It’s finally here. The wait from February to September seemingly feels longer every year for football fans, but the grandeur of opening weekend never loses its sweetness. For the first time ever, the season kicks off with a rematch of the previous Super Bowl. Besides the defending champs replacing their quarterback and Cam Newton’s MVP encore, fascinating storylines pepper the entire NFL landscape. New stadiums, old players, inaugural seasons and farewell tours aren’t talking points every season, yet they’re all over the place as professional football kicks off once again.
Rams home games
In the Hard Knocks premiere, Jeff Fisher said he expects the team to go 11-5 or better. That’s hard to picture given that Jared Goff is a rookie and may not even start. Maybe Fisher is trying the old “speak it into existence” routine.
Regardless of the Rams record, the Coliseum should be packed out for every home game. It’s their first season back and there is quality young talent on the roster. Because of the quarterback concerns, it’s unlikely to result in a playoff berth, but fans should be able to see the maturation of a promising nucleus led by Todd Gurley, Aaron Donald, Robert Quinn and (hopefully) Jared Goff. There were plenty of skeptics who suggested that L.A. isn’t a good town for pro football. If attendance is low this year, it might not bode well for any hope of the city getting a second team.
Like Bill Belichick assistants, Tom Brady backups don’t have a great track record once they leave New England. Just ask the Texans, who had two of them last season and are lead by a former Patriot OC in Bill O’Brien. Ryan Mallett was a head scratching third round pick by New England in 2011, while Bryan Hoyer made some preseason noise after joining the team as an undrafted free agent in 2009. Both had their fair share of believers, only to end up as career backups. Matt Cassel had an impressive 2008 season in Brady’s stead, but has failed to prove himself a quality starter in the years since.
Garrapolo, however, was a second round pick and the darling of countless draft gurus. It’s impossible to actually know Belichick’s thinking, but it’s reasonable to assume the Patriots hoped to develop Brady’s heir apparent before it became a pressing need—similar to Green Bay in 2005, which worked out pretty well. Despite his all time great resume, Belichick’s eye for quarterbacks isn’t immaculate. Like everyone else, he valued (at least) six players in the 2000 draft more than Brady. It’s safe to say he didn’t expect him to become an elite quarterback. None of Brady’s reserves have needed to be good to this point, but time will eventually run out for #12. His latest successor will have four games to show he’s different from the rest.
San Diego’s Chargers
Phillip Rivers may be the best active quarterback without a Super Bowl ring. He’s not likely to get one with the current roster. With rumors that he’d retire if the team moved to LA, it’s possible this could be his last season. If that’s the case, his antics, awkward delivery and southern drawl will be dearly missed.
On the opposite end of the career spectrum, Joey Bosa became the latest to hold out for nearly an entire training camp over a contract dispute. The number three overall pick in the draft should be a difference maker, but it’s unclear how much of an impact he can make after missing all of camp. On the other side of the ball, last year’s first round pick Melvin Gordon needs to prove he’s the home run hitter that led San Diego to draft him so high. If the young bucks can put buts in the seats at Qualcomm Stadium, maybe they can keep the Chargers in town beyond 2016.
The entire AFC South
Arguably the worst division in football over the past 5 years, the AFC South looks primed to make a big leap in 2016. In 2012, the NFC south went from worst to best, thanks to Jim Harbaugh and Russell Wilson (Bruce Arians took over the Cardinals in 2013, which has helped solidify the division’s reputation). It’s unclear if there’s a legitimate Super Bowl contender between the Colts, Texans, Jaguars, and Titans, but all four look to be on the rise. The return of Andrew Luck will put the Colts right back in playoff hunt. Perhaps no team in the league will see a greater influx of young talent than the Jaguars this season. The Titans added some nice pieces to their roster as well. Both teams have promising young quarterbacks that should take another step this season. Meanwhile the reigning division champs are somewhat of a mystery. Brock Osweiler should be an improvement over Brian Hoyer, but just how much of an upgrade remains to be seen. Houston still has the best defensive player in the league and an unstoppable receiver, so the arrow is pointing up for the Texans as well.
Where to begin? Let’s start with the receivers. Josh Gordon (knock on wood) will finally be back playing regular season football again (since he’s on the Browns, he’ll likely only play during the regular season). Dez Bryant enters the season at full strength. Unfortunately, he’ll have to wait at least half the season for his quarterback, Tony Romo, to join him. A third elite receiver also returns from injury, Aaron Rodgers favorite target, Jordy Nelson. Cam Newton will also see the return of his top wide out, Kelvin Benjamin. Alshon Jeffery missed significant time in 2015 as well, but he’ll be back in action for the Bears this year.
As for other offensive skill players, LeVeon Bell will start off on the bench riding out a suspension, but he’s recovered from last year’s MCL surgery. Down in Miami, Arian Foster will be suiting up for the Dolphins in week 1. Reports are he’s back to 100%, following a torn Achilles. Joe Flacco, Ben Roethlisberger and Andrew Luck all enter the season healthy and ready to return to the playoffs. Robert Griffin
III no longer carries the franchise quarterback label, but he will be starting fresh with the rebuilding Browns. Tyrann Mathieu is the biggest defensive name hoping to bounce back from an injury.