Kyler Murray's debut is just one storyline that could shape the season
Most of the attention will be on the defending Super Bowl champions, the New England Patriots. But that's not the only storyline worth paying attention to as the NFL celebrates its 100th anniversary. Here's a quick primer to help get you ready for the upcoming season.
1. Kyler Murray time
The Cardinals gave up three 2018 draft picks — a first-, third- and fifth-rounder — to trade up to No. 10 for Josh Rosen last year. They paid him more than $11 million. Yet, the Cardinals hardly knew him.
Rosen lasted only one year in Arizona after the Cardinals — or more specifically new head coach Kliff Kingsbury — became infatuated with the idea of Kyler Murray running his offense. Arizona used the No. 1 overall pick on Murray, marking the first time in history a team with top-10 choices in back-to-back drafts has taken quarterbacks both times.
The Cardinals shipped Rosen to the Dolphins for a second-round pick this year — which Arizona turned into wide receiver Andy Isabella — and a fifth-rounder next year. Clearly, general manager Steve Keim's job is on the line. He hired Steve Wilks and drafted Rosen in 2018, and both are now gone.
Keim's choice of Kingsbury, who has never previously coached at the NFL level in any capacity, raised eyebrows. Murray fits what Kingsbury wants to do, but will Kingsbury's offense work in the NFL? And will Murray's height — just over 5'10" — prevent him from reaching his potential in the NFL?
Murray experienced nothing but success in high school and college. He and the Cardinals are convinced he can do the same at the NFL level. But Murray hasn't done it yet.
2. The Good News Browns
Jarvis Landry cried and Baker Mayfield yelled when they received news that the Browns had traded for Odell Beckham Jr. The three-time Pro Bowl receiver seemed unsure how to react to the trade initially but later called it one of "the best things that ever happened to me in my life."
Mayfield admits that the trade has increased his expectations for this season. The addition of Beckham has improved the Browns' odds of winning the AFC North, too, with Cleveland becoming the Las Vegas favorite with an over-under of nine victories.
The Browns last won a playoff game in 1994 when Bill Belichick was their head coach, 11 head coaches ago, counting interims.
Two seasons after going 0–16, though, they no longer are the Bad News Browns. GM John Dorsey has left his stamp on the team, trading 12 players he inherited and leaving only six players of the 24 selections made by former vice president of football operations Sashi Brown.
With Mayfield, Landry, Beckham, David Njoku, Nick Chubb, Antonio Callaway and Kareem Hunt on offense and Olivier Vernon and Myles Garrett on defense, the Browns appear ready to win now.
3. Win, load, repeat
Every time the Patriots seem to have had their last stand, they win another Super Bowl. When will the NFL's greatest dynasty end? Who knows? It's time to stop guessing and enjoy watching the NFL's greatest quarterback in his golden years.
Tom Brady, who turns 42 in August, won his third NFL MVP award in 2017 and his sixth Super Bowl in 2018. He seemingly has found what Ponce de Leon once sought, stating repeatedly last season that his goal was to play to the age of 45.
In an Instagram post following the team's Super Bowl celebration in February, Brady wrote, "Hey Father Time, Just take the L." Winner is Brady's middle name.
Only twice since 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. The Patriots have posted a winning record each season since 2001, with double-digit victories in 17 of the past 18 years.
Brady, though, won't have his favorite target this season unless tight end Rob Gronkowski decides to return. One of the all-time greats at his position, Gronkowski announced his retirement in March.
The more the roster changes in New England, though, the more the Patriots' winning ways stay the same.
4. Broncos' quarterback search continues
It doesn't seem that long ago that the Broncos won Super Bowl 50, but Denver is on its third head coach and fifth quarterback since 2015. Only six players — Todd Davis, Von Miller, Chris Harris Jr., Emmanuel Sanders, Derek Wolfe and Brandon McManus — remain from the Broncos' championship team. The Broncos went 20–28 the past three seasons, missing the postseason all three years.
