I am pleased to announce, and my sources can confirm this, that there is a real live NFL football game on tonight. Yes, you did read that correctly. After months and months of waiting, the NFL has finally returned for the 2015 season. Tom Brady and the New England Patriots (fresh off their preseason victory versus Roger Goodell) welcome Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers to Gillette Stadium in the start of their quest to return to the Super Bowl.
It certainly feels like this offseason lasted forever. Between the NFL Draft, DeflateGate, and all of the preseason injuries and suspensions, it’s good to get back to some real, old-fashioned football. I’m sure by now that you’ve read every single season preview and prediction article and have memorized the roster of your favorite team. I’m not here to bring you a season preview per se (although I will get into some predictions at the end), but rather we’ll be asking some questions about this season of what we can look forward to. Every NFL offseason leaves us with more questions than answers and, hopefully, you’ll be asking yourself the same questions when you turn on your TV this weekend.
- How will this class of rookies do in their transition to pro football?
Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota went first and second overall in the draft and seem to be as intertwined of prospects as Manning and Leaf or Luck and Griffin were. Two former Heisman winners, Mariota’s Ducks beat Winston’s Seminoles in the 2015 College Football Playoff but, in one of the most interesting season openers in a long time, Winston and Mariota face off again at the pro level. Regardless of the winner, both quarterbacks are faced with the gargantuan task of bringing their respective franchises up from the NFL basement. Both are vastly different players and some of the more intriguing prospects to come out of college football in a long time. This should be the first in a long list of matchups between two prospects that could potentially become the face of the NFL.
Meanwhile, can this class of wide receivers replicate the success of last year’s class? Last year saw three rookies go over 1,000 yards (Beckham Jr, Evans, and Benjamin) and many more become immediate playmakers for their teams. In fact, the 2014 wide receiver class might go down in history as the best ever. The 2015 class has some studs up front, such as Amari Cooper in Oakland and DeVante Parker in Miami, but do they have the depth to challenge last year’s class? Guys like John Brown, Jarvis Landry and Allen Hurns were sleepers in last year’s class, so who steps up this year? Is it Rashad Greene in Jacksonville? Or a Ty Montgomery in Green Bay? Only time will tell.
What this class lacked in wide receiver talent it certainly made up for in running backs. Todd Gurley and Melvin Gordon broke the trend of running backs being left out of the first round and should be immediate starters for their teams (when Gurley comes back from injury of course). Other players such as T.J. Yeldon in Jacksonville and Ameer Abdullah in Detroit might also turn into big fantasy steals later in the season. Later rounders like David Johnson in Arizona and Karlos Williams in Buffalo are also definitely names to keep an eye on.
This draft was also plentiful in defensive talent. Unfortunately, the top defensive prospect, Dante Fowler, is out for the year after an offseason injury, only adding to Jaguars’ fans misery. On the flip side, Jets fans are still celebrating after drafting Leonard Williams at #6 overall, whom many people thought was the best overall player in the draft. Many rookie defensive backs should also see immediate playing time such as Marcus Peters in Kansas City and Byron Jones in Dallas. One sleeper name to watch out for is Grady Jarrett in Atlanta. He was thought to be an early second day pick but fell all the way to the fifth round. The Falcons will pair him up with fellow Clemson Tiger Vic Beasley in what should be the most improved defensive line in the league.
- How will second-year quarterbacks do in their sophomore seasons?
Last year was rough for all of the rookie quarterbacks. Blake Bortles, drafted third overall, looked lost when he took over in Jacksonville. The front office in Cleveland is already divided in their opinions on Johnny Manziel after his terrible rookie season. Teddy Bridgewater and Derek Carr had somewhat better debuts, but their teams overall lacked the talent for them to reach their potential. So the big question becomes: what will this crop of quarterbacks do in their second year in the pros?
