Tom Brady's debut in Tampa Bay and how the Patriots fare without him are just two of the biggest storylines to follow this season
It's been a strange offseason for the NFL as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has caused both the league and teams to conduct their business over the past several months differently. But with training camps set to begin on Tuesday, everyone can start looking forward to the NFL's on-field return. Yes, there will be no preseason games but that's OK. As you can see below, there are plenty of storylines fans will be paying close attention during the 2020 season.
It took only 32 days for Rob Gronkowski to decide that a year away from football was long enough. Tom Brady signed with the Buccaneers in March. Gronkowski followed in April.
Gronkowski forced the cash-strapped Patriots' hand by telling them he was coming out of retirement. They quickly sent Tampa Bay a fourth-round selection (No. 139 overall) in exchange for Gronkowski and a seventh-round pick.
Gronkowski, who turned 31 in May, said his desire to play returned not long after the 2019 season, when he worked out with Brady. Wherever Gronkowski was going, it was going to be with his former QB.
Gronkowski and Brady spent nine seasons together in New England, combining for 78 touchdowns. That mark ranks second all-time among quarterback-tight end connections and is fifth in league history among all duos. The 7,786 regular-season yards from Brady to Gronkowski also rank second among all quarterback-to-tight end combinations, trailing only Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates (9,352).
In other words, they are good together.
The Bucs' Super Bowl odds went from 17-1 to 14-1 after Gronkowski joined them. He was a major part of two Super Bowl championships in New England. Can the duo win another?
2. Belichick or Brady? Brady or Belichick?
Tom Brady and Bill Belichick teamed up for 219 regular-season victories and 30 more in the postseason, including six Super Bowls, in 20 seasons. It spurred the eternal debate that surely will extend into this season: Was Belichick or Brady more responsible for the Patriots' success?
Those who say it was Brady point to the fact that Belichick went to the postseason only once in five seasons in Cleveland and was 5–11 with Drew Bledsoe at quarterback in 2000 before Brady became the starter.
Those who say it was Belichick point to the fact that the Patriots went 11–5 in 2008 with Matt Cassel starting 15 games after Brady injured his knee.
Brady doesn't appreciate the argument, using an expletive on the Howard Stern show to make his point.
"I can't do his job, and he can't do mine," Brady said. "So, the fact that you could say 'Would I be successful without him? The same level of success?' I don't believe I would have been. But I feel the same vice versa as well. To have him allowed me to be the best I can be. I'm grateful for that, and I very much believe he feels the same about me because we've expressed that to each other."
Still, everyone is going to judge the two against each other this season. Is the Patriots dynasty dead? Will the Bucs make the postseason for the first time since 2007? It should be fun, as Brady gets to air it out with Bruce Arians and Belichick has Cam Newton at his disposal.
3. Myles Garrett's redemption tour
Browns defensive end Myles Garrett lost his mind in a Nov. 14 game against the Steelers. He has not played since ripping off Mason Rudolph's helmet and bashing him over the head with it. The league levied an indefinite suspension that kept Garrett off the field for the final six games of the season. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell reinstated Garrett in the offseason.
Garrett, the No. 1 overall pick in 2017, has 30.5 sacks and 65 quarterback hits in 37 career games. But bad judgment, cheap shots, penalties, fines, and a suspension have left Garrett wearing a scarlet C for cheap-shot.
Officials called Garrett for three 15-yard penalties last season before his fight with Rudolph. Two roughing the passer penalties against Trevor Siemian, the last one knocking the Jets quarterback out for the year with an ankle injury, cost Garrett $42,112. Garrett lost another $10,527 for hitting Titans tight end Delanie Walker in the facemask with an open hand.
If Garrett can find a way to play within the rules while still maintaining his aggressiveness, he has a shot at All-Pro and Defensive Player of the Year honors this season. Garrett, 24, was on his way to at least a second Pro Bowl last season with 10 sacks, 18 QB hits and two forced fumbles in 10 games and just signed a five-year, $125 million extension.
It seems unlikely, though, that anything Garrett does will repair his reputation. What's done is done.
4. Rivers runs through Indianapolis
The Colts got lucky in their quarterback situation, going from drafting Peyton Manning with the No. 1 overall choice in 1998 to taking Andrew Luck No. 1 overall in 2012. They endured only four losing seasons in the 21 years of Manning and Luck, with one of those coming in Manning's rookie year, one when Manning missed the entire season with a neck injury and one when Luck missed the entire season with a shoulder injury.
