We are just a few days into the official 2020 league year, and already it’s the strangest NFL offseason since—maybe ever. While some major questions have been answered (Tom Brady, in case you haven’t heard, is a Tampa Bay Buccaneer), there is still plenty to sort out between now and the opening kickoff of the NFL’s 101st season. Here are the NFL’s 10 biggest storylines between now and Week 1 . . .
1) How will the offseason be impacted by the coronavirus?
Obviously, the coronavirus pandemic is the biggest story in the world right now, in and out of sports—standard caveats apply that its effect on the NFL pales in comparison to its effect on other aspects of life. That said, we are seeing that the cancellation of sporting events is one of the many issues hurting people economically, from concession workers to venues to athletes themselves, so we can’t ignore the effect on the sports world entirely.
Depending on how long experts recommend social distancing, this period of isolation could easily spill into the offseason program. It’ll be interesting to see what happens if teams are forced to cancel or postpone minicamps and training camps. Many have already speculated that rookie head coaches may be disadvantaged and that teams with continuity at key positions may have an edge. Closing of both team and public training facilities will also affect how players work out. We may see cancellation of idea-sharing summits between players or between coaches across different levels of football, which typically leads to philosophies trickling up from lower rungs of the football universe and into the NFL. And what of private QB coaches? Or players who like to train together? It’s impossible to know how long we will be discouraged from traveling or how much that will affect the NFL offseason.
2) What if the stadiums in L.A. and Vegas don’t get done on time?
There is a lot going on right now, and it’s hard to say a story isn’t being talked about enough when there are much, much more important developments to discuss. But in all of the conversations about the football-related impact, this is a story I think should be getting more attention.
In L.A., the situation is probably easier, given that the Rams and Chargers have both played in stadiums in the area for the last three years. How easy would it be to keep the keys to their old homes? Maybe it would take some wrangling, some schedule-clearing, and perhaps some pride-swallowing and compromise at the negotiating table, but one would think it’s not impossible to work out the details.
But what about the Raiders? Could they play in UNLV’s Sam Boyd Stadium? Could they extend an acrimonious relationship with the city of Oakland another year? This would have an impact on players, team employees, fans and the TV schedule. It’s a major, major story, even though it may also be understandably low on the priority list of the people in charge of these respective cities.
3) What do Patriots do at QB?
The annual game of quarterback musical chairs is always among the biggest storylines in the league no matter what teams are in the market. It’s especially true this year in New England, for all the obvious reasons. Bill Belichick will finally get to answer the question of how successful his team could be without Tom Brady. Somebody new will take over the reins of the most successful American sports franchise of the last 20 years.
That person will also be the answer to a fun trivia question. People will file it away in their mental rolodexes along with the fact that Didi Gregorius replaced Derek Jeter; and Vlade Divac was the center the Lakers drafted to replace Kareem in 1989, and then was also the center they acquired to replace Shaq in 2004. Fun!
But seriously, who is going to be the Patriots quarterback? Andy Dalton? Jarrett Stidham? Jacoby Brissett? Jalen Hurts? The world wants to know.
4) Where does Cam Newton go?
There are only a few options left. He could start in New England, which would be very exciting. The Raiders seem committed to Derek Carr, with Marcus Mariota now an emergency plan. The Chargers claim they’ll go with Tyrod Taylor (which we all know means they’ll draft somebody). Newton doesn’t quite seem like the right fit in most places. Could he wait until the preseason to see if a playoff contender suffers an injury? That’s very risky.
So if he’s not walking into an open starting job, here’s my total darkhorse candidate that should consider him: The Buffalo Bills.
The Bills are a playoff team. They have a great defense. They came into this offseason with a ton of cap room, and still have the 10th-most available. They just brought in a legitimate No. 1 wide receiver. They also may smell a particularly ripe time to go all-in chasing their first AFC East title since 1995, with the Dolphins still building up, the Jets being eternally unreliable and the Patriots finally turning the page on the Tom Brady era.
