American Football Expert & Columnist
Pick Six: Storylines to follow during 2020 NFL season
Sky Sports NFL expert Neil Reynolds picks out six storylines to monitor across the 2020 season
Last Updated: 18/08/20 2:50pm
The new NFL season will soon be upon us and when it arrives, there will be many storylines that need to be monitored - including the fact that we are about to embark on the most challenging campaign since World War II.
And that is where I begin this column when looking at the biggest stories ahead of the upcoming season.
Playing in a Pandemic
This is going to be a season like no other. And medical personnel will have a major role to play in a team reaching a Super Bowl. In Minnesota, head trainer Eric Sugarman - himself struck down by Covid-19 this summer - is going to be just as vital as franchise quarterback Kirk Cousins.
Teams will not be able to keep all of their players - and coaches - healthy for the entire season. Big-name players are going to go down and teams will need to adapt and have backup plans to their backup plans. Already, some clubs have been affected as 66 players - including eight New England Patriots - chose to opt out of the 2020 campaign.
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Things are not only going to be fluid from a roster standpoint, games could be suspended or shifted at a moment's notice. The league could be put on hold and then re-started or it could run from wire to wire as planned.
There could even be games spread across Thursday to Monday if college football is suspended across America for the remainder of this year. The truth? Nobody knows until that first ball sails into the air on September 10 and the season is up and running.
A New Brady Bunch
At the age of 43, Tom Brady is embarking on a new chapter in his glittering career which has seen him win six Super Bowls in New England. And there is genuine excitement about what the Tampa Bay Buccaneers can do with Brady at the helm this year.
Jameis Winston was a rollercoaster of a player during his time in Tampa. Sure, there were some big highs but also some frustrating lows. He could very easily have tossed up 50 interceptions last season. Brady will be much more cautious with the football and should upgrade Tampa's third-ranked attack.
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And the weapons are mouth-watering. Receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin combined for an NFL-high 2,490 yards last season and were the comfortable leaders. That is remarkable when you consider Evans missed the final three games with a hamstring injury and Godwin the last two with the same ailment.
And then, of course, there is the return of Brady's favourite target… The Gronk! That was a wasted retirement tribute I paid to Gronk in the spring of 2019 because Rob Gronkowski is already out of retirement and raring to go.
Familiar Faces in New Places
As is so often the case every year in the NFL, the big-name players who moved teams in the offseason creates a list as long as Mr Tickle's arm. The Class of 2020 is fascinating, though.
The Patriots are rolling the dice on Cam Newton being the successful heir to Brady. Newton was an NFL Most Valuable Player in 2015 but has not been the same player since. Injuries have hit him hard over the past two years. Does he have gas left in the tank?
Another quarterback era came to an end in this offseason as the Los Angeles Chargers moved on from Philip Rivers after 16 seasons. Rivers is 38 years old but has a great chance to succeed in Indianapolis, who boast arguably the best offensive line in the NFL.
Away from the quarterback position, all eyes will be on wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins when he makes his debut for the Arizona Cardinals. We were all baffled when Houston head coach/general manager Bill O'Brien traded away Deshaun Watson's best receiving target. If Hopkins shines in the desert, O'Brien is going to hear about it all season long.
Finally, Todd Gurley has much to prove at running back as he returns to Georgia as the new running back of the Atlanta Falcons. Gurley is battling an ongoing knee issue and did not look anywhere close to his former self with the Rams last year.
Quarterbacks Under Pressure
There is always pressure on the quarterbacks. They get too much praise when a team wins and too much blame when a team loses. They live in a pressure-packed goldfish bowl and that's why the best of them get paid north of $30 million per season.
But a few guys will feel even more pressure in 2020. In fact, a few quarterbacks are approaching a career crossroads of sorts in this coming season. A couple who are under intense pressure are only just entering their third seasons in the NFL.
Sam Darnold still has many doubters as the quarterback of the New York Jets but he has not exactly been helped in terms of talent around him. And Baker Mayfield - the number one overall pick of the Cleveland Browns in 2018 - needs to bounce back after a year of regression in 2019.
Veterans are not exempt from such pressure, either. Jimmy Garropolo has much to prove as the quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers. He missed what would have been a Super Bowl-winning pass to Emmanuel Sanders back in February and then watched on as the Niners fluttered their eyelashes at Brady in the offseason. This is a big year for Jimmy G as he seeks to prove he can be a top 10 quarterback.
Coaches on the Hot Seat
The NFL is a 'what have you done for me lately?' league when it comes to its coaches, as well. And that means no coach can afford to get off to a slow start in 2020.
But there are a few who are already sitting on warming seats. Adam Gase has hardly inspired great confidence since taking charge of the Jets. He is supposed to be a quarterback whisperer and an offensive guru, but his offense was little more than offensive in 2019; ranking dead last in the league.
The aforementioned O'Brien has guided Houston to the playoffs as a head coach, but his work as a general manager leaves many questions. If Hopkins shines in Arizona and Watson struggles without his best weapon in the passing game, O'Brien could pay with his job.
Mahomes vs. Lamar
Many of those storylines are extensions of what happened in the offseason as we look to see how things play out through the regular season. For me, the best and purest of all football stories is the battle we can look forward to between the league's last two Most Valuable Players.
Patrick Mahomes, quarterback of the reigning Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs, and Lamar Jackson, the stud quarterback of the Baltimore Ravens, are not only going to be vying for supremacy in the AFC for this coming season. I think they will go head to head and battle for glory year in and year out for the next decade.
The Chiefs and Ravens meet in Week 3 and don't bet against a clash in the playoffs for a berth in the Super Bowl. In the same way as Peyton Manning (Indianapolis) and Tom Brady (New England) battled to be top dog in the AFC year after year, I think we will see the same with Mahomes and Jackson, with both wowing us in ways never before seen at the quarterback position.