as offer up some things to keep an eye on as we see the starters get some extended playing time over the next few days.

    The fun stuff is right around the corner.

Arizona Cardinals

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Offense can and will have to carry the load in 2014

    The Arizona Cardinals come off a surprising 10-6 season—just the second time since 1977 that the franchise posted double-digit wins.

    But the numbers when it comes to the team’s calling card in 2013 are adding up. Due to free agency (Karlos Dansby), retirement (Yeremiah Bell) and suspension (Daryl Washington), defensive coordinator Todd Bowles won’t have the team’s top three tacklers from a year ago.

    Now add another key departure as former Pro Bowl defensive tackle Darnell Dockett will miss all of 2014 with a knee injury. Bob McManaman of has the latest on this huge loss for Bruce Arians’ club.

    But does that mean the Cards are doomed this season? Don’t be shocked if quarterback Carson Palmer (who finished strong in 2013) and a much-improved attack put the heat on opposing defenses. Andre Ellington will be the key component out of the backfield, while a passing attack led by Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd got even more help from Ted Ginn Jr., rookie John Brown and tight end John Carlson.

    Could these Cardinals be an offensive juggernaut? We won’t go that far, but don’t be shocked if they are one of the more productive units in the NFL by season’s end.

Atlanta Falcons

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    USA TODAY Sports

    It will be hard to keep Devonta Freeman off the field

    No team ran the ball less often and for fewer yards than the Atlanta Falcons this past season.

    This past weekend, the team got some more bad news when starting left tackle Sam Baker went down in the loss to the Houston Texans. D. Orlando Ledbetter of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that the veteran blocker will miss the season with a torn patellar tendon.

    As far as the offensive line, it means that 2014 first-round draft choice Jake Matthews will now begin his career at left tackle, while third-year pro Lamar Holmes takes over at right tackle next to free-agent addition and guard Jon Asamoah.

    Regardless of who is lining up in the trenches, the Falcons have found a spark plug in the backfield in rookie runner Devonta Freeman. He’s run hard for 81 yards on 16 carries and also has a 57-yard reception on his resume. Last week, he had an impressive 23-yard touchdown run called back by a penalty.

    The bottom line is that the fourth-round pick from Florida State is the kind of physical runner the Falcons need these days. He can make just about any offensive line look pretty good.

Baltimore Ravens

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    Brandon Wade/Associated Press

    Passing game could be primed for a very big year

    No, we are not giving up on the Baltimore Ravens running attack based on last season’s disappointing performance. This is more of a thumbs-up for the aerial attack and the fact that quarterback Joe Flacco now arguably has more weapons at his disposal this season than any time during his brief career.

    Wideouts Torrey Smith, Jacoby Jones and Marlon Brown, as well as tight end Dennis Pitta, have been joined by veterans Steve Smith and Owen Daniels. The additions, released this offseason by the Carolina Panthers and Houston Texans, respectively, give Flacco a few more reliable options.

    With new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak at the controls, combined with a bolstered front, don’t be shocked if Flacco surpasses his personal season high of 25 touchdown passes, set back in 2010.

Buffalo Bills

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    Vincent Pugliese/Associated Press

    Bills could have the deepest running back corps in the NFL

    Think about it. Are the Buffalo Bills better off at the running back position than any other team in the league?

    In recent seasons, the club has benefited from the presence of Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller. In 2013, no team ran the ball more often than Doug Marrone’s club, and only the Philadelphia Eagles totaled more yards on the ground.

    Speaking of the Birds, earlier this offseason they dealt reserve running back Bryce Brown to Buffalo. In his two seasons with Philadelphia, the former seventh-round pick from Kansas State ran for 878 yards and six touchdowns. The team also added free agent Anthony Dixon this offseason, late of the San Francisco 49ers.

    More playmaking ability out of the backfield should make life easier for second-year quarterback EJ Manuel, who started just 10 games as a rookie this past season. And with the team’s additions at wide receiver as well (rookie Sammy Watkins and veteran Mike Williams), this could be the Bills’ best offensive unit in some time.

