The NFL is about to enter a truly unprecedented season of football in 2020. It's impossible to predict what will happen in a typical year, let alone what might happen in a season affected by the coronavirus pandemic. As we've seen with Major League Baseball, it would be an upset if all 32 teams played all 16 games as scheduled.
Naturally, though, there's still a lot to look forward to in 2020. Today, I've gone through 40 of the players, coaches and officials who rank among the most compelling to watch this season. Some of them are young players who have a lot to prove after leaving college or taking on a larger role. Others are veterans who are holding on for one last shot at a title. Some would prefer a normal season; others might actually benefit from the chaos of 2020.
I've separated the pack into groups. They're not in any particular order, but let's start with the players who are new to the league:
1. Patrick Mahomes, QB, Kansas City Chiefs
No player in the league is more fun to watch than Mahomes. For all the comparisons to guys like Aaron Rodgers and Brett Favre, the guy whom Mahomes reminds me of more than anyone is Barry Sanders. A healthy Mahomes is appointment television because you never know when he's going to do something you didn't think was humanly possible. You could never in a million years teach someone to play quarterback the way Mahomes does and expect him to succeed, and yet, Mahomes has been otherworldly over the past two years.
How do you build on winning league MVP and Super Bowl MVP in back-to-back seasons? Mahomes can start by carrying over his red zone form to 2020. In 2018, the Chiefs scored touchdowns on 71.8% of their red zone trips, which was the second-highest rate in football and how he produced a 50-touchdown season.
During the 2019 regular season, the Chiefs fell to 54%, which ranked a middling 20th. Part of that was a product of missing Mahomes for the better part of three games with a knee injury. In the postseason, Kansas City fueled each of its comebacks by dominating in the red zone, as it scored 12 touchdowns across 15 red zone trips, for a conversion rate of 80%. (The Chiefs mixed in two field goals and a kneel-down to seal the AFC Championship Game over the Titans.)
Red zone performance is mostly random from year to year, in part because we're just not looking at a large sample of data for each team. The most likely offenses to excel inside the 20 are the ones that are great over the other 80 yards, so it seems fair to suggest that the Chiefs will improve on that 20th-placed mark from a year ago. With all of Mahomes' receivers returning and Clyde Edwards-Helaire joining him in the backfield, there's the potential for a record-shattering season here.
2. Lamar Jackson, QB, Baltimore Ravens
How do you top your MVP season? Jackson was a force of nature in the regular season before a second consecutive playoff loss, but as I wrote about in his summer progress report, there's nothing suggesting that he is about to suddenly fall off a cliff or get figured out. My concerns are more about the players around the star quarterback; the Ravens were the league's healthiest offense by adjusted games lost in 2019 and won't have star guard Marshal Yanda, who retired after the loss to Tennessee.
Jackson does an incredible job of avoiding unnecessary hits, but any quarterback who runs the ball 11 times per game is going to take more contact and be more of an injury risk than someone who sits in the pocket and gets the ball out quickly. Jackson also won't throw touchdowns on 9% of his pass attempts again given that it was the second-best touchdown rate since the merger, but the Heisman Trophy winner could be about as valuable as he was in 2019 if he continues to post a passer rating of 113 over more attempts. Even if he doesn't win MVP, he's not going anywhere.
3. Michael Thomas, WR, New Orleans Saints
Pro Football Reference has target data for receivers going back through 1992. In 2018, Thomas became the first wide receiver or tight end to be targeted 100 times in a season and catch 80% of those targets. In 2019, he repeated the feat. Skeptics who would have chalked up his success to being a product of playing with Drew Brees had to sit back down when Thomas kept things up with Teddy Bridgewater as his quarterback.
With the league likely expanding to 17 games in 2021, Thomas is our best -- and last -- chance at seeing a wideout rack up 2,000 yards in the 16-game era.
Keyshawn Johnson, Max Kellerman and Stephen A. Smith debate whether DeAndre Hopkins or Michael Thomas is the more clutch receiver.
4. Russell Wilson, QB, Seattle Seahawks
Mr. Unlimited was the second-best quarterback in football last season behind Lamar Jackson. He was about as good on a per-attempt basis in 2018 as he was in 2019, but the difference was volume; the 31-year-old went from throwing just under 27 passes per game in 2018 to just over 32 per game. I don't see any reason to believe Wilson would be less effective if the Seahawks continued to up their passing volume and trusted Wilson to throw the ball closer to 550 times, a mark he approached in 2016 and hit for the first and only time in 2017.
The offensive line is a major question mark in Seattle, but with Tyler Lockett and DK Metcalf, Wilson has his best one-two punch at receiver on paper since Golden Tate left town. The Seahawks still seem insistent on limiting Wilson without letting their star quarterback cook, which is something I think we'll look back on in frustration years from now.
