NFL football is finally on the horizon. It seems so long ago that the Kansas City Chiefs completed their third straight playoff comeback win Super Bowl XLIV. The league has had an offseason like no other because of the coronavirus pandemic, having to conduct football operations virtually up until training camp. Even though there have been some hiccups along the way, the NFL season will begin on schedule.
Given the circumstances coming into the 2020 season, it will be nothing short of interesting. Gaining chemistry with teammates and understanding new systems has been a tougher task because of COVID-19. With no preseason games, an accelerated training camp, and little to no fans in the stands, players and coaches are adjusting to so much for this year. Not to mention many new faces in new places.
All of these things and more are going to make this NFL season so unique and compelling. Out of all 32 teams, which ones should you keep a close eye on? These five will surely have storylines to make them interesting all year.
5. Philadelphia Eagles
The season hasn’t even started and the Philadelphia Eagles already have so much going on with their roster. They have sustained numerous injuries, especially on their offensive line. Brandon Brooks and Andre Dillard are out for the season after suffering injuries. Both of them would have started, Brooks at right guard and Dillard at left tackle. Furthermore, Lane Johnson has been dealing with a lower-body injury and first-round pick Jalen Reagor is also dealing with a shoulder injury.
Injuries have been a common theme for the past few Eagles’ seasons. They have always had the talent to be contenders but have failed to stay healthy down the stretch. How the o-line holds up since two starters are gone will be something to keep an eye on. They were Pro Football Focus’ offensive line of the year in 2019, but it’s unlikely they repeat that. They brought Jason Peters back in and converted him to the guard spot, out of necessity.
The passing defensive for Philly has been abysmal, but trading for Darius Slay in the offseason will give that unit a much-needed boost. Slay is one of the top corners in the NFL, being fourth in interceptions since 2014 with 19.
Offensively, Miles Sanders will be the bell cow at running back, after an up and down rookie year. His consistency will be essential to how good Philadelphia’s offense can be. Wentz has Desean Jackson back after an injury-riddled 2019 and added another speedy receiver in Reagor. The rookie has the aforementioned shoulder injury but will be an asset for No. 11 once he returns.
Wentz’s health is still under the microscope. He played all 16 regular season games last year but knocked out of their playoff game against the Seattle Seahawks before halftime. That game could’ve had a different outcome if the Wentz was in there. The play many considered to be dirty, understandably so. However, if the Eagles want to have any aspirations of flying high, Wentz needs to stay on the field when it matters.
Philly plays the AFC North and NFC West in 2020, which means they will face some tough opponents. They play the Baltimore Ravens, San Francisco 49ers, Pittsburgh Steelers, and the Los Angeles Rams within the first six weeks of the season.
That will be a nice streak of games playing against some elite defenses. It will show if their line can hold up against some impressive defensive linemen. Aaron Donald, Cameron Heyward, Calais Campbell, Nick Bosa, and T.J. Watt, and more are all coming for Wentz. They also face the Green Bay Packers and New Orleans Saints. The NFC East is always competitive, so every division game is extremely important.
The injuries and the concerns on the offensive line are what will make the Eagles an interesting watch this season. If they can get a solidified o-line group, and their secondary plays better, they can easily become a dark horse for the NFC. If they sustain too many injuries, their season will be over in a heartbeat.
4. Arizona Cardinals
In the span of one offseason, the Arizona Cardinals have gone from a lower-tier NFL team to a squad that can sneak into the playoffs. Kyler Murray seems poised for a sensational sophomore season after winning Offensive Rookie of the Year. He now has another superb weapon to throw to with the acquisition of Deandre Hopkins. The Houston Texans traded Hopkins and a 2020 fourth-round pick to the Cardinals for David Johnson, a 2020 second-round pick and a 2021 fourth-round pick.
Adding an All-Pro talent in Hopkins to an offense that already has Larry Fitzgerald makes Arizona’s passing game much more potent. Kenyan Drake proved to be a reliable running back. He played outstanding after he joined the team via trade in the middle of 2019. Christian Kirk should be better than last year after he dealt with ankle injuries. If he can become a reliable second or third option, the Cardinals’ offense can reach a whole new level.