Carolina Panthers

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    Grant Halverson/Getty Images

    Slow starts continue to be the norm for this team

    On Sunday night vs. the Kansas City Chiefs, Ron Rivera’s team struggled early as quarterback Cam Newton saw his first preseason action of 2014.

    Three drives in the first quarter all ended three-and-out. By halftime, the Pro Bowl signal-caller guided his club to the end zone on consecutive possessions, and the Carolina Panthers were on their way to a 28-16 preseason win.

    Struggling out of the gate has somehow been the mantra of this club under Rivera and Newton, and last season the team was finally able to overcome it. In both 2011 and 2012, it opened with 2-8 marks before rallying late in the year.

    This past season, Carolina lost its first two games and was 1-3 after four outings. But Newton and the club rallied for 11 wins in their final 12 games and reached the playoffs for the first time since 2008.

    Sunday’s sluggish opening against the Chiefs was certainly understandable given the absence of Newton, who had offseason ankle surgery. We learned this past weekend not to judge too harshly just because a team gained one total yard on its first nine plays of the game.

    It will be interesting to see how the Panthers fare this season if they once again stumble in the early weeks.

Chicago Bears

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    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    The defense appears better but is struggling with consistency

    If all goes according to plan, a lot of teams will have problems stopping the Chicago Bears offense in 2014. This was a club that, despite utilizing two different starting quarterbacks a year ago, finished second in the NFL in scoring in 2013.

    Of course, if all goes as general manager Phil Emery and head coach Marc Trestman hope, the defense will be remarkably better this upcoming season. That said, it couldn’t be much worse. And we all know by now that the Bears were 30th in the league in yards allowed and dead last in the NFL in run defense. They also tied for the fewest sacks in the league with 31.

    The free-agent additions of defensive ends Jared Allen, Lamarr Houston and Willie Young and the signings of safeties Ryan Mundy, Adrian Wilson and M.D. Jennings should all help. Emery also used his first three picks in May’s draft on cornerback Kyle Fuller and defensive tackles Ego Ferguson and Will Sutton. The new faces join returning players such as Lance Briggs, Charles Tillman, Tim Jennings, Stephen Paea and Jay...uh, Jeremiah Ratliff.

    So what can we expect this season from this group? How about a better performance than in 2013, when both injuries and poor play played big roles.

    As far as the defense being better on a continuous basis, that is certainly a wait-and see.

Cincinnati Bengals

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    USA TODAY Sports

    This is arguably the deepest team in the AFC

    Far from perfect and still looking for their first playoff win since 1990, the Cincinnati Bengals are primed for another solid season. And with a roster that is seemingly talented at every position, it is easy to like their chances.

    This offseason, free agency claimed a pair of valuable parts in offensive lineman Anthony Collins and defensive end Michael Johnson. The club also released starting outside linebacker James Harrison (who totaled 30 tackles, two sacks and two takeaways in 15 games in 2013) after one year with the club and opted not to match the Cleveland Browns’ offer sheet for restricted free-agent wideout Andrew Hawkins.

    Here is a more recent example. Last week, the Bengals learned that they will start the season without starting wide receiver Marvin Jones for a spell due to injury. Coley Harvey of has the latest on Cincinnati’s backup plans.

    In 2013, Jones finished third on the team with 51 catches and second with 10 touchdown grabs.

    No worries on offense, apparently. The Bengals have quarterback Andy Dalton, Pro Bowl receiver A.J. Green, a deep ground game led by Giovani Bernard and bolstered by rookie Jeremy Hill, and talented tight ends in Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert.

    Head coach Marvin Lewis also had to replace both of his coordinators this year, as Jay Gruden and Mike Zimmer are now head coaches in Washington and Minnesota, respectively.

    Still, you get the feeling it is just business as usual for a club that has made a franchise-record three straight trips to the postseason...and counting?

Cleveland Browns

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    We didn't learn a lot when it comes to the starting quarterback

    Despite the not-so-subtle sign given by Johnny Manziel that he is the Cleveland Browns' No. 1 quarterback (no need to see the video again), the battle rages on between veteran signal-caller Brian Hoyer and the team’s second first-round pick this year.

