1696 players, 32 teams and 267 games – the 2019 NFL season is almost upon us.
This year’s edition of the league will mark its 100th year in existence and to commemorate it, alongside a logo change and badges added to players uniforms, the centenary year will kick off with a game between two of the league’s oldest sides, the Chicago Bears and the Green Bay Packers.
With new faces arriving in the league via the draft, players switching teams and new rules coming in, it’s been all change since the New England Patriots’ 13-3 victory over the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta.
So ahead of the start of the new season and with the help of nine-year NFL player Coy Wire, let’s have a look at what you should be keeping an eye out for.
Unlike in other sports, the teams contending to hoist the Lombardi Trophy often change on a year-by-year basis.
But despite the rotating door of contenders, one thing remains constant over recent years – the New England Patriots.
Since 1996, they have appeared in ten Super Bowls, winning six of them and with the seemingly ageless Tom Brady at quarterback and the grizzled, experienced Bill Belichick at the helm, the Patriots look set to make a run for the Super Bowl again.
In a top-heavy AFC, Patriots look to be vying for a spot in the Super Bowl with the always-competitive Pittsburgh Steelers and the Kansas City Chiefs – quarterbacked by reigning MVP Patrick Mahomes.
“The favorites to make the Super Bowl from the AFC are the Patriots … yet again,” Wire said. “Has there ever been a more dominant dynasty in NFL history?
“There are eight-year-old kids who’ve never seen an AFC championship game without the Patriots playing in it. That’s right – eight straight. Having faced Tom Brady and Bill Belichick twice a year, every year, during my six seasons with the Buffalo Bills, I can assure you that their reign is about so much more than physical talent.
“In fact, they never have the most talented roster on paper. They win because they have conquerers’ mindsets, and have created a blueprint for a winning culture that has yet to be replicated in the league. Their biggest challenge will come from Kansas City. The league’s reigning MVP Patrick Mahomes is back after a 50 TD, 5,000-yard season passing.
“The dark horse in the AFC will be Jacksonville with their feisty defense returning, and the addition of Super Bowl winning QB, Nick Foles, on offense.”
It is the opposite in the NFC however, which looks much more wide-open, as four of the top seven favorites are battling it out for a spot in the Super Bowl.
The Packers, Rams, Saints and Philadelphia Eagles will likely be juking it out in the playoffs, while up-and-coming teams such as the Bears, under second-year coach Matt Nagy, will be hoping to spring a surprise.
“In the NFC, the Saints will be right back there knocking at the door of the Super Bowl,” Wire outlines. “Their 40-year-old QB Drew Brees is still slinging the football better than almost anyone has ever done it.
“Can you imagine the hype surrounding a rematch between New Orleans and the Rams in the NFC title game after last season’s controversial pass interference no-call that sent the Saints packing? It’s a likely possibility.
“A dark horse contender in the NFC is my former team, the Atlanta Falcons. Vegas odds have them barely cracking a .500 record, but after spending time with the team this offseason, I say with confidence that they’re better than they were than when they went to the Super Bowl in 2016.
“Their offense is back (and better) after QB Matt Ryan put up numbers on par with his MVP season, and their defense is healthy again after being obliterated by injuries last season.”
On the move
When it comes to explosive offseasons, the NFL typically has lagged behind the NBA.
But when free agency opened on March 13, the NFL decided to take a leaf out of the NBA’s book, with blockbuster trades and free agent signings aplenty.
On the opening day of free agency, superstar wide receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and Antonio Brown were traded to the Cleveland Browns and Oakland Raiders respectively.
2018 Super Bowl winning quarterback Nick Foles signed a four-year $88 million contract with the Jacksonville Jaguars while running back Le’Veon Bell – who decided not play during the 2018 season for the Steelers due to pay disputes – signed a four-year $52.5 million contract with the New York Jets.
“Antonio Brown going to Oakland with his frost bitten feet and banned helmet has been a dramatic offseason move, but the most shocking, exciting, perplexing, and intriguing move is former Giants star Odell Beckham Jr. going to the Browns,” Wire said.
“Cleveland now has more hype surrounding them than any team in league history that had a losing record the season before. Their rising star, and flamboyant QB, Baker Mayfield, led them to wins in 5 of their last 8 games in 2018, and with a new head coach, and OBJ joining his former college teammate, Jarvis Landry, the Browns should certainly find themselves in the playoffs come January.”
The draft system of American sports is the natural way of addressing any imbalances in the league.
The worst teams in the previous season have the opportunity to pick the best, young players coming out of college in the next season’s draft.
After finishing with a league-worst record of 3-13 last year and appointing a new head coach, the Arizona Cardinals picked Heisman Trophy winner Kyler Murray with the number one overall pick and will hope that he will quarterback them to success.
Elsewhere, two-time Super Bowl winner Eli Manning’s run with the New York Giants looks to be coming to a close after they drafted Duke’s Daniel Jones with the sixth pick, while the Washington Redskins drafted Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins 15th overall.
“Listed at 5’10 and just 207 pounds, Kyler Murray is the most exciting pick from this year’s draft,” Wire explained.
“The #1 overall pick by the Cardinals will be one of the smallest, yet most athletic, starting quarterbacks the NFL has ever seen.
“He has the opportunity to continue to revolutionize the sport’s most coveted position, following closely on the (small) heels of Baker Mayfield, Russell Wilson, and Drew Brees.”
After every NFL season comes to a close, the NFL team owners carry out a thorough review into whether or not new rules need to be implemented or old rules need to be altered.
As a result, during the off season, they decided to review the pass interference rule following the missed call in the NFC Championship game last season which seemingly cost the New Orleans Saints the opportunity to play in the Super Bowl.
And after examining the rule, the NFL owners agreed to give the head coaches of the NFL teams the ability to challenge pass interference plays, whether they’re called or not.
The aim of this is to cut down on the possibility of a game being decided by an incorrect refereeing decision.
But because a perceived lack of consistency with the reviewing decisions and length of time it takes, this change to the rule hasn’t gone down well with everybody.
“The pass interference rule change certainly goes against the league’s push to reduce the length of games” Wire said.
“One could certainly call it a knee jerk reaction to the infamous Saints-Rams play that likely cost New Orleans a trip to the Super Bowl.
“If anything, this new rule will bring to the attention of fans just how often pass interference COULD be called in a game (it happens ALL the time). My gut tells me that this rule will go away after this season, and fans will be thankful that it did.”