By Ste Tough (@SteTough)
Back in April, just before the 2020 NFL Draft, I was adamant the regular season would be impacted in some way. It has been in every possible way, aside from any sort of delay. The season will start as normal on Thursday night in Arrowhead as Kansas City looks to kick off the defence of their title with a tough home and season opener against Houston.
It has been a rocky road to get here. Pre-season cancelled. Vigorous testing and quarantining rules. Players opting out. Limited practises. No-contact Training Camps. Rookie camps scrapped.
Yet here we are. The 2020 NFL Season begins this week and here are a few things to look out for…
1. How will teams adapt to the limited pre-season schedule?
The NFL implemented an extremely thorough set of rules and processes for teams to follow leading up to the 2020 campaign. In order to protect players, staff and coaches, rigorous testing and quarantine procedures have been put in place. By doing so we have arrived at the point many thought wasn’t possible, the kick-off of the 2020 regular season.
However, whilst the season begins on Thursday night. I can’t help but feeling that a lot of teams are going to take the first few weeks to really get going. This summer, teams have only been allowed to have a limited number of practise in pads, meaning that the contact side of the game has been extremely limited. How is that going to affect the O Line vs D Line matchups in the early weeks? It is going to be intriguing to see how coaches have evaluated the talent available on their roster without any pre-season games and very limited full-contact practises. We will certainly be able to pick out the talent-spotting coaches above the rest as the season goes on.
This campaign is going to give the advantage to the teams who have had limited turnover both on and off the field. Kansas City will start Wk1 with 19 of their 22 starters from the 2019 season still on the roster. As well as big extensions for Head Coach Andy Reid and GM Brett Veach now tied down until at least 2025, the Chiefs handed out the most lucrative contract in Professional Sports history to young gunslinger Patrick Mahomes, giving him over $450m for the next 10 years.
Other teams such as New Orleans, Baltimore, Buffalo and Tennessee have had limited changes and should benefit from this. Whilst I’m sure the NFL coaching merry-go-round will inevitably continue, there are definitely teams that will go into this season with an advantage.
2. What about the rookies?
This season has been like no other for the newly drafted players coming into the NFL. Not only did they not get the true draft experience (although I think this year’s draft format was better than a lot of years gone by), they didn’t get rookie camps, have had extremely limited time at facilities and with coaches, and will have struggled to build that chemistry with their new teams and teammates. There’s only so much you can achieve on a Zoom call when you’re a professional athlete…
There were several notable rookies coming out of this draft, some of which landed at perfect-fit teams and schemes for their talent and ability. Joe Burrow will have the eyes of the NFL nation on him come Wk1 when Cincinnati hosts the LA Chargers. Burrow lit up college football last season, posting a perfect season of 15-0 with Coach O’s LSU Tigers. As well as the Heisman Trophy, he also won the Walter Camp Award, Maxwell award and many others on his recording-setting 60-touchdown season. How does his talent translate into the NFL with such little time to adapt and absolutely no pre-season snaps?
I’m also extremely intrigued to see how some of the wide-outs selected in this year’s draft will fare in the NFL. The 2020 Draft was heralded as the most stacked at the WR position in recent years, and it is easy to see why. CeeDee Lamb, Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III were the clear standouts at the position, and several highlight catches from practise show these guys should slot right into their new teams. Dallas having Lamb fall into their laps at #17 represented an opportunity that must have left new HC Mike McCarthy salivating. They now have one of the best pass-catching attacks in the league and how they get Lamb involved from the get-go will be fascinating.
Not only those three, but Justin Jefferson at Minnesota will also be one to watch. LSU were dominant last year and his talent was there to see. Kirk Cousins has a receiver ready to go and he should immediately help that Vikings offence. Some of the later round picks will also be worth keeping an eye on. John Hightower in Philadelphia, Antonio Gandy-Golden in Washington and Tyler Johnson in Tampa Bay are some of my ones to watch.
3. New leaders in new teams…
Not only are some of the rookie QBs like Burrow and Tagovailoa going to have an interesting job taking the hot seat as QB1 in a new town, new offence and new system, but QB changes around the league will also have an impact on how teams perform going forward.
