20 burning questions heading into the NFL regular season

By Vincent Frank
Nov 5, 2017; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) and running back Alvin Kamara (41) celebrate a score against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the second half at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The Saints won, 30-10. Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY

NFL teams head into Week 1 thinking they have the answers to football’s greatest questions. Even those squads contending for a title don’t have all the answers.

Tom Brady might be the best quarterback in NFL history, but does he have the supporting cast in New England to earn a third consecutive conference title? Jimmy Garoppolo has been all the rage in San Francisco. Are expectations for him overblown?

In Cleveland, the Browns might very well be the second-best team in the AFC North. Does that mean Hue Jackson will keep his job well into the season? Again, we have no way to really know.

These are among 20 burning questions around the NFL heading into Week 1.

Does Tom Brady have enough help in New England?

We’re lucky the Patiots have names on the back of their jerseys, because the team’s wide receiver group is represented by a bunch of unknowns and former first-round busts. Julian Edelman is suspended to open the season. New England traded Brandin Cooks and released Kenny Britt while also moving on from Malcolm Mitchell. Heck, Eric Decker retired after a couple weeks with the team. That leaves the likes of Chris Hogan, Cordarrelle Patterson and Phillip Dorsett as Brady’s top receivers to open the season.

If that weren’t enough, New England lost Pro Bowl left tackle Nate Solder, 1,000-yard running back Dion Lewis and starting cornerback Malcolm Butler in free agency. There’s certainly still a lot of talent on this team. But the Pats are now going to be relying on the 41-year-old Brady more than ever before.

Is Kirk Cousins really going to be that game changer?

Cousins is a marked upgrade over Case Keenum under center. He should make sweet music with the game’s top wide receiver duo, Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen. Having Dalvin Cook in the backfield with him won’t hurt either. The question here is rather simple. Is Cousins a good enough quarterback to be seen as a game changer? Was he merely a stat padder for a pedestrian Redskins team over the past few years? Boasting elite level skill-position players and the NFC’s best defense, there’s no excuse for Cousins. He’ll head into Week 1 with Super Bowl expectations riding on his right shoulder. How he performs out of the gate will be telling.

What team will surprise us the most?

Not a single objective person believed at the start of last season that Jacksonville would nearly oust New England in the AFC Championship Game. No one really believed that the Los Angeles Rams would overtake Seattle in the NFC West. It happened. And we were plenty surprised. Heading into the 2018 season, there’s a few teams that could really surprise us. The San Francisco 49ers, New York Giants and Chicago Bears come to mind in the NFC, as do the Indianapolis Colts and Cleveland Browns in the AFC.

But we’re going to take it one step further by concluding that the Los Angeles Chargers are legit Super Bowl contenders. As mediocre as this team has been over the years, it’s among the most-talented squads in the NFL. Philip Rivers is playing elite football. He has Pro Bowlers at running back and wide receiver as well as a top-five offensive line. Defensively, the Chargers were among the best teams in the league last season. All of this should equate to championship contention in 2018.

Does Cam Newton have enough protection?

Cam Newton

Losing left tackle Matt Kalil to a multi-week absense was a less-than-ideal situation for Carolina. Sure Kalil had struggled in his final couple seasons with Minnesota, but he was serviceable in his first year with the Panthers. Though, the season-ending injury to All-Pro right tackle Daryl Williams hurts even more. Newton is already known for taking stupid hits. Add in a talent-depleted offensive line with no real depth, and there has to be injury concerns for Carolina heading into Week 1. Can Newton hold up? Will his plus-level supporting cast help mask pass-protection problems? These are absolutely huge questions for Carolina.

Can the Cowboys compete without Bryant, Witten?

Cowboys fans are going to be in for a rude awakening if they think the team’s offense is better off without both Dez Bryant and Jason Witten. If the preseason proved anything, those voids have not yet been filled internally. Cole Beasley and Allen Hurns are the top-two receivers while a trio is competing for playing time at tight end. The good news? Dallas has been tremendous when both Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott are on the field. They’re 19-6 with those two in the backfield and 3-4 when Elliott has sat. That’s a positive. Dallas should also be relying more on what has to be considered a talented young defense. All of this seems to indicate that the team will be just fine minus its two former stars.

Is Jimmy Garoppolo really that good?

The short-form answer to this question depends heavily on how you personally view Garoppolo. If you think he’s the second coming of Tom Brady, you’re going to be disappointed. If you believe he can be a top-five quarterback in today’s NFL, that’s certainly possible. San Francisco dominated to the tune of 410 yards and nearly 30 points per game in his five starts last season. He also threw five picks during that span. In the mold of a Brett Favre, Garoppolo will throw interceptions. He’s also going to make those passes few before him have ever been able to complete. It’s in this that he’s going to be a highly entertaining player. Whether that leads to surprising success for the 49ers in 2018 remains to be seen.

