The NFL Is Back, and Not a Second Too Soon

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The NFL Is Back, and Not a Second Too Soon
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LeBron has Decided. The World Cup is over. Even baseball’s on break.

With nothing else to distract sports fans from how much we miss football, we’re beginning to feel the NFL itch. We’re at that desperate, crazy point on the calendar where we’ll try anything to scratch it: rereading minicamp reports, rewatching old games, refreshing Twitter hoping something happens. With training camps drawing close, our agonizing wait is nearly over.

Soon, teams will be donning pads and helmets and crashing into each other with everything they've got. At the time of this writing, only 19 football-less days remain before the New York Giants and Buffalo Bills play a real live actual game. Not long after, we’ll have answers to the questions that have been burning holes in our brains all offseason.

 

Will Peyton Manning's Arm Fall Off?

Okay, this isn't really a burning question. But after a dominant run through the AFC (and stunning Super Bowl collapse), Manning's Denver Broncos aggressively cornered the free-agent market. It's hard to see anything but another double-digit win season for Denver, unless Manning's right arm really does fall off.

Unfortunately for Broncos fans, that means another regular season of waiting. Just like last year, their week-in, week-out winning will be taken for granted; the bar is again set at Lombardi.

Tom Brady's path back up the mountain isn't nearly as straight.

Not only did the Broncos top Brady's New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game, but Manning delivered a tour-de-force performance Brady couldn't match. As Pro Football Focus's Sam Monson wrote for ESPN (subscription required), Brady's numbers don't match up with the NFL's best anymore. 2013 was his worst statistical season since 2006, and with his 37th birthday coming up quicker than his next game, it's fair to wonder if he'll ever return to All-Pro form.

Of course, the banged-up Patriots receiver corps was a huge factor in Brady's rough season. If Danny Amendola and tight end Rob Gronkowski are healthy and at their best when the season starts, Patriots fans should feel very good about their chances in the AFC East. They'll feel even better if youngsters like Aaron Dobson make a splash.

The Patriots' most bitter rivals, the New York Jets, may have something to say about that. After a housecleaning that included just about everyone but head coach Rex Ryan, his defense and rookie quarterback Geno Smith did just enough to gut out an 8-8 record. General manager John Idzik added receiver Eric Decker, running back Chris Johnson, tight end Jace Amaro and quarterback Mike Vick, infusing every corner of the offense with desperately needed speed and playmaking ability.

Dan Cosentino of NJ.com named Vick a minicamp "Dud," and offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg told Seth Walder of the New York Daily News Smith will get most of the first-team reps in camp:

Mornhinweg and Smith have this one camp to make huge strides—or they and Ryan might all be looking for work by New Year's. Jets fans will know early on if Smith is clicking with all the new pieces.

Cleveland is in the sports world's spotlight right now, and new franchise quarterback Johnny Manziel hasn't shied away from it. Worse yet, star receiver Josh Gordon can't keep out of the police blotter, and "Pro Bowl pass-catcher" (a.k.a "tight end") Jordan Cameron might be his only reliable target.

Try as the Browns did to keep attention off of Manziel, the young man they call Johnny Football is more than comfortable in the limelight. If he can be as big of a star on the field as off, Browns fans' prayers will be answered. Yet, his odds for long-term success might be shortest if new head coach Mike Pettine relies on veteran Brian Hoyer for much of 2014.

At this time a year ago, the Houston Texans were one of the hottest Super Bowl contenders. Now, after a shocking 2-14 implosion, seven-time Pro Bowl receiver Andre Johnson wants out. After general manager Rick Smith didn't land an impact quarterback in free agency or the draft, new head coach Bill O’Brien will have a hard sell to get Johnson to buy in.

That all said, the combination of No. 1 overall pick Jadeveon Clowney and All-Pro defensive end J.J. Watt should be disruptive enough to keep Johnson, sophomore partner DeAndre Hopkins, running back Arian Foster and new quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick in a lot of games.

Don't overlook the Jacksonville Jaguars. They haven't played winning football since 2007, but they added some pieces on defense and completely overhauled the offense. Ryan O'Halloran of The Florida Times-Union, quoted by Keith McMillan of The Washington Post, called veteran Chad Henne the "no doubt" starter, with No. 3 overall pick Blake Bortles likely taking over midseason. 

The performance of the Jaguars' second-round rookie receivers, Marqise Lee and Allen Robinson, and the impact of free-agent running back Toby Gerhart, may help second-year coach Gus Bradley build on their late 2013 run of winning football.

