- The returns of J.J. Watt, Marcus Mariota and Derek Carr from 2016 injuries highlight what to watch for on the first Sunday of the NFL season
The NFL is back, the Patriots have the worst record in football (for the next few hours), and your favorite team still has a shot at the Super Bowl. Here are 10 things I’ll be watching Sunday during Week 1:
1. So much has been said about J.J. Watt’s remarkable Houston relief efforts in the past two weeks that you could forget he’s a football player. I got to see Watt up-close on three occasions during training camp (twice at joint practices with the Patriots and once in a preseason game), and I’m excited to watch him get back to Defensive Player of the Year form against Jacksonville. There may be no opponent Watt would rather face as the reins are taken off than the Jaguars. In 10 career games, Watt has 14.5 sacks against the Jags, including three three-sack games. I watched Blake Bortles be crippled with indecision throughout the preseason while “winning” the Jacksonville job. He’s taken 140 sacks through three seasons, which ties David Carr for second all-time behind Randall Cunningham’s 146. Watt will look to add to that total this week.
2. On-the-mend quarterbacks Derek Carr and Marcus Mariota are going head-to-head in Nashville for a matchup we could see again in January. Boy, have the Raiders and Titans come a long way in a short time. Mariota and Carr both were the subject of significant offseason attention, given all that they mean to these teams on the rise. Now it’s time to see how they bounce back from leg injuries that ended their respective 2016 seasons.
3. Show me the receivers in Philly-Washington. Kirk Cousins is without DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garçon and now must get it done with a corps of Josh Doctson, Jordan Reed, Jamison Crowder and Terrelle Pryor. For Philly, I’ve long been anticipating Carson Wentz stretching the field, and he has that opportunity with Torrey Smith, as we saw in the preseason. Add into the mix that Josh Norman will go up against Alshon Jeffery, and may the best quarterback win.
4. First-year Bills general manager Brandon Beane pulled off back-to-back big trades in early August, and we finally get to see those guys in action when Buffalo hosts the Jets. I’m watching how Jordan Matthews works with Tyrod Taylor, who was cleared in the concussion protocol earlier this week. And after replacing Ronald Darby with E.J. Gaines, how well will the former Rams tackle work in Sean McDermott’s defensive scheme that relies so heavily on cornerbacks wrapping up?
5. After a refreshingly great year from Matt Stafford in 2016, I thought the Lions would have a chance to compete in the NFC North with the Packers this season. Then second-year left tackle Taylor Decker went down with a shoulder injury, and Detroit filled the gap with Greg Robinson. Not only am I concerned for Stafford’s protection, but I also hesitate to buy Detroit’s run-blocking. Ameer Abdullah has the potential to be a solid NFL running back if he can stay healthy, though the line blocking for him may not give him many opportunities at that.
6. I expect Falcons cornerback Desmond Trufant to have a big day in Chicago. Whatever you think about Mike Glennon, the Bears quarterback doesn’t have much to throw to in Chicago. Cameron Meredith (ACL) is out for the season, and former first-rounder Kevin White is going to be tossed into the fire as the No. 1 receiver across from Kendall Wright. Atlanta should be able to stuff the run and force Glennon to throw, and that means Trufant, in his first game action since November, should be able to add to his oddly low interception total of just seven through four seasons.
7. If you’re a fan of good quarterbacking, don’t watch Colts-Rams. Run away from this game. This game is not for you. The two quarterbacks, Scott Tolzien or Jared Goff, have yet to win in the NFL. Goff, at least, will have the benefit of some help, since the Colts will be missing cornerback Vontae Davis. Meanwhile, Indianapolis’ offense hasn’t looked good all preseason. This will rivals Jets-Bills as the worst game of Sunday.
8. I understand that Kyle Shanahan is debuting as a head coach and John Lynch is debuting as a general manager. I get that Panthers-49ers will feature Solomon Thomas and Christian McCaffrey, two top-10 2017 draft picks who starred just up the road from Levi’s Stadium at Stanford and who could challenge for Rookie of the Year honors on separate sides of the ball. But this game is all about Cam Newton, who threw two short passes in the preseason and was declared ready to go by coaches after missing all of OTAs and minicamp recovering from March rotator cuff surgery. This is our first look at the 2015 NFC champs’ retooled offense with a healthy Newton. Can he find a rhythm? What will his deep ball look like with his repaired shoulder? How will he get up after being knocked down for the first time since January?
9. The last time we saw the Packers’ offensive line in a real game, defensive tackle Letroy Guion was playing there as an injury stopgap. Green Bay let T.J. Lang and JC Tretter set sail and signed Jahri Evans. If the Packers were playing just about anyone else, I wouldn’t worry much about the offensive line. But they’re starting the year with the Seahawks, whose front seven is the best in football with the addition of Sheldon Richardson. If Green Bay’s O-Line can hold up against Seattle in the first game of the season, I’ll feel very comfortable with my Packers-to-the-Super-Bowl projection.
10. Will Odell Beckham Jr., listed as questionable, make it on the field? How will Ezekiel Elliott look after his court-mandated reprieve? Good questions, but for Giants-Cowboys I’m here to watch the pass rush. The Cowboys will be rushing players you haven’t heard of considering Dallas’s suspensions and injuries along the defensive line. Can they bother Eli Manning enough to force him into mistakes? And New York’s defense sacked Dak Prescott three times in their last contest, a 17-10 victory. The team that hits the quarterback more wins the game.
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