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15 Things to Watch During the 2017 NFL Season

Bill Belichick

Bill Belichick

NFLtraining camps open this week, which signals the official countdown to the start of the 2017 season. As usual, there is no lack of storylines to keep an eye on as we get closer to Week 1, with the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots at the forefront.

Athlon Sports’ 2017 Pro Football Magazine

Here’s a quick primer to help get you ready for the upcoming season. September can’t come soon enough.

(This article appears in Athlon Sports’ 2017 Pro Football Magazine, which is available for purchase online and at newsstands everywhere.)

15 Things to Watch During the 2017 NFL Season

1. Brady! Brady! Brady!

Tom Brady seemingly has it all. He won his fifth Super Bowl ring and fourth Super Bowl MVP Award last season. What more could the Patriots quarterback want? Well, a sixth Super Bowl ring, for starters.

Brady, who turns 40 this summer, vows to play into his mid-40s. Does anyone dare doubt him?

This marks Brady’s 18th season, and with a contract that runs through 2019, he could end up playing for the same franchise for 20 years. Jason Hanson holds the NFL record, having played 21 seasons with the Lions, while Jackie Slater spent 20 seasons with the Rams and Darrell Green 20 years with the Redskins.

Brady is aging like a fine wine. Despite a four-game suspension last season, he finished second in MVP voting to Matt Ryan. He ranks fourth in career passing yards, passing completions and passing touchdowns and third in passer rating.

Only three quarterbacks — Brett Favre, Warren Moon and Vinny Testaverde — have ever thrown for 3,000-plus yards after their 40th birthday. Only two — Favre and Moon — made the Pro Bowl after hitting the big 4-0. Brady seems a solid bet to join those two exclusive clubs this season.

2. Repeat After Patriots

The Patriots won their fifth Super Bowl title in a 16-year dynasty that has seen New England go 196–60 in the regular season and 25–9 in the postseason. Although it hardly seems possible, the Patriots appear to have gotten even better in the offseason.

In a case of the rich getting richer, the Patriots re-signed free agent Dont’a Hightower, traded for receiver Brandin Cooks and pass rusher Kony Ealy and signed cornerback Stephon Gilmore. The Patriots have a clear bull’s-eye on their back.

The Patriots are heavy favorites to win their ninth consecutive AFC East title and 14th in the past 15 years. They also are Super Bowl favorites. It’s hard to bet against them, especially with No. 12 still at quarterback. Yet, the Patriots have repeated only once — winning Super Bowls following the 2003 and ’04 seasons.

3. Cam Newton’s Rebound

Cam Newton went from Superman to Clark Kent in a year. He followed the MVP award in 2015 with the worst season of his career. The seven-year veteran completed a career-low 52.9 percent of his passes in 2016, threw 14 interceptions and posted a 75.8 passer rating that was ahead of only Brock Osweiler and Ryan Fitzpatrick.

The Panthers’ porous offensive line couldn’t protect Newton, who took 36 sacks and even more hits. Newton injured his throwing shoulder in Week 14 against the Chargers and underwent surgery to repair the partially torn rotator cuff on March 30. It only added injury to insult for the Panthers, who went from NFC champions to cellar dwellers. 

Newton and the Panthers hope for a rebound in 2017 with fewer hits on Newton, fewer interceptions, more completions and more victories.

4. J.J. Watt’s Return

Texans defensive end J.J. Watt owns three NFL Defensive Player of the Year awards. No player has more, and only Hall of Fame linebacker Lawrence Taylor joins Watt in having three. Can Watt return to form to make it a record four this year?

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Watt played in only three games last season, finishing with 1.5 sacks and eight tackles. His body was a wreck after two offseason surgeries in 2016 — one to repair his abductors and another to fix a herniated disk in his back — and he required yet another on his back in September that ended his season.

He has 76 sacks and 15 forced fumbles in six seasons, but the 28-year-old’s body isn’t aging well. With time off to rest and rehabilitate his injuries, Watt vows to return as strong as ever.

5. Kirk Cousins’ Future

The Redskins and Kirk Cousins still have not come to a long-term contract agreement. They appear no closer than a year ago. Cousins played last season under the $19.95 million franchise tag, the first quarterback since Drew Brees to do so, and the Redskins tagged Cousins for $23.94 million this season. They can tag him next year for $34.4 million.

Cousins’ future remains uncertain as the Redskins still appear unwilling to commit to him long term. In 41 starts over five seasons, including all 32 the past two seasons, Cousins has a 19–21–1 record with 72 touchdowns and 42 interceptions.

