With plenty to sort out as the 2020 NFL season draws closer, Marc Sessler leans on a tried-and-true cataloging system -- alphabetical order -- to highlight 26 riveting storylines to track coming out of an offseason unlike any other.
An Act 1 to the regular season unlike anything we've ever witnessed: Seeking a point of reference during this ultra-strange COVID-19-inflected offseason, experienced coaches have pointed to 2011. That's when the NFL attempted a jagged launch coming out of a lockout-drenched offseason that forced players into pads with zero lead-up. Hamstrings burst to and fro, rookies were tossed into the fire and first-time coaches were left to operate on the fly. The unknowns have tripled in America's weirdest year. I ponder the rookie left tackle whose dry run will occur against beefy, heat-seeking pass rushers mere seconds into Week 1. I bow to the first-year quarterback, attempting to read a disguised blitz, in what amounts to the equivalent of an LSD-led voyage into the unexplainable. We've spent months hypothesizing about the disadvantages draped over newbie coaches sparring with weather-worn types like John Harbaugh and Sean Payton, but excuses are few. Teams able to adjust will thrive, while creaky operations will vanish in the rear-view mirror. We are fortunate to enjoy football in any form, but the disparity between well-oiled operations and those catching up could be wider than ever before.
Buffalo on the brink: B is for the Bills, appropriately hyped during hot-stove months after mining their way to the postseason in 2019. Coach Sean McDermott has bloomed into an AFC power broker, coaching up one of the league's gnarliest defensive units while allowing underrated play-caller Brian Daboll to creatively unleash a trickery-laced offense. That attack is now armed with lead wideout Stefon Diggs, a proven deep threat and pristine route-runner, acquired via trade with the Vikings in March. The Bills appear primed to finally fling the Patriots into an active volcano, but the big query lingers: Can quarterback Josh Allen tweak his deep-ball accuracy in Year 3? I adore the rumbling, big-bodied signal-caller, but Diggs spent much of last season piqued by the up-and-down play of Kirk Cousins in Minnesota. Can this work? If so, Bills fans are strapping in for a joyride. If not, McDermott has earned management's trust to find and develop Allen's successor.
Carolina on my mind: It's unfair to ask Matt Rhule to flip the switch on the Panthers in 2020. The first-year coach has a new quarterback in Teddy Bridgewater and the NFL's youngest projected defense since 2010. First-round pick Derrick Brown should stabilize a rebuilt line, but I'd point to Carolina -- minus retired five-time All-Pro Luke Kuechly -- as the franchise most tinged by CoronaTime. Outside of special teams coordinator Chase Blackburn, those occupying the staff's four chief coaching positions (Rhule, offensive coordinator Joe Brady and defensive coordinator Phil Snow) have zero NFL experience in their current roles. Still, Rhule mastered thorny rebuilding jobs with Temple and Baylor and gives me Jimmy Johnson-esque vibes in Carolina. Do I expect the Panthers to author a few late-season upsets as a spoiler squad nobody wants to deal with? You'd better believe it.
Dynastic developments in the American Midwest: The Chiefs, as we know them today, loom as a disappointment if they fail to win four Super Bowls. Pairing a top-shelf coach in Andy Reid with a ceiling-free passer in Patrick Mahomes -- beside a rowdy list of stars under contract for years to come -- leaves us only to ask how many titles can be shoved onto the mantel in Kansas City. Gunning for Tom Brady's six Super Bowl rings feels in play for Mahomes, who won't turn 43 -- TB12's age -- for another 19 years.
Except for those Titans? I'm unwilling to dismiss a Tennessee outfit that scattered the Ravens in Baltimore during the Divisional Round before white-knuckling their way to a 17-7 lead over the Chiefs in the AFC title game. We all know what transpired from there, but Mike Vrabel exited last season as one of football's most intriguing young coaches. Tremendous what-ifs hang in the ether around quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who was gifted $62 million guaranteed as part a long-term pact. Compiling one of football's freakier statistical outlier campaigns, Tannehill finished tops in percentage of positively graded throws last season after ranking 35th with Miami in 2018, per Pro Football Focus. You can also ask if running back Derrick Henry's legs will eventually fall off, but play-caller Arthur Smith deserves credit for carving out a system that maximizes his players. The doubters will be dealt with.
