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Mike Freeman's 10-Point Stance: What Storylines Will Shape NFL Season to Come?

Mike Freeman@@mikefreemanNFLNFL National Lead WriterAugust 1, 2019

Los Angeles Rams running back Todd Gurley during an NFL football training camp in Irvine, Calif. Monday, July 29, 2019. (AP Photo/Kelvin Kuo)
Kelvin Kuo/Associated Press

What NFL fans will be talking about this season, the Cowboys' contract troubles are only just beginning, and why Derek Carr may be in for a long season. All that and more in the week's 10-Point Stance.

     

1. Tell me a story

We say it every year: This season is gonna be good. Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn't. But there are reasons to believe that this 100th season of NFL football…for real...is gonna be goooood.

It's been a long timemaybe a decade or so—since we entered the year with so many interesting, wild, stare-at-the-car-crash kind of storylines.

Take the relationship between Aaron Rodgers and new Packers coach Matt LaFleur. One Green Bay player tells me the two have gotten along extremely well so far, and the entire team respects LaFleur. The question of whether the 39-year-old LaFleur can command a locker room led by Rodgers seems to have been answered.

The Packers story is just one of a large volume of fascinating storylines yet to play out. We've seen a lot of wild rides in the NFL before. This one won't be a roller coaster. It will be a rocket. 

As the Falcons and Broncos prepare to get the games started this Thursday night in Canton, Ohio, let's consider 10 of the top stories to watch for as we officially get some damn football:

    

• What exactly can anyone expect from Todd Gurley?

After being absent from the Rams' game plan for large stretches of their playoff run last season, the fifth-year running back said the team will have him on a "veteran plan" this season. While that sounds like a type of insurance offered by the AARP, it's about providing moments of rest for Gurley. That includes sitting out of all preseason games.

One thing is for sure: We have no clue what we're going to get with Gurley. Maybe he'll be his typical explosive self, the guy who scored 21 touchdowns last season. Or he could be something less, like the guy who rushed for 45 yards in the NFC title game and Super Bowl combined. It's still a mystery.

     

 Could Lamar Jackson and Mark Ingram II make the Ravens an offensive juggernaut?

Julio Cortez/Associated Press

The Ravens have a quarterback who can run, and they have a running back who can dominate a quarter. (That's weak, but you get me.)

Jackson is still developing as a passer, but his ability to run and keep defenses guessing is his greatest strength. Ingram, whose 4.5 rushing yards-per-attempt average ranks third among active running backs, is viewed by some teams I've spoken with as one of the more underrated backs in the NFL.

The only quarterback-running back combo to each rush for 1,000 yards was Atlanta's Mike Vick (1,039 yards) and Warrick Dunn (1,140) in 2006. Could we see Jackson and Ingram do the same?

    

 Will Tyreek Hill be able to stay out of trouble and on the field?

The talent has never been in question for the Chiefs star. Hill will again thrill on the field and provide quarterback Patrick Mahomes with the kind of devastating offensive weapon that could get the Chiefs to a Super Bowl.

However, Hill is also no stranger to controversy, the latest being an investigation into child-abuse allegations, part of which included an audio recording in which he was heard to have made threats to his former fiancee, Crystal Espinal, during a discussion about their son's broken arm. While the NFL decided it would not punish Hill this time, his history of abuse allegations raises troubling questions about him as a representative of the league and why he keeps getting into these problems. Has he learned from his mistakes? There isn't a team to which I've spoken that thinks he has.

And if that's the case, the Chiefs' path to a title may get a lot harder.

     

 A proliferation of high-profile contract fights could make an impact on the season.

It's been years since we've seen so many stars have contract squabbles, but here we are in the second week of training camp, and look at the names not suiting up yet: Ezekiel Elliott, Melvin Gordon, Yannick Ngakoue, Jadeveon Clowney, Trent Williams.

While contract fights often work themselves out—and likely will this time—some of these disputes could be lengthy. Team officials tell me to watch out for two names in particular: Clowney and Williams.

    

 Those waiting for the demise of Tom Brady will be disappointed yet again.

