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Top storyline for each NFL team heading into 2018 season

Vincent Frank
David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

It’s here. In a matter of days, the defending Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles will play host to the Atlanta Falcons to open up what promises to be an exciting 2018 season.

More so than any other year in recent NFL history, it seems that the field is wide open. Can Tom Brady lead a less-talented version of his Patriots to another Lombardi? Are the Philadelphia Eagles set for what has been a Super Bowl let down for recent NFC champs? Remaining in the NFC, what are the top storylines for two up-and-coming California teams?

Meanwhile, the Jacksonville Jaguars are primed to compete for a title with the above-mentioned Patriots and a talented Pittsburgh Steelers squad.

It’s in this that we look at the top storyline for each NFL team heading into the 2018 regular season.

Arizona Cardinals: The Josh Rosen show

Sam Bradford will start the season under center for Arizona. Having been handed $20 million for one season, it makes no sense for him to ride the pine. Flush with false playoff aspirations, the Cardinals will do everything early on to contend. But once it becomes apparent that they’re a step below Los Angeles and San Francisco in the NFC West, we’re going to see this rookie top-10 pick. Having showed well in the preseason, it will certainly be entertaining to see Rosen take the helm, leading Arizona to a new era of football under first-year head coach Steve Wilks.

Atlanta Falcons: Returning to dominant form

Pretty much every single members of the Falcons’ offense had a down season in 2017. Matt Ryan played nowhere near the MVP form he displayed the previous season. Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman both regressed in the backfield. Meanwhile, Julio Jones caught a five-year low three touchdowns on 148 targets. While the players are somewhat to blame, we all know they have a ton of talent. Instead, it’s all on second-year coordinator Steve Sarkisian to up his game after he struggled replacing Kyle Shanahan last season. Short of that happening, the Falcons will continue to be a mid-tier playoff squad.

Baltimore Ravens: Joe Flacco’s swan song

Flacco will be under center for the Ravens throughout the 2018 season. Earlier in the summer, indications were that Lamar Jackson might push him for the starting job. That’s not happening. Instead, this season is likely going to be Flacco’s final opportunity to prove himself after acting the part of a bottom-end starting quarterback over the past five seasons. Flush with a new trio of receivers and what could be a stellar rushing attack, there are no excuses here. It’s playoffs or bust for Flacco. If that doesn’t happen, Jackson’s future will include him starting in 2019 with Flacco looking for work elsewhere.

Buffalo Bills: It’s about the quarterbacks, stupid!

This turn on the now famous James Carvelle quote couldn’t be more fitting for the Bills. General manager Brandon Beane put his reputation on the line big time by trading Pro Bowl quarterback Tyrod Taylor and drafting an uber raw Josh Allen back in April. Now that A.J. McCarron is in Oakland, Allen will likely be the Week 1 starter. He’s talented. That’s not in question. The issue here is that Allen is nowhere near ready to be a starter in the NFL. For a Bills team that’s coming off its first playoff appearance since the above-mentioned Carvelle was in the White House, that’s a less-than-ideal scenario. A season of transition in Buffalo will likely now culminate in another missed opportunity for the long-fledgling team.

Carolina Panthers: Elite weapons for Super Cam

We could have easily focused on what promises to be an inept offensive line. But that’s a story we’ve seen repeated on a never-ending loop over the years. Instead, it’s time to check in on the elite-level weapons Cam now has at his disposal. In his second NFL season, running back Christian McCaffrey looks like a changed man. His game-breaking ability could be a huge difference, as could rookie first round pick D.J. Moore’s pass-catching ability. Moore looked tremendous during camp and the preseason. With holdovers Greg Olsen and Devin Funchess already linchpins, Carolina’s offense could be a juggernaut in 2018.

Chicago Bears: The start of a new era

It’s certainly going to take some time for Matt Nagy to put his print on the Bears. We’d be shocked if Chicago has a Rams-like turnaround, though the addition of Khalil Mack will certainly help. Instead, it’s going to be similar to what Kyle Shanahan has built in San Francisco. Pretty much starting anew with a completely different offense and a high-upside young quarterback, the talent is there for these Bears to be competitive in 2018. It’s all going to be about Mitch Trubisky excelling in Nagy’s system and a new set of skill-position players, Allen Robinson and Trey Burton included. But for the first time in a while, there’s going to be an exciting brand of football in Chicago this season.

