NFL training camps are in full swing with the 2016 regular season set to kick off in a month. So to help whet your appetite for some pigskin while counting down the days until the action returns to the gridiron, here are 16 storylines that will help shape how this season plays out.
1. MVP encore?
It takes a special season to win the league MVP award. It takes a special player to repeat as league MVP. Only four players have accomplished the feat: Hall of Famers Brett Favre, Joe Montana and Jim Brown and future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning, who did it twice.
Cam Newton received 48 of the 50 MVP votes after leading the Panthers to a league-best 15-1 record. It took him until his fifth season, but Newton lived up to his No. 1 overall selection by Carolina. Newton scored, dabbed and danced all season, finishing with 3,837 passing yards and 35 touchdowns while adding 636 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns.
Newton and the Panthers didn’t finish it off, though, losing to the Broncos 24-10 in the Super Bowl. Newton received criticism during the game for not jumping in a pile after a fumble and in the postgame for his short, surly answers and abrupt exit.
Newton no doubt would trade his MVP award for a Super Bowl trophy, but the Panthers need a repeat of Newton’s performance to have another chance at the title.
2. Ready to run
DeMarco Murray joked that he “took a year off” last season when he touched the ball 212 fewer times than the previous season. Murray expects the Titans to use him like the Cowboys used him in 2014 — making him an integral part of their offense.
Murray, 28, should feel fresh. His signing with the Eagles last year was a match made in football hell as Murray’s downhill running style didn’t mesh with Chip Kelly’s system. Although he led the Eagles in carries and yards, his 237 touches amounted to only 27.9 percent of the team’s total, and Darren Sproles received more snaps than Murray at the position. Murray rushed for 702 yards and six touchdowns on 193 carries a year after a league-leading 1,845 yards and 13 touchdowns on 392 carries with the Cowboys in 2014.
Though the Eagles hired Doug Pederson, they still traded Murray. They got rid of Murray’s contract in an exchange of fourth-round picks.
Murray is motivated to prove that last season was an aberration, and the Titans plan on him becoming their first 1,000-yard rusher since Chris Johnson gained 1,077 yards in 2013.
3. Brady's suspension
On July 13, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals denied Tom Brady’s appeal of the league’s four-game suspension that was originally handed down in May 2015. Despite winning an initial appeal last September, which allowed him to play the first four games of the season, the NFL presented its case to the federal appeals court in Manhattan, which then reinstated the suspension on April 25. When Brady’s subsequent appeal was denied that left him and his legal team with only one remaining option — the U.S. Supreme Court. On July 15 Brady announced that he would end the legal process, meaning New England’s starting quarterback will miss games against the Cardinals, Dolphins, Texans and Bills to start the season.
The debate continues about what role Brady played in underinflated footballs in the AFC Championship Game in January 2015. But the Patriots know that they will be without their field general the first month of this season as the team looks to win its eighth straight AFC East title.
The fact that the suspension will be served also reopens discussion about Brady’s legacy. Brady, who turned 39 on Aug. 3, has won a record 22 playoff games. His four Super Bowl titles tie him with Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw for the most among quarterbacks, with only Hall of Fame defensive end Charles Haley having five. Without Brady, New England faces a tougher road to the Super Bowl. Jimmy Garoppolo, a second-round choice in 2014, has thrown only 31 passes for 188 yards with a touchdown and an interception in his career.
4. Is No. 25 the charm?
The list reads like a “who’s not” of great NFL quarterbacks: Couch, Quinn, Frye, Weeden, Pederson, Gradkowski... the Browns have started 24 quarterbacks since returning to the league as an expansion team in 1999, going 87-185 with only two winning seasons and one playoff appearance. Cleveland has become the graveyard for quarterbacks. Tim Couch, Brady Quinn, Brandon Weeden and Johnny Manziel all flamed out as first-round picks, and none of the Browns’ free agent signings managed to leave with a winning record either.
Now, it’s Robert Griffin III’s turn. The former No. 2 overall choice has not played a game in more than a year, taking no snaps last season behind Kirk Cousins and Colt McCoy in Washington. The Browns signed Griffin, 26, to a two-year, $15 million deal, hoping a new start for him could turn into the answer for them.
Griffin has never played a full season injury-free, and the Redskins twice benched him. But new Browns coach Hue Jackson will attempt to go back to the future, turning Griffin into the quarterback he was en route to earning Offensive Rookie of the Year honors in 2012.
Could starter No. 25 become the answer for long-suffering Browns fans?
5. The Texans' new look
The Texans made the playoffs last season despite starting four quarterbacks. But Brian Hoyer threw four interceptions and lost a fumble in a 30-0 home loss to the Chiefs in the playoffs. That prompted general manager Rick Smith and coach Bill O’Brien to address the team’s quarterback situation in free agency. The Texans pulled off the surprise of the offseason in signing Brock Osweiler, the presumed heir to the throne in Denver.
Who knows if Osweiler, 25, is any good. He went 5-2 last season in the only seven starts of his career, with 10 touchdowns and six interceptions. But he’s better than what Houston had on its roster.