The new arrivals
5. Cam Newton, QB, New England Patriots
Are we ready for the #camback? The last time we saw a healthy Newton was in 2018, when he was a borderline MVP candidate. Through Week 12 of that season, the then-Panthers quarterback was completing 69.6% of his passes and averaging 7.5 yards per attempt with a passer rating of 103.7. Injuries have limited Newton to just five of the ensuing 21 games, in which he has been a replacement-level quarterback with a passer rating of 66.9.
As I wrote back in June when he signed with the Patriots, I think the former league MVP is healthy. The big question is whether he stays healthy. The Patriots aren't tied to Newton after the season, so they don't have to worry about protecting him for the long term in the same way that a team like the Panthers did in years past.
My suspicion is that we're going to see a Patriots offense that looks a lot like the one Newton was running under Norv Turner in 2018. The goal will be to get the ball out quickly into the hands of playmakers and let them do their thing after the catch while keeping him healthy. Christian McCaffrey and DJ Moore aren't here, of course, but the Patriots have a little more left in the tank than people think. Newton is not going to be Lamar Jackson, but he's going to have a few designed runs and the ability to check to run concepts when the numbers in the box are in his favor. Nobody has a wider range of outcomes in 2020: Everything from MVP to falling out of football is on the table for him.
6. Tom Brady, QB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
All the greatest player in the history of football did was leave the only pro home and coach he has ever known. Nothing worth watching there. The idea of even seeing Brady take the field in a Buccaneers uniform still seems incredible, but we're a little over a week out from seeing that happen against the Saints.
The big question with Brady: How will he and the Buccaneers deal with adversity? Obviously, he has decades of experience and is mentally tough enough to put up with things if they don't go as planned early in the season, but what happens if he is still feeling his way around Bruce Arians' downfield passing scheme as the Buccaneers start 2-3? I imagine we would see more quick passing game and something that much more closely resembles the Patriots style Brady has played in over the past decade.
If there aren't any hiccups and Brady produces a vintage season, the only question anyone could have left on the table about his career will be answered: Could he have succeeded without Bill Belichick? When I tried to estimate whether Brady or Belichick had contributed more to the Patriots dynasty, I came down on the side of the quarterback. I'm not sure it matters all that much to a quarterback who said he doesn't care about legacy or proving himself without Belichick, but since when has Brady ever left any doubt?
7. DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Arizona Cardinals
Here's where Hopkins ranks in the league in four categories from 2015 to 2019:
Receiving yards: 2nd
Receiving TDs: 2nd
Total snaps played: 3rd
8. Yannick Ngakoue, DE, Minnesota Vikings
We've all gone somewhere for too long and ended up anxious to leave. Ngakoue was so ready to leave Jacksonville that the star defensive end forfeited $5.8 million of his franchise tag to facilitate a move to Minnesota. The 25-year-old didn't even lock up the right to avoid a second franchise tag in 2021, and while that tag is unlikely to come from the cap-strapped Vikings, you don't typically see NFL players give up that much in virtually guaranteed money merely for a fresh start.
Ngakoue should form a fearsome one-two punch in his new digs with Danielle Hunter. Since 2016, the duo ranks third (Hunter) and 12th (Ngakoue) in sacks. Switch to quarterback knockdowns and Ngakoue ranks ahead of Hunter. The Vikings are $11.3 million over the projected cap for 2021, but if Ngakoue delivers in his contract year, it's difficult to imagine them letting him go. Likewise, if they can help their new star get back to the postseason, it's difficult to imagine Ngakoue wanting to leave.
9. Robert Quinn, EDGE, Chicago Bears
The popular perception was that Quinn had fallen off since his Defensive Player of the Year nod as a 23-year-old in 2013. While injuries limited him during the tail end of his run with the Rams, ESPN's pass rush win rate (PRWR) analysis suggests Quinn is actually a superstar. He comfortably led the league in PRWR in both 2018 and 2019. Over that time frame, his 32.6% PRWR is the best in the league by more than 6 percentage points, with second-placed Jadeveon Clowney closer to 17th place than he is to Quinn in first.
Quinn's raw production in 2018 with the Dolphins wasn't overwhelming, but he bounced back with 11.5 sacks and 22 knockdowns in 647 snaps for the Cowboys last season. Bears general manager Ryan Pace quizzically suggested he wasn't "a Moneyball GM" after arriving into town, but the team gave Quinn a five-year, $70 million deal this offseason to form a fearsome combination with Khalil Mack. If the Quinn from 2013 shows up, the Bears could have the league's scariest pass rush.