Cincinnati Bengals: Same old Bungals

NFL head coaches Marvin Lewis Cincinnati Bengals

It’s been unfortunate to see these Bengals go from playoff contenders to potentially challenging for the AFC North cellar in 2018. That all starts with the team opting to retain washed-up head coach Marvin Lewis and putting all of its cards in an overrated deck that is Andy Dalton. From there, the ownership continues to prove itself cheap, as evidenced in the financial decision to release starting safety George Iloka during the preseason. There’s some talent here. Joe Mixon might be a Pro Bowl caliber running back, A.J. Green is among the game’s best receivers and the Bengals boast a potentially dominant defensive line. Even then, 2018 might be defined by Cincinnati replacing in-state rival Cleveland in the division cellar.

Cleveland Browns: Optimism taking hold

While Bengals might be going nowhere fast, these Browns have re-branded themselves on the fly. That included trading for Pro Bowl quarterback Tyrod Taylor and selecting reigning Heisman winner Baker Mayfield No. 1 overall in April. Boasting a special duo of wide receivers in Jarvis Landry and Josh Gordon as well as a talented backfield, Cleveland’s offense is going to be a force in 2018. If the team’s defense finds a way to be just average, there’s no telling how good this year’s version of the Browns are going to be. If competitiveness doesn’t come to fruition, this year will also likely be defined by offensive coordinator Todd Haley replacing Hue Jackson at head coach. So many storylines on that front.

Dallas Cowboys: New leaders, different results?

Dak Prescott Ezekiel Elliott Jason Garrett Dallas Cowboys

If we thought losing Tony Romo to retirement prior to last season was going to change the Cowboys’ landscape, then this offseason was a hoot and a half. It started with Jason Witten announcing his retirement from the NFL to pursue a career in broadcasting. Then, in a somewhat surprising move, Dallas released fellow longtime star Dez Bryant. This means that the likes of third-year players Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott are not the true leaders of the Cowboys’ team. Following a surprising division title in 2016, Dallas fell flat last season. Are these two prepared to lead this squad to a new era of contention after having seen Dallas win a grand total of two playoff games in the past two-plus decades?

Denver Broncos: John Elway can’t get out of his own way

It remains to be seen if Case Keenum will pan out for the Broncos this season. He did not look incredibly great during the preseason. In fact, Keenum was overshadowed by 2017 Mr. Irrelevant, Chad Kelly, who replaced draft bust Paxton Lynch as the No. 2 quarterback. In between, Mr. Elway shockingly provided fodder to Colin Kaepernick in his collusion case against the NFL. It’s just a continuation of what has been a disastrous tenure for Elway when it comes to the quarterback position. The hope here is that Keenum somehow duplicates his career season. But based on what we’ve seen throughout his NFL journey, that’s a long shot. If so, Denver will once again be closer to the AFC West’s cellar than first place.

Detroit Lions: Much of the same

Detroit’s preseason was marred by lackluster offensive line play and a rushing attack that still seems to be among the NFL’s worst. That’s a shocking development given that Detroit has exhausted both cash and draft capital in both of these areas recently. This offseason alone, it included selecting offensive lineman Frank Ragnow in the first round while doubling up at running back with rookie second-round pick Kerryon Johnson and veteran free agent signing LeGarrette Blount. It matters little how much Detroit’s defense improves under savant Matt Patricia. It matters little how well Matthew Stafford plays under center. If these two areas are as weak as they seem, Detroit will have no logical shot in the NFC North.

Green Bay Packers: Prime Aaron Rodgers

After missing nine games to injury last season, the 34-year-old Rodgers seems to be healthy and still in his prime. He looked tremendous during the preseason, showing a knack for getting the ball to free agent signing, tight end Jimmy Graham. That connection in and of itself could do wonders for the Packers in 2018. With an improved defense and rushing attack, Rodgers won’t be asked to do everything. That should play into his hands as the future Hall of Famer continues to show himself to be among the game’s best quarterbacks. In the process, it could make Green Bay a truly legit Super Bowl contender this season.

