Biggest Storylines Entering 2018 NFL Season

As banal as it sounds, there are officially no more Sundays without football for the rest of the year! With the imminent season approaching, it is only fitting that the most intriguing gridiron gossip is scrutinized. Here are some tidbits for the 2018 NFL season, ranked in no particular order.

Super Bowl or Bust For Rams? The Rams qualified for the playoffs for the first time since 2004 with Sean McVay patrolling the sidelines. The Rams astonished everyone but themselves when they won the NFC West for the first time since 2003 last season.

This past offseason, the Rams traded for All-Pro cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Aquib Talib to bolster a secondary that already features Lamarcus Joyner. They also traded for Brandin Cooks and then extended him for five years. Cooks will now likely occupy the flanker (Z) receiver position as a legitimate vertical threat, and he will be with Robert Woods, Cooper Kupp, and of course Todd Gurley.

Last but not least, GM Les Snead signed Ndamokung Suh, who will hopefully occupy the interior trenches with a disgruntled Aaron Donald. While Donald’s absence will be noticeable, the Rams have dynamism at every skill position, the best special teams in the league, and Sean McVay. Anything short of at least reaching the NFC Championship will be a disappointment for this team.

Increasing Market Value for Running backs? If Todd Gurley’s record-setting extension is any indication, then running backs will see their value skyrocket. Gurley’s extension, worth $60 million over four years with $45 million guaranteed, will change the market for his constituents.

Behind Gurley, Devonta Freeman of the Falcons has the highest AAV of any running back, with an $8.25 million annual cap hit. David Johnson, Le’Veon Bell, and running backs of their caliber will now have more leverage during contractual negotiations.

Will Lamar Jackson Be A Starter This Season? The Ravens drafted Jackson, a Heisman-winning quarterback, for a reason. Joe Flacco has been in the NFL since 2008. In that time, the Ravens have appeared in three AFC Championship games and won Super Bowl 47, for which Flacco was named MVP.

But since the Super Bowl-winning 2012 season, Flacco owns a passer rating of just 82.1, and in those five seasons (2013-2017) he ranks 32nd, 16th, 30th, 24th, and 26th in the same category, respectively. While Flacco has had a weak supporting cast over the past few years, it does not justify his production (or lack thereof). Lamar Jackson has drawn comparisons to Michael Vick with his quick release, velocity and spiral action, and his improvisational skills with his legs. We could very well see him under center this year.

Will Jon Gruden Return Raiders to Glory? On February 18th, 2002, Jon Gruden (who was still under contract during his preliminary stint with the Raiders) was traded to the Buccaneers for two first-round picks, two second-round picks, and $8 million. 11 months later, Gruden led Tampa Bay to its first and only Super Bowl victory.

Needless to say, the Raiders failed to capitalize on what was thought to be a king’s ransom for a head coach. After getting annihilated by Gruden’s Buccaneers in Super Bowl 37, the Raiders bottomed out and failed to reach the playoffs from 2003-2015, and have not won a playoff game since the 2002 AFC Championship Game.

Hired by late Raiders owner Al Davis in 1998, Gruden inherited a team that finished fourth in the AFC West with a 4-12 mark. By 2000, they were division champions, and repeated that feat in 2001 as well. If not for a disturbing Rich Gannon injury in the 2000 AFC Championship and The Tuck Rule Game, then Gruden could have very well led the Raiders to Super Bowl wins.

But that last statement holds more water now. Gruden has worked with Gannon, Brad Johnson, Jeff Garcia, and now Derek Carr, who is by far the most gifted of the four. Gruden will also have Amari Cooper (though coming off a regressive season), the embattled Martavis Bryant, former Packers great Jordy Nelson (who has earned praise from Carr himself), a dominant offensive line, an island of misfit toys in the backfield with Beast Mode, Doug Martin, Jalen Richard, and DeAndre Washington; and a flabbergasted Khalil Mack.

Gruden’s hiring was met with mixed reviews, with many questioning if his version of the West Coast offense is obsolete, and his coaching antics. That remains to be seen.

