5 Key Questions Heading Into 2016 NFL Season
The NFL is never boring anymore, and that’s probably by design. If “any news is good news,” then football is good 365 days a year.
Whether it’s the draft, free agency, suspensions, concussions, or legal troubles, it’s rare that a fan can go even one day without thinking, reading, or talking about the NFL and wondering … what’s going to happen next. If Barb and Stranger Things dominate the break room talk for a month, then Roger Goodell and the NFL get the other 11. It’s like “Harambe: every day.”
The offseason was dominated with everything from Deflategate (again) to Josh Gordon, two of the wildest draft trades of all-time, and up to this moment, Colin Kaepernick’s act of defiance and the Vikings acquiring a starting QB less than a week before the first game. The best news of all: The offseason is almost over.
Tonight, the Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers open the 2016 season, a rematch of the most recent game: Super Bowl L. On the dawn of another football year, these are the questions that most need answers over the coming weeks and months.
“Can the Patriots recover in time to make the playoffs?”
New England are still the favorites to win the Super Bowl, but very little has gone right for Bill Belichick’s team this year. Tom Brady will sit out the first four games to finally serve his suspension, but that has distracted people from the fact that he’s 39 and nearing the end of his career. Injuries have befallen featured back Dion Lewis (knee), starting tackle Sebastian Vollmer (shoulder, going to IR), guard Shaq Mason (broken hand), and defensive ends Jabaal Sheard (MCL, out 2-6 weeks), and Rob Ninkovich (torn triceps), who was also suspended for four games.
The team must also replace their best pass rusher Chandler Jones (12.5 sacks last season) who they traded to the Arizona Cardinals.
The reason people aren’t freaking out is because Belichick is still the most vital person in that organization and seems to be in good health (not that he’d ever show it in his face or general spirits), but if there ever seemed to be a season since 2001 in which it looked like New England could miss the playoffs, this is it.
“Can Sam Bradford take a playoff team to the playoffs?”
Since being the number one pick in 2010, Bradford has gone 25-37-1 as a starter, but blame for his failures has often been pushed to his supporting cast. He won’t have that luxury in Minnesota.
After starter Teddy Bridgewater went down with a non-contact knee injury, the Vikings sent a first and fourth round pick to the Eagles for Bradford, the latest in a long line of headscratching moves to acquire a player with a career passer rating of 81.0 and career earnings north of $100 million. Now he’s playing alongside future Hall of Fame running back Adrian Peterson and is aided by a defense that finished fifth in points allowed last season and features several of the best young players in football. Minnesota went 11-5 in 2015 and won the division over Green Bay despite a mediocre performance by Bridgewater. They may need Bradford to simply be average for him to make the playoffs for the first time in his career, but is he capable of elevating a team around him or will he sink the Vikings’ high hopes before the next team overpays for him?
“Can a seventh round nobody lead the Broncos back to the Super Bowl?”
Every defending Super Bowl champion starts off their follow-up season with expectations that are higher than they should be – winning the Super Bowl requires an immense amount of talent and luck, plus the NFL is setup to work against you as you get better – but very few of those teams seemed to be as poorly off at quarterback as the Broncos are with Trevor Siemian. A seventh round pick out of Northwestern in 2015, Siemian has never thrown an NFL pass and had 27 touchdowns and 24 interceptions in his college career.
Their defense again looks good enough to carry them to January, which is exactly what they did a year ago with two ineffective QBs, but Siemian has to be the strangest choice as a starter ever for a team looking to repeat.
“Do the Browns have the most exciting offense in the NFL?”
It’s tough to imagine a world in which the Browns have the “best” or most “efficient” anything in the NFL, but not since the days of … well, ever … has their offense looked this “exciting.”
The reclamation of Robert Griffin III after a two-season exodus in Washington, the return of Josh Gordon after serving what amounts to a 20-game suspension, the transformation of “Terrelle Pryor the terrible QB” to “Terrelle Pryor the freakishly athletic wide receiver,” and the opportunity for head coach Hue Jackson to prove he’s long deserved that job. As offensive coordinator for the Cincinnati Bengals last season, Jackson helped guide Andy Dalton to a passer rating of 106.2, which is 21 points higher than it had been from 2011-2014. They are also supported by left tackle Joe Thomas, tight end Gary Barnidge (whose numbers last season closely mirrored those of Rob Gronkowski) and first round pick Corey Coleman, who caught 20 touchdowns at Baylor last year.
The Browns may well lose 12 games because they’re the Browns, but whether Jackson turns them around much like he did the career of Dalton or not, there may not be a team right now more full of intrigue and interest than Cleveland.
“Is Dak Prescott the best QB in the class of 2016?”
The 2012 rookie class of quarterbacks is perhaps the best ever: Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, and Ryan Tannehill were all first rounders starting as rookies, and also Brandon Weeden existed. However, they may have all been outplayed that season by third rounder Russell Wilson. A similar thing is already happening with Dak Prescott.
Instead of trading up for Paxton Lynch in the first (when the Broncos drafted him, Jerry Jones said his heart broke), Dallas waited and took Prescott in the fourth. He was the eighth QB off the board, going after players like Jacoby Brissett, Cody Kessler, and Connor Cook. But the 2016 class was headlined by Jared Goff and Carson Wentz, both of whom were acquired after extremely costly trades to move up for them.
Prescott’s play in the preseason makes that look like an even dumber decision in hindsight.
A good summer, camp, and preseason has locked Prescott into the backup job behind Romo, but another injury for Romo will force the rookie into starting action immediately. He may still have a ways to go before reaching his full potential, if he ever does, but considering how poorly Goff and Wentz have played (while Lynch lost out to Siemian) it sure looks like Prescott has the early lead for being the best QB in the class.
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