The free agents have signed, the college kids have been picked, and teams have begun to take shape – sometimes for the worse – In the crucible of training camp practices and exhibitions. Now, finally, the 2016 NFL season is teed up for kickoff. Here are 16 questions that will eventually be answered:
1. Who's our QB this week?
The Denver Broncos and San Francisco 49ers held open competitions this summer to determine their starting quarterbacks. The Los Angeles Rams didn't explicitly do the same but waited to see if No. 1 draft pick Jared Goff would take command. (He didn't.) But even though Denver's Trevor Siemian, San Francisco's Blaine Gabbert and L.A.'s Case Keenum enter the season under center, any could find himself on the bench with just one or two poor performances.
Keep an eye on the NFC East, too. On the heels of a superb preseason, rookie Dak Prescott will fill in for aging and injured Tony Romo (broken bone in back). If Romo doesn't respond to treatment, and/or if Prescott continues to shine, it's possible he may give Romo the Drew Bledsoe treatment and never give the job back. Meanwhile, in Philadelphia, rookie Carson Wentz was instantly promoted atop the depth chart after Sam Bradford was dealt to the Minnesota Vikings. But a rib injury waylaid him in preseason, and expensive backup Chase Daniel could always get the call if Wentz shows he isn’t ready.
2. Who's our QB this year?
Most teams have a pretty good idea who will be lining up under center all season. That doesn't mean there aren't lingering questions.
The Chicago Bears' Jay Cutler, Detroit Lions' Matthew Stafford, New York Jets' Ryan Fitzpatrick, Buffalo Bills' Tyrod Taylor and Washington Redskins' Kirk Cousins are all coming off career years – more or less – but need to prove their performances weren't aberrations. Fitzpatrick and Cousins will once again have new contracts at stake. But none of these passers are so secure that they couldn't play themselves out of town with a terrible season.
The Jacksonville Jaguars' Blake Bortles, Tennessee Titans' Marcus Mariota, Oakland Raiders' Derek Carr and Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Jameis Winston have all shown the capacity to be franchise faces early in their careers but have much still to prove amid ever-elevated expectations. The Houston Texans' Brock Osweiler hopes to join their ranks given his first opportunity to really call a team his own heading into his fifth NFL season.
The Miami Dolphins' Ryan Tannehill has shown the ability to be a star but never sustained it. He now seeks a new level of consistency (and continuity) under quarterback guru and new coach Adam Gase. The Cleveland Browns' Robert Griffin III is hoping coach Hue Jackson can help him jumpstart a career that was stuck in neutral and then thrown into reverse since he was offensive rookie of the year in 2012 with Washington.
Finally, Bradford has shown in spurts he can be a Pro Bowl-level passer. But the former No. 1 pick’s career has been constantly derailed by injuries and trades. Now he’s starting over again in Minnesota but has the opportunity to reach the playoffs for the first time while surrounded by the best supporting cast of his seven-year career.
3. What will become of Jimmy Garoppolo?
We didn’t forget about New England, where unproven Garoppolo will spell suspended superstar Tom Brady for the first four weeks. Patriots coach Bill Belichick has left no doubt that Brady will be the starter once his time is served – if that wasn't apparent without explanation.
The last time Brady was unavailable – he played only one half in Week 1 in 2008 before being lost to a knee injury – greenhorn Matt Cassel took over and thrived as Belichick and Co. brilliantly tailored the offense to his strengths. The Pats spun Cassel off for a second-round pick after the season, but he was never the same player outside of New England.
Could a similar fate await Garoppolo? With only one year remaining on his rookie contract after this season, he could have more value to the Patriots as trade bait if he plays well. After all, Brady has shown no signs of slowing down physically, and promising rookie Jacoby Brissett is now in the fold and could quickly replace Garoppolo as Brady's heir apparent (for now).
4. Will the Seahawks go on the Mount Rushmore of defenses?
It doesn't feel like the Legion of Boom is consistently mentioned with the great defenses of NFL history, but Seattle's group continues to make a compelling case that it belongs.
Last year, the Seahawks became the first team in the Super Bowl era to allow the fewest points for four consecutive seasons. In 2016, they can match the 1953-57 Browns as the only team to turn the trick five years in a row. And it must be noted that Cleveland wasn't defending exotic passing attacks or navigating the pitfalls of free agency and, perhaps most noteworthy, was dominating a league that only had 12 teams.