Frisky goings on in the NFC West: Here's my prediction for the game's most fascinating division. Feel free to tweet-crush me when I'm proven a comprehensive rube:
- Niners (12-4)
- Seahawks (11-5)
- Cardinals (9-7)
- Rams (8-8)
The Niners, Seahawks and Cardinals make the playoffs. Then comes chaos, as from-the-wilderness Arizona upsets Seattle before facing San Francisco in the NFC title game. Kyle vs. Kliff for all the glory.
Green Bay's game of chicken with Aa-Rod: It warmed the heart to see Aaron Rodgers and Jordan Love tossing the ball like Kevin Arnold and Paul Pfeiffer in the old neighborhood.
It's a reminder that Rodgers appears determined to play nice with the rookie quarterback Green Bay traded up to snag in the first round. Still, Rodgers doesn't require a crystal ball to understand the tension-filled dynamic. When NFL Network's Kyle Brandt outlined the front office's dilemma between eventually moving on from Aaron Rodgers or not playing their first-round draft pick, Aa-Rod offered this, point-blank: "I think probably the first. The former."
It's a plot twist that, even six months ago, would have resembled the ponderings of a nut job. Yet here we are. Cutting Rodgers in 2021 is all but forbidden, due to the $32 million in dead money it would trigger, but a trade next offseason, or in 2022, is a fair notion. This story isn't going away.
Hoping for football with no interruptions: We've tumbled into a time that feels closer to half-baked science fiction than anything pulled from real life. COVID-19 is a central character this season, regardless of one's personal viewpoint. College football and the CFL have been rocked by corona, but the NFL's start feels more optimistic. Cases are low as teams have clung to state-of-the-art testing procedures at all facilities. Fingers crossed that stays the case when cross-country travel and real games become the norm. There is a sense this can work, though, if teams do their best to form quasi-bubbles and refrain from dressing up outside female visitors in Seahawks outfits.
If Denver's young pieces fit together ... I see a playoff team. That's no given, with second-year pro Drew Lock still a figure of mystery at QB after five late-season starts, but the surrounding talent is juicy. Phillip Lindsay and Melvin Gordon form a stacked backfield beside a talented cast of wideouts led by star-in-the-making Courtland Sutton and fascinating rookie Jerry Jeudy. Noah Fant was a hot-and-cold object of frustration as a rookie, but the tight end paired with Lock for a 4/113/1 line in a feverish win over the Texans in Week 14. It's fair to question if new offensive play-caller Pat Shurmur can make it all work, but I like him much more as a coordinator than as a head coach. After years of unwatchable offense in a post-Peyton Manning landscape, today's Broncos are the opposite of dull.
Joe B's attempt to lift Cincy from the grave: This lifelong Browns fan isn't itching for another power to rise in the already impossible AFC North. Still, I fell for football watching the Browns and Bengals stage a genuine rivalry in the 1980s. Both teams have struggled mightily in their own special way, but Cincinnati feels relevant with No. 1 overall pick Joe Burrow at the wheel. The shoo-in Week 1 starter faces a tall order after an offseason mostly stuffed with Zoom meetings, but Burrow gives the Bengals a north star, someone for fans to cling to without hesitation. If the quarterback glows, NFL football in Ohio will never be the same.
Kyler's second act: He's a different player than Lamar Jackson, but a similar hope for tomorrow rests in what Kyler Murray might become in Year 2. The NFL community has come around to the idea that coach Kliff Kingsbury's offense can work at the pro level -- and that Murray is the ideal human to sit at the motherboard and orchestrate chaos against opposing defenses. He beguiles with his legs and effortlessly unfurls deep shots with a cannon arm, finishing as PFF's sixth-ranked deep passer as a rookie. This came without much around him at wide receiver, but that problem was solved by DeAndre Hopkins' addition to the mix this offseason. It's not hyperbole to wonder if Murray can become the next big star in a league where the quarterback position is evolving with each new campaign.
Littler Ben, JuJu and the overlooked Steelers: Are we forgetting about Pittsburgh? Sure seems like it.
I see a club with a top-two defense in the AFC.
I see a much-maligned JuJu Smith-Schuster, held down last autumn by a cast of clowns at quarterback who targeted the wideout with a ghastly accurate ball placement of 50.8 percent, per PFF -- a drastic tumble from the 61.4 percent unfurled by Ben Roethlisberger in 2017 and 2018.