10. Rob Gronkowski, TE, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Gronk could have stayed retired, made a few appearances in WWE and popped up in Canton in five years for his Pro Football Hall of Fame speech. (You can't spell "Hall of Fame" without LMFAO.) Instead, after a year of retirement, Gronkowski returned to the league and forced a trade to the Buccaneers, where he'll reunite with Tom Brady.
Nobody will be happier than the longtime Patriots quarterback. From the moment Gronk entered the league in 2010, Brady has been a different quarterback with his running buddy. The legendary quarterback posted a QBR of 77.6 with his star tight end on the field in New England, but that mark fell to 58.2 QBR when Gronkowski was sidelined or retired, including a major decline last season.
Gronkowski posted his worst post-rookie season in 2018 amid reports that his perennial back issues were flaring up, but when the Patriots needed a big play in critical moments, the ball went to him. The 31-year-old doesn't have to carry the receiving workload with Chris Godwin and Mike Evans around, and I suspect the Bucs might actually end up getting more out of the star tight end as a pass-blocker from series to series, but when Brady needs a big play, my guess is that he'll rely on his old reliable.
11. Darius Slay, CB, Philadelphia Eagles
"Big Play" Slay got what he wanted. After years of languishing in Detroit, Slay was traded to the Eagles for third- and fifth-round picks and netted a three-year, $50 million extension in the process. The three-time Pro Bowler is now the highest-paid cornerback in the league by average annual salary. The spotlight is officially on the Mississippi State product.
That spotlight can be particularly unforgiving in Philadelphia when players fail to live up to expectations; just ask retired cornerbacks Nnamdi Asomugha and Byron Maxwell, who excelled elsewhere before struggling to live up to expectations in green and white. If anything, Slay's workload should be easier, given that he was on a team that played more man coverage than anybody else in football and was often assigned to the opposing team's No. 1 wideout. If Slay doesn't slow down Amari Cooper when the Cowboys come to town, though, watch out.
12. Philip Rivers, QB, Indianapolis Colts
Is Rivers toast? The Colts made a $25 million bet that he has something left in the tank after an ugly second half of the 2019 season in Los Angeles. Between Rivers and Jacoby Brissett, Indy is spending $47.9 million of its cap on quarterbacks this season, more than $12 million beyond the second-placed Cowboys. The case for Rivers involves a reunion with Frank Reich and a much-improved offensive line, but Reich ended his previous relationship with Rivers by getting fired in San Diego, and the Colts' five offensive line starters probably aren't going to go all season without missing a start like they did in 2019.
I've written about how Rivers' interception glut mostly came in situations in which he was throwing to try to lead the Chargers back in the fourth quarter, but he was also one of the reasons the Chargers were trailing to begin with. I'm cautiously optimistic, but I still think the Colts' best chance of winning the division is more about the Texans and Titans falling off than it is about Indianapolis becoming an 11-win team.
13. Jamal Adams, S, Seattle Seahawks
Teams trade two first-round picks only for superstars, so while Adams played like one with the Jets in 2019, anything short of that level of production or a deep playoff run would have to be considered a disappointment. Given that Adams racked up 6.5 sacks last season and just two defensive backs since 1982 have produced as many as two five-sack seasons across their entire careers, he is going to struggle to stuff the stat sheet quite as much as he did in 2019.
At the same time, he is a difference-maker who could help swing the NFC West in Seattle's favor. He was the only Pro Bowler or All-Pro on a 2019 Jets defense that ranked 10th in defensive DVOA despite getting a total of just 429 snaps from its three most expensive players (C.J. Mosley, Avery Williamson and Trumaine Johnson). I don't think Adams single-handedly carried the Jets to a finish ahead of teams like the Saints, Eagles and Seahawks, but if he can help Seattle jump from 18th into the top 10, the Seahawks could buck the trends suggesting they'll decline this upcoming season.
14. Trent Williams, OT, San Francisco 49ers
Most players wouldn't sit out a year in their football prime to insist on a trade away from an organization, but Washington's misdiagnosis and mismanagement of what eventually was diagnosed as skin cancer left the star tackle with no choice. If he could have picked a better landing spot, it's difficult to imagine one for Williams than San Francisco and a reunion with former Washington offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan.
With Joe Staley retiring, Williams will take over and protect Jimmy Garoppolo's blind side for a 49ers team that expects to return to the Super Bowl. Williams also didn't sign an extension when he left for the Bay Area, meaning the former Oklahoma star will play out the final year of his deal at $12.5 million. With a no-franchise tag provision attached to his deal, he could parlay a big season in San Francisco into a record-setting contract next spring.
15. Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Carolina Panthers
Bridgewater's four-year odyssey to get back the starting job he lost to a catastrophic knee injury in the summer of 2016 is finally almost complete. The much-beloved Louisville star is set to line up as the Week 1 starter for the Panthers after impressing with the Saints as Drew Brees' replacement last season, and while he won't be taking over the Chiefs or Cowboys, he's better positioned to succeed than most might think.