They are starting over — again! — with head coach Vic Fangio and quarterback Joe Flacco. Flacco is starting over, seven years after his Super Bowl MVP award. He lost his job to rookie Lamar Jackson last season and posted a 42–41 record as a starter in his final six seasons in Baltimore, with 110 touchdowns, 80 interceptions and an 82.3 passer rating. Flacco has never made the Pro Bowl.
The Broncos traded the first of their two fourth-round draft picks for Flacco, who hasn't won a postseason start since 2014. General manager John Elway called Flacco the "perfect fit" for what the Broncos want to do.
In truth, Flacco, like Case Keenum last season, likely is only a bridge quarterback. The Broncos' search for a franchise quarterback led them to select Missouri's Drew Lock in the second round. Denver hopes Lock is the answer, but the Broncos' plan for this season is the same as the Ravens' plan was last season until Flacco was injured.
5. Jason Garrett's last stand
The Cowboys coach got another year. He did not get a contract extension.
Garrett's contract status will remain a storyline for the Cowboys all year, putting him on the hot seat to start the season. He has been here previously.
Garrett, 53, became the Cowboys head coach in the middle of the 2010 season when he replaced Wade Phillips. He went into 2014 as a lame duck, too, and earned a five-year, $30 million extension after the Cowboys went 12–4 and won the division.
Garrett, who is 77–59 with three postseason appearances and two postseason wins in his eight full seasons as a head coach, insists he has no problem going into 2019 on the final year of his contract. But rumors of Sean Payton replacing him after the season are only going to grow louder unless the Cowboys win — and win big — in 2019.
6. Is Nick Foles the savior?
After a run to the AFC Championship Game in 2017, the Jaguars rewarded Blake Bortles with a three-year, $54 million deal. A year later, after a 5–11 finish, the Jaguars have moved on. Bortles, the third overall pick in 2014, went 24–49 with a 59.3 completion percentage, 103 touchdowns, 75 interceptions, an 80.6 passer rating and two playoff wins.
The Jaguars cut Bortles and signed Nick Foles. Foles, 30, went 4–1 in the postseason the past two seasons, winning Super Bowl LII MVP honors.
But Foles has never started more than 11 games in a season, nor has he passed for more than 2,900 yards in a season.
For the first time, he is the undisputed starter on a team placing its hopes on his right shoulder. New Jaguars offensive coordinator John DeFilippo worked with Foles when both were with the Eagles in 2017. DeFilippo called Foles the "perfect fit " for what the Jaguars want to do on offense.
If Foles can do what he did in Philadelphia, the Jags could resemble the team they were in 2017 rather than the one they were in 2018.
7. A Giant mess at quarterback
The Giants traded Odell Beckham Jr. They chose not to franchise Landon Collins, instead letting him walk in free agency. Then, when they finally drafted their quarterback of the future, general manager Dave Gettleman was criticized for it.
The Giants took Daniel Jones with the sixth overall pick, raising questions about why they didn't wait until their second first-round pick, No. 17 overall, to take the Duke quarterback. Gettleman said he knew "for a fact" two other teams had interest in Jones.
That's neither here nor there now. Jones becomes the heir apparent to Eli Manning, and the future could come sooner than later.
Manning has a $23.2 million salary cap number for 2019, the final year of his deal. Although he is the 14th-highest paid quarterback in the NFL, he no longer plays like the 14th-best quarterback in the NFL. Manning, 38, is 8–23 over the past two seasons, with 40 touchdowns, 24 interceptions and an 86.4 passer rating.
The Giants have posted a winning record only once in the last six seasons, and they look no better this season. Despite Gettleman saying the Giants can win while rebuilding, it seems unlikely they will contend with Manning as their quarterback.
So how long is it until Manning hands off to Jones?
8. Todd Gurley's knee
Todd Gurley's left knee has become the most-talked-about knee in the NFL since he sat out the final two regular-season games with what the Rams called inflammation. Gurley did not need postseason surgery, but he reportedly has arthritis.
