Well, this has been a weird offseason, hasn't it? On top of a global pandemic completely flipping planet earth on its head and forcing folks to stay inside for 99.9% of the time with our only real source of entertainment being a crazy zookeeper and his tigers and the 1990s Chicago Bulls, the NFL decided to get its 2020 on and get weird too. Tom Brady's a Buc, Bill O'Brien went buck wild and traded DeAndre Hopkins, and Cam Newton joined forces with Bill Belichick. And that's just the tip of the iceberg.
While all these storylines have dominated the headlines over the past few months, I personally wanted to take a break from all of it and simply talk about what we would have been talking about under more normal circumstances. For our little chat today on this fine website, we'll be pushing all the major storylines like the pandemic, how the NFL and NFLPA plan to deal with it, Brady in Tampa, Cam in New England, a Chiefs repeat and the rest of them to the side to examine some of the topics on that second-tier level.
Again, some of these would be leading CBS Sports HQ under normal circumstances, but we're most certainly not in the midst of normal times, so they've been put on ice. Until now.
Will Rob Gronkowski return to 2018 or 2017 form?
The NFL is better with Rob Gronkowski in it. He's truly one of the great characters the league has ever seen so it's fun that he elected to come back and especially spicy that he is going through his second act with Tom Brady in Tampa Bay.
While this return has garnered a bunch of headlines, I do wonder, however, what type of Gronkowski we'll actually see. When the news came out about his return to the league, you probably imagined the Bucs getting the legendary tight end that will be eventually enshrined in Canton. The thing is, however, Gronkowski wasn't exactly that player when we last saw him. In 2018, Gronkowski was noticeably slower and caught just 47 passes for 682 yards and three touchdowns. Those marks were some of the lowest of his career, especially when you factor out years he played less than 10 games due to injury.
It's entirely possible that injuries were a factor to his lack of production in the receiving game in 2018 and a year off to heal will do him a world of good. If that's the case and he returns to his First-Team All-Pro form that we saw in 2017, Gronkowski will have Comeback Player of the Year wrapped up and the Buccaneers will be even more dangerous in 2020.
Seeing which way this Gronk Spike flips may be key in determining the NFC South.
Ryan Tannehill's encore
Ryan Tannehill got himself paid this offseason, inking a $118 million deal with Tennessee after a magical run to the AFC Championship Game. After an underwhelming career with Miami, Tannehill was able to not only make a name for himself with the Titans, but he ousted Marcus Mariota from his starting job and was arguably the best quarterback in the league when he was under center. He led the league in passer rating (117.5) and had the highest yards per passing attempt (9.6) among all quarterbacks.
The question for Tannehill, however, is whether or not his breakout season in 2019 is who he'll be over the next few years or if the stars simply aligned for one year. It'll be tough for him to once again lead the league in passer rating and I don't think that's a fair standard compare him against. Still, he will need to keep that efficiency up for the Titans to really compete in an AFC South that boasts Deshaun Watson in Houston and now Philip Rivers in Indy.
Buffalo Bills partying like it's 1995?
While we won't really talk about Tom Brady leaving the Patriots/joining the Buccaneers in this piece, we can discuss what his departure from the AFC East may mean for the Buffalo Bills. Here's a crazy stat (or fun fact, as the fellas on the Pick Six Podcast like to say) for you: The Indianapolis Colts have won the AFC East more recently (1999) than the Buffalo Bills (1995). Indy currently plays in the AFC South.
This long drought could come to a close this season as Buffalo is looked at by some to be the favorite to come out of the AFC East, even with Cam Newton recently signing with the Patriots. Buffalo has a top-rated defense, strong coaching under Sean McDermott, and just gave quarterback Josh Allen a much-needed weapon in the passing game after trading for star receiver Stefon Diggs. As long as Allen doesn't regress in his third season, Buffalo could be partying like it's 1995 and will likely wipe out the entire country's supply of folding tables.
Ravens going for rushing record again
The Ravens are going to be good in 2020. Lamar Jackson will continue to play at an MVP level and Baltimore will be major players in the AFC. All that doesn't need to be discussed here. What I do want to talk about is Gus Edwards saying back in June that he believes his club has the ability to break the rushing record again in 2020.
For those who may be unaware, the team rushing record that Baltimore broke last season with their 3,296 yards on the ground stood for 41 years after the New England Patriots rushed for 3,165 yards in 1978. If the Ravens were simply able to break their record just one year later, it's hard to describe how unfathomable that would be, especially in today's NFL where passing is at the forefront.
Still, it's not out of the question.