The Panthers are deep with weapons and have a good set of tackles in Russell Okung and Taylor Moton. Bridgewater probably needs an impressive season to keep Carolina out of the quarterback market in 2021; while I don't have much faith in a rebuilding Panthers defense, he has what he needs to succeed on the offensive side of the ball.
16. Derek Carr, QB, Las Vegas Raiders
Carr and Aaron Rodgers both feel like they deserve respect, but they're going about it in diametrically opposed ways. Rodgers is (arguably) living off past glories. Carr ranked in the top 10 in both QBR and passer rating last season. Rodgers (perhaps rightfully) feels like he needed to get more help at receiver this offseason. Carr's Raiders are loaded up with talent even after Tyrell Williams hit injured reserve, thanks to the additions of Henry Ruggs III and Bryan Edwards in April's draft.
Both also feel a bit of pressure coming from below. The Marcus Mariota addition threatens Carr in a way that, say, Nathan Peterman's presence on the roster does not. Coach Jon Gruden had a wandering eye for quarterbacks during his time in Tampa and never made that big move to get a long-term solution, but Carr has started 32 consecutive games with the Raiders under Gruden. There will always be speculation that they want to go after a big name to help fill seats once fans can actually enter into Allegiant Stadium, but Carr's 2019 performance was better than those of many of the big names who became available in the offseason. He'll have to keep it up to hold off Mariota -- or someone even more notable -- to greet those fans in 2021.
17. Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay Packers
Let's do a blind résumé test:
Player A: 725-of-1,166 passing for 8,444 yards (62.2%) with 51 TDs and 6 INTs; 7.2 yards per attempt and 48.5 Pass QBR
Player B: 680-of-1,075 passing for 7,433 yards (63.3%) with 50 TDs and 19 INTs; 6.9 yards per attempt and 53.9 Pass QBR
Player A is Rodgers from the 2018-19 campaigns. Player B is ... Derek Carr from the 2016-17 seasons. Over the past two years, the only thing Rodgers has done at a level significantly better than league-average is avoid throwing interceptions. He has been incredible there -- he just posted two of the six lowest interception rates in league history over the past two seasons -- but that's not the guy who terrified opposing defenses in years past. Rodgers might not trust any of his receivers besides Davante Adams, but the alternative hasn't been setting the world on fire.
18. Aaron Jones, RB, Green Bay Packers
As much as we've heard about Aaron Rodgers getting disrespected this offseason, what about Jones? Running backs Christian McCaffrey and Derrick Henry have signed deals, and guys like Dalvin Cook and Alvin Kamara have at least had serious negotiations with their teams. There's been barely a peep from Green Bay, which followed a season where Jones racked up 1,558 yards from scrimmage and 19 touchdowns by using a second-round pick on bruising Boston College back AJ Dillon.
The Packers were a different offense with Jones on the field a year ago, and while his touchdown rate is likely to regress in 2020, he seems set to play out one final season in Green Bay before hitting free agency. I'm a killjoy who points out how most running back contracts turn out poorly, but I'm surprised the Packers have decided to toe the line with their star back.
The breakout candidates
19. Dak Prescott, QB, Dallas Cowboys
Has any player in the league been subject to more scrutiny and conversation this offseason than Prescott? You're probably sick of hearing about him. Frankly, I'm sick of hearing about him.
I wrote a big piece on him back in June and followed up when he failed to come to terms on an extension with the Cowboys in July. He's a fascinating player, and I can't wait to see him play this season. I just don't have anything else to say about him until that happens.
20. JuJu Smith-Schuster, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers
We're so spoiled for promising young receivers in the NFL right now that it feels like we've forgotten about JuJu. In 2018, all Smith-Schuster did was produce the second-most receiving yards (1,426) for an age-22 receiver in league history behind Josh Gordon (1,646 in 2013). Last year was a wasted season thanks to injuries to both Ben Roethlisberger and Smith-Schuster himself, who battled nagging injuries and then missed the better part of five games with a knee issue.
Smith-Schuster heads into a contract year with Roethlisberger back on the field and much to be gained. The Steelers find themselves $13.8 million above the reduced cap in 2021, and that's before trying to re-sign players like Bud Dupree, Cameron Heyward, James Conner and Alejandro Villanueva. There's already speculation suggesting the Steelers are prepared to let Smith-Schuster move on after the season, and Pittsburgh used a top-100 pick on a wide receiver for the fourth consecutive season when it drafted Chase Claypool in the second round.
