I want to admit something up-front: this post is intended to provoke a fuller discussion(s) by people with better knowledge and insight than I have. I know the personnel well enough to say who needs to "step up", but nowhere near enough to discuss the challenges they need to overcome. If you read this and you DO have that kind of skill, please take the hint.
In the meantime, here are some basic thoughts to get your juices flowing.
HOPES AND DREAMS AND DREADS ON DEFENSE:
NT: Can the people we have perform? In the ideal world McClendon will show as a starter what he has as a backup, and Ta’amu, Fangupo, or one of the UDFA’s will take such a big leap that McClendon is seriously pushed for the starting job. We fear that they will fail: that McClendon will turn out to be a great backup but nothing more, and his present-day backups as empty potential that didn't pan out. There is still an outside chance that Nose Tackle will be next year’s first round emergency pick. BOTTOM LINE: Hopes, moderate to high. Fears, moderate to low.
DE: Much the same. We hope that Ziggy will finally go from "decent" to "good," though with this much time behind him I don't see much hope remaining. Beyond that, we dream that Cam Heyward will take such a big leap that Keisel will be pushed to a backup role, and that Brian Arnfelt or Cordian Hagans will lock down the concern for depth as they grow into the next incarnations of Aaron Smith. That would secure Kevin Colbert's reputation for another decade, easy! On the flip side we fear that our two first-rounders will continue to be merely "acceptable" and that nothing better will arise to supplant them. BOTTOM LINE: Hopes, moderate to high. Fears, mostly about the lack of depth for the future.
OLB: We dream that Jarvis Jones and Jason Worilds will both live up to their potential while Woodley returns to his. That would leave us with three pro bowl dogs to fight over two vital bones: my very favorite kind of “controversy.” We fear the injury bug, but not much more than that. BOTTOM LINE: Hopes, high. Fears, low but nagging.
ILB: This is my biggest area of concern. We’re confident in Timmons so long as he’s healthy, and we hope that Lazarus Foote will hold off the clock for long enough to train his replacement. But then we come to the fears ... ILB may be the single hardest defensive position to learn because so much depends on football IQ and experience. Foote is a fine player to train behind, but who do we have to be his apprentice? Must we hope for a “miracle” with Sean Spence, or that Stevenson Sylvester suddenly overcomes his mysterious limitations? Are we really going to be stuck with a rookie starter next year at the Buck position?! Vince Williams or McFadden might grow to be a Larry Foote but I can’t see either maturing into the next James Farrior. For that matter, what will happen this year if Timmons gets hurt or Foote suddenly begins to age? And we may be vulnerable even if the starters play up to their standard. I'm actually a little scared of what will happen if Cincinnati comes out with double-TE sets that force our Lazarus to cover Gresham, Eifert, or Giovanni Bernard. BOTTOM LINE: Hopes, moderate with dreams of glory for Timmons. Fears, high, especially with regard to the future.
SAFETY: This one is simple. We hope that Clark and Polamalu stay injury free, while Robert Golden and Shamarko Thomas mature toward being their eventual replacements. We fear that the super-duo won't stay healthy, and that their backups aren't able or ready to take over the job. BOTTOM LINE: Hopes, high. Fears, low until the injuries come, and then who can say? Plus there's that lack of depth in the pipeline. Safety depth is a lock as a 2014 early-round draft pick.
CB: Taylor and Allen look like great bookends. It's the backups and the slot we worry about, because William Gay is a stopgap measure only. In the best of all worlds Gay would never have to play a snap because Curtis Brown will figure out whatever it is that’s holding him back, or one of the Hawthorne/Victorian/Van Dyke trio will make a breakthrough. In the worst case, Gay will be taking a LOT of snaps and almost-but-not-quite holding back the tide. BOTTOM LINE: Hopes, high for the top two and moderate-to-low for the third slot. Fears, moderate-to-low depending on your faith in Coach Lake.
HOPES AND DREAMS AND DREADS FOR THE OFFENSE:
OL: We hope for health and continual improvement in this very young line, and for one of those many UDFA’s to be the surprise star of the training camp. We fear that Gilbert or Adams simply won’t be up to the task or will suffer another long term injury. And we worry incessantly about the lack of depth beyond Beachum. Please, please, please, let one of those many UDFA’s be the surprise star of the training camp … Or maybe even two of them. Oh! And we also fear that the new running scheme won't work out, though it's not like it could drop to a whole lot worse than where we were. BOTTOM LINE: Hopes, moderate to high. Fears, moderate but nagging.
TE: We hope that Heath comes back soon, and that Paulsen takes a leap and fulfills the remarkable promise we keep hearing about. We fear that Heath will come back late or incompletely, the depth simply won’t be there, and the lack of great tight end play will drag down the running and passing attacks. BOTTOM LINE: Hopes, moderate. Fears, moderate.
QB: Repeat after me: We hope that Ben stays healthy. Say that each night before you go to sleep. And in the ideal world we hope that Landry Jones matures into magnificent trade bait. On the flip side, we fear that Ben will get hurt (again), that Gradkowski won’t do as well as last year’s backups, and that Landry Jones will live down to his critics. BOTTOM LINE: Hopes, high. Fears, moderate. (I.e., the situation enjoyed by every team with a franchise quarterback who has a history of missing games).
RB: We hope that LeVeon Bell is all of that and was worth the decisions we made in the Second round. We fear that he won't be all of that, in which case we will have to rely on the guys we loved at the beginning of last year and were doubting toward the end. BOTTOM LINE: Hopes, moderate to high. Fears, low because there is so much depth. I really believe this year's running attack will depend more on the line than the back.
WR: I saved the most interesting for last! If the rookies all live up to their potential this could be one hell of a squad to watch. Imagine AB, Sanders, and Wheaton as a tip-top three, with Justin Brown as a surprise success who makes Sanders irrelevant for next year and Reggie Dunn as a surprise success in the Wes Welker tradition. Cotchery, Gilreath, Burress and Moye could actually end up as the odd men out - In the Fabled Land of Fantasy-come-true. But what are the odds? Isn't it more likely that all our hopeful balloons will instead get popped? What do we do if Sanders gets hurt (again), the third- and sixth-rounders turn out to be busts, and the “maybe’s” never grow into the “are’s”? The wide receiver corps for next year would be AB, unrestricted free agent Sanders, and Jericho Cotchery. BOTTOM LINE: Hopes and dreads alike, scattered from dust to glory.
QUESTIONS ON SPECIAL TEAMS:
Kicker: Questions? We don't need no stinking questions! Suisham is a lock. May he play as well as he did last year.
Punter: Butler or Moorman, may the best man win. In the ideal world that would be Butler because he gets better with a year under his belt. But if he gets beat out, so be it.
RETURNER(S): Ooooh, this will be interesting. In the best case one of the rookies steps up and seizes the open slot. But which one, and what will his “normal” position be? I loved that film on why-would-you-kick-to-Reggie-Dunn, but there must have been a reason he went undrafted. In the worst case we have to risk Sanders and Brown.