Jacksonville seems to be fully invested in Bortles for the time being. They snagged Julius Thomas in free agency (although he should be out for a bit with an injury) and added pieces around Bortles in the draft. If the protection can get better around him, Bortles has all the tools needed to improve. Derek Carr also got a huge addition to his arsenal when the Raiders drafted Amari Cooper fourth overall. Cooper is a phenomenal talent and already drawing Rookie of the Year predictions. Carr had the best year out of any of the rookie quarterbacks, accounting for 21 touchdowns, and those numbers should only go up this year.
But it was Teddy Bridgewater who was the true winner when Adrian Peterson returned from his suspension. Peterson’s presence this year should tremendously help Bridgewater’s development. With defenses stacked to defend the run, Bridgewater should see more one on one coverage for his new target: Mike Wallace. Between the addition of Peterson and Wallace, Teddy Bridgewater could see a breakout year in Minnesota and the Vikings will be one of the more dangerous teams in the NFC.
Unfortunately, it looks like the Johnny Manziel era, while short as it was, it coming to an end in Cleveland. He only started a couple of games in relief of Brian Hoyer at the end of last season and the front office brought in Josh McCown to be the starter in 2015. The last time McCown was brought in to be the full-time starter, the Bucs ended up with the first overall pick and drafted Jameis Winston. So Browns fans, Cardale Jones certainly looked good on Monday night, huh?
- How do the Patriots perform in response to DeflateGate?
The Patriots start this season 1-0 after a preseason victory over Roger Goodell over the DeflateGate saga. Tom Brady’s 4-game suspension was struck down and he will be active for tonight’s matchup versus the Steelers. Meanwhile, Jimmy Garropolo’s moment to shine is gone and he was left doing a Brock Osweiler impression.
So the defending Super Bowl champs get Brady back, but how will their defense play after all of the offseason loses? Vince Wilfork left for Houston after a long and storied career with the Patriots and cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner bolted for bigger contracts elsewhere in free agency. They did manage to resign Devin McCourty, but defense should be considered a huge question heading into this season.
Of course, they still have Gronkowski and he’s still Gronking around doing Gronk things, which is always a good sign.
- Can the Seahawks return to a third straight Super Bowl?
Pete Carroll and the Seahawks were almost back to back Super Bowl champions (If he had just run the dang ball!), but enter this season as favorites to return after some really nice offseason moves. After lacking a big-name pass catcher last season, they made one of the biggest moves in the offseason in a trade with the Saints for tight end Jimmy Graham. He should immediately be Russell Wilson’s favorite target and, when paired with Marshawn Lynch and his ability to make defenses stack the box, should have a huge year in Seattle. They also added wide receiver/returner/all-around-playmaker Tyler Lockett in the draft and he, if his preseason tape means anything, should be electric every time he touches the ball this season.
If they are to return to the Super Bowl, they’ll have to get out of a stacked NFC. In their own division, the Cardinals look tough and the Rams boast the league’s best defensive line. The 49ers have a bunch of issues and holes throughout their roster, but always give the Seahawks a fight. Elsewhere, the Cowboys and Packers look to also be atop the NFC in terms of overall talent and sleepers like the Vikings and Eagles should not be forgotten about. In short, the Seahawks are favored to return to the Super Bowl for a good reason, but the NFC is loaded this year and any one of these talented teams has a chance to knock them off.
- How do the Cowboys replace DeMarco Murray?
Speaking of the Cowboys, one of the biggest questions surrounding Dallas has been their attempts to replace last year’s league-leading rusher, who left in free agency for division rival Philadelphia. After exiting the draft without drafting a running back, which surprised many people, the Cowboys look to have a running back-by-committee approach at the position. Joseph Randle seems to be favorite to start, but Darren McFadden will also see his share of touches as well. Add in the newly acquired Christine Michael, and the Cowboys have a lot of talent at the position, but no clear answer on how they’ll rotate it. Of course, all of this could be a moot point, as the Cowboys could certainly just ride the hot hand behind the league’s best offensive line throughout the season.