The Texans have searched for a franchise quarterback since they joined the league as an expansion team in 2002. They used the franchise’s first draft choice on David Carr, traded for Matt Schaub in 2007 and signed Ryan Fitzpatrick and then Hoyer as free agents. Osweiler becomes the 13th starting quarterback in the team’s history.
Houston also signed running back Lamar Miller (Miami), center Tony Bergstrom (Oakland) and guard Jeff Allen (Kansas City) in free agency as O’Brien continues to put his stamp on the Texans.
6. Healthy Dalton = playoff win?
The Bengals looked like real, live contenders after 12 games. Yes, the Bengals. The team that hasn’t won a playoff game since the 1990 season, and the team that has a 5-14 all-time postseason record. Then, quarterback Andy Dalton broke his right thumb in a Dec. 13 loss to the Steelers.
Without Dalton, the Bengals still finished 12-4 but lost to the Steelers 18-16 with a meltdown of epic proportions. In the waning seconds of the Wild Card game, the Bengals followed a Jeremy Hill fumble with an unnecessary roughness penalty by Vontaze Burfict and an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Adam Jones.
Burfict will serve a three-game suspension to open this season, but the Bengals kept him, and they re-signed Jones. The Bengals also still believe in Dalton despite his 0-4 postseason record as a starter. He was having a breakout season, averaging 8.4 yards per pass attempt with 25 touchdowns and seven interceptions before being injured.
The Bengals remain one of the most talented teams in the NFL, but until they get over the hump in the postseason, the doubters will doubt and the haters will hate.
7. Chip Kelly's move west
Chip Kelly was supposed to revolutionize the NFL with his fast-paced offense. Instead, the Eagles fired him after less than three years with a 26–22 record that included a 0-1 playoff mark. He wasn’t out of work long.
The 49ers hired their third coach in three years, entrusting the franchise’s future to Kelly. Kelly surely has figured out that players win in the NFL, not systems, after getting rid of playmakers DeSean Jackson and LeSean McCoy and failing to re-sign Jeremy Maclin. The three former Eagles combined for 355 touches for 2,817 yards and 17 touchdowns last season while Philadelphia went nowhere fast.
The 49ers were quiet in free agency unless keeping Colin Kaepernick counts. The quarterback requested a trade, and though the 49ers insist they listened to offers, it doesn’t appear Kelly was eager to give up Kaepernick. Kelly started four quarterbacks in Philadelphia, and none fit his system the way Kaepernick appears to fit it. But can the two co-exist?
8. The Chargers' future
The Chargers have no idea where they will play after this season. They thought 2015 might be their last season in San Diego, but the city gets at least one more year with an NFL team.
The Chargers insist they want to stay, hoping for an initiative on the Nov. 8 ballot for a $1.8 billion convention center annex downtown that will include a 65,000-seat stadium. The team has offered to pay $350 million, recouping some of that in personal seat licenses and naming rights. The NFL would contribute $300 million, including a $200 million loan.
Otherwise, the Chargers have the option to join the Rams in Inglewood in a new stadium scheduled to open in 2019. Winning could help build momentum toward a new stadium in San Diego. The Chargers have made the playoffs only once in the past six years and went 4–12 last season. Mike McCoy, who hired eight new coaches in the offseason, is on the hot seat after a 22-26 record in his first three seasons.
9. Money for nothing?
The Jaguars spent a league-high $227.8 million in free agency, including $74.4 million guaranteed. They signed Chris Ivory, Malik Jackson, Prince Amukamara, Tashaun Gipson and Mackenzy Bernadeau, among others. That comes on the heels of 2015 when they spent the second-most in free agency. The Jaguars’ $177 million in deals included Julius Thomas, Jared Odrick, Dan Skuta, Davon House and Jermey Parnell.
The Jaguars’ last winning season came in 2007, and their 14 victories the past four years combined are one fewer than the Panthers had last season alone. The Jaguars, though, are giving Gus Bradley time to build his program. He received a one-year contract extension through 2017 despite going 12-36 his first three seasons. Bradley’s future, though, is tied to Blake Bortles’ continued development. The third-year quarterback threw for 4,428 yards and 35 touchdowns last season with Greg Olsen as his offensive coordinator for the first time. But the 18 interceptions and 51 sacks need to decrease.
10. Johnny unemployed
First, LeBron James’ marketing agency ended its relationship with Johnny Manziel. Then, Manziel’s agent “fired” him, and the Browns gave up on the player they made the 22nd overall choice in 2014.
Manziel hired Drew Rosenhaus as his new agent, but that lasted only two months before he was dropped again as he continued to party like it’s 2012. And now Manziel has been suspended four games by the NFL for violation of the league’s substance abuse policy and he could face further discipline stemming from the misdemeanor assault charge he is facing after his ex-girlfriend claimed he hit her multiple times.
