Fifty reasons to be excited for the start of the 2015 NFL season
Hang in there. Football is getting closer. Training camps are opening up this week, the preseason is just around the corner (Minnesota and Pittsburgh meet in the annual Hall of Fame exhibition on August 9), and we are now less than 50 days out from the 2015 regular-season opener on Sept. 10.
What does the NFL have in store for the coming year? Presenting 50 reasons to be excited about the upcoming football season:
1. Peyton's last stand?
It's not always easy to simply sit back and appreciate greatness, so even Peyton Manning has to deal with criticism over his playoff record (11–13) and, more recently, his arm strength. Regardless of what happens in 2015—or if he goes on to play in '16—Manning has stated his case for the honor of best quarterback in NFL history. He already holds the record for most career touchdown passes (530), and this season should pass Brett Favre for the passing-yardage mark.
Does he have at least one more Super Bowl run in him? Either way, enjoy the Peyton Manning Show while it lasts, because it may not go on much longer.
2. The new (and improved?) extra point
Are you a fan of two-point conversions? How about of missed extra points? There might be more of each this season, thanks to the NFL approving modifications to PATs in hopes of spicing up that play. Extra points now will be snapped from the 15-yard line, though any two-point conversion tries will continue to start at the two. Defenses also now can score via blocked kick/fumble recovery/interception—if any of those are returned for scores, the D chalks up its own two points.
3. Odell Beckham Jr.'s encore
The Giants' new superstar caught 91 passes for 1,305 yards and 12 touchdowns last season ... in just 12 games. A torn left hamstring cost him all of camp plus the first four weeks of the regular season. (Potentially of note: Beckham Jr. sat out mini-camp with a sore right hamstring, though the Giants do not believe it to be serious.) Once on the field, he was a non-stop highlight reel. If he plays a full 16-game slate, Beckham Jr. could cement himself among the game's best receivers.
4. Jameis vs. Marcus
The pro careers of the 2015 draft's top two picks, Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota, will share an inherent link forever more. Both quarterbacks are among the early favorites for Offensive Rookie of the Year (Bovada lists Winston at 5/1 odds; Mariota 8/1). And for those of you out there who favor rushing to judgment, Week 1 offers up a matchup between the two rookies, when Tennessee visits Tampa Bay.
5. Is this the year that the sacks record falls?
Thirteen seasons have passed since Michael Strahan's 22.5-sack showing in 2001. Several players since have challenged the record, including Justin Houston last season (22.0) and J.J. Watt on multiple occasions (20.5 in both 2012 and '14). It seems only a matter of time until someone notches 23.0 sacks—the continued prevalence of pass-heavy offenses helps. Will someone take down Strahan this season?
6. Adrian Peterson's return
While his overall legacy may always be tarnished by what happened off the field, Peterson as a player remains one of the most gifted running backs of all time. The 2012 MVP and active leader in rushing touchdowns (86), Peterson pushes the Vikings into playoff-contender status. Minnesota knows it, too, hence the announcement this week of Peterson's restructured contract, one that could keep him with the team for the next several seasons.
7. The Carson Palmer effect
Could a healthy Palmer be the key to breaking Seattle's stranglehold on the NFC West? Quite possibly, if the first half of last season is any indication. The Cardinals were 7–1 when Palmer tore his ACL during a win over St. Louis. Arizona went on to beat Detroit the next week, thus improving to 9–1, but a subsequent loss in Seattle knocked Bruce Arians's team off course. The Cardinals lost four of their last six games in 2014, and lost in the Wild Card round to the Panthers.
Palmer finished 6-0 as a starter in 2014, completing 62.3% of his passes and posting a 95.6 QB rating. At age 35, coming off that devastating injury, can he regain his form?
8. London games (and a unique viewing option)
This will mark the second consecutive season with a three-game set of regular-season contests to be played at Wembley Stadium. It's also the third straight year (of at least four) with the Jaguars coughing up a home game to play overseas.
Their matchup this year, against the Bills on Oct. 25, comes with an additional twist on top of being a 9:30 a.m. ET kickoff: Yahoo will stream the game live online for free; only local stations in Buffalo and Jacksonville will air the game on TV.
London's other two games will be status quo: the Jets vs. Miami (Oct. 4) and Detroit vs. Kansas City (Nov. 1).
9. Celebrating the Super Bowl's 50th anniversary
No organization does pomp and circumstance quite like the National Football League, so count on plenty of reminders that this season ends with Super Bowl 50 (...you're reading one). To start, the league opted to ditch its tradition of Super Bowl Roman numerals for a year in favor of 'Super Bowl 50,' and the NFL announced in May that the numbers on every stadium's 50-yard line would be painted gold, the traditional color for a 50th anniversary. The Pro Bowl uniforms also will have touches of gold, and each Super Bowl rematch on this year's schedule is highlighted in gold on the NFL's website.
