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What We’re Most Excited to Watch This NFL Season

From Deshaun Watson to the 49ers to … Blake Bortles? Yeah, we’re even pumped for him.

Rob Gronkowski, Deshaun Watson, and Kyle Shanahan Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It’s football season. Not the preseason, not the offseason, not draft season—football season. Week 1 is here, and we are excited for the return of the NFL. Here are the things we’re most excited to watch this year.

Deshaun Watson’s Encore

Robert Mays: There’s only one answer here: We’re all about to have Deshaun Watson back in our lives. If NFL fans could agree on anything last season, it’s that Watson was the most enjoyable part of last year’s first half. From the moment he started conjuring huge gains against the Patriots to his final epic clash with Russell Wilson on Sunday Night Football, nothing was more fun last season. There’s nothing better than watching Watson rain down touchdowns with DeAndre Hopkins week after week.

The Jon Gruden Mystery Box

Danny Kelly: This might fit more into the “some men just want to watch the world burn” type of excitement, but I can’t wait to see how the first season of the Jon Gruden era goes down in Oakland. Trading away Khalil Mack is not a great start, but in a league that’s trended younger and younger over the past five years—perhaps too young?—Gruden’s decision to put together the oldest NFL roster in years is… maybe sort of interesting. His starting running back (Marshawn Lynch) is 32; his two top tight ends (Jared Cook and Lee Smith) are 31 and 30, respectively; and three of his top four receivers (Jordy Nelson is 33, Brandon LaFell is 31, and Dwayne Harris is 30) are over the proverbial NFL hill. Other offseason additions include linebacker Derrick Johnson (35) and cornerbacks Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (32) and Leon Hall (33). Speed and overall explosiveness are two of the most important variables for NFL players, but Gruden is putting the idea that experience matters most to the test. We’ll see how it goes.

Nick Foles Returning to Being Nick Foles

Claire McNear: I’m excited for Nick Foles to never throw another touchdown pass again, thereby confirming Super Bowl LII to be the beautiful dream/miracle we all know it was. Carson Wentz, who led the 2017 Philadelphia Eagles to an 11–2 record before tearing his ACL in Week 14, still hasn’t been cleared for contact, so Philly is starting Foles at QB as the 2018 season begins. That would be Foles, touchdown rainmaker, Brady vanquisher, and hero of the Eagles’ first-ever Super Bowl victory this past winter, and also Foles of the, uh, 16-for-26 2018 preseason passes, good for 171 yards and—[checks notes]—two interceptions and—[squints]—um, zero touchdowns.

In short, we are about to see Nick Foles look an awful lot more like Nick Foles than he did at U.S. Bank Stadium in February. And that’s fine! He is, after all, Nick Foles. This return to reality might be a letdown at first, but let’s take it for what it is: proof positive that the Eagles’ Super Bowl run was nothing short of a gift from the almighty football powers—who, alas, are probably inclined to leave it a one-off. But don’t worry too much about Nick, who will have two things forever: a ring and BDE.

Two Legends Battling for Touchdowns

Danny Chau: Antonio Gates, who recently returned to the Chargers on a one-year contract, doesn’t have a realistic chance of topping Walter Payton and Jim Brown to crack into the top 10 in all-time career touchdowns. As it stands, to match Brown’s 126, he’d need 12 touchdowns this season; a number he’s reached only twice—once in 2004 and again in 2014. That may not be in the cards, but after agreeing to terms on his 16th season, it seems like he’s down to drag his aging body onto the field for as long as it takes to make sure no one encroaches on the turf he’s carved out for himself.

Gates currently has four more career touchdowns (114) than Larry Fitzgerald (110), the only active NFL player within 10 TDs of Gates (Adrian Peterson, for what it’s worth, has 104). Fitzgerald has played in every Cardinals game over the past three seasons, averaging seven touchdowns per season in that span. That puts Gates’s magic number at roughly five touchdowns; Fitz hasn’t had more than nine TDs in a season since 2013.

