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Early Coaching Hotseats, the Potentially Catastrophic Jets, and Jay Cutler Wearing Aqua: The 10 Things We’re Excited to Watch This NFL Season

Ringer staff members picked the players, units, and terrible coaching situations they’ll track through 2017

USA Today/Ringer illustration

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We made it: We’re officially in Week 1 of the 2017 NFL season. Soon the leaves will be falling, pumpkin flavor will be everywhere, and the Patriots will have a three-game lead on the rest of the AFC East (yes, even after taking an L in Week 1). Like clockwork. But before we get to the inevitable, there’s a lot to look forward to across the league: Gronk is back, Carson Wentz — the savior of Philly — is starting his sophomore campaign, coaches are already on the hot seat, and DeAndre Hopkins might finally have a semi-competent quarterback. So with our tailgates stocked, faces painted, and jerseys on, here are the 10 things the Ringer staff is most excited to watch this NFL season.

Coming to Terms With the Jets

Rodger Sherman: I’m a lifelong fan of the New York Jets, and it has brought me about seven moments of happiness and about 27 years of angst. I have rooted for them through thick and very, very thin. For example, in 2007, I cheered for the Jets as they went from 3–12 to 4–12 by beating the Chiefs on a field goal in overtime, a win that dropped them from third in the draft order to sixth. They could have had Matt Ryan; instead they ended up with Vernon Gholston.

This year, I am free. I have already come to terms with the fact that the Jets will be terrible, with no good quarterbacks — no mediocre quarterbacks either, honestly — no good running backs, and maybe the worst defense in the NFL. I know they will be abysmally awful — so cataclysmically awful that I’m actually curious to see how close they can come to the limits of NFL shittitude. Can they lose every game? How many interceptions will their quarterbacks throw? Will they lose any games by 50? This isn’t just about getting the no. 1 pick in the draft: I want this to be the worst season imaginable so that it may serve as a karmic flush.

I am a Jets fan, and I cannot wait to see how terrible the Jets will be.

The Beginning of the End: Raiders vs. the City of Oakland

Claire McNear: Imagine dumping your live-in partner after years of increasingly fractious efforts to make it work, and then insisting on continuing to share their apartment. Imagine expecting said ex to continue supporting you — emotionally, financially, spiritually, face-paintedly — to show up for you on your big days, to buy your very expensive nachos, and to insist that they not complain as you drone on and on about your excitement over your future beau. Oh yeah — and imagine your shenanigans meant your perpetually cash-strapped ex was still on the hook for almost $85 million.

Such is the situation with Oakland and the Raiders, who will continue to play in the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum for at least another couple of seasons before decamping to Las Vegas. By the time the team finalized its planned move in March, most fans in Oakland — whose mayor had previously made it clear that the city was not willing to pay for a new stadium with taxpayer funds — were resigned to losing the team. The general consensus seemed to be that if Nevadans want to plop down $750 million of taxpayer dough, that was their business. But that doesn’t mean that the next two-ish seasons won’t be incredibly awkward for a finally, really, truly exciting Raiders squad and the team’s famously rabid and now soon-to-be-deserted fan base. It’s unlikely that we’ll see an out-and-out revolt against Mark Davis’s empire — the time for that has come and gone, leaving a trail of STAY IN OAKLAND placards behind it — but keep an eye on the stands, where we’ll surely see (literal) signs of fan despair, and pregame shots of the parking lot, where charred effigies might just happen to sport bowl cuts.

The Church of Deshaun Watson

Michael Baumann: First of all, as a South Carolina Gamecocks fan who’s spent the past three years being personally bullied by Deshaun Watson, I couldn’t be happier that he’s gone pro. I wish him nothing but the greatest success with his new team, the Houston Texans. But more than that, the Texans are already solid. They were good enough defensively last year to make the second round of the playoffs with Brock Osweiler at quarterback, and their star receiver, DeAndre Hopkins, has averaged 88 catches a year since 2014 despite never knowing a better passer than Ryan Fitzpatrick. This team was a plug-in mediocre quarterback away from making the Super Bowl, but mediocre quarterbacks have been surprisingly difficult to come by in Houston — David Carr is a leaguewide punch line, and he’s probably the second-best quarterback in franchise history. If Watson turns into something even remotely similar to what he showed in college, Houstonians are going to fashion a religion around him by Christmas.