10. Tracking the Tom Brady saga
Roger Goodell said Tuesday that there is "no timetable" on a decision in Tom Brady's appeal, though it's safe to assume a ruling will come down sometime before Week 1 ... right? From there, all eyes will be on Brady. Does he accept whatever punishment he's given? Does he press the case on to court, perhaps running the risk of his suspension then starting at a key late-season point or in the playoffs?
We do know this: Brady and Bill Belichick love the chance to exact vengeance. If the Patriots happen to have a lead on the Colts in Week 6, don't expect Brady to take a knee. He, and his team, will use this lingering mess as motivation all season long.
11. Rex Ryan and Todd Bowles
Interesting times in the AFC East, and not just because of the situation in Foxborough. As the coaching carousel spun this off-season, former Jets coach Rex Ryan hopped off in Buffalo, where his boisterous personality has made him an instant hit. He has inherited a team that could be a playoff contender, if only Ryan can solve that all-too-familiar issue of not having a clear starting quarterback.
Meanwhile, Bowles steps into Ryan's vacated spot with the Jets. In just two years as an Arizona coordinator, Bowles cemented himself as one of the NFL's best defensive minds, and he now has Darrelle Revis back in New York. How will he fare in his first shot as head coach?
12. Cam Newton's progress
Carolina's mess of an offensive line made it tough to notice at times last season, but Newton again showed marked improvement. Some of the uptick came because Newton was banged up all year, so he had to play more in the pocket. If he can couple his growing confidence as a passer with renewed health, Newton could jump into the MVP race.
13. The Colts' offense
The 2014 Colts finished 64 points shy of the franchise's single-season points record (522, set by Peyton Manning and co. in 2004). Could this year's attack challenge that mark? The offensive line has some health concerns, but Indianapolis has the horses to do so otherwise. Andrew Luck should be better than ever in his fourth season, and he now has Frank Gore and Andre Johnson at his side. Gore's presence alone is a colossal upgrade over Trent Richardson at running back.
14. Sam Bradford in Philadelphia
Even during Nick Foles's storybook 2013 season (27 touchdowns and two interceptions?!), the Eagles's offense never ran exactly as Chip Kelly envisioned. It could get there this season, if Kelly's freewheeling roster overhaul works. And in particular, if Bradford looks like he did back at Oklahoma, before his injuries started to take their toll.
15. The Los Angeles issue
Are the Rams headed back to California after this season? Will the Chargers or Raiders (or both) be sharing a Hollywood stadium by 2016? Until we get any substantial answers, the specter of relocation will continue to hover over multiple teams. The NFL wants to be back in Los Angeles, sooner rather than later.
16. J.J. Watt ... and Jadeveon Clowney?
Watt needs no introduction. He dominates like Batman vs. a gaggle of inept henchmen on a weekly basis. The Texans would love nothing more than for Clowney to play Watt's sidekick this season. The 2014 No. 1 pick is slowwwwwly working his way back from microfracture knee surgery, and is on pace to be ready for the regular season. Houston has waited a long time to see what he can do.
17. The rookie running backs
The first-round running back drought in the NFL draft is over—St. Louis (surprisingly) took Todd Gurley at No. 10, then San Diego scooped up Melvin Gordon at No. 17. In Gordon's case, the opportunity is there to play a key role early. Gurley might not be far behind, depending on how quickly his rehab from last season's ACL tear progresses. Both, along with Winston and Mariota, are among the frontrunners for Offensive Rookie of the Year.
18. Improvement from the bottom-feeders
This is less about the teams that could pull off the worst-to-first trick and more about those franchises often buried in the basement. Specifically, there is a little light at the end of the tunnel for Jacksonville and Oakland, which have a combined 20 wins over the past three seasons. The Raiders backed a very strong 2014 draft class—Khalil Mack is the NFL's next defensive star—by landing Amari Cooper in Round 1 this season. Likewise, the Jaguars picked up more young pieces for their offense (Yeldon, Rashad Greene, A.J. Cann) and have more talent on defense than at any previous point during Gus Bradley's short tenure.
19. Robert Griffin III's fork in the road
Washington did pick up Griffin's contract option for 2016, but it's guaranteed only in the event of a lengthy injury. So for the front office to feel compelled to pay out (or restructure) that $16.1 million, the 25-year-old quarterback has to show signs of being a potential franchise player again. Coach Jay Gruden has spoken positively about RGIII this off-season, and the starting gig is his to lose. This may be his last shot in D.C.
