NFL

10 early burning questions for the 2017 NFL season

49ers
Rachel Wold
Written by Rachel Wold

The 2016 NFL season concluded and left a lot of question marks in place heading into next year.

For starters, will last year’s rookie stars pick up where they left off? Contrarily, veteran quarterbacks will be playing in the final years of their careers. Can they compete at the same level, or in some cases even find a new team to call home?

Will this year’s soon-to-be 40-year-old Super Bowl MVP ever slow down? If not, the rest of the AFC East is up for a long season.

On the coaching side, several teams are debuting new head coaches. One in particular has the huge task of improving a San Francisco team that won only twice last year. Is there any hope for fans?

Clearly, there is a lot to keep tabs on approaching the start of the regular season. Here are 10 early burning questions we dove into.

1. Will Dak and Zek hit a sophomore slump?

Dallas Cowboys fans surely hope not. Let’s start with Ezekiel Elliott. The young running back took the league by storm when he rushed for 1,631 yards. That equated to hefty 108.7 on average per game. Elliott also added 16 total touchdowns and 363 receiving yards to his stat line.

It was not a surprise that he earned All-Pro and Pro-Bowl status with these excellent accomplishments. But, can he do the same thing again? We are talking about 1,994 total yards. That is a lot mileage and Elliott could make magic happen again, providing he stays healthy. Fortunately, the Cowboys’ offensive line affords Elliott the opportunities to find his openings. Another grand season could be on tap.

Elliott is going to eventually burn out if the Cowboys continue to pound the stuffing out of him on an annual basis. For now, he seems good to go.

Regarding Prescott, he proved he is the real deal after he literally stole Tony Romo’s job out from under him. Prescott played with more poise and accuracy than many of the league’s seasoned starters. He helped lead Dallas up through the divisional round of playoffs after achieving a 104.9 quarterback rating. The AP Rookie of the Year played impressively enough we don’t believe he is going to experience any significant setbacks in 2017.

This young Dallas duo will be one to monitor during the years to come.

2. Will ‘This is 40’ catch up with Tom Brady?

Brady will start the 2017 NFL regular season out as a 40 year-old quarterback. There are not many quarterbacks that have played this late in their careers.

We all witnessed the unfortunate 2015 demise of future Hall-of-Fame quarterback Peyton Manning, who retired at 39. Injuries unfortunately caught up with Manning and he had a very uncharacteristic final year.

Brady, on the other hand, still seems to handle getting bumped and banged around like a 22-year-old. He is in exceptional health and unless he gets injured will likely have another elite year.

This stinks as far as the rest of the AFC East teams are concerned. As long as the five-time Super Bowl champion is on the field, the Patriots are not likely to miss a beat. Brady is having fun and has no near-future intentions of retiring, despite his wife’s wishes.

3. Can Kyle Shanahan coach the 49ers out of the NFC West basement?

The last three seasons for the 49ers have been a nightmare for fans. San Francisco finished the NFC West third in 2014 during John Harbaugh’s final year. Then the team dwelt in the basement the past two seasons under Jim Tomsula and Chip Kelly.

A total of only 15 games won and 33 lost were managed in this stretch. Inconsistency and ineptitude at the quarterback position the last two seasons has not helped. Colin Kaepernick and Blaine Gabbert scraped up only seven wins in 2015-16.

The team opens 2017 with Kyle Shanahan, who says fans need to practice patience.

“Give us some time, be patient with us. I promise you guys we’re going to work as hard as anyone and do things the right way with good people, high character guys. It’s going to be a lot of work, tough work, but I promise you guys it’ll be worth it. And we’ll do this right way and make you guys proud and will not let you guys down. (I) look forward to talking to you all.”

Shanahan and new general manager John Lynch will need to make the best of the resources at hand to rebuild from the bottom. Fortunately, the 49ers have the second pick in the draft and potentially $100 million in cap space. These are huge pluses. But a team with so many needs is no quick fix.

On the defensive side, San Francisco ranked last giving up 406.8 yards and 30 points on average each game. The offense ranked 31st and scored only 19.3 average points per matchup.

The nice news is, Shanahan will also serve as the team’s offensive coordinator. This is major considering he just worked with the Atlanta Falcons’ top-scoring offense.

While the new brass is diligently working away, the team’s quarterback situation will one to follow in the upcoming months.

