SportsPulse: Believe it or not the 2020 NFL season is here. Our experts predict who’s going to surprise, disappoint and ultimately win it all in the league’s most unprecedented season.
The NFL season kicked off Thursday night in Kansas City, as scheduled even while the league navigates the COVID-19 pandemic and social unrest that have already come to define 2020 in America.
The NFL’s 101st campaign promises to be among its most memorable, if not entirely for football reasons. Watching coaches and players wearing masks at Arrowhead in the opener, while choosing how to express their views on battling racism, will surely be the vanguard of what promises to be a flood of indelible images – including scores of games likely to be played in stadiums devoid of fans.
Here are 20 things to be on the lookout for over the next five (or maybe six or seven?) months:
1. COVID quandary
As it does most aspects of daily life, the novel coronavirus will cast a pall over this season. How will teams and the league respond at the first sign of an outbreak? Will (expanded) depth charts be deep enough to keep the season on track? Will players embrace face shields … and does it even matter? Will stable, veteran teams enjoy a more sizable advantage than ever over clubs relying on free agents and rookies – and could that mean less playoff turnover than we normally see year over year? Will home-field advantage mean anything in empty venues? What will next spring’s draft look like with so many college stars sidelined, and the value of picks potentially in flux? So many questions, still so few answers.
2. Social (unrest) media
We could well see 32 distinct responses and messaging strategies from teams as they invariably respond to the death of George Floyd, shooting of Jacob Blake and so many important and tangential issues related to race, gender, sexuality et al. Thursday night’s displays in Kansas City were a reminder that clubs are likely to take different approaches with players, owners and the league office are all likely to have nuanced perspectives. And then there’s fan perception and reaction. It could all go well … or very much not.
3. New stadia
Or new stadiums … just wanted to show off my Latin background. The Rams and Chargers are set to christen Los Angeles’ SoFi Stadium, which may instantly become the league’s flagship building. Over in Sin City, your Las Vegas Raiders will take the field at Allegiant Stadium, aka the Death Star. Unfortunately, neither is likely to host fans in 2020.
4. No. 1 playoff seeds
With the postseason expanding to 14 teams, only the No. 1 seeds in each conference will enjoy first-round byes. The calculus obviously changes, but consider nonetheless: the last team to reach (and win) the Super Bowl without the benefit of a bye was the 2012 Ravens.
5. No. 7 playoff seeds
First time we’ll be fretting over those heading into Week 17. But is it ultimately a plus to have two extra games on wild-card weekend? Or does this revenue grab dilute what’s been a near-perfect regular-season/playoff structure? Not sure anyone outside L.A. or Pittsburgh really missed having the decidedly average Rams and Steelers included in last season’s bracket.
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6. Does NFC West change hands again?
In the last five seasons, all four teams have finished in first place with only the Rams (2017-18) doing so twice. Five of USA TODAY’s seven NFL experts – I’m not co-signing here – believe the Seahawks will wrest the division from the 49ers in 2020. But don’t be surprised if three teams – and the Cardinals are becoming a trendy dark horse – emerge as playoff entries from the NFC West, which still looks like the toughest division in the conference. Much could depend on whether the Seahawks “let Russ Cook,” i.e. align with the desire of Seattle fans (and fantasy owners) by permitting QB Russell Wilson to unleash a less-conservative offensive approach earlier in games.
7. Does AFC East finally change hands?
The Patriots have owned this division a league-record 11 consecutive seasons. But QB Tom Brady and most of last year’s top-ranked defense have skipped town. Five of USA TODAY’s seven NFL experts – I am co-signing here – believe the Bills take the crown in 2020. Buffalo coach Sean McDermott and GM Brandon Beane have fast built a formidable defense, while a high-ceiling offense should run through an underrated running back tandem (Devin Singletary, Zack Moss).
8. Cowboys getting even?
In one of the more random (and probably meaningless) NFL patterns currently in effect, Dallas has won the NFC East in every even-numbered year since 2014. But the Cowboys definitely seem poised to finish on top in 2020, too, as veteran coach Mike McCarthy takes command of a talent-laden team that has added the likes of first-round WR CeeDee Lamb and stud DE Everson Griffen. Kellen Moore returns after overseeing the league’s top-ranked offense in his first year as a coordinator in 2019. The Eagles, who haven’t missed the playoffs since 2016, are still dealing with a battered receiving corps and have already lost two starting offensive linemen for the season.
9. Joe Burrow
Several rookies will merit watching, Washington DE Chase Young, Lamb, Cardinals LB Isaiah Simmons and Chiefs RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire, who rushed for 138 yards and a TD in his pro debut Thursday, among them. But no team is counting more on a first-year player than the Bengals are relying on top pick Burrow, the only rookie quarterback scheduled to start opening weekend. If he even throws half the TD passes he did as a senior at LSU (60), he’ll break Baker Mayfield’s two-year-old NFL rookie record (27). While that may not be realistic, Burrow actually appears surrounded by enough talent to give Cincinnati – often stealthily competitive in 2019 – ample progress in the win column.
10. MVP watch
Patrick Mahomes won it in 2018 (plus Super Bowl MVP last season), while Lamar Jackson took home the hardware for the 2019 campaign. They seem to remain prohibitive co-favorites, while the likes of Wilson, Drew Brees and Deshaun Watson – this is effectively a quarterback award, after all – try to break through for the first time. And we’d be remiss to count out Brady and Aaron Rodgers, who have combined for five MVPs. TB12 surely wants to prove the Patriots still very much needed him, while Rodgers must want to show that Green Bay essentially wasted a first-round pick spent on Utah State’s Jordan Love.