Cousins will have an all-new receiving corps, with Pierre Garçon and DeSean Jackson departing in free agency. Josh Doctson, a first-round pick in 2016, returns after playing only two games as a rookie because of Achilles injuries, and the Redskins signed Terrelle Pryor and Brian Quick in free agency.

It is another audition season for Cousins, who will eventually get a long-term deal somewhere.

6. Houston’s quarterback situation

The Texans have started 15 quarterbacks in their 15 seasons, including eight in Bill O’Brien’s three seasons. They have drafted quarterbacks (David Carr, Tom Savage and now Deshaun Watson), traded for quarterbacks (Matt Schaub, Ryan Mallett) and signed quarterbacks (Ryan Fitzpatrick, Brian Hoyer, Brock Osweiler). The Texans’ hunt for a franchise signal is seemingly endless.

The team had its sights set on signing Tony Romo before he decided to retire. Savage, who has two career starts, begins this season penciled in as the starter. But Houston traded up to get Watson, who passed for 10,168 career yards at Clemson and won a national championship. Will Savage keep the job or is he just keeping it warm until Watson is ready?

The Texans had the league’s No. 1-ranked defense last season. They have Lamar Miller at running back and DeAndre Hopkins at receiver. And now, they believe, the organization finally has a quarterback who can make them contenders to win the Super Bowl.

7. Tony Romo’s Retirement?

Is he or isn’t he? Tony Romo had a chance to completely close the door on his NFL career, but he left at least a crack. Romo asked, and received, his release from the Cowboys. The only reason for that is to leave open his options.

During CBS’ announcement that Romo would take over as the network’s top NFL analyst, the Cowboys’ all-time passing leader said he was 99 percent sure his career was finished. So there remains a 1 percent chance Romo returns to the field.

He played only five games the past two seasons and has not played a full 16-game schedule since 2012 because of injuries. Romo lost his job to Dak Prescott last season while recuperating from a compression fracture in his back.

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But what if a contender gets a season-ending injury to its quarterback late in the season? Could Romo be enticed out of retirement for a playoff run, giving him one last chance to win a Super Bowl?

8. What Are the Bears Doing?

Mike Glennon has a 5–13 record in four seasons as a part-time starter. Yet, the Bears signed him to a three-year, $43.5 million deal anyway. They then traded two third-round picks and a fourth-rounder to move up one spot to take Mitchell Trubisky, who went 8–5 in his only season as the starter at North Carolina. Chicago likely could have stayed put and still gotten the former Tar Heel.

It begs the question: What are the Bears doing?

The one smart thing Chicago did this offseason was move on from Jay Cutler. The 34-year-old quarterback went 51–51 in his eight seasons with the Bears and hasn’t started all 16 games in a season since 2009 and played in only five last season.

The Bears, rolled the dice on the 27-year-old Glennon, giving him $18.5 million guaranteed, and they now will pay a pretty penny to sign Trubisky. But general manager Ryan Pace and coach John Fox might not be around long enough to see how the quarterback situation plays out unless the Bears can show signs of improvement this season — which isn’t likely.

9. 49ers Gamble

The 49ers are on their fourth head coach in four years. Clearly, they miss Jim Harbaugh, who was 44–19–1 and took the team to three straight NFC Championship Games and a Super Bowl. After hiring and firing both Jim Tomsula and Chip Kelly after one year, owner Jed York is convinced he finally has it right.

He hired John Lynch as general manager despite the TV analyst’s lack of personnel experience and Kyle Shanahan as head coach despite no head coaching experience. York showed his faith in Lynch and Shanahan by giving both six-year contracts.

The 49ers, with more than $99 million in salary cap space, signed 18 free agents, including quarterbacks Brian Hoyer and Matt Barkley. They traded for Baltimore center Jeremy Zuttah. They had one of the best drafts of any team, getting Solomon Thomas and Reuben Foster in the first round.

The 49ers haven’t had a winning record since 2013, which was their third consecutive year with double-digit victories. They were last in offense in 2015 and last in defense in 2016. A turnaround isn’t likely overnight, but it doesn’t seem the 49ers can do worse.

10. Andrew Luck’s Bad Luck

In his first three seasons, Andrew Luck looked like the second coming of Peyton Manning. The Colts went 11–5 each season and earned playoff berths. In the two years since, Luck has battled injuries and the Colts have missed the playoffs with 8–8 records.

Athlon Sports 2017 NFL Preview Magazine

Luck hasn’t ascended to “elite” yet and has missed 10 games with injuries over the past two seasons. But in his defense, the Colts have done little to help him. Luck tied his career high in taking 41 sacks behind Indianapolis’ still-porous offensive line, and the Colts finished 30th in total defense.