Baltimore not only retained all the main pieces from that record-breaking backfield last season but they also drafted J.K. Dobbins in the second round to add alongside Lamar Jackson, Mark Ingram, Gus Edwards, and Justice Hill. Having that many skilled backs and a quarterback who can be just as lethal with his feet as he is with his arm, the Ravens are in a position to make history yet again.
Will Justin Herbert get into the starting lineup
For a top-10 pick, it feels like Justin Herbert is getting next to zero buzz as he approaches his rookie season (Insert Chargers lack of fans joke here). Heck, even Jordan Love is getting more attention than Herbert and we probably won't see him for at least two years. Even with Tyrod Taylor likely set to be the Week 1 starter for Anthony Lynn and possibly for the first quarter of the season, it seems more probable that we'll see Herbert at some point this year over the quarterback that went one pick ahead of him in Tua Tagovailoa.
Hebert impressed at the Senior Bowl and showed at Oregon that he can make plays with his feet along with his arm. The question is when we'll actually see that in the NFL in 2020.
Los Angeles is in a bit of a conundrum when looking at where the franchise is at. As it enter its new stadium, it'll need to put a winning product on the field to spark up fan interest. Currently, Taylor gives the Chargers the best shot at competing in the AFC West coupled with L.A.'s stellar defense. However, if/when Taylor starts to struggle, Lynn will have to make the critical call of ushering in Herbert to begin his development.
That breaking point will be worth watching as the season progresses.
Drew Brees vs. Tom Brady in touchdown record chase
I understand the NFL doesn't hold records in as high regard as the MLB, but we could be looking at Sammy Sosa-Mark McGwire-like chase between two Hall of Fame quarterbacks and no one is talking about it.
Both Tom Brady and Drew Brees surpassed Peyton Manning's all-time touchdown record in 2019 and the two legends are now duking it out for the all-time lead as they enter the final years of their careers. Brees currently holds the record with 547 touchdowns, while Brady is right behind him with 541 regular-season touchdown passes.
With Brady now landing in the NFC South and having the likes of Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and an entire treasure-chest of other pass-catching weapons, while Brees has Michael Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders, and Alvin Kamara, the two will be going head-to-head twice a year with history on the line with each and every pass.
Could you ask for a better side story?
Derek Carr vs. Marcus Mariota
As we mentioned above, Marcus Mariota was usurped in Tennessee by Ryan Tannehill and lost his starting job. The former No. 2 overall pick put Tennessee in his rearview mirror entirely this offseason, electing to join the Las Vegas -- I'll admit I originally wrote Oakland -- Raiders to back up Derek Carr.
While that's the current dynamic, it'll be interesting to see if Mariota can be the 2020 version of Tannehill and oust Carr out of his starting spot. The Raiders were already looking to upgrade from Carr this offseason as they were reportedly interested in signing Tom Brady, so the thought has at least cross Jon Gruden and Mike Mayock's mind about replacing him.
If a change of scenery does Mariota, who Mayock has publicly fawned over in the past, some good and is able to tap back into his No. 2 overall potential, it wouldn't shock anyone if he pushed Carr for his job at some point this season, especially if the offense struggles under the 29-year-old.
The Blake Jarwin era in Dallas at tight end
It was the end of an era in Dallas once again as Jason Witten's second stint with the club came to a close this offseason after signing a one-year deal with the Las Vegas Raiders. As Witten walks out the door and marches to the desert, this opens up an opportunity for fourth-year tight end Blake Jarwin to be a prime breakout candidate in 2020 and a solid fantasy sleeper at the position.
Over the past two seasons, Jarwin has put up modest production while playing an average of 37.5% of the offensive snaps. in that time, he's totaled 58 catches for 672 yards and six touchdowns. With no true competition around him, the starting spot appears to be Jarwin's for the taking, but will now be fighting for targets with pass-catchers like Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup and rookie CeeDee Lamb. Still, even if Jarwin adopts a little over half of Witten's 83 targets in 2019, he should be in line for a statistical hyper-leap. Dallas also seems to believe in the 26-year-old, signing him to a three-year, $24.25 million extension back in March.
Don't sleep on this potential breakout story.
Who is the defensive coordinator in New England?
The Patriots entered last season with no defensive coordinator after Brian Flores, who was the de facto defensive play-caller in New England in 2018, signed on to be the next head coach of the Miami Dolphins and Greg Schiano resigned from his post before even officially taking the gig.
