It’s here. Months of speculation. Five weeks of meaningless preseason football. Finally, the regular year will kick off Thursday night at Soldier Field with the Chicago Bears hosting the Green Bay Packers in one of football’s oldest rivalries.
The 2019 NFL season starts with no shortage of storylines. Are any of the young teams in the AFC East going to compete with New England? It sure seems to be a make-or-break season for multiple figures in Minnesota.
On the other hand, it’s the end of a line for a proud franchise in Northern California and a defining season for a quarterback in American’s heartland.
It’s in this that we give you the top storylines heading into the 2019 NFL regular season.
Competing with the Patriots back east
It’s been pure and utter domination for the defending champs in the AFC East during the Bill Belichick and Tom Brady era. New England has won the division in all but three seasons since Belichick took over as head coach back in 2000. This has led to any realistic hope of contention from the other three teams dying down relatively early in the season.
We’re not necessarily expecting things to change in 2019. But the Buffalo Bills and New York Jets could be a lot more competitive than most believe. Buffalo has built a strong supporting cast around second-year quarterback Josh Allen. Meanwhile, Sam Darnold looks the part of a franchise quarterback in Jersey and will have fomer All-Pro running back Le’Veon Bell to help him navigate through the 2019 season.
Regression from the Los Angeles Rams?
Los Angeles’ offseason was somewhat quiet after Sean McVay’s squad earned a Super Bowl appearance back in February. The team lost several key players, including starters Rodger Saffold, Ndamukong Suh and Lamarcus Joyner. The health of running back Todd Gurley coupled with regression towards the latter part of last season from quarterback Jared Goff has some people concerned about regression.
It’s also not going to be easy in what promises to be a vastly improved NFC West. Seattle returns MVP candidate Russell Wilson under center and has a potentially dominant rushing attack. San Francisco returns Jimmy Garoppolo from injury. It also has potentially a lethal defensive front with Pro Bowlers Kwon Alexander, Dee Ford and DeForest Buckner as well as rookie No. 2 pick Nick Bosa. Arizona should also be improved with rookie No. 1 pick Kyler Murray under center and first-year head coach Kliff Kingsbury calling the shots.
Make-or-break season for Kirk Cousins and Mike Zimmer
A lot has been made about the pressure Cousins faces in his second season with the Vikings after a disastrous initial showing in 2018. That’s fair. He has come nowhere close to living up to the massive contract the Vikings signed him to back in March of 2018. But there’s another figure in Minneapolis who could also be on the hot seat.
Zimmer has coached the Vikings to a .500 or better record in each of the past four seasons. He’s only made the playoffs twice in five years in that role. Vikings fans might want to blame Cousins should they struggle again in 2019. Such is the nature of the beast for a quarterback in today’s NFL. In no way does that mean Zimmer isn’t on the hot seat, too.
Raiders’ final season in Oakland
It’s been talked about Ad nauseam. Starting Week 1 against the Denver Broncos on Monday Night Football and concluding Dec. 15 against Jacksonville, the Raiders have a total of seven home dates remaining in Oakland. Short of the team earning a surprise playoff appearance, this represents the final handful of games the Northern California fan base can watch the Raiders in their current form.
After that, Jon Gruden and Co. will make their way to a brand new stadium directly off the Las Vegas strip. It’s been a long time coming. However, the reality is now starting to settle in. We’re highly intrigued to see how the Raiders’ tenure in Oakland looks from an optics standpoint, especially if the team isn’t good. Remember the ugliness before the Cleveland Browns’ relocated to Baltimore and re-branded as the Ravens a quarter century ago? Could a repeat performance be in the cards here?
Mitchell Trubisky looking to take the next step
This young quarterback’s first season under Matt Nagy was something to write home about. Seen as a major project heading into the 2017 NFL Draft, Trubisky surprised the masses as a sophomore. He threw twice as many touchdowns (24) as interceptions (12) en route to leading the Bears to an 11-3 mark in 14 starts. This has expectations sky high for the North Carolina product and his up-and-coming team this year.
Chicago’s ability to contend for an NFC title will hinge as much on progression from Trubisky as it will a potentially dominant defense. He can no longer be considered a game manager. It’s all about taking that next step. Unfortunately, reviews surrounding this young quarterback during the summer were mixed. Let’s see how he looks come Week 1.
Still an elite offense in Kansas City
For a while there during the offseason, doom and gloom seemed to be the name of the game in Kansas City. Months after releasing former Pro Bowl running back Kareem Hunt due to an off-field incident, the Chiefs found themselves in the news for all the wrong reasons. That included star receiver Tyreek Hill getting caught up in a child abuse case. From a football standpoint, things seem to have simmered down on that front and Hill won’t be disciplined by the NFL.