I see the figure of Big Ben emerging from the mist, written off by the hordes, giggled at for his corona beard and dismissed as a stale lump of clay. Meanwhile, a leaner, meaner Roethlisberger is back at camp throwing darts. I vow this: His detractors are in for a rough ride.
Mike McCarthy's comeback campaign: Two possible scenarios exist for the ex-Packer coach's first year in Dallas:
- He becomes the first coach since Barry Switzer in 1995 to lead the Cowboys to the NFC title game.
- A talented Dallas roster somehow sits at 4-7 on a rainy November day, leaving McCarthy to ask himself: Why did I leave the hushed lake house (where the cooler was always filled with beer and the Maxwell sisters floated by daily in that little canoe and once invited me over for a spaghetti dinner with bottles of rosé) ... for this?
New York/New Jersey arms race: The debate two years ago was whether the Giants made a tremendous mistake by passing up on QB Sam Darnold with the second overall pick in the draft for a running back (granted, a phenomenal one) in Saquon Barkley. Today's debate in the five boroughs asks whether the Giants -- after drafting QB Daniel Jones last offseason -- might have the best of both worlds. Jets fans don't agree, hoisting up Darnold, who went third overall in 2018, as a franchise savior to pair alongside runner Le'Veon Bell, who plays like a top-five talent when he feels like it. Jones made a flurry of throws last season that read like high-octane erotica to G-Men loyalists, but the endless fumbles were less intoxicating. Darnold suffered mononucleosis and physical pain behind one of the NFL's shoddiest lines. Few young quarterbacks have dealt with more over their first two seasons, but S-Darn -- like Jones -- has put moments on tape that make the imagination soar. These teams might stink in 2020, but the back-page deliberations on which franchise landed the better arm have just begun.
OBJ and the wait-and-see Browns: Receiver Odell Beckham sits at the heart of a Cleveland team that made jazzed-up pundits appear as fools a year ago. That Freddie Kitchens-led operation was a picture of self-spun disorganization, flat-lining under the weight of heightened expectations and iffy play from quarterback Baker Mayfield. One summer later, I could sell you on the club's best roster in a quarter century. I could point to veteran players gushing over the detailed approach of first-year coach Kevin Stefanski. I could mention the capable hand of general manager Andrew Berry -- or Mayfield's dug-in approach to his critical third pro season. It's time for the team, though, to generate something tangible in September -- not middle April.
Payton's final bash with Brees? Coach Sean Payton and the Saints have endured an almost unbelievable string of crushing playoff defeats. Time is running out to get it right. With Drew Brees reportedly already hired by NBC to call Notre Dame tilts upon retirement, it would be an upset if this wasn't the final go-around for the dazzling 41-year-old quarterback. That creates questions about future plans for backups Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill, but something will have gone wrong if either start games this season. The more pressing question is whether Brees would shun retirement -- and the dear old Fighting Irish -- if New Orleans encounters heartbreak all over again.
Quenton's band of horseshoe maulers and their new prized possession: Could this also be the end for 38-year-old quarterback Philip Rivers? I believe that decision hangs in flux, based heavily on what this year brings in Indy. The argument for a longer stay is that Rivers now has something he lacked in Los Angeles: a functional front five. The Colts offer that to an embarrassing level, with All-Pro guard Quenton Nelson blasting defensive linemen into oblivion alongside the sturdy tackle combination of Anthony Castonzo and Braden Smith. Rivers runs like Lamar Jackson if Lamar Jackson were frozen in carbonite, but a clean pocket changes everything for the old-school man of steel. He fits right in with the playoff-hopeful Colts.
Ron Rivera's cultural overhaul in D.C.: Washington's new coach has served as the capable and respected mouthpiece of an organization swimming through a choppy sea of internal adjustments that stretch far beyond the nickname switch. Rivera's trusted touch with the media makes it easy to forget the tangible challenge of coaching of a somewhat bleak roster. He might surprise fans with a better-than-advertised defense, but it's anyone's guess as to how second-year pro Dwayne Haskins (or Kyle Allen or, improbably, Alex Smith) will fare at quarterback inside a talent-poor attack. It somehow all feels secondary to Rivera putting out fires left and right, but the Washington Football Team appears truly headed in the right direction for the first time since George Bush 1.0 roamed the White House.
