The return of football action means things will start happening again in the NFL. For better or worse, storylines that have been obsessed over all offseason will begin to generate meaningful developments. And those under intense pressure to produce will either begin living up to expectations or start off on the wrong foot.
Below, I've identified seven players and one coach facing tons of pressure to perform in the 2018 season. Each of these figures -- presented in alphabetical order -- is under a microscope for one reason or another. Soon we'll see how they respond to the tests they're all facing.
Kirk Cousins, QB, Minnesota Vikings: It's Super Bowl or bust for the marquee free agent of 2018. Cousins got paid -- now he has to make the difference for a Minnesota team that was one win away from reaching Super Bowl LII. Cousins is the only player in Redskins history -- and just the 11th player ever -- to pass for 4,000-plus yards in three or more straight seasons, accomplishing that feat from 2015 to '17. In that same span, however, his record as a starter was 24-23-1, with a single one-and-done playoff appearance. Did he play well in spite of a poor supporting cast? Or did he fail to put Washington over the top even as he piled up stats? We'll learn soon enough, now that he's on what is probably the best overall team in the NFL.
Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Dallas Cowboys: Taking on an even greater share of the offensive burden in Dallas, Elliott might become the first running back to eclipse 400 carries in a season since Larry Johnson posted 416 for the Chiefs in 2006. Dez Bryant (69 catches in 2017) and Jason Witten (63 catches) are gone, leaving voids at receiver and tight end, respectively. In the meantime, running the ball for the Cowboys promises to be considerably more difficult than it's been in Elliott's first two years as a pro, with issues popping up on the previously dominant O-line, including center Travis Frederick's indefinite absence and right guard Zack Martin's minor knee injury. Expectations are higher than ever for Elliott -- but so is the degree of difficulty. If Dallas is going to win in 2018, the young back is going to be a driving force.
Joe Flacco, QB, Baltimore Ravens: By drafting quarterback Lamar Jackson 32nd overall, the Ravens let Flacco know he is very likely going to be expendable soon, perhaps as soon as next season. Can Flacco rise to the challenge, Alex Smith style? Smith responded to a similar situation last year -- after the Chiefs drafted Patrick Mahomes as his eventual replacement -- by playing looser than he had at any point in his career and improving his deep game. Washington then traded for Smith, rewarding him with a starting QB job and a long-term extension. Even if the writing is on the wall for Flacco in Baltimore, he has a chance to show prospective future suitors he can still be a valuable starter by shaking off a multi-season stretch of lackluster play. If he were to, say, lift the Ravens to the playoffs, Flacco could earn another big-money contract elsewhere, should Baltimore decide to move on.
Hue Jackson, coach, Cleveland Browns: Thanks to general manager John Dorsey, the Browns have far more talent on the roster than they did in either of Jackson's past two seasons. Ownership appears to remain in Jackson's corner. Still, the Browns' 1-31 record in 2015 and '16 does not reflect well on the job Jackson has done personally. The coach must show in 2018 that he's the right man for the job today and the best choice to develop No. 1 overall pick Baker Mayfield into a franchise quarterback. Jackson has to win at least six games this season, ideally including at least one in the early portion of the year. Cleveland faces a tough schedule, but there are potentially three winnable contests in the first six weeks (vs. Jets in Week 3, at Raiders in Week 4 and vs. Ravens in Week 5). Entering Week 7 at 3-3 would do a lot for him. Beyond that, the offense must show improvement -- bringing Todd Haley aboard as offensive coordinator was a smart move.
Case Keenum, QB, Denver Broncos: Keenum's performance will go a long way toward determining whether the Broncos can avoid posting consecutive losing seasons for the first time since 1971 and '72. For the first time in his career, the longtime journeyman backup has had an offense built around his strengths rather than playing in an attack built around, say, Sam Bradford. People seem to take Keenum for granted. But he's a strong character guy -- I once saw him stay after practice at Rams camp when he was with that team to sign autographs for about 20 minutes. He has very talented receivers to work with in Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders and promising rookie Courtland Sutton. I talked to Sanders and Thomas when I visited Broncos camp, and they were both very excited about Keenum. Since taking over in Denver, Keenum has said and done all the right things from a leadership standpoint, impressing defensive teammates who haven't practiced against a QB of his caliber in some time. He should be able to help Denver win a few more games than the team did in 2017, starting with his ability to improve the Broncos' red-zone performance.
Andrew Luck, QB, Indianapolis Colts: Luck has to prove he can still be the quarterback who dazzled the league before he was derailed by a shoulder injury that cost him the 2017 season -- and he must do so with a shaky supporting cast. Outside of receiver T.Y. Hilton, there isn't really anyone on the offense who stands out as a notable proven threat, especially with stalwart running back Frank Gore now in Miami. Can Luck shake the rust and engineer a turnaround reminiscent of what he did as a rookie in 2012, taking a Colts team that won two games the year before his arrival to the playoffs?
Jalen Ramsey, CB, Jacksonville Jaguars: When you talk the talk, you've gotta walk the walk. Ramsey has a history of backing up his swagger with elite play, but this offseason, he provided enough bulletin-board material to motivate the entire NFL. He's a very good defender, having limited opposing quarterbacks to a 57.2 passer rating when throwing in his direction last season, the fourth-best mark among all NFL cornerbacks. But as Jacksonville attempts to repeat the success of its 2017 run to the AFC title game, Ramsey -- and, by extension, the rest of the Jaguars' defense -- will have to produce in 2018, especially against the offensive players he's openly criticized: Eli Manning in Week 1, Rob Gronkowski in Week 2, Ben Roethlisberger in Week 11, Andrew Luck in Weeks 10 and 13. Ramsey probably won't slip up -- but if he does, he'll surely hear about it.
J.J. Watt, DE, Houston Texans: Watt is considered by some to be a front-runner for the Defensive Player of the Year award -- lofty expectations for someone who has missed 24 of the Texans' past 32 games. He's 29 years old and now two seasons removed from his last Pro Bowl season, with multiple injury issues knocking him off track. He's also currently set to count for $15 million against the cap in 2019 -- a figure that drops to $2 million in dead money if he's released or traded, according to Spotrac. Young stud Jadeveon Clowney, meanwhile, is on the last year of his rookie deal and could be poised to receive a big payday. Thus, it behooves Watt to resume playing like the guy who was one of the most dominant defenders in the NFL. If he can take up a double-digit-sack pace while driving the Texans' defense into top-five range, Watt could help solidify his standing with Houston as the team makes its plans for the future.
Follow Gil Brandt on Twitter @Gil_Brandt.