I know Josh Allen has a lot of supporters insisting he got better throughout last season, and that he has a chance to take another step forward this year. I also know how the nation felt during his most recent game, watching him struggle his way through the second half and overtime of a 16-point blown lead against the Texans.
The Bills might come to the conclusion that Josh Allen is good enough. They could also easily be one year away from the situation Chicago found itself in with Mitchell Trubisky this offseason—suddenly very aware their quarterback simply isn’t the guy, in danger of letting the window close on an otherwise good team. Buffalo would be better served taking a chance on an undervalued player one year early instead of overpaying for a solution one year too late. If Newton is healthy, he could be an immediate upgrade over Allen and make Buffalo a real contender in the AFC. If he’s not healthy, Buffalo would still have the quarterback that led the team to a wild-card berth last year.
Bills head coach Sean McDermott was the defensive coordinator in Carolina for six years, including Cam’s MVP/Super Bowl campaign. Of course, that’s not the same as Philip Rivers walking into his old offensive coordinator Frank Reich’s system in Indy. But they are at least familiar with each other. McDermott is uniquely qualified to know whether or not Newton would be a good fit for that team, outside the X’s and O’s of the scheme. If Newton is going to be available for below-market value, somebody should pounce. Why not Buffalo?
5) Do free agents now flock to Tampa? Does it matter?
It didn’t take long for this to become a thing. Even before the Brady-to-Tampa news was official, we got word that maybe Brady would want Antonio Brown to follow him. Now, allegedly, everyone wants in. But let’s see what happens. Will veterans in search of their first rings—Frank Gore? Cameron Wake?—come crawling onto the big pirate ship? Are they suddenly going to sign a bunch of ex-Patriots (most of whom have already gone to Detroit)? Would this make the Bucs more charming or potentially villainous? Will any of this actually matter on the field?
6) Who drafts Tua Tagovailoa and Justin Herbert?
Pretty much everyone expects Joe Burrow to go No. 1 to Cincinnati, but other QBs offer a little more drama when it comes to the upcoming draft. Tua has been a much-talked-about prospect since his unbelievable national title game performance as a freshman in January 2018. He was the protagonist of many a thinkpiece on the subject of tanking last season and we have all followed his injury recovery about as closely as his on-field exploits. After all that, will the Dolphins get their guy? Will Washington or Detroit have a surprise for us? Will New England trade all the way up? Meanwhile, the Chargers claim they are going ahead with Tyrod Taylor, but just because they are not signing a veteran Andy Dalton-type does not mean they won’t have a rookie under center in Week 1 (or at some point in 2020). And most of the mock drafts I read have Herbert heading their way.
7) Where do the top wide receivers land?
Wide receiver is the deepest position in this year’s draft, and it’s perfect timing with the way the passing game has exploded in the NFL. Sometimes we can be cynical about this league, but let’s take a step back and think about what we enjoy on NFL Sundays: There are few things more fun than watching awesome wideouts go out there and make plays. I simply cannot wait to watch these rookies spread out across the league and watch the best quarterbacks in the world chuck it deep. As a football fan, as a fantasy player, as an NFL RedZone enthusiast, I’m delighted by the prospect of watching this talented class infuse the league with talent in half a dozen cities. It’s going to be tremendous.
8) Will any superstar running backs hold out?
The Rams learned an expensive lesson this week when they cut Todd Gurley. More accurately, they’ve been learning the lesson for a couple years now; this week was just the day the student loan payments were due. It’s been an interesting few years for running backs. In 2018 we saw Le’Veon Bell hold out and skip a whole season after he’d been franchise-tagged. Last year Ezekiel Elliot held out after three seasons and got paid right before Week 1. Melvin Gordon held out going into his fourth season, missed four games, was capably replaced by a formerly undrafted player and eventually came back without a new deal. (His plan backfired financially, though he did sign a two-year, $16 million deal with Denver this week, which is a lot better than most running backs on their second NFL contract.)
It’s the worst-kept secret in NFL roster-building. Of course a great running back can help your team win, but paying a running back an exorbitant amount can also be a grave mistake. And many of us who write about these situations try to walk a fine line, trying to be both pro-player (go get that money) while also explaining all of the reasons why teams shouldn’t invest a huge chunk of cash and cap space in them. So anyway… who’s going to hold out this year? Several should be thinking about it.