The Rams will try to better manage Gurley's workload in hopes of keeping him healthy for the long run. It's a big reason why they matched the offer Malcolm Brown received from the Lions as a restricted free agent.
Gurley has averaged 326 touches per season over the past three seasons, playing a big role in the Rams' status as a contender the past two seasons. The 2018 postseason was a different story, though. Gurley gained 118 yards from scrimmage against the Cowboys in the divisional round before playing a complementary role the rest of the way. Although he didn't appear on the injury report before the NFC Championship Game or the Super Bowl, Gurley had only 16 touches for 47 yards and one touchdown in those two games combined.
Will Gurley look like himself this season? How involved will he be? The Rams may not even know those answers until the regular season begins, although head coach Sean McVay insists the offense will continue to center around Gurley.
9. Antonio Brown, Le'Veon Bell start over
The Steelers believe they are better without the All-Pro duo of Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell. Time will tell.
The departure of Bell in free agency and Brown via trade has left Ben Roethlisberger as the unquestioned leader in Pittsburgh. James Conner, 24, rushed for 973 yards and 12 touchdowns last season and now is charged with replacing Bell full time. JuJu Smith-Schuster, 22, was voted the team's MVP last season by his teammates after catching 111 passes for 1,426 yards and seven touchdowns. Conner and Smith-Schuster, though, have huge cleats to fill as Bell and Brown contributed a combined 2,409 touches for 19,322 yards and 116 touchdowns during their time in Pittsburgh.
The Steelers traded Brown to the Raiders after a drama-filled end to the 2018 season. A rift in the relationship between Brown and Roethlisberger led to the Steelers opting to move Brown for less than he's worth after he contributed 11,207 receiving yards and 74 touchdowns in nine seasons. He gives Derek Carr the best weapon the QB has had in his six seasons in Oakland.
Bell, 27, sat out last season rather than sign the franchise tag for a second consecutive season after an NFL-high 406 touches in 2017. He signed a four-year, $52.5 million deal with the Jets and will take pressure off second-year quarterback Sam Darnold.
10. MVP repeat?
No one has repeated as NFL MVP since Peyton Manning in 2008-09. Patrick Mahomes left no doubt he was the MVP last season, dominating the league like few second-year quarterbacks have.
Manning was 27 and in his sixth season when he won his first MVP award; Tom Brady was 30 years old and in his eighth season; and Brett Favre was 26 and in his fifth season. Mahomes is only 23, with only 17 career regular-season starts.
Mahomes started only one game as a rookie in 2017 but played like a longtime veteran in 2018. He went 12–4 in the regular season with 5,097 passing yards, an NFL-best 50 touchdowns and a 113.8 passer rating. Can he improve on those numbers?
He and the Chiefs certainly believe they can improve their postseason results. While Mahomes threw three touchdowns and no interceptions in the AFC Championship Game, he went only 16-of-31 for 295 yards in the 37–31 overtime loss to the Patriots.
The Chiefs remade their defense, hiring a new defensive coordinator in Steve Spagnuolo, saying goodbye to Eric Berry, Justin Houston and Dee Ford, while signing Tyrann Mathieu, Alex Okafor and Bashaud Breeland and trading for Frank Clark. But the Chiefs will go only as far as their superstar quarterback takes them.
11. Embracing change in Green Bay
The Packers signed Aaron Rodgers to a record-breaking extension worth $134 million last year. He went 6–9–1, prompting the team to make wholesale changes for a second consecutive offseason.
Packers president Mark Murphy says Rodgers needs to embrace change.
Change was needed as Rodgers and coach Mike McCarthy had a strained relationship for a long time. Rodgers has a new head coach in Matt LaFleur, a new offensive coordinator in Nathaniel Hackett and a new quarterbacks coach in Luke Getsy. Receiver Randall Cobb, linebacker Clay Matthews and linebacker Nick Perry have left, and linebacker Za'Darius Smith, safety Adrian Amos, linebacker Preston Smith and offensive lineman Billy Turner have arrived.