Who will be the first head coach to be fired?

Browns head coach Hue Jackson

Hue Jackson. Quick answer, right? Well, it’s not necessarily that simple. Cleveland held on to the embattled head coach following a 0-16 season. There’s no telling whether the team’s brass will then turn around and fire Jackson should Cleveland start slow out of the gate. Todd Haley’s presence as the Browns’ offensive coordinator might expedite matters here. Then again, this is the most-talented Browns team we’ve seen enter a season in over a decade. That could be enough for Jackson to stick around for a while.

There are certainly other candidates to be jettisoned relatively early in the season. That includes Adam Gase (Dolphins), Marvin Lewis (Bengals), Vance Joseph (Broncos) and Jay Gruden (Redskins). With so many candidates, it would not be a surprise to see multiple firings earlier this season than in the past. Even then, Jackson has to be the odds-on favorite to be canned first.

Is J.J. Watt back to early-career form?

Watt’s presence on Houston’s defense is among the biggest storylines heading into the 2018 season. Simply put, the Texans boast one of the league’s best defenses when Watt is doing work with the likes of Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus upfront. With Watt sidelined all but five games last season, Houston yielded the most points in the NFL. In Watt’s last two full seasons (2014 and 2015), the Texans yielded the seventh-fewest points in the league each year. Unfortunately, Watt has been prone to injury over the past two seasons, playing a combined eight games during that span. Set to turn 30 this season, it’s an open question whether Watt can stay healthy. If not, his best years will be a thing of the past.

Is Patrick Mahomes the answer in Kansas City?

NFL star in the making, Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes

Mahomes is pretty much under the most pressure for a second-year quarterback we’ve seen in recent NFL history. He’s taking over for one of the most consistent quarterbacks in the NFL, Alex Smith, for a team with champiosnhip aspirations. He’s doing so having started a grand total of one regular season game with some pretty big tendencies to make mistakes. That comes with the territory, especially given Mahomes’ strong arm and willingness to take chances. But if we think he’s read to be a franchise-caliber quarterback out of the gate, we’re sadly mistaken. It’s going to be a process. It’s going to take a year or two. That could very well lead to some struggles for Mahomes and the Chiefs in 2018.

How will the tackle rule impact NFL’s product?

In a negative way. That’s pretty much been the general consensus of pundits and fans alike. If the NFL decides to enact the same interpretation of the tackle rule that we saw during the preseason once Week 1 comes calling, it’s going to be a complete and utter disaster. There’s no other way to go about it. Players were penalized during the exhibition slate for making football plays. It happened on a never-ending loop, with those watching the games dumbfounded. Then, dumbfounded even more.

We understand the NFL’s PR situation. It must make the game safer after decades of not really caring about player safety. But this has now been taken to a whole new level. Once it impacts a meaningful game, all heck will break loose. That’s the issue here. And in reality, it will likely impact the NFL’s product.

Are the Browns actually AFC North’s second-best team?

In terms of untapped talent, Cleveland might have one of the best young teams in the NFL. Following a 0-16 season, GM John Dorsey and Co. sought to improve the team’s talent level at every turn. It did just that. Tyrod Taylor is a marked upgrade at quarterback. The three-headed running back monster that is Carlos Hyde, Duke Johnson and Nick Chubb could be dominating. Josh Gordon returns from suspension to team up with Pro Bowler Jarvis Landry. And on defense, Myles Garrett leads a unit that promises to be improved.

While Pittsburgh is the unquestioned favorite in this division, an argument could be made that the Browns are the second-best team. Joe Flacco continues to waste away opportunities on an otherwise talented Ravens squad. Meanwhile, Marvin Lewis and Andy Dalton are fighting for their careers in Cincinnati after two disastrous seasons. It’s certainly going to be something to watch.

Are the Eagles primed for a Super Bowl hangover?

Doug Pederson

Yes. To an extent, the defending champions looked absolutely miserable during the preseason. While we shouldn’t read too much into that, the continued Carson Wentz drama could spill over into the regular season. Wentz has still not been cleared for contact, about a week before Philadelphia takes on Atlanta in the season opener. In his stead, Nick Foles looked completely lost in the preseason. If called on, is he prepared to even come remotely close to what we saw during last year’s playoff run? We’re not too sure. Meanwhile, there’s ample questions for Philly on defense. That includes a rather thin group of defensive backs. None of this means the Eagles will not be playing postseason football. Instead, it’s a major question heading into Week 1.

Is it really Super Bowl or bust in Los Angeles?