20. The post-Harbaugh 49ers
Admit it, you're intrigued. From Jim Tomsula's awkward press conferences to a rash of retirements (Patrick Willis, Justin Smith, Chris Borland), this off-season has been a trying one for San Francisco. Last season's 8–8 finish came on the heels of three consecutive double-digit win campaigns, plus an NFC championship. Can Tomsula keep this from falling apart?
21. Jimmy Graham's impact
As far as storylines that could determine the Super Bowl 50 victor, Graham's arrival in the Emerald City is near the top of the list. Graham may not match the numbers he posted as a Saint (averaged 86 catches and 11.7 touchdowns the past three seasons), but he should become Russell Wilson's favorite target in a hurry.
And about that fallout in New Orleans ...
22. The new-look Saints
The Graham trade was a blockbuster, bringing talented center Max Unger and a first-round pick to New Orleans. A deal that sent WR Kenny Stills to Miami for LB Dannell Ellerbe came as almost as much of a surprise. Graham and Stills finished 1–2 on the Saints in receptions last season.
On defense the new faces include Ellerbe, first-round pick Stephone Anthony, second-round Hau'oli Kikaha, CB Brandon Browner. Jairus Byrd is back from injury. Will it all be enough to turn around the Saints' fortunes after a lost 2014?
23. A fascinating opener
We can't build the hype for 2015 without mentioning the first regular-season game, particularly when it involves two teams as storied as Pittsburgh and New England. Unless Brady's appeal results in an overturned suspension, the defending champs likely will trot out Jimmy Garoppolo for his first career start. Also set to sit in Week 1: RBs Le'Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount, the result of a shared off-field misstep when Blount was a Steeler.
24. Dan Quinn's shot
The Seahawks ranked first in yards allowed and points allowed in both 2013 and '14, Quinn's two seasons as the Seattle defensive coordinator. Quinn parlayed that success into the Falcons' coaching gig ... but now comes the hard part. He'll have far less talent in Atlanta, at least on defense.
25. "Meat on the bone"
Cowboys RB Joseph Randle claimed this off-season that DeMarco Murray "left a lot of meat on the bone" in 2014—meaning Murray did not take full advantage of what his offensive line provided him, despite rushing for 1,845 yards. Murray will tote the rock this season for the Cowboys' NFC East rivals in Philadelphia, leaving Randle and others to pick up the slack. If it's possible, Dallas's O-line looks even more formidable this year thanks to the arrival of La'el Collins.
26. Another year of Houston/Hali
Rejoice, Kansas City fans. Following some dicey moments, the Chiefs managed to keep their formidable pass-rushing tandem in place for at least one more season—Justin Houston via the franchise tag and an extension; Hali on a restructured deal. That pair combined for 28.5 sacks last season (22.0 by Houston). Holding on to Hali, specifically, buys more time for 2014 first-rounder Dee Ford to develop.
27. Quarterback battles
There's always a few of these every season to keep everyone entertained. This year, the leading candidates include: Buffalo (EJ Manuel vs. Matt Cassel and Tyrod Taylor), Cleveland (Josh McCown vs. Johnny Manziel), Houston (Brian Hoyer vs. Ryan Mallett), the Jets (Geno Smith vs. Ryan Fitzpatrick) and Philadelphia (Sam Bradford vs. his own knees and Mark Sanchez).
28. Fantasy's increased footprint
Gambling on the NFL remains illegal in most of the United States (for now), but there are an ever-increasing number of fantasy options. Daily fantasy sports games have exploded in recent years, and has sponsorship deals in place with 15 teams for the 2015 season. Fantasy football has, without question, helped drive the immense popularity of the NFL. Consider this the next step.
29. An all-NFC Thanksgiving
Not that AFC teams will mind having the holiday off, but this will be the second consecutive seasons with all three Thanksgiving Day games featuring NFC vs. NFC matchups. Even more unusual, the only team involved in this year's festivities that did not play last Nov. 27 is Carolina. Both Chicago and Philadelphia earned repeat invites as road teams.
The Eagles will head to Detroit in the early game, followed by Carolina-Dallas and a Chicago-Green Bay nightcap.
30. Aaron Donald et al.
Comparing the rookie seasons of Odell Beckham Jr. and Donald is apples-to-oranges scenario. Let's say this, though: Donald's season of defensive dominance was as impressive as what Beckham did on offense. The Defensive Rookie of the Year notched 9.0 sacks as a member of the Rams' loaded front.
He had company in that DROY race, namely from Baltimore LB C.J. Mosley and the aforementioned Khalil Mack in Oakland. All three may be only scratching the surface of their potential—a scary thought for offenses everywhere.