But Luck unexpectedly retired before last season, and Jacoby Brissett did not prove up to the task. Brissett, 27, went 7–8 with 18 touchdowns, six interceptions, and an 88.0 passer rating while failing to move the ball downfield. On March 21, the Colts signed Philip Rivers to a one-year deal in free agency.
Rivers, 38, is a bridge, although he doesn't necessarily view it as a short-term rental. He has said he wants to play two more years. Rivers threw 20 interceptions and lost three fumbles last season, but Colts head coach Frank Reich says Rivers' physical skills haven't diminished. The two spent time together with the Chargers, which should help Rivers' acclimation.
The Colts have made the postseason only once the past five seasons, but, if Reich is right, they could win the division for the first time since 2014. It does seem unlikely the Colts will get a chance to select a franchise quarterback with the No. 1 overall choice anytime soon.
5. Gambling on Las Vegas
Since their inception in 1960, the Raiders have never called anywhere except California home. They were in Oakland aside from the 13 seasons in Los Angeles from 1982-94. That will change this season.
The Raiders are moving to Las Vegas. More specifically, the Raiders will play their home games in Paradise, Nev., at the new $1.9 billion Allegiant Stadium.
The Raiders had the "Black Hole" at the Oakland Coliseum but not much else. The stadium was a dump. It did not provide much of a home-field advantage in recent seasons.
The team's new 65,000-seat stadium will have all the modern amenities and could provide a home-field advantage, too. Of course, it will help if the Raiders are competitive.
Linebackers Cory Littleton and Nick Kwiatkoski, defensive back Damarious Randall, defensive tackle Maliek Collins, tight end Jason Witten, and safety Jeff Heath were among the offseason acquisitions. The Raiders, who were 7–9 last season, will have to make a big jump to catch the Chiefs in the AFC West. So the Raiders will open the season as long shots.
6. MVP repeat?
Patrick Mahomes couldn't do it last season. The Chiefs quarterback missed two games with a knee injury and was gimpy in other games. His 4,031 yards, 26 touchdowns and 105.3 passer rating last season looked human after he passed for 5,097 yards, 50 touchdowns and a 113.8 passer rating in winning the MVP award in 2018.
Last season belonged to Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson. He earned all 50 MVP votes, becoming only the second unanimous selection in league history. Tom Brady earned every vote in 2010.
Jackson answered all questions about whether he was an NFL quarterback. The Ravens tailored their offense to Jackson, and he passed for a league-leading 36 touchdowns and ran for another seven. Jackson's 1,206 rushing yards set a single-season record for a quarterback, and he passed for 3,127 yards and a 113.3 passer rating.
What does Jackson do for an encore? No one has repeated as NFL MVP since Peyton Manning in 2008-09. But Jackson surely would rather follow Mahomes, who won Super Bowl MVP honors last season instead of repeating as league MVP.
The Ravens had the best record in the NFL and home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs and were odds-on favorites to win the Super Bowl. They didn't make it past the divisional round, losing to the Titans at home.
7. Taysom Hill Time
Taysom Hill was the best player on the field during the Saints' playoff loss to the Vikings. Sean Payton is convinced that Hill is the team's quarterback of the future.
Drew Brees remains the quarterback of the present. This may or may not be Brees' final season, but the Saints want Hill on the field more than he was last season and playing quarterback more than he did last season.
Hill played 241 offensive snaps last season, most of them at a spot other than quarterback. He had 46 touches for 390 yards and seven touchdowns while completing 3-of-6 passes for 55 yards during the regular season. He will continue in his Swiss army knife role.
Backup Teddy Bridgewater departed for Carolina, and the Saints signed veteran Jameis Winston. But Hill remains the top option to become the heir apparent, with Winston having signed a one-year deal. Winston will get a chance to sit back and learn behind Brees after five years as the starter in Tampa. Brees, 41, has at least one more season to add to his record-setting numbers while trying to win a second championship.
8. Return of Big Ben
Hall of Famer Terry Bradshaw calls Ben Roethlisberger the greatest quarterback in Steelers history. But Bradshaw has two more Super Bowl rings than Roethlisberger has. Roethlisberger is running out of time to catch up. He turned 38 during the offseason. He played only two games last season before needing surgery on his throwing elbow.
The Steelers repeatedly have expressed optimism that Roethlisberger is as good as new, and Roethlisberger said this offseason he was throwing without pain for the first time in years.
He has not made the Pro Bowl since 2017 and has not won a playoff game since 2016. The Steelers last won the Super Bowl in 2010. Does Roethlisberger have enough left to take the Steelers back to the promised land?