    Both Hoyer and Manziel struggled in Monday’s preseason loss to the Washington Redskins. Head coach Mike Pettine was hoping to make a decision before the team’s next game vs. the St. Louis Rams and even indicated that a decision could come Tuesday night.

    As of this writing, it is Wednesday morning, and there's no official word yet. And Pettine stated that “if we do have to wait until after the next game, so be it.”

    So to quote the great Willie Wonka...

    Update: Early Wednesday morning, Cabot reported that the Browns have named Hoyer the starting quarterback for their Week 1 game vs. the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Dallas Cowboys

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    USA TODAY Sports

    The offensive line is emerging as the team strength

    When you invest a number of high draft choices on any particular unit on your football team, you hope that all the pieces will eventually mesh.

    Ladies and gentlemen, we give you the Dallas Cowboys offensive line. It’s still a slight work in progress, but so far, so good for a club that has added three first-round draft choices up front in four years.

    Back in 2011, the team invested the ninth overall pick on tackle Tyron Smith, who was named to his first Pro Bowl a year ago. In 2013, the Cowboys selected center Travis Frederick late in the first round. In May, former University of Notre Dame standout and guard Zack Martin was Dallas’ choice at No. 16.

    It seems to be the one thing the Cowboys are getting right these days. And if head coach Jason Garrett and new play-caller Scott Linehan stress the running game a lot more in 2014, Smith and company could do wonders for Dallas’ much-maligned defense.

Denver Broncos

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    Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

    The team looks more physical on both sides of the ball

    A few additions here. A few tweaks there.

    So far, so good for this latest edition of the Denver Broncos, who in 2014 look to become the first team since the 1972 Miami Dolphins to win a Lombardi Trophy one season after losing a Super Bowl.

    Free agency brought defensive end DeMarcus Ware, cornerback Aqib Talib and strong safety T.J. Ward, a trio that is hoping to aid a defensive unit that ranked 19th in the league in 2013.

    Let’s not forget the offensive line, which welcomes back a healthier Ryan Clady and moves right tackle Orlando Franklin to left guard and fill-in left tackle Chris Clark to right tackle.

    All of these moves add a little more oomph to a club that scored at will last season and would let opponents do just about the same.

    But things could be changing in the Mile High City.

Detroit Lions

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    Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    The running game will be a bigger factor

    With the addition of new head coach Jim Caldwell, the Detroit Lions also added new offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi this offseason. The well-traveled coach spent the previous seven seasons with the New Orleans Saints and was part of the team’s Super Bowl season of 2009.

    This combination knows how a running game can contribute to a championship. Caldwell was with the Indianapolis Colts in 2006 when they rushed their way to a Super Bowl title. He was also the offensive coordinator of the Baltimore Ravens two years ago when running backs Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce made life easier for quarterback Joe Flacco.

    The Lions have made one playoff appearance in the last 14 seasons. The team has faded badly down the stretch the last two years. In its last 32 regular-season games, Detroit has committed a whopping 67 turnovers.

    A little more help from Reggie Bush, Joique Bell, second-year pro Theo Riddick (a sixth-round pick in 2013) and perhaps Mikel Leshoure would certainly make life a bit easier for gunslinger Matthew Stafford.

Green Bay Packers

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    Tom Gannam/Associated Press

    The defensive unit is getting ready to make amends

    It is very safe to say that the Green Bay Packers defense has not lived up it to its end of the bargain in recent seasons.

    Recently, Mike Spofford of got the thoughts of outside linebacker Clay Matthews and nose tackle B.J. Raji regarding a unit that finished 25th in the league in total defense in 2013, struggling against both the run and the pass.

    “I always have a positive outlook on our defense,” said Matthews recently. “But this year, especially when you look around at the guys, they exude a certain type of energy and a certain prowess about them.”

    Spofford states that Matthews was referring to additions such first-round safety Ha Ha Clinton Dix and outside linebacker Julius Peppers, among others.

    Green Bay has won three straight NFC North titles and has been to the playoffs five consecutive years. Those streaks could be in jeopardy if this unit doesn’t make any strides this season.

Houston Texans

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    OLB Jadeveon Clowney is a fast learner

    Talk about ups and downs.