The defense is looking promising as well. Arizona drafted Isaiah Simmons from Clemson with the eighth overall pick. Simmons is a versatile defender who can play out in coverage or in the box. Safety Budda Baker plays like a star and has been rewarded with the highest contract for his position in NFL history. Both Baker’s and Simmons’ ability to play various positions on defense gives the Cardinals multiple ways to utilize defensive schemes and packages.
Chandler Jones is an elite pass rusher, who wants to top his 19 sack performance in 2019. Jordan Hicks returns, a top-five tackler in the league at linebacker. Patrick Peterson will have the motivation to play better after being inconsistent last year. The Cardinals were one of the league’s worst defenses last season, but with a few key additions to a stable core, they should see much improvement.
The key to the Cardinal’s success in 2020 is the performance of Murray. If he can have a stellar second season like Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson (or anything remotely close), the Cardinals will be a force.
They have to make sure they handle their division, as the NFC West is a gauntlet. They were 1-5 in division games last year. That needs to improve if they have any shot at getting in the playoffs. They start off playing the 49ers in Week 1, so they will have an opportunity to show everyone what they are capable of doing this year against the 2019 runner-ups.
The prospect of Murray blossoming into a star and having a superstar receiver in Hopkins to throw makes them a team to watch as the season progresses. Are there going to be growing pains with the new duo? Will Murray live up to expectations? Will the defense be able to slow opposing offenses down? Can Kliff Kingsbury’s offense continue to innovate? All of these questions surrounding a young Cardinals team creates so much interest around a dark horse playoff team.
3. Pittsburgh Steelers
The Pittsburgh Steelers were nearly a playoff team in 2019 while having one of the worst quarterback performances during that season. Mason Rudolph and Duck Hodges were awful in all honesty, both failing to provide any kind of consistency or stability while Ben Roethlisberger was recovering from an elbow injury he suffered in Week 2 of last year.
The good news is that Big Ben is 100 percent healthy, and feels better than ever according to him. If Big Ben can pick up where he left off in 2018, that can make the Steelers a real threat in the AFC.
The Pittsburgh defense remains loaded and ready to do more damage. That unit was a nightmare for opposing offenses last season, having a league-high 38 takeaways in 2019. They also put the pressure on the quarterback leading the NFL in sacks with 54.
It is difficult for defenses to have a performance like that two years in a row, but the Steelers have studs at every level. Minkah Fitzpatrick is a ball-hawk at safety, Devin Bush is coming into his own as a linebacker, and T.J. is an elite pass rusher and can play in coverage if necessary. Not to mention they locked up Cam Heyward to a four-year extension recently. The defense will show up, but the real questions lie on the offensive side.
Juju Smith-Schuster and James Conner had less than stellar follow-ups to their rookie campaigns. Smith-Schuster dealt with injuries and the revolving door at quarterback. His stats in 2019 were nearly half of what he had in 2018. Smith-Schuster’s injury struggles allowed other receivers to establish themselves. James Washington and Diontae Johnson were the Steelers’ two top receivers last year.
If they can continue to improve and make plays, things should open up for Smith-Schuster. He took the No. 1 receiver role after Antonio Browns’ departure, and that comes with double teams. The former USC Trojan faced a good amount of them, so having his fellow receivers being threats on their own should help him get fewer double teams.
Conner also battled injuries in 2019, missing six games. He didn’t even reach 500 rushing yards last year. With Big Ben back, defenses must respect the pass, which could open up lanes for Conner. He and Smith-Schuster must elevate their play to where it was in 2018 if they want a chance to make some noise in the AFC. The O-line wasn’t as solid last year either. They need to play better in 2020 also.
If the defense can be great, Big Ben plays exceptional football, and everyone stays healthy, there is a good chance the Steelers can not only get in the playoffs but perhaps win their division. They have a gauntlet of Heisman-winning QBs to get through, including Baker Mayfield, Lamar Jackson, and Joe Burrow. Big Ben is not a Heisman winner, but he is a two-time Super Bowl champion. He knows how to get to the big game and win it. Pittsburgh hasn’t received the respect they deserve the offseason. That leaves the motivated which could lead interesting, even surprising results.
2. New England Patriots
Welcome to the post-Tom Brady era in New England. After 20 seasons and six championships, Brady left the Patriots and signed with the Tampa Buccaneers in free agency. How will head coach Bill Belichick respond to losing one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play?
