The start of NFL training camps is still several weeks away and the 2014 regular season won’t kick off until September, but for all intents and purposes, America’s game has become a year-round sport.
So to help whet your appetite for some pigskin while counting down the days until the action returns to the gridiron, here are 14 storylines that will help shape how this season plays out.
1. Denver’s pursuit of its first Super Bowl win since the 1998 season
The Broncos had the AFC’s best record each of the past two seasons only to come up empty in the postseason. They went all in during free agency. It started with the signing of punishing strong safety T.J. Ward, a Pro Bowler for the Browns a year ago, to a four-year, $23 million deal with $14 million guaranteed. Cornerback Aqib Talib then signed a six-year, $57 million deal with $26 million guaranteed to replace Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, the Broncos’ best cover corner last season. The rich only got richer when outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware signed a three-year, $30 million deal with $20 million guaranteed to give the Broncos a potent pass-rushing tandem.
The Broncos hope that the moves will improve a defense that ranked 19th last season in yards allowed, gave up 24.9 points per game and surrendered 43 points to the Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII.
2. More quarterback drama in New York
Michael Vick declared Geno Smith the Jets’ starter upon his arrival in New York, and the Jets want the second-year quarterback to win the job. But the Jets signed Vick to a one-year, $5 million deal as insurance, providing yet more quarterback drama for the team.
Vick made six starts last season in Philadelphia, eventually losing his starting job to Nick Foles. With the Jets, he reunites with Marty Mornhinweg, who coached Vick from 2009-12 as the Eagles’ offensive coordinator. Vick, who turns 34 in June, had his best season in 2010, going 8–3 with a 62.6 completion percentage, 3,018 passing yards, 21 touchdowns and six interceptions. It ranks as his only season completing better than 60 percent of his passes. Vick only went 20–20 as a starter in five seasons in Philadelphia.
Still, he could provide the best option for an offense that finished 25th in total yards, including 31st in passing, with Smith’s 66.5 passer rating ranking 37th.
3. Playoffs or bust for Jason Garrett
Jason Garrett enters his fourth season as a full-time head coach and the final year of his contract, having produced only a 29–27 record since taking over for Wade Phillips as the interim head coach in 2010.
The Cowboys have not made the playoffs since winning the division in 2009, going 30–34 over the past four seasons combined. It’s looking like playoffs or bust for Garrett. Jerry Jones has hired seven head coaches since buying the Cowboys in 1989. Only Jimmy Johnson lasted more than four years, leaving after his fifth season in Dallas.
4. The Cardinals’ quest for a “Super” home game
You can make a strong case the two best teams in the NFL reside in the NFC West. The Seahawks are fresh off of a dominating win in the Super Bowl, and the 49ers — who have advanced to the NFC Championship Game in each of the last three seasons (with one win) — might have the best overall roster in the game. But there’s another potentially elite team out West. The Arizona Cardinals quietly won 10 games in 2013 under first-year coach Bruce Arians and are poised to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2009.
The Cardinals boast one of the league’s top defenses and have enough firepower on offense — as long as Carson Palmer behaves — to hang with Seattle and San Francisco. A year ago, Arizona went 1–3 against the “Big 2,” splitting two games with the Seahawks and losing a pair to the Niners by an average of 7.5 points.
Arizona has extra motivation to make a deep postseason run: The Cards want to be the first team to play the Super Bowl at home.
5. Cam Newton’s ankle
Cam Newton had surgery March 19 to repair an ankle injury he has had since college. Coach Ron Rivera said Newton tweaked the ankle in a Dec. 22 victory against the Saints. With a recovery time of four months, Newton missed out on an entire offseason of working with a new cast of receivers.
The Panthers released Steve Smith, the team’s all-time leading receiver. Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn Jr. and Domenik Hixon all signed with other teams in free agency. Carolina signed Jerricho Cotchery and Tiquan Underwood in free agency and drafted Kelvin Benjamin out of Florida State, but of Newton’s top four targets, only tight end Greg Olsen returns.
6. Eli Manning’s rebound
Eli Manning is a two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback, but he didn’t play like it last season. His 69.4 passer rating ranked below the likes of Matt Schaub, Brandon Weeden, Chad Henne and rookie EJ Manuel. In fact, only Terrelle Pryor’s and Geno Smith’s passer ratings were worse than Manning’s. And no quarterback threw more interceptions than Manning, who tossed 27, with three returned for touchdowns. Manning now has thrown 42 interceptions in his past 32 games.
The question is: Will Manning, 33, regain his golden touch? The Giants brought in new coordinator Ben McAdoo to fix Manning and the offense, which ranked only 28th last season and had an NFL-worst 44 giveaways. But with Manning signed only through 2015, the Giants are taking a wait-and-see approach before committing to more years with him as their quarterback.
7. Julius Peppers with the Pack
Julius Peppers, 34, appears to be on his last legs. He had only 7.5 sacks last season, and the Bears released him March 11. The Packers, though, believe Peppers has enough left to help them to the franchise’s fifth Super Bowl title. They signed him to a three-year deal with $7.5 million in guarantees.
Peppers, who has 118.5 sacks in 12 seasons, finally gets a chance to play in a 3-4. He should help the Packers defense improve from 25th. The question remains, though, whether he finally gets his first Super Bowl ring.