The most notable change is obviously Brady finally flying the New England nest and landing with the experienced Bruce Arians in Tampa Bay. Don’t let the nice words on social media fool you, this was a break-up. Belichick must lie awake at night dreaming of another Brady 19 yarder fizzed down the side-line into the outstretched arms of the man-mountain Gronkowski as the Patriots go up by 17 in another Superbowl… Instead, Tom plays in Tampa now. Another old guy moves to Florida to retire, I’ve read this story before?
Bill will have to make do with new boy Cam Newton. Trying to reignite his career in New England, Cam comes off a wave of injuries to a Patriots team still reeling from the loss of their chosen one. He’s going to have a mighty job to do, especially considering the only WR New England has had for about 6 years is Julian Edelman and about 17 players opted out of the 2020 season. Maybe everyone is just a bit fed up of Bill? Mind you, I am sure it’s easy for him to take given he’s won approximately 71% of the Superbowls over the last decade…
Teddy Bridgewater joining the Carolina revolution is an intriguing match. Matt Rhule will be given time to turn around the fortunes of the Panthers and whilst there’s been a huge overhaul following the release of poster-boy Cam Newton as well as Luke Kuechley retiring at 29 years old, presumably to take up a role as a semi-professional fisherman, they had a good draft and the early foundations have been laid. Other examples include Philip Rivers in Indianapolis, who will surely thrive under Frank Reich and Tyrod Taylor taking over from Rivers in Los Angeles.
4. The NFC West
This is probably one of the best all-around NFL Divisions I have seen in years. Whom do you pick to win it, honestly? I think we all love Kyle Shanahan and his methodical coaching approach in San Francisco, but is Jimmy G really the guy? I know he got to the Superbowl and all, but that Defence was special. Really special. Then you flip the coin to the other recent Superbowl team in LA and although they’ve looked a bit shaky of late, they still have the foundations of a play-off calibre team. Sean McVay remains one of the premium coaching talents in the league and with Six-time Pro Bowler DE Aaron Donald, they are always going to have a premium pass rush. Add Jalen Ramsey to that secondary, and surely they can contend for the West?
Seattle are an intriguing team, going through a bit of a transitional phase lately, they still have the main pieces of Russell Wilson at QB and Pete Carroll at HC in place. They are one of those teams that you just always know are going to be there or there abouts come the end of the season. Whilst Russell Wilson is on the field, you can never write them off. I really like the Carlos Hyde pickup, will be intrigued to see how their season pans out.
Then you have Arizona. Kyler Murray coming off a season where he established himself as the starting QB and won the Offensive Rookie of the Year to go with it, he looks to be a talent and Steve Kiem is doing a good job of putting weapons around him to help him succeed. I think everyone in the NFL was rather puzzled when Houston agreed to send DeAndre Hopkins to Arizona. But I don’t think Kliff Kingsbury or Kyler Murray are complaining. He now has one of the best sets of hands in the NFL to go alongside veteran Larry Fitzgerald and Christian Kirk.
I think the NFC West will be the most competitive division in the NFL this season.
5. Football. Is. Back.
Let’s face it. It’s been an offseason like no other. The Superbowl in February feels like it was years ago.
I, for one, cannot wait for the season to get going again.
Give me the best catch you have ever seen until someone makes a better one the following week. Give me RBs making giant lineman miss their tackles. Give me QBs putting balls in gaps that really shouldn’t exist, but they do and they get paid billions of dollars a year to do it. Give me the Bears STILL insisting on starting Mitch Trubisky. Give me Jason Peters still playing on that Philly O-Line despite the fact he’s 103 years old. Give me Joe Buck’s legendary commentary. Give me Sean Payton and Drew Brees still trying to get to a Superbowl for about the 29th time. Give me Jacksonville still trying to tell everyone they’re not tanking this season in order to draft Trevor Lawrence. Give me Dallas having to pay Dak $109m a year. Give me the drama. Give me the hype. Give me the stories. Give me the underdog.
Give me football. I cannot wait…