2017 NFL Preview

The Seahawks’ Even-More-Intimidating Pass Rush

Danny Kelly: The Seahawks’ defensive line already looked strong heading into 2017, featuring Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett — a top pass-rushing duo — and a breakout candidate in Frank Clark, who notched 10 sacks last year. But after last week’s trade for former Jets defensive end Sheldon Richardson, Seattle has now assembled what might be the most intimidating pass-rushing group in the NFL. By dropping the former Pro Bowler into the middle of the defensive line, the Seahawks will have an overwhelming amount of options for getting pressure on the opposing quarterback — an element that will prove crucial on third downs and late in games.

The Bennett-Clark-Avril trio has never had an issue bringing pressure from the edge, but without a consistent interior push last year, quarterbacks all too often avoided the outside and stepped up into a clean pocket to throw the ball. Now, with Richardson lining up in the middle, the Seahawks have a 6-foot-3, 294-pound battering ram that could be a catalyst for a massive jump in sack production. With Richardson’s ability to overpower guards and centers, and his skill at collapsing the pocket, opposing passers will have nowhere to escape.

Tom Brady’s Newest Weapon

Jack McCluskey: Tom Brady is a ridiculous human being, in more regards than just sports. He’s modeled a variety of hairstyles — including a few that no normal person could pull off — and he holds dietary beliefs with which I vehemently disagree. (No coffee or caffeine of any kind, Tom? You’ve never had a strawberry? Avocado ice cream that contains no actual dairy? Get out of here with that nonsense.)

But Tom’s also absurdly talented at throwing footballs (partially deflated or not), and when he gets in a groove with a particular receiver — from Troy Brown to Deion Branch to Randy Moss to Wes Welker to Julian Edelman — it’s a sight to behold. With his top target from last season out for 2017 because knee ligaments are fragile, fickle things, Patriots fans are hoping Brady will find a rapport with Bill Belichick’s big get this offseason, Brandin Cooks.

The preseason was not particularly inspiring on that front, with the wideout pulling in only two balls (and dropping one), and the two connected for just three receptions on seven targets during Thursday night’s opener, but listening to the QB talk about his new receiver, hope springs for many future Brady-to-Brandin hookups: “It’s not like we’re satisfied if you go out and catch three or four passes,” Brady said. “We expect to perform at a championship level every day. For a 23-year-old to understand that and to buy into that, and then to work at that level, has been very impressive from my standpoint. … Being around a lot of young receivers, that’s one thing that’s probably held a lot of people back. Brandin, I just love working with him and [I’m] excited for him this year.”

It’s safe to say that Pats fans are optimistic about the potential of the pairing, too.

A Farewell to Coaches

Shaker Samman: For most of my life, I’ve equated football with heartbreak. Every year starts with hope during the draft — y’all see Charles Rogers? He looks good — and ends with a moment of silence when my team, the Detroit Lions, fails its way to the bottom of the NFC North. At some point during the inevitable losing streak that haunts all iterations of Detroit’s favorite footballing sons, whispers of coaching changes grow louder. And sometimes, if you’re lucky, someone actually gets fired.

I love NFL coaching changes. Nothing excites me more than watching an entire fan base give up on the team’s appointed leader, and beg the powers that be to find them a new one. Since I attended my first Lions game in 1998, the team has cycled through eight head coaches. So believe me when I say nothing matters to me more this season than finding out who will be the first NFL head coach to be fired. Will it be Chuck Pagano in Indy? Maybe John Fox in Chicago? Or will ol’ Jim Caldwell, arguably, and embarrassingly, one of the best coaches in Lions history, finally be out of work? This might sound cruel. I understand that. But if my team can’t bring me happiness, yours shouldn’t either. See you in Week 6.

The Carson Wentz–aissance

Jordan Coley: Last year, Dak Prescott hogged all the NFC rookie quarterback limelight. Filling in for an injured franchise QB, leading a marquee team to a 13–3 record, and throwing 23 touchdowns against just four picks is pretty commendable, sure. But many NFL fans are far too quick to forget that, through the first six games of last season, Bismarck’s own Carson Wentz was playing just as well as Prescott. In that period, Wentz threw eight touchdown passes to Prescott’s seven, completed just seven fewer passes overall, and was at the helm of what then appeared to be a team firmly in playoff contention.