- Is Chip Kelly a mad man? Or a genius?
The Eagles have been the most interesting team in the NFL this offseason mainly because of one Chip Kelly. He traded Nick Foles for Sam Bradford, traded LeSean McCoy for Kiko Alonso, signed DeMarco Murray and Brandon Browner in free agency, released Evan Mathis, and signed Tim Tebow for the preseason. Tebow was eventually released, but this roster is going to look drastically different in 2015. Bradford takes over at quarterback, but missed all of last season with an ACL tear and you can be certain that every hit he takes will be over-analyzed by the Philadelphia media. Between Murray and Ryan Matthews, another big free agent signing, the Eagles should also have a very different running game this year after trading away the electric talent of LeSean McCoy.
It really is boom or bust for the Eagles this year. If the Eagles make the playoffs, Chip Kelly will be hailed as a genius and none of his offseason moves will ever be questioned. If they miss out on the playoffs, even just barely, Kelly will be criticized as a mad man. All in all, Chip Kelly finally has complete control over the team he wants. Ignoring all of the racism talk, Kelly is a control-freak and he has what he wants in a football team now (although the Mariota-Eagles talk was interesting while it lasted). If Bradford stays healthy, this team certainly has the talent for a serious playoff run.
- Are the 49ers headed for a Top 5 pick?
On the opposite end of the spectrum, the 49ers have done a magnificent job of losing talent this offseason. Since the end of the 2014 season, they’ve lost Aldon Smith, Patrick Willis, Justin Smith, Chris Borland, Andy Lee, Michael Crabtree, Frank Gore, Mike Iupati, Dan Skuta and many more players that held starting jobs in San Francisco. Oh yeah, and they fired Jim Harbaugh. With all the rebuilding that the 49ers will have to do, are they destined to finish with a Top 5 pick in next year’s NFL Draft? It certainly seems that way and, from the looks of things, expectations are low in a very tough NFC West.
- What does this season hold for the RG3 saga?
On one hand, Andrew Luck, the first overall pick in the 2012 draft, is poised to become the highest paid player in NFL history after the 2015 season. On the other hand, Robert Griffin III, the second pick, has been benched and the front office in Washington is divided on what to do with the embattled quarterback. After winning Rookie of the Year honors, RG3’s career has taken a landslide. He got injured after his rookie season and didn’t look the same coming back. His development seems to have been stunted and the Redskins simpy haven’t put the necessary pieces around him. Griffin doesn’t even enter the 2015 as the starter, which goes to fellow 2012 draftee Kirk Cousins. Of course, this might be best for Griffin because we all saw how he got absolutely destroyed in the preseason.
Whether or not RG3 remains in Washington after this season, the Redskins are certainly going be looking for a new quarterback. It could be one of the big-name college players, a trade they make in the offseason or even Kirk Cousins if he shows them something promising. It seems like we may have seen the last of Griffin starting in the NFL, which is sad because he was dynamic when healthy his rookie season.
- Can the Steeler’s trio have another amazing season?
Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, and Le’Veon Bell combined for 3,953 total yards and 24 total touchdowns last season together, best in the NFL for a QB/WR/RB trio. One of the biggest questions heading into this season is if they can replicate that success now that every team knows what’s coming. Brown and Bell are certainly worthy of Top 10 picks in fantasy football and Roethlisberger is still one of the top quarterbacks in the league, but there are several factors that might work against them. Bell is suspended for the first two games of the season and wide receiver Martavis Bryant has a four game suspension looming so defenses might be able to key in on Brown now that he’ll be the last big playmaker on offense for the Steelers. The offense might also be hindered by the play of the defense, which lost a bunch of playmakers in the offseason and might put the offense in some bad situations. If the Steelers are to return to the playoffs, it’ll depend on the ability of the offense to replicate last year’s success and survive their early tests without the Belldozer in the backfield.