    The Houston Texans are coming off a 32-7 preseason thrashing of the Atlanta Falcons, just one week after they were manhandled by the Arizona Cardinals, 32-0.

    Obviously, it’s hard to get a gauge on a team with such dramatically different performances.

    Of course, there’s been nothing different from what we have seen from rookie Jadeveon Clowney so far. The first overall pick has made a habit of spending his time in the opposing backfield so far—be it tackling a running back or sacking the quarterback.

    When he was first selected by the Texans, everyone speculated the damage he could do while lined up on a defense with J.J. Watt.

    It seems that is no longer speculation.

Indianapolis Colts

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    Darron Cummings/Associated Press

    The Colts are still looking for a second pass-rusher

    This past season, the Indianapolis Colts ranked 20th in total defense and allowed 21 points per game during the regular season.

    But the one thing Chuck Pagano’s team improved on from 2012 was the ability to create turnovers. The Colts totaled 27 takeaways this past season, a dozen more than the club managed (15) a year earlier.

    Indianapolis also totaled a respectable 42 sacks. But nearly half of that figure (19.5) came from Pro Bowl outside linebacker Robert Mathis. Of course, the veteran defender will not be around for the first four games of 2014 due to a league violation of the substance abuse policy.

    Last season, inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman finished second on the team with 5.5 sacks. Can he take up the slack while Mathis sits in September? Can outside linebackers such as Erik Walden or former first-round pick Bjoern Werner fill the void?

    That’s a very tough question to answer.

Jacksonville Jaguars

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    It will be hard not to play rookie QB Blake Bortles in 2014

    In two preseason games, Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles has yet to throw a touchdown pass.

    Not like anyone would know that. The third overall pick in the 2014 draft has also not thrown an interception. The former Central Florida standout has completed 18 of 28 passes for 277 yards in games against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Chicago Bears.

    What is interesting is that veteran Chad Henne has also performed very well this summer. The plan was to have Bortles sit all of 2014, but it’s getting tougher to believe that will be the case, even if Henne continues to play well.

    Call this a work in progress.

Kansas City Chiefs

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Rookie RB De’Anthony Thomas could fill the Dexter McCluster role

    Coming off last season’s late collapse, it hasn’t exactly been a good offseason for the Kansas City Chiefs.

    Free agency took a number of key players, including Pro Bowl left tackle Branden Albert and versatile wide receiver and punt returner Dexter McCluster. The latter signed with the Tennessee Titans.

    So with the exception of running back Jamaal Charles and wide receiver Dwayne Bowe, the team could certainly use a few more playmakers on offense, correct?

    Enter rookie running back De’Anthony Thomas, a fourth-round pick from Oregon who has already garnered attention on both punt and kickoff returns. His ability to help the offense with field position will be crucial as Andy Reid breaks in a refurbished offensive line this season.

Miami Dolphins

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    Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

    The offensive line is coming together slowly but surely

    This past season, the Miami Dolphins ranked 26th in rushing and allowed a league-high 58 sacks.

    The organization worked hard this offseason and addressed this area in a big way via free agency and the draft.

    Of course, the one player whom head coach Joe Philbin was counting on up front was Pro Bowl center Mike Pouncey. However, the star performer underwent hip surgery this offseason and hopes to be back sooner than later, as stated by Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald.

    While the Dolphins ground game has yet to get on track this summer, it should be noted that Miami has allowed just two sacks in 73 pass plays in two preseason games.

    The line these days has tackles Branden Albert and Ja’Wuan James, guards Daryn Colledge and Dallas Thomas and center Samson Satele. The quintet has started the team’s first two games this summer. And when Pouncey is finally available again, this could be a much-improved unit from a year ago.

Minnesota Vikings

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Cordarrelle Patterson may lead the NFL in all-purpose yards

    Keep in mind what Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson managed to do during his rookie year in 2013.

    The third of the team’s first-round picks one year ago, he finished second on the team with nine total touchdowns and scored them as receiver (four), runner (three) and kickoff returner (two). Patterson touched the ball 91 times in 16 games this past season and amassed 2,020 all-purpose yards.

    It is little wonder that new offensive coordinator Norv Turner is excited about the prospects of what the big-play performer can do once he gets the ball.