But Rodgers remains the story, with questions about his "coachability" dominating the headlines. True or not, Rodgers' legacy has taken a hit.
The bottom line: Rodgers and Green Bay are married for the foreseeable future. They need to figure out a way to make it work.
12. Aaron Donald three-peat?
Aaron Donald has earned Defensive Player of the Year honors the past two years. No player ever has won three in a row. J.J. Watt won three in four years, taking the honor in 2012, '14 and '15. Former Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor is the only other man to win three Defensive Player of the Year awards.
Donald has played only five seasons and already ranks as one of the best defensive tackles in NFL history. He had a league-leading 20.5 sacks last season and has 59.5 in his career.
Donald won't have Ndamukong Suh beside him on the Rams defense, but he didn't have Suh two years ago when he made 11 sacks and forced five fumbles.
It's a good bet Donald again will end the season as a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year, with Khalil Mack, Von Miller, Watt and Joey Bosa also expected to be contenders.
13. One more for Drew Brees?
The past two seasons have ended in heartbreak for Drew Brees. The Saints were 10 seconds from winning a divisional playoff game over the Vikings in 2017 when Minnesota delivered a miracle, stunning New Orleans on Stefon Diggs' last-second touchdown. A year later, the Saints were on the wrong end of a controversial no-call in the NFC Championship Game loss to the Rams, which has led to expanded replay this season.
Brees is back for another, hoping for a better ending. The Saints have nothing to show for a 26–10 record, including the postseason, over the past two seasons. The team's lone Super Bowl was nine years ago, and the window is closing.
Brees is 40 and entering his 19th season, and rumors persist that the Cowboys could make a run at Sean Payton. Payton, Brees and the Saints have this season, though, and hopes of a second Super Bowl title for the city before the sun sets.
14. Carson Wentz' rebound
The Eagles no longer have Nick Foles as an insurance policy, and in Nate Sudfeld they do not trust. So Philadelphia needs Carson Wentz to stay healthy and play as he did in 2017 before injuring his knee.
Wentz, 26, has missed eight regular-season games the past two seasons and has never started a postseason game. He was only 5–6 as a starter last season, with Foles getting the Eagles to the postseason. Foles went 4–1 the past two postseasons.
A story this offseason painted Wentz as selfish, uncompromising and egotistical, and while pushing back against parts of the story, he vowed to become a better teammate. The team has already shown its trust in Wentz by giving him a four-year, $128 million contract extension that could be worth as much as $144 million and includes $107.9 million guaranteed. Payday aside, Wentz still has much to prove as he enters his fourth season.
15. Super Bowl shuffle?
The Bears won their only Super Bowl with flair — and a "Super Bowl Shuffle" — in 1985. That team had characters and stars in William "Refrigerator" Perry, Jim McMahon, Willie Gault, Walter Payton and Mike Singletary.
The 2019 Bears have the makings of some stars and some characters in Khalil Mack, Mitchell Trubisky, Akiem Hicks, Kyle Fuller and Eddie Jackson. Do they have enough buoyancy to make a remix of the "Super Bowl Shuffle" and enough talent to win it all this season?
The Bears almost reached the divisional round last season, but Cody Parkey's 43-yard field goal attempt in the waning seconds hit the left upright and then the crossbar. The Bears' 16–15 loss to the Eagles cost Parkey his job and has the Bears even more motivated to get done what they didn't do last season.
Chicago added safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, cornerback Buster Skrine, running back Mike Davis, returner Cordarrelle Patterson, and offensive lineman Ted Larsen among others in free agency. The Bears are the clear favorites in the NFC North, but they want more than another division title and appear to have the goods to contend.
— Written by Charean Williams (@NFLCharean) for Athlon Sports
(Top photo by Arizona Cardinals/courtesy of www.azcardinals.com)
(This article appears in Athlon Sports’ 2019 Pro Football Magazine, which is available for purchase online and at newsstands everywhere.)