If Smith-Schuster can reproduce his 2018 numbers and the Steelers decide to move on without a tag, the resulting contract could set new records. Even with a reduced cap, wide receivers as young and talented as Smith-Schuster almost never hit the market. Sammy Watkins, a far less productive wideout with a more significant injury history, took home three years and $48 million from the Chiefs in free agency in 2018. Another 1,400-yard season could make Smith-Schuster the first wideout in the league to hit $25 million per season.
21. Drew Lock, QB, Denver Broncos
I went back and rewatched each of Lock's five starts from the 2019 season, and while it's fair to note that the Missouri product was up against some weak defenses, I was pleasantly surprised. He reminded me a little of Blake Bortles, which is more of a compliment than it might seem for a guy who looked overmatched in the preseason. Lock's athleticism allows him to make all kinds of throws, and while he still lacks pocket presence, he was excellent at escaping the pocket, resetting and making accurate throws downfield.
General manager John Elway has loaded up the offense with weapons, but after Ja'Wuan James opted out, Lock might be playing behind one of the league's worst tackle situations. Five games isn't enough of a sample to prove much of anything -- remember that Josh McDaniels started his ill-fated tenure as Broncos head coach by going 5-0 -- but Lock has done enough to earn a full season at the helm for Denver.
22. Kyler Murray, QB, Arizona Cardinals
The trendy pick to win league MVP after second-year passers like Patrick Mahomes, Carson Wentz and Lamar Jackson made big leaps in their second seasons, Murray has to be in the discussion. The 2019 No. 1 overall pick was fantasy's QB8 as a rookie, but it wasn't in the way most might have expected. The dreams of Murray and Kliff Kingsbury tossing the ball up 50 times a game in a high-tempo, pass-heavy attack faded as the season went along, with the Cardinals finding more success running the football than they did throwing it. Arizona finished first in rushing DVOA, with Murray's 29% first-down rate as a runner helping the cause.
Now, after the addition of DeAndre Hopkins, everything seems on the table. Will the Cardinals go back to that September offense and trust the addition of a receiver who can win against man coverage will open up the rest of their passing attack? Will the game slow down for Murray in his second season? Can the Arizona offensive line stay healthy enough for Murray to have time to throw out of the pocket? And, if all those things happen, is Murray's ceiling anything short of Mahomes?
23. DK Metcalf, WR, Seattle Seahawks
Metcalf was a size/speed meme before the 2019 draft as a guy who could run only two routes, and when he fell all the way to the last pick of the second round, the NFL seemed to be confirming that stance. For the record, I was absolutely one of those Metcalf skeptics, and through Year 1, I was totally wrong.
All Metcalf did as a rookie was rack up 900 receiving yards and then obliterate the Eagles with a rookie-record 160-yard performance in the wild-card round. The last receiver who looked like this in the NFL was David Boston, and while the No. 8 pick in the 1999 draft didn't have a long career, he peaked with a 1,598-yard season in 2001. Metcalf might have that sort of upside in his range of possible outcomes if the Seahawks pass more frequently in 2020.
24. Josh Allen, QB, Buffalo Bills
The last pass Allen threw in 2019 was an undefended 2-yard hitch route he missed by 2 yards. The second-year quarterback made major strides with his decision-making and footwork last season, but his accuracy and ability to throw downfield aren't yet up to NFL standards. He was good enough for the Bills to win 10 games a year ago, but he fell apart as they blew a 16-0 second-half lead against Houston in the wild-card round.
Now, the expectations are different. I think Buffalo has the best roster in the AFC if you leave quarterbacks out of the equation. Anything short of a division title would be disappointing. If Allen continues to improve and holds up his end of the bargain, he will both silence the doubters and make a ton of money. If he stagnates or declines, though, he'll be in a booth with Blake Bortles and Mitchell Trubisky as oft-defended young quarterbacks who dragged excellent defenses back to the pack.
25. Taysom Hill, QB, New Orleans Saints
The expectations have changed for the Saints' jack-of-all-trades. After signing Hill to a one-year, $16.3 million extension, the Saints signaled that they expect him to be a significant part of the offense. The BYU product played just under 17% of the offensive snaps through Week 12, but from Thanksgiving on, his workload more than doubled, soaring past 40% of the snaps. It's difficult to imagine the Saints giving running back Alvin Kamara a significant raise (even if most of the money is due in 2021) and then dropping his usage rate down into the teens.
For all the questions about whether Hill is the Saints' quarterback of the future, it's worth noting that he just turned 30 in August. His time to make an impact as an NFL player is now, and he has thrown 13 career passes. I'm not suggesting that the Saints are about to bench Drew Brees, but through three years, Hill has been a Wildcat quarterback as opposed to someone with meaningful passing volume. This is the year that has to change if the Saints can feel comfortable moving forward with Hill as a full-time quarterback in 2021.
