Top Intriguing NFL Storylines as Preseason Nears

We all have our own way to mark the start of an NFL season. For some, it’s simply the first regular season game, which this year will feature the Packers and Bears in conjunction with the NFL turning 100. For others, it’s the Hall of Fame game. Or Hard Knocks. Or the moment the last Super Bowl ends. Or your fantasy draft.

For me, the start of the season is now, OTAs. Sure, many veterans like Tom Brady and Le’Veon Bell are wise enough to stay the hell away. But the majority of players show up and grace the field with motion and schematics that somewhat resemble what we’ll see on Sundays in the fall. Unfortunately, OTAs also provide the backdrop for the only guaranteed aspect of the NFL – injuries. We’ve already seen Redskins linebacker Reuben Foster lost for the season with a torn ACL on his first series and 49ers safety Jimmie Ward break his collar bone which will keep him sidelined 8-12 weeks. But there’s also lighter football-y stuff like a first glimpse at the rookies, positional competition (looking at you, Chicago kickers) and new coordinators installing their systems. All combined, it feels like football.

Even if you can’t taste the impending football season quite yet, just blink. Suddenly it will be mid-July with and we’ll be right back into the frenetic vortex of non-stop football.  With the draft over, and free agency, coaching staffs and rule changes mostly settled, here are the storylines that most intrigue me as the preseason nears.

Cleveland Browns a contender?

Imagine if a year ago I told you that it would take just one season for the Pittsburgh Steelers to fall to the middle of the pack in the AFC and that the Cleveland Browns would become top dawg in the AFC North. Not even Bran the Broken could have seen that. But that scenario is exactly what oddsmakers are predicting. In fact, the Browns are the only team in the AFC North projected to make the playoffs.

Playoffs and the Cleveland Browns have been an oxymoron since 2002. But everything is different now. Baker Mayfield is an explosive leader who has infused the organization with swagger. New head coach Freddie Kitchens may equal Mayfield’s swagger which is saying something. The Browns wheeled and dealt all offseason, adding the likes of Odell Beckham Jr, Olivier Vernon and Sheldon Richardson, while drafting Greedy Williams for corner fortification and adding more defensive depth. Given how impressive this roster appears, the momentum of winning their last 5 of seven in 2018, and the shaky state of the rest of the AFC North, it’s easy to believe in the Browns’ rapid upward trajectory. It’s still weird, though.

The Patriots: AG (After Gronk)

As injuries mounted over the past few years, Rob Gronkowski became a shell of the game-changing physical specimen who used to require 2-3 defenders for opponents to have a chance. But recent Gronk was still a threat, as evidenced by the 87 yards he collected in Super Bowl 53. Gronk called it quits this offseason and the Patriots will have to adjust to life without their 6’6” tight end who had been partying and tormenting opposing defensive coordinators in New England since 2010.

The team signed tight ends Benjamin Watson and Austin Seferian-Jenkins and OC Josh McDaniels will find creative ways to use the duo, though Watson’s four-game suspension won’t help matters. Plus the Patriots drafted big-bodied receiving playmaker N’Keal Harry who could provide the team with the deep threat it’s been missing since Randy Moss.

But let’s be real, Gronkowski was been Brady’s top weapon for ages. The Big Lead broke down Brady’s stats with and without Gronk, and Mr. Pliability’s completion percentage dropped from 65.5% to 60.25% when Gronk was absent. If any player exiting New England speeds up the end of the Patriots dynasty other than Brady, it could be Gronk.

How Le’Veon Bell’s season plays out

The Jets signed Bell in March to a whopping four-year contract worth $52.5 million with $27 million guaranteed. The deal was startling for a running back, even one as talented as Bell, but Jets brass said the right things at the time and everyone moved on. Fast forward to two weeks after the draft. The Jets fire GM Mike Maccagnan and while head coach Adam Gase denied any rift, it was reported that Gase was unhappy with Bell’s contract, thinking the team way overpaid for the position.

Gase somewhat denied this sentiment, though offered a nonchalant “the contact is what it is” last week.  He also denied the notion of trading Bell. But still, this relationship is off to rocky start. Bell’s performance after a year off was going to be theater enough; now add in the backdrop of a possible resentful coach and the intrigue in New York is off the charts.

What’s going to happen with Tyreek Hill?

The messy Hill situation is somewhat at a standstill from the NFL perspective. Kansas City law enforcement and Child Protective Services reopened the case of Hill’s 3-year-old son’s broken arm after audio was released that suggested Tyreek was the perpetrator. His attorney wrote a letter to the NFL denying most of the allegations in the audio.

Hill has not been placed on the Commissioner’s Exempt List, nor has he been officially suspended by the Chiefs. But he has been effectively banned from team activities while the investigation continues. Obviously the child’s safety and future it far and away the most crucial aspect of this case. On the football side, the loss of Hill would be massive. But retaining Hill after the treatment of his child could have deeper waves in the Chiefs locker room as teammates like Tyrann Mathieu have already voiced shock and disappointment.

The Rams’ Super Bowl recovery

If you forgot what happened in Super Bowl 53, that’s because almost nothing happened. This is especially true for the Los Angeles Rams who were slaughtered 13-3 and out-schemed from start to finish. MVP candidate Todd Gurley had only 10 carries while dealing with a “minor knee injury” that has still not been clarified.

Sean McVay admits being outcoached and maybe a little wide-eyed for the moment. The good news is the Rams have most of their pieces back. LT Andrew Whitworth deciding not to retire was huge, as was the signing of Pro Bowl safety Eric Weddle.

But they still have to shake the ghosts of an embarrassing performance. This season is also crucial for Jared Goff. He still has two years left on his rookie deal, but his 2019 performance will go a long way in determining whether Los Angeles give him the mega contract or trade him and draft an inexpensive rookie QB that allows them the cap space to build another “dream team.” 

Reviewable pass interference

Call it the Saints rule. For the first time in NFL history, pass interference, both offensive and defensive and even non-calls, will be reviewable. The rule change comes after officials missed an obvious pass interference call on the Rams late in the NFC Championship. How this rule is applied and enforced and when coaches decide to challenge is going to be a massive storyline this season. The only certainty is that there will be controversy.