4. Where will Tony Romo land?

Speaking of quarterback storylines, the Dallas Cowboys no longer need Romo on their roster. Following the end of the Cowboys’ postseason, owner Jerry Jones indicated trading Romo would be the team’s “No. 1 priority.”

Romo was ousted out of his starting job by Prescott. He graciously acknowledged this, but at the same time he expressed his desire to play. Romo turns 37 in April and clearly has a recent past of unfortunate injuries.

As long as he can stay healthy, he would be an incredible upgrade to several teams needing better quarterbacks. Romo recently said the Denver Broncos would be his first choice. But, the Broncos for now appear to be sold on working with their roster of younger quarterbacks.

Romo also makes for a potential option in San Francisco working with Shanahan.

However things work out, something might have to give if he wants to keep playing. Romo’s current $24.7 million salary cap hit is not one that other teams can easily absorb. However, Romo hinted that he would consider a lesser salary in order to play for a team of his choosing.

Romo’s fans will surely be tracking him in the coming weeks. Will he be wearing a certain New York-based green, or possibly a Floridian cat mascot on his helmet come September? Or, will Romo do what many consider is best for his long term health and hang up his cleats?

5. Can the Carolina Panthers rediscover their mojo?

Cam Newton and the Panthers’ Super Bowl 50 meltdown turned into a 2016 hangover the team could just not escape.

The Panthers finished 2016 with a disappointing 6-10 record, earning them last place in the NFC South. This was hardly the season Panthers fans were expecting after watching their team go 17-2 the prior year. But, it would appear that the Panthers had never got over falling to the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl.

Newton’s numbers in particular took a cliff dive. He completed only 52.9 percent of his passes which was down 7.1 percent from his previous season. Missing were the touchdowns as well after Newton tallied only 24 compared to 45 in 2016. Sacks and hits to Newton were unfortunately a huge stumbling block to his production.

Meanwhile, Carolina’s defense came up short-handed, ranking No. 19 in 2016. Divisional quarterbacks Drew Brees and Matt Ryan had games against Carolina when they each passed for four touchdowns. Defensive efforts such as these don’t win games.

It also does not help that the Falcons and Tampa Bay Buccaneers made huge strides of a positive nature last year.

A team that featured the NFL coach of the year and the league’s MVP in 2015 should have survived last season much better. Clearly, there is a laundry list of chores to tackle moving ahead.

6. How will the Chargers survive in Los Angeles?

The poor Chargers once again finished last in the AFC West. Sadly, they have only managed nine wins in the last two years. Head coach Mike McCoy was fired as a result of another poor campaign.

To make matters worse, Chargers’ owner Dean Spanos ripped the rug right out from under the team’s fans and announced a re-location to Los Angeles. Loyal fans are irate, quarterback Philip Rivers is distraught and the team’s first attempt at a new logo was a joke.

How is a team that is already down in the dumps going to perform in a new city and temporary stadium after losing a large share of its fan base?

This is an unlucky team that also lost its star wide receiver Keenan Allen and pass-catching back Danny Woodhead (among many others) in 2016. The 2017 campaign is likely going to be filled with growing pains. The Chargers’ AFC West rivals, Kansas City Chiefs and Oakland Raiders, are on the uptrend. And, the Broncos are no picnic to compete against either.

If the Chargers have not quite sunken to rock bottom, they will soon enough. Unfortunately, the climb back uphill in their new city looks absolutely brutal.

7. Is there any stopping Le’Veon Bell?

Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell will likely be the No. 1 choice in fantasy football drafts of any format this summer. Not only was he a virtual stud, Bell was a real life rock star on the field.

Bell returned from a three-game suspension and sat out to rest in Week 17. He still finished the year as the No. 2-ranked rusher. He averaged 105.7 rushing yards per game and seven touchdowns. He also added 75 receptions for 616 yards and two scores through the air to his phenomenal stats.

Even more impressive were Bell’s accomplishments in the postseason. After two games and one partial final contest, Bell tallied 357 rushing yards and two touchdowns. He is an athletic freak of nature and one the Steelers want to place a franchise tag on to keep around.

Bell soon turns a mere 25 years old, and when healthy he is beastly for his opposing defenders to slow down. If for some unfathomable reason he does not play in Pittsburgh this fall, the two-time Pro Bowler would be dynamite with any club.

