NFL Season Preview: The 15 Most Intriguing Figures of 2018

And just like that, the NFL is back! As we strap in for another season the only predicable thing is unpredictably – oh, and the Patriots playing in the Super Bowl.  Oh, and enough injuries to fill a supersized infirmary.

This season already feels stranger than most. A deep-seeded cultural divide and disastrous anthem policy has kept politics at the forefront. Meanwhile, key players are holding out, while others are expressing frustration at the lack of guarantees. All the hard feelings have set the table for a heavy dose of contentiousness leading up to the CBA’s expiration after the 2020 season.

But it’s not all grim. This season should bring plenty of highlights as megastars return from injury, a brash corner continues his rise, an anachronistic coach looks to reignite a muddling franchise, and rookies are set to inspire and electrify.

Here is my VERY SUBJECTIVE list of the 15 most intriguing NFL figures this season. (In no particular order) 

Le’Veon Bell, Steelers RB

When the Steelers tagged Bell, declining to pay him elite offensive weapon money (they offered him top running back money), his path to unrestricted free agency was set in motion.  Both Bell and the Steelers have struck a conciliatory tone – the Steelers say they want to work out a long-term deal after the season, Bell told fans to expect his best season yet. But without a contract, Bell knows he needs to keep himself in like new condition. Thus his usage becomes a big question mark this season as too much wear and tear could cost him millions in free agency.

Last year Bell led the NFL with 321 carries, and the Steelers likely need comparable production to contend for the AFC title. But Adam Schefter reported that Bell could sit out half the year in an effort to preserve his health for payday. Even it he plays all 16 games his now sunny attitude could wane as the season takes its toll and free agency awaits.

Jerry Jones, Cowboys Owner

Stephen Jones, Jerry’s son, may be more involved in the day-to-day operations of the Cowboys with each passing year, but make no mistake, Jerry is still very much the grand-poobah.

Barring a Donald Trump impeachment, the NFL’s national anthem policy debate will continue to be omnipresent. While the owners and players try and coalesce separately and together, the 75-year owner continues to sways to his own beat no matter the consequences.

Jones most recently went rogue by following Trump’s demands and stating that his players must be on the field and stand for the anthem…right when the NFL and NFLPA were meeting to try and reach an agreement. Jones is silent now but this man has never met a microphone and cloud of drama he didn’t like. Even if there is peace on the anthem policy front, Jones will undoubtedly disturb it. (Sound familiar?)

Jalen Ramsey, Jaguars CB

Ramsey has swagger dripping in spades. He’s not afraid to trash talk anyone – remember how he disrespected “Old Man” Steve Smith as a rookie? More recently he chalked up Jimmy Garoppolo’s success to schematics.

Every Ramsey press conference feels like some glorious dramatized pre-fight scene from Rocky. This week, looking ahead to Week 1 against Odell Beckham and the Giants, Ramsey crowed, “He’s the best WR, I’m the best corner…we’re going to give the fans a show.” Ramsey has already mastered the entertainment value of the league. Now he has a chance to establish himself as the top shutdown corner when he faces off against the league’s best wideouts.  Week 1 vs. Beckham, Week 11 vs. Antonio Brown, Weeks 7 and 17 vs. DeAndre Hopkins.  Invest in Orville Redenbacher stock.

Lamar Jackson, Ravens QB

Of the five rookies selected in the first round – Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold, Josh Allen, Josh Rosen and Jackson, Jackson was taken last  – no. 32 by the Ravens. He’s by far the most intriguing. Joe Flacco hasn’t been near elite since the Ravens won the Super Bowl over five years ago and the organization has been rather pulseless since Ray Lewis retired a few days later.

Enter Jackson, a Heisman Trophy winner who is arguably the most electrifying college quarterback of all time. An elite athlete, Jackson was a run-first quarterback at Louisville but played in a pro style offense, which is becoming rarer these days. Because of his athleticism, and sadly, his race, some NFL dinosaurs want to cast him aside as the next [fill-in-the-blank-black-quarterback-who-flamed-out]. But Jackson has the size, instincts and intangibles to potentially be very special if the Ravens are smart enough to build an offense around his talent. The Ravens have reiterated that this is Flacco’s team but for how long is the key question. Teams that take quarterbacks in the first round do so for a reason.