Players can’t negotiate new contracts until after three seasons, so we should look at the 2017 draft class for the players with their first chance to ask for more money. I spot three superstars: Christian McCaffrey, Alvin Kamara and Dalvin Cook. I don’t know if any of them will, but they all could. Additionally, Derrick Henry was franchise tagged by the Titans and could go the Le’Veon Bell route.
McCaffrey is in the same boat as Elliot. Because he was a first-round pick, the Panthers would exercise a fifth-year option on him, putting him two years away from unrestricted free agency. Cook was a second-rounder and Kamara was a third-rounder, so they are one season away from free agency (like Gordon was, because Gordon was a 2015 first-rounder, holding out before his fifth-year option season). They could also be franchise-tagged in 2021, so they’re not guaranteed to be a year from the free market.
I’m not sure if any of them will hold out, but they should all consider it. Any elite running back should try to get as much money as they can while they can. Because most of us would rather be Todd Gurley, with a boatload of money before your first team discards you, than a player who makes about 10% of what you’re worth before your first team eventually discards you anyway. Cook has made around $4.9 million over three years and Kamara has made around $2.9 million. Both have been grossly underpaid, and will be again in 2020.
If everyone holds out, would their teams cave and pay up? The Panthers might not. They are straddling rebuilding mode, with some high-profile names walking out the door but a new QB, Teddy Bridgewater, signed to an upper-middle-class QB deal. Some have already suggested the Panthers could trade McCaffrey, a process that a holdout could expedite. The Saints and Vikings are more firmly in win-now mode with their highly compensated and recently paid quarterbacks. They’d all have interesting decisions to make.
9) When will the league release the schedule?
The NFL typically releases its schedule in mid-April. Is it a bit silly that this has turned into a primetime TV event? Yes, but it’s not surprising from the league that tries to turn everything into a TV event. However, it wouldn’t surprise me if the schedule release is pushed back—possibly quite a bit—this year.
The NFL was fortunate that the coronavirus outbreak took place during its offseason, with the league able to sit and watch as the NBA, NHL and MLB scrambled to postpone games and figure out plans moving forward. It’s possible that we are all still quarantined come September (knock on wood and then wash your hands). Or that we are ready for football in September but a delayed offseason program makes it hard for teams to be ready.
It’s also possible that the TV networks will want to see how other sports are impacted before they commit to an NFL schedule. While football games deliver better ratings than anything else on TV, the networks have to think globally about their entire catalog. For example, FOX has the rights to both Thursday Night Football and the World Series. They might want to wait and see what the baseball schedule looks like before putting in requests for choice Thursday games. Similarly, ESPN has Monday Night Football and ABC has the NBA Finals; NBC has the Kentucky Derby, the Stanley Cup Final and Sunday Night Football; CBS has The Masters and NFL Sundays. If some of these events get pushed to the fall, there will be a lot puzzle pieces to put together. Clearly this is all speculation—but that’s all the more reason to delay the NFL schedule release. And again, Week 1 in L.A. is a lot less interesting to TV networks if the Chargers are back in a soccer stadium. There’s a lot to figure out, and there’s no hurry.
10) What impact will the new CBA have on the offseason?
It’s hard to remember this far back, but the NFLPA voted to ratify the new CBA *rubs eyes* last Sunday. A week ago. Even if the country wasn’t in a state of lockdown, there would still be a lot of differences this offseason brought on by the new labor deal.
There are new rules about the frequency of joint practices, and how often players can be forced to wear pads and hit. Rosters have expanded, and it’ll be interesting to see what changes GMs and coaches make in how they allocate various spots by position. Marijuana policies have been relaxed. And, of course, many other changes that won’t kick in this year (17-game schedule, shortened preseason) and/or won’t be visible to fans (new revenue split, improved pension plans). But it’s notable that teams will be adjusting to these many changes while we are all already in such a state of uncertainty.
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