Unfortunately for the rest of the league, the 41-year-old legend seems to be getting better, if that's possible. The deep balls he threw to Randy Moss at Pats camp last week were beautiful—and more than a gimmick. If that throw demonstrated anything, it was that he's still got it. You can keep waiting for Brady to take a fall, but he keeps kicking Father Time's ass on a daily basis.

   

 Quenton Nelson will emerge as a star.

Geoff Schwartz @geoffschwartz

God bless @BigQ56 highlight clips. Defender goes to spin, Q creates a tad of space by hopping back and resetting his hips. Then splashes him. My favorite part is Q whispering sweet nothings into his ear after dumping him. 😂 https://t.co/DDyHEwmGnZ

The video of Nelson stonewalling Tyquan Lewis at Colts camp is stupendous. (Dang, Quenton; that man has a family.) If you like line play, it's a thing of beauty.

If the Colts are as good as some predict (assuming Andrew Luck is healthy—more on that below), Nelson could become one of the best-known and well-respected guards in the NFL since Gene Upshaw with the Raiders in the 1970s.

It's wonderful to see.

    

 Andrew Luck's health, or lack of it.

The Colts quarterback won't practice this week because of a sore left calf. While he has told reporters he and the Colts are being conservative in holding him out, it's also true that his injury history is as staggering as his talent.

Should the Colts be worried? Well, yeah. They are crossing their fingers and toes. They are crossing everything. If Luck is back by opening day, as he told reporters he thinks he will be, then this may be a whole lot of hand-wringing for nothing. But with each day he is not on the field, the more jumpy everyone should be.

    

 Is there a silver lining for the Dolphins?

There aren't a lot of high hopes for the Dolphins this year. Repeatedly, I've heard teams describe them as the least talented squad in football. One positive, however, is that it appears they have the right coach. Brian Flores, who spent 15 seasons as an assistant in New England, is highly respected, and the belief around the league is that he will get the most out of a team lacking in talent.

     

 Ron Rivera could again be named Coach of the Year.

He has already won it twice and has a talented team in Carolina. Still, when I asked three head coaches who the most underrated coach in football was, Rivera was among the top three names each gave. They think he's one of the best in the game at managing a locker room, and with the talent the Panthers have this year, the team could make a deep run in January.

     

 The sexy season.

Matt York/Associated Press

Last year was pretty good, but this season is shaping up to be one of the most fun in a long time. More Mahomes. Kyler Murray. The Cowboys. The soap opera of the Steelers. A lot of scoring. Luck. Brady. The Raiders. Le'Veon Bell and the Jets. The promising Browns. The terrible Giants. The Bears taking the next step. The Rams maybe taking a step back.

On and on it goes.

It all starts Thursday. 

    

2. Injury scare

Hill's personal problems may not be the only threat to the Chiefs this season. On Tuesday, Hill was carted off the field after suffering what appeared to be a leg injury so severe, "the entire team crapped our pants for a minute," one Chiefs player told me.

Hill, it turned out, had a bruised quad and is fine. But the Chiefs saw their season almost flash before their eyes for a few minutes.

     

3. The Cowboys' hard line

Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

Teams around the league are completely puzzled about the contract divide between the Cowboys and star running back Ezekiel Elliott.

When owner Jerry Jones recently told Dallas' CBS affiliate that you can win without a big-time rusher, rival execs were stunned. Not that it was wrong for Jones to think that—lots of personnel men and coaches do. It's that Jones said it out loud. In doing that, the execs felt Jones had poisoned the negotiations.

This could get uglier than we thought.

Further complicating the future in Dallas was the five-year, $100 million deal Saints star Michael Thomas signed this week, setting the bar for wide receivers. Amari Cooper is a free agent next year, and if he has another season like the last one—in which he responded to his trade to the Cowboys by reminding the league why he is one of its best receivers—he will be looking for similar pay.

And there's no way the Cowboys would pay even close to that. No way in hell.

But another team might. Should be an interesting few months in Dallas.

     

4. The movement continues

Mike McCarn/Associated Press

When Panthers safety Eric Reid announced he was going to continue kneeling to protest social injustice and racial inequality in America, the news landed quietly, but it was still important.

Reid will continue to be a beacon of hope and accountability and will continue to do his part to hold up a mirror to the country. You may hate that or disagree with it. He doesn't care.