Houston Texans: Slinging Watson and the fun Texans

Should Deshaun Watson remain healthy this season, Jacksonville is going to have some pretty stiff competition in the AFC South. We all know about the history-breaking pace Watson was on as a rookie last season prior to suffering a torn ACL. It really was something to behold. Looking ahead, it’s readily apparent he’s ready to take the next step. With DeAndre Hopkins just now entering his prime and an elite-level defense headed by J.J. Watt, the Texans could be a force in 2018. If so, Watson himself will certainly receive some MVP votes. That’s how good this kid already is.

Indianapolis Colts: Andrew Luck’s rebirth

Despite not throwing a regulation size football in well over 17 months following his shoulder surgery back in January of 2017, it certainly didn’t look like Luck skipped a beat during the preseason. He was as accurate as ever and didn’t show any impact from said shoulder surgery. Heck, rust itself didn’t come into play all too much. For a Colts squad that’s struggled doing much of substance during Luck’s injury-ravaged 2016 and 2017 campaigns, this has to be seen as great news. Now, flush with an improved offensive line and a solid group of pass catchers, Luck’s rebirth will fully take hold once the regular season gets going.

Jacksonville Jaguars: Super Bowl or bust

That’s been the mantra surrounding this team since it almost knocked off New England in last year’s AFC Championship Game. Chirping from the players has not subsided, with one veteran indicating the team can go undefeated this season. Boasting an elite offensive line and running game on offense as well as the NFL’s best defense, the time is now for Jacksonville to take the next step to championship contender. Though, a Super Bowl or bust season will certainly be defined by how Blake Bortles performs after yet another erratic preseason. Should he improve, the Jags will be hard to defeat. If not, it will be the end of the reload for Bortles in Jacksonville.

Kansas City Chiefs: It’s all about Pat

From an outside perspective, it looks like the 2018 season will be one of transition for Kansas City. Can the team realistically look at being a true Super Bowl contender with a quarterback under center that boasts one career start? That’s the huge question mark for Andy Reid’s squad. Patrick Mahomes’ talent is there. He boasts among the strongest arms in the NFL and has quick-strike capability. It’s a complete change from what the Chiefs saw in Alex Smith. Even then, Mahomes is still prone to making dumb mistakes. How will that impact Kansas City’s seemingly unrealistic expectations? Only time will tell.

Los Angeles Chargers: Under-the-radar title contender

Despite a rash of injuries that could impact the Chargers’ title hopes, this team is a legitimate contender heading into the 2018 season. Having ended last year winning nine of their final 12 games, Philip Rivers and Co. are going to be a force in the AFC West this season. If Los Angeles’ performance during the preseason is any indication, opposing team should be concerned. Rivers and the first-team offense dominated at nearly every turn, including making minced meat of the Seahawks’ first-team defense in Week 2 of the preseason. The talent is here on both sides of the ball for the Chargers to make a deep postseason run. That’s for sure.

Los Angeles Rams: Making that leap

The time is now for these Rams to transition from feel good division winner to championship contender. Every move GM Les Snead Co. made this past offseason was with title contention on the mind. That included sending valuable picks in separate trades for Brandin Cooks, Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters. It also included the signing of Ndamukong Suh to team up with reigning Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald. On offense, Los Angeles boasts one of the greatest minds of this generation in that of Sean McVay, a Pro Bowl uarterback in Jared Goff and reigning NFL Offensive player of the Year, Todd Gurley. With their hand showing a combination of aces and kings, the Rams are assuredly going to compete for the Lombardi this season.

Miami Dolphins: Adam Gase’s defining season

Having posted a 16-16 record to start his head coaching career, Gase’s future is pretty much on the line in South Beach this season. He followed up a surprising 10-6 initial campaign with a disastrous 6-10 performance last season. It all started with the injury to Ryan Tannehill and avalanched from there. Jay Ajayi didn’t fit in the scheme, and was ultimately traded. Meanwhile, Miami moved on from the likes of Jarvis Landry and Ndamukong Suh this offseason. Without any real expectations of the playoffs, another solid performance from Gase could save him his job. If not, he’ll be three and done in Miami.

Minnesota Vikings: Most talented Vikings team ever?

