At this time last year, we didn’t think Patrick Mahomes would become NFL MVP, or that Andrew Luck would reemerge as one of the NFL’s best players ... only to retire this preseason.
An NFL season offers us countless surprises. Just when you think you have the league figured out, the teams kick off on Sunday and it all changes.
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As we enter the 2019 season, there are plenty of unknowns. Here are four of the most mysterious figures, whose performances will shape this NFL campaign.
How will Le’Veon Bell’s holdout affect him?
The last time we saw Le’Veon Bell in a football game, he was arguably the best running back in the NFL. It was also Jan. 14, 2018.
There’s no way to know how taking off nearly 20 months and skipping your age-26 season affects a running back. Bell famously held out last season, signed with the New York Jets and was kept out of the preseason. His first carry in Week 1 will be his first since the Steelers lost to the Jaguars in an AFC divisional playoff game two seasons ago. Will the season off cause him to be rusty? Or rested? Nobody knows.
There’s already pressure on Bell. He got a four-year, $52.5 million contract, a move that Jets coach Adam Gase reportedly wasn’t happy with. That led to a power struggle and GM Mike Maccagnan being fired. If Bell looks as good as he did the last time we saw him, we’ll forget the drama. And we’ll all be watching.
- Frank Schwab
Can JuJu Smith-Schuster thrive without Antonio Brown?
After an impressive 2016 rookie campaign that saw JuJu Smith-Schuster tally 917 yards on 58 catches, the Pittsburgh Steelers receiver took a giant step last season with 111 catches for 1,426 yards and a Pro Bowl berth.
That was with Antonio Brown in the lineup. Now that Brown’s gone and lobbing insults from California, is JuJu ready to be The Man in Pittsburgh?
Fantasy players have been salivating over Smith-Schuster since Brown was traded to Oakland this offseason. He’s elevated to the clear No. 1 target for Ben Roethlisberger. However, it’s a lot to expect an increase in production for a guy who saw 166 targets last season.
Brown’s absence raises a couple of questions for Smith-Schuster.
Will he be as effective as the primary focus of opponents’ top coverage men? He doesn’t have the elite breakaway speed of a prototypical No. 1 option.
And can the Steelers offense thrive with Smith-Schuster as its top receiving option?
If the answer to both questions is yes, then Smith-Schuster will move into a new stratosphere of NFL stardom, and Steelers fans will happily move forward from the Brown-Bell era.
- Jason Owens
Will Kliff Kingsbury’s offense work in the NFL?
One of the NFL’s biggest mysteries in 2019 is the experiment in the desert.
The Arizona Cardinals hired Kliff Kingsbury seemingly out of nowhere to be their head coach in January. OK — he didn’t exactly come from nowhere.
Kingsbury upwardly failed from a 35-40 tenure that led to his firing at Texas Tech to become USC’s offensive coordinator for about a month before the Cardinals stunned the football world by giving the then 39-year-old the keys to the kingdom.
There’s nothing on Kingsbury’s résumé to suggest that he’s ready to run an NFL team. But he’s young, and Baker Mayfield and Patrick Mahomes ran his version of the air raid offense in college, so why not?
The Cardinals doubled down on air raid, shunning Josh Rosen to get Kingsbury his guy — Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray — with the first pick in the NFL draft. Murray ran an offense similar to Kingsbury’s all the way to the 2018 Heisman Trophy at Oklahoma. Now the Cardinals are betting all in that the pair can revolutionize the NFL.
Oakland Raiders safety LaMarcus Joyner dubbed the offense “pretty boy football” during a preseason game against the Cardinals. But the Cardinals aren’t concerned about pretty. They’re concerned about winning.
If they can make some noise in the NFC West this season, they’ll prove to have been prescient in gambling on Kingsbury.
Can Baker Mayfield avoid a sophomore slump?
Let’s assume Baker Mayfield believes he’s going to be one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL this season.
The ever-confident Cleveland Browns quarterback finished last season very well. After Hue Jackson was fired, Mayfield had 2,254 yards, 19 touchdowns, eight interceptions and a 106.2 rating in eight games. That’s a big reason Freddie Kitchens was elevated from offensive coordinator to head coach.
Mayfield was very good, and his pedigree as the No. 1 overall pick breeds confidence that this season will be even better. But we’re still working with a relatively small sample size. Mayfield will have to cut down on his 14 interceptions. Opposing defensive coordinators have had a year to adjust. Maybe Kitchens won’t have the same play-calling magic now that he’s the head coach, or Odell Beckham Jr.’s presence leads Mayfield into forcing too many throws to him. A lot can change over an offseason.
Sophomore slumps happen. Great rookie seasons don’t necessarily portend great careers. And, this is still the Browns. When was the last time a story about a Cleveland quarterback ended well?
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