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15 Things to Watch During the 2018 NFL Season

Andrew Luck

Andrew Luck

It may not seem like it, but the 2018 NFL season isn't too far away. Training camps will be starting up in about a month, which is when the official countdown begins.

Most of the attention will be on the defending Super Bowl champions, the Philadelphia Eagles. But that's not the only storyline worth paying attention to. Here’s a quick primer to help get you ready for the upcoming season.

15 Things to Watch During the 2018 NFL Season

Athlon Sports 2018 Pro Football Magazine

1. The Rams go all in

The Rams pushed their chips to the middle of the table, loading up for a Super Bowl run this season. They acquired Brandin Cooks, Marcus Peters, Ndamukong Suh and Aqib Talib -- trading first-, fourth- and fifth-round choices this year and a second-rounder in 2019 -- and are spending big money on star players. The Rams are paying Lamarcus Joyner $11.3 million on the franchise tag, Talib $11 million, Suh $14 million and Cooks $8.5 million.

They are playing for today because quarterback Jared Goff counts only $7.6 million against the cap this season. It’s a familiar formula, one used by the Seahawks in 2013 and the Eagles in 2017.

The Rams have not won a playoff game since 2004, but they took a step in that direction last season by winning a division title for the first time since 2003.

Either the Rams will end up with a Lombardi Trophy, the organization’s first since 1999, or they will fail spectacularly. They have 15 players, seven projected as starters, scheduled to become unrestricted free agents in 2019. Los Angeles could lose Aaron Donald, Cooks, Suh and Joyner, among others. General manager Les Snead says the Rams have the cap room to keep the team together after this season, but the team isn’t worried about the future. They are all in for this year.

2. Andrew Luck's return

Andrew Luck underwent surgery on his right shoulder in January 2017. He missed the entire season.

Luck, 28, spent the offseason working on the West Coast with a pair of throwing specialists. The Colts remain confident that Luck not only will play this season but also will return to form. Indianapolis needs him.

The Colts are 43-27 in the regular season with Luck and 10-16 without him under center since Indianapolis drafted him No. 1 overall in 2012. He has battled injuries the past three seasons, missing more games with injuries (26) than he has played (22), and he is only 10-12 over the past three seasons after starting his career 33-15 with three consecutive playoff appearances. Colts Nation is rooting for some overdue good luck.

3. Kirk Cousins' great expectations

The Vikings came within one game of the Super Bowl last season with Case Keenum. So what did they do? They let Keenum walk and signed a quarterback with no postseason wins to a record-breaking contract.

Kirk Cousins, who is 0-1 as a starter in the playoffs, signed a fully guaranteed three-year deal worth $84 million. His $28 million average makes him the highest-paid player in history.

Cousins’ big contract brings great expectations. The Vikings signed him to do what Keenum couldn’t do -- get them to the Super Bowl. He will have plenty of weapons with Dalvin Cook, Latavius Murray, Stefon Diggs, Adam Thielen, Kendall Wright, Kyle Rudolph and David Morgan -- and a top-rated defense -- leaving him no excuses.

It’s Super Bowl or bust for Cousins.

4. Le'Veon Bell's future

Le’Veon Bell appears to be following Kirk Cousins’ path to free agency. The Steelers gave him the franchise tag for a second consecutive season, paying him $14.5 million in 2018. He made $12.12 million on the tag in 2017. Unless they reach an agreement on a long-term deal, Bell likely will become a free agent in 2019.

They appear no closer to a long-term deal than they were a year ago, and Bell seems to be preparing for his departure. During the offseason, he tweeted: “It’s so hard to be a hero in a city that paints you out to be the villain.”

Bell, 26, earned All-Pro and Pro Bowl honors last season when he rushed for 1,291 yards and nine touchdowns on 321 carries and caught 85 passes for 655 yards and two touchdowns. He has established himself as one of the top backs in the NFL.

However, the short lifespan of running backs combined with his off-field concerns, after serving two suspensions, and his knee injuries in 2014 and ’15 could give the Steelers pause about committing to a long-term deal that would make him the league’s highest-paid player at his position.

All of which points to Bell leaving Pittsburgh after this season.

5. Mr. Smith goes to Washington

The Redskins gave up a third-round pick and cornerback Kendall Fuller for Alex Smith. It also meant they gave up on Kirk Cousins. The Washington brass calls the move an upgrade. That remains to be seen, as both quarterbacks have proved to be better in the regular season than in the postseason. Cousins is 0-1 all time in the postseason, and Smith is 2-5.

Athlon Sports 2018 Pro Football Preview

While Cousins has three consecutive seasons of more than 4,000 passing yards and 25 or more touchdown passes, Smith last season had his first career 4,000-yard passing season and set a career best with 26 touchdowns. But he is 88-62-1 in the regular season, including 50-26 in Kansas City. The Chiefs made the postseason in four of Smith’s five seasons there.

Washington signed Smith to a four-year, $94 million extension, giving the 34-year-old the type of contract they never gave Cousins.