Replacing Case Keenum with Kirk Cousins was that one major upgrade that could set this Vikings squad apart from those contenders of the past, last season included. But it’s not the quarterback that will define this team’s success in 2018. It boasts elite-level talent in nearly ever area, including running back Dalvin Cook as well as receivers Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielan on offense.

On defense, the Vikings’ line reminds us of the Purple People Eaters of yesteryear. And not to be outdone, Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks form a studly linebacker group. If that weren’t enough, Xavier Rhodes and Harrison Smith headline what was an NFC-best secondary. Though, the issue here is Minnesota’s past. Every time it’s looked like this team was primed to earn its first ever Super Bowl title something has come up. It’s among the most tortured fan bases in the pro sports world. So while the Vikings are prime championship contenders, let’s not chide fans for being a bit pessimistic.

New England Patriots: Tom Brady’s toughest test yet

The two-time defending AFC champs will be relying more on Mr. Brady this season than ever before. That’s what happens when you trade No. 1 receiver Brandin Cooks while letting starting running back Dion Lewis and starting left tackle Nate Solder leave in free agency. If Brady’s preseason performance, even at the ripe age of 41, is any indication, he’s going to be more than up for it. The issue here is that this AFC is absolutely stacked, with as many as five teams capable of earning a Super Bowl title. Will Brady’s excellence, sans any real supporting cast, be enough? That’s the biggest storyline in New England right now.

New Orleans Saints: No longer Drew Brees’ team

This bodes well for Brees’ ability to contend for titles as his Hall of Famer career comes to a culmination. No longer are the Saints too reliant on his right arm for success. Instead, the team boasts an elite-level skill-position groups and one of the most up-and-coming defenses in the NFL. Led by 2017 Rookies of the Year, Alvin Kamara and Marshon Lattimore, there’s a whole heck of a lot of young talent here. That includes No.1 receiver Michael Thomas and a safety in Marcus Williams who Brees himself has compared to one of the best to ever play that position. As long as Brees maintains his high level of performance, the Saints will be legit Super Bowl contenders. That’s rather obvious.

New York Giants: Can Saquon rally the Giants?

Having not had a 1,000-yard rusher since Ahmad Bradshaw back in 2012, the Giants made sure to upgrade the running back position big time by selecting this former Penn State standout No. 2 overall back in April. Barkley is a generational talent, one that should create the necessary balance to succeed this coming season. Add in Odell Beckham Jr. returning to full health and an improved offensive line, and that’s magnified further. With less of a burden on Eli Manning under center, expect the Giants to improve leaps and bounds from a disastrous 2017 campaign. If that were to happen, it means Barkley played a vital role for the team as a rookie.

New York Jets: Sam Darnold’s moment to shine

Speaking of rookies in Jersey, Darnold legitimately earned the Jets’ starting job outright after standing out over veterans during both training camp and the preseason. If we were to ask New York’s brass, the former USC standout already has an expert-level grasp of the team’s rather complex offensive system. That’s a huge deal for a Jets squad that has not boasted a true franchise signal caller since the days of Joe Namath. And while it likely won’t lead to immediate contention this season, we’re all going to be intrigued watching Darnold mature as a rookie in 2018.

Oakland Raiders: Jon Gruden’s mark

In just his first offseason as the Raiders’ head coach since 2001, Gruden made his mark on both the roster and the culture in Northern California. That included pretty much taking over GM duties from Reggie McKenzie while playing hardball with multiple veterans, not to mention shipping Khalil Mack to Chicago. All said, Oakland would go on to add a whopping 20 players during free agency.

It’s not yet known if this model is going to work after a disastrous season under Jack Del Rio in 2017. Gruden’s old-school mentality might not mesh with the modern version of the game. But Oakland made its decision to hand the keys to the franchise over to the Super Bowl-winning head coach. The team’s performance this seasons will be a major storyline around the NFL world.

Philadelphia Eagles: Super Bowl hangover?

Eagles head coach Doug Pederson

Fresh off earning their first Lombardi in franchise history, are the Eagles set for that common Super Bowl hangover? Of the 18 NFC champions of this millennium, only the 2013 San Francisco 49ers earned a conference champiosnhip appearance the following season. With a ton of competition in the conference this season, there’s no logical reason to believe Philadelphia is the odds-on favorite to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. That’s what history tells us. It’s now all about Doug Pierson and Co. proving history itself wrong.