Oh, right, sorry: The Chargers will host the Cardinals in Week 12. Gates’s career high in targets is 16. I’ll be eagerly awaiting that late November afternoon. He will either protect his throne or set a new career record trying.

Blake Bortles Proving You Wrong

Craig Horlbeck: Blake Bortles is a star, you just haven’t realized it yet. Let’s take a look at some of Bortles’s accomplishments at the very young age of 26.

1. He has more playoff wins than Matt Stafford, Andy Dalton, and Kirk Cousins COMBINED.

2. He finished with the second-most passing touchdowns in 2015, at age 23.

3. He nearly dethroned the greatest quarterback of all time in his third playoff game.

4. He is the only NFL quarterback with a role in a hit sitcom (NBC’s The Good Place) waiting for him.

Could you point to some of his numbers and suggest he has been “inefficient” or “bad” throughout his career? Maybe. But the man has endured countless injuries to his top wideouts, practically zero help from the tight end position, and perhaps the worst starting-quarterback last name of the decade. The freight train that is Bortles’s ascension is approaching quickly, and I suggest you hop on before it’s too late. Bortles has been in the Good Place all along. You just haven’t realized it yet.

The Budding Rams-49ers Rivalry

Danny Heifetz: Rivalry football is the best football, and the NFL doesn’t have many rivalries. After two decades defined by Colts vs. Patriots, Steelers vs. Ravens, and 49ers vs. Seahawks, the league is missing a signature clash that produces the moments we remember for years. Los Angeles and San Francisco already have bad blood––just look at any game between the Dodgers and Giants. Igniting another L.A.-S.F. rivalry could give the league the spark it’s missing. (No offense to Chris Ballard, but the Colts-Pats rivalry is not back on quite yet.)

Entering 2018, the Rams are the most-hyped team, Jimmy Garoppolo is the most-hyped player, and Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay are the two most-hyped (and youngest) head coaches in the NFL. The 49ers and Rams have locked up their respective core players for the next half-decade and are on a collision course for NFC West title, Pacific time slot supremacy, and perhaps the NFC itself. It’s the first chapter in what could be the league’s next great rivalry.

Sean McVay, Year 2

Riley McAtee: I think the Rams have found something special in head coach McVay. The way the 32-year old can fire up his players while imparting knowledge is special. Just check out this clip from training camp:

McVay engineered one of the greatest turnarounds in NFL history last season—and there’s no way you can convince me it was a fluke. His energy is contagious, and his knowledge of the game is incredible. Oh, and now he has Brandin Cooks. Have you seen how fast Cooks is? McVay has. I can’t wait to see his second act.

Andrew Luck’s Return

Haley O’Shaughnessy: In the time since Luck first hurt his shoulder, Justin Trudeau became the prime minister of Canada, Adele released “Hello,” and Kobe Bryant began his farewell tour. That was September 2015, 35 months ago. After having shoulder surgery in January 2017, keeping him out of last season entirely, Luck is finally back on the field. Shoulders, especially for quarterbacks, are kind of a big deal in football.

I’m not a Colts fan, but it’s impossible not to root for someone who openly likes to read about the history of concrete and compliments opponents after getting sacked. I rewatched the video of Luck throwing an NCAA-regulation football in June—his first time since October—a good 30-or-so times. I don’t care about Indy, but I care about Luck. (And, for fantasy purposes exclusively, I care about T.Y. Hilton’s reception count.)

Luck played in three of the Colts’ four preseason games, during which he threw 20-of-32 for 204 yards. He had a touchdown and an interception. The AFC South is sneaky competitive this season, and with Deshaun Watson, Marcus Mariota, and Luck it will once again be filled with second-tier-ish QB head-to-heads. (Sorry, Bortles.)

Adrian Peterson Rushing for More Than 1,000 Yards

Donnie Kwak: Fans of the Washington football team are accustomed to the national media viewing our every roster move with utmost skepticism. Granted, the front office hasn’t engendered a lot of goodwill over the years, and the team is still owned by Dan Snyder. But sometimes the negativity can go a little too far—even on this very site. So I take exception to an August 20 piece written by my beloved colleague Danny Heifetz, on the occasion of the Skins signing veteran running back Adrian Peterson.