Richard Sherman and his buddies may never get the credit of Pittsburgh's Steel Curtain. But the Seahawks deserve far more recognition for being the class of this generation.
5. Who are the new coaches?
Miami's Gase, Cleveland's Jackson, the Tennessee Titans' Mike Mularkey – he shed his 2015 interim tag – New York Giants' Ben McAdoo, Philadelphia's Doug Pederson, Tampa Bay's Dirk Koetter and San Francisco's Chip Kelly were all hired in the offseason. Gase and McAdoo appear to face the highest expectations helming teams that should contend to make the playoffs.
6. Who could soon be former coaches?
With the exception of already legendary Belichick, no coach sits on a seat that can't get uncomfortably warm with great expediency. But there are a few who seem to in particularly precarious positions. Buffalo's Rex Ryan, Jacksonville's Gus Bradley, the San Diego Chargers' Mike McCoy, Detroit's Jim Caldwell and Los Angeles' Jeff Fisher seem the most likely candidates to find the unemployment line – perhaps by Christmas – if their clubs don't make definitive progress.
7. Which teams seem likely to break into the playoff field?
It's typical for the NFL's 12 playoff entries to turn over by half on a year-to-year basis. The Baltimore Ravens and Indianapolis Colts, consistently strong outfits, could resurface after being scuttled by their own mass injuries in 2015. The AFC West, AFC North, AFC South and NFC East could be the most hotly contested division, with the latter two looking like only one of their teams will advance to postseason. Perhaps the two teams creating the most buzz – both feature exciting young talent but neither has been relevant in years – are the Jaguars and Raiders.
And – just maybe – the Bengals might win their first playoff game since 1990 and/or the Bills may reach postseason for the first time since 1999.
8. Who are the rookies to watch?
Quarterbacks typically generate most of the interest heading into a given draft. Wentz and Prescott will start immediately while Round 1 picks Goff and Paxton Lynch wait their respective turns.
And there are always freshmen making an impact somewhere.
Dallas running back Ezekiel Elliott is expected to carry fantasy teams throughout the nation while spearheading a Cowboys offense in need of alternative fuel with Romo sidelined and Prescott about to see defensive schemes that will look completely foreign to rookie eyes. Reigning Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry looks primed to be a factor in Tennessee's "exotic smashmouth" offense. This year's receivers may need extra time to marinate, but the Giants' Sterling Shepard and Bengals' Tyler Boyd – both are second rounders – appear best positioned to provide instant results.
Defensively, Joey Bosa's protracted holdout does not bode well for San Diego. That could leave Jaguars teammates Jalen Ramsey and Myles Jack vying for defensive rookie of the year honors.
9. Are any major records poised to fall?
As the NFL increasingly skews toward the pass, challenges to Eric Dickerson's 32-year-old rushing record (2,105 yards) seemingly increasingly scarce. But the Vikings’ transition to Bradford could pave the way for 31-year-old Adrian Peterson, who fell 9 yards of dethroning Dickerson in 2012, to make one more realistic run at the mark. Peterson should be a relic given the demands of the position. But he's a physical outlier fresh off winning his third rushing title.
But perhaps it's more likely a receiving mark will fall. The Pittsburgh Steelers' Antonio Brown and Atlanta Falcons' Julio Jones each snagged 136 passes in 2015, tying them for second all-time in a single season. It now seems only a matter of time until Marvin Harrison's 14-year-old standard of 143 grabs falls. Jones (1,871 yards) and Brown (1,834) also became just the third and fourth players to surpass 1,800 receiving yards in a year. It's now almost inevitable that someone will do the previously unthinkable and crack 2,000.
10. Who will be MVP?
It's not necessarily unusual for NFL MVPs to repeat. Carolina's Cam Newton will try to become the first to do it since Peyton Manning in 2009. Expect challenges from Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson, Ben Roethlisberger, Peterson, Brown and certainly others.