Pittsburgh Steelers: Oozing with talent, the time is now

This might represent Ben Roethlisbeger’s best final chance to hoist another Lombardi. The Patriots themselves are vulnerable. Meanwhile, other top-end contenders such as the Jaguars have some major question marks. For the Steelers, it seems like everything is coming together.

Should Le’Veon Bell show himself not to be rusty after reporting following a long holdout, there’s no reason to believe this team can’t come out on top. Bell joins an elite skill-position group on offense that incldues fellow star Antonio Brown as well as a plethora of youngsters in the form of James Conner, JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Washington. Defensively, Pittsburgh is boasts one of the top units in the conference.

It’s now all about Mike Tomlin’s squad overcoming its recent postseason failures. Should that not happen, we could be looking at a vastly different Steelers squad next season.

San Francisco 49ers: It’s all about Jimmy GQ

Expectations are at the highest for this 49ers squad since all the way back in 2013. In building a talented young team, GM John Lynch has centered it all around Jimmy Garoppolo. It started following the trade with New England last October and culminated in Jimmy GQ leading San Francisco to five consecutive wins to end last season. For that, Garoppolo earned what was then the richest contract in NFL history back in February after just seven career starts.

Is it false hope? Are comparison’s to the likes of Joe Montana no Tom Brady even remotely of this earth? Now that the 49ers themselves are playoff contenders and under-the-radar Vegas contenders to hoist the Lombardi, we’re going to be extremely intrigued to see who this unit performs with Garoppolo leading the charge.

Seattle Seahawks: Flirting with disaster

The focus in Seattle this offseason was on the wholesale departures of key members of the team’s defense. That included Michael Bennett, Sheldon Richardson, Cliff Avril, Richard Sherman and Kam Chanceller. No longer the Legion of Boom, that side of the ball could be a weakness in 2018.

But that’s not what might lead to disaster for Pete Caroll’s squad. Instead, it’s the continued inability of the team’s offensive line to show up in any way in front of Russell Wilson. Add in what might again be a floundering rushing attack, and there’s a chance Seattle finishes in last place this season. If so, Carroll himself could be out of a job with the Seahawks going in a completely different direction. Just a couple years removed from being top-end Super Bowl contenders, that would qualify as an unmitigated disaster.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Jameis Winston

Tampa Bay’s season will begin with Winston sitting out the first three games to suspension. Once he does return, and following inevitable questions about his most-recent off-field issues, attention will immediately turn to him as a football player.

For the Bucs, that includes one obvious question: Is Winston in fact the team’s future at the quarterback position? He’s lost 12 of his past 16 games, compiling 24 touchdowns compared to 17 interceptions during that span. He’s seemingly leveled off and is nothing more than a mid-tier starter. Should that not change, Tampa Bay will be forced with a decision regarding his $20.92 million option for next season, which is guaranteed for injury only. Yeah, 2018 will is essentially already a do-or-die season for the former No. 1 pick.

Tennessee Titans: Defining season for Super Mario

Much like fellow 2015 draft mate, Jameis Winston, this Titans signal caller is facing a defining season. Fresh off a 2017 campaign that saw him throw just 13 touchdowns compared to 15 interceptions, Mariota will have to show vast improvement in order to be considered a franchise quarterback. Equally as important for the Titans, they’re relying on him to perform at a high level after earning a playoff spot in spite of him last season. Is Super Mario ready to take that next step? Was last season an exception to the rule? These are the questions that will define Mariota, and in turn, the Titans, this coming season.

Washington Redskins: The Alex Smith narrative

Smith can pretty much throw out the narrative that he’s ridden an elite running game and defense to success over the past seven seasons. Already considered one of the most-consistent quarterbacks in the game, the Pro Bowler will be able to prove doubters wrong if he leads Washington to sustained success in 2018.

The team lost Derrius Guice to a season-ending injury, ultimately signing Adrian Peterson to replace him at running back. Washington doesn’t boast a 1,000-yard receive and is running out a bottom-third defense heading into the season. If Smith is somehow able to lead this team to a playoff appearance, a career-long narrative of disrespect will be thrown completely out the window.