Tom Brady, Patriots QB

Yeah, yeah. The Patriots will dominate the AFC East again and mosey on to their rightful place in February, contending for the Super Bowl.  41-year-old Brady will top 100 in passer rating for the fourth straight year and the remaining stragglers who don’t already refer to him as GOAT will change their tune.  But what if….(gulp)…..Brady regresses.  While most of the NFL zeitgeist may be rooting for Brady’s career to wind down, I’m not sure we are mentally prepared. Aside from the Deflategate suspension, Brady hasn’t missed a start in a decade. He’s the face of the NFL. There are millenials who don’t even know an NFL without Brady.

The Patriots offense will look different starkly this season with Danny Amendola departing for Miami, Brandin Cooks now in LA and Brady losing his mostly trustworthy left tackle Nate Solder in free agency. Julian Edelman’s four-game suspension for PEDs only adds to Brady’s challenges this season. In addition, reportedly salty relations between Brady and Belichick could make things murky. Will Brady do what he’s done for almost 20 years and ultimately adjust or will Father Time and the state of the franchise accelerate the end of Brady and the Pats as we know them?

Shaquem Griffin, Seahawks LB

It’s early but the one-handed rookie linebacker is already looking like a steal. The fifth-rounder from Central Florida who had his left hand amputated when he was four, was wowed in camp and made one awe inspiring play in particular this week: a sharp cut and acceleration to snag a Russell Wilson deep ball. Griffin’s speed has been particularly impressive, as his ability to wrap-around tackle.

He’s currently second on the depth chart but is poised to earn playing time in different looks. The optics of Griffin playing in an NFL uniform, and especially if he plays well, will send a powerful inspiring message that transcends any stat sheet.

Andrew Luck, Colts QB

In a deep field of intriguing QBs, it’s hard to top the return of Luck.  17 months ago Luck underwent surgery on his injured right shoulder and his status has remained a mystery worthy of its own 30-for-30 since. Luck is back and by all accounts looks like Luck again.  While his career took a pause, the resume is long enough to know the Colts are getting back a football savant who can process information as well as anyone. If the shoulder is truly healed and the strong arm and quick release are intact, the sky is limitless, especially with the upgrade from Chuck Pagano to Frank Reich.

Pagano put it best recently: “He got me more years than I probably deserved. He’s a phenom.”

There’s a reason no draft hashtag has come close to sticking like #SuckforLuck did in 2012.

Jon Gruden, Raiders head coach

After seven exhausting years of rumored returns to the NFL, Chucky’s back in Oakland. Raiders owner Mark Davis, a self-proclaimed Gruden fan boy, signed the coach to a whopping TEN-year, $100 million contract.  This time around Gruden’s 54 and a relic of yesteryear.  He’s spent his non-NFL years mostly holed up in a room studying film, eating creepy wings from Hooters and hating on technology.

“He’s bringing up film from like 1976 when you didn’t even think they had film,” tight end Jared Cook said this week. “Like grainy film where you can barely see the players.”

The Raiders culture in the Gruden Era will be under a microscope, especially the societal differences between coach and players, but his early tenure will most likely be graded on whether or not Derek Carr returns to MVP candidate form. 

Jurrell Casey, Titans DT

Despite being named to three consecutive Pro Bowls, Casey remains one of the most underrated players in the league. But the eighth-year force may be more interesting for his actions on the sideline. When the NFL announced its new anthem policy, Casey was quick to say that he was planning to protest anyhow, citing the league’s lack of understanding about the issues that sing to the majority of its players.

The policy has been placed on hold while the league and union try and work out a compromise but Casey has already set himself up to take the baton from Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid.