The Steelers went 8–8 last season despite losing Roethlisberger, James Conner, JuJu Smith-Schuster, and Stephon Tuitt for a combined 34 games. They added fullback Derek Watt, offensive lineman Stefen Wisniewski, defensive lineman Chris Wormley, and tight end Eric Ebron in free agency.
If Roethlisberger stays healthy, the Steelers should see a return to the postseason. It's just a question of how far his repaired right arm can carry them once they get there.
9. Lions roar?
Bob Quinn has served as the Lions' GM the past four seasons. The Lions are 27–36–1 with one playoff appearance, a loss to the Seahawks in the wild-card round in 2016, during Quinn's tenure. Detroit has not won a playoff game since 1991.
Both Quinn and head coach Matt Patricia, who is 9–22–1 in his two seasons and has drawn criticism from former players about his coaching style, are under pressure to change that. In announcing that the duo would return for 2020, Lions owner Martha Firestone Ford added, "We expect to be a playoff contender, and those are our expectations, which we've expressed to both Bob and to Matt."
To meet those expectations, the Lions need quarterback Matthew Stafford to remain healthy. Stafford threw 19 touchdowns and five interceptions and posted a 106.0 passer rating in eight games before fracturing his back.
After adding offensive tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai, linebacker Jamie Collins Sr., cornerback Desmond Trufant, defensive tackle Danny Shelton, and safety Duron Harmon, among others, this offseason, the Lions have the talent to do what hasn't been done in Detroit in decades.
10. Texans throw caution to the wind
It's only a footnote in the Chiefs' 2019 Super Bowl run now, but the Texans dominated Kansas City in the first 19 minutes of the divisional round. Texans head coach Bill O'Brien made two questionable decisions, opting for a field goal on fourth-and-one at the Kansas City 13 to put the Texans up 24–0 and then attempting a fake punt on fourth-and-four at his own 31 up 24–7 in the second quarter. The Chiefs won 51–31.
O'Brien, who doubles as the team's general manager, made another head-scratching decision in the offseason. By almost everyone's analysis, the Texans did not get enough in the trade of DeAndre Hopkins to the Cardinals — running back David Johnson (and his massive contract), a 2020 second-round choice and a 2021 fourth-round choice in return for arguably the best receiver in football and a 2020 fourth-round choice. O'Brien said the trade was "in the best interest of our team" and advised everyone to "let it all play out" over the course of a year, two years and five years. O'Brien, though, might not get that long if he can't get the Texans over the hump soon.
The Texans have won the AFC South in four of O'Brien's six seasons as head coach. Yet, the Texans are only 2–4 in the postseason under O'Brien and have not advanced beyond the divisional round.
The Texans have never in their history played in the AFC Championship Game. Fans' confidence in O'Brien has waned on the field as head coach and off the field as general manager. But ownership remains in his corner, at least for now.
11. Circling the wagons in Buffalo
The Bills haven't generated this type of excitement in Buffalo since the 1990s when they won four consecutive AFC titles. Everyone in Western New York believes. Two playoff appearances the past three seasons under Sean McDermott, a rising quarterback, and the departure of Tom Brady from the AFC East have the Bills eyeing the division title.
"It's a great situation," Bills receiver Isaiah McKenzie said this offseason in a widely shared video. "I cheered [Brady's departure] because he's a great player. You can't take that away from him. Him leaving, our team is stacked. The last two years we've been giving him a run for his money, but now that he's gone, it's going to be the Bills' time to take over."
In the past 19 seasons, the Patriots have won the AFC East 17 times. They finished second twice, missing the postseason despite winning records in 2002 and 2008.
Brady tore an anterior cruciate ligament in the season opener in 2008 and missed the final 15 games. So, in the 18 seasons Brady played most of the games for the Patriots, they won the division 17 times.
The Bills, Dolphins, and Jets didn't stand a chance. With Brady now in the NFC, though, the AFC East is up for grabs for the first time in a long time. The Bills and quarterback Josh Allen plan on taking advantage.
12. Nick Foles takeover
The Bears' fateful decision in 2017 has been well documented. The team traded up to take a quarterback and selected the wrong one. Chicago drafted Mitchell Trubisky with the No. 2 overall choice before Patrick Mahomes went 10th overall to the Chiefs and Deshaun Watson 12th overall to the Texans.
Trubisky's future was cloudy before the Bears traded for Nick Foles. Now Trubisky will have someone looking over his shoulder who is capable of taking his job. In addition, the Bears declined to pick up his fifth-year option.