6. Blake Bortles' future

The Jaguars signed Blake Bortles to a three-year, $54 million extension, but at $18 million a season and with a short duration, Bortles heads into his fifth season on a prove-it deal. Tom Coughlin, the team’s executive vice president of football operations, said as much in a statement announcing the deal: “Along with this contract come high expectations that he will continue to improve and help our team accomplish its ultimate goal.”

Bortles, 26, had a career-high 60.2 completion percentage last season and a career-low 13 interceptions. But he has yet to live up to the expectations that came with being the third overall pick in 2014. The Jaguars seemingly have everything in place to win it all, with the NFL’s top-ranked running game last season, a defense that ranked second and the addition of prized free agent guard Andrew Norwell to improve their offensive line. It is now on Bortles’ right shoulder to win two more games than last season. Otherwise, the Jaguars could make a move at the position for 2019.

7. What happens to the Super Bowl MVP?

The Eagles had a chance to trade Nick Foles in the offseason. They chose to hold on to him, and for good reason. Carson Wentz tore the LCL and the ACL in his left knee against the Rams in Week 14. While Wentz is confident he will return by the season opener, the timeline is fluid.

Foles gives the Eagles the best backup plan in the league. If Wentz isn’t ready, Foles will begin the season as the starter. Either way, the Super Bowl MVP will return to wearing the baseball cap and carrying the clipboard at some point this season.

Foles will hit free agency in 2019, likely finding a healthy market waiting for him. The Eagles, though, have a chance to trade Foles before the October trade deadline and get something for him if Wentz returns to form.

8. Browns improvement

The Browns were 1-31 over the past two seasons, giving them high draft picks and plenty of cap space. Losing big allowed the Houston Astros finally to win big in MLB. Can it work for the Browns in the NFL?

With more than $100 million in cap space to begin free agency and two top-four draft picks, the Browns have built for the future. In the draft, they added a franchise quarterback in Baker Mayfield and a Day 1 starter at cornerback in Denzel Ward. Earlier in the offseason, they traded for receiver Jarvis Landry and then signed him to a long-term deal.

In addition, the Browns added quarterback Tyrod Taylor (as a stopgap until Mayfield takes over), running back Carlos Hyde, offensive tackle Chris Hubbard, defensive end Chris Smith and defensive backs Damarious Randall, Terrance Mitchell, E.J. Gaines and T.J. Carrie. And Myles Garrett, David Njoku and Jabrill Peppers should play even better in their second seasons after being first-round choices in 2017.

Cleveland now has a solid core to build around. While the Browns might not go from 0-16 in 2017 to the postseason in 2018, they should take a giant step forward this season with their sights set on 2019 to contend for the division title.

9. Cracks in the Patriots' dynasty

The Patriots have posted a winning record in each season since 2001, with double-digit wins in 16 of the past 17 years. Only twice since Tom Brady became the starter in 2001 have the Patriots failed to make the postseason, and one of those came in 2008 when Brady missed 15 games with a knee injury.

Athlon Sports 2018 Pro Football Magazine

Brady won his third MVP award in 2017 at age 40. Brady’s age, though, may be less of a problem than his desire to have fun while winning. ESPN reported on unrest in Foxboro in January, with Brady and Bill Belichick reportedly at odds over Brady’s personal trainer, Alex Guerrero. Then came cornerback Malcolm Butler’s surprising benching in Super Bowl LII even as the Patriots got shelled by Nick Foles in the loss to the Eagles. Tight end Rob Gronkowski followed this offseason with hints of retirement, reportedly physically and mentally drained after a difficult 2017.

The Patriots took more losses in the offseason than they did in the 2017 regular season, losing left tackle Nate Solder (Giants), wide receiver Danny Amendola (Dolphins), running back Dion Lewis (Titans), swing tackle Cameron Fleming (Cowboys) and Butler (Titans). They traded wide receiver Brandin Cooks (Rams), and tight end Martellus Bennett retired. Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia left for Detroit to become the Lions head coach.

With all the changes and the unrest, can the Patriots get another Super Bowl victory even as their window appears to be closing? They still have Brady and Belichick, so that gives them a chance.

10. Eli Manning's last hurrah?

Eli Manning appeared on his way out of New York last year when his streak of 210 consecutive starts ended when he was benched late last season. That lasted only one week, though, and the Giants fired Ben McAdoo. New coach Pat Shurmur already has named Manning his starter for 2018.

Manning, though, is 37 and coming off his worst season since 2013, as he threw only 19 touchdowns and 13 interceptions and posted an 80.4 passer rating. The Giants went 3-13.

Manning counts $22.2 million against the salary cap this season and $23.2 million next season. He is scheduled to become a free agent after the 2019 season and has not talked to the Giants about a contract extension.

The quarterback, who is entering his 15th season, calls it a “one-year-at-a-time” league. He has this year.

11. Sam Bradford's health

If Sam Bradford can stay healthy ... Stop us if you have heard that before. The fact is: Bradford hasn’t stayed healthy. He has played only 80 of a possible 128 games in his eight-year NFL career.

