Can Kliff Kingsbury scheme his way out of trouble?
What happened to the Cardinals at the end of last season? After a 6-3 start that had them tied for first in the NFC West, they stumbled to a 2-5 finish and missed the playoffs. In a nutshell, defenses figured out Arizona's Air Raid passing attack and Kyler Murray's run options, and head coach Kliff Kingsbury failed to adjust.
Beginning with a Week 12 loss to the New England Patriots, the Cardinals' offense never posted a positive DVOA again after doing so eight times in their first 10 games, according to the Football Outsiders Almanac. The Patriots deployed five or more defensive backs on 69 of 70 snaps while also using two or fewer defensive linemen48 times (68.5%). That additional speed neutralized Arizona's attack and provided a blueprint for the Cardinals' opponents the rest of the way.
Football Outsiders drilled down on Kingsbury's inability to counter this approach: The Cardinals played at the league's fastest pace, but they used pre-snap motion less frequently than any other team. They also deployed the league's lowest rate of dig and post routes, which could have countered all the zone defenses that blanketed their receivers and took away Murray's running lanes. The Murray-Kingsbury combo has to progress in Year 3, and a lot of that depends on Kingsbury's ability to adapt. This ain't the Big 12.
Can Dean Pees get something out of this defense?
Pees had a solid track record coordinating defenses for the Patriots, Baltimore Ravens, and Tennessee Titans. He came out of retirement at 72 to take over an Atlanta unit that ranked 14th in DVOA last season despite the team's 4-12 record.
Last year's Falcons defense faced the league's toughest schedule by offensive DVOA and was 2-8 in one-score games. This year, the offensive DVOA of Atlanta's opponents ranks 21st, according to analyst Warren Sharp's preview.
Pees' ability to scheme things up is worth watching. Four of his six defenses with the Ravens ranked in the top 10 in DVOA. Although his two Titans defenses both ranked 18th, he developed the game plans to beat both Tom Brady and Lamar Jackson on the road in the 2019 playoffs.
Can they salvage Sam Darnold?
The Panthers dealt for Darnold after swinging and missing on attempted trades for Matthew Stafford and Deshaun Watson. Darnold's struggles in his three seasons with the New York Jets are well known: Only Carson Wentz ranked worse in DYAR in 2020, and Josh Rosen is the only QB with a lower EPA/play since the start of Darnold's career. But how much of that was on Darnold, and how much of that was simply the stink of former Jets head coach Adam Gase?
Carolina is betting it was more of the latter. Darnold certainly had a crummy support system with the Jets, from Gase's clown-shoe coaching operation to an offensive line that ranked 29th in pass-block win rate last year to a group of pass-catchers best known for their anonymity.
Panthers head coach Matt Rhule and offensive coordinator Joe Brady are gambling that a better support system, including the return of running back Christian McCaffrey, can pry something better out of Darnold. The franchise was even willing to pass on drafting Justin Fields and Mac Jones to give it a go. Ryan Tannehill is an obvious example of what Darnold can perhaps become in a new setting, but Tannehill's improvement is much more the exception than the rule.
How long will Andy Dalton start ahead of Justin Fields?
In March, Chicago agreed to pay Dalton $10 million to take over for Mitchell Trubisky, a move that provoked all the excitement of a puddle evaporating. Six weeks later, the franchise traded up nine spots to land Fields, which changed the outlook just a little. Head coach Matt Nagy intends to start Dalton in Sunday night's opener at the Los Angeles Rams, but come on.
Nagy was the Kansas City Chiefs' offensive coordinator in 2017, the year Patrick Mahomes sat for 15 games as a rookie behind Alex Smith. But those Chiefs had head coach Andy Reid's credibility and a forward-thinking scheme that squeezed a season ranked eighth in EPA/play out of Smith. Dalton won't be doing that for Chicago this season.
There's no right or wrong time to hand the wheel to a first-round QB, but Bears fans have been waiting something like 70 years for a bona fide franchise quarterback. Nagy and GM Ryan Pace already whiffed on Trubisky. The instant Dalton whizzes a throw behind Allen Robinson, the clamor for Fields to take over will become deafening. When will Nagy pull the trigger?