8. Jadeveon Clowney’s impact
The Chiefs would have made Jadeveon Clowney the No. 1 overall pick in 2013 if the South Carolina defensive end had been eligible for the draft. He wasn’t, but he played last season like he would have preferred the NFL. Clowney had only three sacks in 2013 and was heavily criticized for not going hard on every play.
But Houston, despite being in need of a quarterback, was won over by Clowney’s size, speed and athleticism. He stands 6'5", weighs 266 pounds, runs a 4.53, has a 37.5-inch vertical and has an arm length of 34.5 inches.
The Texans will pair him with the best defensive player in football in J.J. Watt, who desperately needed pass-rush help. Watt’s sack numbers dipped from 20.5 in 2012 to 10.5 in 2013 because opponents were able to consistently double-team him. As a team, the Texans recorded only 32 sacks.
Clowney will play outside linebacker in the Texans’ 3-4 base defense and then down in passing situations. Together, Clowney and Watt should return the Texans to their former status as one of the top defensive units in the NFL. The Texans’ only problem now is that they still lack a sure-fire franchise quarterback.
9. Andy Dalton’s future
Andy Dalton took the Bengals to the playoffs in each of his first three seasons. The Bengals, though, still haven’t won a playoff game since 1990. They lost at home in the wild card round last season, 27–10 to the Chargers, and have averaged 11 points in their three postseason losses the past three seasons — games in which Dalton has a combined one TD and six INTs.
Despite his 30–18 regular-season record as a starter, Bengals fans aren’t sold on Dalton as their franchise quarterback. The Bengals seem to be sold, however, with coach Marvin Lewis touting a long-term deal for Dalton.
10. Brady vs. Manning encore
It ranks as arguably the greatest quarterback rivalry in NFL history: Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady. Manning and Brady have met 15 times. The first meeting came in 2001 in Brady’s first career start, with Brady’s Patriots beating Manning’s Colts 44–13. Their most recent meeting came in the AFC Championship Game last season, with Manning’s Broncos winning 26–16.
Brady leads the series 10–5, with his Patriots scheduled to host Manning and the Broncos this season. With Brady turning 37 in August, and Manning already 38, every meeting could be their last meeting.
11. Jim Harbaugh vs. the 49ers
There might be some unrest in the 49ers organization, but the boys in Las Vegas don’t seem overly concerned. Only Seattle and Denver have better post-draft Super Bowl odds than the 49ers do at 15–2.
Jim Harbaugh has taken San Francisco to NFC Championship Games in three consecutive seasons, with a trip to the Super Bowl to end 2012. The 49ers, who had 39 wins in seven seasons before Harbaugh’s arrival, have posted a 36–11–1 record since 2011. They will contend again in 2014, despite the unrest of this offseason when reports surfaced that the Browns attempted to trade for Harbaugh.
Harbaugh elected to stay put, but speculation is that Harbaugh wants more power and/or money. He may or may not get along with general manager Trent Baalke, and may or may not want a raise from the five-year, $25 million deal he signed upon leaving Stanford. It won’t matter this year, but Harbaugh’s future in San Francisco no doubt is cloudy.
12. Michael Sam makes history
Michael Sam expects to fit in an NFL locker room just as easily as he did at Missouri. That might be easier than making the Rams’ roster. Though he recorded 11.5 sacks and 19 tackles for a loss and shared the SEC’s Defensive Player of the Year award, Sam stands only 6'2", weighs only 255 pounds and had a mediocre performance at the scouting combine. He ran the 40 in 4.91, recorded 17 reps in the 225-pound bench press and had a 25 ½ inch vertical. The Rams return Robert Quinn, Chris Long, William Hayes and Eugene Sims at defensive end, though Gerald Rivers, an undrafted rookie, did make the roster for 13 games last season. The NFL is rooting for Sam to make the Rams. He already has a following, thanks in part to a top-selling jersey.
13. Washington’s new weapon
DeSean Jackson stayed unemployed only for a weekend, accepting a three-year, $24 million deal with the Redskins shortly after the Eagles released him. Jackson helped Philadelphia win the NFC East last season with a career-best 82 catches for 1,332 yards and nine touchdowns. He could change the balance of power in the division this season.
Though the Redskins ranked 16th in passing offense, Pierre Garcon had 113 catches for 1,346 yards and five touchdowns. Garcon and Jackson give Washington the best set of receivers in the division, if not the NFL. Robert Griffin III could have a bounce-back season, as could the Redskins.
14. Ravens on the rebound
The Ravens went to the playoffs five consecutive seasons before missing out last season with an 8–8 record. Still, owner Steve Bisciotti gave his coach a vote of confidence by adding a year to John Harbaugh’s contract. General manager Ozzie Newsome spent a busy offseason trying to get the Ravens back to being Super Bowl contenders. He traded for center Jeremy Zuttah, signed safety Darian Stewart and receiver Steve Smith and re-signed receiver Jacoby Jones, left tackle Eugene Monroe, middle linebacker Daryl Smith and tight end Dennis Pitta. The Ravens are counting on a bounce-back season from quarterback Joe Flacco, who threw 19 touchdowns and 22 interceptions.
— Written by Charean Williams for Athlon Sports. This article is featured in Athlon Sports' 2014 NFL Preview magazine, which is available on newsstands or can be purchased online.