This is provided the young back keeps out of mischief during the offseason.

8. Can a couple of veteran quarterbacks make the playoffs?

We are going to discuss two of the eldest quarterbacks outside of Tom Brady. In the spotlight are Arizona Cardinals Carson Palmer (37) and New Orleans Saints Drew Brees (38). Both won’t play forever and are surely hoping for a last chance at a playoff run.

Starting with Palmer, he has seen better days than what 2016 provided. He and his team fell short of the playoffs despite finishing second in the NFC West. Unfortunately, the 7-8-1 record was nowhere near to their 13-3 2015 finish. The veteran quarterback’s passing yards and touchdowns decreased while his turnovers increased. There was enough ugly left on the field to wonder if Palmer might call it quits. But he confirmed he will be back for 2017 (more on that here.)

Health and ball security on his end are key if he wants to make it to the postseason. Palmer is equipped with an amazing offense and a defense that ranked No. 2 on the season, which makes him the weak link.

Quite the opposite is true for Brees, who would certainly savor one more Super Bowl romp before he throws in the towel. The future Hall-of-Fame quarterback just passed for league-high 5,208 yards and 37 touchdowns. It marked the fifth time in his 16-year career he surpassed 5,000 passing yards. He also completed 70 percent of his passes. It is simply ridiculous that Brees and his top-ranked Saints’ offense keep spinning their wheels.

Meanwhile, the team’s defense is crushing its quarterback’s efforts. The Saints scored an average of 29.3 points per contest and only won seven games. Unless this changes, Brees will retire as a one-time Super Bowl champion.

9. Will the Oakland Raiders pick up where they left off?

Raiders’ fans hope so, right? Super Bowl dreams were crushed when quarterback Derek Carr broke his leg in Week 16 last season. Fortunately, the Raiders had already clinched a Wild Card playoff spot. But they were underdogs starting a rookie quarterback in Houston and were eliminated in their first playoff appearance.

The cool thing is, the Raiders look to be the real deal moving forward. The team had not made the playoffs since 2002. Carr’s surgery on his leg was a success and he is already in the process of rehab.

All signs indicate the Raiders will continue trending up. A young quarterback, thriving offense, and a defense that (hopefully) improves by strides will take the Raiders places in 2017. Plus, the team can take advantage of the adversities their divisional Chargers and Broncos will be faced with again this fall.

10. Which team will dominate the AFC South?

The AFC South was the second-to-lowest winning division in the league in 2016. Not one team managed a double-digit win record. It is a sad day when a Brock Osweiler-led Houston Texans squad with nine wins conquers the division.

Fortunately, Houston’s top-ranked defense held up its amateur-hour quarterback much of the time.

Keeping with the sad, what happened in the much-anticipated return of Andrew Luck to the Indianapolis Colts? Luck missed one game and managed a 8-7 win-to-loss record. He performed decently enough to rank ninth in passing yards with 4,240 for the year. Unfortunately, the team had several shortcomings. They were enough that the Colts missed the playoffs for the second time since Luck was drafted in 2012.

Another club that severely disappointed was the Jacksonville Jaguars (3-13). This was too bad considering all of the offseason hype surrounding the franchise. Quarterback Blake Bortles regressed and threw only 23 touchdowns compared to 16 interceptions. Turnovers were a major Achilles heel and will continue to limit the team’s success unless Bortles improves.

Lastly, the Tennessee Titans will be the franchise to watch in 2017. They improved from three wins in 2015 to nine victories in quarterback Marcus Mariota’s second year. The team is an exciting work in progress, and the signing of DeMarco Murray and drafting of Derrick Henry made a big difference. As a result, Tennessee’s rushing offense ranked No. 2, compared to 18th the prior year.

Of the four AFC South teams, the Titans look to be the freshest one with the sunniest forecast heading into 2017.

About the author

Rachel Wold

Rachel Wold

Rachel is a football lover of both the NFL and Fantasy and creator of Fantasyfootballchick.com. When she is not vacationing in Miami or Vegas, she is an NFL writer at Sportsnaut and a fantasy contributor at eDraft.com. Rachel's articles are also featured on Yardbarker, MSN and Fox Sports.

Follow Rachel on Twitter @liveocgirl and chat with her anytime!