Here are 10 storylines for the upcoming NFL season:
CONTINUED DOMINANCE FROM PATRIOTS
This time a year ago, we were still talking how much quarterback Tom Brady’s four-game suspension would affect New England’s chances of making the playoffs. (Seems like a ridiculous question in hindsight.)
Now the talk centers around questions like: Can this Patriots team go 16-0? Will they clinch a terrible division before Thanksgiving? Is Brady going to keep playing and winning Super Bowls until he is 50? (No, yes and quite possibly.) What would another Super Bowl for New England mean?
Consider: If the Patriots win their third Super Bowl in four seasons, they will tie Pittsburgh for the most (six) in league history. For Bill Belichick, another title would tie him with George Halas and Curly Lambeau as the only coaches to win six championships since postseason play began in 1933. Belichick also needs just eight victories to pass Tom Landry (270) for third-most victories in league history.
We are watching the greatest dynasty the NFL has ever seen.
OLD RBs IN NEW PLACES
Five big-name running backs changed teams during the off-season and are trying to return to their once-dominant form (or at least stave off the end of their respective careers). These are the situations they entered:
LeGarrette Blount (New England to Philadelphia)
Blount led the NFL with 18 rushing touchdowns last season for the Super Bowl champions. But the Patriots signed Mike Gillislee (Buffalo) and Rex Burkhead (Cincinnati) to team with James White and Dion Lewis. Blount will likely play a similar role with the Eagles, handling most of the early downs and goal-line situations and be replaced by Darren Sproles or Wendell Smallwood on passing downs.
Jamaal Charles (Kansas City to Denver)
This feels like a last gasp for the NFL’s all-time leader in yards per carry by a running back. Charles suffered a torn ACL in Week 5 of the 2015 season and was limited to three ineffective appearances last year. The Broncos also have C.J. Anderson and Devontae Booker (recovering from wrist surgery) in their backfield.Eddie Lacy (Green Bay to Seattle)
An ankle injury limited Lacy to five games last season with the Packers. The Seahawks will divvy up carries between Lacy and Thomas Rawls. C.J. Prosise will likely earn most of the work on passing downs.
Marshawn Lynch (Seattle to Oakland)
Lynch hasn’t played a game since November 2015 (injury followed by a one-season retirement). He decided he still had the itch to play and was traded to his hometown Raiders. All that time off can be looked at in two ways: Lynch will be washed up and of little use to the Raiders or he will be refreshed and look like “Beast Mode” for an offense that should be excellent.
Adrian Peterson (Minnesota to New Orleans)
Probably the most jarring image is seeing Peterson in a non-purple uniform. Peterson played in just 20 games over the past three seasons due to suspension and several injuries, but produced 1,485 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns as recently as 2015. In New Orleans, Peterson will be backfield mates with Mark Ingram on an offense that still features QB Drew Brees and will therefore likely be pass heavy.
The NFL has five first-time head coaches on the sidelines. A glance at their situations:
Vance Joseph (Denver)
A longtime assistant who was most recently Miami’s defensive coordinator, Joseph enters the best situation of the group. The Broncos won the Super Bowl two seasons ago and still have a lot of talent on defense (Von Miller, Chris Harris, Aqib Talib, Derek Wolfe) and offense (Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders).
Anthony Lynn (L.A. Chargers)
Also not a bad landing spot. The Chargers were hammered by injuries last year but have a competitive roster. Quarterback Philip Rivers is nearing the end of his career, but is still capable of leading a team to the playoffs. Young defensive end Joey Bosa is a monster.
Sean McDermott (Buffalo)
The problem with coaching in the AFC East is facing Tom Brady and Bill Belichick twice a season. But the Bills return dynamic running back LeSean McCoy and have a stable quarterback in Tyrod Taylor.
Sean McVay (L.A. Rams)
This could be a total rebuild. The Rams took quarterback Jared Goff with the No. 1 pick last season and need McVay, who became the youngest head coach (30) in NFL history at the time he was hired, to mold him into a useful player.
Kyle Shanahan (San Francisco)
Nobody is going to confuse the 49ers with the Atlanta Falcons (Shanahan’s former team). There isn’t a long-term answer at quarterback and the roster is thin. The 49ers do have promising young defensive linemen DeForest Buckner and Solomon Thomas.
A REASON TO WATCH THE BROWNS
For only the fifth time in 25 years, a defensive player was taken with the top pick (defensive end Myles Garrett to Cleveland).
The other four? DE Jadeveon Clowney (2014 by Houston), DE Mario Williams (2006 by Houston), DT Courtney Brown (2000 by Cleveland) and DT Dan Wilkinson (1994 by Cincinnati).
The Browns are forever in rebuilding mode, but it will be fascinating to watch Garrett’s development. In college, he was able to toss around SEC offensive linemen while totaling 31 sacks and 47 tackles for a loss in three seasons. Early reports indicate Garrett has shown a good motor, strong attention to detail and other-worldly athleticism. Finally, a reason to watch the Browns again. (Just change the channel when their offense is on the field.)
BACK AFTER INJURY
While the return of New England tight end Rob Gronkowski and Cincinnati receiver A.J. Green will be critical, let’s stay on defense and focusing on the comeback of these three players from injury:
Pittsburgh DE Cameron Heyward: An under-the-radar performer, few defensive linemen are as strong and nasty as Heyward when he is healthy. A biceps injury ended the 28-year-old’s season Week 10, and the Steelers felt it in a loss to New England during a playoff game in which they couldn’t harass quarterback Tom Brady. Heyward had a three-sack game against Kansas City.