And from what I've heard, he won't be alone. Word is a few more players around the league will join Reid's efforts.

    

5. Head games

Eric Risberg/Associated Press

We told you that Jon Gruden would be a sledgehammer to the noggin of quarterback Derek Carr. This isn't exactly a unique thought. Gruden has always worn down quarterbacks. It's how he rolls.

But almost no one had July as the month that Gruden would launch his first public volley at Carr. That's exactly what he did, though, when he told reporters that quarterback Nathan Peterman "is growing on me."

Don't even try to sugarcoat this as anything other than a shot across Carr's bow. It's shade. There's zero chance that Gruden believes Peterman is good. He's not. Gruden is already just trying to screw with Carr's head.

This won't be the last time. Far from it. And if Carr is going to make it through this season with his confidence intact, he had better grow some extremely thick skin.

         

6. NFL players, they're nothing like us

B/R Gridiron @brgridiron

Crispiest route of the day: Richie James Jr. 🔥 (via @eric_crocker) https://t.co/oZBsYNCZFu

NFL players do amazing things on the field all the time. It's hard not to become desensitized to it. But every now and then, it's helpful to stop and just admire what these guys do.

This route from 49ers receiver Richie James Jr. is one of those times. My ACLs imploded just watching this. It should be physically impossible, but there is James doing it, impressing someone on the field so much you can hear that someone yell, "Oh s--t!"

Oh s--t, indeed.

    

7. Down, but not out

Steve Helber/Associated Press

Last season, Redskins quarterback Alex Smith suffered a gruesome compound leg fracture. After undergoing multiple surgeries, it's unclear if Smith will play football again.

That doesn't mean he's given up on the idea.

"I'm still determined [to play], still marching down the road, still optimistic," Smith told Yahoo Sports' Terez Paylor. "I want to push it, for the challenge's sake. I want to see what I've got … I enjoy the challenge, even to this [recovery], coming out here and being with the guys. It's not going to last forever. I'd like to see where it leads."

Smith has always been one of my favorite players to interview and just be around. He is relentlessly optimistic but also a grounded human being and far tougher, I think, than people know. If there's anyone who can come back from such a devastating injury, it's Smith, a guy worth rooting for.

    

8. There's a sucker born every minute

Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

When Giants receiver Golden Tate issued a statement that his recent positive PED test was due to a fertility drug, it sounded plausible, so I tweeted that, well, I freaking believed him.

Hoo boy. In the days since, I've heard from some current and former NFL players, and each, basically, called me a sucker. No one believes Tate.

I'm holding out hope that maybe I'm not just naive. Maybe a player is actually telling the truth when it comes to PEDs after getting caught.

But it seems I may be the only one.

    

9. Now that's what a hero looks like

John Amis/Associated Press

Warrick Dunn, who spent 12 seasons in the NFL with the Buccaneers and the Falcons, has spent over 20 years changing people's lives. His charity has helped 170 families and 459 children and dependents become homeowners for the first time, according to a news release. In many cases, Dunn simply bought homes for struggling families.

This week, his charity announced it had received a multimillion-dollar gift that would provide 100 families across the U.S. with first-time homes.

It's another transformational moment for a genuine hero.

    

10. Bruce Arians has a lot to say...quietly

Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

You may not have noticed, but Bruce Arians is making a statement in Tampa, and it's not just to the NFL, but to the entire country.

In an interview with Andrea Kremer for HBO's Real Sports, Arians discussed how he put together perhaps the league's most diverse coaching staff. His offensive coordinator, Byron Leftwich, is black. His defensive coordinator, Todd Bowles, is also black. So is his special teams coordinator as well as the Bucs' assistant head coach.

He told Kremer the makeup of his staff wasn't guided by race, but by the fact that "they're just the best guys that I know."

But as Arians explains in describing how he pieced together his staff, which also includes two women, it's clear he's trying to send a message, even if he's reluctant to admit it.

"Great teachers shouldn't be held back because of gender or race," Arians said. "If they can teach, they should have an opportunity."

In a league that has seen the number of black head coaches fall from seven last season to three this year (the lowest number since 2003, when the Rooney Rule was established), a lot of people around the NFL could learn from Arians.

         

Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter:@mikefreemanNFL.