Singling out the team nobody is talking about: How about Detroit? They've spent years disguised as a lukewarm glass of milk, but coach Matt Patricia has something up his sleeve (I think). Not unlike the Ravens, the Lions are primed to toil as a run-happy offense fueled by high-upside rookie back D'Andre Swift and spicy-when-healthy Kerryon Johnson. Matthew Stafford was sensational under center last year before a back injury ended his season in November, and he finds ample help in wideout Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones. The defense welcomes first-round cover man Jeff Okudah and roughly 26 ex-Patriots. In a manageable NFC North, Patricia oversees a rugged roster receiving zero buzz. This is my seventh playoff entry in the NFC.
Tom Brady vs Bill Belichick: They can say it's not a thing, but it's a thing. It's real. This was a breakup. Both parties might talk pretty, but Belichick -- I promise you -- lies awake thinking about Tom. Mulling over what that one extra fist bump might truly mean when Brady zips an 18-yard touchdown strike to a pewter-clad, cackling Gronk in Week 1's clash with the Saints. Tom and Bill. Both totally obsessed. Dipped in unstated fire. Unspoken words. Secret histories. Uncharted legacies. It's all happening, right now, as you read this.
Undetermined swing for the fences by BOB: This is pure (if reasonable) speculation, but recent history suggests that Texans coach Bill O'Brien, in his ongoing quest to reimagine the role of general manager, is days, weeks -- at most, months -- away from pulling off yet another complicated/madhouse trade that melts scribes and talking heads into a sweaty puddle. I have no idea what the trade will be. Nobody does. Except the glorious man known as BOB.
Vegas rising: Please remember this sentence when Jon Gruden is awarded Coach of the Year honors.
Wentz vs. Foles: Carson Wentz is the better player, but Mrs. Fate keeps tapping Nick Foles on the shoulder: The Philly Special. Super Bowl MVP. A stirring playoff win over the Bears one season later, with Wentz out of the picture all over again. Eagles fans picking Wentz with their heads, but Foles with their hearts. Now Foles lands in Chicago -- with $17 million fully guaranteed, per Over the Cap -- as a logical choice to start over the dangerously flawed Mitch Trubisky. I still believe in Wentz as an MVP-level talent, but he goes to work each day and sees a STATUE OF FOLES outside the building. This runs deep. What better way to settle it once and for all than a WENTZ vs. FOLES postseason rumble come January? Come on, Mrs. Fate!
Xerox copy of last year's Ravens? This is a point of fascination for me. The league's most potent and prolific ground attack refused to stand pat, spending a second-round pick on J.K. Dobbins, who left Ohio State as the only running back in Buckeye history to barrel for 2,000 yards in a season. Mark Ingram remains a powerful, do-everything runner with Gus Edwards and Justice Hill at the ready. The depth alone suggests all sorts of creative formation work by play-caller Greg Roman. If the team would like to lower Lamar Jackson's 176 carries, they haven't made that a shared goal, not when the game's most electric playmaker scorched enemies for 1,206 rushing yards at an outrageous 6.9 yards per carry -- 1.3 more yards per rush than any qualified ball-carrier in football. The Ravens aren't fueled by fear of the unknown. With teams expected to run the ball excessively out of the gate in a wacky 2020, Baltimore -- no surprise -- should lead the way all over again.
Young Tua: The Dolphins didn't exactly Tank For Tua. Miami's late-season surge left four teams -- the Bengals, Washington, Lions and Giants -- with a chance to draft Tagovailoa. In the end, he wound up where he belonged, snagged by Miami with the fifth overall pick, bringing hope under center to a fan base still wandering South Beach in faded Dan Marino jerseys. The presence of savvy veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick lifts the pressure to start right way off Tua, but first-round rookies don't sit for long. Not in today's NFL. So how about this for Tua's first pro start: Week 4 at home against Russell Wilson and the Seahawks?
Zeitgeist-altering days to come: Beyond the inherently baffling nature of predicting football outcomes, real life has shoved its way onto the scene. The NBA has thrived in a bubble, baseball has been a roller coaster ride and we have no tangible idea what football will look like two months from now. That feels ominous below the surface, but we swim together through a historically heightened time. Nobody knows if this will work. I don't know. Andy Reid doesn't know. Chest-thumping pundits don't know. Football, though, is pressing on and pushing toward us -- and us toward it. And away we go.