Finally, after a long, laborious offseason, we've arrived at Week 1. Rejoice and be glad.
For the duration of this season, this weekly piece will take a look ahead at some matchups to watch, with plenty of film to back it up. But this week, without fresh regular-season tape available, we're going to highlight three lines who should command everyone's attention not because of a high chance of success, but because of uncertainty.
Feel the danger? It's exciting, fresh, unnerving. Gives you the chills, doesn't it?
Let's dive in. Here are three lines to watch (with some worry) entering Week 1:
When healthy, this is a decent group. Health has not been the Panthers' friend, though.
A usual starting five that includes Matt Kalil at left tackle has been wiped out by injuries, with Kalil being placed on injured reserve after having his knee scoped. Second-year tackle Taylor Moton has gotten plenty of reps during preseason action and will man that position through the first eight weeks of the season, if not longer.
The opposite end of the line faces its own uncertainty, with Daryl Williams attempting to defy medical standards and come back from a dislocated patella and torn MCL suffered just six weeks ago. He's listed as questionable to play in Week 1 after participating in a limited fashion in practice during the week, as is starting guard Amini Silatolu (knee).
As you can see here, everything could be just about fine -- or it could be a nightmare.
Carolina owns the advantage of having one of the league's premier mobile quarterbacks in Cam Newton, but that doesn't remove the importance of protecting him. We've seen Newton take a beating in the last two seasons and how it has affected his play. Keeping Newton's jersey clean is paramount, even if unheralded names are doing so.
By now, we know Nathan Peterman is starting under center for the Bills, which was the least expected outcome when looking at this roster in June. AJ McCarron is off to Oakland, and rookie Josh Allen will be watching Buffalo's Week 1 contest from the sideline.
So how did we get here? Well, believe it or not, a lot of it had to do with the play of Buffalo's offensive line.
After the Bills lost three-fifth's of last year's starting line -- left tackle Cordy Glenn (via trade), guard Richie Incognito (reserve/retired, then released outright) and center Eric Wood (retired due to injury) -- struggles were expected. It's nearly impossible for a team to replace three of its best linemen in a single offseason, especially with one of those departures (Wood) arriving in unexpected fashion.
Buffalo didn't exactly help itself, either. The Bills had Cordy Glenn under control (albeit on a hefty contract) but with injury history on the brain, GM Brandon Beane decided to ship out former GM Doug Whaley's prized tackle, sending him to Cincinnati in order to swap late-round picks and move up nine places in the 2018 draft. Buffalo eventually used that pick to move up again to select Allen, so it wasn't a fruitless deal, but it's one that's hard to sell immediately when the line in front of Allen acts like a sieve.
Dawkins didn't play in the most-criticized preseason contest: Week 3 against Cincinnati. His backup, veteran Marshall Newhouse, started in his place. The combination of Newhouse and average guard Vlad Ducasse drew the most attention for line issues, including a well-circulated clip of Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins lifting Ducasse off the ground and into the chest of Allen for a sack. It also convinced many that Buffalo should wait to play Allen, even if that's not the provided reasoning for awarding the job to Peterman.
The optimist says this group will get better with time together, but that's a lot to expect from a pair of linemen who were essentially backups last season and are playing against the best rushers on the planet. Ducasse eventually replaced John Miller, who was benched after four games. Miller is now starting at right guard, while Ducasse starts on the left. The keys to this unit emerging as servicable (the bar is low at this point) is the play of Dawkins, who had a better second half of last season and new center Ryan Groy, who was named starter Sept. 3 even after Buffalo signed Russell Bodine in the offseason.
As of now, though, best of luck to Peterman. Perhaps they'll surprise us. Perhaps.
We covered this plenty in a closer look at center Joe Looney's preseason play, but we're circling back because it is precisely why the Cowboys are a team to watch in Week 1, much like people gather to watch a building demolition. It's spectacular to watch, from a safe distance. Dak Prescott won't enjoy the luxury of such distance in 2018.
Looney is facing an uphill climb, but we aren't sinking Dallas' hopes based on that (to be clear, we aren't sinking anyone in Week 1). There's also the continued acclimation of rookie guard Connor Williams, who will start next to All-Pro tackle Tyron Smith. It's not the worst situation when it comes to offensive lines.
But it is intriguing, because it has a boom-or-bust feel. Looney could play well enough (consider his slightly sub-average grade he earned in one preseason contest from yours truly), Smith could assist Williams enough and Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott could have solid games as a result. It would look a lot like much of Prescott's career has appeared statistically, with an average of 30.1 percent of his attempts coming under pressure (passes released with two yards of space or less from nearest defender), per Next Gen Stats.
Or, it could see a spike, as it did in limited preseason action, and disaster could strike. Elliott's rushing attempts against a loaded box jumped by 4 percent from 2016 to 2017, per Next Gen Stats, and a defense could be licking its chops knowing there might be a crack or two in Dallas' Great Wall. First-game numbers are inherently skewed, but we might see that number rise well over 40 percent.
Additionally, behind this new five, Prescott's pressured attempts jumped to 50 percent during the preseason. The catch: It came in an incredibly small sample size of just 18 attempts -- and he still completed 13 of them.
So this isn't sticks of dynamite taking down Texas Stadium. The Cowboys will likely still find a way to manage offensively. It just won't be as smooth as usual, making it a draw for those who love a potential for conflict.