11. Run it back
Might 2020 reveal a running back renaissance? Monitor closely, fantasy fans. The Texans and Chiefs combined for 284 rushing yards Thursday, Kansas City’s 166 on the ground more than the reigning champs posted at any point last season. One game does not a trend make … however – running the ball is certainly easier than passing it, especially when you’re facing an opposing defense for the first time in at least eight months. Secondly, at a time when most defenses spend most of their time in nickel packages, handing it off into a light box is a logical countermove.
12. The Bosa brothers
Which do you prefer? The 49ers’ Nick Bosa is coming off a defensive rookie of the year effort that included nine sacks, 25 quarterback hits and a Super Bowl trip. The Chargers’ Joey Bosa was the top defensive rookie in 2016 and boosted his career sack total to 40 after collecting 11½ in 2019. He became the highest-paid defender in league history ($27 million annually) for his efforts. Should be fun watching them compete from afar while staking a claim as the league’s best siblings … though, assuming good health, J.J. and T.J. Watt are also sure to fill up box scores with pressures and QB takedowns.
13. Jamal Adams trade
It’s likely to be parsed all season after the Jets sent their All-Pro safety, maybe the premier player in the AFC East at the time, to the Seahawks in a deal that brought back two first-rounders, a Round 3 selection and S Bradley McDougald. Seattle obviously gets a proven star – one still looking for a major payday – though Jets defensive coordinator Gregg Williams has questioned whether Adams’ talents will be fully leveraged by his new team. Meanwhile, the rebuilding Jets are loading up on draft capital – but what will their bounty be worth next year as the implications of COVID-19 wreak havoc on college football, many top prospects already sidelined or opting out of the 2020 season entirely?
14. QB carousel
It nearly spun off its axis this offseason. Brady (Buccaneers), Philip Rivers (Colts), Cam Newton (Patriots), Teddy Bridgewater (Panthers), Nick Foles (Bears) and Andy Dalton (Cowboys) all switched allegiances. Brady’s defection to Tampa obviously garnered the most attention, but Newton and Rivers still seem more than capable of guiding their new clubs to postseason. And don’t forget Ben Roethlisberger is back, his elbow evidently in tip-top shape as he tries to restore a club once again centered on its defense to contending status.
15. Hot seats
Roughly a half-dozen NFL head coaching jobs change hands at the end of a given year – five doing so after last season. Who should be worried about seat warmers activating underneath their fannies this fall? Well, let’s just say the Jaguars’ Doug Marrone, Lions’ Matt Patricia, Falcons’ Dan Quinn and even the Jets’ Adam Gase and Bears’ Matt Nagy are unlikely to need thermal underwear …
16. New seats
The Browns’ Kevin Stefanski and Giants’ Joe Judge are rookie head coaches. The Panthers’ Matt Rhule is a first-time NFL HC. Washington’s Ron Rivera and McCarthy bring impressive résumés to their first tours of duty with their respective teams. In a typical year, newly hired coaches get the benefit of an early head start in their new posts. But these five gentlemen, in many cases, have only recently met their players personally for the first time after seeing them through a computer screen this spring. Potentially bumpy takeoffs for these clubs, though McCarthy and Stefanski could (should?) thrive given the talent they inherit.
The biggest football storyline of 2020 has to be Brady, 43, boarding with the Bucs … and ratcheting up his competition with Brees, 41, of the NFC South rival Saints. Sunday will mark the first time two 40-plus-year-old quarterbacks square off. Also at stake are quite a few significant records. Brees owns a historic 547 career TD passes, six more than Brady. Brees (77,416) is currently well ahead of second-place Brady (74,571) in all-time passing yards, too. But, naturally, both men are most concerned about winning, and Brady has six Super Bowl rings to Brees’ one. And yet, Brees (12 TDs, INT, 116.1 passer rating) has won three of five head-to-head matchups against TB12 (7 TDs, 6 INTs, 86.4 rating), thoroughly outplaying him overall. Should be fun to watch these graybeards go at it … even if it’s only for one season.
Several players had historically significant performances in 2019, and we can only hope the sequels are nearly as good.
► Jackson rushed for a quarterback record 1,206 yards last season. Michael Vick, the only other QB to exceed 1K on the ground in a year, never exceeded 700 yards after he set that bar.
► Saints WR Michael Thomas can now set his sights on 150 receptions after establishing the single-season record at 149 in 2019. Perhaps more realistically, Thomas can become the first player to exceed 130 catches twice in a career.
► Panthers RB Christian McCaffrey became the third player to gain both 1,000 yards rushing and receiving in the same season (no one has managed that double-double twice). He also extended his own running back record, catching 116 passes and becoming the first to exceed the century mark twice. McCaffrey’s 2,392 yards from scrimmage were third-most all-time, but he’s now got a fresh opportunity to pursue Chris Johnson’s record (2,509).
19. Trevor Lawrence
The Clemson star is already generating buzz that he’ll be a generational quarterback prospect, one with the type of pre-draft grades likely to rival John Elway, Peyton Manning or Andrew Luck. Barring a catastrophic injury, virtually no doubt Lawrence’s will be the first name called when the 2021 draft opens April 29. But who will own this prized No. 1 pick? The Jaguars sure appear to be, uh, loading down, jettisoning DE Yannick Ngakoue, RB Leonard Fournette and starting S Ronnie Harrison over the past two weeks. Other teams that might need (and be in position) for Lawrence next spring? Let’s keep an eye on the Bears, Panthers and maybe the Jets, depending how things go for Sam Darnold in Year 3.
20. Still Super?
No team has successfully defended a Lombardi Trophy since the 2004 Patriots pulled off the the most recent Super Bowl repeat. But the Chiefs are back virtually intact – perhaps even more explosive given the addition of Edwards-Helaire. And after collecting the first win of the 2020 season, Kansas City seems as well equipped as any champion in recent history to chase consecutive crowns.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis
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