Yet, the Cardinals committed to a two-year, $40 million deal, with $15 million guaranteed, for Bradford. Arizona entered the offseason without a quarterback on its roster. Bradford, who has never made a Pro Bowl, filled a need, although the team did draft UCLA QB Josh Rosen in the first round.

The Cardinals have put together a health plan for Bradford, hoping to keep him on the field and out of the training room. He started only two games last season because of a knee injury that required arthroscopic surgery. Bradford returned to the Vikings last year to back up Case Keenum in the postseason, though he didn’t play. Minnesota coach Mike Zimmer described Bradford’s knee as “degenerative,” and whether it is or isn’t, many teams had concerns about the quarterback’s history of injuries.

Bradford, 30, joins his fourth team in five years. If only he can stay healthy ...

12. In Mahomes they trust...

The Cowboys had their “Triplets” in Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin. The Colts had Peyton Manning, Marvin Harrison and Edgerrin James. But the Cowboys also had Jay Novacek, and the Colts also had Dallas Clark. The Chiefs aren’t about to leave out their All-Pro tight end. They’re building around their “Quadruplets” of Patrick Mahomes, Kareem Hunt, Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce. Mahomes turns 23 in September; Hunt turns 23 in August; Hill is 24; and Kelce is 28.

But while Hunt, Hill and Kelce have six Pro Bowl appearances among them in only eight cumulative seasons, Mahomes has started only one game. He was good enough in that one game, a 27-24 victory over the Broncos in Week 17, that the Chiefs felt comfortable in trading Alex Smith to Washington.

The Chiefs traded up to 10th overall to select Mahomes in the first round in 2017, drafting him as the heir apparent to Smith. Kansas City’s Wild Card playoff exit signaled the end of the Smith era and the beginning of Mahomes’ time as QB1.

Mahomes will have plenty of help from his friends: Hunt led the league in rushing with 1,327 yards as a rookie; Hill had 1,183 receiving yards last season and has four career return touchdowns; and Kelce has more than 1,000 yards receiving each of the last two seasons.

13. Aaron Rodgers' mood

Aaron Rodgers was having another MVP-type season with 13 touchdowns, three interceptions, a 104.1 passer rating and a 4-1 record when he fractured his collarbone on a hit by Minnesota’s Anthony Barr. Nothing has been the same for the Packers or Rodgers since.

Athlon Sports 2018 Pro Football Preview

After missing the postseason, the Packers hired a new general manager, overhauled their coaching staff and made several big moves in personnel. Not all the moves sat well with Rodgers.

The quarterback, 34, complained after Green Bay replaced quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt with Frank Cignetti without consulting him. The Packers further upset him when they released his good friend and favorite receiver Jordy Nelson.

Head coach Mike McCarthy, who is entering his 13th season on the hot seat, needs Rodgers happy and healthy.

14. Dak Prescott's team

The Cowboys have rebuilt their offense in two seasons. They have the same offensive coordinator in Scott Linehan, but Tony Romo and Dez Bryant are gone.

This is Dak Prescott’s team now.

The Cowboys have turned the team over to Prescott after he took advantage of Romo’s back injury in 2016 to win the job. His success as a rookie sent Romo into the broadcast booth. Prescott had a sophomore slump last season but still won nine games and threw 22 touchdowns.

The Cowboys have spent the offseason making the offense “Dak friendly.” They added receivers Deonte Thompson and Allen Hurns and released Bryant. Having running back Ezekiel Elliott for a full season will help, too, after Elliott missed six games last season while serving an NFL suspension.

Head coach Jason Garrett’s future is tied to Prescott’s present. Garrett has only two playoff appearances in seven full seasons as a head coach and likely needs at least a Wild Card berth to keep his job.

15. Seattle's rebuid

General manager John Schneider wants Seahawks fans to “trust the process.” But how long will the “process” take? It’s obvious the Seahawks are rebuilding after missing the playoffs for the first time in six years.

They released cornerbacks Richard Sherman and Jeremy Lane, with Sherman signing with the rival 49ers. They traded defensive end Michael Bennett to the Super Bowl champion Eagles. Defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson, receiver Paul Richardson and tight end Jimmy Graham left in free agency. The futures of Kam Chancellor and Cliff Avril remain in doubt because of neck injuries.

Safety Earl Thomas has expressed his displeasure with his contract and has threatened a holdout without a new one. The Seahawks listened to trade offers for him.

The Seahawks still have Russell Wilson, Bobby Wagner, Duane Brown and Doug Baldwin to build around. But will that be enough in a division that saw the 49ers and Rams improve their rosters -- at least on paper -- this offseason?

The Seahawks, who went to back-to-back Super Bowls in 2013 and ’14, no longer rank as an NFC contender. Instead, for the first time in a long time, they enter the season as an underdog.

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

(This article appears in Athlon Sports’ 2018 Pro Football Magazine, which is available for purchase online and at newsstands everywhere.)