One Last Chance for Philip Rivers and Co.? The Broncos are in a transitional period as they attempt to find a new franchise quarterback, and they gave Case Keenum a chance at ending that search early. The Raiders will have growing pains under Gruden’s tutelage. The Chiefs’ starting passer has attempted a grand total of 35 passes in Patrick Mahomes.

If you hadn’t caught on there, then here’s the bottom line: The Chargers should win the AFC West, something they have not done since 2009. Rivers finished 9th in passer rating last season (96.0) and can still play at an elite level.

Keenan Allen, Tyrell Williams, Mike Williams, and Travis Benjamin comprise a very good receiving corps. Although Hunter Henry will not be playing this season, Virgil Green is a reliable substitute. Melvin Gordon and Austin Ekeler create a solid tandem behind a good offensive line.

Rivers has weapons at his disposal in Ken Whisenhunt’s Erhardt-Perkins scheme. If the Chargers can improve the rush defense, then Melvin Ingram, Joey Bosa, and Casey Heyward could become an elite unit.

With the best team they’ve had in a long time, the Chargers could be a dark horse Super Bowl contender in a very weak conference.

Will Andrew Luck’s Return Galvanize the Colts? Andrew Luck is the sole reason that former Colts head coach Chuck Pagano lasted longer than he should have in Indianapolis. Luck, who has not been under center in a game since Week 17 in 2016, is reportedly all clear for this season.

With a new head coach in former Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich (who will install his version of the West Coast offense), Luck will be reacquainted with Pro Bowl receiver T.Y. Hilton, as well as Pro Bowl tight end, and he should finally be dropping back behind an offensive line that looks like it belongs in the NFL after GM Chris Ballard drafted guards Quenton Nelson and Braden Smith. Quarterbacks as gifted as Luck can conceal many deficiencies, and the Colts may have made enough improvements for the Colts to potentially contend for a Wild Card spot.

Will the Browns Show Improvement? Granted, winning just one game this year could be considered an improvement over just the second 0-16 season in NFL history. The Browns fired Sashi Brown and hauled in former Chiefs GM John Dorsey, who traded for Pro Bowl quarterback and receiver Tyrod Taylor and Jarvis Landry, respectively. Josh Gordon had a triumphant return last year and should be in Pro Bowl form.

Dorsey also signed Carlos Hyde, and drafted Heisman winner Baker Mayfield, and highly-touted Georgia running back Nick Chubb. Along with other running back Duke Johnson and promising tight end David Njoku, the Browns should have a venerable offense this year with Hugh Jackson’s West Coast system.

Myles Garrett will lead a defense that was actually very stout (7th in yards allowed) against the run. With a revamped secondary featuring E.J. Gaines, Damarious Randall, and T.J. Carrie, Cleveland should make significant improvements this year.

Will the Patriots Finally Falter? With the Patriots since 2001, faltering on their terms has become synonymous with barely losing a Super Bowl or suffering a narrow loss in the AFC Championship. Perhaps no former player has gained as much notoriety as Malcolm Butler, whose astonishing benching in the Super Bowl remains a mystery six months after the game.

Julian Edelman is facing a suspension that will cost him 25% of the season. Malcolm Mitchell was let go. The top receivers and tight ends left in New England (at least until Week 5) are Chris Hogan, Cordarrelle Patterson (more of a return specialist), Eric Decker, and of course Gronk.

As usual, the running game will be a running back-by-committee approach with James White, Rex Burkhead, former Bengal Jeremy Hill, and Mike Gillislee. Dion Lewis signed with the Titans.

Oh right, and there’s a guy named Tom Brady. Belichick and Brady are in the twilight of their careers at this point, but that does not change the fact that they will still win the AFC East yet again, and will play at least one playoff game. With palpable reports of locker room tension, it seems that Belichick’s imperious coaching methods have irked his players.

There is no doubt that this team is close to seeing its historical run, perhaps the greatest dynasty in NFL history, come to an end. But just not yet.

And there we have it. Only 30 days until the regular season begins!

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