31. The Baltimore-Chicago-Denver coach swap
Former Baltimore offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak is now the head coach in Denver, replacing new Chicago head coach John Fox, who is taking over for new Baltimore offensive coordinator Marc Trestman. Got all that? Good.
Fox's arrival—and his choices of coordinators, Adam Gase and Vic Fangio—was a boon for a staggering Bears team. He may need some time before getting that club back into true contention. Kubiak does not have the luxury of patience. Manning's nearing the end of his career, and Fox averaged 12.67 wins over the past three seasons in Denver.
Trestman should be back in a comfort zone calling plays. The question is if he'll keep plugging along with a Kubiak-style system that worked well for RB Justin Forsett and, at times, QB Joe Flacco.
32. Ndamukong Suh's big move
Several dominoes fell here, as well. Suh buoyed Miami's playoff hopes by signing a six-year, $116 million mega-deal. The Lions quickly sought out a backup plan, in the form of a trade with Baltimore for Pro Bowler Haloti Ngata. All three teams mentioned rolled the dice in one way or another, but the gambles probably will not work out for everyone.
33. Contract-year watch
A preliminary glance at the possible 2016 free-agent class reveals quite a few big names: Philip Rivers, Eli Manning, A.J. Green, Julio Jones, Alshon Jeffery, T.Y. Hilton, Von Miller, Aldon Smith, Muhammed Wilkerson, Bobby Wagner, Trent Williams, Vernon Davis and so on. While most of those players will not make it onto the market, a contract year brings with it added pressure. Will any of the free agents-to-be be distracted by negotiations, or a lack thereof?
34. The second-year quarterbacks
Last draft's big-name quarterbacks ran the gamut from impressive (Teddy Bridgewater) to so-so (Derek Carr and Blake Bortles) to downright infuriating (Johnny Manziel). Bridgewater has the most promising outlook for 2015, what with his Vikings headed toward being a popular pick for the playoffs. Carr's Raiders and Bortles' Jaguars are improving (see: No. 18), but the progress is contingent on those quarterbacks becoming consistent leaders.
Manziel is a wild card, in football and in life. A rehab stint this off-season supposedly helped him get his head on straight. We'll see.
35. Comeback Player of the Year candidates
Bradford and Palmer certainly are among the favorites here, depending on their abilities to stay healthy. C.J. Spiller is another candidate, bouncing from an injury-plagued year with the Bills to the Saints' explosive offense. Two more guys NFL fans should be happy to see on the field again: San Francisco LB NaVorro Bowman, who sat out 2014 after suffering a gruesome knee injury during the 2013 NFC title game, and Victor Cruz, off his own brutal knee ailment. Sleeper pick: Brian Orakpo, now with Tennessee.
36. The Thursday nighters ... might be good?
The Steelers-Patriots clash technically does not count as a "Thursday Night Football" broadcast, so the first game to hold that honor is Week 2's Denver-Kansas City meeting. Also on the mid-week calendar is Baltimore-Pittsburgh (Week 4), Indianapolis-Houston (Week 5), Seattle-San Francisco (Week 7), Miami-New England (Week 8) and several other potentially important matchups. As always, there will be some duds (Tennessee at Jacksonville on Nov. 19 is an obvious choice). But there's hope for Thursday.
37. Merry Christmas ... and Happy New Year
Just in case the NFL's Thanksgiving extravaganza is not enough, the schedule also wraps nicely around Dec. 25 and Jan. 1 this year. Christmas falls on a Friday, allowing the league to offer up a Christmas Eve game (San Diego at Oakland) and special Dec. 26 Saturday showcase (Washington at Philadelphia), plus the usual Week 16 schedule on Dec. 27 and 28. The regular season also closes in style, with a full slate on Sunday, Jan. 3, as everyone's wrapping up their New Year's weekend.
38. All eyes on Andy Dalton
Bengals RB Jeremy Hill said that 2015 is "now or never" for his team to get over the hump and win a Super Bowl. Should Cincinnati fall short again, it will have to take a very close look at QB Andy Dalton, whose $97 million deal more or less breaks down to a year-by-year commitment.
39. Has Percy Harvin finally found a home?
History says that it's doubtful. Buffalo is choosing to believe otherwise. Still just 27 years old, Harvin is now on his fourth team in four years. Will a reunion with Rex Ryan lead to any more fireworks than the humdrum 460 yards-in-eight games showing Harvin had with Ryan's Jets last season?