Luck arguably had one of the best seasons in his five-year career in 2016, but he underwent surgery on his right shoulder in January. Luck does have time on his side. Manning didn’t win a playoff game his first five seasons, going 0–3 in the postseason before finally reaching the AFC Championship Game in his sixth season.

11. Raiders’ Parade Route?

With the Raiders announcing a move to Las Vegas, the question becomes: Will they win a Super Bowl in Oakland before leaving? The Raiders’ playoff berth last season was their first since 2002. It didn’t last long without Derek Carr. Carr fractured his right fibula in Week 16, leaving third-string rookie Connor Cook to make his first start against the Texans in the postseason. It didn’t go well.

But the Raiders’ future appears bright. Carr finished third in MVP voting; Khalil Mack was named Defensive Player of the Year; and the Raiders had an NFL-high seven Pro Bowlers. The Raiders will stay in the Oakland Coliseum for the 2017 and ’18 seasons, likely playing in front of few sellouts, before moving to a $1.9 billion stadium in Las Vegas in 2020. Their 2019 home remains unclear.

If the Raiders win a Super Bowl before their move, would Oakland throw them a parade? Or would it happen on the Las Vegas Strip?

12. Los Angeles Chargers

After 15 years trying to get a new stadium in San Diego, Chargers owner Dean Spanos finally decided he was out of time and out of options. The Chargers will share a stadium in Inglewood with the Rams beginning in 2019.

For the next two seasons, the Chargers will play in the 30,000-seat StubHub Center. It becomes the smallest stadium to host a full NFL season since the Packers played their home games at 25,000-seat City Stadium in 1956.

Can Los Angeles support two teams? In 1994, the last time the city had two teams, the Rams’ average attendance was 42,346, while the Raiders averaged 51,196. The Rams went 4–12 that season, and the Raiders 9–7 with no playoff berth.

The current Rams are coming off a 4–12 season in 2016, prompting a coaching change, and the Chargers went 5–11 and also are starting over with a new head coach.

13. Falcons’ Rebound

The Falcons spent the offseason picking up the pieces from their historic collapse in Super Bowl LI. They led 21–0 in the first half, 21–3 at halftime and 28–3 with 8:31 remaining in the third quarter. ESPN statistics gave Atlanta a 99.7 percent chance to win at that point. Critics have questioned the Falcons’ play calling — eight passing plays and four runs after taking the 25-point lead until the Patriots tied the game.

2017 Athlon Sports Pro Football Magazine

Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan left to take over the 49ers, and the Falcons replaced him with Alabama assistant Steve Sarkisian. Head coach Dan Quinn says the Falcons offense won’t change, and why should it? It was the most prolific in the NFL last season.

Reigning MVP Matt Ryan, though, will have to establish a rapport with yet another offensive coordinator. Sarkisian becomes the fourth Ryan has had since 2011, following Mike Mularkey, Dirk Koetter and Shanahan.

14. AD’s new home

After 10 seasons in Minnesota, Adrian Peterson has a new home and a new role. The Saints’ throw-first, shotgun offense doesn’t seem like an ideal fit for Peterson, but he didn’t find many options on the free-agent market.

Peterson will not be the feature back for the first time in his career. He and third-round pick Alvin Kamara will spell Mark Ingram, who had his best season a year ago with 1,043 rushing yards, 319 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns. Tim Hightower got 155 touches in a complementary role to Ingram last season but left for the 49ers in free agency.

Peterson will have a chip on his shoulder, but can he stay on the field? Peterson, 32, played only three games in 2016 before undergoing surgery for a torn meniscus in his right knee. Because of injuries and a suspension, Peterson has played only 34 games the past four seasons, including all 16 in 2015 when he led the NFL in rushing.

15. Year 2 for Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott

Ezekiel Elliott, the fourth overall pick in 2016, led the league in rushing with 1,631 yards as a rookie. He got MVP votes, but he didn’t win offensive rookie of the year honors. Instead, teammate Dak Prescott won it.

Prescott, a fourth-round pick, produced arguably the best rookie season by a quarterback in NFL history. He went 13–3 with a 67.8 completion percentage, 3,667 yards, 23 touchdowns, only four interceptions and a passer rating of 104.9 while making Tony Romo expendable.

Can Elliott and Prescott build on what they did in 2016? Or will they experience the sophomore jinx? The Cowboys failed to win a playoff game last season but seemingly have a bright future with Elliott and Prescott as cornerstones.

– Written by Charean Williams (@NFLCharean) for Athlon Sports