“Washington Is Signing Adrian Peterson for Some Reason” blared the headline. (Here’s a reason: Projected starter Derrius Guice was lost to injury before his rookie season even started, and Rob Kelley and Samaje Perine kinda … suck?) Wrote Heifetz: “This seems like a classic Dan Snyder move: bring in a past-his-prime name, especially at a position where undrafted free agents who would cost a tenth of the money are shining around the league.”

The rookie RBs from that tweet may be making marginally less money than AP’s veteran’s minimum, but how exactly are they “shining around the league” if none of them have even played a down of regular-season NFL football yet? You know who has played NFL football before? Adrian Peterson. Yes, he may be a little injury prone. Yes, he’s slightly older. But all I needed to see was him twinkle-toeing past defenders in his one preseason appearance to fully buy in. With that said, I’m planting my burgundy-and-gold flag into the ground and predicting that not only will Peterson remain healthy, but he will also gain more than 1,000 yards on the ground. And on top of that, since Danny is a Giants fan, I predict that AP will outproduce Saquon Barkley this season. That’s another thing about us die-hard Skins fans: We’re an optimistic bunch in August.

Royce Freeman’s Rookie of the Year Campaign

Kenrick Cai: The best rookie running back this season might not be Saquon Barkley. It might not be the two other first-round picks, Rashaad Penny and Sony Michel. No, the best rookie on the ground may be the eighth rusher taken off the board in April: Freeman. Immediately after the draft, experts were already projecting Freeman to finish the year with the third most rushing yards among rookies, behind only Barkley and Derrius Guice, the latter who has since succumbed to a season-ending injury. ESPN reporter Mike Clay projected Freeman to finish 19 yards shy of the 1,000-yard mark well before his dazzling preseason (5.6 yards per carry and three touchdowns in three games) led Broncos coach Vance Joseph to place Freeman at the top of the depth chart, making him the first Denver rookie running back to start a season opener since Terrell Davis.

Not only is Freeman—who finished his college career in the top 10 for Division I rushing yards and rushing touchdowns—one of two rookie running backs starting Week 1, he’s also fun. Despite possessing the size of a power back, Freeman boasts the burst to cause big plays. Even after injuries at Oregon chipped away at his speed, Freeman still finished tied for eighth in the country in runs of 20-plus yards last season. He’s continued to show that ability in the limited snaps he received in the preseason, beating out expected starter Devontae Booker for the starting job to cap off a meteoric rise that began in minicamp. With his mix of elusiveness and explosiveness, Freeman could very well continue rising and finish the season in a class with 2017 third-rounder Alvin Kamara.

Gronk Setting the League on Fire

Jackson Safon: Here are some stats. Since 2007, excluding the year that he missed all but eight minutes with a torn ACL, Tom Brady has not thrown for fewer than 25 touchdowns in a season. In Rob Gronkowski’s six seasons when he played double-digit games, he has 69 (of course) total touchdowns for an average of 11.5 per season. Meanwhile, this season’s Patriots team lost more than 250 targets and 12 touchdowns, given the departures of Dion Lewis, Brandin Cooks and Danny Amendola. They have only four wide receivers on the roster.

Essentially, Gronk is going to go scorched earth on the NFL.

Brady can sleepwalk to 4,000 yards and 25 touchdowns. But this year, especially with Julian Edelman suspended for the first four games of the season and coming off an ACL tear of his own, who is the signal-caller going to throw to? Cordarrelle Patterson, the guy who was supposed to break out four years ago but instead caught 33 passes and averages 32.6 receptions per season? Phillip Dorsett, the Colts cast-off who has never caught more than 33 passes in a single season? Chris Hogan, the guy who has started more than eight games only once in his career? OK, yes, he’ll probably throw to Chris Hogan. But still.

Gronk has a legitimate chance to break his own record for most touchdowns by a tight end in a single season (18). And if he does, he’ll wave all the haters goodbye as he drives right on by on his way to the club.