One scenario to keep in mind: Remember what Sean Payton did during his yearlong suspension in 2012. The Saints' head honcho coached his son's sixth-grade team, which made it to the finals before losing twice to a team running the single wing. The Wildcat is, at its essence, a modified version of the single wing.
I don't think the Saints are about to install a scheme that peaked in the 1960s as their base offense because it worked against a bunch of sixth-graders, but in a year in which practice time is already at a minimum, could they install more single wing concepts with Hill as the quarterback to give their frazzled opponents something else to prepare for each week? Given how important it is for New Orleans to keep Brees' arm fresh for the postseason and how much it just paid Hill, I wouldn't be surprised to see Payton sneak out something new (and old) in 2020.
26. Bill Belichick, New England Patriots
Unlike Tom Brady, Belichick has already had a successful NFL career without the other half of his dynasty. Most of that success, though, came as a defensive coordinator under Bill Parcells. Belichick has gone 219-64 (.774) as a head coach with Brady as a starter, but just 54-63 (.462) without the legendary quarterback taking snaps. To be fair, many of those losses came in Cleveland; Belichick went 13-6 (.685) in New England with Matt Cassel, Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett as fill-in starters.
Marcus Spears explains that Bill Belichick's detailed comments about Cam Newton were a coaching tactic meant to give Newton confidence.
Even if Brady were around, though, Belichick would have his hands full with rebuilding after injuries and opt-outs decimated the league's top defense. Six of the 11 most-used defenders from the 2019 Patriots aren't returning this season, including all three starting linebackers in Jamie Collins, Dont'a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy, plus a safety who played like a linebacker at times in Patrick Chung. The Patriots will return the league's best set of cornerbacks, but history says their interception rate is virtually guaranteed to regress from last year's ridiculous 4.7% mark.
27. Joe Brady, Carolina Panthers
Most first-time offensive coordinators don't have any hype as they enter the league. Most first-time offensive coordinators also don't have Brady's résumé. After serving as an offensive assistant with the Saints for two years, Brady left to join LSU as its passing game coordinator before the 2019 season. All he did there was win a national championship and help turn Joe Burrow from a guy who was a borderline NFL prospect into the first overall pick in the draft.
Burrow didn't follow Brady to Carolina, but with Teddy Bridgewater, Christian McCaffrey, DJ Moore, Curtis Samuel and Robby Anderson, the 30-year-old Brady has plenty to work with under new coach Matt Rhule. Brady's LSU offense was more comfortable spreading the field with five receivers, protecting with five linemen and daring defenses to try to get to Burrow before he found the open receiver than the Panthers will likely be, but few offenses around the league hold more intrigue heading into Week 1 than Carolina's.
28. Andy Reid, Kansas City Chiefs
For years, Reid's public persona was a modern version of Don Coryell, the offensive genius who couldn't win the big one. Every close game against a contender was a chance for Reid to shoot himself in the foot with baffling clock management. Nobody in the league besides Belichick was a better bet to win 10 or more games and make the playoffs, but every postseason inevitably ended with Reid's team finding a way to lose in heartbreaking fashion.
Now, that storyline is over. Reid's résumé is complete and he's a lock for the Hall of Fame. The same people who dismissed his offense for being too cute when one of his wrinkles didn't work or because his teams didn't run the ball enough can't point to a lack of hardware anymore.
Does that free him up to lean even further into his creativity? Does he hand more of the workload off to Eric Bieniemy, who installed a single wing spinner concept from 1948 that the Chiefs ran on fourth-and-short in the Super Bowl? Or will the same critiques of Reid take hold again if the Chiefs don't repeat their Super Bowl success?
29. Kyle Shanahan, San Francisco 49ers
Everything went right for the 49ers in 2019, as they went from looking like one of the most likely teams to improve heading into the season all the way to the Super Bowl. Jimmy Garoppolo stayed healthy, the running game got going and Shanahan's reputation as an offensive mastermind was restored.
So, how do the 49ers top that in 2020? We just saw Sean McVay go from looking like he had all the answers as the Rams made it to the Super Bowl in 2018 to a guy who needed to reconsider his offensive philosophy after a disappointing 2019 campaign. The 49ers aren't necessarily about to undergo the same sort of frustrating campaign, but they've already been hit by a series of injuries to their skill-position players. Last season, there weren't many expectations for the 49ers to compete for a division title. Now, anything short would be disappointing.
30. Bill O'Brien, Houston Texans
Few people around the league have had a more significant past 18 months than O'Brien, who has rebuilt the Texans in his desired image, taken over personnel duties, led his team to a fourth division title in five seasons and presided over an embarrassing capitulation in the divisional round against the Chiefs. With most of their draft capital in 2020 and 2021 shipped elsewhere, the Texans are more of a win-now team than their players' ages might indicate.