Instead of naming a DC, Bill Belichick rolled into 2019 with no single person officially leading the defense, but linebackers coach Jerod Mayo and safeties coach Steve Belichick, the son of the legendary head coach, both quickly emerged as key figures atop the defensive masthead. While there was talk of Jerod Mayo calling plays last summer, the Boston Herald reported back in November that several Patriots said at the time it had been Steve Belichick who was running the show on defense.
This makes for an absolutely fascinating storyline heading into training camp and the regular season. If Steve Belichick continues his reported ascent and fully takes the reins as New England's defensive coordinator, he's just one step away from becoming a head coach himself. That would then, in theory, open up the possibility for Steve Belichick to possibly succeed his father as the head coach of the Patriots. Wowza!
Of course, there's also the chance that Jerod Mayo earns the job and puts himself on the fast track of being a head coaching candidate himself. Either way, this is something worth monitoring.
Clyde Edwards-Helaire becoming Kareem Hunt 2.0
When you talk about the Kansas City Chiefs, you're going to be discussing a potential repeat as Super Bowl champions, Patrick Mahomes' mega-extension, and a handful of other things before you get to Clyde Edwards-Helaire. If you're a fantasy nerd like me, however, you already know exactly who the rookie running back is and what he brings to the table for the K.C. backfield.
For those not so much in the fantasy trenches, you're going to want to know who Edwards-Helaire is because he has the potential to go off in 2020 in similar fashion to former Chiefs running back Kareem Hunt in 2017. The LSU product is perfectly situated for what the Chiefs want to do offensively as he ran for 6.6 yards a carry during his final season with the Tigers and caught 55 passes from Joe Burrow. Head coach Andy Reid even noted that he thinks he can be better than former Eagles great Brian Westbrook, who he coached in Philly.
That ability to be a factor in the passing and receiving game could produce similar results to Hunt's rookie campaign where he led the league in rushing with 1,327 yards. That year he also caught 53 passes for 455 yards and was named to the Pro Bowl. He'll have to beat out Damien Williams for the starting job, but the first-rounder could be in for a special season if things fall the right way.
Brian Flores' Coach of the Year bid
Call me crazy, but I think there's a path for Brian Flores to win Coach of the Year in 2020. Depending on where you look, the second-year Dolphins head coach is well behind the likes of Bill Belichick, Bruce Arians, and even Kliff Kingsbury in the odds to win the award, but that only means you'll make more dough if you're thinking the way I am.
First and foremost, Flores is as solid of a head coach as they come. He just took a Dolphins team that wasn't expected to do anything in 2019 other than tank for high draft positioning and was able to squeeze five wins to of them and be a really scrappy team throughout. They went 5-4 down the stretch to end the regular season, which included a massive upset against the Patriots in New England in Week 17. You can attribute that to just flat out good coaching and creating a strong culture in a rather quick amount of time.
This offseason, the Dolphins went on a free agent spending spree and brought in corner Byron Jones, linebacker Kyle Van Noy and others mostly on the defensive side of the ball. Miami also was able to go into the 2020 draft and take quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, offensive tackle Austin Jackson and corner Noah Igbinoghene with their three first-round picks. On those transactions alone, the Dolphins have a better roster than they did a season ago.
Even if Tagovailoa isn't really to go to start the year, Ryan Fitzpatrick has shown that he can keep the ship afloat and even squeak out a few wins for you on his own every now and again. With an improved defense, Miami should be even better than the 5-11 squad they were in 2019. How much better will determine Flores' candidacy for the award.
If they are able to improve by three wins, go 8-8 and be a gritty team wire-to-wire, I think he's firmly in the conversation. If by some chance they go 9-7, he's a lock to win it.
Ben Roethlisberger's return
Big Ben and the Steelers as a whole are the sleeping giant in the AFC that no one seems to be paying much attention to. The future Hall of Fame quarterback missed the bulk of last season due to an elbow injury, but the quarterback has been recovering and throwing since at least mid-May, while the Pittsburgh brass has publicly stated their happiness with his progress. Roethlisberger even told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette this offseason that has "no doubts I'm going to be able to come back and play well — none."
If Roethlisberger is able to return to his former self, the Steelers are a legit threat in the conference. After all, they nearly made the playoffs last season even without him and despite poor quarterback play by Mason Rudolph and Devlin "Duck" Hodges. Pittsburgh's defense was the third most efficient unit in terms of DVOA, only being out-performed by the Patriots and 49ers. As long as that unit stays within the top-five or top-10 and Roethlisberger is either fully back or close to his typical play, Pittsburgh could crash the party pretty loudly not only in the AFC North but the 2020 season entirely.