Jimmy Garoppolo, 49ers QB

Five straight wins. All the hype that’s fit to print. The NFL is coming up Jimmy.  Is Garoppolo the next elite franchise QB? Most observers believe so after watching him slice and dice opposing defenses, especially Jacksonville’s.  Jags corner Jalen Ramsey, also on this list, wasn’t quite as impressed., calling Garoppolo’s success a “lot of scheme stuff.”

Garoppolo should benefit from a full offseason to learn Kyle Shanahan’s complex scheme. However, he’ll again have to make magic without a top flight receiving corps. His biggest test yet comes quick as the 49ers travel to Minnesota to take on last year’s top ranked defense.

I almost escaped this blurb without mention of Garoppolo’s date with a porn actress. His looks already made his dating life notable; now it’s off the charts intriguing.

Frank Gore, Dolphins RB

If you’re wondering why a backup running back is on this list, check your sensibilities. Gore is a medical marvel, a 35-year-old superhero that hasn’t missed a game since 2010. That is not a typo.

Now a Dolphin, his third and final team, Gore is already getting the adulation of head coach Adam Gase. Gase recently said Gore looks ten years younger, a reference to the Dolphins coach being an offensive assistant in San Francisco in 2008 when Gore was on the roster.

Gore is still carrying a heavy volume – he had the ninth most carries last season while with Indianapolis – though those numbers should diminish given that the Dolphins have high expectations for Kenyon Drake and plan to include rookie Kalen Ballage. But Gore has been doubted for at least half a decade now and  always bulldozes through the skepticism with power, grit and production.

Aaron Donald, Rams DE

For the second straight year Donald is holding out. A game-altering machine, Donald is the league’s top defender and wants to be paid as such. The 27-year old easily led the league with 91 quarterback pressures last season, and that was while missing two games, one of which was due to holding out until a nanosecond before the regular season.

Donald’s future with the Rams boils down to value. Rams COO Kevin Demoff admitted the two sides are off on his worth, which is more to say that they’re not convinced Donald at age 30 and 31 will be the same dominating force on year 3 or 4 of a long-term deal.

The Donald-Rams impasse plays out with the salty backdrop of star rusher Todd Gurley getting a long-term deal as well as new wideout Brandin Cooks getting paid without having yet played a snap for the Rams.

Patrick Mahomes, Chiefs QB

When Mahomes was drafted 10th overall in 2017, Alex Smith’s tenure with the Chiefs was instantly for the short-term.  Now Mahomes is replacing last year’s most efficient passer and the expectations are soaring. Unlike his predecessor, Mahomes is a spark plug quarterback with a ridiculously strong arm. He’s also a gunslinging risk taker in the mold of Brett Favre. With Mahomes under center and weapons like Travis Kelce, Tyreek Hill, Kareem Hunt and Sammy Watkins, the Chiefs offense may be the most fun to watch this season. Just don’t expect Mahomes’s passer rating to come close to Smith’s last year – through six practices, Mahomes already has seven interceptions.

Josh Gordon, Browns WR (we think)

The mystery of Josh Gordon continues. The troubled WR who wowed the world with an insanely dominant 2103 season (1646 yards in 14 games)  has largely been suspended since due to substance abuse issues. Coasts were seemingly clear for Gordon this season and he was in the midst of wowing his teammates when he announced he was taking a leave of absence for  treatment that was scheduled and part of his overall recovery.

No one outside of Gordon’s inner circle knows the extend of the treatment but logic would dictate that something scheduled would occur before training camp. When/if Gordon reemerges he’ll have to apply for reinstatement yet again as he was on the Did Not Report list.

Bill Belichick, Patriots head coach

Like Brady, it’s almost impossible to envision the Patriots without Belichick.  Belichcik’s intrigue lies not in the mumbling press conferences (though they do old great entertainment value) but in last year’s leftovers.

In January ESPN’s Seth Wickersham broke an explosive story that Tom Brady went to Robert Kraft who forced Belichick to trade Jimmy Garoppolo . He opted to send Garoppolo for a second-round pick when he could have received more from Cleveland.   The Patriots emphatically denied this  report but there is still no viable explanation for why Belichick would throw the Brady succession plan. Maybe we’ll get some telling mumbles this year.