    Of course, who will be getting him the ball in 2014 is a totally different matter.

New England Patriots

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    Charles Krupa/Associated Press

    The running game is more important than ever

    Astute observers of the New England Patriots know that the team has been much better at running the football in recent seasons than some others would believe.

    Bill Belichick’s club has finished in the league’s top 10 in rushing each of the last two seasons. Conversely, the New England passing game has done the same. In 2012, the Patriots boasted the No. 1 offense in the NFL, ranking seventh in rushing and fourth in passing. This past season, quarterback Tom Brady and company were seventh in total yards gained, ninth on the ground and 10th through the air.

    With a corps of effective running backs such as Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, Brandon Bolden and rookie James White, the Pats are in solid shape. And with Brady now having better rapport with his receiving corps from a year ago, this could be a very balanced and dangerous attack in 2014.

New Orleans Saints

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    Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

    Expect more impact from the wide receiving corps in 2014

    Somebody should remind New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham that it’s a lot cheaper to dunk beignets than footballs.

    The well-paid pass-catcher scored twice in the team’s recent preseason win over the Tennessee Titans. On each occasion, he did what no player is allowed to do—slam the football over the goal post. More on what could be a costly statement for Graham at another time.

    This past season, Saints Pro Bowl quarterback Drew Brees threw for his usual 5,000-plus yards through the air and connected for 39 scores. Graham led the NFL with 16 touchdown receptionspart of 25 touchdown passes Brees threw to tight ends and running backs in 2013.

    While Graham will still find the end zone regularly, look for Sean Payton’s offense to take advantage of a wide receiving corps that includes veteran Marques Colston, second-year pro Kenny Stills (who both caught five touchdown passes this past season) and promising rookie Brandin Cooks.

    But please, guys. No dunking.

New York Giants

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    Chris Howell/Associated Press

    The transition to a new offense has been painful

    This past season, Tom Coughlin’s New York Giants led the NFL with a depressing 44 turnovers.

    That’s the good news.

    The way quarterback Eli Manning and Co. have looked on offense in three preseason tilts this year, the club may not have the ball enough this season to give it up 44 times.

    All kidding aside, there have not been a lot of positives for this club, which has installed a new offense under coordinator Bob McAdoo. And unfortunately for the Giants, the attack has stalled for most of the summer.

    The team still has two more preseason games to get its act together before visiting the Detroit Lions in Week 1. But so far the Giants offense hasn’t done much to show that this is a unit looking to rebound from a dismal showing in 2013.

New York Jets

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    Tom Uhlman/Associated Press

    The offensive line is starting to round into form

    In their first two seasons under head coach Rex Ryan, the New York Jets ranked first and fourth, respectively, in the NFL in rushing offense.

    It appears that Ryan and offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg wouldn’t mind being at the top of the list once again.

    With the addition of free-agent running back Chris Johnson and the return of both Chris Ivory and Bilal Powell, the Jets have a solid stable of running backs. And as points out, New York’s offensive line is starting to put all the pieces together these days as well.

    With a little more support from the ground attack and some new targets for improving quarterback Geno Smith, you can expect the Jets to improve on the league’s second-worst passing game in 2013 in terms of yards gained.

Oakland Raiders

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    QB Matt Schaub doesn’t appear to have regained his confidence

    It was less than two years ago that quarterback Matt Schaub was at the helm of the Houston Texans, the team with the best record in the NFL after 12 games in 2012.

    But it has been all downhill and more for the former Pro Bowl signal-caller. An 11-1 start that season morphed into three losses in the final four regular-season games and eventually an exit in the AFC Divisional Round.

    Now after an injury-plagued season that included throwing pick-sixes in a league-record four straight games in 2013, Schaub was dealt to the Oakland Raiders for a sixth-round pick.

    Not exactly what you would call symmetry.

    The veteran quarterback’s erratic play this summer has been somewhat troublesome, and he has seemingly picked up where he left off late in 2012 with Houston. In two preseason outings, he completed just over 50 percent of his passes (11-of-20) and has been picked off once.