Allen Robinson with a quality QB
I find myself rooting pretty hard for Allen Robinson in 2020. He's a widely talented receiver but has never been able to link up with an even slightly above average quarterback. Still, he's been able to put up numbers, including a 1,400-yard season in 2015 when Blake Bortles was his QB and just last year when he posted 1,147 yards receiving with Mitchell Trubisky. With Chicago trading for Nick Foles this offseason and the former Super Bowl MVP set to battle it out with Trubisky over the course of camp for the starting job, there's a chance Robinson sees an upgrade at the position.
If I were a betting man, I'd guess that Foles ends up winning the starting job, which will be good for Robinson. While's he's no Patrick Mahomes or Tom Brady, he's going to be the best quarterback he's had in his career. Foles is more accurate and overall a bit more polished than Trubisky, who can sometimes be erratic with his throws.
As long as Foles wins the job, I can see Robinson enjoying one of his more productive seasons in the NFL to date.
Matthew Stafford's sneaky MVP ceiling
Prior to suffering a season-ending back injury, Matthew Stafford was playing himself into MVP conversations in 2019. Through eight games played last year, Stafford was averaging 312.4 passing yards per game (second-best in the NFL), 8.6 yards per attempt (second-best in the NFL), and had a 106.0 passer rating that was just outside the top-five in the league. Football Outsiders also had him ranked fourth in DVOA, only being outdone by Drew Brees, Lamar Jackson, and Patrick Mahomes.
If Stafford is able to come back healthy and remain so throughout the 2020 season, it's not out of the question for him to jump back to that production and, in turn, thrust himself into similar MVP-type conversations. Stafford will have Kenny Golladay, Marvin Jones, and Danny Amendola at the receiver position, and the Lions just drafted running back D'Andre Swift to add to the backfield. Detroit will also be looking for tight end T.J. Hockenson to emerge in Year 2 to give Stafford even more weapons in the passing game. That's plenty of firepower for him to put up numbers, but, again, it's about staying healthy and Detroit winning games.
It won't be easy by any stretch of the imagination, but the 32-year-old has that type of ceiling in 2020.
Second-year QB leaps (besides Kyler Murray)
Like I said in the intro, in any other offseason, this is likely bumped up to Page 1, but it's been a bit on the back-burner over the summer months, which makes it a candidate for this list. The only second-year QB I'm pushing to the side here is Arizona's Kyler Murray because he's been a hot topic of conversation, especially after the acquisition of DeAndre Hopkins. Specifically, it'll be interesting to see how Daniel Jones, Dwayne Haskins, Drew Lock, and Gardner Minshew -- quarterbacks who started at least five games in 2019 -- perform heading into a critical Year 2 for a multitude of reasons.
After New York stunned fans by taking him No. 6 overall, Daniel Jones did show some flashes of being the franchise cornerstone going forward last year, but he does face some unique challenges in 2020. Given that he just went through an offseason that was essentially all virtual, it will be curious to see how he fares with a new head coach in Joe Judge and a new offensive coordinator in Jason Garrett. Hanging onto the football will be one key area to monitor for Jones, who fumbled 18 times over his rookie season.
As for Dwayne Haskins, he'll also have a new head coach in Ron Rivera, which will include its own set of learning curves. Unlike last year, however, Haskins is looked at as the bonafide starter for Washington from the jump. I am intrigued to see if what we saw from the 2019 first-rounder over his final two starts was a flash of his potential or just a flash in the pan. In Weeks 15 and 16, Haskins completed 72.09% of his passes for 394 yards, four touchdowns, and zero interceptions, giving him a passer rating of 131.3. If that type of efficiency is what Washington gets from him in 2020, they can confidently say they've found their QB of the future and the Rivera Era is off to a strong start. If not, they may be back in the QB market next spring.
Drew Lock started the fewest games out of these four rising sophomores, but it was arguably the most impressive of the bunch, albeit being a small sample size. He went 4-1 as Denver's starter and completed 64.1% of his passes for 1,020 yards, seven touchdowns, and three interceptions. The Broncos loaded up the offense around him for this season, so it'll be fascinating to see what he does with this stacked group.
Finally, let's get to our jean-short wearing, mustache sporting quarterback in Gardner Minshew. He was by far one of my favorite storylines of 2019, but he finds himself in a rather precarious situation in Jacksonville. While he, like his 2019 draft classmates, showed potential, there were also moments where he looked like a sixth-round draft choice (and not the Tom Brady kind). If he and the Jags struggle in 2020, which they in all likelihood will, they'll be looking at an extremely high draft choice which could land them Trevor Lawrence or Justin Fields, which would likely bring Minshew Mania to a swift end.