The later portion of the season was a different story. With his star offensive tackle, Lane Johnson, serving a 10-game suspension for a PED violation, Wentz wasn’t afforded the time in the pocket he needed to get the ball downfield. His numbers fell, and the team faltered, dropping seven of its last 10 games. Coming into this season with a year of experience under his belt and a new star receiver in his arsenal, Wentz looks poised for another strong start — and maybe this time he’ll keep it running a little longer.

Bienvenidos a Miami, Jay

Rubie Edmondson: Picture this: Someone gifts you a brilliant bouquet of flowers.

You put those flowers in a vase on your coffee table, but you leave them there a few days too long, eyeing them warily as they wither, shrivel, and begin to stink. Then, instead of throwing them out, you leave them there a few more days, letting them dry out and disintegrate into their final state of crumbly dehydration. Then you get so used to the flower carcasses that you forget they’re even there — for eight years.

As a Bears fan, that’s the best way I can describe Jay Cutler’s tenure in Chicago, and it still hasn’t set in that he won’t be suiting up in the navy and orange this season. I am going to be able to enjoy everything about Jay Cutler now that he’s no longer under center for my team. One uniform change is all it took to fill me with heartless glee instead of monotonous dread at the thought of the sideline pouts, the fourth interception of the game, and worst of all, another 10–6 season with no postseason appearance.

Just look at how perfectly this guy wears teal:

The Jay Cutler Experience has hit Miami, and I can’t wait to kick back and watch it from afar.

The Giants’ Defensive Specialists

Danny Heifetz: The NYPD (better known as the New York Pass Defense) may not be the best unit in football — the Steelers’ pass catchers, Cowboys’ offensive line, Texans’ defensive line, and Seahawks’ Legion of Boom all have a claim there. But comprised of Landon Collins, Janoris Jenkins, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, and Eli Apple, the NYPD is certainly football’s most fun unit.

The Giants locker room (via @b_good_son, @orleansdarkwa, @ottolewis_, h/t @houseofhighlights)

A post shared by Bleacher Report (@bleacherreport) on

Aside from having the most joyous dancers in the league, the Giants defense is also one of the NFL’s most improved. In 2015, the team was 30th in defensive DVOA, but it rose 28 spots in one year and finished in second last season. Collins earned first-team All-Pro honors, while Rodgers-Cromartie and Jenkins were both on the second team. The three also combined for four NFC Player of the Week awards.

At cornerback, Rodgers-Cromartie is so quick that in 2015, after picking off a Matt Cassel pass, he was able to high-step from the 45-yard line into the end zone to complete a pick-six. On the other side of the field, Jenkins was the eighth-best cover corner in football last year, according to Pro Football Focus, and while he may not be as ruthless as Richard Sherman is in his trash talk, it’s impossible not to enjoy watching a man known as “Jackrabbit” play football. And Collins is the answer to the questions, “What if Marshawn Lynch played safety?” and “What if Medusa was a swaggering Giants fan?” Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, the architect of the playbook that won the Giants Super Bowl XLII over the Patriots, thrives when working with this kind of versatile talent. The complementary skill sets in the Giants secondary afford Spags the schematic flexibility that makes the NYPD exciting — and could eventually make it the best unit in football.

GRONK BACK

Paolo Uggetti: When has a name become so synonymous with an act that when you see it pop up on your Twitter timeline on Sundays, you know exactly what happened?

GRONK.

Over and over again, scrolling down your Tweetdeck, sporadically interrupted by a “Gronk’d” or a “Gronk Spike,” all of which blend into the same overall sentiment: This guy is pretty good.

After a year of limited Gronk due to a back injury that took him out after Week 12, I am longing to see “GRONK” tweets litter my timeline — those that are quickly followed by videos of the tight end mauling a defensive back on his way to a ridiculous touchdown grab. Oh, and the quotes. Can’t forget about the quotes.

Gronk is an experience, and I can’t wait to live it again.