Football is a game of hunches.
At this time of year, with rosters just taking shape, there are far more questions than answers. From relocated teams to rehabilitated players, to rookies looking to make a splash, there are all sorts of compelling story lines.
Ten questions as we head into NFL training camps, which get begin at the end of this week:
Who isn’t coming back from an injury?
There are sure a lot of quarterbacks in the potential comeback-player-of-the-year field. Oakland’s Derek Carr and Tennessee’s Marcus Mariota are rebounding from broken legs, Indianapolis’ Andrew Luck and Carolina’s Cam Newton had offseason shoulder surgeries, and Miami’s Ryan Tannehill missed the rest of last season after suffering a badly sprained left knee in Week 14. Then, there’s the uncertain future of Minnesota’s Teddy Bridgewater, whose season (and maybe more) ended with a dislocated knee injury on the final day of training camp last summer.
Is a sophomore slump in the cards for Dak Prescott?
This time last year, Prescott was a fourth-round afterthought for Dallas, waiting in the wings behind starting quarterback Tony Romo. Then Romo got hurt, and Prescott never gave the job back after replacing him. The rookie helped lead the Cowboys to a 13-3 record, threw for 23 touchdowns with just four interceptions, and had a passer rating of 104.9 — better than every starting quarterback except for the two in the Super Bowl, Matt Ryan (117.1) and Tom Brady (112.2).
It would be perfectly understandable, and maybe even expected, for Prescott to take a step backward. Not only is he adjusting to the league, but also opponents are adjusting to him.
Philadelphia rookie Carson Wentz, the No. 2 pick in the 2016 draft, got off to a torrid start but cooled during the season, as it became increasingly obvious the Eagles didn’t have the offensive weapons to maintain their early pace. Meanwhile, the top pick, Rams quarterback Jared Goff, spent most of the season holding a clipboard for Case Keenum and never really made a splash, even after taking over as the starter for the final six games. In some ways, it’s as if this is still Goff’s freshman season.
Are we sleeping on Seattle?
For all the off-season talk of dissension in their ranks, the Seahawks might be just where Pete Carroll wants them. We’ve seen that coach circle the wagons before and, knowing Carroll, he’ll harness any negative energy and make the most of it. He can beat that nobody-gave-us-a-chance drum and make the most of it. That starts in training camp.
Christian McCaffrey: Gimmick or game-changer?
The star running back from Stanford is not big at 5 feet, 11 inches, 202 pounds, but he’s a versatile, Swiss Army knife-type player who should be able to help Carolina in a lot of ways. The Panthers used the No. 8 pick on him after Jacksonville took 240-pound back Leonard Fournette with the fourth pick. The Panthers want to take some of the responsibility off the shoulders of quarterback Cam Newton, and a back theoretically can do that (along with providing additional protection). We’ll get a glimpse this summer at how the Panthers plan to use McCaffrey, assuming they reveal at least some of their playbook.
Is the window closing in Arizona, or has it already closed?
A Cardinals twosome to watch is quarterback Carson Palmer, 37, and receiver Larry Fitzgerald, 33. Two years ago, Palmer was 13-3 as a starter with 35 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. He and his team took a big step backward last season, though, going 7-8-1 and failing to as much as sniff the playoffs. That could have been a one-season anomaly or the shape of things to come. We shall see.
Is Marshawn Lynch an answer for the Raiders, or simply a feel-good story?
Most running backs are done at 31, but “Beast Mode” could have something left in the tank. The Raiders, a likely Super Bowl contender, could definitely use the help. Signing Lynch will pay dividends off the field, because that franchise needs all the good vibes it can get locally after announcing it is moving to Las Vegas in 2020. Lynch is from Oakland and played collegiately in Berkeley, so he was quickly embraced. Question is, how quickly and effectively will defenders be able to embrace him?
Training camp should give us a preview of what inspired the Chiefs to trade all the way up from 27 to select the big-armed Texas Tech quarterback with the No. 10 pick. Mahomes played in a relatively unstructured system in college, which makes it all the more curious that Kansas City selected him. He’s markedly different from current Chiefs starter Alex Smith.
Is Jameis Winston on his way to becoming the best quarterback in the best quarterback division?
The Tampa Bay quarterback, who figures to be a central focus of “Hard Knocks” this summer, is coming off a season in which he completed 60.8% of his passes for 4,090 yards and continued to make strides from his rookie year. Winston has a dangerous receiving tandem in Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson, and an excellent rookie tight end in No. 19 pick O.J. Howard.
Who is going to protect Matthew Stafford?
The Detroit quarterback is coming off another strong year in which he threw for 4,327 yards and broke Peyton Manning’s record of fourth-quarter comebacks in a season with eight. He also suffered a hand injury that put a damper on the end of his season.
Now, the Lions need someone to protect his blind side, because starting left tackle Taylor Decker is expected to miss 4 to 6 months because of a shoulder (labrum) injury he suffered in June. Decker started every snap last season.
It could be that the Lions insert former Rams tackle Greg Robinson, having traded a sixth-round pick for him after Decker was injured. Buyer beware, because Robinson was a turnstile for the Rams.
Which franchise is going to seize Los Angeles?
To some extent, the nation’s second-largest market is up for grabs. There’s clearly a bigger fan base for the Rams than for the Chargers, but the Rams are also coming off a 4-12 season and have a lot of work to do to energize the city. The Chargers weren’t much better last fall at 5-11, but they do have a proven quarterback in Philip Rivers and better weapons around him. So far, L.A. is stifling a collective yawn.
Follow Sam Farmer on Twitter @LATimesfarmer