The NFL regular season kicks off this week, and like every year, the league is awash in questions.
There are seven new coaches, promising young quarterbacks from coast to coast, and Fox is taking over Thursday night football.
While everyone tries to figure what constitutes a catch, the league is looking to recapture the robust television numbers it has long enjoyed and weather the national anthem controversy that has divided the fan base.
Some questions and predictions, both serious and light-hearted, as the clock ticks down:
Five quarterbacks were taken in the first round of this year’s draft. Which one will have the biggest impact?
Well, four of them will be holding clipboards in Week 1, with only the New York Jets’ Sam Darnold getting the starting nod. Cleveland’s Baker Mayfield, Buffalo’s Josh Allen and Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson all have had promising flashes, but watch for Arizona’s Josh Rosen to make the biggest splash. At UCLA, he made Sunday throws on Saturday, and is the most ready of the quarterbacks in this class. Plus, Cardinals starter Sam Bradford hasn’t made it through a full season in six years.
Has the NFL’s center of gravity shifted to the West Coast?
That’s certainly where the action is. The Rams and Chargers are favored to win their respective divisions, the 49ers look reborn, Jon Gruden is back in Oakland and Seattle has undertaken a complete renovation. For a league that often seems entirely fixated on what happens in the Eastern time zone, the percolating activity on the other side of the country is impossible to ignore.
What’s one rock-solid guarantee this season?
The Cleveland Browns can’t do any worse. They were 0-16 last season, which is only a small step down from their 1-15 record the year before. Difficult to believe this franchise started 7-4 in 2014, before doing a 4-49 face plant over the next 3½ seasons. Now they’ve got their budding-star quarterback, an elite receiver in Jarvis Landry, a top-shelf pass rusher in Myles Garrett and an ostensibly competent front office. Next stop, relevance — although that stop could be a long way down the tracks.
From the Super Bowl loss, to the mysterious benching of Malcolm Butler, to the tension between Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, to the suspension of Julian Edelman, what’s going right for the New England Patriots?
They play in the AFC East. Even with all the offseason turbulence, that could be their saving grace. Look around the division, and it’s two rookie quarterbacks and Ryan Tannehill. No rush to clear space in Canton.
Which branch of the Belichick coaching tree will grow quickest, Matt Patricia in Detroit or Mike Vrabel in Tennessee?
Patricia has the better quarterback — Matt Stafford over Marcus Mariota — but Vrabel’s team plays in a friendlier division, one that doesn’t include Green Bay or Minnesota. Both coaches face this reality: No Patriots assistant in the Belichick era — among them Romeo Crennel, Eric Mangini, Josh McDaniels, and Bill O’Brien — has gone on to have a winning record as an NFL head coach.
Is Titletown in line for another trophy?
With new offensive and defensive coordinators, a long-term deal for Aaron Rodgers and a sure-handed target in Jimmy Graham, the Green Bay Packers have high hopes they can get back to the Super Bowl for the first time in eight years. And for tea-leaf readers, there’s this: Ed Hochuli, the referee with the bulging biceps, retired this season. Hochuli was upstanding and excellent at his job, but some Packers fans still saw him as a curse. Their team was 0-5 in postseason games he worked.
How much is the new helmet rule going to change the game?
Clearly, the league is still working out the kinks when it comes to players initiating contact with their helmets. There were 51 flags thrown for that during the first two weeks of the preseason, but only nine for Week 3. The league has told officials not to flag incidental or inadvertent contacts with the helmet or facemask by players on either side of the ball.
The Raiders say they’re not paying attention to Las Vegas, but it Las Vegas paying attention to them?
Oh, yes. The Las Vegas Review-Journal notes that the trade of defensive star Khalil Mack to Chicago sent Oakland’s odds shooting skyward like the Bellagio fountains. At the Westgate sports book, the Raiders’ odds of winning the Super Bowl went from 20-1 to 40-1 and from 10-1 to 20-1 to win the AFC. The Rams went from 3-point to 4½-point favorites to beat the Raiders on the road in their Monday night opener.
Are the Rams playing with fire, bringing all of those combustible personalities into their locker room?
It raised some eyebrows around the league when Los Angeles brought in the temperamental defensive trio of Ndamukong Suh, Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters, and bid farewell to Alec Ogletree, an even-keeled leader in the locker room. On the flip side, the team has Sean McVay as coach and Wade Phillips as defensive coordinator, and both are hugely popular with players. As Denver’s Von Miller recently told The Times of Phillips, “You could put the Alcatraz All-Stars on his team and he’s going to get along with those guys.”
Why is Tampa Bay’s logo perfect for the troubled Jameis Winston?
It’s a big red flag.
Does Antonio Gates have some touchdowns left in him?
A lot people have their fingers crossed. Gates, 38, re-signed by the Chargers this week, is currently the third most-added fantasy player behind San Francisco running back Alfred Morris (replacing the injured Jerick McKinnon) and Pittsburgh running back James Conner (for holdout Le’Veon Bell). In his 16th season, Gates leads the Chargers in receptions, receiving yards and touchdown catches.
What makes Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes so incredibly rare?
No, it’s not the comparisons to Brett Favre. It’s that Mahomes was drafted by the Chiefs and is actually starting for them. Only one of the past 22 quarterbacks who have started for Kansas City was a draft pick of that franchise: Brodie Croyle, who had a total of 10 starts in his five seasons with the team from 2006-10.
What’s the most impressive field of competitors this year?
The one for Comeback Player of the Year. Think of the candidates: Deshaun Watson, Andrew Luck, J.J. Watt, Aaron Rodgers, Odell Beckham Jr., David Johnson, Richard Sherman …
Biggest blunder of the season so far?
Dunkin’ Donuts mistakenly sent thousands of Philadelphia Eagles Super Bowl cups to Boston-area stores. The response was not positive.
There are lots of quarterbacks under pressure this season, but who has the least wiggle room?
Minnesota’s Kirk Cousins. He’s coming to a team that got the NFC championship game with Case Keenum last season, so it’s truly Super Bowl or bust for the Vikings this year. Cousins left a dysfunctional Washington franchise for a club that has all the pieces in place to finally win a Lombardi Trophy.
Jimmy Garoppolo or Jared Goff, which JG is going to take a big step forward in the NFC West this season?
Whereas Garoppolo is 7-0 as a starter, Goff was 0-7 as starter during his rookie season. But 2017 was huge for the Rams and Goff got to the Pro Bowl, with no small thanks to Todd Gurley and the offensive line getting L.A.’s running game going. This figures to be a defining season for both of these quarterbacks, whose teams first square off Oct. 21 in Santa Clara.
What happens in the championship games?
Minnesota over the Rams in the NFC and Pittsburgh beats Houston in the AFC.
And the Super Bowl winner?
Follow Sam Farmer on Twitter @LATimesfarmer