    He is facing some pressure from rookie quarterback Derek Carr, who took his lumps last week versus the Detroit Lion but is back on the field, according to Vic Tafur of

    Of course, it looks like Schaub may be his own worst enemy these days. It will be interesting to see if he can get his career back on track.

Philadelphia Eagles

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    Michael Perez/Associated Press

    The defense has more issues than you would expect

    As we have clearly noted, it is not wise to read too much into preseason numbers, especially when it comes to the results of the game.

    Of course, it’s hard to ignore what we have seen in two games from the Philadelphia Eagles. Chip Kelly’s club has allowed a total of 76 points and a whopping 967 total yards in those contests.

    The Birds are in their second season in the 3-4 under defensive coordinator Billy Davis, but you would think it was their first go-round in the system.

    In the second half of 2013, we learned that the Eagles can put points on the board with anyone. And nothing we have seen this year will make anyone change their minds.

    But you can’t help but be a little concerned with Philadelphia’s defense so far.

Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Youth will definitely be served in the Steel City

    In the first two weeks of the preseason, we have gotten a look at the Pittsburgh Steelers' 2014 draft class. And you have to like what you have seen to date.

    In the first two weeks, third-round running back Dri Archer has shown what he could do with the football as a pass-catcher and return artist. Last week in his NFL debut, first-round inside linebacker Ryan Shazier totaled nine solo tackles and an interception in the win over the Buffalo Bills.

    Second-round defensive end Stephon Tuitt has also opened some eyes this summer. And second-year wide receiver Markus Wheaton, the anointed starter opposite Antonio Brown, caught a first-quarter touchdown pass from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger against Buffalo.

    Other young players such as second-year pros in outside linebacker Jarvis Jones and running back Le’Veon Bell (who led the team in rushing in 2013) also figure prominently for Mike Tomlin’s team, which won six of its final eight games after a 2-6 start this past season.

    Of course, it’s not all about the kids in the Steel City. Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette tells us that veteran defensive end Brett Keisel re-signed with the club on Tuesday.

St. Louis Rams

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    Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    The wide receiving corps is taking steps forward

    We’ll get the bad pun out of the way first.

    It’s been a slow start when it comes to the career of St. Louis Rams wide receiver Brian Quick. A second-round pick in 2012, he’s totaled just 29 receptions (four for touchdowns) in 31 games in two NFL seasons.

    Of course, last year’s top pick, Tavon Austin, also failed to make a big impression on a consistent basis as a pass-catcher. The speedster finished second on the club with 40 catches, four for scores, but he averaged a disappointing 10.5 yards per reception.

    Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch talks about the progress Quick has been making, which can only bode well for quarterback Sam Bradford, who is looking to bounce back from his latest injury-shortened season.

    From 2011 to 2013, the organization added five wide receivers in the first four rounds of the NFL draft, a list that also includes Chris Givens, Austin Pettis and Stedman Bailey. This offseason, general manager Les Snead and head coach Jeff Fisher added free-agent wideout Kenny Britt.

    You are getting the sense that all those pieces are getting ready to come together.

San Diego Chargers

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    USA TODAY Sports

    The defense may need a bigger year from the offense

    This past season, the San Diego Chargers bounced back from a tough start and ball-controlled their way into the playoffs.

    They may have to do the same thing once again, especially if their defense doesn’t get a little healthier or perform a little better.

    CBS Sports NFL Insider Jason La Canfora has his own thoughts on the Bolts’ recent 41-14 loss to the Seattle Seahawks, and he does so with the perspective of not overreacting to such a preseason showing.

    Still, it may be clear that quarterback Philip Rivers and a ground attack that made big strides in 2013, thanks to a career year from Ryan Mathews and a much-improved offensive line, may have to play an even bigger game of keep-away in 2014.

San Francisco 49ers

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    The team could struggle early on defense

    For the record, we are not overreacting to the fact that the San Francisco 49ers had the pants beaten off them last Sunday in their debut at Levi’s Stadium.

    One week after his brother John’s Baltimore Ravens handed Jim Harbaugh and company a 23-3 loss, Eli Manning’s brother’s club whooped up on the Niners as Peyton Manning and friends rolled to a 34-0 win.