Just go get a former MVP in Cam Newton on an inexpensive contract. Yes, the former first-overall pick has been battling a foot and shoulder injury the past couple of seasons. How the Cam Newton experiment goes can change the course of both Belichick and Newton’s careers. That’s the potential of how good New England will be with Newton paired with that defense–actually.
The Pats’ defensive unit won’t have all the pieces that were on that stout squad in 2019. Their signal calling linebacker, Dont’a Hightower, opted out because of health reasons related to COVID-19. Safety Patrick Chung did the same thing. Both of these two have been mainstays on the New England defense for quite some time now. In total, New England had eight players opt-out of the 2020 season, the most of any team in the NFL.
They still have the McCourty twins and Stephon Gilmore in the secondary, but lost Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins to free agency. Will the number of losses be too much to overcome? Can New England still have a top-five defense despite many of the players not being there? Bill Belichick is a mastermind, so he might have a solution to the opt-outs already.
The questions on offense continue past Cam Newton and his potential. The Patriots lack a strong receiving core outside of Julian Edelman. That played a factor in Brady leaving, as he wanted more weapons to throw to. Cam Newton brings a new dimension to the offense with his legs, but he still needs to throw the ball.
Second year receiver N’Keal Harry needs to improve and become a reliable target for Newton. Mohamed Sanu finally healed from the ankle injuries that bothered him last year. Are there enough playmakers on New England’s roster offensively? How can Newton make lemonade out of lemons with the receivers he has? How much running will he do given his injury history?
Coming into a new era brings in new questions for Bill Belichick and the Patriots. The questions multiplied once they signed Cam Newton. Can this New England squad produce enough offensive power with Newton and his supporting cast? How good will the defense be given the losses they sustained this offseason. For the first time in two decades, the AFC East is wide open. Can the Patriots continue their winning ways without Brady?
1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are the most interesting team in the NFL this season by far. They have done so much this offseason offensively, with Tom Brady joining the team being the biggest move. Brady is 43 coming into this season and seems motivated to continue to prove the doubters wrong. He managed to get his favorite target in Rob Gronkowski to join him in Tampa, who already has a loaded receiving group.
Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Cameron Brate, and O.J. Howard was already on the Bucs roster before Brady joined. Evans and Godwin both had 1,000 yards last season, which shows they can cook a defense. They also signed LeSean McCoy and Leonard Fournette, bolstering their backfield. With all these weapons, this is by far the best supporting cast Brady has ever had. However, there is one problem with having all these weapons.
There is only one football. Spreading the love for all the skill players will be the biggest challenge. How will head coach Bruce Arians utilize the surplus of talent he has to get the best out of each player? Players will say they don’t care if they get the ball a lot, but will that be the case here? Making sure everyone is getting fed is important for Brady and the team. Not everyone will have 1,000 yards, but making sure players feel like they are contributing is essential.
The offensive line is the question mark for Tampa. They have an okay unit, but rookie Tristan Wirfs is starting at right tackle. Bruce Arians’ offense loves the long ball, which means his QBs have to hold the ball a little longer. Brady likes to get the ball out of his hands quickly. It has been reported that both Arians and Brady are merging some of their philosophies, so seeing the result of that will be interesting. Nevertheless, the o-line has to make sure Brady stays upright if they want to get the best out of him this year.
Even though the offense has been getting the headlines in the offseason, the Bucs defense is another storyline to follow. They finished the season on a high note, being of one of the best defenses in the last six games of 2019. Shaquil Barrett’s presence as a pass rusher makes them a threat every pass play. The defense’s performance can dictate how long Brady and the offense can take to get acclimated in a real-game setting.
The coronavirus pandemic hasn’t allowed Brady the usual time an offseason allows for him to establish chemistry with his new teammates. They had some workouts together, but it takes time for a new quarterback to get in rhythm with his new playmakers. If Brady and the offense get things rolling right out the gate, it makes things much easier for the entire team. If it takes longer than expected, the season could be more of a challenge. The unknown of how quickly the Buccaneers will gel as a unit is what makes their potential for this season captivating.
Tom in Tampa with his riches of weapons is what everyone needs to monitor during the 2020 season. There are high expectations for the Buccaneers, as there is reason to believe they can be the first team to host a Super Bowl this year. So much of their season rides on the offense, and if they can get everyone on the same page quickly. This season can go two ways for the Buccaneers. They can be a championship contender or a failed experiment that fell short of expectations.