- Can the Texans finally find some success?
The Texans are loaded on both sides of the ball. J.J. Watt is the best player in the NFL. Jadeveon Clowney is a freak when healthy and both should be helped by the addition of Vince Wilfork. DeAndre “Nuk” Hopkins is a phenomenal wide receiver and Adrian Foster, assuming he returns from injury, is fantastic as well. Unfortunately, quarterback is a massive question mark and has been for many years in Houston. Bill O’Brien is a very good quarterbacks coach (just look what he did at Penn State), but Brian Hoyer and Ryan Mallett aren’t the best options to have in the NFL. Simply put, the Texan’s success will solely depend on the play they get from the quarterback position. If they even get adequate play from the quarterbacks, that is, not turning the ball over and distributing the ball to playmakers, the Texans are dangerous and should be a playoff contender. If not, then they’re headed for another season watching the playoff at home.
On a side not, be prepared for the Christian Hackenberg-Texans talk this offseason similar to the Marcus Mariota-Eagles talk before the draft.
Another side note, Bill O’Brien was amazing on Hard Knocks and seems like an awesome coach.
Also, Vince Wilfork is amazing.
- Can Andrew Luck take the Colts to the next level?
The Colts seemed primed for a Super Bowl run this year with MVP-hopeful Andrew Luck leading the way. The Colts made some big moves this offseason, bringing in veterans Frank Gore and Andre Johnson to help the offense and Trent Cole on defense. The reason Luck has been getting MVP consideration is because he is surrounded by a goldmine of talent at the skill positions. He has Johnson, T.Y. Hilton, rookie speedster Phillip Dorsett, Donte Moncrief, Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener to throw to and Gore and rookie Josh Robinson to spell him in the ground game. The Colt’s offense should be among the best in the NFL. But the Colts have tripped up in big situations before. The Patriots have knocked them out in the playoffs the past two years and an eventual rematch somewhere in this year’s playoffs seems all but set in stone looking over the talent on each team’s rosters. It’ll all ride on Luck to take the Colts to the top, but a Super Bowl seems to be their destination given their upward trajectory ever since he took over.
Playoff and Award Predictions
AFC East – Patriots
Tom Brady is back, but they were the favorites even with his suspension. The Bills and Jets have offensive issues, most notably at quarterback, while Miami seems a year or two away from contending for the title.
AFC North – Ravens
I actually like the Ravens over the Steelers in the North. The Steelers might be a better team offensively, but the Ravens are more balanced on both sides of the ball. Pittsburgh just lost too much defensively. And besides, Joe Flacco is a pretty elite quarterback, right?
AFC South – Colts
No question here. Andrew Luck and the Colts seemed primed for a Super Bowl run and should sweep the division. If the Texans had a quarterback, they would be dangerous but we’ll save that for next year when they have a first round guy from the 2016 draft under center.
AFC West – Broncos
Peyton Manning is approaching possibly his last couple of seasons in the NFL and, as such, his last shots at another Super Bowl win. Although he looked bad after his injury last year, the Broncos should cruise through the West with newly-resigned Demaryius Thomas at the helm.
AFC Wildcard – Steelers
Maybe not a division title, but they have too much talent to leave them out of the playoffs. Ben, Brown and Bell should have another amazing year.
AFC Wildcard – Chiefs
Surprise! I like the Chiefs to improve this year and, although he isn’t amazing, Alex Smith should improve and finally pass a touchdown to a wide receiver. Jeremy Maclin and Travis Kelce are really, really good options to throw to. Also, Justin Houston is a scary man.
NFC East – Cowboys
They lost DeMarco Murray but return the league’s best offensive line. Tony Romo has his favorite target in Dez Bryant newly-resigned and he should have another good year. Defensively, they add Greg Hardy and Randy Gregory to bolster the pass rush and Tyrone Crawford appears set for a breakout year. The Eagles are an interesting pick, but no one really knows what we’re going to get from them this year.
