The NFLPA and the NFL finally agreed to terms on all things related to COVID-19 and, as such, training camps around the league are officially underway and padded practices have now begun. Concessions were made on both sides, but it was the NFL who was forced to cave on the most heavily weighted item, namely the number of preseason games to be played in 2020. The league initially shaved down the count to only two contests, but the NFLPA would hear none of it, and stood firm en route to both sides agreeing there would be no games played in August whatsoever -- along with a restructured training camp that includes limited full contact.
That means many of the more pressing questions/storylines around the league will go unanswered as teams work feverishly to bring their coaching staffs and players up to speed before the scheduled regular season start in September.
And with that, let's take a look at the top 10.
1. Can football be played during a pandemic?
It's the question on everyone's mind, but we won't truly find out the answer at the NFL level until September. That's when the regular season is scheduled to get underway, and with no preseason games on the menu, the league will have no true way of knowing if their newly-installed safety protocols will curb or halt any potential outbreak of COVID-19. They'll get a rough idea from padded training camp practices, yes, but that's light years behind the experiment of entire teams traveling across state lines weekly to then have players knock each other around without the protection of a bubble. One need look no further than the NBA and NHL to see how effective a bubble can be, and to the MLB to see the challenges of playing without one.
And considering football carries the added challenge of being a contact sport, without preseason games as a test drive for how teams the league will handle potential outbreaks, the 2020 season could be wild right from the very start.
How will Cam Newton fit in the Patriots' offense? ESPN's Bill Barnwell joins host Will Brinson on the Pick Six Podcast to go deep into 2020 storylines, make hypothetical futures bets and more; listen below and be sure to subscribe for daily NFL goodness.
2. Is Tua Tagovailoa ready for Week 1?
Medically, Tagovailoa is cleared and ready to take the field this year, but that doesn't negate the fact he's still a rookie -- who also missed the back end of his 2019 football season. It's a foregone conclusion the former Alabama star quarterback will be the face of the Miami Dolphins franchise for years to come, because when a team uses a fifth-overall pick on a QB, you can bet your bottom dollar it's not to have him sit behind Ryan Fitzpatrick. What Fitzpatrick does provide though is experience, which could see him get the nod initially in Week 1 before having to toss the keys over to a more prepared Tagovailoa. Under normal circumstances, the preseason would've been perfect for a guy like Tagovailoa, considering he needs as much time in game scenarios as possible ahead of September to have a shot at being named starter in the opener.
Instead, he'll have to do with only a couple weeks of padded practices, but that almost guarantees it'll be Fitzpatrick pulling out of the driveway first.
3. Will Cam Newton need more time to acclimate?
Newton is up against it in 2020, and he's more than fine with the challenge. That said, Super Bowl aspirations come stitched into every Patriots jersey, as Newton knows but is about to find out. And considering he's entering on the heels of six-time Super Bowl winner Tom Brady opting to take his talents to Central Florida, well, the level of difficulty could not be higher. He's also going to have to prove he can remain durable and he joins a club that leads the league with eight opt-outs due to COVID-19 concerns; and one that doesn't have a definitive wideout threat outside of Julian Edelman. Newton also hasn't been gifted the nod at starter, and would've liked some preseason rep competition against Jarrett Stidham and Brian Hoyer.
It's easy to presume Newton wouldn't have played a ton in the preseason because of his experience, but he's only on a one-year deal -- not a long-term commitment -- and Bill Belichick would've no doubt wanted him on the game field for both competition and acclimation. All three QBs are splitting reps in camp, and Newton doesn't have much time to take an early lead.
4. How much can rookies contribute in New England?
Keeping things in Foxborough, Massachusetts for a moment, there are tons of questions regarding the rash of opt-outs and how Belichick will look to salve the wounds. Having lost a list of key veteran players that include linebacker Dont'a Hightower and offensive tackle Marcus Cannon, the Patriots would've loved to have preseason games to give them a fighter's chance at sorting out what rookies can and will step up immediately -- if any. Belichick likes the progression he's seeing from his first-year guys, but also candidly admits they're in "deep water" going into a season that requires them to become impact players quickly, and without the benefit of a traditional training camp and four preseason games.
With safety Patrick Chung choosing to sit, look for second-round pick Kyle Dugger to get instant play, and he won't be the only one pushed hard in an abbreviated camp. The Patriots are truly up against it with no preseason games, as Belichick starts the post-Brady era in the most challenging fashion imaginable.
5. Was Jordan Love the right call in Green Bay?
They better hope so, but they won't find out anytime soon. In a normal year, the Packers would have four games in August to put Love through some early paces, and that might've given them at least some respite from the waves of criticism they've waded through since selecting him in the first round of this year's NFL draft. Instead, Love will remain under wraps and mostly out of the public eye -- one that will stare at the QB situation in Green Bay in 2020 like the Eye of Sauron. For if Aaron Rodgers begins to falter at any point, there will be some who call for Love to be tossed in, but that's precisely what it'll be: the rookie being thrown into the fire and likely burned because of it.
No games in August means little to no ramp up for Love, who will be QB2 at best even if he could showcase his skills before September. Instead, all anyone can do is watch and wait, and wonder why the Packers chose a future replacement for Rodgers and not another much-needed weapon to help him get them back to the Super Bowl.