Not really. A lot was made of the Rams exhausting draft capital in trades for the likes of Brandin Cooks, Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters. Add in the extensions looming for Todd Gurley and Aaron Donald, and it seemed like Los Angeles was going Super Bowl or bust after a surprising 2017 division championship run. Now, heading into Week 1, it doesn’t seem like that’s the case. Both Gurley and Cooks have since been extended while Donald himself could be next to come. Sure the Rams think they can compete for the Lombardi. That doesn’t mean they mortgaged too much of the future. Things are set up nicely for Los Angeles to compete over the long term.

Can the Jaguars overcome Blake Bortles?

No. As we saw during the preseason, Bortles is still his mistake-prone self. Throwing erratic passes that culminate in interceptions against backup defenses isn’t a sign of progression. No matter how dominant Jacksonville’s defense is, Bortles’ turnover proneness and inconsistency is going to be a major issue this season. Add in the loss of Marquise Lee for the season to injury and the departures of both Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns, and he doesn’t have the receivers to toss the rock to like he had in the past. Jacksonville is hoping against hope that Bortles progresses. It committed to him for a Super Bowl or bust season. Unfortunately, it just looks like much of the same from the former first-round pick.

Is this Pete Carroll’s final run in Seattle?

It’s hard to imagine these Seahawks being able to contend in what is a top-heavy NFC West this season. Los Angeles is the clear-cut favorite with San Francisco showing itself to be a legit playoff contender. All the while, Seattle lost six key members of its defense and is in a contract stalemate with All-Pro Earl Thomas. Offensively, Russell Wilson is being tasked with playing behind yet another horrible offensive line and rookie first-round pick, running back Rashaad Penny, is injured. It’s certainly not looking good in the Pacific Northwest.

As the oldest head coach in the NFL, we’re not sure the 66-year old Carroll is willing to be a part of a long-term rebuild in Seattle. Now that the Seahawks brought in offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, there’s a sense that he could ultimately replace Carroll as head coach. If 2018 culminates in another non-playoff season, it would not be a shock of Carroll hung them up.

How about Andrew Luck and the Colts?

Andrew Luck was a huge winner during NFL minicamps

Indianapolis is an incredibly hard team to figure out. Being the centerpiece of the franchise, Luck’s on-field importance is by now well known. With him sidelined, these Colts are among the worst teams in football. At the very least, they’re competitive when he’s under center. Making his first regular season start since Week 17 of the 2016 season, all eyes will be on Luck here soon.

If Luck is indeed back to pre-injury form, the biggest question becomes whether he has the supporting cast to lead a competitive Colts team this season. Indy upgraded along the offensive line with draft picks Quenton Nelson and Braden Smith. It also has a vastly improved defense, led by rookie Darius Leonard and second-year safety Malik Hooker. Unfortunately, that’s unlikely to be enough to compete in a strong AFC South this season.

Can Jon Gruden turn back the clock in Oakland?

Gruden has made no bones about it. His goal since returning to the sideline has been to change the Raiders’ culture. It started by jettisoning Pro Bowl punter Marquette King and has continued with the longstanding contract feud with former Defensive Player of the Year Khalil Mack. In between that, Oakland brought on two dozen veteran free agents as a way to mold the roster in Gruden’s eyes. Will this approach work for the Raiders following a disastrous season under then head coach Jack Del Rio? We’re not too sure.

Is Sam Darnold already prepared to lead the Jets?

Jets head coach Todd Bowles might not want to name a starting quarterback for Week 1 just yet. That’s fine. It’s his right. But it’s not like we have to be brain surgeons to understand what’s happening here. For all intents and purposes, it’s already been decided. Darnold will start the season under center for New York. He was super impressive in consecutive preseason starts and the Jets’ brass has had nothing but good things to say about the former USC standout. It’s now all about whether Darnold can reverse the trend of recent rookie quarterbacks struggling with mistakes.

Who will win NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year?

Saquon Barkley. The New York Giants rookie needs to be seen as the odds-on favorite to take home the hardware this season. He was brilliant in limited preseason action and is among the most talented running backs to enter the NFL over the past decade-plus. Given an opportunity, it would not be a shock to see Barkley put up 2,000-plus total yards in a revamped Giants offense that includes the recently-extended Odell Beckham Jr. New York didn’t select Barkley No. 2 overall back in April to not utilize him at a high clip as a rookie. Expect big things here.

Are the Saints actually NFC’s best team?

Fans in Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Minnesota might take exception to this. That’s what happens when we’re talking about a highly competitive conference. But an argument can clearly be made that New Orleans is the best team in the NFC.

Sure it starts with Drew Brees. He’s a future Hall of Fame quarterback and is still playing at an elite level. Though, the balance of this Saints team is what leads us to believe it can hoist the Lombardi when February comes calling. Reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year Alvin Kamara headlines a skill-position group that includes dominating wide receiver Michael Thomas. On defense, the likes of Cameron Jordan, Marcus Davenport, Marshon Lattimore and Marcus Williams head what could be a dominating unit. Don’t be one of those to sleep on these Saints this season.