This likely marks Trubisky's last chance to prove he's the Bears' QB of the present and the future. The situation is reminiscent of Tennessee's last year. The Titans traded for Ryan Tannehill in the offseason, insisting Marcus Mariota was the starter. The Titans benched Mariota after only six games, and Tannehill took the Titans to the AFC title game. The Titans rewarded Tannehill with a generous contract and Mariota is now in Las Vegas.
Foles, 31, went 4–1 in two postseasons with the Eagles, winning Super Bowl LII MVP honors, although he has never started more than 11 games in a season.
It's likely playoffs or bust for Trubisky in Chicago this season.
13. Bungles no more
The Bengals don't have much to show for their history. In 52 seasons, the Bengals have a .447 winning percentage, have made the postseason 14 times, won five playoff games, never won a Super Bowl, drafted only one future Hall of Famer, hired 10 head coaches and started 30 quarterbacks.
Second-year head coach Zac Taylor and rookie quarterback Joe Burrow hope to change the Bengals' future.
Three months before the Bengals selected the LSU quarterback with the No. 1 overall choice, Burrow made clear his desire to join a team "committed to winning Super Bowls." The Bengals haven't won a playoff game since Jan. 6, 1991, and their commitment to winning has been a question for many years.
The Bengals, though, answered by using the franchise tag on receiver A.J. Green while spending up a storm in free agency. Cincinnati never had spent more than $26 million on a single free agent since 2015, according to ESPN Stats & Research. This offseason, the Bengals spent $95 million on deals for defensive tackle D.J. Reader and cornerback Trae Waynes alone.
The Bengals have proved they are committed to winning. Now, can they win?
14. Antonio Brown's return
For six seasons, Antonio Brown was one of the top receivers in the NFL. He averaged 114 receptions for 1,524 yards and 11 touchdowns from 2013-18. Brown made the Pro Bowl all six seasons and was All-Pro in four of those.
Then came his meltdown in Pittsburgh, which traded him to Oakland a year ago. Brown never played a down for the Raiders, who sent him to New England after another meltdown. Brown played one game for the Patriots.
He has remained out of work since New England cut him Sept. 20, and he faced multiple investigations under the Personal Conduct Policy.
Brown tweeted on July 20 that he was going to retire since the risk was greater than the reward but recanted three days later when he called on the NFL to finish its investigation of him.
Does Brown play again? If the NFL's investigation leads to a resolution that allows him to return, Brown likely will be back. He is too talented for some team not to take a chance on him.
15. NFC East repeat?
No team has repeated as NFC East champion since 2004 when the Eagles won their fourth in a row. In the past 15 years, the Giants have won the division three times, the Eagles five times, the Redskins two times, and the Cowboys five times.
The Eagles won the NFC East last season after the Cowboys lost eight of their final 13 games. Based on recent history, the Eagles wouldn't rank as the favorite in the division for 2020. Except …
Philadelphia is the only team in the division that didn't change head coaches in the offseason. The Cowboys fired Jason Garrett and hired Mike McCarthy. The Redskins replaced Jay Gruden with Ron Rivera. The Giants moved on from Pat Shurmur with the hiring of Joe Judge.
The Redskins and Giants have second-year quarterbacks with Dwayne Haskins Jr. and Daniel Jones, respectively, and the 2019 first-round choices likely need more grooming.
With no on-field work this offseason because of COVID-19, teams with the same head coach, same quarterback, and same coordinators should have a leg up heading into the season. The Cowboys kept the same offensive coordinator and same offensive playbook. But the Eagles have the most stability, so the NFC East should be on repeat alert.
16. Jimmy G's rebound
Jimmy Garoppolo had a Comeback Player of the Year type of season in 2019, though the 49ers quarterback didn't win the official award. He threw 27 touchdowns and posted a 102.0 passer rating.
His sixth season was his first full season as a starter, and it was a success, with the 49ers reaching the Super Bowl. But Garoppolo, 28, passed for only 208 yards combined on 17 completions with one touchdown and one interception in San Francisco's two postseason victories.
Then, in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl LIV, Garoppolo went 3-for-11 for 36 yards and an interception. The 49ers gained only 59 yards in the final quarter, blowing a 20–10 lead.
It raised questions about Garoppolo, and the 49ers may or may not have considered signing Tom Brady in the offseason.
General manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan have spent the offseason defending Garoppolo and expressing their support for him. But even though Garoppolo is under contract for the next three years, he faces yet another prove-it season.