One more intriguing early-season AFC story: Can head coach Andy Reid and the surprise Chiefs maintain their worst-to-first momentum after being picked over in free agency? Will Alex Smith continue to develop into more than what he's been?

 

Will Eli Manning's Head Screw Back On?

Manning told Kevin Armstrong of the New York Daily News that learning new offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo's offense has "reenergized" him.

New York Giants fans had better hope that's the case, as Manning's dismal 2013 season cast a pall on his entire career.

Matt Rourke/Associated Press

In 2013, Philadelphia Eagles head coach Chip Kelly turned a mountain of hype into reality, leading the 4-12 Eagles to a 10-6 season with a very similar roster. The big difference, of course, was quarterback Nick Foles, whose Looney Tunes statistical performance in relief of Vick rewrote record books.

It's hard not to wonder if Foles (and/or Kelly) was a one-year wonder, though; almost nobody expects Foles to throw 27 touchdowns against just two interceptions again—especially not after Kelly cut star receiver DeSean Jackson and traded for scatback Darren Sproles. We could find out very quickly whether these were brilliant, or bumbling, decisions.

The NFC East, not for the first time, is loaded with stories. The on-field turmoil in Washington might not draw the headlines the nickname controversy has, but there's no shortage of football stories in the nation's capital. Is RGIII a dominant force, or a broken toy? Is Jay Gruden as good of a coach as his last name would lead you to think? Is Jackson, signed on the bounce, the playmaker Griffin so desperately needed in 2013?

Elsewhere in the NFC, the Lions might have the most skill-position talent in football—but can Jim Caldwell get them to play at a level anywhere near the sum of their parts? Can Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley and Ziggy Ansah finally deliver the sacks their talents promise?

Speaking of NFC North pass rushes, the move of Julius Peppers from Chicago to Green Bay could revive the Packers defense. If Aaron Rodgers comes storming back from his disappointing, injury-shortened season, that could spell doom for the rest of the division. Then again, Jared Allen's move from Minnesota to Chicago and Jay Cutler's potential bounce back could do the same.

David Goldman/Associated Press

The NFC South is going to be bananas; the four teams could finish in nearly any order and it wouldn't be surprising. 2013's division champion, the Carolina Panthers, did the least to get better in the offseason. The Atlanta Falcons moved aggressively to patch holes in free agency, but after six years in the NFL, it's still an open question as to whether Matt Ryan can play well enough to elevate his teammates. Head coach Mike Smith's job might depend on it.

With Lovie Smith moving in, everything old is new again in Tampa Bay. A free-agency swap of high-priced cornerbacks (Darrelle Revis out, Alterraun Verner in) and influx of ex-Bears could finally restore the reputation of the Buccaneers defense. Can Smith manage the Bucs' mix of youth and experience?

Finally, of course, there's the NFC West. The division champion has represented the NFC in the Super Bowl each of the last two seasons, and the San Francisco 49ers were an overtime away from doing so in 2011 as well. Besides the Super Bowl champion Seahawks, and the 49ers (who reloaded with yet another pick-heavy draft class), the NFC West has two teams that might win any other division: the Arizona Cardinals and St. Louis Rams.

In fact, the 10-6 Cardinals fell one game shy of being the third playoff team out of the West. Can the seventh-best scoring defense of 2013 survive the loss of star inside linebackers Karlos Dansby (to free agency) and Daryl Washington (to suspension)? Can the 7-9 Rams' tantalizing crop of rookies help them finally break out of the cellar—and can 2010 No. 1 overall pick Sam Bradford finally earn that massive contract?

It won't be long before we find out.

 

Closer Than You Think

The Baltimore Ravens and Buffalo Bills will open training camp on July 18, just four days from the time of this writing. Dates and locations for all other camps were collected here by Bleacher Report Featured Columnist Chris Roling.

Once helmets start cracking, we'll have have real news to report: Observations will be made, depth charts will be in flux, the Turk will come for 1,184 unlucky players and unfortunately the injury bug will bite a few key contributors.

On Sunday, August 3 at 8:00 p.m. ET, toe will meet leather at the Hall of Fame Game, literally kicking off the 2014 season. The full preseason slate begins four days later, on Thursday, August 7. Not quite a month after that, the Seahawks will meet the Packers in the season-opening edition of Thursday Night Football, and that one counts.

Our long collective wait is finally over: The NFL is back.

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