6. Nick Foles or Mitch Trubisky to open the season?
Flip a coin, because that's how the Bears' odds of determining a starter for Week 1 look right now. By most accounts, it's a 50/50 split that could go either way, because neither Foles nor the incumbent Trubisky have stood out thus far in camp. And unfortunately for the Bears, they won't have four preseason games to help them sort out this mess. Both quarterbacks have more motivation than they need to push the other to the bench in September, with Foles trying to rebuild his brand after a rough go in Jacksonville and Trubisky entering a contract year on the heels of the organization opting to not pick up his fifth-year option. That said, the edge goes to the latter in retaining the spot from the outset with no preseason games to play, because he knows Matt Nagy's system, while Foles is desperately trying to learn it with little time to do so.
Does that mean Trubisky is guaranteed the opening day start? Nope. Nor does it mean he'll retain the job as QB1 in the event he does get the Week 1 nod, because Foles has something Trubisky doesn't -- a Super Bowl ring and honors as a former Super Bowl MVP. In a race of two downtrodden horses, without the benefit of a preseason, all the Bears can do is see which one falls forward across the training camp finish line.
7. What position will Chidobe Awuzie play in 2020?
The season-ending injury to Gerald McCoy will definitely impact the Dallas Cowboys' plans to utilize the pass rush to help the secondary improve and take away the ball, but they at least have a plan in place for that situation. What they're still working on -- regarding the aforementioned secondary -- is what they'll do with Awuzie this season. The veteran cornerback is entering the final year of his rookie contract and it's been an uneven stint that includes flashes of great play and questionable struggles, the latter leading Mike McCarthy to open up the possibility of moving Awuzie to safety for 2020. The former second-round pick began this year's camp at his base position, but he'll get work at the third level as well.
It sure would've helped the Cowboys to have five preseason games this year -- the fifth by virtue of the postponed Hall of Fame game -- to help them sort things out. The addition of Daryl Worley creates instant competition for Awuzie at corner opposite rookie second-round pick Trevon Diggs, and so rookie Reggie Robinson, II. With a non-traditional camp and no preseason, it might take a bit longer to determine if Awuzie can and should be moved to safety to rotate with HaHa Clinton-Dix and Xavier Woods.
8. Has Drew Lock leveled up for Year 2?
If you want to know how important preseason games can be for rookies, look no further than Lock. One year ago, there was a similar question in Denver as one that is now posed in Green Bay -- albeit to a lesser degree -- with the Broncos having selected Lock with the 42nd-overall pick not long after trading for Joe Flacco. Some asked why they'd do such a thing if they truly believed Flacco still have gas in the tank, but Lock went on a tear early in the preseason, and that question was answered (as it will contrarily remain unanswered for the Packers and Love this August). But, unfortunately for Lock, his preseason dominance was ended with a thumb injury that landed him on injured reserve, and he wouldn't return until the back end of the season, when he claimed his throne and led the Broncos on an exciting ride to conclude the year.
Now, granted Lock would likely not suit up for much of this year's preseason if there were one, considering he's the face of the franchise now but, at minimum, he would've played solid time in the Week 3 dress rehearsal. That would've given outside eyes a look at Lock as he wraps his second training camp, which is one where there is no QB competition for the top spot. And with that, we will all have to wait for September to see just how sharp the young gunslinger looks in Year 2, and with first-round pick Jerry Jeudy as a new weapon.
9. Is Marcus Mariota a threat to Derek Carr?
Carr is tired of being "disrespected," and while that's fair, that statement does put on display a lack of self awareness from the Raiders quarterback. After all, it's not that Carr is a bad QB, but his play hasn't exactly put him in the conversation as an elite NFL signal-caller. So while the Raiders are still very much on board with him being the starting quarterback, they also signed Mariota in free agency. That not only gives them a solid backup to Carr, but should their QB1 start struggling [again], it also gives Jon Gruden someone to send in off the bench in a pinch. Gruden has had nothing but praise for Mariota to start training camp, noting how great of a playmaker he is. And while that shouldn't be viewed as a slight to Carr in any way, it should give Carr that much more motivation to fire out of the gate in September and keep the good times rolling the rest of the year.
What works in Carr's favor, outside of him being the incumbent starter, is the fact Mariota won't have a lot time to acclimate (sensing a pattern yet?) to his new digs, so that'll make it virtually impossible to truly challenge for Carr's job going into September. The lack of preseason games -- where Mariota would've gotten plenty of playing time in a Las Vegas uni -- will ensure he stays on the bench to start the season. And then it's up to Carr to keep him there.
10. Can a young RB push aside Adrian Peterson?
A future first ballot Hall of Famer isn't usually a pushover, and that's especially true when the guy is Adrian Peterson. The 35-year-old has made it clear he's not retiring after the 2020 season and might play upwards of another four years as he chases both a Super Bowl ring and the NFL's all-time rushing mark held by Emmitt Smith, but only one of those years might be in Washington. Peterson is heading into a contract year with the club, and it'll mark yet another season wherein they hope to find their future at the position. The attempt to do so with former second-round pick Derrius Guice blew up in their face -- be it with continued injury and ultimately his release amid domestic violence allegations -- but the club benched Peterson in Week 1 of the 2019 season to give Guice a chance to take the crown.
It didn't work and Peterson went on to be one of the few bright spots for Washington, but they're not giving up on seeing if they can supplant the elder statesman. Even with Guice out of the picture, there's still four other bodies in the RB room, and one of them is rookie third-round pick Antonio Gibson. But without a preseason to play, expect Peterson to stay put at RB1 until further notice.