2016 NFL Season Preview – Major 4 Storylines to Watch That Don’t Involve Tom Brady
The only player who garnered more attention than Peyton Manning last season was Tom Brady, and he's suspended four games.
Brady's punishment for the "Deflategate" fiasco guarantees New England the NFL limelight throughout September while fledgling starter Jimmy Garoppolo has to navigate the Patriots against three AFC East opponents and a Super Bowl-caliber Cardinals team.
To New England, Brady's return means everything. To the rest of the NFL, it's sensationalism.
Every club endures trial and tribulations before, during, and well after training camp begins. Injuries, suspension, the salary cap, contract holdouts, and legal issues hinder how players prepare, and how teams move forward. But they adjust. If anything, Brady's omission should welcome on-the-field storylines; ones that matter to fans outside Boston Common.
Who knows how Joey Bosa's summer-long holdout will affect him and the Chargers after Bosa missed the entire preseason. Ex-San Francisco tight end Bruce Miller has been charged with seven felonies stemming from a night out in the Fisherman's Wharf area last weekend, adding to a flourishing list of 49ers with criminal charges over the last two years.
Offensive coordinators in Minnesota and Dallas are already in panic mode after losing their starting quarterbacks. Los Angeles doesn't know what to do with theirs, No. 1 draft pick Jared Goff. And who knows if the 49ers and Seahawks will see eye-to-eye on Colin Kaeperenick's anti-national anthem, pro-societal reform stance.
Here's are four more storylines to following during the 2016 NFL season.
Can Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott Shoulder Dallas' Offense?
The last time Dallas made it to an NFC Championship game, Ezekiel Elliott was less than a year old. Coincidentally, it was the last time the Cowboys won a Super Bowl.
With Tony Romo out for at least eight weeks and half the defensive line suspended, the weight of a playoff run rests with Elliott and fellow rookie Dak Prescott.
Prescott broke out for 454 yards, five passing touchdowns, and two rushing touchdowns during the preseason, albeit against third-tier defenders. He appeared the mobile, play-action passer that Romo used to be.
The Dak Prescott era has started in Dallas. pic.twitter.com/h7wXHRNdyc
— Arash Markazi (@ArashMarkazi) September 1, 2016
Elliott has already drawn comparisons to Erik Dickerson, who told ESPN that he will "do extremely well." Dallas has one of the league's premiere offensive lines, as it proved last year by awarding Darren McFadden his first 1,000-yard season since 2010. They're a Shelby sporting a "student driver" bumper sticker on the fender.
Is the AFC South Still a Train Wreck?
The NFL annually ranks overall strength of schedule by looking at the previous season's win-loss records.
By their standards, the Packers, Bears, and Lions have three of the league's five easiest schedules. All can thank the AFC South.
Houston's 9-7 record last year was enough for a wild card berth, but not much else. Indianapolis trudged to 8-8, and their first .500 or worse in over a decade.
While Jacksonville overachieved with standout performances from Blaine Gabbert and wide receivers Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns, shortcoming on defense - only New Orleans gave up more points per game - nullified their efforts.
This division would be a wasteland without Gabbert, Andrew Luck, and Titans second-year starter Marcus Mariota behind center. Granted the Texans backpedaled into an AFC South title with four different quarterbacks, but their vulnerability showed in an embarrassment of a first-round loss to Kansas City.
The AFC South may get good again — but not this year: https://t.co/93FBsiFxLT pic.twitter.com/rdkVKkPRgg — FiveThirtyEight (@FiveThirtyEight) September 9, 2016
Will Sam Bradford Fit Minnesota's Style?
Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater was one of last season's feel-good stories.
The 2014 first-round draft pick blossomed into a viable decoy for Adrian Peterson. He's a game manager; an overachiever tasked with doing just enough to keep Minnesota competitive. Bridgewater was 21st in pass attempts last season. He averaged just 201.9 passing yards per game, a low among quarterbacks with 16 starts.
Bridgewater's season-ending ACL tear left the Vikings desperate for a proven play-caller. Someone worth coveted draft picks.
For team General Manager Rick Spielman, injury-prone Sam Bradford was worth the gamble.
"We've studied all of his games last year and even what he looked like in the preseason and we though he played extremely well, especially in the last three or four ball games," Spielman told Pro Football Talk. "He lit it up in the preseason this year. I think having Pat Shurmur on the staff gave us great insight on his opinion on Sam Bradford, because he had him not only in St. Louis but in Philly as well."
Shurmur was Bradford's offensive coordinator in those cities, each time missing the playoffs.
Spielman traded a first and fourth-round pick for Bradford and the $22 million left on his contract. In the long term, Minnesota has a quarterback controversy dependent on Bridgewater's recovery timetable.
The immediate issue is whether Bradford can fit into head coach Mike Zimmer's run-first playbook. Bradford threw for 3,725 yards and 19 touchdowns in Philadelphia last season, flowing with the Eagles' pass-heavy system that begrudgingly left running back DeMarco Murray ineffective.
If Bradford can learn to take a back seat to Peterson, and not freewheel as he's wont to do, Minnesota should contend for the NFC North crown.
.@AdrianPeterson says he didn't see the trade for Sam Bradford coming, but he tips his cap to GM Rick Spielman for making it happen.
— Minnesota Vikings (@Vikings) September 8, 2016
What Does Drew Brees Have Left in the Tank?
At face value, this is a silly question. New Orleans led the league in completions, passing yards, and passing yards per game last season behind Drew Brees' 15 starts. They were the only team to average over 300 yards through the air.
Marques Colston and Ben Watson left, but creating targets was never an issue for Brees. He has the largesse to make an undrafted receiver like Willie Snead into a 900-yard wide receiver. Brees helped develop Brandin Cooks into a Top-20 wideout.
Brees can make a Pro Bowler out an outcast, but for how much longer.
On Wednesday, Brees signed a $44 million contract extension that will keep him in the Big Easy through 2017. The deal is structured to allow New Orleans salary cap room by reducing his pay this year by about $13 million.
He and Brady are tied for most touchdown passes (428) among active quarterbacks. Only three others - Manning, Brett Favre, and Dan Marino - have thrown for more yards (60,903).
Drew Brees has made $154.7M in cash earnings in his NFL career, the 2nd-highest amount among active players (Eli Manning, $158.5M) — ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) September 7, 2016
Saints QB Drew Brees' new deal has voidable years, with $44.25 million due over the next two, fully guaranteed. He'll be 39 when it's up.
— Albert Breer (@AlbertBreer) September 7, 2016
Until last season, Brees was football's Cal Ripken Jr., an iron man for the gridiron. From 2001 to 2014, Brees never missed a start due to injury. A bruised rotator cuff ahead of a Week 3 matchup with Carolina forced him out, and a plantar fascia tear limited his mobility in Week 15.
Brees' career is winding down. This may be the last chance for the Saints to send him out with two Lombardi trophies.