Seattle S Earl Thomas: A gruesome broken tibia suffered Week 12 last season had Thomas, at least publicly, contemplating retirement. Fortunately for the Seahawks, the 28-year-old returned to secure the back end of their secondary. Prior to his injury last season, Seattle had not given up more than 25 points in a single game. Afterward, Green Bay hung 38 on them and Arizona dropped 34. Atlanta ended their season by scoring 36 points in the playoffs.
Houston DE J.J. Watt: The league’s most dominant one-man wrecking crew was limited to three games last season before undergoing back surgery after totaling 69 sacks the previous four seasons. Watt, 28, is the league’s most physically imposing player when healthy, but back injuries can be devastating. His first opportunity to prove he’s back is Week 1 against the Jaguars.
STILL SLINGIN’ IT
All three entered the NFL during the 2004 draft, and now quarterbacks Eli Manning (Giants, first overall pick), Philip Rivers (Chargers, fourth overall pick – traded to New York for Manning) and Ben Roethlisberger (Pittsburgh, 11th overall) are nearing individual milestones.
Manning needs 1,786 yards to join Peyton Manning, Brett Favre, Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Dan Marino and John Elway in the 50,000-yard club. Roethlisberger is 3,186 yards away, and Rivers 4,167 yards. Barring injury, all three could hit the mark this season and continue careers that will long be judged against one another and looked upon enviously by teams that have rotated through quarterbacks the last 13 years.
Manning and Roethlisberger have two Super Bowl championships apiece. Rivers is still looking for his first. This group doesn’t have the depth of the famed 1984 class of quarterbacks (headlined by John Elway, Dan Marino and Jim Kelly), but is nearing it in terms of total success.
Speaking of outstanding quarterbacks, New Orleans’ Drew Brees continues to accomplish feats few other have in league history. Brees can set the NFL record with a 10th consecutive season of 30 touchdown passes, breaking a tie with Peyton Manning and Brett Favre. Brees needs 35 passing touchdowns to join that duo as the only passer in history with 500 career TD passes. He is also 3,889 yards from joining them as the only QBs with 70,000 passing yards.
Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers needs three TD passes to become the 11th player to throw 300. Arizona’s Carson Palmer is 15 TD passes from 300.
Los Angeles Chargers tight end Antonio Gates needs one TD reception to pass Tony Gonzalez (111) for most all-time at the position. Gates has at least seven TDs in 11 of his 14 years.
Indianapolis running back Frank Gore needs 935 rushing yards to become the fifth player to rush for 14,000 career yards.
Carolina pass rusher Julius Peppers needs 6 1/2 sacks to become the fourth player with 150 sacks since the stat was recorded beginning in 1982.
Indianapolis kicker Adam Vinatieri needs to convert 36 field goals to surpass Morten Anderson (565) for most in NFL history. Vinatieri will need a huge season to do that; his season high is 35.
NATIONAL ANTHEM PROTESTS
Throughout the preseason, some of the most talked about images are those of players choosing to sit during the national anthem. Oakland running back Marshawn Lynch, back from retirement, sat on a cooler. Seattle defensive end Michael Bennett sat on the bench while teammate Justin Britt put his hand on his shoulder in support. Across the league, many other plays have done something similar.
National anthem protests were the biggest reason fewer fans watched NFL games last season, according to a survey released by J.D. Power over the summer. The survey found that 26 percent of sports fans who said they tuned into football games less frequently did so because of protests.
Also plaguing the league is the thought that quarterback Colin Kaepernick remains unsigned because he is the face of national anthem protests. This is an issue that isn’t going away anytime soon and surely has the NFL’s attention.
QUITTIN’ FOR A QB
Jaguars boss Tom Coughlin opted to not bring in outside competition for quarterback Blake Bortles during the off-season, choosing to instead give the former No. 3 pick another opportunity to prove he can be an effective starter. However, if Bortles again disappoints, there is a good chance the Jaguars will be joining several teams (New York Jets, San Francisco, Cleveland and possibly Arizona, among others) in search of a franchise passer in what is expected to be a loaded QB draft. Here are the names being talked about already:
Sam Darnold (Southern Cal): As a redshirt freshman last season, Darnold completed 67 percent of his passes for 3,086 yards with 31 touchdowns and nine interceptions. At 6-foot-4, he looks like an NFL passer.
Josh Allen (Wyoming): Similar to Philadelphia quarterback Carson Wentz, Allen was lightly recruited and went the junior college route before ending up at Wyoming. He threw for 3,203 yards with 28 TDs and 15 INTs as a redshirt sophomore last season.
Lamar Jackson (Louisville): The former Heisman Trophy winner is electric on his feet but needs to prove he can excel as a pocket passer to succeed in the NFL. That said, it is impossible to ignore his athletic ability and he gets rave reviews for his character. As a sophomore, he threw for 3,543 yards with 30 TDs and nine INTs.
Josh Rosen (UCLA): Limited to six games last season as a sophomore, Rosen threw for 1,915 yards with 10 TDs and five INTs before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury. A traditional pocket passer, Rosen will be watched closely as he tries to improve his accuracy.
The league announced in August it will hire 21-24 full-time game officials from among its group of 124 active officials over the course of this season to “promote the common goal of enhancing all aspects of NFL officiating.” It’s a move that many coaches and players around the league have argued for in recent seasons, particularly New Orleans coach Sean Payton, who said it was “madness” the league used part-time officials.
While the quality of the game is unlikely to be drastically improved, this is more than a semantic change. Full-time officials will have more time during the off-season to consider possible rule changes and other best practices. Most importantly, maybe one day we will definitively know what is and isn’t a catch.