Despite the optics, this has to be music to the ears of the Chiefs. They now enter the 2019 season with a potentially historic offense. It returns reigning NFL MVP Patrick Mahomes, star tight end Travis Kelce and an underrated running back in that of Damien Williams. Kansas City also added Pro Bowl running back LeSean McCoy and exhausted a second-round pick on speedy wide receiver Mecole Hardman. Look for this offense to take off even more in 2019.
Needing a healthy season from Carson Wentz in Philly
Philadelphia no longer has that safety net in the form of former Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles behind the oft-injured Wentz. Instead, the team will be relying on Josh McCown to hold the clipboard. At the very least, that’s what the championship-contending Eagles hope McCown’s role is this season.
The backstory here is well known. Wentz has missed each of the Eagles’ past two playoff runs to injury. That included a torn ACL in 2017 and a back injury last year. He has not played a full season since his rookie campaign of 2016. Not only are expectations ramped up for Mr. Wentz after he was guaranteed $66.5 million on an extension back in June, it’s Super Bowl or bust in Philadelphia. The onus is now on him to stay healthy and perform at a high level.
Steelers’ new triplets
On the surface, losing two likely future Hall of Famers in one offseason would set a team back in a big way. That’s what Pittsburgh faced when it saw running back Le’Veon Bell depart in free agency and traded wide receiver Antonio Brown to the Oakland Raiders in March. There’s, however, some absolutely tremendous news for Steelers fans in this regard.
Young running back James Conner and stud receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster are more than capable of filling the void with Ben Roethlisberger remaining under center. Conner gained 1,470 total yards and 13 touchdowns as a sophomore last season. Smith-Schuster led the team in receptions, yards and catch percentage. The two could be dominant this season. Let’s not even mention second-year pass-catcher James Washington, who continues to show out. It will be a fun offense in Pittsburgh this season.
The AFC South Dynamic
This division was thrown for a loop late in the preseason when Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck shockingly decided to retire. Given his importance to the team, Indianapolis goes from a potential conference championship contender to a mid-tier playoff hopeful.
That seemed to open things up for the Houston Texans. But in a shocking set of moves, Houston traded Jadeveon Clowney to Seattle for pennies on the dollar and exhausted a huge bounty on left tackle Laremy Tunsil in a separate trade. Could this now open things up for former Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles and the Jaguars or a talented Titans team? Time will tell on that front.
The Browns are going to be a force
Let’s be clear for a second here. Cleveland does not enter Week 1 as an overhyped team. It has legit talent on both sides of the ball to not only compete for the AFC North title, but challenge for the conference championship. It’s all going to depend on young talent stepping up and Baker Mayfield making sweet music with star receiver Odell Beckham Jr.
However, there’s one truly underrated aspect to this team. Cleveland’s defensive front, led by Myles Garrrett, was absolutely dominant during the preseason. If this team can control the trenches while boasting one of the best skill-position groups in the NFL, there’s no reason to believe Cleveland won’t be hosting a playoff game come January. That would be all sorts of fun.
Potentially wide open race in NFC South
Some conclude that the New Orleans Saints are overwhelming favorites to win this highly-competitive division. After finding themselves one bad non-call from the Super Bowl last year, it’s hard to argue against this opinion. Even then, there’s two other teams that could make some news.
The Carolina Panthers are hoping to get former MVP Cam Newton back for Week 1. They have legit play-makers to help him on offense. On the defensive side of the ball, Carolina added studly defensive tackle Gerald McCoy to a talented unit. In Atlanta, the Falcons will return Devonta Freeman from injury and boasts fellow former league MVP Matt Ryan to team up with a deep and talented wide receiver group. These two teams could make it difficult for New Orleans in the NFC South this season.
Pressure squarely on multiple quarterbacks
Dallas Cowboys signal caller Dak Prescott enters a contract year with a ton of questions surrounding his ability to be that franchise guy. The fourth-year quarterback is looking at duplicating the $35 million Russell Wilson is earning on an annual basis with the Seahawks. How the 2018 season and a subsequent playoff run plays out will tell us a lot about an inconsistent Mr. Prescott.
The questions are similar surrounding Jimmy Garoppolo in San Francisco. Though, the sixth-year quarterback is currently playing under a five-year, $137.5 million contract after having started a combined 10 games in five NFL seasons. The 49ers have playoff expectations in 2019. They boast enough talent to contend. It’s now all about Garoppolo returning from the torn ACL, remaining healthy and proving himself to be a top-end signal caller. If that doesn’t happen, San Francisco could once again be in the quarterback market next March.