Manziel, 23, showed progress last season in passing for 1,500 yards, seven touchdowns and five interceptions in six starts. For his career, he has a 2–6 record, with 1,675 yards, seven touchdowns and seven interceptions. But teams have figured out that the 5-foot-11, hard-partying quarterback isn’t worth the effort, at least not until he gets his life in order. Manziel spent two months in substance-abuse rehab in 2015, but it didn’t take long for him to fall back into his old ways. Now, he will face an even harder time convincing teams he truly has changed.
11. Cowboys' return to the playoffs
The Cowboys have made the playoffs only once since Jason Garrett became the team’s full-time head coach in 2011. They nearly made it to the championship game in 2014, losing to Green Bay after a controversial replay decision overturned Dez Bryant’s catch at the 1-yard line.
The Cowboys entered last season with high hopes after coming so close the previous season. However, injuries took Tony Romo, Dez Bryant and Orlando Scandrick out of the lineup for a combined 35 games last season. The Cowboys are confident that the return of those three starters gives them a chance to do what they expected to do last season. Playing in a division without a heavyweight, and with one of the NFL’s weakest schedules, the Cowboys have a solid chance to return to the postseason if they stay healthy.
Their Super Bowl odds, though, aren’t as good, and they likely go a 21st consecutive season without adding to their Lombardi Trophy collection.
12. Passing of the torch in Seattle
The Seahawks built their team around Marshawn Lynch after trading for the running back in 2010, and for good reason. He rushed for 6,347 yards in 82 games in Seattle. Thus, Russell Wilson was considered a “game manager” when he surprisingly won the starting job as a rookie in 2012.
But after a Super Bowl title, nearly a second Super Bowl title and an MVP-type season, Wilson’s name now belongs with the top quarterbacks in football. Lynch missed most of last season, playing in only seven games and rushing for only 417 yards. The Seahawks became Wilson’s team in Lynch’s absence, and now, with Lynch’s retirement, there is no doubt the Seahawks’ future rests in Wilson’s hands.
Wilson’s 46 regular-season victories are more than any other quarterback in NFL history through four seasons, and he sports a 7-3 postseason record. So the Seahawks feel good about their future.
13. Peyton Manning's replacement
The Broncos are the defending Super Bowl champions, but they are not the favorites to repeat. The reason? Mark Sanchez could start at quarterback. Denver lost Peyton Manning to retirement and then watched Brock Osweiler leave for Houston in free agency. So much for the Broncos’ backup plan. The Broncos inquired about a trade for Colin Kaepernick. They invited Brian Hoyer for a visit. Sanchez and first-round draft pick Paxton Lynch are their only additions at the position to date.
Lynch is expected to need time to develop, which leaves Sanchez as the likely starter. Sanchez hasn’t won since 2014, going 0-2 last season, and is only 37-35 as a starter in his career. He has 86 touchdowns and 84 interceptions. The Broncos still could acquire another veteran quarterback, but their options are limited, which leaves them likely biding their time until Lynch is ready.
14. The Eagles' QB commitment
The Eagles re-signed Sam Bradford to a two-year, $36 million deal with an $11 million signing bonus. They signed free agent Chase Daniel to a three-year, $21 million deal, with a $6 million signing bonus. Then, they traded for the No. 2 overall draft choice to select North Dakota State quarterback Carson Wentz. So what does new coach Doug Pederson do with all his quarterbacks? Bradford and Daniel likely battle for the starting job this season, with Wentz waiting his turn. But the Eagles drafted Wentz as their quarterback of the future. He isn’t likely to sit for long.
So whoever wins the starting job this season will spend the year looking over his shoulder. After drafting four quarterbacks, trading for two, signing several others and starting six since Donovan McNabb was traded after the 2009 season, the Eagles finally feel comfortable that they have found their franchise quarterback.
15. Raiders' next step
The Raiders last made the playoffs in 2002. They are 63–145 with no winning seasons since then. But recent drafts suggest the Raiders are building toward a return to the postseason.
Oakland, which finished 7-9 last season, has young pieces in place with quarterback Derek Carr, receiver Amari Cooper and pass rusher Khalil Mack. The Raiders filled some holes in free agency with the signings of linebacker Bruce Irvin, cornerback Sean Smith and offensive guard Kelechi Osemele. The Raiders stand a solid chance of a winning season and again living up to their motto of a “Commitment to Excellence.” In fact, with the Broncos’ free-agent losses and the retirement of Peyton Manning, the Raiders have as good a chance to win the AFC West as any team.
16. Norman's new team
No one saw this coming: The Panthers rescinded the franchise tag on Josh Norman days before the draft, turning one of the NFL’s best cornerbacks into a free agent. He joined the Redskins, signing a five-year, $75 million that makes him the highest-paid player at his position.
Norman’s move helps the Redskins and hurts the Panthers. Norman, 28, picked off four passes, defended 18 others and made 56 tackles last season in earning All-Pro honors.
The Redskins ranked near the bottom in pass defense, allowing 258 passing yards per game and 30 passing touchdowns. The Panthers, who ranked near the top in allowing 235 passing yards per game and 21 passing touchdowns, were left with only six cornerbacks who have a combined 34 career starts.
— This article is featured in Athlon Sports' 2016 NFL Preview magazine, which is available on newsstands or can be purchased online.