40. The best division in football is ...
Well, it still might be the NFC West if both Seattle and Arizona are as good as advertised, and San Francisco and St. Louis compete. Otherwise, the NFC North is waiting in the wings—Green Bay is a conference favorite and all three of its rivals (Chicago, Detroit and Minnesota) could be playoff contenders. The AFC nod, for now, also goes to the North, after that division sent three teams to the postseason a year ago.
41. Company for the 1,000-catch club
Currently, 10 players in NFL history have secured 1,000 or more career receptions. Andre Johnson was the most recent player to hit that height, doing so last season. Jason Witten (943), Anquan Boldin (940), Steve Smith (915) and Larry Fitzgerald (909) all are within striking distance of joining him as 2015 begins.
42. Tebow Time
Sure to be the most-watched third-string quarterback in NFL history ... and that's only if he makes the Eagles' roster. (NJ.com's Eliot Shorr-Parks predicted late last month that he would, bumping Matt Barkley.) The changes to extra points could play to Tebow's advantage if Chip Kelly tries him as a two-point specialist.
43. The Monday night doubleheader
A now-annual feature of the Week 1 schedule is two games on the first Monday night, with a 7 p.m. ET kickoff followed by a late-nighter from the West Coast. The matchups on tap this year are not too shabby: Philadelphia at Atlanta, followed by Minnesota at San Francisco. That gives us, potentially, Bradford's Eagles debut, Peterson's return and the coaching debuts of both Quinn and Tomsula.
44. Charles Woodson's swan song
This looks like the final season for the 38-year-old Woodson, whose Hall of Fame clock could start ticking if he opts for retirement after 2015. No active player is anywhere close to Woodson's career interceptions total (60); next up is DeAngelo Hall at 43. Woodson picked off four passes last year, and if he matches that total this season, he'll leapfrog Dick LeBeau, Dave Brown, Ronnie Lott and Darren Sharper to pull into a sixth-place tie with Ed Reed.
45. What's Aaron Rodgers got in store?
From a former Packer to a current one. The reigning NFL MVP continues to put up borderline unfathomable numbers—4,381 yards, 38 touchdowns and just five interceptions last season. Rodgers committed those five interceptions spread over 520 pass attempts, a turnover clip of less than 1%. His career percentage is 1.6—the best ever. Green Bay led the league in points in 2014 and managed to keep Randall Cobb along for the ride this summer, so there may be no stopping this offense.
46. The battle for the "Best receiver" claim
If you have your choice of any wide receiver to add to your favorite team, who's it going to be? Dez Bryant? Calvin Johnson? How about Antonio Brown or Odell Beckham Jr.? There is no obvious answer, which is a credit to the absurd level of wide receiver talent around the league right now. Heck, we didn't even get to Demaryius Thomas, Jordy Nelson or Julio Jones. Twenty-three players in all topped 1,000 yards receiving last year.
47. Welcoming Leonard Williams
Dante Fowler's unfortunate knee injury leaves Leonard Williams (No. 6) as the most highly drafted rookie defender set to take the field this season. The Jets need him even more than they first planned after Sheldon Richardson was hit was a four-game suspension. Can Williams live up to the hype?
48. Running backs on the move
This has been a compelling off-season with regards to the league's top running backs. Aside from the Adrian Peterson storyline, several recognizable names changed allegiances over the past few months. The headliners came in LeSean McCoy's trade from Philadelphia to Buffalo and DeMarco Murray's subsequent move to the Eagles, as well as Frank Gore signing with Indianapolis. Don't sleep on the impacts of players like Roy Helu (Oakland), Darren McFadden (Dallas), Shane Vereen (Giants) or Stevan Ridley (Jets), either.
49. Coaching hot seat
Inevitably, at least a handful of NFL teams will pull the plug on their current head coaches. Who's on notice as the 2015 season arrives? Start with Tennessee's Ken Whisenhunt, although positive progress from Mariota could buy him a little time. Miami's Joe Philbin and St. Louis's Jeff Fisher might be headed out if their respective teams cannot reach the playoffs this year. Tampa Bay's Lovie Smith could be in trouble, too—the Bucs' 2–14 finish a year ago was bad enough without some of the humiliating losses they suffered.
If the NFL has taught us anything over the years, it's this: Any coach can be vulnerable if his team is bad enough.
50. Can the NFL keep its players safe?
Short answer: No, not really. The league has added even more steps toward that goal, however. Enacted along with this year's rule changes are stricter limits on both "peel back" and chop blocks—all offensive players are prohibited from the former; running backs no longer can engage in the latter outside the tackle box. In addition, the "defenseless receiver" definition now extends to the immediate aftermath of an interception—a defender could be penalized for hitting a intended receiver after a turnover.