11. Who will be the top defender?
J.J. Watt unexpectedly underwent back surgery in July and missed all of training camp and preseason. It currently seems unlikely he'll be physically tuned to become the NFL's first-ever four-time winner of the defensive player of the year award in 2016. Even if Watt was healthy, he'd be fending off challenges from the likes of Raiders pass rusher Khalil Mack, Rams tackle Aaron Donald, Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly and, possibly, Cardinals defensive back Tyrann Mathieu, though the "Honey Badger" is coming off knee reconstruction himself.
12. Where’s the money going?
This offseason didn't provide the most memorable free agent class, but an ever-growing salary cap made a select number of players extremely rich, and they'll feel the pressure to live up to their price tags. Osweiler will be at the top of the list, joined to a lesser extent by new Texans teammate Lamar Miller.
Defensive end Olivier Vernon raked in the most cash on a new-look Giants defense that committed more than $200 million in free agency. Versatile d-lineman Malik Jackson will have to show he can make the same impact for the Jaguars even though he's no longer surrounded by Denver's talent. And if Washington's Josh Norman new title as NFL's highest-paid cornerback didn't place a target on him, then his constant offseason chatter did.
Meanwhile, neither Super Bowl MVP Von Miller nor Colts quarterback Andrew Luck switched teams, but they signed the richest defensive and offensive contracts, respectively, in league history this summer.
This year's franchise players who weren't rewarded with long-term extensions will be looking to craft performances worthy of long-term security. So keep an eye on Cousins, Bears wideout Alshon Jeffery and Chiefs safety Eric Berry among others.
Other players perched to field mega offers in 2017 include Panthers defensive tackle Kawann Short, Patriots linebacker Jamie Collins, former Patriots pass rusher Chandler Jones (now a Cardinal), Bills corner Stephon Gilmore, and Steelers tailback Le'Veon Bell, whose far-fetched dream of making $15 million annually was effectively dashed by his most recent suspension.
13. Where’s that game being played?
The Los Angeles Coliseum will be hosting NFL games for the first time since 1994 with the Rams now back in town. But it’s not the only new NFL venue in 2016. The league will stage three games in London, including the first at Twickenham Stadium, ironically a Rams “home” date Oct. 23. The Raiders and Texans will meet in the first regular-season game in Mexico City since 2005.
14. Who's on the comeback trail?
Injuries are an inherent part of football and, consequently, so are triumphant comebacks. Luck, Romo, Bell, Watt, Mathieu, Jordy Nelson, Arian Foster, Joe Flacco, Steve Smith, Terrell Suggs, Andy Dalton, Kelvin Benjamin, Justin Houston, Keenan Allen, Victor Cruz, Mark Ingram, Robert Quinn, Jimmy Graham and Thomas Rawls are all trying to recapture Pro Bowl form after injuries ruined their 2015 seasons or are jeopardizing their 2016 campaigns.
Dante Fowler, Kevin White and Breshad Perriman, all first rounders in 2015, have waited until now to make their highly anticipated pro debuts.
15. Who said happy trails?
It's still hard to believe that a near certain batch of Hall of Famers – Peyton Manning, Charles Woodson, Calvin Johnson, Marshawn Lynch and Jared Allen – all retired in the same offseason. There may not be enough room in Canton's Class of 2021 for all of them.
When it comes to saying goodbye after the 2016 season, the biggest names to monitor are ... the Oakland Raiders and San Diego Chargers. The Bolts could bolt San Diego in a matter of months, owning the option to join the relocated Rams in Los Angeles. If they stay in San Diego, the L.A. option would transfer to the Raiders, who are operating on year-to-year leases in Oakland. But the Silver & Black are openly flirting with Las Vegas and seem far more likely to head to Sin City than L.A.
16. Who's going to Super Bowl LI?
That's the million(plus)-dollar question.
The defending champion Broncos, who still feature perhaps the league's scariest defense, look weakened offensively as they move into post-Manning mode. History is also against them as no team has repeated since the 2004 Patriots. The historical hurdle is even higher for the NFC champion Panthers. A team has won the Super Bowl the season after losing it only twice, but that hasn't occurred in more than four decades.
If last year's Super squads succumb to the Super Bowl hangover and don't make it to Houston next February, expect the Patriots, Steelers, Bengals, Packers, Cardinals and Seahawks to be the primary threats for Lombardi Trophy glory.