O'Brien has made big bets that other organizations wouldn't dare to make, both by using those picks to acquire talent and in shipping out star receiver DeAndre Hopkins as part of a widely panned trade. Of course, the Steelers were mostly trashed for the Antonio Brown trade, and that turned out to go pretty poorly for the Raiders. Vegas isn't on board; at 7.5 wins, the Texans have the lowest over/under for a team coming off a 10-win season with the same quarterback since the 2014 Cardinals.
If O'Brien is right, a lot of people are going to owe him an apology. I'll be one of them.
31. Brian Flores, Miami Dolphins
The first-year head coach was deservedly lauded for his work with a tanking Dolphins team last season. If anything, he might have gotten his players to play too hard, given that Miami won five of its final nine games and fell to the fifth spot in the draft.
After firing offensive coordinator Chad O'Shea, using three first-round picks and signing as many as eight new starters in free agency, the expectations have changed. Nobody is expecting Flores to win the division, but merely being competitive and going 5-11 would be a disappointment. For a Dolphins team that wasn't as good as its record indicated, that might be the most likely scenario.
32. Adam Gase, New York Jets
Sometimes, I have dreams where I am suddenly thrust into a job where I have no skills or prior experience and have to try to pretend that I know what I'm doing on the fly. Sometimes, I watch Gase news conferences and wonder if he's living those same dreams. Forget that infamous debut news conference where Gase seemed wildly distracted the entire time. The one in which Gase revealed "14" had mono and could hardly bear to even look up from his notes was special. Gase first gave a non-answer for why he stuck starting linebacker Avery Williamson on the field with the backups when the former Titans defender tore his ACL before changing his mind and taking the blame the following day. The club publicly fought with Kelechi Osemele over his injured shoulder.
Earlier this summer, Gase refused to reveal on which day the Jets had a scrimmage as part of a news conference, fighting a useless battle to prevent some imaginary adversary from gaining meaningless information. Even he had to smile. Nobody -- not even Bill Belichick -- is more dedicated to being a football coach out of his element in news conferences than Gase.
33. Joe Burrow, QB, Cincinnati Bengals
This time last year, the idea that Burrow would become the No. 1 overall pick would have been laughable. After transferring from Ohio State, he completed just under 58% of his passes and averaged 7.6 yards per attempt for LSU in 2018. It seemed more likely that the former Ohio Mr. Football would go undrafted than work his way into the first round.
Then, 2019 happened. Burrow might have had the greatest season we've ever seen from a college quarterback. LSU might have been the most dominant team in modern college football history. Burrow was a no-brainer first overall pick. Kyler Murray also parlayed one year at Oklahoma into becoming the top pick, but that was also his first year as the starter with the Sooners. Burrow went from looking like a borderline pro at LSU to looking like the scariest quarterback prospect of his generation.
So, where does Burrow land in 2020? The easy answer is to say he'll be somewhere between his 2018 and 2019 numbers, but how much of what he did was a product of pieces that haven't followed him to Cincinnati? Joe Brady is in Carolina. Two of Burrow's weapons came off the board in the first round, and a third is projected as a top-five pick in 2021. With a limited offensive line, will we only see flashes of the guy who took college football by storm in 2020? Or will the presence of players like A.J. Green, Tyler Boyd, Tee Higgins, and Joe Mixon give Burrow enough to threaten opposing defenses? I think we'll see an up-and-down season from the Heisman Trophy winner, but Burrow's high points are going to be irresistible.
34. Clyde Edwards-Helaire, RB, Kansas City Chiefs
I can't think of many rookie running backs who have been dropped into more advantageous situations than Edwards-Helaire. Ezekiel Elliott comes to mind given that offensive line in Dallas, but Edwards-Helaire might have an even better case. Every defense in the NFL is terrified of his quarterback throwing downfield. His coach is the screen whisperer. He had competition for the starting job in Damien Williams, but Williams opted out for the 2020 campaign, clearing a path for the LSU star.
Of course, no rookie is ever a lock to succeed. The bottom of the first round has seen great offenses draft players like Trung Canidate, Donald Brown and Sony Michel, each of whom failed to live up to expectations. (Michel is arguably still a work in progress.) Edwards-Helaire could get injured or struggle to keep up with the workload of an NFL back. Even if he just turns into supercharged Austin Ekeler, that's an incredibly valuable player. The ceiling? There's a reason Louis Riddick says you should be taking Edwards-Helaire with the first overall pick in your fantasy drafts.