    Defenders such as Justin Smith and Patrick Willis did not play versus the Denver Broncos. But it will be without the likes of Pro Bowl inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman, nose tackle Glenn Dorsey (out for the season) and perhaps outside linebacker Aldon Smith when the team opens the season against the Dallas Cowboys.

    Of course, let’s not forget that the Niners did open 1-2 last season before getting their act together. No one is saying they will get off to a similar start. But being a little short-handed on defense early on won’t help.

Seattle Seahawks

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    John Froschauer/Associated Press

    A healthy Percy Harvin makes a very big difference

    If you remember last season’s NFC Divisional Round meeting between the New Orleans Saints and Seattle Seahawks, Sean Payton’s team showed its concern for Seahawks wide receiver Percy Harvin.

    The talented performer, who barely saw the field in 2013, wouldn’t last long in that game. But weeks later, the Denver Broncos saw Harvin at his best every time he touched the ball, as he ripped off big play after big play in Super Bowl XLVIII.

    While the former Minnesota Vikings performer’s talent is no great mystery, his availability often is. Harvin played in a total of three of the Seahawks’ 19 overall contests in 2013. Hence we have not really seen what Pete Carroll’s team would be if the versatile weapon was in the lineup more often than not.

    Now he appears set for a big year. Golden Tate left via free agency, and oft-injured Sidney Rice was let go, re-signed and subsequently retired. Harvin hopes to stay on the field and make the defending Super Bowl champions even more potent offensively.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    Brian Blanco/Associated Press

    The new offense is a work in progress, but…

    We are not exactly breaking news here. With so many changes on both sides of the ball with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, you could certainly expect some early hiccups.

    New starting quarterback Josh McCown has been less than scintillating in two preseason games, hitting on seven of his 11 throws for one touchdown while committing a pair of turnovers and being sacked three times.

    Still, Roy Cummings of The Tampa Tribune states that Lovie Smith’s players feel good about new offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford’s system and what the Bucs could be capable of this season.

    With newcomers such as quarterback McCown and rookie pass-catchers in wide receiver Mike Evans and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins joining the likes of running back Doug Martin and wideout Vincent Jackson, the Buccaneers figure to rebound in a big way after finishing dead last in the NFL in total offense in 2013.

    It may just take a little patience on everyone’s part.

Tennessee Titans

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    Second-year WR Justin Hunter bears watching

    These days, about the only thing anyone wants to discuss when it comes to the Tennessee Titans is whether quarterback Jake Locker can make it through an entire season.

    But regardless of who’s throwing the ball in 2014 for Ken Whisehunt’s club, at least one wide receiver bears some added attention.

    Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean says in his own way that second-year pro Justin Hunter certainly bears watching. Last Friday night at the Superdome, he totaled four catches for 111 yards and two touchdowns (covering four and 64 yards) in a loss to the New Orleans Saints.

    A second-round pick in 2013, Hunter totaled only 18 receptions but amassed 354 yards (19.7 average) and scored four times. Along with starters Nate Washington and Kendall Wright, as well as tight end Delanie Walker, Locker has a nice array of targets if he can remain on the field.

    Don’t be shocked if Hunter is the team leader in receiving yardage by season’s end.

Washington Redskins

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    Evan Vucci/Associated Press

    The defense appears to be more aggressive

    Only the Minnesota Vikings (480) gave up more points in 2013 than the Washington Redskins. The team also allowed 52 offensive touchdowns this past season, the most in the league.

    With defensive coordinator Jim Haslett at the controls and standouts such as outside linebackers Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan and cornerback DeAngelo Hall in the fold, you would think this unit would fare somewhat better. But the bottom line is that despite somewhat respectable numbers in terms of sacks and takeaways, this group just hasn’t done enough in recent seasons.

    However, it has been easy to notice a different mindset when it comes to this defense this preseason. The Redskins have totaled six sacks in two games and, for what it is worth, did not allow a touchdown in the first three quarters of either contest.

    That’s something to build on for a team that needs to be far more than RG3 in 2014.

    Some statistical support for this piece was provided by Pro-Football-Reference, and Depth charts are provided by Ourlads.