NFC North – Packers
Aaron Rodgers is the best quarterback in the NFL and, despite the loss of Jordy Nelson, should have another MVP caliber season with Randall Cobb and Devante Adams to throw to. A name to watch out for here is Ty Montgomery as a receiver/return man. The Vikings are a young team with serious talent and the Lions are always dangerous, but the Packers are far and beyond the best team in this division.
NFC South – Falcons
All four teams aren’t that great and its likely that the winner of this division will go 9-7. Still, I like the Falcons more than any other team. Vic Beasley and Grady Jarrett should by good on defense and they resigned Julio Jones to a huge contract. The Saints lost talent in the offseason and the Panthers lost their #1 receiver in Kelvin Benjamin to a season-ending injury. The Bucs are an intriguing pick, but with too many unknowns I’ll stick with the Falcons.
NFC West – Seahawks
Is there really any other answer? The Seahawks are absolutely loaded on both sides of the ball. Russell Wilson and the offense should light up the scoreboard and Richard Sherman and the defense should continue to be among the NFL’s best. The Cardinals are a very good team as well, but Carson Palmer is coming off a season-ending ACL tear. The Rams have the league’s best defensive line, but they have questions on offense as well. And the 49ers… Well they probably just lost another player to retirement.
NFC Wildcard – Vikings
I’m all in on the Vikings this year. Teddy Bridgewater should improve with Adrian Peterson’s return and the addition of Mike Wallace. Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks will be phenomenal together at linebacker and Xavier Rhodes is quietly becoming one of the NFL’s best cornerbacks. This team is very young and very dangerous.
NFC Wildcard – Cardinals
Carson Palmer was having a very good season before his ACL tear and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him return to that form. Rookie running back David Johnson is a very good football player and should contend for immediate playing time. John Brown and rookie J.J. Nelson are also dynamic playmakers who should tear apart secondaries. Defensively, they have the best secondary in the division apart from the Seahawks with Patrick Peterson, Tyrann Mathieu, and safety/linebacker Deone Buchannon patrolling back there.
AFC Champion – Colts
Between Andrew Luck, Frank Gore, and the plethora of talent at wide receiver, the Colts should roll through the playoff and finally exact their revenge on the Patriots in the AFC Title Game.
NFC Champion – Seahawks
Make it three trips to the Super Bowl in a row! It’ll come down to the Packers and the Seahawks, but the Seahawks will pull through in the end. You can’t understate the importance of Jimmy Graham to Russell Wilson this year.
Super Bowl Champion – Seahawks
Second title for Pete Carroll and Russell Wilson. The Colts are a very talented team, but Russell Wilson, Marshawn Lynch, and Jimmy Graham should be able to pick apart their defense.
MVP – Aaron Rodgers
Andrew Luck’s time will come, but you can’t go wrong with the best quarterback in the league. He loses Jordy Nelson to injury, but has a great supporting cast around him. If he stays healthy, he should have an even better year than his 2014 MVP season.
Offensive Rookie of the Year – Amari Cooper
Rookie quarterbacks often win this, but Amari Cooper will be Derek Carr’s #1 receiver from the first snap. He’s by far the best offensive player on the team as a rookie and one of the best wide receivers to come out of the draft in recent year.
Defensive Rookie of the Year – Leonard Williams
I was tempted to put Vic Beasley here, but Williams is just to dang good. With Sheldon Richardson’s status in doubt, Williams should see a lot of snaps on defense this year and, since the Jets will be horrible offensively, he’ll have a lot of opportunities to make plays.
So there you have it, every prediction and every question you can keep in the back of your mind when you turn on your TV on Sunday. This offseason has been long and difficult to get through, but now we get to sit back and relax to the delightful sounds of 300-pound men crushing each other on a play-by-play basis. Between college football and the NFL, we’re set with football all the way until February! But hopefully that doesn’t get here too fast, because life without football is difficult.