35. Jeff Okudah, CB, Detroit Lions
It's foolish to count on most cornerbacks to do much during their rookie season. Okudah has no choice but to jump right into the fire. The highest-drafted cornerback of the past two decades, he joins a Lions team that traded away Darius Slay and has played more man coverage under coach Matt Patricia than anybody in the league besides New England. He starts with Allen Robinson (Bears), Davante Adams (Packers), DeAndre Hopkins (Cardinals) and Michael Thomas (Saints) before the Lions' Week 5 bye. No pressure.
36. Josh Uche, LB, New England Patriots
The Patriots are starting over at linebacker after losing Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins and (part-time fullback) Elandon Roberts to free agency and Dont'a Hightower to an opt-out. Uche, who saw only one season of significant snaps for Michigan, figures to play a lot as a replacement for Van Noy or Collins from the jump. (Second-year linebacker Chase Winovich, another Michigan product, should also have a larger role.)
The only linebacker to top 500 defensive snaps in his rookie season for Belichick over the past decade was Hightower. Uche might be next.
Do they have it?
37. Odell Beckham Jr., WR, Cleveland Browns
Through the first three seasons of his career, Beckham racked up 4,122 receiving yards. We live in an era of inflated pass statistics, but the only player in league history to rack up more receiving yards over his first three seasons is Randy Moss. Beckham did this while missing five games over his first two seasons and catching passes from Eli Manning. It was as good of a start to a receiver's career as we have seen.
Seasons 4-6 haven't been as generous for OBJ. Stopped by a high ankle sprain in 2017 and slowed by a hernia last season, Beckham mustered only 2,389 receiving yards over the past three years. Among receivers in Years 4-6 of their respective careers, 178 different players rank ahead of Beckham in receiving yards, including the likes of Brian Hartline, Stevie Johnson and Braylon Edwards. Beckham would fall even further if we adjusted for the numbers.
Now, we have three years of evidence suggesting Beckham is a Hall of Famer-to-be and three years suggesting he's something closer to a borderline WR1. This season could be the tiebreaker.
38. Earl Thomas, S, Free Agent
Let's be honest: If the Ravens thought Thomas was still the best free safety in football, they wouldn't have cut their 2019 free-agent addition after his fight with teammate Chuck Clark in August. The cold market Thomas has experienced after hitting the street seems to concur with the idea that the future Hall of Famer has slipped. Rumored suitors like the Cowboys haven't beaten down his door.
At the same time, Thomas played virtually every snap for one of the best defenses in football a year ago. He allowed a microscopic 24.2 passer rating in coverage, although Baltimore was a particularly effective defense against deep passes in the middle of the field in the way that the Seahawks were in years past.
Thomas has already tweeted out an in-game retirement in the past, so we know the idea has crossed his mind. The 31-year-old has already made just under $78 million, won a Super Bowl and could make the Hall of Fame without playing another snap. If he isn't going to get paid like a starter (or play in that role), is it worth it for him to return? At the same time, is this really how he wants a legendary career to end?
39. Kaleb McGary, OT, Atlanta Falcons
You probably didn't see McGary coming on this list. I might be the only one fascinated by the former Washington product. In the 2019 draft, though, the Falcons decided against using their first-round pick on a player to help out their ailing defense and used the 14th pick on offensive lineman Chris Lindstrom. At the end of the round, the Falcons then traded up to draft McGary. Given how Matt Ryan's dominant 2016 season came behind a fully healthy and dominant offensive line, you can figure that the Falcons thought they might be able to just win shootout after shootout if they upgraded their line.
It didn't go well. The defense was a mess for most of the season. Lindstrom broke his foot and missed 11 games. McGary was healthy for all 16 games, but ESPN's pass block win rate analysis ranked him 166th out of 171 qualifying offensive linemen. The right tackle was assigned the blame for a league-high 18 sacks, two more than any other player. McGary has a great story as someone who has overcome multiple heart procedures to make it to the pros, but the Falcons made a big bet on their right tackle. I'm rooting for him, but he has a lot to prove in 2020.
And last but not least ...
40. The officials
Officiating is a hot-button topic in a normal year. In 2020, the quality of officiating could draw even more attention. We've all thought about the possibilities surrounding a team dealing with the coronavirus, but what about an officiating crew? The average NFL official has 11 years of experience, and many are 50 or older. Seven of the league's officials opted out of the season, and as part-time employees, other officials could at least theoretically choose to do so during the season.
The league has also placed an emphasis on assigning officials games within driving distance to reduce the risk of traveling, which means they also needed to remove the rules preventing any one officiating crew from working with any one team more than twice during the regular season. What if a crew blows a big call in the Superdome in the Saints-Buccaneers game in Week 1 and has to be assigned three more Saints home games over the course of the season? We're only a few years removed from the replacement referee fiasco of 2012, and while the league could possibly call upon a more experienced group of replacement officials if college football isn't going on, this is a tough job. Prepare for more complaints about the folks in black and white stripes this year.